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Brian Massumi: The Market in Wonderland
The Market in Wonderland
(p. 321 – 338)

Complexifying the Subject of Interest

Brian Massumi

The Market in Wonderland
Complexifying the Subject of Interest

PDF, 18 pages

The hypothesis of a calculable future leads to a wrong interpretation of the principles
of behaviour which the need for action compels us to adopt, and to an underestimation
of the concealed factors of utter doubt, precariousness, hope and fear.

John Maynard Keynes1

We are enjoined to rational choice. We are taught that our freedom is one with the freedom of choice. We are told we become who we are by how we choose. We are assured that if we choose well, according to our own best interests, we will end up serving the interests of all. We are told that there is a mechanism in place to ensure this convergence between our interests and others’. Market is its name. Its “invisible hand” adjusts best choices to each other, its magic touch guided by the principle of competition. Competition weeds out suboptimal choices, selecting for efficiency. Efficiencies multiply each other, minimizing effort and maximizing profit for all. The market, we are further led to believe, is self-regulating. It has a natural inclination toward optimization. As political subjects, we are enjoined to vote, rationally, in its interests so that we may pursue our own, for the general good. Rationally, the political subject coincides with the economic subject of self-interest that we all are, fundamentally, in our private pursuit of happiness. And what, if not that, gives meaning and motivation to our lives? We are all paying guests at the Tea Party of choice, spreading our favorite jam on our very own slice of the bread of life, served on the silver platter of efficiency by the invisible hand.

But on closer inspection, it appears there is a rabbit hole at the heart of the market. It plummets from the apparently solid ground of rational choice to a wonderland where nothing appears the same. Affect is its name. The “concealed factors” of doubt, precariousness, hope, and fear – and why not?, love, friendship and joy – tend to bubble back up to the surface with rowdy abandon. In today’s version of free-market ideology – neoliberalism – the affective commotion has become so insistent that something else surfaces as well: the creeping suspicion that it is upon the groundless ground of these now not-so-concealed factors that the edifice of the economy is actually built. Efficiencies, we are still assured, multiply each other. They lasso each other, bootstrapping the economy out of its periodic crises into a provisionally stable order that we are still entreated to consider rational. But when markets react more like mood rings than self-steering wheels, the affective factor becomes increasingly impossible to factor out. It becomes obvious that the “rationalizing” of the economy is a precarious art of snatching emergent order out of affect. The creeping suspicion is that the economy is best understood as a division of the affective arts.2

The implications of this groundless grounding in affective artistry are worth a look, not least for what it might say about “rational” self-interest as the guarantor of self-optimizing order, but also for the rethinking it might necessitate of the very concept of the rational in its relation to affect. Michel Foucault provides a provocative starting point in his 1979 lessons on the genealogy of neo-liberalism.3

The Market in Wonderland

The “invisible hand” makes at least a cameo appearance in every discussion of the free market. Foucault’s is no exception. As its inventor Adam Smith conceived it, Foucault argues, the concept had nothing of the godlike quality that has come to be attributed to it. The whole point of the concept was that the economic system is too churningly complex for there to be any possibility of a lordly overview upon it. In his genealogy of neoliberalism, Foucault makes the point in no uncertain terms: when it comes to things economic, there is no “total transparency.”4 Not only is there no total transparency there is no transparency or totality. The concept of the invisible hand, as Foucault interprets it, is a principle of blindness in an open field of ceaseless activity whose contours, always shifting, are by nature indefinite. “Being in the dark and the blindness of all the economic agents is an absolute necessity.”5

For neoliberals, this is actually a good thing: it makes economic liberalism unavoidable. It means that the economy can have no sovereign. The invisible hand actually means “hands off.” The liberal’s principle of laissez-faire, Foucault quips, becomes for the neo-liberals “do-not-laisser-faire government”: tie the government’s hands.6 Any governmental attempt from on high to weave the strands together into a well-defined, predictably regulated whole will just fray the fabric to the ripping point. Government purports to act all-knowingly in the general interest, and in its hubris always fumbles. Individuals, too, are under injunction, in the name of the general good, to act without regard for it. For it is only then that the real invisible hand can work.

But it’s not a hand at all. It’s an accumulation of little-handed decisions, which end up serving the general good in spite of being self-interested. Individual decisions, made in the darkness of self-interest, percolate through the field. To the extent that the results of these decisions form positive feedback loops, they give rise to mutually beneficial multiplier effects and there occurs a “spontaneous synthesis” of what’s best for all.7 The synthesis is entirely involuntary with regard to each individual.8 This “rationalization” of the economy to which the subject of interest’s decisions involuntarily contributes is an emergent property of a complex, self-organizing system: a novelty and a creation, forever self-renewing. The synthesis, Foucault continues, is a “positive effect” of an “infinite number” of “accidents” occurring on ground level in the “apparent chaos”,9 or quasi-chaos, of the market environment. These are bound together by a “directly multiplying mechanism” – competition – which, Foucault emphasizes, operates in the absence of any form of transcendence.10 In other words, the positive synthesis of market conditions occurs immanently to the economic field. The choice of the subject of self-interest rabbit-holed in that field of immanence is “irreducible” and “nontransferable.”11 It is “unconditionally referred to the subject himself.”12 At its core, Foucault says, the economic model is one of “existence itself”: it concerns first and foremost a relation of the “individual to himself.”13

