The Becoming Environmental of Power: Tactical Media After Control - Part II

There is a last enterprise that might be undertaken. It would be to seek experience at its source, or rather, above that decisive turn where, taking a bias in the direction of our utility, it becomes properly human experience. (Bergson, 1991: 184).

From Infopolitics to Ontopolitics

I want to begin this final section with an assertion: critiques of TM tend to reduce their field of operations to the spatio-temporal functioning of digital and networked technologies. Rather than striving to consider the conditions of immiseration and crisis within which these systems are enveloped, too often discussions of new media, networking and politics are refracted through informational media where a kind of 'exaggerated humanity' is expressed (Thrift, 2011). Critical accounts of software can go a long way to address this problem, but I argue they can only be established through a consideration of factors anterior to the regime of computation (sense, attention, memory, perception, maintenance, energy, waste, capital); but just as compositions of human labour are prone to exhaustion, insubordination and resistance, so too are nonhuman actants driven to breakdown and collapse by exploitative relations. Crucially, my investment in this basic premise is connected to a range of recent inquiries in a long-standing discussions of distributed agencies, these include the Latourian actor-network, assemblage theory, object-orientated philosophy, speculative realism, neo-materialism and vitalist currents of media ecology (Fuller, 2005; Bryant, Srnicek and Harman, 2011). Whether understood as a 'material turn' or not, I interpret these moves as establishing a dialogue with increasingly felt pressures in the lived environment and the anxious need for resources capable of gauging the more-than-human, beyond current diagrammatic modes of organisation. Critical media art contributes to this task by exiting informationalism. It does so by undoing distinctions between the machine and nonmachine in surprising and unexpected ways. These practices can be read through de Certeau, however only with some critical adjustments.

How I read de Certeau's concept of everyday life: the famous distinction between tactics and strategies is the basis for approaching the everyday; it becomes an orientation device for conceiving how oppositional practices can be imagined more specifically. Out of this apparent binary, or asymmetrical dialectic, between tactics and strategies, a series of distinctions then emerge: the everyday as a counterpoint to discipline, the indeterminacy of manifold actions against technocratic rationality, an interest in memory practices and kairos over spatialised temporalities. Strategies, as a central point of contrast, indicate a 'proper place', an institutional form characterised by a calculus or manipulation of relations. The proper is characterised by three major functions: 1) a triumph of space over time in building an autonomous territory, 2) the calculated use of sight or panoptics to draw exterior objects within a scope and range of influence, and finally 3) the constitutive force of power/knowledge as a mode of territorialisation (de Certeau, 1980: 5).

Here, de Certeau's work is most clearly positioned as a response to the disciplinary dispositif of Foucault, especially the kind of modern ordering portrayed throughout the 'Panopticism' section of Discipline and Punish (Foucault, 1977: 195-228). In these well-known passages, a detailed reading of the English philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham's proposed ideal prison, the Panopticon, was used to diagnose how a new expansive 'physics' or 'anatomy' of power arose during the 18th century in Europe. To be clear, de Certeau's reading of everyday practices was partly theorised as a rejoinder to Foucault, particularly from the perspective of subjects already caught up in such machinations of power. It was an attempt to invert Foucault's analytic method to arrive at an alternative diagnosis. While still focused at the level of microphysics, the goal shifted from processes of arranging consistencies to the extreme edges of a purported anti-discipline. It is worth noting that the struggle here, additionally, is a reflection of sorts on the relationship of a researcher to a subject of inquiry and, therefore, is also a consideration of the proper place for knowledge (the university).

Defined through the slogan, 'the art of the weak', tactics feature everywhere in the everyday as an undercurrent to the revolutionary upheavals and structural delineations of modernity (systems of 'technocracy'). Practices in general are understood as non-representational actions that flow in 'non-traceable dimensions', or movements that precede the purview of the panoptic. Interpretations of de Certeau often seize upon 'visible cunning' as the fundamental expression of resistance; however, there actually exists a diversity of meanings linked to the concept, including several overlapping categories: hidden, heterogeneous, extensive, devious and stubborn (Highmore, 2006, 108). All these modalities work together to produce a sense of complex qualitative rhythms. Multiplicity in itself, as a result, is a key concern: a constitutive milieu of difference that complicates the diagram of disciplinary consistencies or regularities charted by Foucault.

