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  • A Thousand Plateaus for Neocon Bros
  • Michael F. Miller (bio)
Review of Brian Massumi, Ontopower: War, Powers and the State of Perception, Durham: Duke UP, 2015. 320 pp.

If for Slavoj Žižek, citing Jean-Jacques Lecercle, the "yuppie on the Paris underground reading Deleuze and Guattari's What is Philosophy?" represents the total subsumption of Deleuze's thought into the "ideology of late capitalism," then for Brian Massumi in Ontopower: War, Powers, and the State of Perception, Žižek's yuppie finds himself no longer "puzzled…by vintage Deleuze" (Žižek 2004). Having effectively swapped the company board room for the nation's war room, it would appear as if Žižek's now middle-aged yuppie has been awarded a promotion to the defense department for integrating expertly into national security policy a few of Deleuze's and Guattari's insights regarding "the autonomy of affect" and for applying to post-9/11 military strategy certain ideas and concepts shaped by their rhetoric of affects, powers, and forces (Massumi 1995; Žižek, 2004, 292). The neocons, it would seem, have also been reading A Thousand Plateaus.

With its thesis heavily indebted to the specter of Deleuze, Ontopower argues that George W. Bush's doctrine of "preemptive war" has become "the driving force for a reconfiguration of powers that has survived his administration and whose full impact we have yet to come to terms with" (vii). As a result of this "reconfiguration of powers," we have been led into what Massumi calls "the Long War," which he characterizes as "the telescoping of war powers into the untimely interval, making them all the more effectively self-completing: history in the making, menacingly foreshortened" (2015, 208). This reconfiguration of war powers is another name for the emergent ontological effects of environmental/governmental processes that manifest in the world as "ontopowers." Massumi defines "ontopowers" as "environmental powers that return to life's unlivable conditions of emergence in order to bring life back, redirecting its incipience to alter-emergent effect" (41), and he is quick to separate "ontopower" from Foucault's definition of biopower, but only to the extent that biopower is said to be a component of "ontopower's" operations: "Ontopower is conceptually distinct from biopower in that it processually encompasses it, along with its companion modes of power," Massumi writes, "and in Foucauldian terms, [End Page 443] ontopower is the coming into its own of the 'environmental' mode of power whose emergence Foucault hypothesizes…(234, 235)." In other words, ontopowers are best understood as the vitalist powers or forces that help engender life's emergent becoming.

In order to fully perceive the shifts that have taken place after September 11th, Ontopower argues that wars are no longer fought with direct force and violence, but are instead won or lost according to the logics of "soft power," which is a form of "epistemological warfare…that suspends the physical friction and ups the perceptual quotient (84, 82). By "upping [one's] perceptual quotient," the perceiver—or let us just say "the people" who live under a regime of perpetual potential terror—becomes more likely to respond to events in ways that are said to be more automatic or unconscious. Readers acquainted with Massumi's past work will be keen to remember that this description of autonomic, bodily responses to forces and intensities aligns quite neatly with his definition of "affect." In deploying this definition of affect as a power or force that operates below the threshold of cognition and thus escapes representation, Ontopower contends that the control, modulation, and production of perception, affect, and affective response all help make up the new contested site of politics and war. From this reviewer's embodied point of view, the argument that we are enveloped by a network of invisible military and political powers and intensities, coupled with the book's perspective which views bodies as affectively-responsive powder-kegs that could be triggered at any point in time, helps to sharpen the book's claim that soft power "immaterializes violence" (82, italics in original).

Military powers create a perpetual low-wattage state of potential-threat that Massumi defines as an "ontopower." "Ontopowers" designate a...


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pp. 443-451
Launched on MUSE
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