This is existence in its dissociative dimension.14 The subject circles itself more and more tightly around its individual power of choice, like a dog to sleep, wrapping itself centripetally around a center of promised satisfaction. It circles in on itself, away from the social, unmindful of non-economic societal logics. But it all works out to the best for society in the end, they say, thanks to the positive synthesis of multiplier effects. Relation to oneself involuntarily amplifies across the multiplier effects to become a system-wide social fact. The inmost dimensions of individual existence are operatively linked to the most encompassing level, that of the market environment that is the economic field of life. What is most intensely individual is at the same time most wide-rangingly social. The smallest scale and the largest scale resonate as one, in a quasi-chaos of mutual sensitivity. To relate self-interestedly to oneself is, in the very same act, to relate involuntarily to everyone else.

But there is a problem. It has to do with the future. Success, of course, is not guaranteed. The self-organizing of the system at the largest scale can synthesize its way past many a micro-failure. As choices percolate through the economic field, the negative impact of individual failures is compensated for by the multiplier effects of the successes. Given the infinity of accidents riddling the economic field of life and the existential blindness of all economic actors, there is an ever-present threat of a misstep. Every economic calculation is a calculus of risk. “Behavioral finance (psychology) and rational actor models (the ‘rational economic man’, or REM) rarely emphasize how uncertainty differs from risk and probability.”15 Choices in the present become highly charged affectively with fear for the uncertain future. The present is shaken, tremulous with futurity. There is no calculus of risk independent of an individual’s affective self-relation to uncertainty. You can calculate risk in terms of probabilities, but probabilities by nature have nothing to say about any given case. The affect accompanying uncertainty is there, in any case.

Even in the best-case scenario, rationality and affectivity cannot be held safely apart. Unlike the juridical subject of the law and the civil subject of society, the economic subject of interest is never called upon to renounce its self-interest for the general good.16 Self-interestedness remains “unconditional.” Self-interest is measured in satisfaction. We have been successful in our self-interestedness if we have given ourselves satisfaction. What the economically productive subject of interest ultimately produces is its own satisfaction.17 Paradoxically, the measure of how “rationally” a subject of interest behaves can only be measured affectively, in the currency of satisfaction. Rationality and affectivity are joined at the self-interested hip, in one way or another, for better and for worse. “Emotions function in the core structures of the financial world.”18

The subject of interest is never called upon to renounce self-interest. But it is frequently called upon to defer the very satisfaction by which its self-interest is measured. Feeling insecure? Be reasonable. Defer your satisfaction to a more secure time of life. Work toward retirement. But this is only a rational choice if you trust the system’s self-organizing. This is an increasingly difficult sell as crises follow each other in rapid succession. Each crisis is a shock to the system, at all scales. Uncertainty starts to feed on uncertainty. Fear builds into panic. Negative multiplier effects take over. Household savings vaporize and national economies crumble. Suspicions grow that the invisible hand suffers from a degenerative motor disease.

All signs are that the condition is congenital. Crisis no longer seems a punctual interval between periods of stability. It starts to feel like the new normal. That it should be so only stands to reason. The premise of any rational calculation is that similarly strategized actions will yield similar results. But the whole point of an economy that selects for creative multiplier effects is that multiplier effects are nonlinear: by definition, they are effects that are not commensurate with their causes, even if the causes be known. The whole point of capitalist enterprise is to “leverage”: to extract a surplus yield of effect over and above what would normally be expected to follow from an investment. The capitalist process is driven by the potential for, and yearning after, an excess of effect over any given quantity of causative input: surplus-value. The more complex the system is, the more uncertain the future becomes. And complexification has been a constitutive tendency of the capitalist system from its beginnings. Capitalism has always been a far-from-equilibrium system, becoming ever more so. The same multiplier mechanism that promises future satisfaction makes it exponentially less certain.

Why defer satisfaction if the capitalist future is constitutively uncertain? But on the other hand, how can you not play it safe by deferring your satisfaction, precisely because the capitalist future is so uncertain? The risk calculations of the subject of interest become more and more affectively overdetermined by the tension between fear of the future and hope for success, and between satisfaction and its uncertain deferral. The embrace of rational self-interest and affective agitation becomes all the closer. They fall all the more intensely into each other’s orbit, to the point that they contract into each other, entering into a zone of indistinction, at the heart of every act.

