Parables of the Virtual – Brian Massumi – Book Review


We dont like! We love it!

PARABLES FOR THE VIRTUAL: Movement, affect, sensation

by Brian Massumi.
Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2002.
Paper, pp.328.
ISBN 0-8223-2882-8 (hardback), ISBN 0-8223-2897-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by Angela Ndalianis

We have all been there. You see a film that blows your senses away and makes you feel as if your very being has somehow magically been transformed, Someone else sees the same film and not only dismisses it as mind-numbing spectacle, but considers it to be ‘ideologically problematic’. Let us consider another scenario. One film theorist provides an interpretation of a film that understands it as paradigmatic of the oppressive power of global corporatism. Another film theorist interprets the same film and sees it as a masterful contestation of late-capitalist logic and ideologies. How do we weigh out the discrepancies of such varied positions? Our response to and understanding of the cinema can be a very private, sensory and subjective thing. Its affective power can engage us in ways that move beyond the processes that come into play when we connect with and comprehend something on a cognitive level. Likewise, a viewer’s individual experiences, her understanding of the cinema’s conventions, the significance of specific experiences of her life, the nature of the audience that shares the auditorium space next to her: all of these, and many other elements, can affect the impact that a film can have on this viewer. Yet, just as it avoids stepping beyond certain theoretical traditions, film theory, on the whole, fails to take such random factors into consideration. It also tends to ignore one of the cinema’s most powerful strategies: its affective charge, its capacity for moving its spectator on emotional and sensory levels. And when the latter is considered, it’s understood in denigratory ways – as a sign of a cinema that offers escapism.

Drifting through (and I recommend drifting rather than focusing intently – it makes for a more productive read) Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation I became excited in finding a new voice that has great potential for cinema studies (my own area of research) – and theoretical discourses in the humanities in general. This is not an easy read, but it is a challenging read that forces the reader to think actively about the usefulness of interpretative language. Massumi presents the reader with a flexible, malleable approach that invites a multifarious and creative method to interpretation. Shunning the ‘paradigm’ approach that has haunted cinema and cultural studies, he instead outlines more inventive possibilities that do not fix the critical thinker/writer in her interpretation of the cinema and its audience – or culture and its cultural products.

The aim of the book, states Massumi, is to consider the body and its capacity for movement and sensation in writings of cultural theory. Additionally, the state of affect is a crucial one. ‘There seems to be a growing feeling within media, literary, and art theory that affect is central to an understanding of our information – and image-based late capitalist culture’. Affect is integral to postmodernism, yet the problem, as Masumi so rightly explains, is that ‘there is no cultural-theoretical vocabulary specific to affect’ (p.27). Influenced by the work of Gilles Deleuze, he sets himself the task of exploring the possibility that movement, affect and sensation ‘might be culturally-theoretically thinkable’ (p.4). Rather than seeking to be oppositional to traditions of post-structuralism and cultural studies, he intends, instead, to build on this body of work by also travelling theoretical and critical journeys in new directions that, above all, consider affect and the corporeal in their analysis.

Massumi’s concern reflects the frustration of many academics in the humanities. We have inherited theoretical models that are stubborn, singular-minded and monolithic in their attitude – often tending to homogenize the object of their study. Owing a great deal to the model of semiotics emerging in the 1960s and 70s (via interpretations of Ferdinand Saussure’s writings), the theoretical paradigms that followed – whether structuralist, psychoanalytic, feminist, ideological, and so on – highlighted the mechanism of ‘mediation’. ‘These were ideological apparatuses that structured the dumb material interactions of things and rendered them legible according to a dominant signifying scheme into which human subjects in the making were ‘interpellated?’’ (pp.1-2). In their search for the discovery of the Holy Grail of theoretical paradigms, cultural theorists sought to reduce the cultural process and the body that occupies and moves, breathes and lives within that cultural process, to models that attempted to function like mathematical equations. As Massumi points out, however, society and humanity are far more complex creatures. They cannot be reduced to a sequence of diagrams or a mathematical configuration that states A + B = C. In following this line of discourse, theorists led the coming generation of students of the humanities on a grand parade – one that ended up at a dead-end street.

