Ready to Anticipate: Pre-emptive Perception and the Power of the Image

The following edited transcript is based on a lecture presented at the Conference of Neuroaesthetics, Goldsmiths College, University of London, May 2005. 

What I’m going to talk about doesn’t have to do directly with arts practice. I want to talk about certain issues around perception and power in the context mainly of the mass media and try to talk about emotive power—which I think is directly perceptual and imparts technologically the workings of the nervous system in a way that constitutes a trend of the extended nervous system—in a way that I hope will contribute a bit to the kind of extended context for what’s being called “neuroaesthetics” in this conference. It has to do with aesthetics, obviously, because it concerns a form of qualitative experience and it has to do with a certain kind of inventiveness, a critical inventiveness. Part of it is coming out of the context of current debates about regimes of power and what regime of power we might be living under currently, which has been discussed around the term “biopower” as deduced from the work of Michel Foucault. What I’m going to try to say is that even though the kinds of workings of power that we’re talking about have to do with the nervous mechanisms of perception, the object is not life per se so it’s something a bit different than biopower.

I want to start from a certain affair that was quite dramatic and dominated the critical debates in the United States for a good three or four months; I’m not sure how far the echoes carried, but I’m sure you’ve probably heard of the affair of Terri Schiavo, who was a young woman in Florida who had been declared brain-dead 15 years ago and was being kept alive through a feeding tube. Her case became a cause célèbre because her legal guardian, her husband, Michael Schiavo, wanted to remove her feeding tube and allow her to die. He claimed that she had expressed wishes while she was conscious that, should she find herself in this kind of state, she would never want to be kept alive by extraordinary measures. So, according to her husband, those indirect wishes amounted to the renunciation of her right to have the power of decision over her life, or a transferral of that right to him, who is still conscious. As Michel Foucault explains, a power to command death or to allow life is what he calls a “sovereign power”—so Terri Schiavo’s husband was claiming a sovereign power over his wife. And, it is significant to note that he was claiming it as a private individual. So, one thing that characterizes the current landscape of power, I think, is this privatization of sovereignty. This means that sovereignty has been interiorized to the special domain in a larger field that’s characterized as a whole by a different mode of power. And that interiorization, following the works of Foucault, would be the result of the history of disciplinary powers interiorizing social norms in an attempt to produce self-legislating subjects populating a public sphere. The United States Congress attempted to wield this power of its own by passing a special law aimed at overpowering Michael Schiavo’s sovereign power. This was in the context where the parents of the woman in the coma (Terri Schiavo) claimed that there hadn’t been any renunciation or transfer of rights. They demanded, actually, that the state return to the default position of another form of power, a power to continue life, even forcing a continuation of life—power for life, rather than over it, which is how Foucault defines biopower. However, using power for life in this situation was legitimated by a very different logic than biopower, which dictates the needs of the human organism as part of the human population in a phenomenon construed as natural. Here the logic for this action was a religious logic, it was God’s logic, and the power of life was tapped onto a higher sovereign power of a superhuman or supernatural kind. So, Schiavo became a very complex point of relay and contact between different modes of power.

I don’t think that the field of power now is either sovereign as a whole (biopolitical or theological) or that the privatization of sovereignty has an end—or that effectively there’s a well-ordered, well-regulated civil sphere that is in principle government dominance; far from it. What I’m saying is that none of those forms of power as a whole characterize the regime of power we’re in and that that regime of power isn’t really a whole because its structuring principle doesn’t have that structure. I feel that the power that was to be mapped in terms of wholes and parts could well regulate the boundaries between them. In other words, it’s no longer mappable as a space.

I want to go back to Terri Schiavo on her hospital bed and listen to what she was said to have said about all of this. This is what she said: “a oua, a oua.” This is what was said to her parents (whose names are the Schindlers): Terri said “I,” pronounced with a Southern accent, “want, to live.” So, you might ask, where the “to live” came from. The expression was incomplete and the incompleteness was immediately, directly filled in by her parents, who provided it with the next logical step. They provided it with utter conviction; for them, those sentence-completing words were really there, although they were unspoken. What they had done was transpose their drive that she lived into the immediate, unshakable perception of a completion that actually hadn’t taken place, which remained virtual. Their striving toward her life appeared in a virtual auditory perception that filled a suspended sentence with a meaning that it could but did not contain. So they gave it a surplus meaning, and that surplus meaning took on a political reality because the perception that she spoke did become a rallying point for the pro-life movement in the United States; that added or extracted surplus value of meaning gave new momentum to a critical movement. Its growing impact, preached in every corner of the country and across the world, shook the highest levels of government. In that impact, Terri Schiavo lived.

