Notes On Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus: or why some posthumanisms are better than others

[This is another one of my thinking-out-loud posts in which I work through a text, thinking as I write. So, undercooked, imprecise, too much bloat, etc etc you’ve been warned…]

Habeas viscus” is Alexander Weheliye’s term for the queerly racialized mobilities activated by the erstwhile immobilization of “exceptional” populations (populations that, in his terms, are neither the fully human nor the not-quite-human, but the absolutely non-human). “Exceptional” populations are the ones filtered out of a biopolitically healthy society. Seen as individually and collectively incapable of reform or adaptation, of currently or potentially embodying the dynamism and flexibility that are thought to characterize neoliberalism’s healthy, successful subjects, exceptional populations are subjected to various techniques–like surveillance, quarantine (e.g., in the PIC), debt–that produce the material, social immobility they claim to manage.

For example, the editorial choices in the Hollaback! Project’s “10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman” video render black and Latino men exceptions to post-feminist MRWaSP society. The video claims to document the extensive but mundane nature of misogynist street harassment that (otherwise privileged white) women face while in public. However, as many critics noted, the video does not depict any white male perpetrators. It thus presents men of color as solely responsible for (white) women’s street harassment, as embodying a “backwards” masculinity that is out of synch with post-feminist society. This video contributes to the stereotype that “urban” men of color–poor and working-class black and Latino men–are both will not and cannot adapt to keep pace with contemporary social norms and mores…that they drag “us” down and hold “us” back. (“Us” here being the “healthy” and/or treatable portions of the population.) The mobility of thusly racialized, gendered, sexualized bodies on city streets and the unrestricted transmission of their speech in public space thus appears to be something that prevents society from moving forward. In order to keep society healthy, their excessive mobility must be reigned in. Producing the immobility it claims to manage, the video reinforces the idea that poor and working-class black and Latino men are psychologically and culturally inflexible.

On top of this psychological and cultural immobility, the video has been interpreted as evidence that the criminal justice system ought to more intensively restrict the social and material mobility of “urban” black and Latino men. In response to the video, the New York Times published a roundtable on the question “Do We Need A Law Against Catcalling?” As many feminists pointed out, because of the already racist structure of the Prison Industrial Complex, carceral solutions such as this one would further intensify the already extensive and excessive immobilization of poor and working-class black and Latino men.

So, the politics of exception produces “bare life” as immobile, inflexible, rigid, the opposite of “vibrant” matter. If biopolitical MRWaSP optimizes the life, the ‘vibrancy’ of the human or not-quite-human populations, it dampens and masks the vibes emanating from exceptional, non-human populations. Weheilye’s point is, to be a bit reductive, this: queer perceptual practices such as habeas viscus can tune into the “exceptional” vibes that hegemonic institutions mask from (mostly) human perception. Though white European thinkers tend to present exceptional populations as non-vibrant, as absolutely dead (e.g., Agamben’s Muselmann), it is more accurate to think of them as queerly un-dead, as emitting signal that conventionally-tuned ears can’t recognize. Whereas lots of white feminist materialists want to grant agency and “voice” to Modernity’s not-quite-human others, to integrate legibly ‘vibrant’ matter into a more mobile concept of (post)humanity, Weheliye draws our attention to the “anti-matter” force of the flesh/habeas viscus, to the ways of not-being (human) and not-living (biopolitically) that exceptional populations have practiced for centuries (if not millennia).


