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  Brian Massumi

  [ Entrevistado por Maria Teresa Cruz ]

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TC: Some of the notions we most frequently use to characterise the new media are connected to the idea of relation, though giving it other names. One of these terms – perhaps the most important – is interaction. But we also talk a lot about “connectivity”, “link”, etc… Do these terms reflect some ideology of our times?


B.M.: The idea of relation is very important for thinking about the new media and the effects that they’ll have, as they became more intensely implanted in society. The term interaction or interactivity seems questionable to me and I think that it is important to make a distinction between relation and interactivity. When people talk about interactivity, they’re usually talking in a frame where the properties of the objects or people in interaction are assumed to be known. They usually put it in a frame of use or utility. Lots of people think of the problem of designing in new media as analysing and fulfilling the needs that already exist. But if you take that approach nothing new happens, because you’re just explicitly externalising what you already see in people. So when interactivity is used in that way I think it limits possibilities and reduces the potential that might be in the new media. As an alternative or as a complement to the notion of interactivity, I think it is interesting to play with the notion of relation ; to think of some space where people are in participation, but in a way that isn’t yet determined, so that the outcome isn’t yet certain. So, when I think in relation, I think of that kind of space where there’s a large margin of indeterminacy or of something as yet undecided, that happens in between stimulus and response. A concept like relation determines the objects through the bodies that are in relation. So the concept of relation is connected to the possibilities of change, rather than simply acting out what is already implicit in us.


M.T.C.: But is it possible to speak of “relation”, in that sense you are describing, in the case of digital space? Does not the notion of cyberspace imply instead a form of unavoidable determinacy, which Deleuze called “control” and Wiener, more specifically, “retroaction”?


B.M.: I think it’s a mistake to think of this in either/or terms, a sort of a realm of freedom, where unity can arise, or determination, where unity takes place in a world that has been previously defined. The idea of retroaction and feedback is extremely important because determinations of meaning, patterns of interaction or function could enter back into a relation with one another, so that the field of a relation is never completely lacking in determination or constraint. There is no either/or of constraint and freedom, it’s more an effect of the complexity of the interaction. This isn’t just as in physics where two bodies, two celestial bodies for example, might have very determined patterns, determined by their gravitational fields in relation to one another, as stated in Newton’s laws of physics. But if you have a third body, a third gravitational field, you could no longer predict in the long term what the patterns will be, because there is some kind of indeterminacy effect that is generated in the complexity of these three interactions.  So when you have deterministic rules, you have constraints. But if you allow them to enter into a certain kind of relation, often or primarily enabled by feedback, then, even considering the constraints, new effects could arise.


M.T.C.: And what about the notion of “connectivity”?


B.M.: I think the concept of connectivity depends on the notion of network. And a network is composed of nodes, connections between the nodes and branching out of the connections. It is still basically linear because each segment is a linear trajectory between two nodes and they may branch out in a very complicated way. But if you look at any particularly segment of the network you see it is a straight line, a simple bifurcation or a node, so that kind of topography doesn’t get us very far. It is still a very simple spatial and linear way of thinking the world, only multiplied. So it isn’t qualitatively different. What concerns me, what is interesting to me, is to think of what happens when things are fed back from various locations in the network and come together simultaneously at the node: an event takes place. And for me relation has to do with that event, rather than with a topography of connectivity. And the problem becomes how to think about what events take place at a cybernetic node.


M.T.C.: Can we say that interactive media are disclosing the true nature of perception?

B.M.: I think every medium does that and every technology does that, from the most primitive record, pencil and paper, to the most advanced computer technology. I don’t think that there is a great break between what we think of as natural perception and the kind of perception that is at play in the Internet. There isn’t continuity but there’s a reconfiguration, maybe an accessing to new potentials, which were there but were not expressed in the same way. And these new potentials are a bodily creation in conjunction with technology. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the digital world is disembodied or that the analogical world would be left behind, because it implies accessing perceptual possibilities that are connected with the rest of our experience and are basically analogical in orientation, if you think of the analogical in a broader sense, as a sort of continuity of cross-medium transformations. So if you think of the analogical in relation to perception, the senses are always translating themselves into each other, there’s always an input of touch, of tactility or of the feeling of movement and of posture into vision, and vision can’t function without those cross-sense inputs. To me that’s the analogical process, because there’s some kind of ongoing impulse, a participation that is translated across media, in this case the sensitive media. What’s is interesting to me is what happens in between and what enables that kind of operation between the senses. I try to understand the phenomena of synesthesia, the nature of connections between the senses. The connections between the senses are neither visual, nor tactile, nor perceptive, nor auditory. It is what psychologists call amodal. One has to pass through an amodal state in order to connect the different sensory modes. And if the senses are as integrated as they seem to be, then it’s possible to think of the most seemingly impoverished technological connection - sitting immobilized with the mouse in front of our screen - as granting access to fields of perception, fields of experience that aren’t actually present. It is a great concern of modern painting to access feelings of movement, even despite the stillness of the canvas, through the relations between colours. There is a potential in computer technology to access feelings of movement – kinaesthesia - through moving images and icons on the screen. So, perhaps, as technology develops and integrates more media, becoming multimodal itself, it will be interesting to see what ways designers will find of addressing non-visual senses through vision, and bringing a sort of virtual perceptual world into participation with what is actualised on the screen. A lot of artists and architects are working in systems that, for example, integrate motion-sensing, so their interaction addresses the entire body and its movements, and these are very powerful tools, because all perception is axed on movement. And motion-sensing rather captures the changes in environment, thus allowing you to put interaction in a space that’s by nature more complicated and allows for greater participation and interaction


