Ontopower

A Review of Brian Massumi’s Ontopower: War, Powers and the State of Perception (Duke University Press, 2015). 306pp. Paperback $24.95.

The preface to Massumi’s book invites the reader to consider starting at the end. It is a fitting exhortation in a book that examines a temporal twist coined ‘ontopower’. Temporal tautologies are used as headings throughout the book including ‘futures past’ (190), ‘fast forward on rewind’ (197) and, my favourite, ‘smoke of future fires’ (202). I am particularly partial to the latter because it points to Massumi’s ‘unabashedly metaphysical’ approach (205). Massumi situates ontopower “in a field of action with other regimes of power”, arguing that “it is necessary to adopt an ecological approach to threat’s environmental power” (200).

The newly consolidated mode of power that is ontopower pivots on the ‘singular time signature’ (200) of preemption, which “denotes acting on the time before: before it has emerged as a clear and present danger” (vii). The first chapter begins with former US President George W. Bush’s oft quoted rationale for the invasion of Iraq: “[i]f we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans and confront the worst threats before they emerge” (3). Massumi maintains, however, that “although the exemplary events through which this operative logic [of preemption] is evaluated in the book are, for the most part, historically moored in the Bush administration, the power curve they express exceeds it” (221). He argues that preemption “is an operative logic of power defining a political epoch in as infinitely space-filling and insidiously infiltrating way as the logic of the ‘deterrence’ defined as the Cold War era” (5).

From the outset the vast scope and challenge of Massumi’s project are clear. The first hint at how we might understand the operative logic of this new entrant into the ecology of powers is the word ‘ontopower’ itself. ‘Onto’ means being. Preemption is productive. It brings the future into being as it “trace[s] itself out as a self-propelling tendency” (5). One related proposition is that “The security that preemption is explicitly meant to produce is predicated on its tacitly producing what it is meant to avoid: preemptive security is predicted on a production of insecurity to which it itself contributes” (196). Writing about a temporal tautology that asks us to consider “What is this time of the before?”; “How can it be acted upon?”; and, “How can that acting upon already constitute a decision, given the ungraspability of that which has yet to eventuate and may yet take another form?” (v), is not easy.

Fortunately Brian Massumi is a gifted writer with the intellectual heft to bring these questions together and make the metaphysical visible and intelligible. The writing achieves a lightning strike of insight regularly enough to reward commitment. The prose is spiced and leavened with sentences that hit the bull’s eye on complex concepts. A random selection of such sentences include: “Preemption stands for conflict unlimited: the potential for peace amended to become a perpetual state of undeclared war” (16); “Winging headlong into a warlike future on the threat edge of chaos is a hard way to live in the present” (18); “Threat passes through linear time, but does not belong to it. It belongs to the nonlinear circuit of the always will have been” (191); and “The operative logic of the liberal-democratic state of the people has been abstractly head-butted to the sidelines by the neoliberalism of the operative logic of the security state” (223).

The articulation of questions such as “How could the nonexistence of what has not happened be more real than what is observably over and done with?” (190), throughout the book crystalizes a whole host of threads that threaten to spin off in too many different directions. Such questions typically give rise to what are called propositions, which pull us back to the book’s core concerns. Examples and case studies also work to bring concepts shimmering on the horizon of intelligibility into focus.

The book builds on Massumi’s earlier scholarship, including an oft-cited chapter “The Future Birth of the Affective Fact” (2010; the title of chapter 7 in the book under review). The nature and impacts of preemption have previously been considered by human geographers Ben Anderson (2010) and Louis Amoore (2013), who interrogate the shift away from probability and calculation as a basis for action towards uncertainty and imagination. Socio-legal scholar Lucia Zedner (2003) has examined the way that security and insecurity are intertwined so that security measures always form the platform for demands for more security. Media theorist Richard Grusin (2010) has described the preemptive turn in media reporting post 9/11. My own work, with co-authors Pickering (2009) and Wilson (2016), investigates the temporal tautology of ‘pre-crime’, as a manifestation of preemption on the ‘home front’ (see also Zender, 2007).

Regardless of the extant work on the politics and practice of preemption, Massumi’s contribution is of singular importance. ‘Potential politics’ exemplified through ontopower are the politics of fear, war, and chaos. According to Massumi, the question of what a ‘counter-ontopower’ might be is a crucial one (ix). The answer to that question demands that we are able to grasp where this new power sits in the landscape of powers and how it works. The book is a significant step towards developing such a counter-power.

Jude McCulloch is Professor of Criminology, Monash University, Australia. This review was also published in Left History, Vol 20, No 1, pp.124-126.

References

Amoore L (2013) The Politics of Possibility: Risk and Security beyond Probability Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Anderson B (2010) Preemption, precaution, preparedness: Anticipatory action and future geographies Progress in Human Geography, Vol 34, No 6, pp777-798

Grusin R (2010) Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11 London: Palgrave

Massumi B (2010) ‘The Future Birth of the Affective Fact’ in Gregg M and Seigworth G (eds) The Affect Theory Reader Durham, NC: Duke University Press

McCulloch J and Pickering S (2009) Pre-crime and counter-terrorism: imagining future crime in the ‘war on terror’ British Journal of Criminology, Vol 49, pp 628-645

McCulloch J and Wilson D (2016) Pre-Crime: Pre-emption, precaution and the future London: Routledge

Zedner L (2003) Too much security? International Journal of the Sociology of Law, Vol 31, No 3, pp155-184.

Zedner L (2007) Pre-crime and post-criminology? Theoretical Criminology, Vol 11, No 2, pp261-281.

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