Given its emphasis on interpolation, cultural theory has allowed little scope for ‘modest acts of resistance or subversion’ (p.2) within the everyday. The door to rupture or revolt – states that many theorists craved – became firmly closed as a result of their own doing. In seeking to bring matter and the body, sensation and affect back to interpretation, Massumi attempts to find such ruptures – no matter how minuscule. New, fresh approaches are in order because ‘Critical thinking disavows its own inventiveness as much as possible’ (p.12), and inventiveness is the only way out of what have become stagnant and unproductive models. But, rather than debunking and critiquing these traditions, instead, Massumi seeks alternate affirmative paths that are more productive – models that can build on the work of the past and inject new life to the achievements already attained. Inventiveness is the key: ‘why not hang up the academic hat of critical self-seriousness, set aside the intemperate arrogance of debunking – and enjoy?… If you don’t enjoy concepts and writing and don’t feel that when you write you are adding something to the world, if only the enjoyment itself, and that by adding that ounce of positive experience to the world you are affirming and celebrating its potentials, tending its growth, in however small a way, however really abstractly – well just hang it up’ (pp.12-13). This is a lesson that Robert Rays has learned in his surrealist take on the Andy Hardy films, and in his compilation of essays, How Film Theory Got Lost.

Beginning with Deleuze’s writings on movement and becoming, and travelling the path of Henri Bergson’s analysis of Zeno’s paradoxes of movement, Massumi emphasizes that the continuity of movement is one that is not measurable or easily defined. The movement that unravels throughout an individual’s life is not a fixed or static one that can be clearly mapped into a theoretical paradigm. For example, while Althusserian critique may speak of the subject that is interpellated by ‘ideological state apparatuses’ (the aim of the theorist being to decode the nature of that interpretation), an understanding of this same subject through the lens of Bergson or Deleuze would teach us that, at any point in a life, there are multiple possible endpoints. Viewed retrospectively, movement signifies that the subject undergoes a series of qualitative changes that are effected by a ‘passing event’; ‘positionality is an emergent quality of movement’ (pp.7-8). Within this, issues of gender, race, sexuality, and ethnicity, for example, occupy facets of the travelled path. As such, critical theory and the body of the spectator need not be limited to pursuing one, fixed interpretative path. Movement is dynamic, and its emergent potential is ever-present. The process of change is cumulative and, no matter how minor a change or rupture, its effect, in the big scheme of things, can be dramatic.

In Deleuze’s The Fold: Leibniz and the Baroque (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 1989), the dynamics of movement and sensation maintains a rhizomatic logic that also riddles Massumi’s book. Integral to Deleuze’s understanding of the fold is the system of Leibnizian ‘monads’ or units that fold into one another, existing as part of a complex and unified whole. Deleuze states that monads designate a state of One, a unity that envelops a multiplicity, this multiplicity developing, the One in the manner of a ‘series’- its implications and explications, are – particular movements that must be understood in a universal Unity that ‘complicates’ them all, and that complicates all the Ones (1993, 23). As Deleuze makes clear, the monad is the term that ‘Leibniz ascribes to the soul or to the subject as a metaphysical point’ (1993, 23); drawing on the Neoplatonic tradition, in many of his writings – including his Monadology – Leibniz tackled the immense task of comprehending the interrelationship between the material nature of the everyday and the immaterial nature of the supernatural, as embodied in the soul and God. Matter and soul comprise a Unity that also envelops multiplicity.

