Existentially weighted time decay: speculative fragmentation and political immunology

Lebbeus Woods. Injection Parasite, Sarajevo (1993).

(This is the text of a presentation given at Wyrd Patchworks 5, a digitally mediated lecture series and round-table based in Prague, Czech Republic on November 28, 2020. #WyrdPatchwork is an ongoing series of events organized and moderated by Diffractions Collective. Thanks to Dustin Breitling for the invitation. The same text is also hosted on the Diffractions Collective website, along with other transcripts and videos of the event.)

Thanks for inviting me to participate in this discussion and for the introduction earlier. It’s always very encouraging when there’s interest in my work, and I relish the opportunity to speak with other people engaging with some of the themes we’re talking about today. As a pretty classically trained political theorist, I often end up speaking, primarily, with other academics. The exception, though – especially over the past year, partly due to the pandemic – is provided through online fora, like blogs, and Twitter, and so on. So it’s great to be a part of this conversation.

What I’d like to do today is propose two projective or tentative hypotheses, both of which at first listen might sound familiar to you, but, if possible, I want to defamiliarize them. I want to make them difficult, provocative, even troubling. In part, I think this will be good for our discussion, but also I’m wary of getting too comfortable with the ideas I’m using to think with. Comfort and insight rarely go together, and there’s always a dark remainder that goes along with an idea. Perhaps this is a necessary corollary of the fact that ideas, like other instruments and tools, always admit of repurposing.

I’m purposefully taking a more experimental or hypothetical approach in this talk. Partly, this is because of a tweet I read the other day, which forensically mapped the kinds of responses we theorists sometimes produce when faced with significant developments. The tweet, by Gordon Mohr, @gojomo, reads: “Recent Events Initially Surprised Me To The Core, But Upon Further Reflection I Realize They Just Prove I’ve Been Right All Along.” He continues: “Thank Goodness THIS Crisis Will Finally Convince Everyone Else To Embrace The Radical Reorganization Of Society That I’ve Been Urging For Decades.” And he concludes the thread by writing: “To Wrap Up, I’m Certain Your Kind Of Thinking On This Issue Has Killed Many People, Is Still Killing Them Today, And Will Continue To Kill In The Future, But I Have Enjoyed This Opportunity For Discussion, And Look Forward To Continuing It At Another Time.”

It’s a darkly funny, even acidic series of tongue-in-cheek observations, but I was both intrigued and somewhat shaken when I read them, because they rather ruthlessly trace the shape of many theoretical contributions or postures. On the one hand, in theory circles, we often indulge in a certain kind of retcon, such that every novel development in the world serves primarily to confirm our priors. On the other hand, it’s also not uncommon for theories themselves to be retconned so as to have predicted each novel development before the fact – although, admittedly, usually, after the fact. In part, this temporal twistiness is probably a function of various cognitive and institutional biases, especially given the various deformations to which our knowledge economies are subject.

But there’s a lesson here, as well. We should be wary of ourselves and our arguments when we find novel developments in the world too familiar, or discover that, seemingly, such novel developments only confirm what we think we already know. Partly, this is just a simple statement of a kind of cognitive fallibilism, or openness, which I think is a necessary feature of reason tout court, but the point is also intrinsically political in nature. Not just because knowledge has a political dimension (although it surely does), but also that our apprehension of what is familiar and what is novel has consequences for our uptake of the distribution of possibilities which is available to us at any given moment. In some sense, politics just is the collective navigation of the distribution of possibilities available to us. I’ll say that again: In some sense, politics just is the collective navigation of the distribution of possibilities available to us. As the political theorist Hanna Pitkin observes, the very task of political theory is embodied in “the attempt to define the interface between what must be accepted as necessary and what can be altered through active intervention.”

And that’s partly what I’m trying to explore, or sound out, through examining these hypotheses, namely, the dark interface between what is necessary and what can be altered through active intervention.

On to the hypotheses. There are two. Number one: Speculative fragmentation gives us conceptual toolkits. Number two: Politics is necessarily immunological. There you go. Perfectly clear. That’s it. That’s the tweet. We’re done. Just kidding. I can say a little more, I think.

So the first hypothesis is that speculative fragmentation gives us conceptual toolkits. In plain language, this means that imagining or theorizing conditions and scenarios of material breakdown and political collapse is a necessary and valuable part of navigating possible futures.

Indeed, I think in many ways this process propels political projects forward. There’s a kind of power charge in capturing and repurposing dissipative intensities. And I can’t overstate the point: Given the impossibility of omnipotent agency, or what ancient political philosophers thought of as the necessary imperfection or even imperfectability of political life, we have to be able to cope with losses and setbacks without retreating into melancholy, or surrendering agency. Even moreso, we have to find ways of turning losses into opportunities, of finding opportunities at the grounds zero of our catastrophes, of refusing to cede conceptual and strategic terrain when it is contested or seemingly captured, lost, or occluded. If there’s one thing we should learn from political history, it’s that victories are never final. No political project ever really completes itself. (As an aside, this insight, that no political project ever really completes itself, is something it seems very few political thinkers are able or willing to uptake.)

