Dancing about the Architecture of Abbey Road. And also Global Governmentality too

by zunguzungu

The cafe I’m in has been playing Abbey Road since I’ve been in here; we’re reaching the crescendo, and I’m finding it difficult to concentrate. This is the most powerful piece of music I can think of for me, the most compelling and difficult to ignore. But could I explain why? I could not. I am constitutionally inclined to blather on about almost anything, as this blog attests, but if I tried to write about what makes music like this so powerful to me, I’d only prove Frank Zappa right: “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

I’m less inclined than him to take “dancing about architecture” as a point of absolute impossibility–the depths of my academic perversion is that I find it to be a really interesting idea (how would one dance High Modernism?)–but I also take his point, which is that there are deep problems preventing that sort of intellectual work from getting done. Music, in short, does not textualize easily, or without great loss. Which is, to put another way, to say that music is a kind of theoretical space that cannot easily be explored by the technologies of knowledge that we, in our post-enlightenment landing craft, are equipped with. And this, too, is something I find interesting, as I’ve written here and here. What does this obscurity signify? What does the fact of a thing that our method filters out of our purview indicate about both the method and the thing? Apparently this book aims to find out, and I’m equally excited at the potential as I am concerned that they’ll do it really badly.

More broadly, I’m absolutely fascinated these days by the idea that “ignorance” is a useful way to approach how knowledge becomes an architecture of power, to approach how limits and blind spots in governmental surveillance are exactly the outlets that those systems actually need to function. To acknowledge that empire reproduces itself through the neo-liberal gesture of selectively granting freedom and autonomy, how regimes of knowledge/power that proceed by the “conduct of conduct” actually presume that their subjects will have the freedom of movement (one cannot, after all, conduct someone’s conduct unless it is in their hands in some meaningful way), seems to me to be a critical move with still very untapped possibilities. I lobe Bayart for this reason, and all the other neo-Foucaultians that proceed along these lines, the Foucault Effect and so forth.

Bayart’s big globalization book quotes James Scott as writing about the “non state spaces” formed by the mountainous regions of South-East Asia, places where the state cannot easily go:

“The mountains of Southeast Asia are ‘anti-state’, at least as much as ‘non-state’ or ‘not-yet-state’. They are peopled, over long historical periods, by deserters, people evading tax and forced labor, refugees from slavery, those who have lost factional struggles and pariahs of every sort, not to mention religious dissidents, hermits, members of religious heterodox sects who, we might say, represent the ‘organic intellectuals’ of the margin, adding a symbolic dimension to the practical rejection of central power incarnated by these communities. The mountainous periphery of southeast Asia is the negative of the society at the centre, in terms of ecology, religious practice, social structure, government and demography. And in particular thanks to its population of fugitives and dissidents.”

Bayart’s point (which is an implicit critique of many of the presumptions that structure Scott’s stuff) is that “these areas of flight and dissidence have always had a synergetic relationship with the state and the economic world in which it is situated,” as part of a larger argument that a state is as constituted by its anti-state spaces as by the spaces it actually surveys. Bayart’s point in that chapter is that the ways that globalization creates limitations to nation-states are not, in any fundamental sense, a cause of state failure in general; instead, he argues that two centuries of globalization are actually the precondition for the modern state existence.

This is, too, James Ferguson’s point in his most recent book, in which “Africa” is part of the world system precisely because it resists being incorporated, an “anti-world state” function which gets instrumentalized in ways that reinforce, even make possible, that very system. My guess is that Africanists are particularly attuned to this kind of argument, or at least a lot of the people who have done some of the most interesting work with it (people like Bayart and Ferguson) are Africanists; a continent defined by its resistance to global penetration, a “dark” continent, is a particularly fertile field for doing this kind of investigation.

But I find that the more I’ve become interested in film and photography (having come into possession of a digital camera and having become obsessed with John To and Johnny Ford), the clearer it’s become to me that “reading” images requires sustained attention to the offscreen (in ways that actually speak to how texts produce narrative as well). “Reading” the texts at Sociological Images, for example, necessitates thinking about how these images are produce through what is not shown, how narrative is made by its absences and occlusions, what they include by not showing as much as what they actually show. Creating narrative through images proceeds not merely by the positive act of encompassing and seeing but by the negative act of cutting and excluding, of limiting its lines of sight

The image I’ve taken as my avatar, for example, is a picture I took by looking between my legs over a particular scenic overview in Japan. There are signs that tell you to do this, and there is indeed something remarkable about the panarama produced: you feel like the earth is hanging above you and you see the landbridge from a perspective that is, well, indescribable. It’s hard to make this into a picture though, as wide perspectives don’t film easily (something you realize very quickly if you try to do landscape photography, since normal lenses simply cannot encompass the kinds of perspectives that the human eye finds most directly appealing). So what I did was get a picture taken of me looking between my legs; the umbrella gives it a good composition, but the narrative I was thinking about had something to do with the funny way I was producing a visual narrative about my own production of vision. And, as my “About Me” page indicates, pondering what you look like when you are pointing you ass at the sky, in the rain, is not really a bad way to describe blogging.