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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). Continue reading Ontopower