In any case, recall that, in ordinary navigation, one “reads” the landscape in order to determine various possible locations (for example, your current location, or the coordinates or points of reference available to you), to determine conditions of passability or visibility, and to determine the ease or practicability of pathways forward. So every navigational decision entails some degree of negotiation with various constraints and, indeed, those constraints make navigation possible in the first place.

In this sense, actually, there is a strong parallel to diffraction, because, as you know, diffraction is a phenomenon that occurs when a wave front strikes an obstacle and then incorporates the effect of that encounter into its own propagation. In other words, waves diffract around obstacles. And, one way or another, they can’t help but carry the imprint of obstacles with them. Likewise, navigation only happens inside systems of material constraint, even as the process of navigation changes the constraints to which it is subject – for example, by moving the navigator from one environment into another environment, which changes locations, conditions, coordinates, and pathways alike.

Again: Speculative fragmentation gives us conceptual toolkits.

Note that fragmentation can refer to lots of things: divergent or incommensurable epistemic paradigms; expectational horizons calibrated by very different desires, goals, practices, or values; material environments degrading or reconfiguring themselves on different timescales, which afford their inhabitants very different consequences, opportunities, and services; the breakdown of political institutions; the decay of basic social norms. Typically, the structural integrity of all these things – epistemic paradigms, expectational horizons, material environments, political institutions, social norms – relies upon an assumptive framework I call the standard assumption.

In its clearest, simplest form, the standard assumption is that the future will resemble the past. And, on its own terms, the standard assumption is a pretty good thing to have and to use. We rely on it to make decisions, plans, and predictions. Generally speaking, if the future did not resemble the past – if there were not a significant degree of causal uniformity on display in the world – then, to put it technically, we’d be fucked. A completely unpredictable world would be formally unnavigable, a “blooming, buzzing confusion” (William James), an ontological riot. So, in practice, we typically rely on the standard assumption to one degree or another, and, yet, we find ourselves in circumstances that inevitably shift, suddenly or subtly or both.

As a paradigm case, consider mathematical catastrophes, a concept from catastrophe theory, a branch of mathematics discovered by the French mathematician René Thom in the 1960s. A mathematical catastrophe refers to the point in a mathematical model when a vanishingly small change in the input of the model results in a very large change in the model’s output. Think: tipping points, or the straw that breaks the camel’s back. As the American Mathematical Society relates, “The simplest example of a catastrophe, mathematically speaking, occurs in the system consisting of a ball free to roll under gravity in a double-well container that can be tilted from one side to the other. Here the input is the tilt of the container, and the output is the position of the ball.” In the system described, the mathematical catastrophe occurs at precisely the point when any change in tilt causes a major displacement of the ball from one well to the other. (Technically, this is called a fold catastrophe, meaning it is a one-parameter catastrophe. It has one controlling variable, namely, tilt. There are other kinds of catastrophes.)

So what happens when we suspend the standard assumption?

In other words, what happens when we identify a local instantiation of the principle that the future will resemble the past and speculatively break it apart? This is what I am calling speculative fragmentation. First, identify a local instantiation of the standard assumption. This can cash out a lot of different ways, but often local instantiations look like seemingly immutable or invariant, stable or static entities, events, objects, and referents. (There’s also a very interesting feature of the standard assumption implied here, which is that it has a necessarily time-dependent aspect. If you assume the future resembles the past, then you should ask: but how far into the past? You could call this feature existentially weighted time decay, playing off the idea of exponentially weighted time decay, which refers to the process in time series analysis in which recent observations are weighted exponentially more than observations further back in the past.) Suspending the standard assumption is, first and foremost, or at least initially, a speculative practice, which breaks apart our assumptive framework and thereby provides the option of changing the coordinate map we use to navigate the distribution of possibilities available to us. Speculative reason maps distributions of possibility. Such a distribution constitutes a set of alternative possibilities. And such possibilities do really exist, even if they exist in a different way than do actualities. Because thinking is not a ghostly operation that supervenes upon the world without touching it, speculation remains a kind of action – or, rather, it’s a precondition for action (as opposed to mere behavior, or reaction), which irreducibly accompanies what we identify as action in every case.