The language recalls another influential theorist of the everyday, Henri Lefebvre, however, strong continuities also exist with Bergson's concept of duration. Similarly proposing a critical view of models of time based on marking out successive instances, Bergson perceived the type of intelligence based on this delineation as perpetuating 'impure' spatio-temporal compounds that privileged space as a quantitative multiplicity and, therefore, an infinitely divisible plane (Deleuze, 1991). In this way, process as difference in kind was elided: the map displaces the territory. De Certeau also holds a comparable interest in experience, or, at the same time, a sense of things and what disciplinary methodologies are capable of saying about them. However, this specifically took the form of a defence of the everyday against its reduction to 'lateral inspection' (de Certeau, 1980: 10). Storytelling and imaginative facilities could assist with this task of expressing the elusiveness of the tactical, if only to participate in urgently needed therapeutic rectification against the instrumental demands of 'the proper'. On an abstract level, tactics are a kind of conceptual stance toward the problem of asymmetries in power and accounting for difference in the production of knowledge. In this sense, tactics allow an important way of thinking 'culture in the plural', but only to the extent that an expanded field of action and experience is evoked. This suggests, I would add, something like 'nature in the plural', precisely by rejecting an exclusive embrace of modern ordering principles.

As a polyrhythmic multiplicity, de Certeau imagined everyday practices to be a vast oceanic expanse. Indeed, a more profound claim is advanced along these lines: that socio-economic and political institutions are subject to this field of singularities, arising from below as 'ephemeral islands' or temporary archipelagos. Practices are origins or ontologically prior; they move through dimensions of being that exceed the proper, since tactics are emblematic of a prodigious or primordial virtuosity, an immemorial intelligence of coups and tricks, found even in plants and fish (de Certeau, 1980: 9). Tacticality complicates not only the abstract regularities imposed by strategic organisation, but even anthropos and certain conceptions of rational consciousness. Indeed, this layer of activity can only be grasped as a dynamic genesis or inventiveness that 'assures formal continuities and the permanence of a memory without language, from the ocean's depths all the way to the streets of today's megalopolis' (9). These are strange assertions that seemingly invoke a Universalist pan-nature. Indeed, Nicole Shukin questions precisely such moments by arguing that de Certeau fetishises mimesis. This is problematic, according to Shukin, since it involves privileging analogous relations between human and nonhuman in a way that uncritically reiterates the contemporary machinations of capital, especially within conditions of real subsumption (Shukin, 2009: 54). This is a valid critique, but I have another interpretation in mind. I understand tactics here as involving moments where what might be defined as properly human, where the limits of social life itself, are surpassed as a self-evident representation. This can be conceived through a distinction between analogy and univocity: analogy ushers in a hierarchy of being based on the regulation of life, while univocity refers to a radical pragmatics based on concrete situations. However, as Deleuze would put it, the latter requires a pre-individual set of conditions to be acknowledged, a processual world, a making and remaking of distinctions that is only ever contingent and situated. It is a question of: 'how individuating difference precedes generic, specific and even individual differences within being; how a prior field of individuation within being conditions at once the determination of species of forms, the determination of parts and their individual variations' (Deleuze, 1994: 38).

For media theory, the political implication of individuating difference - in contrast to the possessive majoritarian mode cited by Shukin - runs on communicative univocity. Tacticality, therefore, is further understood, and assisted, via intensities; 'the trees communicate with the sun, the seas with the moon, our eyes with ancient light from dead galaxies, our skins with the cosmic background radiation' (Cubitt, 2006: 36). Practices are antecedent to social diagrams, fluctuating throughout experiential worlds, and more troublingly, set conditions that appear to both challenge and retain divisions of power. The question then becomes, within this field, how can oppositional practices be understood, what would this consist of anyway? For now, my claim for TM specifically is that these approaches attend to problems in a manner antithetical to present cases of solution, drawing from pre-individual relations to do so. Tactical practitioners, in other words, make inquiries into individuating difference in terms other than quantification or a neoliberal economics of disequilibrium. This aspect is crucial for grasping the continuing occupation of TM beyond the conditions of communicative capitalism and the transformations of media ecologies signalled by the critiques outlined above.

