- Reading Semblance and Event
It came as something of a surprise when I realized that Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts is the first book Brian Massumi has published since the influential 2002 Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Surprising only because in the decade following Parables for the Virtual, Massumi has continued to be an active and influential figure on the theoretical landscape. Among numerous other pieces, for example, he has written a series of important essays on the post-9/11 affective security regime, which, taken together, have the force of a short and incisive book.
Semblance and Event, the fourth volume in MIT’s “Technologies of Lived Abstraction” series, which Massumi co-edits with his partner and collaborator Erin Manning, pursues a different set of concerns, focusing largely on the arts. For this book Massumi circles back to pick up a couple of pre-Parables pieces, which he weaves together with an exciting introductory essay on “Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts” and a concluding tour-de-force in “four movements,” “Arts of Experience, Politics of Expression.” The book is unevenly (or unconventionally) organized. The introduction is longer than the first and third chapters combined, all of which together are approximately the length of the second chapter, a “semblance of an interview” published in 2008 in Inflexions, an online journal. And the final chapter, which by itself could stand alone as one of those slender volumes published by Verso or Prickly Paradigm Press, is nearly half the length of the entire book. But insofar as this chapter picks up on numerous lines of thought from earlier chapters, it serves here as a powerful conclusion to the book’s overall aim of articulating an aesthetic-political philosophy through the unfolding of the concept of “semblance.” Massumi draws this concept in large part, though not exclusively, from Walter Benjamin’s concepts of “mimesis” and “nonsensuous similarity,” tracing out its implications with the help of William James, Whitehead, and Deleuze, along with the especially useful introduction of psychologist Daniel Stern’s concept of “vitality affects.” Both through particular discussions of specific works of art (including among others music, dance, painting, and media installations) and more general discussions of abstraction, linear perspective, and the diagrammatic, Massumi advocates an “activist philosophy,” which teases out not only the politicality of the aesthetic but also the aesthetics of the political. I begin this review with such a generalized description both to prepare potential readers for the experience of reading Semblance and Event and to help account for the emphases and ellipses of this review, which focuses mainly on concepts from the introduction and closing chapter.
When my review copy of Semblance and Event arrived in the mail I had just finished reading Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object. Inspired by Massumi’s own commitment to relationality, one way for me to begin to think about reviewing Semblance and Event was to think about how the experience of reading Massumi differed from the experience of reading Harman. Perhaps because I had just been making my way through The Quadruple Object, Harman’s object-oriented ontology seemed in places to loom as an unnamed, shadowy adversary to Massumi’s event-oriented ontology. While Massumi does not directly engage with the texts of Harman or other speculative realists, there are several moments, beginning with the introduction, where Harman’s commitment to the ontological primacy of objects over relations comes clearly to mind. But it’s not only because I happened to read the two works next to one another that comparing the experience of reading Massumi with that of reading Harman is instructive. Indeed, from their opening sentences the two works stake out in markedly different prose styles diverging claims about where philosophy should begin. Thinking about some of the differences between the experiences of reading the two books can help illuminate some of the stakes for Massumi’s arguments in Semblance and Event as well as the two authors’ competing philosophical commitments.
Harman’s prose, in The Quadruple Object as elsewhere, is clear...