M.T.C.: The design of some simulated environments does create that virtual synesthetic perception of which you speak. But is this not a sign of these environments’ limitations? When, for instance, the “elevation” experience is only communicated through a “flying eye”, to use a critical formula of Simon Penny (who has created some of these virtual environments), does not that mean that we are still confined by an essentially visual culture?


B.M.: I think that Simon Penny argues there is still a very strong Cartesian undercurrent in many of the ways people think about technology. And the eye is thought of as connected to the mind. But the eyes are an organ of the body; they are very intimately connected with the movements that take place throughout the body. And I think we have to adjust our thinking, to put the eye back into the body and to try to explore the implications of that and to try to get around that duality between the eye and the mind, on one hand, and the mind and the body, on the other. I think the mind is, to use a certain current jargon, an emergent property of the body. It’s an event that takes place, a relational event that takes place within and through the body. So I think new currents in fields like embodied cognition are starting to be drawn upon and that could be helpful.  


M.T.C.: Another notion that is part of the current jargon related to these issues, namely to the idea of a body that evinces “emerging properties”, is “prosthesis”… But it seems you don’t have a use for it. Why?


B.M.: It’s not a very useful concept for me because I think it is still a part of the interactive models of which I was talking earlier, where the organism is seen as something complete, with a determinative form and functions that are embedded in that form. And the prosthesis is another form that extends those functions and extends the organism. So it is connected to what is already there, what is already functioning. It might extend it or prolong it but it’s not qualitatively changing it. When I go back to the senses I think it is important to think them in a new way. There aren’t deterministic systems. And by invoking the senses I’m not returning to the concept of the natural body as it is before society. The body is shocked through and through with cultural responses. And the senses are, by nature, open to those, as they are by nature in continuity with culture. The perceptual apparatus builds itself through gaps that create indeterminacy. We have many gaps in our perception, physiological gaps, that we have to fill in through our movement, through our relation to the world. We have the gaps between our two eyes, we have the blind spot in our retina, we have the gaps between the synapses, and we have whatever gap exists between different sense modalities, sense channels, through touching, through hearing, through sight.There’s a sort of a gaping of the perception and also a creation of chaos in front of the perceptual apparatus. Where there is a sort of chaotic background firing off the neurons, there is a chaotic movement, like the movement of the eye. There is an addition, a physiological addition of scrambling noise. That means that we aren’t taking input processing like the computer, that produces output in some linear fashion or even a looped fashion. What we are doing is receiving energetic impulses that take place in every level of the body, in the gut; there’s even a neural system in the gut.  There are proprioceptive receptors in our muscles and our joints. So this processing that is happening in the flesh, before it ever reaches the brain, is a kind of distributive system where, again, the products of each one of the senses, in their different cultural levels, get scrambled (and not so much processed) in a way that is not necessarily predictable. Perception is a creative filling-in and an active relation with the world.


M.T.C.: Does movement play any privileged role in that active relation with the world and in filling in these perceptional gaps? For instance, our perception of space is especially related to the way we move across it, and not just to some “visual representation” of that space. Is our traditional cultural fixation on the sense of sight and, consequently, on a visual representation of the world, threatened by the emergence of image technologies that integrate movement?


B.M.:. I think that it is important to notice that if vision depends on movement for its functioning, which it does, developmentally and physiologically, then even when you could act or receive active input from the other senses, there is still a trace of some sort of movement in vision. So even the most purely optical experience is a kind of spectral movement, a virtual movement that we can work with and maybe access through technological innovations. It’s another level of the virtual, that’s not simply the same as simulation. It is about potentials that exist within each of the differentiated levels that we experience, within the vision, or within touch, that exist on the screen, on the bodies, that infinitely multiply what can be. So rather than designing for perception, in order to allow a natural state of the human to express itself, designing for perception, I think, allows for perhaps greater potentials, for expressing a sort of becoming, beyond what we know.