Here, it's worth discussing de Certeau's view of digital and networked technologies as a further encroachment onto the everyday; that is, how tactics are imagined as overrun by their incorporation into the flexibility of a computerised megacity. Appearing as a vast homogeneous expanse guided by the techno-scientific rationale of cybernetics, this future system illuminates the 'dark sea' or 'maritime immensity' of life as a continuous patterning or weave of data:

Number has arrived, the time of democracy, of the big city, of bureaucracies, of cybernetics. It is a supple and continuous crowd, woven tightly like a fabric without tear or seam, a multitude of quantified heroes who lose their names and faces while becoming the mobile language of calculations and rationalities which belong to no one. Ciphered currents in the street. (de Certeau, 1980: 3)

In an insightful analysis of this calculative turn, Brian Holmes draws attention to the historic influence of the cybernetic paradigm as a foundation myth for network societies (Holmes, 2008: 525-534). Indeed, Norbert Wiener first conceived of his science of steering precisely in response to the problem of tracking, anticipating and predicting the flow of things in an ongoing stochastic process (originally, enemy aircraft) (Galison, 1994: 228-266). The reliance on statistical probability in cybernetic thought would enable a reflexive responsiveness to the regulation of a system by registering input and calculating adjustments in search of an allusive ideal equilibrium. Cybernetics tethered contingency or movement, thriving on differences in a system, or precisely the kinds of activity that TM might be said to induce. With this in mind, Holmes questions whether tactics remains an effective framework for politics. He notes that the mathematical innovations from cybernetics now underwrite the principal equations for pricing options in financial markets, especially to predict the drift and volatility of equity values through the Black-Scholes model. This is a sort of rhetorical challenge, but is based on serious real-world conditions. As a global socio-technical ensemble, financial systems can arguably be taken as the proper place of the present. Poised as the authentic function of digital and networked media, finance works through a neoliberalism of non-normalisable accidents that requires far-from-equilibrium conditions (Cooper, 2008). Diagrammatic characteristics, therefore, can easily be read off an analysis of the operations of these socio-technical markets.

To this end, the cybernetic society of de Certeau recalls another familiar narrative by Deleuze from the short 'postscript' on societies of control, an important text for new media studies that similarly grapples with the Foucaudian disciplinary dispositif (Deleuze, 1995: 177-182). As is well known, this Deleuzian image of power traces a flexible network that continually responds to, adjusts and modulates variable changes. The result is a highly regulated openness perpetuated by the calculation of aggregate motion and the continual guidance of change. Here, the purported exterior is utilised as the source for further organisational patterns. A kind of binding together or knotting takes hold, a weave aimed at capturing the diverse potentialities traversing an environment. Needless to say, a reading of cybernetics also pervades this brief postscript. Allusions are made to Wiener's narratives of technological periodisation, especially his discussions of utilising Bergsonian ideas of duration to build feedback systems and black boxes, therefore, rendering obsolete apparent oppositions between mechanism and vitalism (Wiener, 1961: 38-39).

The concept of "Control Societies", meanwhile, has become influential in the analysis of organisational principles in new media, such as the logistics of surveillance, flexibility, standardisation of flow (protocol), data aggregation, and predictive tracking, studies often in dialogue with the concept of TM (Elmer, 2004; Galloway, 2004; Galloway and Thacker, 2007). A significant portion of this work can be read as exploring tendencies toward the emergent episteme first identified by Deleuze, but through technical registers. Without going into detail, I refer simply to an important caveat offered by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun for this line of inquiry: 'we need to insist on the failures and the actual operations of technology' (Chun, 2006: 9). While "control societies" as a concept has allowed a consideration of the constitution of new media in ways that reconsider the nonhuman, Chun's turning to limitations and failure also suggests a consideration of care-taking, rather than the pursuit of accidents. This might involve, for instance, questioning the disinvestment of expenditures carried along through the image of software as a vitalist substrate or a medium capable of transcending material limits. It might involve a consideration that up to 50 million tons of e-waste is generated globally each year. This alone should force some acknowledgement of the exteriorities to cybernetic control and informationalism (Feilhauer and Zehle, 2009). The agential weight of lead, cadmium, mercury, brominated flame-retardants and other hazardous components participate in a renewed set of problems for life, not to mention the contingencies of metal resources (especially rare earth elements) that follow intensifications of capitalist development in the shadows of climate-based crises at the limits of the earth.

