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Ontopower

War, Powers, and the State of Perception

Brian Massumi

BR I A N M A SSUM I

Ontopower:
War, Powers,
and the State
of Perception

duke uni v er sit y press

durha m and london

2015

2015 Duke University Press


All rights reserved
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper
Designed by Natalie F. Smith
Typeset in Quadraat Pro by Westchester Book Group
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Massumi, Brian, author.
Ontopower : war, powers, and the state of perception / Brian Massumi.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.

isbn 978-0-8223-5952-4 (hardcover : alk. paper)


isbn 978-0-8223-5995-1 (pbk. : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-7519-7 (e-book)
1. Power (Social sciences)United StatesHistory21st century. 2. War on Terrorism,
20012009. 3. National securityUnited StatesHistory21st century. I. Title.

hn90.p6m37 2015
320.01'1dc23 2015001928

Frontispiece art: ak-47 firing, shadowgraph, Dr.GaryS. Settles/Science Photo Library.


Cover art: Erin Manning, 9/11 (2001), acrylic and mixed media, detail. Courtesy of the artist.
Photo by Leslie Plumb.

The author acknowledges the generous support of the Social Science and Humanities Research
Council of Canada (sshrc).

contents

Preface vii
pa r tone: p o w er s

1 The Primacy of Preemption


The Operative Logic of Threat 3
2 National Enterprise Emergency
Steps toward an Ecology of Powers 21
pa r tt w o: p o w er s of percep tion

3 Perception Attack
The Force to Own Time 63
4 Power to the Edge
Making Information Pointy 93
5 Embroilments and History 153
pa r tthree: the p o w er to a ffec t

6 Fear
(The Spectrum Said) 171
7 The Future Birth of the Affective Fact 189
Afterword: After the Long Past
A Retrospective Introduction to the History of the Present 207
Notes 247
References 275
Index 287

preface

This book began on September11, 2001: The day the world changed.
Hyperbole, of course. There is no event that changes everything. Still,
something changed, and the change was significant. In the aftermath of
9/11, many aspects of contemporary life reconfigured themselves around
a new dominant: preemption. It is the thesis of this book that the doctrine
of preemption that was the hallmark of GeorgeW. Bushs war on terror
became the driving force for a reconfiguration of powers that has survived
his administration and whose full impact we have yet to come to terms
with. More than a doctrine, preemption has taken on a life of its own.
It launches into operation wherever threat is felt. In todays multidimensional threat environment, that is everywhere.
This book will argue that preemption, as it operates today, lies at the
heart of a newly consolidated mode of power. A new mode of power deserves a new name. In the chapters that follow, it is dubbed ontopower.
Ontopower does not replace prior powers. Rather, it reorganizes and reintegrates them around the new fulcrum of preemption, changing their
object and mode of operation in the process. Ontopower designates a
changing ecology of powers. The way in which this ecology of powers
pivots on preemption brings new urgency to what can only be called metaphysical problems. Preemption is a time concept. It denotes acting on the
time before: the time of threat, before it has emerged as a clear and present
danger. What is this time of the before? How can it be acted upon? 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?
Preemption does not idly pose these problems concerning the nature
of time, perception, action, and decision: it operationalizes them. It weaponizes them. Paradoxically, it weaponizes them in a way that is productive.
Ontopower is not a negative power, a power-over. It is a power-to: a power

viii

preface

to incite and orient emergence that insinuates itself into the pores of the
world where life is just stirring, on the verge of being what it will become,
as yet barely there. It is a positive power for bringing into being (hence
the prefix onto). The goal of Ontopower is to explore how this operationalization works. In particular, the book seeks to plumb the paradox that
a power so productive centers on preemption. Ontopowers are many and
diverse. Preemption is their keystone and cutting edge.
This is not a book of history. It is in equal parts pragmatic (how does
it work?) and speculative (what does how it works tell us philosophically
about the way in which the present- day ecology of powers obliges us to
rethink fundamental categories?). Each chapter sparks from very particular events in the history of post-9/11 culture and politics. The object of
the analyses, however, is less these historical moments per se than the
driving force of their formation as it passes through them. Preemption
is treated as a formative tendency moving through historical moments. It is
transhistorical.
The project of diagnosing a transhistorical tendency that concerns nothing so much as what has yet to emerge is fraught with difficulties. It not
only raises fundamental philosophical questions; it also raises questions
about how a philosophical consideration of the formative movement of
history relates to historiography. This is the problem of the relation between speculatively pragmatic thought and empirical study. This problem
is treated in chapter5, in a self-reflective pause midstream. It is returned
to in the afterword, which is a belated meditation on what comes before:
an afterthought on how the project of thinking the transhistorical force of
the not-yet-fully-emerged must conceive itself, paradoxically, as a history
of the present.
The afterword deals with the conceptual issues raised by the speculativepragmatic nature of the project at great length, at the same time as it
fulfils many of the functions of an introduction (including a chapter-bychapter synopsis). Its main job is to delve into the status of what throughout the book is called an operative logic. This is a term designating that
transhistorical tendencies are in and of themselves speculatively pragmatic
formative forces: they effectively carry a conceptual force of change (in
their way of formatively posing and operationalizing metaphysical problems). It is also a term for concepts themselves, in that when they succeed

preface

ix

in their mission to speculate pragmatically on the history of the present,


they have the power to carry over as transhistorical tendencies. In and of
themselves, concepts may be operative logics: forces for change. At this
point, the difference between a concept and a formative force of history
becomes a question of perspectivewhich is why, try as it might, historiography can never disentangle itself from philosophy, especially when
it is a question of such fundamentally quizzical issues as preemption and
ontopower. Alone, historiography cannot approach themmuch less the
crucial question for the future of what a counter-ontopower might be.
Readers of a particularly philosophical bent may enjoy reading the afterword first, as an introduction. Others may wish to enter the preemptive
thick of things directly with chapter1. Readers curious for more detail on
how preemption has carried over from the Bush administration into and
through the Obama administration, an issue sporadically addressed at various points in the book, may be directed to the lengthy aside inserted halfway through the afterword in indented text titled Bush on Steroids?.