Brian Massumi is Professor of Communication at the University of Montreal. In his new book Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception he shows how the doctrine of preemption became the hallmark of President George W. Bush’s War on Terror and continues to influence American foreign policy. The feeling of a potential threat—even in the absence of evidence—was all the justification President Bush needed to preemptively invade Iraq. Massumi explains how power now focuses on what may emerge and names this new mode of power that embodies the logic of preemption “ontopower.” His theory of ontopower not only explains current practices of war, but our wider contemporary culture of insecurity more generally. Massumi is also the author of The Power at the End of the Economy (2015), What Animals Think about Politics (2014), and Parables for the Virtual (2002).
It might be more accurate to say that it began in the aftermath of 9-11. For me, the horror of the event itself was compounded by the way the reaction to it played out through the US media. From my ex-pat vantage point in Montreal, 60 miles north of the border—close enough to feel implicated, but distant enough not to feel entirely immersed—it was intensely unsettling. It felt as if a collective insanity had set in south of the border overnight. There was an instant taboo on public reflection on the event. Any attempt to contextualize it politically, especially if it involved reference to US foreign policy decisions over the previous two decades, was howled down. Political discourse short-circuited, as if it was disrespectful of the dead to speak of anything other than being speechless at the horror of their deaths – unless it was to surround them with a compensatory halo of “heroism” exemplary of American “greatness.” Critical thinking was replaced by a strange brand of post-traumatic jingoistic piety. It is important not to forget the chilling effect this had. I had long been convinced that the idea that political decision was legitimated by rational discussion and reflective debate in the public sphere was largely a myth. It was clear to me that there was always an affective dimension at play that was not as simple as the irrational opposite of reasoned discourse, but was itself a form of thinking—what I like to call a “thinking-feeling.” Affective thinking-feeling has a logic of its own that operates with and through discursive forms, but can also imbue the circulation of images. What was striking in the aftermath of 9-11 was the radicality of the shift to that dimension of affective operation, expressed in the compulsive fascination with the endlessly repeated images of the disaster. The shift didn’t come through words, but in a being agape, being at a loss for words – it came of that affective cut in the very possibility of discourse.
The project that eventually became Ontopower began as an effort to understand what an immediately affective mode of political legitimation, operating in the ins-and-outs of discourse, might consist of. This seemed to be of paramount importance to me, because I have also long been convinced that if the political rationality of the public sphere had ever been in force the way it was assumed to have been, there was certainly no prospect of it returning. This meant that what the Bush administration would later deride as “reality-based” thinking—analysis of the facts and critical debate based on that analysis—was never going to be enough to counter the juggernaut of permanent war set loose after 9-11, first abroad then in rebound to “home front.” I felt a theory was needed to account for the full complexity of the affective dimension of politics. This was not just a question of arm-chair speculation, because any effective counter-tendencies to what was playing out would also, somehow, have to be found at that level. I set about following, day by day, in obsessive detail, the media imagery and discourse flowing from the event. Almost none of that material actually made it into the book. I realized that the question was more radical, and far more difficult, than just the affective legitimation of political decision. The problem was that affective processes had become political decision. Affect does not mediate power. It is a power. So the question became how to theorize that in a way that truly came to grips with the essential characteristic of all that is political, namely its immediately collective nature.
Do you see any historical precedents or trends that laid the foundation for preemption becoming the driving force behind ontopower, or was the shock of 9/11 such that it provoked an entirely new set of responses?
There are many antecedents. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name a single element that is truly new in the sense of having no precedent. This even applies to preemption, which I theorize in the book as the “operative logic” of the ecology of powers that came to maturity after 9-11. The doctrine of preemption is as old as war. It is far from an absolute novelty. But there is a new twist on it. Historically, the doctrine held that it was acceptable to strike preemptively when faced with a clear and present danger. The Bush version changes “clear and present danger” to “not yet emerged threat.” This modulates both the meaning and the practice of preemption in ways whose importance it would be hard to overstate. So one thing that happens is this kind of modulation. In this case, it reoriented military action, but it also had ripple effects into other arenas of activity. Things start to rearrange themselves around the perturbation, leading to a cascade of mutually interfering and resonating modulations. Soon, the field of power has integrally changed. What is truly new has to be sought at that level of whole-field effects, and the new consistencies and constitutive tensions they exhibit. In other words, it can only be evaluated through what I call an ecology of powers. A great deal of the book is concerned with the construction a useful concept of the ecology of powers. From this point of view, 9-11 marks the passing of a threshold toward a new consistency of the integral field of power. 9-11 was not a direct cause—no event ever is—but rather a catalyst. It was cut in the ecological fabric around which a new weave knit itself into shape.
The idea that fear makes a felt threat into a reality seems to be similar to what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” —that things are true because they feel that way. Is that too far of a stretch to think about how the role fear plays in the logic of preemption?