It’s a vicious circle. Positive multiplier effects can be counted on only when individuals’ rational choices mutually reinforce each other, catching like a contagion. This is the point at which rational choice is indistinguishable from “irrational exuberance” (in the legendary phrase of Alan Greenspan). This is also precisely the mechanism that forms speculative bubbles leading to crisis.19 The same mechanism that promises satisfaction brings on crisis. The tired hound of self-interest, circling in for satisfaction, traces its own private vicious circle in its self-relating movements. Its sleep will be agitated. It will twitch with dreams of disappearing rabbits.

The Inmost End

In times of crisis, the first words out of the mouth of any economic leader are: “we must restore trust in the system.” But as systems theorist Niklas Luhmann blithely observed, under these endemic conditions “trust rests on an illusion.”20 In a chaotic economic field, personal relations of trust are impossible to guarantee. “In actuality, there is less information available than would be required to give assurance of success.”21 “Linear causal explanations come to grief.”22 However well-intentioned the other party may be, they cannot be trusted. The nonlinear dynamics of the economy could well frustrate their best intentions. What’s an enterprise system to do?

If relying on personal bonds of trust is out of the question, there only is one option: “depersonalize” trust. Make it “impersonal.”23 Entrust the system. “System trust” is the only answer. But how does an individual trust a system that doesn’t trust itself to follow its own line? “There must be other ways of building up trust which do not depend on the personal element. But what are they?”24 Luhmann has an ingenious answer to his own question. You actually “shift forward the threshold of effective distrust.”25 In other words, you foster distrust as a starting condition.26 You foster distrust, but not as the opposite of trust: as its “functional equivalent.”27

What on earth does that mean? It means that you “interlock them so that they intensify each other.”28 You bring trust and distrust together into a zone of indistinction where they are in such immediate proximity to each other that one can easily tip into the other at the slightest agitation. They resonate together, intensely. As actions are taken, the resulting affective state of the individual oscillates between them. Foucault notes that the “horizon” of the neo-liberal field of life is one of increasing differentiation that is constitutively open to “oscillatory processes.”29 By differentiation, he is referring to capitalist society’s overspilling of disciplinary modes of power based on normative models imposed on the individual and the accompanying proliferation of “minority practices.”30 When he mentions oscillatory processes he is talking about the fluctuation of economic indicators such as salaries, job creation figures, industrial orders, and most fundamentally prices, which mark the ups and downs of the system’s self-regulatory mechanisms. But the same description applies equally well to the smallest unit of the economy, the enterprising individual, as it does to the system as a whole. On the individual level, trust and distrust interlock and intensify each other, resonating together in immediate proximity, forming their own oscillatory system. As do fear and hope, satisfaction and self-denial, all in it together.31

The individual subject of interest forming the fundamental unit of capitalist society is internally differentiated, containing its own population of “minority practices” of contrasting affective tone and tenor, in a zone of indistinction between rational calculation and affectivity. In other words, there is an infra-individual complexity quasi-chaotically agitating within the smallest unit. The individual remains the smallest unit despite this infra-level complexity, because what resonates on that level are not separable elements in interaction. They are intensive elements, in “intra-action.”32 They are immediately linked variations, held in tension, resonating together in immediate proximity. Their oscillatory co-motion expresses itself at the level of the individual, where it is marked by fluctuating indicators, just as the actions of individual economic actors express themselves on the systemic level in fluctuating indicators such as prices. We call the indicators of the intra-action occurring on the infra-individual level moods. “Moods,” Gilbert Ryle writes, are like “the weather, temporary conditions which in a certain way collect occurrences, but they are not themselves extra occurrences.”33 Moods collect infra-occurrences and sum them up in a general orientation giving direction to the next level up, just as price fluctuations collect the micro-economic decisions of individual actors and sum them up in the general orientation of the economy as a whole.

This means that we need to add a whole new dimension to economic thinking. Beneath the micro-economic level of the individual there is the infra-economic level. At that level, an affective commotion intra-churns. Its variations are so immediately linked that we cannot parse them out into separate occurrences. The individual, speaking infra-ly, is not one. It may collect itself as one. It may figure as one, for higher levels. But in itself, it is many. Many tendencies: potential expressions and orientations held together in tension. Buffeted by these tendencies’ coming turbulently together, divided among them in its relation to itself. Divided among them, awaiting their complex playing out in a shift in general orientation, it is the dividual.34 The dividual is the individual as affective infra-climate, in relation to itself, commotionally poised for what may come, storm or shine, doldrums or halcyon days.

Nothing divides and multiplies the individual so much as its own relation to the future. The uncertainty is not just external, relating to accidents and the unpredictable actions of others. It agitates within. Even if you play it as safe as possible by deferring a decision until sunnier days to come, all you have done is find another way to increase uncertainty: now it is not just others’ decisions that are unknown to you, but your own as well. “These unknown nondecisions recur endlessly.”35 Who knows what will possess you to decide when to decide, or what you will decide when you do. You don’t yet know your future self. You are infra-buffeted by your own unworked-out tendencies awaiting a complex playing out that is as likely to surprise you yourself as any stranger. Weather forecasting is as unpredictable in the infra-climate of the (in)dividual as at other scales.

