Category Archives: virtual

The Semiotics of Che Guevara: Affective Gateways. Book Review by Jeongwon Gim

Cambre, Maria-Carolina (2015). The Semiotics of Che Guevara: affective gateways. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

In The Semiotics of Che Guevara: Affective Gateways (2015), Maria-Carolina Cambre focuses on the semiotic significance of images of Che Guevara and its impact on their viral distribution around the globe. Cambre investigates the multiple renderings of the Che Guevara image—appropriations of Alberto Korda’s famous photograph titled Guerrillero Heroico. She considers this image an affective gateway mediating people with different political ideologies in various contexts. In this way, Cambre does not presume the global reach of the image as the inevitable result of a human-led economic and cultural globalization process. Rather, Cambre bridges the gap between a micro perspective on materialities of the “affect” in visual image and a macroscopic view of their impact as a visual phenomenon. Doing so, the author provides us with a more holistic, concrete understanding of the obscured materiality of the abstract, intangible transmission of visual images.

(Cambre, 2015)

The book comprises eight chapters, ranging from a brief introduction to the historical and socio-political salience and branding discourse of the Korda image, to much more complex layers and stages of its actualization of virtual qualities and the discussion of related issues, such as its queer tendency. Chapter two begins with Cambre’s investigation of current controversies surrounding the use of the Guerrillero Heroico image. In this chapter, she delineates its dislocation as a brand, a commercial product, an art-work, and a cultural artifact within and outside of the Cuban context. Building upon theoretical frames from phenomenologists such as Gabriel Marcel, Emmanuel Levinas and Roland Barthes, in chapter three, Cambre discusses people’s encounters with the image, which often tend to be connected with the idea of “hope.” This idea of hope as an animating motif contributes to the virtual recreation and resurrection of the Guerrillero Heroico. Following Hannah Arendt’s (1959) theory of action, the author introduces ethnographic case studies in chapter four to illustrate actioning and the performative aspects of the image; it has an effect on society by allowing multiple interpretations and being politically used by individuals with different ideologies. In relation to the image’s performativity and openness, in chapter five, the author further situates her discussion in semiotics to explain what she is doing differently. She overcomes the limitations of the reductionism of traditional semiotics, which understands the complexity and simultaneity of visual and social realities through signs operating on a plane that is simplified, rigid, and concrete. Throughout chapter five and seven, Cambre explores Donald Preziosi’s (2003) elaboration of Roman Jakobson’s addition of a fourth sign type: artifice. She connects artifice with the anthropological concept of art and agency suggested by Alfred Gell (1998) to illuminate the role of the image’s virtuality as a drive for social and political changes in the world. By doing so, the author maintains a multi-dimensional perspective on the semiotics of images. Particularly in chapter seven, Cambre emphasizes that Guerrillero Heroico itself is an agency that has generative power—the power of affect—to pull its alternative forms into different places to serve different political ideologies and authorize our “actions” in the future. In the final chapter, the author opens a discussion of the queer tendencies of the image as other possible forms of appropriations and mutation.

In the simplest terms, Cambre’s research begins with the question of “how and why does the image of the Guerrillero Heroico go viral to different places?” The author then connects this question of the reception, adaptation, and circulation of the image with the discussion of “face” in chapter seven. She maintains that Korda’s image of Che Guevara’s face bears witness to certain experiences, such as anti-imperialist and revolutionary activities. However, Cambre does not discuss the significance of “face” or explain how the material properties of “face” specifically help incubate immaterial forces—internal movements, energy, and virtual qualities emergent and realized in our encounters with “face”—to actualize as particular forms of experiences and “actions.” More specifically, Cambre does not indicate her understanding of the concept of “face” in visual images. For example, “face” can be read figuratively and metaphorically as a frontal/critical “aspect” and “appearance” or is understood in “literal” terms—literally the face of humans or objects (Adams, 2000). Although it seems appropriate to say that the author takes the definition of “face” in literal terms in her analysis of the Guerrillero Heroico, it is still important to clearly identify the concept of “face,” to illuminate its materiality and the abstract mechanism that exceeds the totality of certain features and experience.

