Aesthetics and Horizon in Possibilist/Post-Probabilist Neoliberalisms

I’m doing some of the ground-floor research for the follow-up to Resilience & Melancholy & The Sonic Episteme. Those focused on probabilist neoliberalisms; the next project focuses on post-probabilist ones. Here I work through Louise Amoore’s claim that possibilist calculus supplements math with aesthetics, affect, gut feelings, etc.

According to Louise Amoore, possibilist calculus uses the aesthetic sensibilities of programmers, engineers, and users to supplement the mathematical and computational tools used by finance capital and the contemporary security state. “Inviting speculation and inference in to calculation” (Amoore 75), this combination allows the math to do more than it could on its own–namely, identify counterfactual (and improbable) scenarios, which Amoore calls “imaginable, if not strictly calculable, possibilities” (Amoore 10). Relying on things like “personal convictions” (Amoore 45), “guesswork, gut feelings, and instincts” (Amoore) 30), one can “approximate beyond the limit point of measurement” (Amoore 32). For example, whereas probabilist normalization identifies disproportionately abnormal instances as candidates for exclusion, possibilist calculus identifies “something that ‘feels right’ or ‘looks out of place’” (Amoore 25) for possible exclusion. Examples include the US Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” campaign, which deputizes private citizens to seek out violations of their sense of the usual or proper arrangement of things (rather than just violations of the law).

Phenomenologists would call this “affective judgment on the look and feel of a place with which one is familiar” (Amoore 142) one’s “horizon” or “interpretive horizon.” Horizon names something similar to what 2-dimensional visual arts call “perspective”: it’s the frame that orients both the position of the perceiver vis-a-vis a perceptual field, and the perceptual qualities of that field and the things in it vis-a-vis the perceiver. As Linda Alcoff explains, “interpretive horizon…constitutes the self in representing the point of view of the self, and it also constitutes the object which is seen in the sense that it is seen as what it is from the frame of reference and point of view that the horizon makes possible” (Visible Identities, 100). As feminist phenomenologists of color such as Alcoff and Sara Ahmed have demonstrated, horizons are relational, social, and iterative (i.e., they are built out of repeated experience): “orientation…is about how the bodily, the spatial, and the social are entangled” (Ahmed QP 181n1). Emphasizing their “material and embodied situatedness” (VI 102), Alcoff argues that horizons are produced in our interactions with other people and with the world around us. They’re the background of mostly extra-propositional knowledges such as sensory habits, muscle memory, or kinesthetic choreographies that we use to navigate our daily lives. While possibilist calculus may not build norms out of patterns in past events, it nevertheless incorporates past patterns in the form of horizons–individuals’ horizons are built from their past experiences and the habits they’ve formed in response to them. 

Horizon serves the function that proportionality or normality serves in probabilist calculus–it is the standard against which phenomena are evaluated for in/exclusion. As Amoore explains, “the emphasis of risk assessment ceases to be one of the balance of probability of future threat and occupies instead the horizon of actionable decisions, making possible action on the basis of uncertainty” (Amoore 58; emphasis added). Ratios and proportions are balanced–cost:benefit calculus, for example, is designed to keep risk in proportion to reward, just as statistical normalization identifies members of a population who are disproportionately distant from the range of normal frequencies as candidates for exclusion or policing. Horizon isn’t about balance or proportion so much as it is about orientation. For example, airplane pilots use the altitude indicator to judge their craft’s orientation with respect to the Earth’s horizon.

Possibilist calculus arranges an ever-expanding set of possibilities in what Amoore calls an “array,” which “allows for multiple possible sequences of events to be held together horizontally within a single purview” (69); in other words, arrays are situated on a horizon to which individuals and groups find a regular or usual orientation. Constituents of the array are then evaluated for the intensity or degree of their disorientation. They can be disoriented either/both externally with respect to its surroundings or internally with respect to the composition of its parts. The important thing is that orientation is commonly measured in degrees (think back to that plane gauge); this makes orientation a suitable metric for a kind of governmentality and a kind of value that centers intensity and capacity over quantity. Degree and orientation are for post-probabilist neoliberalisms what rate and ratio are for probabilist ones.