M.T.C.: Does this reflection on perception and affects, increasingly important in your work, allow you also to think about emotional experience? 


B.M.: It is very important for me, but emotion is also a potential trap because the ways that we have to think about it are emotional expressions that have become highly coded and highly stereotyped. So it’s sometimes difficult to approach it from the level of the «emotions», but at the same time there is an intensity in an emotion that overspills the coding. There’s always an excess in an emotion. There is an excess in an expression of anger that cannot be contained in words. I’ve got to be in the situation to feel it, and you do feel it physically. The word “emotion” etymologically means outward motion, moving out. And I think you can almost take that literally, as a certain moving out through intensity, as commotion, because it is always a very intensive relation situation and it never happens in isolation. It only takes place in front of a virtual presence. Even when you are angry alone, there is still someone there receiving it. So, I think that if you make a distinction between the intensity of the experience of the commotion and its every expression, if you can make a distinction between that and the intensity itself - I call intensity affect – I find it most useful to think affect as much as possible in terms of movement, of potentials for movement, of potentials for connections in a state that has been determined before in one way or another, as angry or conciliatory, for example. So affect for me is very tied to event, whereas emotion is more tied to coding and communication, sending out signals of the way people could think about it. I think most digital media develop by addressing themselves to affect, much more directly than to information. That is so especially with the multiplication of sources of information – the World Wide Web, for example – when information almost disables itself by virtue of its over availability. There is so much on the web that you can’t access it all, it’s difficult to tell what is important and what isn’t: it’s difficult to access, access in terms of accuracy or usefulness. It’s a sort of mess of information that I think disables the communicational function of the media. But in that disabling of this function, I think, the intensity of the affect comes to the fore and that could be very dangerous, it could lend itself to very simplified expressions, as it has happened in relation to mass media after the World Trade Centre events, where a media expression of the affect has been channelled directly into ideological responses that are extremely limited, aggressively and extremely dangerous. But on the other hand I think it could be the counter-practices of the affect that open the avenues of the responses. Perhaps the role of the Left today is to explore those avenues, rather than following the usual ideological argumentationTo go back to arguing only the rightness of our ideological positions is to ignore the changes that are taking place through the mass media and through the more differentiated digital media and the World Wide Web. It’s to ignore the fact that affect has become the medium of culture more than information. And if the Left doesn’t realize that, this leaves the affective field totally open to the Right and to the proto-Fascist tendencies that are expressed in the United States now. And then that affect legitimates responses that are perhaps not very well thought out and actually lead to a greater violence. I don’t see the consequences of continuing this loop of violence. So I think that affect is important politically as well as in terms of what technological potential or artistic expression might be found by rethinking affect in relation to emotion and both their relations to policy and ideological expression.


M.T.C.: What kind of affect is terror? The 20th century has familiarised us with the word «terrorism». But the idea of terror, namely as a particular political affect, entered politics long before, at least since the French revolution. What kind of affect is terror?


B.M.: In the late 19th century terror among anarchists was propaganda by the deed. It was making an ideological point, an instruction through violence. And that approach to terrorism was continued by Marxists and leftist liberation movements into the 20th century. What is happening now, I think, is fundamentally, qualitatively different. Terrorism is no longer a way of propaganda through the deed. It’s a performative act, it’s an event that triggers an almost uncontainable emotion and that emotion is fear. And all these affects take place within that fear, which creates insecurity. And insecurity is something that is very difficult to respond to or to know how to live within because it’s, by nature, in contact with something that is unknown or indeterminate.


M.T.C.: Could you explain more clearly that distinction between an ideology that resorts to action or, as you say, to “propaganda by the deed”, and the “performative acts” of terrorism? Isn’t there a common passion for the “event” as “accident”, and for its “unpredictable” content?


B.M.: No, it’s a technology of the event that recreates the social field as a field of indeterminate threat, what Paul Virilio calls the unqualified enemy. In a social field, it becomes just a potential point of emergence of an enemy that you don’t know. Who are they? What are they? Where are they coming from? Why are they coming? So it’s very much a technological event and it is now exploiting many of the connections I’m talking about, between event and affect. I don’t think that it means that we should turn away from the notion of event or affect, because most philosophical notions which are useful or important, I believe, are also morally neutral. They are what they are made into, because they have to do with potential. And potential can lead to pressure or to a new form of State control. But, at the same time, whenever there is a creation of a control, there is a creation of a corresponding way of screwing around with it. Every multiple power invents multiple resistance. So the two always go together and we’ll never step outside of control into free space but at the same time there will always be degrees of freedom, no matter how tight the networks of control get.