Horizon, Capacity, and Toxic NRG
I’ve been working on some material that follows up on the work I’ve done in my past two books and thinks about resilience and melancholy in the context of post-probabilist and/or speculative neoliberalisms. This piece is some of the first of this new work. Originally I submitted it to a conference that is now not happening. I need to keep moving forward with it, so I thought I’d post it here. I normally don’t read comments on this blog, but in this case, I will. I think this is on its way to being a journal article?
Writing in 2016,I argued that both conservatives and liberals in the U.S. used the same basic method of uniting their constituencies around shared commitments. President-elect Donald Trump “refutes the acceptability and humanity of opponents’ interpretive horizons rather than their arguments,” just as liberal responses to Adele’s hit “Hello” frame the song’s capacity to “transcend language, culture, [and] even species” as exemplary of a liberalism that “isn’t a consciously articulated political view, but a quality of one’s intuitive, affective, non-conceptual orientation to the world.” Although Trump’s exclusionary performances may appear to be opposed to liberal “Hello” fans’ gestures to universality, both make their cases through an appeal to a phenomenological horizon that delimits the boundaries of personhood. As I argued, “in both Trump’s and “Hello”’s case, fans experience an apparently immediate emotional identification with a performance, and assume that everyone does, or at least should, do the same, because everyone ought to share this white interpretive horizon.” Here, I identified an underlying political rationality common to both neoconservatives/neofascists and (neo)liberals, wherein a particular variety of phenomenological experience–what Sara Ahmed calls an “orientation”–serves as the basis for assessing both an idea’s correctness and who counts as a person.
Jumping off from my earlier analysis, here I argue that as both neoliberalisms and biopower evolve into post-normative or post-probabilist forms, phenomenological horizon or “orientation” is the qualitative tool that functions in place of statistical distributions as both “site of veridiction” for market-based decisions and the instrument used to determine the break between productive and unproductive life. Horizon is the frame that orients both the position of the perceiver vis-a-vis a perceptual field, and the 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.” It’s not just that things out there appear to me on a horizon: this horizon also serves as the condition of possibility of my own perception. Past perceptual experiences train me to perceive in specific ways: a native English speaker, it took me a while to hear and properly pronounce the umlauted vowels I was learning in German class. As feminist phenomenologists of color such as Alcoff and Ahmed have demonstrated, horizons are relational, social, and iterative: “orientation…is about how the bodily, the spatial, and the social are entangled.” Horizons are produced in our interactions with other people and with the world around us, and they’re baked into both individual subjects and the world(s) those subjects shape through those interactions. Digging into Louise Amoore’s passing claim that “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,” this paper argues that phenomenological horizon functions in place of normalized probability distributions in post-probabilist and post-normative neoliberalism and biopolitics.
To do that, I’ll first explain how and why neoliberalisms and biopower have evolved past the normative forms analyzed by Michel Foucault and later by scholars such as Mary Beth Mader. As feminist and queer of color accounts of 21st century speculative and preemptive logics show, the quantitative rationalities Foucault theorized have become supplemented with qualitative ones that surpass the limit of mere fact and/or number and allow neoliberalism and biopower to better realize their original aims of disproportionately distributing private property and personhood. Whereas the kinds of markets and biopolitics Foucault theorized used statistical continuities to arrange quantitative information for the purpose of determining where the line was between good and bad risk, these new qualitative rationalities use phenomenological horizons for this same purpose. The reframing of both market value and biological life as qualitative capacity rather than quantity is central to this project. For this reason, the second section of the paper argues that Ahmed’s concept of “orientation,” with its emphasis on how orientation “shapes what bodies can do,” is an especially productive framework for theorizing this qualitative turn in neoliberalism and biopolitics. I conclude with suggestions for future research on how Ahmed’s concept of sexuality as orientation can help queer theorists analyze both queerness and sexuality–to which ideas and discourses of ab/normality have been central since the 19th century–in post-normative biopower, and with an analysis of Perc’s 2019 “Toxic NRG” as an example of a melancholic orientation.