There is a final connection to be made. As a social diagram, the distributed networks of control societies resemble a set of governmental dynamics analysed in later work by Foucault (2007; 2008). Indeed, the work outlined in his lecture series at the Collège de France during the late 1970's presents a significant challenge to the anti-discipline of de Certeau in a number of ways. While ostensibly aimed at mapping a genealogy of the regulatory apparatuses that operate at population levels ('the biopolitical'), it's worth concluding with a consideration of his account as an explanatory ground for a revised tacticality. Here, Foucault makes important distinctions from 'generalized disciplinary societies' in a genealogy of the welfare state and, eventually, early expressions of neoliberalism. This initially took the form of a new dispositif directed at a 'global mass' of statistical variations that work upon the species-being of the human: birth rates, illnesses, death, productivity, disease. As 'apparatuses of security', these allowed circulations to occur by establishing territories that blur the prior distinctions that characterised disciplinary societies. Security, therefore, depends on spatialising logics aimed at 'a series of possible events; it refers to the temporal and the uncertain, which have to be inserted within a given space' (Foucault, 2007: 35). This is achieved by coordinating a resonant milieu, a middling or medium, or 'that which is needed to account for action at a distance of one body on another' (36). Crucially, this was a direction that could already be sensed in aspects of Discipline and Punish, where the swarming of mechanisms arises in the gradual propensity for such devices to become 'de-institutionalised', expanding out of enclosures (molds) in order to circulate in a 'free' or liberated state (modulations): 'the massive compact disciplines are broken down into flexible methods of control, which may be transferred and adapted' (Foucault, 1977: 211). For Foucault, security does not supplant discipline, so much as functions with sovereignty and disciplinarily to form an institutional triad geared at the figure of the population. This is known as governmentality.

However, an important distinction is made between 'normalisation' and 'normation': the latter is the capacity for the disciplines to separate so the normal and abnormal are classified against an imposition or structural consistency ('the permitted and forbidden'). This was precisely the dynamic leveraged by de Certeau in the argument for polyrhythmic tactics outside the linear range of the disciplines. Under governmentality, Foucault describes how the imposition of discipline is now annexed to a relational coordination of security mechanisms (Foucault, 2007: 67-69, 85-91). Normalisation, then, comes to refer to modulations that traverse anatomo-politics as a curvature of aggregate metastabilities. The purported aim is the correct distribution of things: equilibrium. This is how the birth of governmentality equates with the rise of economic liberalism to a significant extent, an aspect that distinguishes this diagram of power, for example, from a purely sovereign or disciplinary regime. However, what is interesting is the notion of 'naturalness' that arises from normalisation under this model, a naturalness that is ideally dependent on the insertion of freedoms to generate aleatory movements. This is the ironic basis for the effectiveness of governance. While it might be taken in terms of an opposition to power, the broader goal is to allow for movement as circulation: 'I think it is this freedom of circulation, in the broad sense of the term, it is in terms of this option of circulation, that we should understand the word freedom, and understand it as one of the facets, aspects, or dimensions of the deployment of apparatuses of security' (Foucault, 2007: 71).

Significantly, generative change in this diagrammatic spatialising milieu takes the form of instrumental accidents - the radical exteriority of the contingent is what traverses the mechanisms and interrelated subsystems of security. While the terminus of governmentality is aimed at the population structure, such transformations emerge at once from the aleatory forces involved, as multiplicity. Interestingly, such 'freedoms' apply to the circulation of disease, water, insects, weather patterns, fires and animals. The stakes of biopolitics are based on amalgamations whereby conditions for life are reproduced, or 'the perpetual intrication of a geographical, climatic, and physical milieu with the human species insofar as it has a body and a soul, a physical and a moral existence' (36). Of course, the calculative responsiveness of digital and networked systems also appear to fit lockstep with this binding together of liberalism, security and modulating power. The account offered by Foucault, however, gives a genealogy to these logics that does not concern strictly technical agencies, but resembles an abstract machine. Indeed, the stakes of rethinking the tactical remains highly significant here precisely because of the way in which privileging operates on population levels.

