Absorption and Exposure

I am interested in a certain sense of wanting to be "in" something: to participate in it, to connect with it, to synchronize with it, to be caught up with it, rather than to visually possess it. The desire to be attuned to something that is happening, or that might happen at any moment -- not necessarily as a conscious thought, but as a vaguely felt expectation. The desire to move toward something that is (or might be) happening, in order to absorb its force, touch it, taste it, surrender to it -- rather than simply to observe it.

For Bataille, this would be the erotic pull of death. I am thinking about it as a dynamic of immersion and implication that involves media-technological actors and which reorients questions of subjectivity and spectatorship. Or, in other words: an ecology of absorption and exposure. Since it involves the sensorium and the transmission of resonances, it is not something that can be understood in terms of visual mastery or language. It does not privilege reading but readiness. Rather than being about possessing something from a distance, it is about a surrender to it -- an extreme intimacy, a merging. One does not look from afar, fortifying the self, but rather enters into the fray, exposing the self.

Is this drive to be "in" something more constitutive than the drive for separation (difference)? The drive for immersion or self-exposure more constitutive than that of voyeuristic detachment? If so, how does this challenge the dominance of a foundational condition of spectatorship, or the understanding of media in terms of its capacity to produce a spectatorial relation? To approach the matter, one must undress, slowly, undoing the customary divisions we make of the world -- between observer/observed, inside/outside, signifier/signified, and even nature/culture. One must not rely on words so much as the intangibilities of resonance -- mood, movement, sensual contact. One must not negate but affirm, conveying permissions through expressions that can show more than say.

A strategy of approach can be found in the concept of the "assemblage," as outlined by Manuel DeLanda, who has brilliantly expanded Deleuze's original work. Using DeLanda's formulation as a basis of departure, I have developed one line of thinking about assemblage theory, not as a general ontology, but as an absorption/exposure ecology. I have incorporated other references -- for example Brian Massumi's theories of affect; the actor-network orientations of Vilem Flusser, Matthew Fuller, and Bruno Latour; Lacan's notion of the "sinthome" by way of Zizek; Keller Easterling's concept of "spatial formulas" -- and I have developed the assemblage's erotics, understanding it as a mechanism of desire. For me the assemblage is a vehicle of obscene enjoyment, conveying both routine and change, enticement and anguish. An undulating lustful thing, dripping. And so, rather than adhering to an orthodoxy, I am treating the theory itself as a kind of assemblage. What has emerged here is simply one assemblage of assemblage theory.

As an ecology of absorption and exposure, the assemblage is, again, an event-in-formation -- a "something" happening or that might happen. It is a forming-event-thing that we want to be part of, attune to, surrender to -- not necessarily consciously, but as a felt expectation. An event-in-formation that, in combining the reassurance of the familiar with the thrill of the potential, works through both stabilization and destabilization, routinization and tendency, prohibition and enticement. An event-in-formation that cannot be relied upon to resolve to a specific outcome, but rather, to continually engender a set of possibilities -- or in other words, to exert tendencies. A mechanism of desire for immersion and exposure within this forming-event.


At its basis, the assemblage is a moving population of symbiotic, co-functioning actors. These actors can be anything: any kind of body or entity, whether organic or inorganic, at any scale, from the sub-personal to the social community. Actors participate in multiple assemblages at the same time, and they may perform different functions at different times, or at the same time, even within the same assemblage.

These actors synthesize (or network together) through shared, recurrent processes of stabilization and destabilization. These processes involve circuits of commonality and difference, attunement and distraction, connection and disconnection, extension and reduction. Through these processes, the assemblage, as a population, is continually modulated, actively re-consolidating itself and its identity (which could be a subjective identity). It does so through the increase or decrease of its internal consistency or the degree of its boundary-delineation, moving above or below various thresholds of stabilization.

We can define these recurrent processes as follows. The first involves a dynamic of resonance and dissonance. This is a form of affective transmission and bonding, playing out across intensive and extensive realms -- a charge that passes through actors, connecting, conducting, and synchronizing them. It is not reducible to language and knowledge, but involves a form of corporeal knowingness. For example, resonance can allow a certain move or gesture to propagate across a community, gaining strength and adhering in a dance form. A critical mass of affective transmissions begins, over time, to bond a community and set the stage for a shared practice. Dissonance can involve a breaking of the beat, a turning. The second involves a dynamic of coding and decoding. This involves the mobilization of linguistic resources and forms of scripting -- such as in narratives, imaginaries, programs, and constitutions. Decoding can be a mechanism of productive "unlearning," allowing one to break with older patterns of thought through the introduction of other routines, procedures, rituals, or even through games, gaffes, and humorous anecdotes. In this way it guides change. Coding can involve genetics, and decoding, a kind of genetic unlearning -- as in the way that erotic activity decodes genetic influences. The third involves a dynamic of formulation and deformulation. It allows the assemblage to variably replicate through the abstraction and transduction of forces into new reproduction machineries; through deliberate template mechanisms; or through emergent forms of social influence and obligation. For example, a megastore formula allows exact replicas to be built anywhere, or an organization opens a new branch and transmits its guidelines to new employees. Or, a video clip goes viral.