Queer vibes/frequencies/motion

When considered only from the visual plane of Cartesian modernity or algorithmic biopolitics, the flesh appears only as “an exceptionally disembodied” (121) ether. If the subject’s body is primarily visible, something to be seen, (Sartre’s “The Look,” Fanon’s “Look, a Negro!,” Mulvey’s male gaze, hooks’s oppositional gaze), embodied flesh manifests in other sensory planes (or even queerly visualized planes). Weheilye explains: “While the Muselmaenner may have appeared withdrawn, passive, and lifeless, nourishment moved at the center of their being, because ‘the Muselmaenner retained selective receptivity for all food related stimuli: olfactory, gustatory, and auditory stimuli.’” (120). The flesh is not immobile; it just moves at frequencies that are invisible to the merely human eye (i.e., humanist modernity’s scopic episteme), but easily apparent to senses tuned to other registers, such as taste and audition. The “relational flesh speaks, conjures, intones, and concocts sumptuous universes (121), universes in registers inaccessible to Man’s view, but entirely accessible to different perceptual practices, practices attuned to, say, witch-crafty concoctions intoned outside modern Man’s myth/enlightenment dialectic. From the perspective of the human as Man, the flesh radiates with queer vibes, with lively movements that nevertheless appear as, perhaps we should say, static and undead because they oscillate at frequencies (e.g., the audible rather than the visual spectrum) that Man can’t recognize as his own. Or, as Weheliye puts it, “the flesh is not an abject zone of exclusion that culminates in death but an alternate instantiation of humanity that does not rest on the mirage of western Man as the mirror image of human life as such” (43). Though the flesh is the death of the human, it is not the end of existence. Flesh is a practice of not-being-human.

Habeas viscus is a concept that re-tunes humanist philosophical practice, putting it out of phase with Man and in synch with the “miniscule movements, glimmers of hope, scraps of food, the interrupted dreams of freedom found in those spaces deemed devoid of full human life” (12). As I understand it, habeas viscus is what tunes us in to the movements of the flesh, to the vibes it transmits (e.g., as bodily practices, comportments, ways of not-being in the world of Man).

The flesh does not have the “voice” of a liberal subject, mainly because it does not suffer a ‘wrong’. Its vibes are not audible as dissensus (in the strict Rancierian sense), as noise. Rather, from the perspective of liberal humanism, the flesh is inaudible because it vibrates beyond the humanly-accessible spectrum (thus the need to be more than human, to be something like an Afrofuturist alien or robot).

Liberalism runs on a dialectic of constitutive exclusion/inclusion: the part-sans-part is tossed out, but then they make noise and this noise disrupts the mechanisms of exclusion, reformulating them into a different distribution of signal/noise that excludes somebody else’s voice as unintelligible noise. Neoliberalism accelerates this dialectic to the point that it appears to have run its course: everyone has a voice that is legitimately recognized as fully human, except for bare life, which is absolutely and irremediably silenced; it doesn’t even make noise, so its exclusion can never register as a source of dissensus. Bare life is the absolutization of exclusion. This is a story the left likes to tell about neoliberalism: it’s Ranciere’s story in Disagreement, it’s Fisher’s story in Capitalist Realism. It is the story that exclusion has been absolutized so There Is No Alternative, as they say, and that bare life is what occupies the space formerly occupied by something like the demos (i.e., by the rabble, those who grunted but did not speak (yet)).

Weheliye thinks this account of neoliberailsm is just flat wrong. This space of supposedly absolute silence and exclusion is actually a site of “constitutive potentiality” (13). Exclusion constitutes the agency of Man. Habeas viscus is the potentiality that constitutes worlds after and beyond Man. These worlds are not alternatives to Man, “parts” without a proper, legible “part” in his world (i.e., they’re not worlds that can be compared to Man because they lack a common denominator with humanism). Rather, they are what is possible when we DTMFA, that is, when we cease to be bound by the gravitational pull of his universe. To be clear: he still goes on existing, he’s just not our direct or primary concern. Man and habeas viscus are products of the same process: depending on the angle from which you view it, either Man or fleshy potentiality appears as the outcome. The humanist perspective, which is brought into focus by white patriarchal epistemologies of ignorance, create the world of Man as, to use Charles Mills’s phrasing, a “virtual reality,” a “cognitive dysfunction that is socially functional” (RC 18). If the Racial Contract is what solidifies this “virtual reality” in law (habeas) and in heiroglyphics of the flesh (habits of cognitive/social functionality), habeas viscus is a materially-historically specific reality that functions as the “virtual” (in the strict Deleuzian sense) to this white supremacist, cis/heterosexist “virtual reality.” It is in this sense (ie insofar as it is specifically indexed to the racial contract) that “habeas viscus” is “an extrajuridical law of motion” (124). The hypervisible yet also illegible hieroglyphics of the flesh” (110): more brilliant than the humanist sun, the radiance of habeas viscus is both sparked and masked by the frequencies of Man (precisely so that it doesn’t burn him up).

