Homeland Advisory Security SystemBrian Massumi writes about the US Department of Homeland Security’s “terror alert system”:

Life has restlessly settled, to all appearances permanently, on the redward end of the spectrum, the blue-greens of tranquility a thing of the past. “Safe” doesn’t even merit a hue. Safe, it would seem, has fallen off the spectrum of perception. Insecurity, the spectrum says, is the new normal. (“Fear (The Spectrum Said)” positions 13.1 [Spring 2005]: 31)

The Proudfully American Logo Museum (a site that’s well worth browsing) has a fine collection of threat logos. Here’s one that shines out for its dynamism:

Bush and Alert Spectrum
And it is our dynamic response to terror that, Massumi argues, the alert system seeks to calibrate and modulate:

The alert system was introduced to calibrate the public’s anxiety. In the aftermath of 9/11, the public’s fearfulness had tended to swing out of control in response to dramatic, but maddeningly vague, government warnings of an impending follow-up attack. The alert system was designed to modulate that fear. It could raise it a pitch, then lower it before it became too intense, or even worse, before habituation dampened response. Timing was everything. Less fear itself than fear fatigue became an issue of public concern. Affective modulation of the populace was now an official, central function of an increasingly time-sensitive government. (32)

Moreover, and like the other logos that are always at the edge of the screen, glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, this colour-coded alert system is aimed not at consciousness, but at “bodies at the level of their dispositions toward action [. . .] The system addressed the population immediately, at a presubjective level” (32, 33).

Television here takes on a new function, to become “the event medium,” distinguishing itself from the Internet though its “resurgent role as the privileged channel for collective affect modulation” (33). Bush’s is a televisual mode of governance, which takes advantage of the way in which TV hotwires a link between image and affect, bypassing persuasion or proof, conducting collective resonance or what Massumi terms “attunement” (32). As we tune in, so we are also attuned to the prevailing “affective tone or mood” (41), a modulated fear before an unknown future threat.

Massumi goes on to develop a sophisticated and complex account of what we could term the vicissitudes of fear in these post-9/11 times.

This account is too involved to detail at length here. Those who have access to Project Muse can download the whole article, and indeed the entire issue of positions, which includes a number of related articles such as Alberto Moreiras’s “Preemptive Manhunt: A New Partnership” and Marilyn Young’s “Permanent War.”

It’s interesting, however, that Massumi’s argument seems to reverse his position in the much-reproduced and collected article “The Autonomy of Affect” (which ended up as the first chapter of Parables for the Virtual). There, Massumi’s stress is on affect’s ontological priority, “its participation in the virtual,” but also the way in which “it escapes confinement in the particular body whose vitality, or potential for interaction, it is” (Parables for the Virtual 35). Affect in this sense is a figure of resistance, and also of constituent power: “Something has always and again escaped. [. . .] Actually existing, structured things live in and through that which escapes them. Their autonomy is the autonomy of affect” (35).

Here, in “Fear (The Spectrum Said),” however, Massumi emphasizes the initial co-presence, immanence or immediacy, of affect and action, the way in which “we have already begun to experience fear nonconsciously, wrapped in action, before it unfurls from it and is felt as itself, in its distinction from the action with which it arose” (36); it is only subsequently, “as the action unfolds” that “the affect of fear and the action of the body [. . .] begin to diverge” (37). Linearity (narrative) separates itself out from the nonlinear intensity of affect, and then recodes (reflects upon and recollects) that affect as, now, quantifiable emotion.

Massumi continues by tracing “the autonomization of fear” as, simultaneously, “a next natural step” (42; my emphasis) in a series of feedback loops (“from activation to feeling-in-action, from feeling-in-action to pure expression of affect, from pure expression of affect to branchings into perception, reflection, and recollection, then on to affective containment” [44-45]), and at the same time a politically-motivated mechanism of control that leads us eventually to “the wonderland world where the startle can come without the scare: body activation without the feeling [. . .] that it is” (44; emphasis in original).

So, two comments (and I suspect they’re related):

First, I’m not sure about this new topography of affect that Massumi presents here. Or rather, it’s not so much that the topography is itself new but that the conclusions drawn are very different. It almost sounds like a lament for the ways in which affect diverges from action through time, whereas “The Autonomy of Affect” had presented precisely that divergence (the fact that “something has always and again escaped”) as the very possibility of minoritarian empowerment.

Second, Massumi comes close, in presenting this series of “loops” as quasi-natural consequences of any shock to the system, to legitimating contemporary forms of power as simply the complex effects of unfolding immanent processes. This reminds me of the way in which Manuel de Landa eviscerates Deleuze and Guattari’s work of any political charge, by posing complexity theory as immanent justification for the world as it is.