So: speculative fragmentation gives us conceptual toolkits, which is to say, it breaks up or breaks apart – meaning: it fragments – the objects that constitute our ecological, material, and political worlds. By doing this, speculative fragmentation frees up these objects for adaptive repurposing, for salvage. A salvage project is not just about stripping down something old in order to make something new, because repurposing always integrates functional elements from what is being salvaged into the new output. In this regard, a salvage mentality refuses the appeal of ex nihilo solutions, or the creation of new programs from out of nothing. Instead, a salvage mentality seeks to repurpose old materials so as to build speculative engines that can’t stop generating affects, concepts, hypotheses, programs, questions, and regimes of description and redescription, all intended to emphasize the immense exigencies we face and to navigate them more effectively.

With this, kind of, master hypothesis in mind – that speculative fragmentation gives us conceptual toolkits – I’d like to explore another, more limited, but also more specific or substantive hypothesis. Perhaps it constitutes or provides us with a conceptual toolkit of its own. At the very least, it carves out a problem space worth considering.

My second hypothesis is that politics is necessarily immunological. Let’s unpack that a little.

Historically, the immune system was understood to be the means of differentiation between “self” and “other” (which is to say, non-self) bodies or elements of bodies. Practically speaking, these means of differentiation form immunological mechanisms enabling the defense of the host organism from deleterious or invasive pathogens. The problem with this purely defensive, even martial, conceptual scheme of immunological function – call it the securitarian model – is that the immune system doesn’t actually work like that.

According to the securitarian model, the primary or even sole function of the immune system is to enable the self-perpetuation or ongoing survival of the host organism by means of asserting or preserving functional integrity against incursions of pathogenic exteriority. However, while there are indeed elements of risk mitigation at play in immunological responses, we fundamentally misconstrue the immunitarian dynamic when it is characterized in terms of the “self-identity” vs. “other identity” dynamic, which invariably translates into the policing of borders, the repulsion of invading hordes, and so on.

These are plague doctor dynamics.

As many have argued more recently, the “self-identity” vs. “other identity” model depends upon an “excessively strong metaphysical conception of biological identity.” In empirical terms, the securitarian model deteriorates insofar as the processual continuity of immunological identity entails both immune responses to so-called “self” components and the lack of immune response to so-called “other” components. For example, consider the auto-regulation of T lymphocytes and the consumption of dead cells from apoptosis or other means, the phenomenon of microchimerism, as well as, in a pretty humdrum way, the extensive toleration of bacteria, certain parasites, the developing fetus, grafts, and various relatively benign “intrusions” and traversals. The site of a body is always already a site of distribution, transfer, and transit.

In contrast to the securitarian model of politics, we can pose a properly immunitarian model, grounding itself in what is called the “continuity thesis” regarding the origin of the immune system, which suggests that, given empirical observations about immune response, it is actually “strong discontinuity in the interactions between immune receptors and their targets” that tends to “trigger an immune response ”(241). In other words, “the immune system does not primarily discriminate between ‘self’ and ‘non-self’, but between epitopes [endogenous or exogenous molecular patterns] that are constantly moving through the organism” (ibid.). The immune system provisionally taxonomizes the necessary and the sufficient (or insufficient) conditions that contribute to various degrees of bodily porosity and responsivity. So the significance of the immunitarian model as opposed to the securitarian model is that it allows us to refigure identity as a continuous process of structured responsivity that allows the ontologically discontiguous continuity of a given identity to emerge and to sustain itself.

There are lots of examples of other contrasting applications or implications of how the immunitarian dynamic gets conceived or misconceived. As examples, consider the securitarian model as applied to international borders, such that imporous borders are presumed to be necessary for nativist conceptions of national belonging or self-identity, or the securitarian model as applied to the police, such that the function of the police is asserted to be quasi-military applications of force directed at criminally deviant citizens and perceived social defectors or subalterns. But the securitarian model of immunological function is faulty. In fact, it’s so faulty that applying and pursuing it in these cases leads to self-consuming feedback loops, the dynamic equivalent of an autoimmune disorder, in which immunitary agents start attacking the body politic itself. This is perhaps especially obvious in the case of modern police forces, that effectively wage war on the populations they, quote, “serve,” unquote.

We can also consider the real function of geographical, political, and social borders. We misunderstand what borders are at an ontological level when we characterize them merely in terms of imporous dividers. Borders divide things, yes, but they are also unique sites of connection and transit that participate of both adjacent entities (states). Accordingly, borders do provide boundaries that indicate the extension and shape of a place, but they also force that place into relational adjacency with the place next door. A border simultaneously divides and provides a site through which the meaningful circulation of bodies, goods, symbols, and weathers transpires. A step might be just a step, but a step across a border might trigger all sorts of material and political consequences. Again, we see the immunitarian dynamic made manifest in the figure of the border insofar as the border demarcates the outside of a territory by means of including its own limits. As such, we return to the robustly immunitarian insight that conceiving an identity appears to require the operationalization of insights into finitude and porosity as the very conditions of material possibility for identity in the first place. As the Italian political philosopher Roberto Esposito writes: “rather than acting as  a barrier for selecting and excluding elements from the outside world,  [the immunitarian dynamic] acts as a sounding board for the presence of the world inside the self. The self is no longer a genetic constant or a pre-established repertoire, but rather a construct determined by a set of dynamic factors, compatible groupings, and fortuitous encounters;  nor  is  it  a  subject  or  an  object,  but  rather,  a  principle of action. [Identity is a principle of action.] The boundaries of the self do not lock it up inside a closed world; on the contrary, they create its margin, a delicate and problematic one to be sure, but still permeable in its relationship with that which, while located outside it, from the beginning traverses and alters it. We could say that, contrary to all the standard military interpretations, the immune system is itself the instrument of this alteration – even if, or precisely because, it seems to resist the alterations: every time it goes into action, the body is modified with respect to how it was before” (169).