The affective infra-climate of the dividual poised for what may come is the rabbit hole of the economy. The unknown nondecisions and not-quite-occurrences recurring endlessly in a turbulence of tendency are complex in the same way as the economy as a whole. Both are like the weather – quasi-chaotic self-organizing systems. This puts a whole new perspective on “rational” choice. The individual, Foucault said, is unconditionally referred to itself, and this referral is irreducible and nontransferable. This means that rational decision is unconditionally, irreducibly, nontransferably referred to an infra-individual zone of indistinction with affect. Rationality and affect become “functional equivalents” by Luhmann’s definition: interlocked and mutually intensifying, in a zone of indistinction, at the “forward threshold” of economic existence.

Luhmann’s analysis of trust posits that this infra-level of individual complexity is directly connected to the collective, macro-level of the economic, without necessarily passing through the mediation of the intervening micro-economic level at which the individual is but one. It is a defining characteristic of complex environment that the extremes of scale are sensitive to each other, attuned to each other’s modulations. This is what makes them oscillatory. They can perturb each other. System-wide changes in the weather are sure to resonate at the infra-level, for example in a localized patch of fog. Perturbations channeling back up from the infra-level are apt to amplify into multiplier effects. Think of the way a local fog can amplify into a mega-traffic jam. The individual blindness of the subject of interest is the fog of the economy. When multiplier effects channel upward, the individual is not mediating between the levels in any conventional sense. Self-organizing effects channel through the individual level on their infra-way to larger things. The individual is an amplifier mechanism for multiplier-effects self-forming. It channels the threshold noise of the system – the functional indistinction between rational calculation and affective response – into an emergent economic ordering that is as ever-changing and continually self-renewing as the winds. In a very real sense, the infra-individual is the crucible of the system.

When Foucault says that the individual’s choice is irreducible, he can only mean that the individual’s tendential dividedness in relation to itself is irreducible. The dividual is irreducible. The infra- of the individual is irreducible, in the sense that when system-wide perturbations blow down its hole they can go no further. They have nowhere else to go but to turn around and blow back out. The economy ends in the recesses of the infra-individual, which Foucault remarked was not only irreducible but non-transferable. What is non-transferable is inexchangeable. At the infra-individual level, the possibility of exchange comes to an end. If the economy is defined by exchange, then the economy ends in the recesses of the infra-individual. It reaches a limit, as a function of which it is organized, but which lies outside its logic. Foucault speaks of this affective infra-level as the “regressive endpoint” of the economy.36

The infra-individual is the regressive – recessive or immanent – endpoint of the economy. The dividual is the non-economic wonderland of intense and stormy life on the brink of action that lies at the heart of the economy: its absolute immanent limit. Endpoint – and turnaround. It is only ever possible to approach an absolute limit. The movement toward the endpoint of the economy either disappears into its own infinite regress, or turns itself around into a movement of return.

Collapse of the Affective Wave Packet

Returning to Luhmann’s analytic of trust, to say that trust and distrust resonate together in a zone of indistinction of immediate oscillatory proximity to each other means that what is felt in the lead-up to an economic act, as it is brinking, is neither one nor the other, neither trust nor distrust. Luhmann says that what is felt is a “readiness” to feel either come next.37 The individual is in an infra-state of readiness potential. Trust and distrust are together as co-present potentials for what might come next. They are in superposition, in the sense in which the word is used in quantum physics. Though inseparable, their distinction is not erased. It is held in ready reserve.

The affective feeling of the readiness potential, Luhmann continues, presupposes a “corresponding reserve of energy which is elsewhere not determined.”38 In other words, the system itself, because it is similarly complex and nonlinear, is in an energized state of readiness potential that is structured in a fashion homologous to the subject’s affective state. The economy is ready and “responsive,” poised like its individual units, for what may come, in a state of brinking agitation. On the infra-level, the brinking is a superposition of trust and distrust in readiness potential. On the macroeconomic level, what is held in readiness potential are the system states of success or failure. At the moment a given choice is made, the success or failure of that action is “undetermined elsewhere.” Which it will be will depend on actions of others brewing elsewhere, still in tendency, as yet undecided. The economic outcome depends on how these tendencies’ expressions will inflect and amplify each other as they turbulently play out across the economic field in a cascade of caroming choices. When this self-organizing process works itself out, the cumulative effects will be “collected” and “summed up” in a system indicator. Until then, success and failure will remain in a state of superposition – as will trust and distrust at the individual level. The affective states of trust and distrust and the system states of success and failure lie at the two oscillatory poles of the economic process. They are sensitive to each other, they reciprocally determine each other, effectively connecting across their differences of nature and the distance between levels through a complex, nonlinear process of feedback and feedforward.