According to the concept of “face” suggested by Deleuze and Guattari (1987), the facial image of Che Guevara can be understood as a landscape, map, or topology, which is abstracted as dominating qualities and norms at a distance and produced as an overcoding of subjects. At the same time, it is deterritorilized at a close-up scale by affording different affective energies such as a fear and hope of subjects (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). Thus, the ‘face’ of Che Guevara itself is decontextualized from the body and interior forces and functions as an autonomous entity (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987). This understanding may lead us to more concrete questions about the material properties of face, such as: 1) How does Korda image of Che Guevara impose onto us to assume its face? 2) What are these dominant material qualities of ‘face’ of Che Guevara? 3) More specifically, how does this ‘face’ selectively assemble its fragmented and varying movements and illustrations of different elements such as eyes, eyebrows, mouth, and cheeks and still link them with the elements and experience of the original and other appropriations of Korda image?

Although Cambre discusses artworks or images of the human figure and their global transmission, she seems opposed to an anthropocentric belief in the sociology, geography, or anthropology of art, that institutional gestures and human creativity are what suddenly transform an ordinary image into “art” imbued with cultural and political resonances. As such, in scholarly discussion of the global circulation of visual images, existing literature on globalization has focused on analyzing the role of images as carriers of certain socio-political and cultural needs in the context of evolutionary globalization. As a result, this perspective based on evolutionary functionalism has produced a simplified interpretation of the global distribution of images as an inevitable, unidirectional movement. To overcome the limited interpretations of the phenomenon, the author pays more attention to the properties and potentials of images that assemble people to distribute and connect mobile images to future actions (Miller, 2010).

Cambre also explores the potential of democratic performance in representation and reproduction of Guerrillero Heroico through a multi-dimensional semiotics. This alternative approach to semiotics allows her to consider representation as something that not only stands for other things, but also produces, acts, and is. Building upon this perspective, the author considers ambiguous and disobedient properties of the image as significant elements that reproduce different alternatives of the image and bring possibilities for democratic change. Here her affirmation of the democratic potential of the image is not simply to suggest that images can abruptly and literally make “democratic changes” in the world; rather, it addresses the latent “virtual” power of the image that forms our collective imagining for the future change. The constant reproduction and collective consumption of the image, at a grass-roots level, allows people to collectively engage with certain imaginations of the future and reshape the way we understand politics—which may in turn bring bottom-up changes to the world.

I recommend this book for the following reasons. First, the book promotes a transdisciplinary perspective that interacts with art, sociology, material culture studies, and anthropology. Methodologically, it incorporates phenomenology, semiotics, and arts-based research. The book will also inspire a broad range of students and scholars whose research is concerned with transferable lessons of applications and methods. Second, the book achieves a balance between subjectivity— such as the author’s personal engagement with the research subject—and objectivity drawn from theoretical discussions. The book provides a critical examination of the author’s own subjectivity, recognizing what frames our seeing to better understand the complexity of our reception of visual images. Third, along with the author’s own enthusiasm for the research subject, the case studies and empirical examples from various cultural contexts provided in the book make it easier for the reader to understand the semiotics of images. I recommend this book to students and scholars interested in topics ranging from the semiotics of visual images to reproduction and distribution of images and objects, politics of visual branding, art as revolution, and the ideological and political transmission of arts.

 Jeongwon Gim (University of Alberta)

 

References

Adams, T. (2000). White Walls, Black Holes: The Molecular Face of Contemporary Architecture. Interstices 5: 26-35.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. B. Massumi. London: Continuum.

Miller, D. (2010). Stuff. Cambridge: Polity.

 

Manuel DeLanda: Assemblage Theory. Book Review by Kalan Kucera

Manuel DeLandaEdinburgh: Edinburgh University Press 2016, ISBN: 978-1-4744-1363-3

When describing the genesis of the 1971 animated film The Point, Harry Nilsson said the idea came to him when he was “on acid and I looked at the trees and I realized that they all came to points, and the little branches came to points, and the houses came to points. I thought, ‘Oh! Everything has a point, and if it doesn’t, then there’s a point to it’” (Jacobson, 2004). While Nilsson may not have actually inspired anything about Manuel DeLanda’s Assemblage Theory–a refinement and expansion of ideas from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari–this quote could serve as a tongue-in-cheek thesis statement for the work. Manuel DeLanda is a philosopher and filmmaker who lives in the U.S. and, in recent decades, has cultivated an interest and expertise in the philosophical works of both Deleuze and Jean Baudrillard (Cvjeticanin, n.d.).

The idea of assemblages explored here originates from Deleuze & Guattari’s book, A Thousand Plateaus, where assemblage is defined as “a multiplicity which is made up of many heterogeneous terms and which establishes liaisons, relations between them, across ages, sexes and reigns – different natures” (DeLanda, 2016, p. 1). For the most part, DeLanda hews fairly closely to the theory of assemblages presented therein, framing this work as an “attempt to bring these different definitions together, introducing and illustrating the terms required to make sense in them” (p. 1). In the endeavor to define and explore assemblages across a variety of disciplines he mostly succeeds, with the exception of a discussion of topics related to the virtual that obfuscates and nearly sinks the whole construction that is presented.