Writing in the late 1970s, Michel Foucault showed how neoliberalism and biopolitics relied on a particular kind of math–probabilist statistics and practices of statistical normalization (i.e., bell curves)–to govern society and determine the break between people who fully counted and those who didn’t. For example, Melinda Cooper argues that Society Must Be Defended (the 75-6 courses) identifies “the mathematics of risk and statistical normalization—the bell curve or normal distribution–as a way of standardizing and controlling the advent of future contingency on a collective level.” Normal or “Gaussian” distributions measure the rate or frequency at which chance occurrences happen, and then compares these rates to find the most frequent frequency. This establishes a “normal” range of frequencies which can be used to predict, and thus control for, the likelihood of future risk.
However, probabilist math has its limits: because it models the future likelihood of a given phenomenon based on patterns in its past occurrences, it’s only as good as the facts at its disposal. It can’t help predict things that have no precedent or paper trail, such as so-called “black swan” events like the 9/11 attacks. Thus, as Cooper explains, “throughout the 1980s a new understanding of risk turned up” that “defies the simple predictive strategies of the Cold War period” which “presum[e] that we can predict the likelihood of a future event, at least in statistical terms.” Whereas probabilist statistics find the pattern of risk or chance in a population, this new concept of risk focuses on something that comes from a reality not bound by the material and social facts of our past and present reality but arrives from a speculative, presently counter-factual reality.
Thus, as Lisa Adkins explains, in the 21st century “sovereign decisions have come to operate less through actions on future knowns calculated with reference to the past and present and more through actions on future unknowns calculated with reference to the possible.” To make decisions based on “imaginable, if not strictly calculable, possibilities,” we’ve developed tools that rely on things like “personal convictions,” “guesswork, gut feelings, and instincts,” which allow us to “approximate beyond the limit point of measurement.” Whereas the probabilist math behind logics of normalization can only make predictions based on patterns in data about past facts, these speculative rationalities leverage qualitative feeling to do what facts and numbers can’t: make decisions based not on information or facts, but on our orientation to potentialities, possibilities, and capacities. Thus, in both the public sector and in private enterprise, qualitative speculation has thus come supplement quantitative prediction.
But this doesn’t mean we throw the math baby out with the probabilist bathwater. Rather, qualitiative judgments are incorporated into quantitative reasoning in order to surpass the limits of evidence-based practice and use technological tools that appear, nevertheless, “scientific” and objective. Counterfactual relations among data points are quantitatively generated, and qualitative judgments determine whether and how to best act on that fictional information. As Arne Arvidsson explains, algorithmic calculations “construc[t] a ‘virtual’ reality composed of relations between qualities that need not correspond to the ways in which those qualities are related in the lived practice of their underlyings.” The aim isn’t to predict what will likely happen, but to find otherwise unperceivable (because non-existent!) connections among different phenomena.
Adkins explains the difference between probabilist and speculative rationalities as a “change in emphasis from the statistical calculation of probability to the algorithmic arraying of possibilities.” Instead of producing a normal distribution by measuring the relative frequency of frequencies, post-probabilist calculus creates an array by cutting and re-cutting information into data points in order to find a neverending stream of presently counterfactual connections among those points. The structure onto which data is arranged for the purpose of distinguishing good from bad risk, this “array” or “plane of compatibility” is the speculative analog of the normal curve’s plane of continuity. Or, as Amoore puts it, “the emphasis…ceases to be one of the balance of probability of future threat and occupies instead the horizon of actionable decisions.” “Horizon”–here in the sense of a range of perceptual or perspectival information whose arrangement both situates directs the perceiver–replaces the curve or distribution as the form in which information is arranged for the purpose of qualitatively identifying good and bad risk.
The “persona” is an example of a speculative horizon. Personas are fictional characters built with profiles generated from data analytics and qualitative features like a portrait. They are used by marketers and designers as tools that, as audio streaming service Spotify explains on their website, help “create a better understanding of existing and potential listeners.” Though Spotify’s persona designers began with robust audience research, they “were determined to put a face to our listeners.” To do this, they literally made characters that represent each persona: “we arbitrarily picked genders, names and appearances that matched the range of people we interviewed…we reduced the representation of personas to keywords, colours, symbols and energy levels reflecting their enthusiasm for music. This exercise helped us navigate through the variations of poses, facial features, clothing and visual styles we created.” Clothes, styles, colors, genders, names are all things users interpret on the basis of aesthetic norms they’ve already internalized and become habituated to. For example, in the illustration that accompanies this story, personas are assigned different colors, sartorial styles, and facial expressions, as well as race and gender markers like hair style or texture. Though Spotify argues that these qualitative features create “believable human traits and flaws help create empathy with problems and needs,” what they really do is import both individual and systemic biases, preferences, and stereotypes into corporate decision-making processes, all under the guise of advanced data science.