“Racial slavery’s violence/sexuality matrix” (96), aka pornotroping, is one example of this virtual/alien brilliance. As Weheliye explains, the “violent political domination” specific to what I’m going to call, after Mills & Pateman, the domination contract, “activate[s] a surplus and excess of sexuality that simultaneously sustains and disfigures said brutality” (91). Following Spillers’ account of the production of blackness through practices of un-gendering, Weheliye argues that “blackness, even the heroic masculine version embodied by Douglass, remains antithetical to the heteronormative” (96). Un-gendering is both required for the white supremacist production of blackness, but also potentially corrosive of the cis/heteronormativity that is necessary to cohere whiteness as such. Though ungendering is set in motion by the violence, as a sexual practice it could queer the very dominant institutions that set it loose. “Those defacing assemblages of the flesh…kindle a pansexual, or rather a queer, potentiality within this field” (97).

The “the interruption of the violence that attends to the enforcement of gender and sexual norms, especially as it pertains to blackness” (97), the queer is, in Weheliye’s analysis, materially and historically specific to modern Man’s domination contract. The “hieroglyphics of the flesh intimately bind blackness to queering and ungendering” (97). Queerness is a way of not-being either Man or his abject remainder, that is, of inhabiting and acting on the “im/potential libidinal currents that slumber in all acts of political domination and as part and parcel of modern sexuality as such” (108). In particular, queerness is an attunement to the “currents” that are occluded and masked by humanism’s Euro-modernist (that is to say, visual/verbal) epistemologies of ignorance. In his analysis of pornotroping, Weheliye repeatedly emphasizes that the violence that produces blackness can’t actually be visually or verbally represented, e.g., in film or in text. It is either visually/textually represented as sexuality (e.g., as naked bodies, as rape scenes, etc.), or directly presented as violence in another register, such as sound (hence, Aunt Hester’s scream). White supremacist violence produces frequencies that radiate and transmit beyond the register visible to (white) Man or audible to him as “speech.” Giving it a queer “libidinal charge,…pornotroping…sets in motion the bare life” (105) it produces (105). However, “the happening of desire takes place off the screen, off the map off the charts, off the books, which is what renders the symbols etched into and written by the flesh indecipherable to the extent that they do not appear as desire” (111). Queer modes of relation, queer orientations (such as habeas viscus) tune into these alternatively calibrated charges or frequencies and perceive the constant motion, the potentiality of what white biopolitics and new materialism present as immobile impotent.

These modes of relation eschew stabilization into a consistent, thematizable practice legible to academic institutions as proper “knowledge.” They will fail to register as legitimate “knowledge” because they require one to maintain relationships with ways of being that make it impossible to sufficiently embody (in both an absolutely literal and a figurative sense) dominant practices of epistemic credibility, and the practices, implicit horizons, disciplines, and material relations that lead to success and health in terms that the academic industrial complex recognizes as such. That is to say: these modes of relation embody knowledges tied to living and thriving in different “worlds” (in Maria Lugones’s sense), worlds that are incompatible with respectable academic institutions and disciplines. They won’t allow us to fully inhabit the world of the academic humanities, so to speak. In the same way that some genres of Afrofuturism begin from the idea that the apocalypse already happened (e.g., in middle passage), these practices begin from the idea that the so-called “crisis in the humanities” already happened–the practices and the kinds of knowing involved in their production and transmission have already been rejected from academic institutionalization. This isn’t just about knowing otherwise, it’s about embodying relations and practices that work otherwise. And I think that’s the key thing: the commitment to embodied relationality prevents habeas viscus/the flesh from becoming just another appropriated practice, another form of what Mariana Ortega calls “loving, knowing ignorance.” For example, Ortega emphasizes that working with WOC theory must also, if it is to be a practice of freedom and not just cultural appropriation, also means working with women of color IRL (not just “in theory”). And, given the white supremacist patriarchal organization of academia, working and interacting with women of color is generally going to move you out of spaces of privilege, status/property, and prestige (e.g., underfunded departments, teaching institutions, etc.).

