I have just finished reading Benjamin Bratton’s last book, The Revenge of the Real: Politics for a Post-pandemic World, and, given the urgency and relevance of this project, I think that an open, broad, and collaborative reflection is needed – one that, I hope, will unfold from multiple sources and actors. Thus, aiming to contribute, I leave here a few ideas.
0. From the book’s title and subtitle we get what are both Bratton’s diagnosis and general goal: from the title (The Revenge of the Real) we may grasp that according to the author, the current Covid-19 pandemic constitutes the irrefutable fact that “the Real” strata of the Earth – i.e., its deep, non-human, and somehow unknown biological layers – have taken over this planet, confronting and threatening human interests and their imaginary ruling position. The subtitle on the other hand (Politics for a Post-pandemic World), points out that this scenario still offers possibilities to learn quite transformative lessons, which, if they are correctly handled, can take the human kind to a, say, geologic new stage.
1. Learning these lessons implies, the author argues, embracing a “positive biopolitics.” This is Bratton’s central argument. In order to summarize, one could say that he supports this idea by pointing out that a sort of “positive biopolitics” has been developed for decades by earth sciences, which, by unfolding massive technological networks of surveillance and modeling of geological and atmospheric phenomena, have been able to show us the current environmental debacle in which we are. In other words, it would be thanks to this “positive biopolitics” that we are able to really know what our present is, and what our future may be. Therefore, he invests a great deal of effort arguing that once we acknowledge that the human kind is no other thing than an actual layer of the Earth biological interconnected system, as the pandemic has evidently showed, it will be clear that this “positive biopolitics” must be applied to us as well. This is the only way, Bratton explains, in which the human kind will be able to develop feasible and self-sustainable modes of (collective and collaborative) existence in a world where the fragility of life, as the pandemic also exemplifies, will be only increased. To all this, I agree.
2. Accordingly, he unfolds a persistent critique on how the very notion of biopolitics would have been historically developed and treated by Western philosophy: as an oppositional contrivance between the state and human subjects, Bratton contends. It is here where things start getting a little twisted in my view. For example, Bratton argues that “Western discourses of anti-surveillance are [… informed by] Foucault’s account of the history of subjectivity, identity, and individuation [which] is also a history of liberal individualism” (p. 67). Whereas this assertion seems fair in principle, it also includes elements that are quite debatable. Although the book makes clear attempts to remain on the side of a globally and pluralistically informed account, the persistent use of the label “the West” as a device to encapsulate and generalize the social and cultural history of the United States – perhaps a too old trick – still makes a global-southern migrant living in Europe like me sigh. More importantly however, the inclusion of the notion of individuation in the assertion seems to me both methodologically and strategically wrong. Bratton constantly equates individuation with individualism in an attempt to demonstrate that any successful politics for a post-pandemic world must overcome any neoliberal politics centered on the prevalence of the individual, to go instead after a politics based on planetary collective cooperation – the term neoliberal, which doesn’t seem to take part in Bratton’s jargon, is here my take and emphasis. We know however – and I assume that author does it too – that individuation implies something very different: the philosophical process of becoming. It is precisely here that Bratton could have found a robust philosophical and theoretical grid – with Simondon and his collective- and trans-individuation, for example – to support his critique. I will say a little bit more about this in point four.
3. Reasonably enough, the center of Bratton’s critique has been Giorgio Agamben; the old Italian philosopher who, through a series of essays that have ferociously circulated throughout the Internet – ironically if one considers that he is a technophobic – unleashed all his conservatism against the governmental policies aiming to placate the effects of the pandemic – i.e., lockdowns, curfews, mask obligations, as well as vaccination (see pp. 109-129). Here, I can only agree with and share Bratton’s lack of patience with this over-mystified and petulant madness. What I cannot share, however, is Bratton’s attempt to use such a level of academic lunacy as an example to characterize the supposedly general failure of philosophy in assessing the brutal bio- and techno-realism shaping our present (see pp. 120-129) – here I cannot help, but think of a recent lecture given by Rossi Braidotti at UDP Instituto de Filosofia in Chile, in which she said that French Theory is a US-American invention; a fully charged, if not biased, interpretation, development, and labeling of a certain portion of Europe’s philosophy (Braidotti, 2021). Not all philosophy has failed in that matter, and I assume that Bratton is well aware of it. The core of this mistake or rather hyperbole – he even calls Agamben a post-structuralist, one following an “all encompassing post-structuralist medievalism” to be more exact (see p. 118) – can be found in Bratton’s arguments against a sort of fixation of “continental philosophy in particular” (Ibid.) with the symbolic:
The irrelevance of the “Agambenian” biopolitical critique for this moment stems not just from its suspicion of science as secular counter-institution, but from its deeper adherence to an intensely symbolic way of knowing the human body. It is one that derives not just from a particular tradition of faith plus a reductive deployment of Foucault’s archaeology of governmentality, but an ontological tradition that detours around Darwin yet passes straight through Martin Heidegger (p. 122).
This fixation or emphasis on the symbolic, however, has long ago surpassed the old ghostly realms of the discursive and the subjective; an undertaking unfolded in corners located way beyond so-called continental philosophy and the cartography of thought Bratton is willing to give us. This is the case, for example, of Donna Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs (1985), where politics, feminist subjectivity, and technology merge; and Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker’s theory of networks (2007), through which they developed a philosophical account for a technological biopolitics of the 21st century – both projects that are not only relevant and complementary to Bratton’s, but enterprises that I’m sure he knows well.