Fear plays a central role, because it is the way in which threat becomes flesh, even in the absence of a clear and present danger. It is the way it gets under one’s skin, activates and agitates, without there necessarily being an outlet. Fear makes threat a real and present factor of political existence. Threat and fear form a loop that short-circuits linear political time, to produce what I call “affective facts.” What threatens to come is already here, in the clear and present form of fear. Fear feels threat into being. So the threat doesn’t have to actually eventuate into an empirically verifiable danger to be real, to take real political effect. It can remain in potential, and still exert a force—a force of futurity (made presently felt). In the discourse of preemption, “potential threat” is used far more often than “threat” alone, as if to underline its difference from a clear and present danger.
Thus, a politics predicated on the ubiquity of threat—the very word “world” is replaced by the phrase “threat environment” in the texts on preemption—doesn’t have to base itself on the empirical facts on the ground. In today’s threat environment, these are in any case considered too complex and changing to be reliably accounted for. The affective politics of threat is much more concerned with effective potential, with the force of futurity made flesh, than with how an analysis of the past might empirically explain the present. It is more concerned with looping the loop of fear than sorting out the facts. The atmosphere of fear legitimates just about any action, the more muscled the better. But it also forms a political feedback loop, where it begins to drive policy. The fear of not being seen to be responding muscularly to threat becomes a prime political mover. It is to a large extent in this way that affect becomes decision. The fear-threat feedback loop takes on a certain autonomy, and starts to drive the political process. It becomes what I call an “operative logic.”
One still regularly hears officials in the Bush administration say that even though Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction, the invasion was still the right choice because we believed there was a threat. Why do you think people continue to hold onto these views so many years after the fact?
That affective fact is beginning to wane, to judge by the trouble Jeb Bush got himself into by trotting it out soon after he announced his candidacy for president. The question of why people hold onto views like that is a question of the affective staying power of the event. The answer is not in psychology, certainly not in the isolate of individual psychology, but it’s not in the mass psychology of “irrational” behavior either. It’s in the event. The logic of the event. It’s in the binding of the event’s playing-out to a particular operative logic, which is always collective. The analysis has to be directly event-based. An event is always under transformation. It is its effective reverberations across the relational field. An event doesn’t happen once. It continues to happen, serially across the field. Its returns are modulated by subsequent events in ways that can weaken its force—although it can always be recharged. Events are eternal returns. Right now, we seem to be entering a phase where the 9-11 effect is waning. Its returns are less forceful. It is possible that we have crossed a new threshold, marked by Ferguson and the seemingly endless series of police killings of unarmed black men across the US. This has brought into relief the way in which the permanent state of war fueled by the operative logic of threat is being waged on the home front.
As you point out in the book, this logic of preemption has spread well beyond foreign policy. In what other areas do you see this logic operating and why is it so entrenched in this particular moment?
The militarization of the police that came into view after Ferguson is an expression of the logic of preemption, and a direct follow-on from its practice overseas (in the form of the glut of military equipment channeled into local police departments). Policing at all levels, from present-day surveillance practices to the policing of demonstrations and civil disturbances to routine neighborhood policing, has been remolded along preemptive principles. Given ingrained prejudices and profiling practices, a black man on the street is immediately seen as a potential threat, and as always with potential threats, the finger has to be ready on the trigger to respond before the threat “emerges.” This amounts to a verdict of a priori guilt carrying a sentence of death – a practice of threat-fueled extrajudicial killing not that different in terms of its operative logic from Obama’s program of summary execution of suspected terrorists abroad. Fred Moten highlights this when he pointedly refers to Darren Wilson, Michael Brown’s killer in the Ferguson shooting, as a “drone.” A priori guilt is part and parcel of the logic of preemption – as evidenced by the fact that there are still, nearly fifteen years after 9-11, more than a hundred people languishing in the Guantánamo Bay detention center (aka “Camp Justice”) despite never having been charged with a crime. If you set about punishing potential, given potential’s futurity, it is only natural for the punishment to come before the fact. Preemptive justice revolves around pre-punishment for pre-crime.
Do you see any way to counter the logic of preemption and to challenge ontopower’s effects and replace it with an evidence based form of power that does not have to resort to playing on peoples’ fears?
No. Not an evidence-based form of power. But perhaps an affective counter-ontopower that figures potential differently and operates in a register other than fear. Ultimately, I wrote the book in large part to raise that possibility, and to encourage people to start thinking collectively about what that affective counterpolitics might entail. Empirical reasoning is undeniably important, but it is not sufficient, because politics is always driven more by tendency—oriented desire moving into the future – than by evidence from the past. Within what future-tending ecology of counterpowers might evidence-based reason find a new and effective role?
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