In her work on 21st century NGO discourse about development in the Global South, Michelle Murphy has identified 2 kinds of personas that “joi[n] Western liberal feminist imaginaries of empowerment to speculative finance” to represent good, investable risk, and bad risk in need of preemption. Appealing to imaginaries that feminize resilience and frame it as a way to build human capital out of the harms of oppression, these personas use gender to distinguish risk that can be resiliently productive from risk that requires preemption. There’s “The Girl,” “a phantasma…‘figured out’ from a variegated patchwork of social science correlation and wishful speculation” which represents “a risk pool that draws together a bloom of possibility, a bouquet of potential…applicable to any dispossessed condition anywhere, as long as it is ‘girled’,” and her inverse, “the figure of the racialized young, possibly Muslim…unruly, undisciplinable, and potentially dangerous” boy. A “ticking-time bomb,” this masculine figure share’s The Girl’s potential for exponential growth; however, because that growth isn’t profitable for patriarchal racial capitalism, it is represented not as a bloom but as a weapon. Here, racist and sexist stereotypes combine with aesthetics to create qualitative differences between phenomena that are worthy of investment and those in need of violent preemption–i.e., to cut that biopolitical line between investable life and killable threat.
In this way, personas illustrate how speculative rationalities use phenomenological horizons to do the work originally accomplished with normal curves. Personas leverage two different kinds of phenomenological horizons. First, as a bundle of qualitative information that both situates a fictional character and shapes the real-world decisions real people make while interacting with that character, each persona is a phenomenological horizon, albeit a fictional one. Second, personas require viewers to use their own interpretive horizons to make sense of them: your take on the far left persona in the Spotify graphic above depends whether you think dudes in fedoras are stylishly hip or unfashionably trying too hard.
Whereas probabilist normalization identifies disproportionately abnormal instances as candidates for exclusion, possibilist calculus identifies “something that ‘feels right’ or ‘looks out of place’” 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). As a form of governmentality, this campaign relies on citizens’ commonsense perceptions of how things are oriented with respect to one another and with respect to them as perceivers–i.e., their phenomenological horizons. Exceptions are determined not by disproportionate relation to the norm but by disorientation to the horizon. As Murphy’s analysis of “The Girl” and her masculine counterpart shows, dis/orientation is a measure of capacity–specifically, the ability to generate capacity in the form of private property. The difference between “The Girl”’s and “The Boy”’s capacities is not one of volume or power, but whether that volume or power can be successfully and efficiently enclosed by patriarchal racial capitalism.
In the next section, I use Sara Ahmed’s concept of “orientation” to explain how phenomenological horizons measure capacity and why orientation serves the function that proportionality or normality serves in probabilist calculus–i.e., as the standard against which phenomena are evaluated for in/exclusion.
As they develop tools that push past the limits of fact and number, neoliberalisms and biopolitics reframe markets and life in qualitative terms as capacity. As Lisa Adkins argues, financialized markets frame value as an intensification of money’s qualitative capacity, not its quantity. For example, because American households’ “real wages” haven’t grown in 40 years, household budgeting has become less a matter of managing how much money you have and more a matter of maximizing what your wages can do. Payday loans and reverse mortgages help people stretch their money past the finite amount of it at their disposal so it can do more than it could as mere quantity. The same is true of derivatives trading, where “value is created…in what the operations and capacities of derivatives set in motion.” In both cases, market value measures qualitative capacity rather than quantitative amount. Similarly, as Melinda Cooper argues, 21st century biopolitics reimagines life as resiliently regenerative capacity. Modeled on cellular regeneration rather than population reproduction, “life” means “biological promise…that…is able to perpetually regenerate its own potentiality.” Figuring life as promise and potentiality, this form of biopolitics adopts the same underlying rationality that’s behind post-probabilist models of neoliberal markets. Cooper notes the convergence of this concept of biopolitical life with “the permanently nascent dynamic of finance capital” that likewise centers qualitative capacity or “promise” over quantitative amount.
