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  • Perception Attack: Brief on War Time
  • Brian Massumi (bio)

Syncopating Politics

We remember what we do not see.

This is how Governor George Pataki of New York, pious before unseen towers, inaugurated the 2004 Republican Party Convention that was to carry George W. Bush to a second term in office, riding the surf of 9/11 and the “war on terror” one last time before the swell subsided.1 Standing in the ebb years later far from Ground Zero, a reminder may be in order that the swell was more like a tidal wave. It burst levees, eroded embankments and laid down sediment, leaving the political landforms over which it swept reshaped. The Governor’s dictum might capture something more of the altered landscape than it might first appear from its proffering as a rhetorical flourish. It locates the flourishing of the political between memory and perception. This would be familiar ground, were the relation between the two presented as one of continuity: we remember now what once we saw (the towers); or, now we see what we shall henceforth remember (the towers’ reduction to ruins). Pataki, however, telescopes the moments of memory and perception into a single present tense. Memory and perception share the moment, entering into immediate proximity, while remaining strangers. Their disjointed immediacy syncopates the instant from within. We do not see now what we can never have seen, even as we watched: the enormity of the event. The present tense where memory and perception come disjunctively together is the time of the event that is like a lost between of the towers and their ruins, an interval in which life was suspended for an instaneous duration that was more like a stilled eternity than a passing present, comprehending reflection gone AWOL. In this time of the event, perception and memory fall out of step together, jointly retaining the syncopated power to affect. The off-beat time of the event disallows any one-to-one correlation between perception and memory. This makes the ground fall out from under the notion of representation, as applied to politics. It also makes time a directly political issue: the present’s relation to the past – or for that matter, to itself – is politically operationalized.

Kierkegaard distinguished two regimes of memory. “What is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas repetition is recollected forward.”2 Whereas memory as normally understood is a recollection of what has been, repetition is a recollection of what has not yet come—a memory of the future. This is not so hard to grasp if we think of repetition as self-contracting, on the model of habit. We say we have a habit, but we all know that it is really the habit that has us. It is an automatism that has taken hold and inhabits us. It is of its nature as an automatism to pass under the radar of awareness. We are only ever aware of a habitual action having occurred. What we consciously perceive are its next effects. Otherwise we would catch it in the act and decide to execute the action or not, in which case it will not have acted as a habit. A habit is self-deciding. It is a self-effecting force from the past that acts in a present which appears only in a next-effect. The present of the force’s actual operation is elided. This is a kind of syncopation of time itself, where the skipped beat is the operative present, the present of the operation. This active present is expressed only in the nextness that comes of it. It actively disappears into its forward expression. We normally think of habit as bare repetition and of repetition as barren by nature. In Kierkegaard, as in Nietzsche and Deleuze, repetition is a positive force carrying the past forward into a next expression. It is a positively organizing, even creative, force of time. This implies that it may be captured and put to use. The elision of the operative moment may be operationalized.

The US military knows this, judging by the currents in war theory on which it has nourished itself since the fall of the Soviet Union...

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