For Leibniz (whose influence on Massumi becomes clear as the reader immerses herself further into the book), the world is an infinite and converging series and, while each monad contains a segment of the series and has a logic in its own right, it also embodies the unified structure – all monadic possibilities. This is a world of dynamic movement and multiple emergent paths. ‘There is a prolongation’, states Deleuze, ‘or continuation of convergent series, one into the other’ and this is the condition Leibniz labels ‘compossibility’(1993, 50). For Leibniz, the compossible embodies the ultimate power of ‘God who conceives and chooses the world’ (Deleuze 1993, 51), who makes choices with regard to following one series path over another.

The compossibles, therefore, are the paths that God chooses to effect creation and the universe as humans finally experience it. To draw upon Deleuze’s example, in the world of compossibles Adam was a sinner, Caesar was an Emperor, and Christ the Saviour (60). However, compossibles become realities or lived events because they compete with incompossibles. Incompossibles comprise ‘the series that diverge, and that from then on belong to two possible worlds’ (60). They exist at the point of convergence where divisions occur in the monadic series. Paralleling current theories on quantum mechanics and parallel universes – but driven by a religious foundation – Leibniz expounded a theory of multiple possible worlds that progress as series; God’s selection – the compossibles – constitute the existing world as it finally comes into being. The incompossibles are all those other paths that are rejected: where Adam was not a sinner, where Caesar was never Emperor, and where Christ was only a man. By ‘positing an infinity of possible worlds’, however, Leibniz perceives our world to be the only existing world because, given it constitutes God’s final choice, it is considered to be the best of all other possible scenarios that are finally rejected (Deleuze 1993, 61).

Massumi, like Deleuze, however, reveals more of an affiliation with the neo-baroque. In a passage in The Fold Deleuze points to an inherent difference between the baroque (the period Leibniz was writing) and the neo-baroque. Like the writings of Luis Borges, in particular his Labyrinths, the neo-baroque does not prioritize compossibles. To phrase it another way, the path of one ‘original’ or ‘best’ (singular) version is non-existent in the world of the neo-baroque. Like chaos theory and quantum mechanics, this is a world of multiple possibilities that intersect at certain points and diverge at others. All divergent series co-exist and struggle for equal status, therefore rendering the incompossible (the narrative path that existed in another dimension but wasn’t chosen to exist in this one) obsolete. All worlds can exist and discover their emergent potential. Rather than such a system possessing a universal or monolithic point of view, instead, an infinite number of movements can unravel as the subject travels her journey in life (Deleuze 1990, 25).

To drag Leibniz’s spiritual down to the level of the material, ‘Each individual and collective human level has its own peculiar ‘quantum’ mode’ (p.37). The emergence of existence is such that, by its very nature, it resists homogenization, creating its own being – its own compossible – with regard to identity, sexuality, politics etc. This also has significance for the cultural thinker who, Massumi explains, should not be limited to a closed system or theoretical paradigm. In fact, Massumi challenges cultural theorists to take an active stance in initiating movement in new directions. With and intensity of sensation that would make Deleuze and Spinoza proud, Massumi states that to adopt a productive approach, ‘the techniques of critical thinking prized by the humanities are of limited value’; they therefore have to be abandoned (p.12).

In a few passages that I became especially fond of, he asserts that ‘Invention requires experimentation’. The first rule of thumb if you want to invent or reinvent concepts is simple: don’t apply them’ (p.3) – even if, in the process, you affirm ‘your own stupidity’ (p.18). The idea is to aim for an ‘open system’ that draws not only on diverse aspects of the humanities – philosophy, psychology, literary theory, politics, anthropology (p.18). ‘Shameless poaching from science I advocate and endeavor to practice’ and in moving beyond the system of humanities it is possible to ‘force a change in the humanities’ (p.20). By placing the critical body in movement, it is perceivable that critical theory will move beyond the stagnant swamps that enclose it, finding new, exciting avenues that offer innovative approaches that address the affective charge of the individual and cultural body. And what is the reader left with? ‘a very special gift: a headache’ that prompts its own infectious virus, one that spreads a ‘creative contagion’ (p.19).