I’ve been relating the incident many times and I’m embarrassed to say it in public, in front of live audiences, but I had an involuntary tendency to complete the sentence differently. This is what Terri Schiavo said to me: “I,” without a Southern accent, “want, water.” So I have spread that as an alternate ending, unwittingly. I had to ask myself where did my “water” come from, just like where did their “life” come from, and I realized that it came from “aoua” as in agua—the Spanish word for “water.” The Schiavos lived in Southern Florida where Spanish is everywhere, so I made her two quasi-syllables into a duplicative that generated a fusional third syllable that completed the meaning. I did an intensive intercultural reading of the utterance in order to generate a surplus value of meaning and shifted the expression from the dramatization of the miraculous staying power of the Christian soul to an illustration of cultural, intercultural understanding.

In these incidents, in one way or another, there’s a mechanism, a kind of filling-in or completion; an extraction of something that appears and, in appearing, transposes the tendency of a striving into what presents itself as a direct perception that constitutes a surplus value. The completion is actually experienced even though it didn’t empirically occur; it’s a virtual event. It’s experienced as being in a certain perceptual mode, in this case, hearing—but the sounds were never actually formed, so the experience of them as it happened, or didn’t, was amodal. This virtual perceptual event has real consequences, and the whole unfolding reality follows from it. Its consequences are the event, and the event continues, repeats, varies, once for the Christian God and again for cultural understanding and undoubtedly in many other variations. I’ve heard a lot of variations on the same story and the fact that there are a lot of variations means that you have to emphasize that there are a number of lines that are unfolding, that are bound up in the vagaries of reported speech: what I said she said, what they said she said, what you may later say I’ve said they said she said. This is reported speech in the mode that [Mikhail] Bakhtin analyzed as quasi-indirect discourse; reported speech for which there is no determined subject of the utterance. The utterance is proliferative, generating different lines of development from the moment of origin—what was not said or almost said. Basically, it’s the structure of gossip, which for Bakhtin is the base structure of language, a collective pronunciation producing different versionings from the same origin point; an indeterminate articulation, the body saying “aoua.”

What I want to suggest today is that the regime of power we’re now under involves coupling between two mechanisms, a directly perceptual mechanism of what, in neuropsychology, we call “amodal completion,” a virtual event that becomes actual in diverse minds through repetition of variations: a self-disseminating, self-differentiating event and, on the other hand, a verbal mechanism, language in the mode of reported speech, quasi-indirect discourse, as the linguistic dimension of the differentiating dissemination for the perceptual event. This is fundamentally image-based because it is conveyed by the media—in this case, in particular by television—such that the perceptual nature of the event remains and is continually renewed. So, the contention is that the current regime of power pivots on media events and their becomings in ways that make it a directly perceptual mode of power whose object is not life or the body per se, but a paradoxically productive incompleteness that potentialized divergent minds of unfolding. The two mechanisms I just mentioned originate and return to the same indeterminacy. The trigger of the media event in this case was Terri Schiavo, suspended between life and death and between language and reflex because she said something else to other third parties with nearly the same words. To her husband, Michael Schiavo, and to the medical profession she said, “I am a vegetable, this is no kind of life, pious or intercultural.” To the medical ear, seconded by the husband, the sounds she made weren’t words but reflex vocalizations resulting from spontaneous nervous system firings. Their autonomic ticks or nervous irritability, not life but the machinery of life, still kicking, still running, but assiduously, at its lowest level of intensity where it no longer has any meaning; at the level where the organism is mere mechanism, at a point of indistinction between the organic and the inorganic, the animate and the inanimate—life at the vanishing point where human choice slips into a vegetable slumber where it is indistinguishable from an essentially inert but irritable matter.