Because it highlights the role of phenomenological horizons in shaping both individual capacities and broader dynamics of social reproduction, Sara Ahmed’s theory of orientation is helpful for explaining how and why phenomenological horizons mediate the neoliberal market’s function as a site of veridiction and biopolitical practices of disaggregating investable life from killable threat when both “life” and “the market” are modeled on qualitative capacity.
According to Ahmed, orientation “affects what we can do, where we can go, how we are perceived, and so on”–it builds and diminishes capacities. For example, most anglophone academic philosophers ascribe to one of two orientations: analytic or continental. My background is in continental philosophy, and this has led me to be better at reading German than doing symbolic logic. So, the direction of one’s philosophical orientation makes it easier and more rewarding to engage with specific kinds of tools and develop particular types of competencies or capacities. In this way, “to be orientated is also to extend the reach of the body.” But because the world is also oriented, such capacity-extension happens if and only if the individual’s orientation accords with the orientation of their material, social, and historical situation. As Ahmed explains:
we are orientated when we are in line. We are ‘in line’ when we face the direction that is already faced by others. Being ‘in line’ allows bodies to extend into spaces that, as it were, have already taken their shape. Such extensions could be redescribed as an extension of the body’s reach.”
“Being in line” is another way of expressing the fact of having adopted the horizon hegemonic social forces compel you to have. Most workplaces, for example, extend the professional reach of people with few domestic care responsibilities further than people with more intensive ones.
As a being and falling in line, orientation isn’t disciplinary conformity to a norm, but a directionality or tendency to have capacities that will contribute positively to the reproduction of hegemonic society. Orientation is having the capacities to augment the capacities of the world that oriented you and that you in turn orient, building wealth/capacity that can pay forward what has been invested in you. The issue isn’t conformity to a norm or proportional proximity to a normalized range, but about the quality of capacities you can grow: do they contribute to the ongoing patriarchal racial capitalist transmission of wealth, value, and status, or do they impede that transmission?
Because it explains how “being in line” is a measure of one’s capacity for hegemonic social reproduction, Ahmed’s theory of orientation is a helpful model for understanding how post-normative neoliberalisms and biopolitics use phenomenological horizons to do the work originally performed by norms and normal curves. Because “sexuality” originated as the hinge between disciplinary normation and biopolitical normalization, future research should consider whether and how Ahmed’s theory of sexuality as orientation can help both unpack sexuality’s functions in post-normative neoliberalism and biopolitics and intervene in recent debates in queer theory about queerness and ab/normality and queerness as “horizon.”
For now, I want to think about what a melancholic–in my sense of the term–alternative to “being in line” might be.
As last summer’s battle between “Old Town Road” and “Bad Guy” for the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 shows, “remixability” (cf Molanphy) is a prized quality in commercial music. Post-probabilist neoliberalism understands value not in terms of quantity, but in terms of capacity; the issue isn’t how much there is to have, but the extent of the ability to do. Remixability is how songs demonstrate such capacity.
At a very basic level, techno artists issuing remix EPs is a way for artists and labels to eek a bit more profit out of an album or a single. In the case of “Old Town Road” and “Bad Guy,” a record’s ability to generate infinitely more just-different-enough-but-not-too-different versions is central to its ability to climb the charts in the era of streaming and clickbait. Perc’s 2019 EP Three Tracks For Your Ghost Producer, however, takes a firm stance against remixability. The promo copy on Bandcamp reads:
Conceived as a response to the endless stream of rip-off’s, rehashes and re-edits that track [“Look What Your Love Has Done To Me”] spawned[,] ‘Three Tracks To Send To Your Ghost Producer’ strips back the vocals and melodic elements that characterised Bitter Music to present a raw, rolling, heavily percussive sound. Kick, toms and hi-hat rhythms play off each other whilst interlocking with the solid kicks that propel each track forwards.
In Perc’s estimation, vocals and “melodic elements” facilitate remixability, whereas complex rhythmic interplay and slow, steady development do not.