Under these conditions the subject of interest is not in a position to know how any given act it takes will turn out. But it cannot not act. You can only defer so long, or so much, and only in certain areas of your activity. Any act you perform triggers the process leading to a resolution of the commotion of affective states held complexly together in tension on the infraindividual readiness potential into a determinable outcome registrable in terms of success or failure. In short, making a choice leads to the collapse of the superposition of affective states. To borrow the vocabulary of quantum physics, it collapses the affective wave packet. A particle of trust or distrust spins off into the world, where it will perturb the infraindividual complexity of other individuals poising for action. Again like quantum physics, the causality is recursive. The determination of what the act will effectively have been, which state it will be found to have been in, is in suspense until a measurement is made. The measurement makes what comes what it will have been. Until then, what has occurred is less an act or a choice than an as-yet-unresolved perturbation. The perturbation must percolate up to the level at which it is collected and bundled into overall economic indicators before it can be determined. Figures are released monthly, and in the case of the most affectively weighted and eagerly awaited, quarterly. In the meantime, particular indicators, such as the stock market or the price of oil, fluctuate continuously like the batting of tiny butterfly wings. Now with the Internet, the fluctuations can be followed minute by minute, or even second by second. Without the quarterly indicators to contextualize them, extrapolating a trend from this passing economic wing-batting is highly conjectural, to say the least. Extra-economic events can spook investors and consumers, such as a political crisis in an oil-producing region of the world. These extra-economic perturbations are all the more affecting in anticipation. The uncertainty of these so-called externalities occurring, and what their exact fall-out will be if they do occur, sends shivers through the system. The shivers almost instantaneously amplify into a low-grade fever that may prove at any moment to have been the onset of a chronic illness. The system is in a continual state of pathological excitability, if not because of the publication of new indicators, then in the intervals between them, in the urgency of the feeling of the need to respond to trends before they emerge onto a macro-enough level and are tidily summed up in the indicators.

To act on threats before they emerge was the Bush administration’s definition of preemption. The economy is continually agitated by the affectively fraught, felt need to preempt it. As the neoliberal economy takes hold, deferral becomes less and less of an option and preemptive action more and more of an imperative. The economy is affectively activating more than it is effectively rationalizing. It runs more on perturbations and cascading amplifications than determinate acts of choice.

As this state of affective agitation heightens, what economic actors often end up reacting to most directly are the agitated affective states of other actors. This has given rise to a whole new service industry, that of “internet mood analysis.” The Internet is trawled by algorithms, which search out affectively laden words and terminology to provide a real-time pulse-taking of the mood of the economy. These services go by such names as AlmagaMood, whose catchy slogan is “Leveraging Big Data to Enhance Investment Foresight.”39 It is not just economic sites that are mood-mined. It is the entire Internet, including blogs, news sites, and the expanding Twitterverse. The economy as a whole vibrates with the fickleness of what the pundits call “social mood.” This internet-based mood registering occurs informally through the social media and all manner of networking. In our networked society, with the global media reach and cross-platform convergence of the internet, any act anywhere resonates, potentially, everywhere, in the economic analogue of Einstein’s “spooky” action at a distance. Readiness-potential wave packets collapse, affectively-systemically, in real time (or its functional Internet equivalent). Individual actions are affectively entangled at a distance. It is only the complex playing-out of the entanglements that decides in the end what will have been a success and what a failure. Complexly correlated to each quantum of success or failure, there will come to expression determinate affective states of trust or distrust, satisfaction or sadness.

Individual economic actors are infra-connected. They are connected at a distance, in the recesses of their affective rabbit holes. They communicate at a distance, in immanent affective proximity, churning in and turning around the regressive endpoints of their respective individualities. The infra-level resonates transindividually.40 Individuals spook each other or goad each other on, turning around what is non-transferable in them as individuals: their infra-individual affective commotion. That is to say, they resonate non-economically, in their dividuality. As they reciprocally perturb each other, their readiness-potential wave packet collapses, correlated transindividually at a distance. Quanta of trust and distrust fly off in all directions. These affective emissions feed up into macro-level expressions of economic success or failure, which no sooner feed back down from the system’s macro level into the affective infra-fray. Given the cross-sensitivity between scales, at the limit the economic system and the subject of interest are themselves in a functional state of indistinction. The whole system is always going down the rabbit hole. It is just as continually reemerging, through multiplier effects, channeled through affectively-inflected individual actions, back onto its own level. It does not make the trip to its own regressive endpoint and back unchanged. It becomes en route. It addition to the economic system, as governed by macroeconomic market mechanisms and as analyzable using quantitative indicators, there is the process of this back-and-forth between levels from which economic determinations periodically emerge. The process as a whole is neither governable nor quantifiable. It is affective-relational.41

Each individual’s rabbit hole of affect is at the immanent limit of the economy. The multitude of these regressive endpoints “communicate,” entangled at distance. Their transindividual entanglement composes what Deleuze and Guattari would call the “plane of immanence” of the economy. The plane of immanence of the economy is the irreducibly affective limit of a complexly relational field. It is the economy at its absolute co-motional limit of tendential stirrings in uncertain readiness potential.