Indeterminately, Terri Schiavo died. In death she continued to live in many possible ways. The day she died, the feeding tube that had been removed from her body was inserted into the Pope’s. The Pope, having a direct line to God, had made the transferring call; his Father’s sovereign judgment was that it was time for him to die. Extraordinary measures were not taken to make him a vegetable. Like Terri Schiavo’s thirst for life, the Pope’s obedient death had an impact that was felt around the world at every level, inspiring an outpouring of Christian faith around which the Catholic Church rallied, hoping to channel the energy towards a new momentum that would help it regenerate after years of decline. The new Hope was the new Pope—one who had shared Terri Schiavo’s parents’ perceptions. This loops us back to where we started in the relay between sovereign power present in different varieties, co-functioning with biopower, in unique configurations where biopower is legitimated by a logic that is not its own, where it can be triggered into action through disciplinary action, taken against the very sector of society it has wholly dedicated to it. This history coincides with its rise in the medical profession, the state policing of the medical profession.

If we put all these elements together, we start to get a singular point, a point of productive paradox. It’s paradoxical in more than one way: first it’s a singular point, but it is as multiple as it is singular; it becomes once and no sooner it comes twice. The day it leaves the anorexic body it takes the Pope’s; no sooner does it cry for life that it deems itself a vegetable of a kind, not in need of watering. It has a singular power of repetition, self-iteration, variations, and displacement. It’s also a paradox in the sense that it cannot coherently be described by any one logic, but it is productive because it is not the lack of any logic. It’s at the intersection of a number of logics, triggered into operation by variable completions of reported speech which interact in ways that generate possibilities. These possibilities belong to different worlds, different possible worlds. Possibilities for Republican reelection, the governing issue of Florida, and the presidency of the United States, co-opting the issues of Christian rights, strengthen the party’s known position. Possibilities for the Christian right to turn around and consolidate its hold on the Republican Party; possibilities for the pro-choice movement to regain some of the ground it lost to the pro-life movement; possibilities for a Catholic renaissance in doctrinal continuity with the Papacy of John Paul II; possibilities for a Catholic renaissance through realignment of the church on a more geopolitical axis through the election of a Latin American or African Pope, etc. The singular point is paradoxical in the sense that these possible worlds, which are actually incompatible or incom-possible, coincide uneasily in it; their dis-ease with each other is what makes a complex event of it. Something happens, a process is set in motion, different tendencies enter attention, attention disseminated through the media stirring various formations, active in the social field of action. There is agitation; when the dust settles, more than one tendency has won out. Or more than one may have found a way to co-function when before they couldn’t—they have invented a com-possibility, a co-possibility, a new possibility, which, in turn, will be a base ingredient for the next stirring, when the next singular point erupts.

The invention of a possibility is precisely how Deleuze characterizes the movement of the virtual as it actualizes. Out of an impossible situation, a possibility is born; through working out of differences between tendencies—none of which have the strength to assert themselves—the invention arises from the entering into interference with each other, by packing into the same point, making a dynamic paradox of it. From this differential working-out of tendencies striving to express themselves, a new formation emerges. The new formation that adds its possibility to the world is fusional, or reduplicative, an immediate co-functioning of different formations, like Terri Schiavo’s intercultural thirst for life. Or it completes already functioning formations amodally, in a mode none of them actually had. In any case, it adds a surplus value of organization, analogous to the surplus value of meaning Terri Schiavo’s voice gave rise to, or her vegetative body irritably roused itself into quasi-indirect discourse. The singular point of issue here is a vanishing point, where actual formations—and the differentiated levels of functioning they belong to—accordion into each other, into the point of collapse, into a real point of immediate proximity to what is actually mutually exclusive, but is somehow together there, in potential. Language re-generating itself into reflex soundings, language generating an English sentence out of a Spanish word, language falling medically silent, bringing the humanity of the speaking subject into neighborhood with a plant. The an-analogy of the human vegetating, the organism indistinguishable from mechanism, the organic ceding into the in-organic, life ceding into death. All of these things are in infinite uneasy proximity with each other, with an unease as irritating as a nervous twitch, irritation, agitation, too much going on where precisely nothing is happening. And that, in the end, is what is so agitating; it’s what makes something happen, or so many things happen.