Because “remixability” is key to pop songs’ ability to generate capacity-value, tracks that eschew remixability are oriented melancholicly vis-a-vis the market: the capacities invested in them aren’t contributing to the further growth of private capacity-value, such as the value of the release for Perc as artist and label owner. Three Tracks’ feel/orientation thus gets misheard as anger or seething rage because its capacities and the capacities it fosters in listeners aren’t productively resilient. They are instead a melancholy or indeed “toxic” energy.
“Toxic NRG,” the lead single from the EP, is constructed in a way fails to maximize possibilities for remixing and thus musically represents an example of melancholic capacity. Slowly building over five minutes, the whole song is built on a quarter-note drum pattern under a sixteenth-dotted eighth pattern in a mid-range synth that sounds like the edge of a coin bouncing on a hard surface. After this pattern repeats for a minute and a half, one SoundCloud user comments on the song’s “Hypnotic Rhythm.” The first four minutes layer different rhythmic ostinatos on top of that foundation; the groove really starts to kick in around 3:15 when a snare, and later, a hi hat, enter. Most SoundCloud user comments are clustered in this groove section between 3:15 and 4:00; their expressions of approbation and enthusiasm suggest that this groove is fans’ favorite part of the track…which makes sense, because this is the most vigorously danceable part.
The real build begins at 4:00 when a sustained treble synth enters. Each of the next two eight-bar modules add a harmonizing treble synth, creating, eventually, a dissonante three-note chord. Just before the five-minute mark, everything that’s been built up so far, including that chord, drops out leaving only the foundational percussion motive. There’s no climax here. The song’s slow burn neither blows up nor screeches to a halt nor fizzles out. It just stops. In the last measure of the module with the three-note chord, four iterations of a sound that loosely resembles that of a camera shutter indicate that the phrase is reaching some sort of end or closure, but they don’t lead into an exceptionally emphatic downbeat–the splat sound on the downbeat of the next module is repeated every four bars for the next few modules. The video represents this shift to a new song section by cutting from footage of women dancing in their pajamas to footage of a European street as seen from a vehicle driven down it; the shift from frenetic, improvised movement to the grid-like rhythm of buildings passing on a street changes the visual mood without resolving or releasing the visual energy built up over the video’s 4th minute.
Building up energy without granting listeners the pleasure of releasing it, “Toxic NRG”’s tension-release narrative avoids the feeling of both chill restraint and resilient overcoming. It intensifies without payoff; like a melancholic loss, the frenetic vibe sticks around like affective litter. Depicting an intensification of energy that doesn’t resiliently grow capacity, “Toxic NRG” is a musical representation of the concept behind Three Tracks, i.e., the refusal of remixability. It demonstrates for us one way that an anti-work approach to capacity-value can feel. In this context, toxic energy is capacity that won’t or can’t be efficiently enclosed into private property in the form of capacity-value–it’s the energy, ability, the doing of stuff, just not the stuff that lets patriarchal racial capitalism increase its capacities to what it does.
Energy, possibility, capacity that can’t be efficiently privatized is melancholic in my sense of the term. In its refusal to turn energy into capacity-value, “Toxic NRG” is a drain on the systemic reproduction of capacity value: it has failed to bring a return on the investments made into, say, the track’s capacities for remixability or my capacities as a listener or dancer. Unlike “chill” playlists designed to encourage a specific kind of focused, sedentary informational productivity (yes, I mean coding (thanks to Kelly Hiser for this point)), this track lends itself to almost the opposite sort of activities: social dancing, manual labor, exercise. Cultivating capacities that aren’t “in line” with 21st century patriarchal racial capitalism, “Toxic NRG” exhibits a melancholic horizon.
8 bar intro phrase
8 bar intro phrase
8 bar phrase with intro percussion under
8 bar “”
8 bar phrase, downbeats emphasized with the metallic splat
8 bar phrase, downbeats emphasized with the metallic splat
8 bar “”
8 bar “”
8 bars with the radar-like blips
8 bars w radar-like blips
8 more bars–some side-chaining of background drum patterns
8 more bars, cotninued vairaiton of timbre in background instruments
8 bars, snare — groove really kicks in here
8 bars offbeat snare
8 bars treble sustained
8 treble sustained harmony
8 “” 3 notes
8 return to intro
8 gradually fades out