Histories of Violence: Affect, Power, Violence — The Political Is Not Personal

THIS IS THE 14th in a series of dialogues with artists, writers, and critical thinkers on the question of violence. This conversation is with Canadian philosopher and social theorist Brian Massumi, whose most recent book is The Principle of Unrest: Activist Philosophy in the Expanded Field (2017).


BRAD EVANS: Among the many contributions you have made in your work, you are particularly known for innovatively developing the concept of affect. How do you understand this concept and why is it relevant for understanding power?

BRIAN MASSUMI: I appreciate the question, because there tends to be a misunderstanding that affect is about only personal experience. Because of that supposed emphasis on the interiority of the individual, it is often thought that affect is by nature apolitical. For me, it has always been the exact opposite. I was attracted to the concept because of how directly political it is. It is a power concept through and through.

The basic definition that I keep coming back to comes from Spinoza, who spoke of “powers to affect and be affected” as what defines a body and a life. A power to affect and be affected is a potential to move, act, perceive, and think — in a word, powers of existence. The “to be affected” part of the definition says that a body’s powers of existence are irreducibly relational. They can only be expressed in dynamic relation with other bodies and elements of the environment. The power to affect and the power to be affected are inseparable; they are two sides of the same coin. They are reciprocals, growing and shrinking as a function of each other. So from the start, affect overspills the individual, tying its capacities to its relational entanglement with others and the outside. Affect is fundamentally transindividual.

The word “power” here is in the first instance not power-over. It is power-to. Affect grasps life from the angle of its activity, its exuberance, its drive to express always more of a body’s powers of existence or potential to be, in an always irreducibly relational way, in attunement with the affordances of the outside. It is an expansive concept, and a concept of expression. Each act expresses powers of existence, and varies them, affecting and being affected in a way unique to that circumstance, so that every act of being is also a modification that takes its place in an ongoing becoming. Power-to is the power to change. That is the starting point: a nonlimitative concept of power as life-enhancing, and life-changing, through an openness onto the outside.

The problem then is to account for power-over, which limits power-to and curtails becoming through repression or the normative channeling of activity. By this account, power-over is emergent. It is not foundational. It is not a general, abstract force, or Law with a capital L. It is a particular result, a kind of achievement. Like every achievement, it can come undone, or be undone. It has to continually work to maintain itself. This means it is always manifesting its weaknesses, even as it exerts its sway. This is empowering politically, because it makes change and the affirmation of powers of life primary, and attributes them their own power — as a kind of directly affirmative, primary resistance.

Through this conceptualization of power, what you also seem to be proposing is a different concept of politics and the political?

This concept of power expands the realm of the political beyond its usual connotation of formations of domination, containment by institutions, and channeling by norms. It extends it to a level of emergence where positive powers of existence are stirring and vying to express themselves, laying claim to an autonomy of becoming. Power-to is a strange amalgam: it refers to a relational autonomy. This extension of the concept of power is often spoken of in terms of a distinction between “the political” (the autonomous expression of relational powers of existence as primary resistance) and “politics.” Politics is the capture of powers of existence, turned against their own expansion and enhancement.

This might sound very abstract, but it’s actually all about intensities of experience. There is a third part of the definition, which says that a power to affect and be affected always manifests itself eventfully, in a transition, a passing of a threshold across which a body’s powers of existence are either augmented or diminished. They are raised to a higher power or curtailed. This transition to a higher or lower power-to is felt as a shift in a body’s intensity of existence, its capacity to be all that it can express, and express more of what it can do.

With affect, the political becomes directly felt. This has all kinds of implications for political practice. For one thing, it opens the way for a fundamentally aesthetic approach to politics, taking aesthetic in something close to its etymological meaning as pertaining to qualities of experience. But it also closes the door on the limiting idea that if you are talking about qualities and intensities of experience, you are talking about subjective interiority. Here, you’re talking about intensities of relation that register individually, while directly making a difference in the world. These pertain to the individual’s autonomy of expression of its powers to be, but only to the extent that that expression is participatory, directly and dynamically entangled with the outside.

I’d like to bring this conceptual insight directly to the question of violence. What does the word “violence” mean to you from a political and philosophical perspective?

It is clear that the concept of violence cannot be reduced to direct, bodily violence. Violence is not only in the act. It also acts in potential. It operates even when it doesn’t pass fully into action. This is widely acknowledged in political discourse concerned with “structural violence” and “micro-aggression.” But from an affect philosophy perspective, the concept of structural violence is questionable. It is too broad. It makes violence into that kind of general, abstract force that underlies every situation and every act like an inescapable foundation.

This is a profoundly disempowering notion. It puts the individual at the mercy of forces that are not just circumstantially more powerful than it is by several orders of magnitude, but are essentially so. It is hard to see how what is founded — the individual life — can escape or counteract its foundation — it’s formatting by power in that overpoweringly abstract understanding of it.