The singular point is the point of intensive suspension that forces attention on itself by dint of not being decidedly one thing or another. It appears with a charge of indeterminacy that’s amplified into an inventively organizing force. Its own power is only to capture attention. Different tendencies belonging to already operating formations start circling each other; the media notices the stir; the situation becomes explosive; the agitation is amplified by the media, affecting every corner of the social field. It has become more of an event. The event is generated and amplified when the network of the media transmits the agitation, necessarily including television but also the old print media and newer media like the web. Air, wires, and airwaves plug themselves into irritation, becoming an extended nervous tick. The media becomes an extended nervous system transmitting not the meaning of any particular affairs of state, but the indeterminacy of them, the indeterminacy that captures attention. The media plugs into the body as a singular point, as a technology of attention, amplifying agitation to such a degree that the entire field of power becomes an operational analog of it. All of society on a media feeding tube, all of the social fields struck by the same irritability and indeterminacy, a hyperactive inert collective body. Irritable matter of politics, politics as usual stops, suspended.

Exceptionally, Congress is called back into session; tension mounts; the laws pass, specifically legislating that Terri Schiavo wants to live. Should it hold, it would constitute a precedent, and the system would spend years processing the impact and adapting itself to the event. The balance of power between the Republican Party, the Christian right, pro-choice movement, pro-life movement, all of that would’ve changed, qualitatively changed through the definition of an event. The media does not transmit meaning or content, they transduce a singularity, carrying it to a different level while retaining its singularity. In one way or another, or many ways at once, the transduction induces a higher-level reorganization in the field of power, a global reintegration event.

What began as a micro-level singularity was amplified into a global singularity, which, in turn, produced a state of exception that resolved itself as an attempted change in a legal system, coinciding with an integral re-composition of a number of other formations governed by different tendencies than the making of law. The event is necessarily a media event, but it is not only a media event because what it transmits is a surplus value of organization of potentiality which inventively affects every operating actual formation. It’s not just a human event because it calls into active duty supernatural forces as well. It’s not just a life event because it starts at a point where life and death are in immediate proximity with each other. The micro-level singularity of a family drama around a hospitalized body has turned to macro-event from a point of indeterminacy that’s virtual, real but not distinguishable in its actuality—and it is the virtual germ-event that counts—not as space—because it’s a virtual center differentially triggering the actualization of an event. It’s not a space but a germ of process where the actual collapses into a point of indeterminacy that is at once its radical suspension in a fury of speech, in a rhythm of regeneration.

It is my contention that the field of power has reorganized itself around a serial repetition of this process, the process of self-suspending and inventively regenerating itself. If that’s correct, then the field of power is actually wandering, reappearing, a vanishing point appearing and reappearing only through the technology of the media operating transductively as an extended nervous system. The mode of power governing it is not a biopower but an ontogenetic power, an ontopower that can dip beneath life to access the expressive powers of the vegetable body or the activity of inert matter and at the same time leap over it to access supernatural powers of decision over it (legal precedent), framing its allowable parameters. This mode of power concerns just as directly the human, the animal, the vegetable, the organic, the mechanic, the technological, and the divine, all in a kind of event-symbiosis—if it could be called anything, it would be called vital, it would be cosmological; it returns life to its conditions and origins for another cycle. If this mode of power has an object it is intimately linked with the human body and its transduction by the media apparatus, but its object is not that body—it’s that body’s irritability, its agitat-ability, its activat-ability. The object of its power is not an object but an indeterminate activity that stirs it, pure and unspecified, not distinguishing any activation; a whatever activity as the vanishing point from which everything re-arises and in re-arising renews; not a bare life, but a barely there life. The human body as its privileged host is all that’s linked in some way to its appearance and disappearance as life and death, but it can take any existing form or configuration of form, it can stir any state of things.

September 11 was such an activation point, human life collapsing into inorganic rubble, pulverized to a point of indistinction at best, the collapse triggering a far-reaching global reconfiguration of just about any formation active in the social field. September 11 was a local collapse that was immediately amplified by the media into a global event even before the buildings hit ground zero. Some singular points are never amplified by the media to the global level but are still accessed by them and slightly amplified. They’re micro-vanishing points that are only weakly amplified so that they remain on a micro level, perhaps not even noticed. Some don’t have to wait for a body to fall into a coma but are happening all the time as part of the machinery of perception. The media apparatus brings these perceptual events to macro-expression perhaps at times; how they plug into the nervous system at singular points in this way needs to be analyzed I think, and it needs to be analyzed using the tools of neurophysiology and experimental psychology.