After introducing important structural and definitional concepts, DeLanda uses the first few chapters of the book to refine these ideas and uses them to contextualize different historical assemblages. Concepts important to defining the construction of assemblages–exteriority vs. interiority, coding, emergence, singularities, historical entities, and territorialization–are all defined and set in several historical contexts including Human History (Ch. 1), the Evolution of Languages (Ch. 2), the Weapons of War (Ch. 3), and Scientific Practice (Ch. 4). Myriad examples in these chapters help show how assemblages form from heterogeneous components which ebb and flow as they are encoded / decoded and territorialized / deterritorialized. Assemblages themselves form larger assemblages, painting a complex systems theory that DeLanda uses to great effect with the assistance of these examples. In later chapters, the topic turns to the virtual and to a concept that DeLanda calls the “diagram” of an assemblage, a sort of “potential space” describing possible attributes of an assemblage that aren’t currently displayed.

In these latter chapters, the coherent tapestry of assemblage theory begins slowly to unravel. Discussion of assemblages and components thereof is tacitly abandoned for an exploration of their virtual counterparts, or diagrams. A description of something akin to a potential space, or representation, is described and explored, only to be seemingly tossed aside as a step towards “reified generality” (p. 138). Another section leads to conceptions of topological time and counter-actualization, concepts that DeLanda concedes are so abstract that special tools are needed: “Tools to manipulate these intensities… in the form of a growing variety of psychoactive chemicals that can be deployed to go beyond the actual world, and produce at least a descriptive phenomenology of the virtual” (ibid., p. 133). Until some rogue libertarians rescue the world from the tyranny of psychoactive sobriety, though, I fear these concepts shall remain shrouded in an impenetrable haze of conjecture.

Fortunately, the rest of the book is more accessible and, as an attempt to define and explain a theory of assemblages, this work is largely successful. DeLanda’s description of the components of assemblages and the ways in which they emerge based upon the coding and territorialization of their components is lucid and the historical examples help define a clear image of the concepts. As a materialist philosophy, the idea of assemblages is an attractive way to construct the dynamic interrelationships between history, components, and the whole that emerges from them. Several fascinating ideas are presented in an effective manner, including that the properties of an assemblage (or system) are emergent and not simply the summation of the properties of components, and that the history and ‘individuality’ of the assemblage is key to its properties, something DeLanda calls the “processes of individuation” (p. 140). These ideas are important to the theory and provide useful and welcome scaffolding for other conclusions.

Assemblage Theory works to refine and clarify some of Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas. There are interesting views worth considering for sociologists and those who wish to explore ideas of complex systems and their components. If, perhaps, someday another author attempts to summarize and expand upon a vision of assemblage theory, this edition will undoubtedly prove an invaluable reference. Unfortunately, an opaque treatment of the virtual and the complete lack of a unifying conclusion–or concluding statement of any kind–prevent this work from effectively making its Point.

Kalan Kucera, University of Alberta, Canada

References

Cvjeticanin, S. (n.d.). Manuel DeLanda – Biography. Retrieved from http://egs.edu/faculty/manuel-de-landa/

DeLanda, M. (2016). Assemblage Theory (First). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Jacobson, A. (2004). What’s The Point? The Legendary 1971 Animated Feature on DVD. Bright Lights Film Journal. Retrieved from http://brightlightsfilm.com/whats-the-point-the-legendary-1971-animated-feature-on-dvd/

What is Strategy? The Topological Exercise of Power

Topology of Power

What does it mean to say that power operates ‘topologically’ in politics, economics and everyday life?  Topology concerns non-Euclidean geometries – the kinds one might observe if one stretched a drawing of a triangle. Another example of a topological transformation is if one added dimensions to the drawing, extending the triangle into a 3 dimensional pyramid or developing and imagining it even further in more dimensions.

The topological character of power is that it exceeds ‘action on bodies’ or ‘action on others’ actions’ (cf. Foucault). Using techniques and administrative apparatuses, power can be projected as ‘action at a distance’. ‘Reach’ is a keyword that describes this extension of power to actualize it and put it into action despite intervening distances and mediations . For example, we talk of ‘the long arm of the law’.

The powers of a topological sensibility

Powers are multiple, subtle and include influence. ‘Reach’ describes the influence an actor may have on other actors.