The concept of affect offers two strategies here. The first is to define violence as power-over: the curtailment of the power-to. This acknowledges that violence is not reducible to the punctual acts that bring it to full expression in bodily aggression. It can act in and as its own potential. Violence can be as oppressive in the way it looms over us as an unspoken threat that is applied unequally, depending on the color of a body’s skin, its gender, and other conventional markers that the exercise of power-over uses selectively to trigger itself into operation.

The second is to say that even though violence looms everywhere all the time, it never does so in a general way. Even as a threat, it is a particular operation. Or more accurately, a particular way of being in pre-operation. To have any effect, the threat, as potential for violence, has to make itself felt in some way. To make itself felt, it has to introduce itself into each situation into which it moves. It has to make ingress, and it does this affectively. “Structural” violence is no less an event than the swing of a club. But it is a directly affective event, which diminishes a body’s expressive powers of existence even without actually lifting a finger. “Priming” is a way of talking about what kind of event this entering into pre-operation is.

Priming is the way in which the conditions set up for a situation implant certain tendencies in it. That is what I meant by pre-operation: being present in tendency. This conditioning-in of tendencies is contingent on signs, including but not limited to the bodily markers I just mentioned. Violence in the broader sense affectively “in-signs” itself into situations. The priming of the situation is the way it signposts that a conversion of the power-to into an exercise of power-over is imminent, looming over every action, on the brink of coming fully into act.

As I said, this in-signing is itself a kind of act, or event. This means that it is possible to respond to the violence making potential ingress on the same plane on which it operates: that of live events. There may be an inkling of a potential to alter-prime the event toward a different set of conditions, activating different tendencies. This amounts to taking back potential. To act politically is to occupy potential.

Might we not also apply this logic of violence as potential to the concept of resistance?

Yes, violence is everywhere all the time, effectively in potential — but so is resistance. There is a primary resistance that is always churning, always vying, always pushing toward the augmentation of powers of life. And this can be performed. It can be enacted in a way that it is attuned to the ingression of violence in that particular situation, countering it head-on or clandestinely evading it. This brings things to a down-to-earth tactical level, which can save us from the paralysis that the over-arching general concept of structural violence can easily create. How can a mere part resist such a foundational whole? How can you fight a generality when your existence is always local?

The idea here is that the “general” violence has to make itself enter into each particular situation in which it wants to hold sway, but that ingression is always already met with primary resistance — and where there is resistance there is some degree of freedom in how a body is affected and can affect. The need to make ingression, rather than just being in place a priori, introduces a degree of play, in the sense in which we say a mechanism has play, which can potentially be exploited in situ to confound the operation of power-over. It opens the way for an affirmative “micro-politics” in response to the ever-renewed background conditions of micro-aggression and the punctual macro-explosions of outright violence that they hold in ready reserve.

The trick is to avoid responding on the same general level on which the violence seems to operate. Don’t take it at face value. That only gives it more power. Always remember that power has to adapt itself to each situation, and that means that there is always a chance that resistance can counter-adapt itself on the fly — if it is affectively attuned to the singularity of each exercise of power. To do this, you have to live out the situational intensity of this experience, here and now, in all its complexities and sinuosities.

Principles are not enough. Critical judgment is not enough. Being “woke” is not enough. These are necessary, but they are raised to a higher power if they are used not as ends in themselves, and not as general strategies, but as avenues toward an affective attunement to the event in its singularity. That sets the conditions for more than a frontal response, in reaction to the threat of violence — which just weds you to the form of the aggression. When you think about it, reacting is just a contrary way of being constrained by what you are reacting against.

Affective attunement sets the conditions for a tactical power to improvise a response that is not dictated by the aggression as a reaction to it, in mirror-image form, but rather claims its own positivity, in eventful autonomy and relation, artfully playing to what is concretely being in-signed and enacted, refusing conversion by power-over while avoiding embodying its negative image. The emphasis then is on affirming counter-powers of moving, acting, perceiving, thinking that decide their own form as they enact themselves.

This gives resistance a plastic power-to in the face of power-over’s ability to insinuate itself into every situation. It requires honing different modes of action, creating new sets of affective skills and tactics that are as aesthetic — because they are improvisational and affirm intensities of experience — as they are directly political — because they are by nature relational and are all the more plastic and powerful the more relationally attuned they are and the more collectively they are mobilized.

So how does this notion of relationality relate back to your concerns with the personal?

Personalizing narratives actually occlude this affirmative power of resistance, because they are focused first on defining the present event in terms of the individual’s past, and only then look to opening the collective future in a break from narratives from the past. Yes, the personal is political. The personal is never untouched by the accumulated effects of power. It is never free of power effects and the traces of their violence. These are part and parcel of its very constitution. But precisely for that reason, the converse is not the case: the political is not personal.