So when we do sound studies, we could try to make it academically “respectable,” to demonstrate our ability to assimilate into the universe of the academic humanities (and, I think that the “sonic turn” is itself a tool for ‘disrupting’ or ‘creatively destroying’ established humanities disciplines and methods). For much of the 20th century, mainstream philosophy has tried to do just this. But, as I and others at the XCPhilosophy collective have argued, philosophical respectability is white supremacist ableist capitalist cisheteropatriarchy in not-so-successful disguise. The point of doing sound studies (as for philosophy) should be to practice precisely the queerly-charged ways of knowing and the relationships/orientations they require. Sound studies should make us less respectably humanist in our inquiry, and more oriented to ways of knowing that are practices of freedom [more on freedom below]. You know, a pedagogy of the oppressed.

Put differently, the point isn’t to use sound as a metaphor to render the flesh’s extra-visual/verbal brilliance thinkable (as white feminist new materialism does), but to do the things that manifest as “sound.” Questions like “do they have a voice?” or “can the subaltern speak?” are really “can they be like us?” or “how do we have to change ourselves so that we can incorporate even more of the universe into our own world?” (i.e., like good liberals, how do “we” tolerate “them”?). What white feminist new materialism overlooks is that ‘voice’ or ‘sound’ is not necessarily extrahuman, but the condition of humanity. “Voice” is not anterior to Western Man who speaks, but is the condition of his speech: racializing assemblages tune his vocalizations to signal and not-quite/nonhuman vocializations to noise. Treating ‘voice’ as somehow prepolitical property of matter, it naturalizes those (gendered/sexualized/ableized) racialized hieroglyphics of the flesh that distinguish signal from noise. For this reason, new materialism still cannot perceive the flesh’s other other vibes, the vibes that aren’t in the spectra that refract through Man. THIS is why both “sound” and feminization are materially, concretely absent from white feminist new materialism. — But more on this in the next section.

The point here, which I take to be Weheliye’s too, is not that we need to help white feminist new materialism better perceive these other other vibes, to feed them back into a modulated academic humanism; rather, the point is to follow their lead out of the respectable, legible universe of the academic humanities (e.g., like xcphilosophy). He writes:

Perhaps it might be more useful to construe ‘cries and groans,’ ‘heart-rending shrieks,’ ‘the mechanical murmurs without content’ as language that does not rely on linguistic structures, at least not primarily, to convey meaning, sense, or expression. For language, especially in the space-ways of the flesh, comes in many varieties and functions not only–or even primarily–to create words in the service of conforming to linguistic structures transparent in the world of Man” (126).

I want to pick up on two turns of phrase in this passage: “space-ways of the flesh” and “worlds” beyond and opaque to Man. Sound, as what emerges as/from the flesh, its so-called linguistic expression, sound conveys us outside the world of Man, into outer space, to orbit around something other than humanism’s Copernican/Kantian sun. Sound doesn’t convey information so much as transport us to other ways of being, ways of being otherwise-than-human.


The problem with white feminist new materialism

(and can we all agree to just call it that from now on, WHITE feminist new materialism?)

Though Weheliye doesn’t directly address white feminist continental philosophy, his critique of contemporary continental thought can easily be applied to white feminist theory’s posthuman and new materialists turns. White new materialism could be understood as an attempt to recuperate this invisible, alien potentiality as something that can “testif[y]” (103) to its own illegibility. So, it comes into view/into voice only in this really circular performance of speaking its own unspeakability. In this sense, white feminist new materialism doesn’t feel too different from the postcolonial reason Spivak was critiquing 20+years ago. The methods and techniques white feminist new materialisms/posthumanisms use to overcome or de-center the human subject actually re-center (white, masculine, modern) Man. All the new anti-correlationisms and white posthumanisms so trendy now in continental philosophy are just upgraded ways of performing our white attachments to Man.

First: (negatively) comparing things to subjects, these theories reactively (in the Nietzschean sense) treat Man as what things are not: “Man” is still the controlling term in this analysis. Weheliye develops “comparison” as a technical term. Treating phenomena as a/like, analogous, and so on, this obscures their interdependencies and, if you will, “intersectionality.” Misogyny isn’t like anti-blackness–they work together. Saying one is like the other obscures that cooperation and treats one of the phenomena as more powerful or influential than the other. “The grammar of comparison…will merely reaffirm Man’s existent hierarchies rather than design novel assemblages of relation” (13). Treating matter as what subjects are not, feminist new materialism uses this logic of comparison. In so doing, it reinscribes the very humanist hierarchies it claims to de-center (striking them down only so they become stronger, like Obi-Wan Kenobi). As Weheliye argues,

posthumanism and animal studies isomorphically yoke humanity to the limited possessive individualism of Man, because these discourses also presume that we have now entered a stage in human development where all subjects have been granted equal access to western humanity and that this is, indeed, what we all want to overcome (10).

