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  • Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience by Erin Manning, Brian Massumi
  • Matthew Goulish (bio)
Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience. By Erin Manning and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014; 187pp.; illustrations. $75.00 cloth, $25.00 paper, e-book available.

Dance scholar Erin Manning and philosopher Brian Massumi commence their collaboratively composed volume Thought in the Act by illustrating the superposition principle. “A stone dropped into a pond produces a ripple pattern. Two stones dropped into the same pond produce two ripple patterns. Where the ripples intersect, a new and complex pattern emerges, reducible to neither one nor the other” (viii). The principle resonates through the book in many registers, including its first person plural voice, undifferentiated between the two authors. “One never writes alone. As Deleuze and Guattari say, one writing alone is always a crowd” (viii). The line embeds a reference to the famous second sentence of A Thousand Plateaus, “Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd” (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:3). Massumi translated that landmark work from French into English in 1987, and Thought in the Act echoes its fused voice as well its stylistic brilliance. Manning and Massumi, however, depart from the vast scope of their predecessors, limiting their sources to a narrow range, predominantly William James and Alfred North Whitehead, engaged as much for their poetics as for their ideas. Yet these two authors acknowledge that the imagined stones could refer to their two stubborn dispositions: “In our writing together, we have had to learn how to ripple the difference between two stone-hard heads” (viii). Their conflicting differences never become apparent except as an advantage, reflected in the volume’s virtuosic range and contrasts.

Superposition illuminates their aim “to open philosophy to its outside” by “composing across the breach between philosophy and art” (vii) as they aspire to write the “conceptual interference pattern” (viii) between each pairing. They have considered the volume’s formal construction as a step in this pursuit, organizing it into two parts. Part 1, “Passages,” traces four modes of creative production: writing, architecture, dance, and visual art. These chapters, each with a narrow focus on one precisely chosen case study, offer less an analysis than a philosophical occupation of the subject, unfolding from the inside, not foreclosing through interpretation or historicizing, and following the occasional associative tangent, to “endeavor to make felt how philosophy can co-compose with other creative practices” (ix). This technique presents itself most thoroughly in the third chapter that attends to William Forsythe’s Woolf Phrase, the 2001 dance work that followed a “motional-relational” (43) path through Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. The writing feels most at home in considering this performance’s fused movement and language.

The first chapter works through a profoundly fruitful pairing of Whitehead’s philosophy of the event as that which takes a “subjective form” (14) in a process-based environmental field, with the emergent ideas of autism poetics. Invoking Amanda (now Mel) Baggs’s militant calls for the recognition of neurodiversity, and drawing extracts from the resonant writing of Tito Mukhopadhyay, the chapter proposes that “the field can be cured—of the neurotypical devaluing of autistic experience” (22).

In the brief second chapter, the authors dispense with description and plunge the reader directly into an immersive rumination on the rhythms and environments of Arakawa and Gins’s conceptual/architectural projects as understood through Whitehead’s reading of a passage from Francis Bacon’s Natural History (c. 1620). Any reader lacking previous knowledge of the work of Arakawa and Gins will need to seek it elsewhere. The invitation, liberating in its incompleteness, to escape the burdens of academic comprehensivity, can lend the writing an ungrounded feeling. Yet the recognition of any volume as a porous construct, always already open to other necessary texts, remains disarmingly honest even when taken to an unorthodox extreme. The [End Page 180] fourth chapter concludes these phase-shifting varieties of thought, viewing painting as philosophy’s outside and “intercessor” (64), and regarding Bracha Ettinger’s photo-reproduced anti-images as classical compositions and vibrant retinal experiences on...


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