In a recent commentary, Brian Massumi suggests taking Foucault's governmental schema as a theoretical premise for reading political ventures today. Examining recent catastrophic socio-environmental problems - specifically, responses to the aftermath of Hurricane Katerina - Massumi describes a becoming environmental of power, a phrase that I have borrowed for the title of this essay (2009: 153-185). Market-based economic rationalism and speculative finance are read as intensifying the conditions of Foucault's diagram by unleashing an extreme crisis-ridden milieu. For Massumi, the becoming environmental of power resembles a kind of ontopower, since its 'field of application' is now proto-territorial: as opposed to a normalised population, it operates from a deadly landscape across which innumerable problems are encouraged to circulate and reach destructive thresholds to wrest back the conditions for social reproduction. The distinction is important, since his concern lies with the stakes for life to persist through an emergency-prone dynamism that perpetuates extreme inequalities in wealth and poverty. This is notable not simply in the rise of industrial pollution, but implementation of disassociated milieus or spaces of circulation, from the bio-economics of overfishing to urban inner cities scarred by social insurrection. For Massumi, this mode of power attempts to intercept force by distributing disruptive ontogenetic waves toward global flow-on effects. It attempts to induce change as a first responder, or initiates a full-spectrum securitisation by waging total war.

Dominated by a conservative political register, I argue these trajectories of action set the conditions through which critical media art projects gain traction to operate therapeutically. This is based on asymmetrically countering such logics by developing sympathies and connections with entities pressed by crisis, relayed instrumentally or left to suffer. If the nonhuman is turbulently fed-forward to achieve ends for those 'pertinent' levels of the population, this is where projects associated with TM find a role through a reversal marked by intuitive and untimely inquiries. In other words, this work is not aimed at a projective force of global flow-on effects, but implies returning to sources of experience - to riff on Bergson's durational ontology - before bifurcations of human and nonhuman, objects and commodities, production and consumption, creation and waste. In this case, tactics, framed by univocity, refers to differences in kind; they are alter-referenced practices. Systems, meanwhile, contain tendencies toward self-preservation; they become self-referenced (Massumi, 2009: 168-169). TM, in this revised formula, works with problems in a process of learning to live with ontopower differently, in order to make pragmatic contributions on the level of everyday practice and experience. The capacity to touch on these conditions is central to the salience of tacticality. This is not a case of circulating content, but reticulating material circumstances.

Finally, what is useful about this Foucaudian-influenced narrative is that the organisation of digital and networked technologies - among many other agencies, actors and actants - might be considered in terms of a wide array of power relations that concern conditions of possibility. Let us return to discussions of materiality and objects, or the trend of thinking in terms of radicalising distributed agencies away from exclusive dominion of a perceived anthropocentric bias. I suggested earlier that my approach was related to these conversations by considering how the more-than-human currently is and might be negotiated otherwise by TM. I have been implying, at times insisting, that this is a directly political concern. By contrast, discussing his proposition for an object-orientated philosophy, Graham Harman observes: 'Foucault is not among my philosophical heroes precisely because 'human subject' and 'world' remain two dominant poles of his universe, even if they are now glued together rather than left in lonely Cartesian solitude' (2010: 772). What might be a throwaway remark, this characterisation can nevertheless be taken as highlighting a deliberately misrecognition of Foucault's significance for materialist thought and offers a useful foil through which to reiterate my argument. Here, I argue the significance of his work is not strictly founded through a dualistic ontology of subject and world, or the metaphysics of things, but how such divisions in the world are forged and made powerful as pertinent levers of strategic organisation. Rather than a speculative proposal on the partitions of the world, this is a question regarding the quality of existing relationships. Part of my intention in re-telling this story has been to keep in play a sense of the agency of things without further naturalising a historically specific set of conditions or arrangements. It should not be forgotten that a central component of Foucault's work involves an inquiry into the inversion of sovereignty through biopolitics; a social investment to 'take life' and to 'let die', or what can be understood later as the neoliberal break between two levels: one characterised by 'economic-political action' (population) and the other by a multiplicity of individuals that 'are no longer pertinent as the objective, but simply as the instrument, relay, or condition for obtaining something at the level of the population' (2007: 65). The major challenge, one I have been pursuing conceptually, is to forge new ways of participating in these new processes by attending to how some modes of life are encouraged, while others are curtailed, or willfully wasted under conditions that are subject to speculation and the accumulation of profit. This challenge would involve experiences that are not entirely calculative, but it cannot rely on weird realisms alone (although they also might have an important role). As a consideration of multiplicity pitted against diagrammatic organisation, tacticality contributes to this process of generating alternative relations, within, for example, the exacerbation of inequalities from crisis-ridden dynamics.