So, white feminist new materialism is no different than the white humanist theory (and it’s always white theory, no? Even and especially the ‘textual’ feminism to which it opposes itself?) it claims to critique: it treats whiteness and white ways of being as coextensive with being as such. Even these “new” ontologies are just variations on the theme Fanon identified in Black Skin White Masks: ontology is coextensive with whiteness, so the black (man) has no ontological resistance/purchase/existence in this universe/ecosystem.

Similarly (and second) comparing the power of things to humanist agency, white feminist new materialism obscures the full spectrum of the flesh’s potentiality. Saying that things/objects/matter, that they too have “agency” or something at least analogous to it, this reproduces the tactics that women and people of color have used to gain rights and recognition from the liberal state–and we all know this totally fixed patriarchal white supremacy. Concepts of agency, even the expanded and reworked accounts we get in white feminist new materialism, fail “to take seriously the tradition of the oppressed” (121). Why speculate about the power of things when there are plenty of already-existing “cultural and political formations outside the world of Man that might offer alternative versions of humanity” (10)? Why? Because from the perspective of MRWaSP, re-investing in the terms that situate us in/alongside the world of Man makes more sense than learning terms and relations that take you out of that world.

A better method, Weheliye argues, would “focus on how humanity has been imagined and lived by those subjects excluded from this domain” (8). Doing this “entails leaving behind the world of Man and some of its attendant humanist pieties” (137), including concepts of agency, or even the Earth itself. So, instead of white posthumanisms that seek to make us more receptive to this Earth, Weheliye offers a posthumanism informed by the commitments of Afrofuturism: not to earth, but to the stars; not to saving Man’s world from collapse, but to living in full recognition that the apocalypse has already happened. Though congenital with Man’s world, space is the place habeas viscus thrives.


Freedom in/of the Futurepast

Though Weheliye never explicitly drops the term “Afrofuturism” in this book, his concept of freedom (especially as it’s developed in the last chapter) owes what I see as a huge debt to Afrofuturist posthumanism. For example, he explains that

When June Tyson repeatedly intones, ‘It’s after the end of the world…Don’t you know that yet?’ at the beginning of the Sun Ra Arkestra’s 1974 film Space Is the Place, she directs our attention to the very real likelihood that another world might not only be possible but that this universe may already be here in the NOW” (131).

Calling on the Afrofuturist mythology of apocalypse (i.e., that racial slavery already produced, in real life, the world-ending event that white science fiction only speculates about, i.e.: “For the oppressed the future will have been now, since Man tucks away this group’s present in brackets” (138)), Weheliye argues that alternatives to Man already exist–we don’t need to imagine alternatives, we just need to tune into what’s already going on elsewhere, at a slightly different spot on the spatio-temporal dial. And that’s what habeas viscus does–it transports us to other dimensions, to galaxies orbiting around the suns more brilliant than Man’s.

As I read it, Weheliye’s concept of habeas viscus exhibits the temporality Kodwo Eshun calls the “futurepast.” In this temporal orientation, “the futuristic and the archaic reverse polarities” (0[010]). More precisely, switching perspective from white to black existence also flips the polarities between past and future. From the perspective of enslaved populations, the apocalyptic collapse of life on Earth that, for whites, seems like a future dystopia, that apocalypse has already happened (e.g., in middle passage). Eshun also describes something similar in his notion of

a past potential future. Past potential futures are, effectively, inoperative futures, futures that in some way were halted or shut down. My feeling is that we are haunted by these unrealized futures; that these futures that did not come to pass are nonetheless with us.

Living out a past potential future is a way of practicing “non-alignment” with the so-called present. It might be a very productive way of imagining alternatives to “there-is-no-alternative” capitalist realisms: it may be difficult to imagine alternative futures in this timeline/articulation of the multiverse, but we can imagine plenty of past potential futures. (This is what I take Weheliye to mean by “the desire to create alternatives rather than an indeterminate future” (84).) In its anachronism, non-alignment is a way of living out of synch with Man’s present.