4. To begin closing these notes, I would like to emphasize that I consider Bratton’s enterprise one that is absolutely relevant and urgent for the current times, and, all the more, for the near future. I deeply share his arguments in favor of developing and embracing a “positive biopolitics,” and I totally agree with the critical necessity of reevaluating and expanding the modes in which such a notion, biopolitics, has been historically unfolded, and, perhaps more importantly, how it has been applied to the cultural, social, and technological conditions brought about by the 20th century second half, and the early 21st century. But, as I have pointed out above, this is a project that began several decades ago, and it is also critical to acknowledge that. One can understand and actually be sympathetic to Bratton’s cynical focus on the manner biopolitics has been treated by a certain breed of philosophical and theoretical thought, particularly if one imagines that he is actually talking to, and of, his immediate academic environment – which is probably highly influenced by French Theory in the way it was pointed out before, and by the United States foundational mythos that, amazingly enough, we all know perhaps too well: free people against the oppressive state. I have myself embraced a similar critique about the general way in which these issues were treated in Chile when I was there, where the historical consequences of a brutal dictatorship produced an almost monolithic problematization of the body-state relationship. Probably the same goes for Germany and the historical consequences of the crimes committed by the National-Socialist regime – which in academic terms gave way to the Frankfurt School, which in turn had a great influence in the US, and in the way they read so-call Continental philosophy. However, as we all know, it is clear that the current circumstances require us to develop other ways to analyze and theorize the subject-state and the human-technology relationships. For that reason, I find it crucial that the very same arguments that Bratton offers to embrace a “positive biopolitics” – i.e., a collectivism that, globally interconnected, produces a politics of mutual care – are also applied to the modes in which we researchers, theoreticians, and academics in general prepare the conceptual and technological ground for such a deployment. In a way, the old Californian ethos of individual genius and grandiosity must be replaced by a true, transparent collectivism of knowledge production. In other words, it is precisely because Benjamin Bratton has become an internationally important intellectual by designing and developing collective platforms of knowledge production in the Real – i.e., The Terraforming project – that he can, and in my view must, have a similar approach in his rhetorical developments.
What I mean is that The Revenge of the Real and, all the more, a Politics for a Post-pandemic World, will find nodes of theoretical and philosophical interconnection first, as stated before, in the work of Galloway and Thacker, which in turn constitutes a network of relations where Deleuze – with his Postscript on the Societies of Control (1990) – and more clearly Gilbert Simondon, occupy prominent positions. The latter philosopher’s work On the Modes of Existence of Technical Objects (1958) and Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information (1958), would clearly boost Bratton’s arguments on the necessity of embracing processes of collective becoming that are entangled with, if not produced by, technology. Similarly, German media theory has demonstrated since the 1980s – in part due to an alternative reading of psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and deconstruction – that the realm of the Symbolic that Bratton criticizes, has been long ago taken over by machines. Here, the more clear and concise account seems to be Friedrich Kittler’s The World of Symbolic – A World of the Machine (1993/1997) – a project that additionally demonstrates that aesthetics, a space about which Bratton is also skeptical (see. pp. 134-142), has also been absorbed by technology, giving way to a techno-aesthetics that Bratton knows and mentions, but forgets or refuses to problematize as such. Moreover, German media studies and the Berlin School in particular, through its “radical” assessment of Foucault’s archaeology – where Wolfgang Ernst’s Digital Memory and the Archive (2013) and Technológos in Being (2021) have a lot to say – continue setting the ground to embrace technology in a complex, positive, and constitutive way, which could greatly resonate with Bratton’s planetary archive (see pp. 149-152). Bernard Stiegler, Yuk Hui, and Antoinette Rouvroy of course also come to my mind here. All this, to briefly sketch a philosophical and theoretical grid which, in one way or another, is already present in The Revenge of the Real. On the side of contemporary cultural theory, of course the works of Bifo Berardi, Mark Fisher, Sadie Plant, Helen Hester, and others, are part and parcel of the issues tackled by Bratton. Let’s show that this is a collective project!
5. Finally, for the sake of transparency, a brief disclaimer to declare a sort of conflict of interests here: to some extent I was moved to read Bratton’s book and then to write these notes, because the issues there tackled connect to some aspects of my current research, and I have myself attempted – although in a more modest manner, of course – to collaborate with the project Bratton is now leading. I have done that from different academic contexts, by presenting analyses and arguments that some times differ, and others coincide with The Revenge of the Real. On one hand, I did that through a paper I wrote last year called Whose Virus – Whose Code, where I argue that what the pandemic has made brutally evident is the deep ontological pervasiveness of the Symbolic; understood there – following the Berlin School way – as the technological systems of symbols governing not only the contagions, but also their (potential) control. On the other hand, I have also done that along with my friends and colleagues Joaquin Zerené and Dusan Cotoras through the article Towards the Operative Objects of Post-Capitalism (2021). There, we aim to show – somehow connecting to, but also diverging from Bratton’s strategy in chapter 18 of his book – that the current social uprisings seen around the world, but in our case particularly focused on Chile’s case, respond to, or resonate with, deeper, broader, and historically longer technological processes. This paper should be published later this month at APRJA.
Berlin, August 3rd 2021.