The political is a collective break from the accumulating effects of power inherited from the past, claiming the right of ingress in the present. The political is what breaks through the personal, shattering the hold of the accumulated power effects that are part and parcel of its constitution, liberating self-affirming powers of primary resistance that co-occur with identity but do not belong to it, that are not contained in it but pass through and around it, that open instead onto the outside, onto new affective vistas of collective becoming. We live toward the future transindividually, in excess over our personhood. The political is not coming home to a familiar face. The political is estrangingly intensive. It is rewilding. In its movement, we are strangers to ourselves. We meet ourselves anew as the animal we are just now becoming. The political acts in the name of a life we have not lived. It acts for the life we have yet to live.

Connecting this to the rise of Donald Trump in the United States, how can we make sense of this phenomenon, especially in terms of the liberation of prejudice?

Trump is an extreme example of the power of the personal, and the personal as power. When I say that I mean something very different than it might sound like. I don’t mean that he embodies the “rugged individual” of American mythology, or the old civic model of upright personhood, like the 19th-century ideal of the sovereign, self-governing individual as paragon of capitalist virtue providing a moral compass for entrepreneurial activity with which others identify and strive to emulate. This is the traditional theory of political leadership based on “identification” with a charismatic figure.

Nothing could be farther from the Trump post-truth. There is nothing either particularly rugged nor morally upright about him. His personality is not a bulwark against the excesses of capitalism. It’s an opening of the floodgates. He does not stand in his person against capitalism’s excesses — he flows with them. It is he who is identified with those excesses, rather than others who are identified with him. He won election precisely because of his supposed capitalist prowess, in the one of the most corrupt sectors of the economy. He is the personification of capital.

This is precisely how neoliberalism strives to redefine the person: as “human capital,” or what Foucault calls the “entrepreneur of himself.” But what is this “himself”? It has no consistency. Trump says one thing one day, something else the next. The center does not hold. There is no center. There is just an eddy of bluster on the roiling seas of social media. Trump personifies the deregulating tendencies of neoliberal capitalism. Through him, the “creative destruction” at the heart of capitalism’s movements extend to the emotional composition of the person, now borderline, post-normative, trading in cartoonish exaggerations of the erstwhile norm, refracted through the distorting prism of a white hypermasculinity bloated to absurd dimensions. It is hard to take Trump seriously as a person. This is reflected in the colloquial use of his name as a common noun: the Donald.

The Donald embodies a certain, hypercapitalist, overcoming of the person. His followers do not identify with him in the sense of recognizing themselves in him. Through his bluster, they identify themselves with capitalism’s deregulated overspilling of the norms. They embrace the ideal of being “entrepreneurs of themselves,” in “politically incorrect” excess over regulated norms of behavior. By what criterion is there an identity or sameness between a billionaire born into wealth and privilege and a middle American in the Rust Belt with the fear of God in them about falling into poverty (if they are not already in it)? Weirdly, it is less that Trumpians are recognizing themselves in his sameness, than that they are recognizing their own difference in his distorted mirror. They are seeing what they experience as their own exceptionalism: what makes them special as Americans, vis-à-vis the hated “un-American Americans” (“liberal progressives,” the “mainstream media,” the “deep state” establishment, immigrant “job-stealers,” “entitled” African Americans — the list is long).

This occurs not through Trump’s person in any traditional sense, but through his persona. His obsession with Twitter and cable TV makes him a single-body media node. He lives for it. His life-form is inseparable from it. His person is an ongoing media irritation: an affective resonater, nodally positioned. He receives with a shudder waves of social and political static, and no sooner sends them back out with a Twitter spasm, in a self-perpetuating cycle. This operates in a way that primes the social field for just the kind of ever-present threat and violence I was talking about earlier. The Trump-figure is an affective converter of power-to into a contagion of power-over disseminating through the social field — a one-man epidemic of reaction-formation. But this is the strange phenomenon of a proactive reaction.

Here, reactivity is affirmed as such. It is practiced as an offensive sport, or better, a war-machine ever on the attack, rather than in self-defense. This is beyond “prejudice.” It is a veritable mode of existence, affectively primed. There is no time left to go more into detail about this. The main point is that an affective approach to politics might offer some new conceptual tools for understanding the originality of the Trump phenomenon. We do ourselves no favors if we try to respond to it with obsolete conceptions about politics and persons. We are in uncharted, post-truth, deregulated territory, and we need new modes of understanding and resistance to be equal to the challenge of collectively reopening the potential of our quickly foreclosing future.


Brad Evans is a political philosopher, critical theorist, and writer, who specializes on the problem of violence. He is the founder/director of the Histories of Violence project, which has a global user base covering 143 countries.