It is at and in this time “when the hieroglyphics of the flesh are…transit visas to universes betwixt and between the jurisdictions of Man” (127), that is, when they are media for viscous interdimensional/intergalactic movement. Temporal non-alignment facilitates spatial/ideological non-alignment, that is, of the possibility of movement between and among the non-aligned worlds (kinda like world-traveling in Lugones’s sense?) (I would also assume that spatial non-alignment facilitates temporal non-alignment). As Eshun argues, “non-alignment is a practice in the making, something to be achieved in the present. It is a potential that oscillates between these two states [Man and the flesh, to use Weheliye’s terms] without reaching equilibrium” (Eshun 2007). The important thing here is the “oscillation…without reaching equilibrium.” Any equilibrium (even an absolutized disequilibrium) could be formalized, instantiated as a norm or ideal–this is what biopolitics does, after all, calculate the proper balance between life and death, reward and risk, and maintain that equilibrium across a constantly varying population. [And what is ‘sustainability,’ the ideal of so many white new materialisms, but an ideal of dynamic equilibrium?] I think we can understand this oscillation as the “viscosity” in habeas viscus, its “extrajuridical law of motion that marshals the relationality of the flesh…and viscous dreams of life that awaken future anterior humanities” (124). All this world-traveling can’t be formalized into, say, an algorithmic law of motion, an equilibrium of signal and noise that institutions can dynamically adjust for. “It is not a vacant, uniform, or universal feature that sets in motion liberty but rather the future as it is seen, felt, and heard from the enfleshed parenthetical present of the oppressed, since this group’s NOW is always already bracketed (held captive and set aside indefinitely) in, if not antithetical to, the world of Man” (138).” The only way to perceive and practice the constitutive potentiality of habeas viscus is to experience it as a temporal disalignment with Man’s spacetime.

Weheliye describes “the flesh” as something that anachronistically disaligned with the world of Man: “rather than displacing bare life or civil death [it] excavates the social (after)life of these categories” (2). By tuning into an alternative timeline–the ‘afterlife’–the flesh can move with and against Man’s world, not so much replacing it but inhabiting a slightly different spectrum of space-time. It is in that spectrum, its material and metaphysical properties, that facilitates “the imagination of liberation in the future anterior sense of the now” (39). These non-aligned timelines or dimensions provide the material basis, the media necessary “other forms of emancipation, which can be imagined but not (yet) described” (14-5).  Man’s present categories of intelligibility–agency, liberty, voice–cannot capture the ways of living, the modes of relation made possible by the hieroglyphics of the flesh. These ways and modes can be imagined because they are materially present in the flesh, its universes, and its spectra of movement, mapped out and carved in by the history of this world. They cannot, however, be seen by the light of this world’s sun. These media, which I take to be more or less the hieroglyphics of the flesh “emanat[e] rays of potential enfleshment” (127), rays which are more brilliant than Man’s sun and require non/extra-human (alien, robotic, fleshy) senses to perceive. “Hieroglyphics of the flesh” can be heard in the “echoes of the future anterior sense” (125)–in the reverberations of Man’s world that vibrate in sympathy with the past possible futures, dimensions, and wavelengths in which the flesh moves. With extra-human, alien, cyborg, fleshy ears, we can hear the “alternate forms of liberty and humanity that dwell among us in the NOW” (132).

Because these alternate forms of liberty “sway to the temporality of new syncopated beginnings for the human beyond the world and continent of Man” (137), they require a posthuman body (and the kinds of relationships it makes possible) to practice. But this is where the kind of posthumanism we’re talking about really matters. If habeas viscus has anything like a “voice,” it’s more like the radioactive buzzing of the stars that travel through space at the speed of light or radio waves and less like the speech or “agency” of things, things that vibrate at terrestrial frequencies. The whole point is that freedom is it is alien and inassimilable to Man’s world–it’s not a way of getting more deeply in touch with Earth, but of transporting ourselves out of and beyond it. Freedom is a kind of vibe that “we” humans can’t just tune into if we’re more open and receptive to things. It’s not a practice of synching humanistic inquiry up with “things,” but of disaligning ourselves so that we can “animat[e] the elsewheres of Man” and the “assemblages of freedom….beyond the world and continent of Man” (137). This syncopation doesn’t manifest as life’s vibrancy, but as freedom, as a leap or jump into what is out of synch with Man’s vibes…as something that’s not viable on this Earth. In other words, it’s not a practice of re-aligning Man with the vibrancy of things, but of inhabiting entirely different dimensions, spatio-temporal relations. The point isn’t to practice sustainable life, but to project ourselves into an un-human future, to pursue ways of living that are unhealthy for Man but still vibrant ways of being otherwise-than-human. As Weheliye repeatedly emphasizes, this un-human future is the now of the flesh–i.e., freedom.