I know that Massumi doesn’t want to leave us with this second conclusion, and to be fair I am sure that this article is simply part of a larger work in progress. But here at least the only gesture towards resistance or counter-power is, well, no more than gestural, coming in this piece’s one-sentence final paragraph, which reads in full:

Confusingly, it is likely that [the Bush administration’s fear in-action] can only be fought on the same affective, ontogenetic ground on which it itself operates. (47)

My own suspicion, then, is that some kind of counter-power only finds a place here as a residual “confusing[. . .] likel[ihood]” precisely because the main force of the article has been to argue that “all that is certain is that fear itself will continue becoming–the way of life” (47). Which is surely a resigned pessimism of the intellect if anything is.


Travel writer Tim Cahill tells us:

I am frightened by the jungle. I am frightened by the sickly sweet odors, by the moist darkness, by the dank fecundity. I am frightened by the chaos: green things lash about in slow motion, choke off lesser plants, rise towards the sun like those subconscious horrors that sometimes bubble up into the conscious mind. (Jaguars Ripped My Flesh 42-43)

He is writing about the rainforest of Northern Amazonia, more specifically the “Mundo Perdido” that straddles Venezuela and Guyana, and a clearer instance of Latin America as the West’s unconscious would be hard to find.

[UPDATE: OK, I’ve found one.]

Nor could one hope for a better example of the way in which the unconscious is cast in terms of (feminine) sexuality (and vice versa, of course): “sickly sweet odors,” “moist darkness,” “dank fecundity.” Not that there is anything very unconscious about these associations for Cahill. A little later, in a shallow canyon high up on Mount Roraima, the plateau mountain that inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, he strips off his clothes and, standing “naked under the unfamiliar sun,” informs us that “it seemed to me that the smooth, rounded, dripping rocks, the puddled depressions, the archways and spires, all had overtly sexual connotations.” What follows is a patch of rather purple prose that ends with “a terrible roar of release” as water from the plateau cascades down the mountainside (56).

It is often suggested that psychoanalysis is complicit with the colonial imagination. But although (as a good Deleuzian) I’m skeptical of many aspects of Freud’s work, it can also obviously be invoked to analyze and criticize colonialism’s own fantasies and desires.

The thing about the unconscious is that it is at the same time both alien and strangely familiar, intimate: unheimlich. What is frightening about the unconscious is also what is frightening about the self.

Cahill admits that the Latin American landscape (its populace, too, while we’re at it) functions for him as a kind of Rorschach blot: “there was a cavernlike quality to the canyon, and the mind does not allow such shapes to go uninterpreted” (55). But it is not as though such projections are “merely” imaginary. Or rather, the point is that they have real effects. As Cahill says of Conan Doyle’s story, “his fantasy [. . .] was so compelling that it gave the area its name” (44). Moreover, Conan Doyle’s fantasy motivates Cahill’s own trip to the region, otherwise a wholly senseless enterprise, particularly at the time of year he is there:

The urge to climb Mount Roraima in the rainy season is simply inexplicable without reference to psychiatric literature–and the tales of adventure one reads in childhood. (45)

The notion that the tropics drive unwary travelers mad is a familiar one; but so is the idea that they must be a little unhinged to be there in the first place.

And Cahill finds a fair few other foreigners who have either been adversely affected by this particular heart of darkness, or who were some way round the bend already. Not least the Latvian “hermit” Laime who “for nineteen years [. . .] had lived alone in the jungle, nineteen years alone with his thoughts” (48). But the prime example is Cahill, who is introduced as an anonymous third person, as though unrecognizable even to the author himself: “the gringo was sweating in the humid heat, and he began babbling in incoherent Spanish. [. . .] the big one with the beard, he was a writer named Tim Cahill” (40, 41).

The tropics, as so often, are a place where men (less often women) go to find themselves, to find the truth of the stories they heard as children, to find and confront their culture’s primal fears. But they are also a place where outsiders too easily lose themselves, either figuratively or literally. The last person who had tried to climb the mountain in the rainy season was “a solitary hiker from Caracas who had supposedly died in the frigid rains there” (53). And Cahill and his friends dice with death at least twice, at the outset when they are stopped by a Venezuelan army patrol (“‘They almost shot us,’ I said, incredulous” [41]), and at the end when the pilot due to fly them back over Roraima crashes his plane on the way down to meet them.

Cahill ends his account with an image of the dead at Jonestown, whose story he had covered some years previously, and so an image of “all those bodies bloating in the heat and the rain” (59). The tragic end to the People’s Temple saga, a tale of misplaced faith and mass suicide, comes to represent all the fears of what Latin America will bring out in us.

Jim Jones's cabinthe jonestown report