Dislodging the ‘Quasi-Object’ of Fear

The need for an alignment of radical sympathies, built from the ground up, has never been more important than now, especially since the declaration of the War on Terror. War now, like Empire, now has no ‘outside’ or perceivable externalities. It is a war without end. Traditional political reaction and radicalism are put into an awkward situation. The logic of Bush’s ‘for or against us’ blackmail, allows for no direct oppositional stance, and demands new oblique and ‘diagonal’ strategies of resistance. The direct effect of the War on Terror has been to limit the potentialities of the future and historical awareness of the past and most importantly to indefinitely fix us in the present. Deleuze would call this part of the ‘limitless postponements of societies of control’. Brian Massumi eloquently describes this in his excellent essay Fear (The Spectrum Said…), in which he discusses the ramifications of the hardwiring of the colour-coded ‘terror-alert system’ into the affective register of the subject:

The threat as such is nothing yet –– just a looming. It is a form of futurity, yet has the capacity to fill the present without presenting itself. Its future looming casts a present shadow, and that shadow is fear. Threat is the future cause of a change in the present. A future cause is not actually a cause; it is a virtual cause, or quasicause. Threat is a futurity with a virtual power to affect the present quasicausally. When a governmental mechanism makes threat its business, it is taking this virtuality as its object and adopting quasicausality as its mode of operation…

By delimiting the horizon of future potentialities and by blocking access to the circuits of the virtual through the instituting the ‘quasi-cause’ of fear, the neo-conservative Bush administration used the various colours of the terror-alert system to activate differing levels of fear in the subject (directly on the body, in fact) through the pure affect. With the attention of the populace fixed on the spectacle of the 9-11 collapse and speedy launch of the alert system, governmental control could now be ‘yoked’ to television. It triggers ‘affective modulation of the population’ through a colour register ranging from red to green, representing various levels of unspecified threat from Severe to Low (of course, there is no Safe state) and is able to directly anaethetise the subject, bypassing normal discursive mediation. This is only possible, as the threat has no discernable form or definite content; much like Rumsfeld’s famous ‘unknown unknowns’. It activates fear in the subject as immediate nervous response. It captures spontaneity and turns it in to ‘habitual function’. The quasi-object of fear becomes lodged in the present (the real) as a paradoxical ‘purely virtual object’:

…Since its object is virtual, the only actual leverage the security operation can have is on threat’s back-cast presence, its pre-effect of fear. Threat, understood as a quasicause, would qualify philosophically as a species of final cause. One of the reasons that its causality is quasi- is that there is a parodoxical reciprocity between it and its effect. There is a kind of simultaneity between the quasicause and its effect, even though they belong to different times. Threat is the cause of fear in the sense that it triggers and conditions fear’s occurrence, but without the fear it effects the threat would have no handle on actual existence, remaining purely virtual. The causality is bidirectional, operating immediately on both poles, in a kind of time-slip through which a futurity is made directly present in an effective expression that brings it into the present without it ceasing to be a futurity. Although they are in different tenses, present and future, and in different ontological modes, actual and virtual, fear and threat are of a piece: they are indissociable dimensions of the same event. The event, in its holding both tenses together in its own immediacy, is transtemporal.

Effectively, the futurity of all possible fearful potentialities are actualised in the present, blocking all other possibilities. Massumi states: ‘Actual action has been short-circuited. It is in-acted: it remains enveloped in it’s own activated potential’. In other words, the bodily reaction of readiness for flight, in response to the fear stimulus, makes it an effective method of control. It is now its own virtual cause: the fear of fear itself, a self-triggering loop, a ‘summit of virtualization’ that functions at the limit between the subject and the world:

The alert system is a tool for modulating collective individuation. Through mass-media, it addresses itself to the population from the angle of potential to reindividuate differentially…All for the better, Bush says. The future, he says, will be better tomorrow.

Whilst the terror-alert system represents a simple, yet diabolical, new form of transcendental control, it is only really effective due to the delivery systems of corporate mass-media. The system is symptomatic of our passing from the transcendental societies of discipline to the informationised societies of control of our globalised present. Such control presents the risk of unexpected outcomes, namely fascism or the production of death, as the response generated by the triggering of fear cannot be directed or predicted. For Massumi, though, it also demarcates the territory of adequate resistance to such tyranny; the sphere of human activity in which affect has primacy, i.e. art. Art, through its re-appropriation of the production of  subjectivity, operates via the sensation, percept and affect, causing breaks in the continuity of present through which the infinite/eternal/virtual can irrupt on the bio-political intersection of the human subject. So there is an optimistic consequence to this new from of control that calls forth its own opposition to dislodge this obstacle to futurity and the limitless possibilities that the virtual holds. This in some way informs us about the importance of the ethical-aesthetic object that Guattari has established. This object operates on the body of the subject, through the affective register, combating the transcendental apparatus of control on its own territory. Art is capable of war against war — art’s counter-strike — the actualisation of the desire for peace by setting the affect of joy against fear and prophetically calling-forth alternate potentialities and ways of living.

About andrewosborne

Andrew Osborne has recently completed his MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmith's.
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