August 5th, 2012

S.C. Hickman

Levi R. Bryant: Hyperobjects and the Political Left

Levi R. Bryant, of Larval Subjects, has a new blog post with a scathing indicment of both current forms of political protest and the impotence of the Academy to effect political change: McKenzie Wark: How Do You Occupy an Abstraction? 

He draws a parallel between Capitalism and Hyperobjects saying: "Hyperobjects as such are purely virtual or withdrawn. They can’t be directly touched. And what’s worse, contrary to Locke’s principle of individuation whereby an individual is individuated by virtue of its location in a particular place and at a particular time, hyperobjects are without a site or place." Then he charcterized Capitalism as having "the characteristic of being everywhere and nowhere", which caused me to sift my mind for those echoes where this pattern has resurfaced through many writers remembering the two most interesting:

1) Empedocles: “The nature of God is a circle of which the center is everywhere and the circumference is nowhere.”; and, 2) Blaise Pascal: "“Nature is an infinite sphere of which the center is everywhere and the circumference nowhere.”

It appears in our time that we're rephrasing this as "Capitalism as hyperobject withdraws within a center whose power is everywhere and whose circumference is a non-local manifestation of infinite domination."

The crux of his argument starts with the idea of a site: "The crisis of contemporary politics is thus the crisis of the erasure of site. In the age of hyperobjects, we come to dwell in a world where there is no clear site of political antagonism and therefore no real sense of how and where to engage." One could say that political protest has in itself become virtual vanishing from the mediasphere into a zero point realm of pure absence. Guy Debord once stated: "We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. As a commodity the spectacular is developed to the detriment of the real. It becomes a substitute for experience." We could say that politics and even political protest have become commodities co-opted by Capital at the expense of those who have none.

In one of Levi's asides within his brillant and no less powerful work The Democracy of Objects he tells us that "the local manifestation of an object is the manner in which a substance or virtual proper being is actualized in the world under determinate conditions." If we see Capitalism as unified hyperobject then the domain of power possessed within it is greater than any local manifestation or actualization it possesses. Capitalism vanishes and withdraws even as it is manifested within the tentacles of its sensual appendages. It is a power that circulates and recirculates in a mesh of invisible artieries that surface as local manifestations as worldly institutions: banks, governments, Wall-Street, etc.

In the same book he also reminds us that objects are what he terms “difference engines” or “generative mechanisms”, as he states it "for objects are these powers of producing differences in the world at the level of qualities or local manifestations." For Levi local manifestations are geometrical while virtual proper being is topological:

"Where geometry treats fixed metric properties and shapes, topology, by contrast, treats of structures capable of undergoing variation through operations of stretching, squeezing, or folding while retaining its structure. Here the distinction between topology and geometry should not be understood mathematically in terms of two different ways of approaching space, but rather philosophically as two distinct aspects of substance. The topological domain refers to the domain of how the virtual powers of a substance are organized, whereas the geometrical refers to how substances are actualized in locally fixed qualities."

The idea of applying this to leftward politics that defines both a topological and geometrical critique of the virtual powers of Capitalism, its organization as well as how its power is manifested or actualized locally might help bring about a new form political critique. Against any epistemological critique Levi offers us onticology: "What onticology instead recommends is a particular attentiveness to fields of action among objects that enter into exo-relations with one another, examining how these inter-actions produce a variety of local manifestations in a diffraction pattern." In an Interview over on Philosophy In a Time of Error we learn that diffraction pattern derives from Karen Barad's work Meeting the Universe Halfway:

"A diffraction pattern is what occurs when waves intersect with one another. You throw a pebble into a pond and then you throw another pebble into a pond. Both pebbles create concentric patterns of waves. At some point these waves intersect creating a distinctive pattern as a result of the differences embodied in both of the waves. This is the perfect metaphor. Rather than thinking of one object overdetermining all the other objects by actively giving form to those objects, we should instead think of objects on a flat ontological plain among one another creating distinctive diffraction patterns as their differences interact with one another."

One might say it is this "struggle of differences" between Capital and its detractors that defines the target that Levi so boldly castigates in his recent essay, saying:

"Block the arteries; block the paths that this hyperobject requires to sustain itself. This is the only way you will tilt the hands of power and create bargaining power with government organs of capital and corporations. You have to hit them where they live, in their arteries. Did anyone ever change their diet without being told that they would die? Your critique is an important and indispensable step, but if you really wish to produce change you need to find ways to create heart attacks and aneurysms. Short of that, your activity is just masturbation. But this requires coming to discern where the arteries are and doing a little less critique of cultural artifacts and ideologies. Yet choose your targets carefully. The problem with the Seattle protests was that they chose idiotic targets and simply acted on impotent rage. A window is not an artery. It doesn’t organize a flow of communication and capital. It’s the arteries that you need to locate."

Somewhere between the topological and geometrical domains resides a target awaiting its actant(s) and onticology just might lead us toward that path of change we so desperately need in our torn and fractured age of political impotence.