These three processes work in conjunction with one another. For example, one can follow Niklaus Largier's elaboration of the history of flagellation as a repeated, ritualistic practice of affective-imaginary arousal, which reinforces a community and an individual body within it as it simultaneously deterritorializes the body -- all through a specific symbolic enaction that has been formulated, replicated as a religious practice. Or there can be a drift from one process to another, as when a group coheres through identity practices, but then allows itself to be galvanized by affective charges, only to code itself again. These three processes serve to stabilize or destabilize the assemblage as a whole: stabilizing, in generating a coherency, a concentration, a platform of use; destabilizing, in allowing flexibility, decentralization, the opening up of new patterns of use, allowing actors the ability to enter into new assemblages. From the point of a subjectivity: a habit and a flight of fancy; a routine and an escape route; to find oneself and to lose oneself; comfort and change; attention and distraction; eroticism and death. What attracts us is precisely this quality of dual embodiment: the assemblage as both routinization and potential. A restlessness, which can make one (feel) more alive.

These recurrent processes form the environment through which the actors exercise their various capacities to engage with other actors, according to the properties they have been endowed with, and the dispositions that adhere in them. Properties are organizational principles and procedures that can be determined and stated. Capacities are qualities of engagement: to affect (excite) and be affected; to interact with, transmit intensities with, enter into alliances with other entities; to influence the timing, movement, and composition of actors and parts. Capacities depend on an actor's properties, however unlike properties, capacities are open-ended and dependent upon the properties and capacities of other interacting entities. If properties are about actualities, then capacities are about potentials. Dispositions are affectively-grounded behavioral tendencies, attitudes, moods, or general temperaments that adhere over time, existing somewhere between a property and a capacity.

The processes strengthen as they are internalized in practice -- through the actors' exercising of their various capacities to engage with other actors, according to their properties and dispositions. As this occurs, the actors move, are moved, across thresholds of organizational stability or scale. Forms and behaviors that can be apprehended may then arise -- space, social conduct, somatic effect. One can understand these forms and behaviors in terms of the translations between levels of organizational stability and the crossing of materialization-thresholds, which always pass through patterns of activity, or acquired patterns of response. These forms and behaviors are, in a sense, actors playing roles.

By taking a role, and actor both expresses something and embodies something that can be apprehended -- expresses, as a living presence, and embodies, as a formal presence -- though not in equal measures. For example, in making a call, the mobile phone is an actor embodied in particular material role, while the finger pressing its buttons is one that is playing an expressive role. Through the taking on of these roles, the actors are in turn modified, incorporated into various assemblages, embedded into new arrangements: the capacity of the phone to allow button-pressing incorporates the action, and through it, the body/subject in whole or part, in the assemblage of the placed call. But there is no action without the recurrent processes of stabilization and destabilization -- resonance, coding, formulation -- that motivate it. In the case of the phone call: the transmission of affects, sequencing and narrative, protocol and uniformity. There is a reciprocity between the processes and the actor-roles. Each constitutes the other. As a result, knowledge-accumulation may intensify. The assemblage may replicate, encouraging conformity to its standards. But it can also generate mutant forms.

The assemblage IS its actors, at any scale, and thus it can, at each of its scales, be said to have its own particular capacities, properties, and dispositions as a whole. Assemblages interact with one another, exercising their various capacities, and through this process, they can accrue new properties and dispositions. The strength of the assemblage could be said to derive from the actors that it is able to effect and mobilize, and the degree of functionality of their roles. Actors can be, but are not necessarily, functional or operational. Expressions of the body, in and of themselves, are generally not functional. For example, an expression of alarm. However, they can become functional, when they become readable and conveyable within a community, or when they are absorbed into an institutional apparatus of one sort or another. They can become operationalized -- able to be directed, harnessed for political maneuverings. For example, the terror alert system, which, by conveying states of alarm, harnesses affects for security purposes and for political ends.

Again, while properties are actualities, capacities are potentials -- they depend on the properties and capacities of other interacting actors. The assemblage is provisional; it cannot be relied upon to produce any specific outcome. At any scale, the assemblage is always a world in the making: a collection of compositional energies and substances that carries forth a potential event, or simply a sensation. Rather than producing specific forms or behaviors, the assemblage works by modifying potentials, engendering recurrent materials and excitations with possible outcomes. As such, it is a likelihood, a tendency -- a "something" waiting to happen.