On the plane of immanence, the economic system and the subject of interest are jointly in potential, in a functional state of indistinction at the level at which action is just beginning to stir, in the incipience of what is to come. Entangled in the zone of indistinction of readiness potential, the subject and the system come together, to become together. Each little act leads to a collapse of the wave packet, destroying the state of functional indistinction. The extra-occurrent commotion on the infra-individual level registers as an indexable occurrence, “summing up” the individual’s irreducible and non-transferable relation to itself in an economically significant act. The individual’s self-relation, in this “dissociative” or dividual dimension, having thus found expression, plays a functional role in the system’s integral self-organizing. It contributes the system’s orienting of its own global tendencies, as it creates its future on the fly. The system’s future is also each individual’s future, as it composes its life journey through economic successes and failures. The system and its denizens become in tandem. Every little act exerts a quantum of creative power, globally and locally, in correlation. Every little choice exerts, to some degree, a power of local-global becoming: an ontopower. What has been lost to the system and to individuals in terms of knowablility, calculability, and predictability, is regained in resonant ontopower. An ontopower, as a power of becoming, is a creative power.

When what is created is a state of system trust, Luhmann emphasizes that the trust is entirely “unjustified.”42 It may be rationalizable after the fact, but in its genesis it is rationally unjustifiable. It did not occur as the separate result of a rational decision judiciously preceding the actions that brought it into being. It came flush with an affective regress, and its turned-about playing out. At the limit, all economic acts are rationally ungrounded in the endpoint of the economy. This does not mean that they are affectively grounded there. Any state of system trust that emerges is as affectively unjustified as it is rationally unjustified. It was not grounded in anything preparatory to action that could be qualified as in any way trustworthy. The transactions that worked out well and led to success proved themselves trustworthy. They became trustworthy, as a function of how they played out. The state of system trust is effectively self-justifying. It “justifies itself,” Luhmann writes, in the way that it has “become creative”43: in the emergently creative way it is generated as a trust-effect of the economy’s complex self-organizing. The self-organizing emergence of the trust-effect is retroactively validating. It is affectively validating in the currency of satisfactions gained.

If enough trust-effects emerge at a sufficient rate of generation, then however unjustified they are, the system has a chance of continuing, metastably, in a positive orientation, trending up. Trust in the system has been restored. The affective conditions for continued surplus-value production are in force. Follow-on actions reinforce the trend. Positive feedback between the systemic and infra-individual levels locks in. Positive multiplier effects bubble through the economy.

When the indicators come out, it is there to see, rationally summed up in a trend. The summing up can then be projected forward into future trends. Based on these statistical projections, a calculus of risks and probabilities can be made. The affective effect is now as rationalized as it can get. The rationalizing indicators stoke economic activity, reinforcing the affective conditions for growth. They feed back to the regressive endpoints of the economy composing its plane of immanence, and turning around them, resonate transindividually across the economic field. Feedback loop. Economically, affectivity and rationality circle creatively around each other. The regress to the endpoint of the economic and the upward progress of the economic indicators are a single two-way movement of reciprocal feedback. They are systemically superposed pulses of the capitalist process, together ontopowerful.

Mirroring the quantum vocabulary of the reduction of the wave packet, Luhmann refers to the production of a state of system trust as a “reduction of complexity.” The economy cannot be micro-managed: do not laisser-faire the government. Although the economy cannot be micro-managed, through the feedback process it can be infra-stoked toward the emergence of trust-effects. The instability of the economy can, at least for certain hiatus periods, be affectively primed into metastability: a provisional stability snatched emergently from far-from-equilibrium conditions. Halcyon days. Vacation days from the full destablizing force of complexity. Provisional stability: no one really knows how long the trends will hold. System-trust is a fragile artifact hypersensitive to turbulence.

Luhmann drives the point home: “in the reduction of complexity” resolving into a metastable state, at the immanent limit at the heart of the process, “there always lies an unstable, incalculable moment.”44 It is around this unstable, incalculable, hypersensitive moment that everything begins to revolve. The principle of decision at work “cannot lie in cognitive capacity” actually involving a calculation that guides action before the fact.45 Ultimately, there is no prospectively knowing economic act. The whole process actually works best, Luhmann maintains, if the consciousness of trust and distrust are lost, so that the reduction of the readiness-potential wave packet “becomes autonomous.”46 So that decision becomes autonomous. The affective priming of the system is best left unbeknownst even to itself.47 Nonconsciousness becomes the key economic actor.