Powers exists in and as ‘power relations’, whether the parties are aware that power is a factor. That is, power doesn’t have to be exercised as much as it simply has to have an effect. As such it is not a concrete thing but a virtual or intangible thing. It is real but not actual, ideal but not abstract. It has a multiple quality. There is no single ‘power.’

Sovereignty’ designates the aggregate powers exercised by the state. History is the time of this power-exercise. Territory is the space of the exercise of sovereignty.

However, States can no longer pretend to guarantee their citizens’ safety from other threats that are themselves powerful. These might include the threats of drone strikes and collateral damage and death (Pakistan, Somalia), of chemical poisoning by nerve agents (UK Skripal nerve agent poisoning), from drifting radiation particles (Scandinavia after the Chernobyl disaster), or from pandemics (SARS in Toronto Canada).

The polis, now often associated with cities, is the space of the demos, the people and democratic opinion.  It is a distinct space-time of assembly and belonging and as such a distinct topological entity.  It is not just a different scale.

Strategy

Strategy’ is a political technology that aims to persuade by establishing the spatiotemporal and other background conditions of a debate. A common strategy is public ‘consultation’ which aims to establish a ‘pubic will’ extracted from a population that legitimates a political course of action and/or the exercise of power. Power is not always exercised strategically, but even whimsical applications of power, if consistent, can be described as part of a strategy.

Tactic’ is the deflection of strategies, in the absence of control over the spatiotemporal and other dimensions of the context of a situation or of the exercise of power (cf. DeCerteau).

Influence,’ the multiplicity of powers, means that strategy is not closed off from the public or subaltern groups, or even individuals that act through social media as ‘influencers’.

Social media technologies and platforms have created new manifolds or spaces of power that exceed the reach of sovereign territories. These technologies are political and their strategic use for disinformation, persuasion has reconfigured the terrain of politics and the reach of these social media actors in general. For example, influencing the US election, extended Russia’s reach into the processes of the US sovereign state as well as into American territory.

Why? The reach of a topological sensibility

All this is more quickly grasped if one has a topological sensibility, looking to dimensions and influences rather than fixed actors such as “the State”.  This approach allows us to move from understanding positions of strength in a debate, project or struggle toward how to actualize that position as effects, to understand its reach; or to put it simply, to understand the power of the position explicitly.

Bearing the topological qualities of power in mind allows us to compare in one plane, so to speak, between power-geometries that are fixed, and to see the operation of power-topologies that stretch or bring new dimensions to the exercise of power. It allows a point-to-point comparison that pinpoints the effectiveness of the transformation that has occured despite the differences in appearances or the complexity of any resulting folded, stretched, involuted or flattened topologies.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)

Addendum

Comparison with Michel DeCerteau’s notion of tactics and strategy from The Practice of Everyday Life (translated from French 1984)

Strategy: “the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power (a proprietor, an enterprise, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated from an ‘environment.’  A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it (competitors, adversaries, ‘clienteles,’ ‘targets,’ or ‘objects’ of research). Political, economic, and scientific rationality has been constructed on this strategic model”(Certeau xix);
Tactic: “a calculus which cannot count on a ‘proper’ (spatial or institutional localization ),nor thus on a borderline distinguishing the other as a visible totality. The place of a tacticbelongs to the other.  A tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without  taking  it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance…”(Certeau xix).
Operations: goes along with tactics as actions that form a “network of an antidiscipline”(Certeau xiv-xv).
Trajectory: “suggests a movement, but it also involves a plane  projection; a flattening out… a graph… a line that can be reversed” (Certeau xviii).

Works cited:

de Certeau, M. (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

de Certeau, M. (1985). Practices of Space. In M.Blonsky (Ed.), On Signs (p. 134ff.). Oxford U.K.: Basil Blackwell.

Dictatorship by Cartography

Naypyidaw, capital of Burma. Guardian Cities March 2015

In 2007, writing for Himal Southasian magazine, Siddharth Varadarajan called Naypyidaw, the underpopulated capital of Burma, built by the military regime, “dictatorship by cartography, geometry”:

Vast and empty, Burma’s new capital will not fall to an urban upheaval easily. It has no city centre, no confined public space where even a crowd of several thousand people could make a visual – let alone political – impression.

The building of cities is a massive infrastructural undertaking, a spasm that reflects and requires the concentration of political, economic and affective power.   Are cities where there is no “right to the city” by the people cities at all?  Materially perhaps but not in intangible, virtual terms: While constructed like cities, they lack urbanity, the quality of the urban.

Rob Shields (University of Alberta)