If the becoming environmental of power defines networking in our time, then this emergent terrain resonates with an interest in politics through other means. TM works in this context to connect with problems that are poorly understood, that gather up agencies and remain still unsettled. In writing this lengthy article, I have had a number of projects in mind, such as: CAE, Preemptive Media or Natalie Jeremijenko's involvement in scientific practices; critical inquiries into commercial Web and economics conducted by UBERMORGEN.COM, Alessandro Ludovico and Paolo Cirio; locative practices of Esther Polak or Loca Lab; or the explorations of the materialities of borders pursued by Health Bunting, Electronic Disturbance Theatre and b.a.n.g. lab; among many others. Indeed, such pieces explore the general reticulation of things with differential consequences: their role is based on a confrontation with multiplicity facilitated through alternate political expressions of more-than-human agencies. This involves a question of collaboration in ways that overturn the normalised categories by which entities or visibilities are arranged. Such approaches, in my understanding, are attempts to refigure problems. They are reminders, moreover, of how uncertainties and silenced crises often underpin diagrammatic solutions.

As stated earlier, I insist that frameworks for TM cannot be fixated on informational systems as an exclusive domain of political power. By point of contrast, the alternate sketch provided here of ontopolitics might be interpreted as becoming imperceptible to the extent that tactics as a concept involves an opening onto multiplicity. This is the case given the demands for sympathetic modes of encounter and involvement with problems. TM, as described in this article, might then be read in the terms of Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker's statement that 'future avant-garde practices will be those of non-existence' (Thacker and Galloway, 2007. p. 136). They list sabotaging video cameras or cloaking one's presence on a network server as relevant examples, stating that these modes of subversion are full in their subversive abandonment of informational or strategic representation: 'absence, lack, invisibility, and nonbeing have nothing to do with nonexistence' (136). However, the argument of this article is not nearly as obsessed with models of politics abstracted exclusively from the workings of technical systems. An over-emphasis on exploits and hacking makes the dual mistake of indexing politics exclusively to the (heroic) informational subject, advocating war and taking the technicity of computational regimes as an essential partition for progressive social change. While control systems cast an overbearing influence on the present, other ways of acting are articulated both conceptually and practically in terms of sensing and perceiving things beyond their current organisation. My position is less interested with spectacular mastery, and more concerned with encountering multiplicity as a pedagogical practice or a process of learning. That is, learning to experience differences in kind, to connect with things in ways that complicate formats of catastrophic economics. For Deleuze, the experience of learning was once described as swimming in the open sea or learning a new language, an oceanic expanse as 'composing the singular points of one's own body or one's own language with those of another shape or element, which tears us apart but also propels us into a hitherto unknown and unheard-of world of problems' (1994: 241). This is the kind of sensory-motivity or tacticality I have in mind as a kind of involvement with the world; it initiates a double becoming by implicating the untimely agencies of nonhuman things. Tacticality, as described throughout this article, expresses an encounter with multiplicity. It complicates existing formats and badly posed problems, grappling with the ontopolitics of environmental power.


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Michael Dieter, Media Studies, The University of Amsterdam.

In: Fibreculture Journal, Issue 18, 2011 / 126

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