A Doing Done Through Me

It is palpable that the individual subject of interest is no longer an autonomous agent of calculated choice. It is the act of choice that is autonomous, in the dissociative dimension of the dividual: that of the individual plied by superpositions of contrasting states in a mutual immanence of functional indistinction. Choice happens out of the readiness potential of the subject’s blind spot, nonconsciously. That nonconscious level is nonpersonal. In the intensity of its immanence, the entire system at all its scales resonates in potential, carried to the absolute limit of its regressive endpoint. This infra-level holds all system states in itself, immanently, in potential. It only dissociates itself from other individuals and other levels the better to supercharge itself with what, elsewhere in the system, will play as separate states, following divergent tendencies: trust and distrust, satisfaction and frustration, hope and fear. The nonconscious infra-individual level is, at the limit, the superposition of all levels.

In the strange hyperdifferentiated infra-zone of indistinction between contrasting states, who or what decides? Dividually speaking, who or what chooses? Choice happens, there is no denying it. And as it happens, it is creative: an ontopowerful act. It is tantamount to an existential decision. But who or what decides? The answer is: no one. As in the French personne, which means someone and no one. Decision happens: affectively-systemically, in the nonconscious autonomous zone. The event decides. As it happens.

At the decisive moment, the self is no more in a state of determinate activity than a cognitive state. It is absorbed in a readiness potential that is intensely overdetermined, holding, Luhmann says, “a whole range of possible differences” in “sub-threshold latency.”48 The whole range of potentials are in it together. They are in a state of mutual inclusion, on the verge, poised toward the collapse destined to resolve the overdetermination of the and-both into this-not-that determinate effect, registrable in a calculus of risk and probability: from intensity to statistic. Such is the arc of neo-liberal becoming.

The nonconscious “sub-threshold latency,” churning with the intensity of a mutually inclusive range of potentials, in co-motional intensity, deserves a name of its own: bare activity.

When we speak of the subject of interest’s “self-relation” to bare activity, or the relation of the individual to its infra-individual dimension, “self-” has to be understood directionally. It connotes return. What moves to the limit of the economic field of life’s regressive endpoint has nowhere to go but back out, into becoming. What comes in, becomes out. The plane of immanence of the infra-individual is, at the limit, all enveloping, and all-emitting. It is self-relation, in this double movement. Here, “self-” is an adverb, not a noun. It designates the absorptive in-to-the-immanent-limit and ejective out-into-the-becoming of bare activity. It connotes a vector of life eventfully folding back into the autonomous zone of readiness potential out of which its next determinate step will decide to come. Self-relation in this adverbial sense is not reflexive, as in philosophical parlance, nor is it reflective in the psychological sense. Both of these notions recognitivize the event, implying conscious recognition or rational calculation – precisely what Luhmann has entrusted not to be the case.

All of this radically changes what is meant by choice. We do have a word for a choice that makes itself. There is name for a decision that wells up from a state of unknowing, yet still produces knowledge, in effect. For an act that has intense personal resonance, but of which it cannot be said that “I” felt it coming in full cognizance. A doing done more through me, self-relating, than by my I. That eventfully brings a creative moment to life in a way that registers as a change in me that is also world-changing. That word is intuition.

The paradox of the economic subject of interest is that the “calculus” of interest is unthinkable without reference to subthreshold activity more akin to a flash of intuition than step-by-step conscious deliberation. The “rationality” in the system is necessarily referred to an autonomy of decision bare-actively stirring at the affective heart of self-relation. The transindividual nature of this mechanism calls into question any politics of individualism unparadoxically predicated on an economy of self-interested rational choice.

As an alternative, what would a politics of dividualism look like?49

1 John Maynard Keynes, “The General Theory of Employment,” in: idem, The Collected Writings of John Maynard Keynes, Vol. 14 (London: Macmillan, 1973), p. 109–123, here p. 122.

2 For a classic study of the role of affect in the economy, see: Jocelyn Pixley, Emotions in Finance: Distrust and Uncertainty in Global Markets (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004). Art: then-US Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan underscored the centrality of the creative factor in an October 2001 speech where he credits the economy’s ability to bounce back from the “shock” of 9/11 to a “different kind of efficiency” that is none other than the super-flexible “creativity of our system”, see: “The September 11 Tragedy and the Response of the Financial Industry,” remarks by Alan Greenspan to the American Bankers Associations Virtual Annual Convention, October 23, 2001, (retrieved March 1, 2014). Greenspan liberally employed the affective vocabulary of “shock” to the system in the immediate post 9/11 period (See for example: “The Condition of the Financial Markets,” testimony of Alan Greenspan before the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, U.S. Senate, September 20, 2001, (retrieved March 1, 2014). Of course, 9/11 was not the last shock to have affected the market.

3 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France 1978–1979 (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008).