From the perspective of Man’s world, freedom is really, genuinely inconceivable: you can’t reduce it to a concept, a formula, a protocol. Weheliye’s notion of freedom resonates, in my reading, with Beauvoir’s: for her, freedom requires us to not-be, to work together with others, in our various material situations, to project ourselves into an un-predetermined, inconceivable world.

Inconceivable but not impossible. Remember, this inconceivable future is the now of the flesh. By which I mean: the kinds of ways of (not)being here are totally knowable if you have learned the implicit knowledges that one develops by living as something other than the ideal embodiment of Man. I’m thinking here of XCPhilosophy blogger lesbianphallusosophy’s point that:

But I would suggest that these questions that we can ask, whoever we are, may not be enabled by the methods or topics of continental philosophy so much as they are by the other reading we do and the other lives we lead. That it is these other lives we lead that allow for certain questions to emerge as immanent. I think this is why we might often feel like what is most immanent to the arguments of canonical continental philosophers are the very last things we are supposed to point out or elaborate. Again, immanent to whom? As my mother likes to say when I’m looking for some physical object that is right there and yet I can’t find it: “If it was a snake it would bite you.”

[….]In Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes, María Lugones promises herself and her readers and communities: “I won’t think what I won’t practice.” Sometimes we understand the practical, oppressive implications of certain kinds of thinking without needing to entertain the thinking, and perhaps these moments more than any others reveal that it’s the other things we read and the other lives we lead, more than the continental methods we’ve learned, that cultivate this sense.

This is why these practices can’t be formalized into a concept–you literally have to make your body, its everyday processes, what and who it comes into relation with, how, when, where, how much, and so on, you have to make your body otherwise-than-human. It’s not a “method” you can teach in a proseminar. There is no way to “know” these posthuman practices without embodying them. And to embody these practices you’re going to have to put yourself in material, social, and institutional relations that take you farther and farther out of the orbit of privilege, property, and proper intellectual/material/economic reproduction….living in these ways transports you out of Man’s world. In the case of xcphilosophy, this means, for example, reading texts well outside the orbit of “continental” philosophy, and theorizing from, with, and through the knowledges that come from living in un-”philosophical” bodies.


Kill Everything

I want to push and extend Weheliye’s analysis a bit. It is sort of well-established that many of the surveillance and policing techniques traditionally reserved for dysselected black populations are now being more widely and generally applied. That’s what contemporary biopolitics does–through a combination of big data, techniques of security (in Foucault’s strict sense) management, austerity government, and plenty of other stuff, the general population is now subject to the political violence that was once targeted only to dysselected groups. I talk about this in my SoundingOut! post on sound and biopolitics. There, I argue that the film World War Z illustrates a form of biopolitics in which bare-life producing political violence is universalized. The film’s zombie apocalypse “intensifies the horrors of contemporary biopolitics to the point that the only way to recuperate from them is to intensify them even further: in order for humanity to survive, everyone must be dead on their feet.” Instead of killing unhealthy populations, “friendly fire” kills everything; only the strong will bounce back, made stronger by what didn’t ultimately kill it. Dysselected populations don’t bounce back because they aren’t flexible, mobile, or adaptable enough–they don’t move in the right ways, at the right frequencies. This method dysselects both situationally “immobile” populations, but also and more importantly, populations who are mobile in the wrong way(s)–like, say, the walking dead.