I want to talk briefly about some of the ways that I can see that moving into and out of mechanisms of perception—because there are very particular central mechanisms that are relevant to what I’m talking about—in a similar way that Deleuze and his followers were talking about a cinematographic mode of perception that could be amplified by the apparatus and take on certain cultural forms. I think that the kind of structure (or lack of structure) that’s been talked about here does the same thing; it can access certain processes taking place in the body, but in a way that opens it already to collective processes and amplifications. One of them is something that’s been talked about in the media recently and is called “continuous partial attention.” It is an attempt particularly popularized by a researcher with Microsoft who is studying ways of addressing patterns of attentiveness in the design and marketing of digital products—and it’s taking off from complaints often heard by teachers that children’s attentiveness is a thing of the past; or to put it another way, that children are no longer focused but attuned to distraction, that they attend to everything, the air, trees, someone talking, bouncing from task to task. In other words, that they are vaguely attentive to a co-presence or super-position of perceptions that they’re not correctly focused on, thus remaining in a germinal state. But every once in a while one will rise a bit out of this singular sea or mixing of ambient agitation and take on a certain kind of particularity, only to be replaced by the next—sort of like virtual particles popping in and out of existence in a vacuum. The perception becomes a rhythm of appearance and disappearance of an ambient singular point, and this facilitates quasi-indirect discourse because it’s a kind of perceptual correlative, because every perception that comes to attention was already just barely there, a tendency to be perceived. When it comes out clearly for a moment, it’s coming again. It’s like a perceptual report of itself as a tendency, like a perceptual echo of its own self, so that it gives a kind of structure of report or indirectness to perception itself—as if every perception were a kind of perceptual gossip, a déjà-vu or a déjà-heard.

I want to go back now to the idea of completion and an amodal suspension. There’s certainly a number of other mechanisms that I wanted to talk about that all have to do with attention because, as [Walter] Benjamin talked about, the media are apparatuses of grabbing and switching attention and, in doing so, they sort of plug into the irritability of the body—and every time they do, it’s a kind of shock or micro-shock that causes a suspension and a re-jigging of activity whenever it begins. Some of the recent directions of research that interest me a lot are coming out of the idea of amodal completion, which came out when phenomenology of causal perception moved into the ecological school of perception through [James and Eleanor] Gibson’s work and has come back into context with new developments relating to inner-body cognition, in particular in the research of Kevin O’Regan and Alva Noë. The idea is that the kind of surplus value completion that I was talking about happens perceptually all the time at the everyday level, in particular any time where movement or context re-movement is possible—which means every context. One of the ways this comes out is when subjects are asked to draw visual scenes that they’ve been shown for a moment and they invariably draw more than is actually visible; they draw around occluded objects and corners, and are convinced that they had visual perception of what was around the corner. What they’re drawing is their potential kinesthetic or a tactile experience, as if they moved around the object to the scenic. So that couching in vision, a potential kinesthesia or potential touch, says that vision is a cross-modal appearance of another sense mode, except, as O’Regan and Noë emphasize, there is no actual neuronal activity corresponding to the completion. So the idea that something is actually being interpolated in the brain’s functioning isn’t true. But what’s happening is that there’s an activity that’s placed in a virtual context that generates a surplus value that gives a meaning or a lived value to the situation, and that that happens as a complete creation out of neuronally nothing. There’s a kind of creativity in the actual workings of the perceptual system in its most basic ways. O’Regan and Noë say that these kinds of moments of neuronal inactivity may be precisely what characterize the exercise of sight in that what is meant by stationary; they may be one kind of sensory change, a quiescent phase, in an ongoing movement.

It seems to me that in many different ways the media accesses these moments of virtual immersion in a context where there’s an interfusion of different modes—or of what normally, in actuality, would be different modes of experience—and extracts a kind of surplus value of meaning and organization from them. I think the events around 9/11—and also a lot of the media presence of world leaders, in particular George Bush—can be productively analyzed in that relation, which is part of a project that I’d like to eventually put together that operates on this sort of neuroaesthetic political field.