Orientation, especially in Ahmed’s theorization, describes both the way I have become attuned and accustomed to a particular type of situation and the way specific situations are designed for or assume particular kinds of people. For example, a building with only single-gender bathrooms is both designed for binarily gendered people and assumes that these are the only kinds of people that ought to be in that space. This mutual fitting of situation and inhabitants could also be described as “purposiveness” in Kant’s sense of “subjective material purposiveness.” According to Kant, something possesses subjective material purposiveness if we feel (i.e., subjectively) that either artistic or natural objects in the world (a.k.a. material) was designed (or at least feels like it was designed) to fit within the limits of our perceptual and cognitive capacities and the bounds of our aesthetic preferences. Or, more directly: it feels like it was designed for us to perceive and appreciate. Amoore describes how possibilist calculus relies on purposiveness of form to distinguish between acceptable and exceptional (in the sense of the politics of exception) cases. Unlike classically liberal aesthetics, which prioritize content and expression to the exclusion of form, possibilist calculus appeals to a neoliberal aesthetic that prioritizes form to the exclusion of content and expression. “The content of data nodes is of less significance than the form of their assembly” (Amoore 135). As Amoore explains, such calculus “is concerned less with what it calls the ‘nodes’ of specific items of data (the ‘dots’) than it is with the inferred relations across those nodes (‘connecting the dots’)” (Amoore 133). Paying attention to the composition of variously connected dots, possibilist calculus judges “the aesthetic form of data itself” (Amoore 133). Form is evaluated for its purposiveness or “pleasing quality” (Amoore 139): configurations that don’t feel like they were designed for or oriented to a hegemonically-oriented perceiver stand out as candidates for expulsion. “The detection of emergent threats takes place WITHIN FORM ITSELF, in the links and patterns that materialize and take shape” (Amoore 133). Something counts as a threat when its arrangement of parts or orientation of parts isn’t oriented to the hegemonic orientation of the world. In Ahmed’s terms, forms appear risky or threatening when they are queerly oriented to the kind of world and the kind of subjects possibilist calculus is designed to support.

According to Ahmed, if white supremacist capitalist patriarchy orients the world to support specific kinds of people and ways of living and in turn demands people orient themselves to that world-orientation, then queerness is a form of “disorientation” (QP 4). “Queer orientations might be those that don’t line up, which by seeing the world ‘slantwise’ allow other objects to come into view. A queer orientation mightt be one that does not  overcome what is ‘off line,’ and hence acts out of line with others” (107). Queerness, in other words, is a lack of purposiveness to patriarchal racial capitalism, a failure to adjust to its horizon. Ahmed’s theorization of queerness as disorientation and non-purposiveness is especially helpful for understanding how post-probabilist cisheteropatriarchy works. Because homosexuality was originally understood as an abnormality in the traditional 19th century biopolitical sense of abnormal deviation, norm, abnormality, and deviation have been fundamental concepts in queer theory. For example, in May 2015 differences published a special issue titled “Queer Theory Without Antinormativity.” The premise of this issue was that queer theory has conventionally, if not orthodoxically, understood “queer” to be antinormative, but that this convention had run its course. For example, as Ladelle McWhorter argues in a different journal, queer’s conventional antinormativity can seem to be in quite close alignment with neoliberalism’s imperative to limit-transgression. But normalization, abnormality, and antinormativity are grounded, at least historically, in Gaussian normalization and probabilist math. Ahmed’s theory of queerness as disorientation is thus better suited to post-probabilist variants of cisheteropatriarchy than these other concepts of queerness. This is why, for example, the  the ‘terrorist’ figure, the figure motivating the “see something, say something” campaign, is perceived as queer or through queerness.