The heart of my argument in that post is that this specific genre of biopolitics manifests in and as a specific medium or material practice: sound. Here’s a long quote that pretty much explains that argument:

Such vibrancy–that is, what Julian Henriques dubs “the dynamics of [the] periodic motion of vibrations” in Sounding Bodies: Reggae Sound Systems, Performance Techniques, and Ways of Knowing (265)–is what “life” and “sound,” as they are conceived by and function in contemporary biopolitics, have in common. “Sound,” according to Henriques is “a particular kind of periodic motion, variation and change” (247). Sound waves are dynamic patterns of intensities (pressure); they move through matter and respond in turn, both to that movement itself and the secondary sound waves (harmonics) that movement produces. WWZ treats this notion of periodic motion, variation, and change as the conceptual basis for the ideally biopolitical “life.” At around 20:00, when Pitt’s character attempts to convince the Latino family sheltering him to leave their apartment with him, he says “movement is life…Moviemento es vida.” Sedentary fortresses protect no one from zombies–we see this repeatedly in the film. The only way to survive is by rapidly adjusting to new conditions. The dynamism of adaptive flows—the ability to bounce back and recuperate (like an echoing pressure wave), to dynamically recombine (like both harmonizing frequencies and like a virus), to find signal in noise–this dynamism is life. Because it adapts to new challenges, because it moves, varies, and changes, life can bounce back from total annihilation, stronger than ever before. Only life lived like sound can be properly and sufficiently resilient. In WWZ, the zombie virus is a eugenic tool that weeds out insufficiently “sonic” life, life that is too static to respond to capitalist and biopolitical mandates for calculable motion, variation, and change.

According to Weheliye, habeas viscus manifests in sonic frequencies more brilliant than the humanist sun (“sonic bombardment brighter than sunlight,” to use a KMFDM lyric I cite in the post), in sounds that blow Man’s ears, cremate them in friendly fire. Reading his book with my post about sound and biopolitics in mind leads me to think this that genre of biopolitics I’ve identified in WWZ colonizes at least some of the flesh’s spectra. The move beyond visual/verbal representation is no longer inherently critical or oppositional or fugitive: some of the flesh’s “sonic” manifestations have been co-opted, appropriated, and subsumed by MRWaSP biopolitics. Frequencies that were conventionally masked, unheard (because supposedly immobile and non-vibrant), are now, even and especially in their perceptual fugitivity, working for the Man.

I wonder if the politics of exception and the specific technologies of social organization/epistemologies of ignorance they facilitate are extremely well-suited to colonize the flesh’s spectra (or at least some parts of it). These resonances aren’t something that MRWaSP institutions and subjects are trained to hear or recognize–they’re not already tuned in to those channels. However, as I argue here [1], this sonic biopolitics isn’t tuned to hear any specific channel, subject, or frequency; rather, it listens “acousmatically”:

Instead of listening to identifiable subjects, the NSA [for example] identifies and tracks emergent properties that are statistically similar to already-identified patterns of “suspicious” behavior. Legally, the NSA is not required to identify a specific subject to surveil; instead they listen for patterns in the ambience. This type of observation is “acousmatic” in the sound studies sense because the sounds/patterns don’t come from one identifiable cause; they are the emergent properties of an aggregate.

So that’s the point: acousmatic listening doesn’t focus in on subjects, on already-living, viable vibes. It’s tuned to find whatever kinds of vibes, movements, or patterns emerge as material forces within a given context. Once the flesh’s frequencies start to have statistically significant effects on the aggregate (or important/privileged parts of the aggregate), they’re audible to hegemonic institutions. Acousmatic surveillance is a technique MRWaSP uses to find and colonize the flesh’s queerly resonant vibes. This is more or less what Eshun means when he says “potentiality has been captured by capital. Capital, whether it was Clintonian neoliberalism or neoconservatism mobilizes speculative affect. It is attuned to the emergence of the unpredictable.”

And when it comes to the question “so what do we do if hegemony ‘mobilizes speculative affect’?” I think the whole point is that hegemony might be on the cutting edge of speculative listening, but those of us who live our lives in the fictional/speculative/fleshy worlds Man’s trying to colonize, we know that we’re always one step, well, not so much ahead, but out of synch or phase…just far enough outside Man’s orbit so that some of our radiance escapes his gravity out into space.


[1] Thanks to Justin Burton for reminding me that I had already made this argument.