4 Ibid., p. 279.

5 Ibid., p. 297.

6 Ibid., p. 247; in practice, of course, neoliberalism entails a large and even expanding range of forms of governmental intervention designed, paradoxically, to maintain the freedom of the market from government intervention, see: ibid., p. 175–176 and p. 296. The crucial point, for Foucault, is that these mechanisms are “environmental”: they are aimed at modulating the “rules of the game” rather than the actions of the players directly, and operate on the supposedly leveled playing field, not form on high-in a sovereign manner, see: ibid., p. 259–260. On environmentality, see: Brian Massumi, “National Enterprise Emergency: Steps Toward an Ecology of Powers,” Theory, Culture & Society (UK) 26. 6 (2009): p. 153–185.

7 Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, p. 300.

8 Ibid., p. 275–276.

9 Ibid., p. 277.

10 Ibid., p. 275–276.

11 Ibid., p. 272.

12 Ibid., p. 272.

13 Ibid., p. 242.

14 On the dissociation of the social and the economic, see: Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, p. 200–201. It is the concept of “human capital” that existentializes this dissociation and simultaneously overcomes it. The individual as human capital becomes an enterprise (“entrepreneur of himself,” p. 226), as the enterprise at all scales becomes the fundamental unit of society, p. 225. On human capital, see: ibid., p. 224–265.

15 Pixley, Emotions in Finance, p. 18.

16 Foucault insists on the incommensurability between the subject of law (or right), and liberalism’s homo oeconomicus, the subject of economics (subject of interest), Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, p. 272–276.

17 See: ibid., p. 226.

18 Pixley, Emotions in Finance, p. 18.

19 On contagion and “market psychology,” see: Christian Marazzi, Capital and Language: From the New Economy to the War Economy (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008).

20 Niklas Luhmann, Trust and Power (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979), p. 32.

21 Ibid., p. 32.

22 Ibid., p. 83.

23 Ibid., p. 93.

24 Ibid., p. 46.

25 Ibid., p. 75.

26 Ibid., p. 88.

27 Ibid., p. 71.

28 Ibid., p. 92.

29 Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, p. 259. Oscillatoire is rendered as “fluctuating” in the English translation.

30 Ibid.

31 For a more detailed development of the concept of processual polarities entering into proximity in a “zone of indistinction” and the corresponding “logic of mutual inclusion,” see: Brian Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

32 Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), p. 33.

33 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1949), p. 83.

34 Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Society of Control,” in: idem, Negotiations (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995), p. 177–182, here p.179; see also: Michaela Ott’s text in this volume.

35 Pixley, Emotions in Finance, p. 33.

36 Foucault, Birth of Biopolitics, p. 272.

37 Luhmann, Trust and Power, p. 79.

38 Ibid., p. 80.

39 (retrieved March 6, 2013).

40 Gilbert Simondon, L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Grenoble: Jérôme Million, 2005), p. 251–316; Muriel Combes, Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013), p. 25–50.

41 On the distinction between system and process, see: Massumi, “National Enterprise Emergency.”

42 Luhmann, Trust and Power, p. 78.

43 Ibid., p. 78.

44 Ibid., p. 74.

45 Ibid., p. 79.

46 Ibid., p. 71.

47 On becoming autonomous of system-level affective self-organizing in its political dimensions, see: Brian Massumi, “Fear (The Spectrum Said),” Positions: East Asia Cultures Critique 113.1 (Spring 2005): p. 31–48.

48 Luhmann, Trust and Power, p. 73.

49 This essay (in a slightly revised version) forms the opening section of Brian Massumi, The Power at the End of the Economy (Durham: Duke University Press, forthcoming 2015).

  • crisis
  • economics
  • affects
  • Homo economicus
  • critique of neoliberalism
  • future
  • epistemology
  • temporality

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Brian Massumi

is professor in the Department of Communication Sciences at the University of Montreal (Quebec, Canada) and at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee (Switzerland). Massumi is well-known for his translations of several major texts in French poststructuralist theory, in addition he works with Erin Manning in her research-creation laboratory Sense Lab. His research is two-fold: the experience of movement and the interrelations between the senses, in particular in the context of new media art and technology; and emergent modes of power associated with the globalization of capitalism and the rise of preemptive politics.

Other texts by Brian Massumi for DIAPHANES
Marie-Luise Angerer (ed.), Bernd Bösel (ed.), ...: Timing of Affect

Affect, or the process by which emotions come to be embodied, is a burgeoning area of interest in both the humanities and the sciences. For »Timing of Affect«, Marie-Luise Angerer, Bernd Bösel, and Michaela Ott have assembled leading scholars to explore the temporal aspects of affect through the perspectives of philosophy, music, film, media, and art, as well as technology and neurology. The contributions address possibilities for affect as a capacity of the body; as an anthropological inscription and a primary, ontological conjunctive and disjunctive process as an interruption of chains of stimulus and response; and as an arena within cultural history for political, media, and psychopharmacological interventions. Showing how these and other temporal aspects of affect are articulated both throughout history and in contemporary society, the editors then explore the implications for the current knowledge structures surrounding affect today.


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