So: politics is necessarily immunological. But this doesn’t mean what we think it means initially. What it means is that our politics needs to incorporate exteriority and negativity inside itself – that doing so doesn’t spell the end of positive political projects, but is the condition of possibility for reformatting what our politics can do in the age of, simultaneously, extreme connectivity and extreme reactivity. There’s a very real sense in which politics is always already a kind of xenopolitics, a politics of the Outside.

Ironically, the contrasting view – informed by the standard assumption – is that politics can only really take place inside the Agora, which is to say, inside the closed, identitarian space belonging to immediately and mutually intelligible citizens who warrant their common claims to citizenship by refusing barbarian speech or repelling barbarian hordes. Historically, the Agora named the public space in which Greek citizens contested, proposed, and reflected upon political decisions and possibilities. It was located in a physical place, like the Agora of Athens, and citizens congregated there, first, to argue and orate and, later, to buy and sell goods and services. So the Agora was a model of political community and sovereign (or semi-sovereign) decision-making, but it was also framed or made possible specifically in terms of architecture and design: a space, or a place, in which a particular mode of political life could articulate and perform itself.

I’ve written elsewhere about why the Agora isn’t actually a good model for politics, so instead of talking more about that, I’d like to conclude by turning to an example of the immunitarian dynamic that cashes out a little differently, namely, the idea of radical reconstruction, drawn from the American speculative architect Lebbeus Woods (who was also from Illinois, by the way). Woods was interested in architecture as a kind of speculative engine for reconfiguring living spaces for sapient beings. There is no such thing as an architecture that is not speculative to its core, and this is exactly as true of the wildest experiments in architectural form as it is for the most commonplace instantiations of commercial design.

In particular, I want to direct your attention to Woods’s work on war and architecture (you can look up his designs for Sarajevo another time, or for post-earthquake cities; they’re quite striking, but for now I am just interested in his animating or underlying ideas). He writes that the majority of postwar reconstruction projects in architecture typically evidence one of two guiding principles. The first principle is to “Restore what has been lost to its pre-war condition. The idea is to restore ‘normalcy,’ where the normal is the way of living lost as a result of the war. The idea considers the war as only an interruption of an ongoing flow of the normal.” The second principle is this: “Demolish the damaged and destroyed buildings and build something entirely new. This ‘new’ could be something radically different from what existed before, or only an updated version of the lost pre-war normal.”

In contrast to these two principles of reconstruction, Woods proposes what he calls a principle of radical reconstruction, which he summarizes as follows: “the postwar city must create the new from the damaged old.” He often thematizes this principle in terms of architectural figurations of the scab and the scar – and yet he is relentlessly focused on habitability or, rather, rehabitability. Recall that buildings are machines for living in (Le Corbusier). And Woods’s designs, if you look them up, will strike you by the degree to which they look like traditional buildings that have been expanded, penetrated, and transformed by novel extrusions and intrusions, which Woods intends to repurpose wartime adaptations and to integrate the effects of bombings, shellings, and even stochastic terrorism into the new postwar living arrangements. In other words, Woods speculatively immunizes architecture against wartime destruction by incorporating an aspect of that damage and destruction into the very form of our buildings.

In a similar vein, I’d like to propose a concluding image, or imperative, or metaphor, or parable, or perhaps just a question, our question. If you’re stuck inside a slowly collapsing building, then how to build structures inside the collapsing building that will (a) survive the collapse and (b) leverage or repurpose the stresses and torsions of the collapse in order to erect or stabilize themselves? We are living in the midst of a slow collapse, or a transition into a fragmented, multipolar world order, so that is our question. When a  building falls down, its gravitational potential energy is converted into kinetic energy, which can be harnessed and put to new ends. So, to end with another question, which admittedly highlights only one element in the stack of problems we face and systems we have to navigate in our collapsarian world: How can the material and speculative fragmentation of the securitarian model open the door to properly immunitarian reconfigurations, and what conceptual tools can or should this repurposing of the immunitarian dynamic open up for us?