This tendency is a kind of directional pull that arises from the properties, capacities, and dispositions of the actors, at whatever scale (including the entirety of the assemblage itself), as they are enacted in roles. When quantifiable, it can be understood in terms of probability or statistical causality. One can predict, but one doesn't know what will happen, since nothing occurs in complete isolation. Everything interferes with everything. Small instances can catalyze large-scale effects that were not intended. Triggers or catalysts for effects can come from anywhere. Two different causes can lead to one and the same effect, or one and the same cause may produce very different effects. One cannot say that a particular cause will produce a particular effect, but rather that a specific cause may increase the probability of the occurrence of a given effect.

When we are talking about subjective/social formations -- a "something" into which we insert ourselves, or want to insert ourselves -- one must not only look to statistics, but to the ways that significance is negotiated within a social field. And one must take desires into account. The properties, capacities, and dispositions of the actors are a complex of many subjective and somatic factors. When we are affected, we act according to our beliefs or principles for acting. We also act according to our dispositions: our affectively-grounded behavioral tendencies, attitudes, moods, or general temperament. Even if beliefs involve reasons, they do not always involve meaningfully oriented action, since they can emerge from intense feelings. On one end of the spectrum would be purely causal: reactions triggered by habit. On the other end would be the purely reasoned: actions resulting from deliberate choices. But there are worlds in between, shot through with the ambiguities of desire.

Again, tendency is a kind of directional pull that arises from the properties, capacities, and dispositions of the actors, at whatever scale (including the entirety of the assemblage itself), as they are enacted in roles, as enabled by the stabilization and destabilization processes. The assemblage itself accrues a disposition, or acts as a dispositional trigger. When we are part of it, we can say that this disposition is ours, or partly "mine" -- even as it is modulated, coalescing and breaking up, hardening and loosening.

The assemblage can generate a longing for attunement -- for the sense of being "inside" something, or the sense of already being "in" something (a common attachment, a seamlessness). This longing to belong could be understood as a process of subjectivization; the longing itself, as desire. The assemblage takes root to the extent that it resonates with something deep within the self: not necessarily as a lack that it may fill, but as a potential excess. The assemblage is about abundance -- a self that always has the possibility of spilling over its bounds, and which is constituted in excessive transmissions that do not necessarily rely on language or representation. It is something like a sensorial motif, a propagating energy-pattern that generates excitations and structures disposition, yet at its core is meaningless. Here the contradictions of the assemblage -- in its combination of both stabilizing and destabilizing processes -- come into full play. It is a vehicle of obscene enjoyment, in you more than you know. It gives permissions, yet when it passes through culture -- the normative field of the social -- it sustains an undercurrent of prohibition. It maintains both enticement and anguish: the anguish of temptation.

This attunement -- this longing for, or sense of, being "in" something -- can happen in various degrees of involvement. It can simply consist of an affective charge, a thin zone of contact: a readiness to act, but not necessarily an act. A sense of action, without the action. One is "in" multiple assemblages at the same time, at various scales from the sub-personal to the social community. As these assemblages overlap, one experiences changing, inconsistent modes of commonality and difference, attunement and distraction, connection and disconnection, extension and reduction, whether powerful or light, enduring or fleeting. If desire is a longing to be "inside" an assemblage, then that which we find desirable in others could well be their own embeddedness in assemblages that we want to be "in." The desiring-mechanism works through the reassurance of ritual and the promise of untold adventure -- recurrence and potentiality. The dance of stabilization and destabilization. Desire needs its rituals, but without the cultivation of the unknown, it evaporates. The swirling of recurrent choreographies; the intimate dance of the courtship ritual. Bodies are revealed and concealed, dissolved into a configuration of properties and capacities, then re-emerged, reassembled, only to realign again -- not on a flat plane of consistency, but in terms of strata, layers, degrees of organizational complexity. Yet one could also see it this way: these bodies are always already complete, it is just that their mode of apprehension is always partial and mobile.

To be absorbed, to be inside, is also to be exposed -- to be open on all sides. If subjectivity is a modality of perspective from inside the assemblage (an inside looking out), then it is also a point of accessibility from the outside (an outside looking in). However to be open on all sides is to dissolve perspective and the seer/seen opposition -- as well as the primacy of vision. There are no longer any sides to speak of -- only circuits. Exposure, as a surrender, opens vulnerabilities, portals and trajectories for exterior operations, but it also generates a fluidity, elusive and fleeting. It registers a topology more than a body, a "showing" more than a saying.

A topology that tends toward a "something."


Posted on the international <nettime> mailing list on Friday June 13, 2008

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