Concrete Is as Concrete Doesn’t

Brian Massumi, ‘lntroduction: Concrete Is as Concrete Doesn’t’, pp.1-21, in:
Massumi, B., 2002. Parables for the virtual: movement, affect, sensation. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.


When I think of my body and ask what it does to earn that name, two things stand out. It moves. It feels. In fact, it does both at the same time. It moves as it feels, and it feels itself moving. Can we think a body without this: an intrinsic connection between movement and sensation whereby each immediately summons the other?

The project of this book is to explore the implications for cultural theory of this simple conceptual displacement: body-(movement/sensa­tion)-change.

Cultural theory of the past two decades has tended to bracket the middle terms and their unmediated connection. lt can be argued that in doing so it has significantly missed the two outside terms, even though they have been of consistent concern-perhaps the central concerns in the humanities.

Attention to the literality of movement was deflected by fears of falling into a “naive realism,” a reductive empiricism that would dissolve the specificity of the cultural domain in the plain, seemingly unproblematic, “presence” of dumb matter. The slightness of ongoing qualitative change paled in comparison to the grandness of peri­ odic “rupture.”

Against that possibility, the everyday was the place where nothing ever happens. Culture occupied the gap between manner and systemic change, in the operation of mechanisms of “mediation.”


Mediation, although inseparable from power, restored a kind of movement to the everyday. lf the everyday was no longer a place of rupture or revolt, as it had been in glimpses at certain privileged historical junctures, it might still be a site of modest acts of “resistance” or “subver­sion” keeping alive the possibility of systemic change. These were prac­tices of “reading” or “decoding” counter to the dominant ideological scheme of things. The body was seen to be centrally involved in these everyday practices of resistance.

But this thoroughly mediated body could only be a “discursive” body: one with its signifying gestures. Sig­nifying gestures make sense. lf properly “performcd,” they may also un­make sense by scrambling significations already in place. Make and un­make sense as they might, they don’t sense. Sensation is utterly redundant to their description. Or worse, it is destructive to it, because it appeals to an unmediated experience. Unmediated experience signals a danger that is worse, if anything can be, than naive realism: its polar opposite, naive subjectivism.

Earlier phenomenological investigations into the sensing body were largely left behind because they were difficult to reconcile with the new understandings of the structuring capacities of culture and their inseparability both from the exercise of power and the glimmers of coun­terpower incumbent in mediate living. lt was all about a subject without subjectivism: a subject “constructed” by external mechanisms. “The Subject.”

“The Body.” What is it to The Subject? Not the qualities of its moving experience. But rather, in keeping with the extrinsic approach, its posi­tioning.

Ideological accounts of subject formation emphasize systemic structurings. The focus on the systemic had to be brought hack down to earth in order to be able to integrate into the account the local cultural differences and the practices of resistance they may harbor.

Signifying sub­ject formation according to the dominant structure was often thought of in terms of “coding.” Coding in turn carne to be thought of in terms of positioning on a grid. The grid was conceived as an oppositional frame­ work of culturally constructed significations: male versus female, black versus white, gay versus straight, and so on. A body corresponded to a “site” on the grid defined by an overlapping of one term from each pair. The body carne to be defined by its pinning to the grid.


The sites, it is true, are multiple. But aren’t they stil combinatorial permutations on an overarching definitional framework? Aren’t the possi­bilities for the entire gamut of cultural emplacements, including the “sub­versive” ones, precoded into the ideological master structure?

Where has the potential for change gone? How does a body perform its way out of a definitional framework that is not only responsible for its very “construction,” but seems to prescript every possible signifying and countersignifying move as a selection from a repertoire of possible permutations on a limited set of predetermined terms? How can the grid itself change?

The aim of the positionality model was to open a window on local resistance in the name of change. But the problem of change returned with a vengeance. Because every body-subject was so determinately local, it was boxed into its site on the culture map. Gridlock.

The idea of positionality begins by subtracting movement from the picture. This catches the body in cultural freeze-frame.

Of course, a body occupying one position on the grid might succeed in making a move to occupy another position. In fact, certain normative progressions, such as that from child to adult, are codcd in. But this doesn’t change the fact that what defines the body is not the movement itself, only its beginning and endpoints. Movement is en­tirely subordinated to the positions it connects. These are predefined.

There is “displacement,” but no transformation; it is as if the body simply leaps from one definition to the next.


Also lacking is the notion that if there is qualitative movement of the body, it as directly concerns sensings as significations. Add to this the fact that manner, bodily or otherwise, never figures into the account as such. Even though many of the approaches in question characterize themselves as materialisms, matter can only enter in indirectly: as mediated.

The present project began almost ten years ago in response to these problems. It was based on the hope that movement, sensation, and qualities of experience couched in manner in its most literal sense (and sensing) might be culturally-theoretically thinkable, without falling into either the Scylla of naive realism or the Charybdis of subjectivism and without contradicting the very real insights of poststructuralist cultural theory concerning the coextensiveness of culture with the field of experience and of power with culture. The aim was to put matter unmediatedly back into cultural materialism, along with what seemed most directly corporeal back into the body.

If at any point I thought of this refreshing in terms of regaining a “concreteness” of experience, I was quickly disabused of the notion.

When a body is in motion, it does not coincide with itself. It coincides with its own transition: its own variation. The range of varia­tions it can be implicated in is not present in any given movement, much less in any position it passes through. In motion, a body is in an immedi­ate, unfolding relation to its own non-present potential to vary. That rela­tion, to borrow a phrase from Gilles Deleuze, is real but abstract.


The abstract of Deleuze’s real-but-abstract is very different from [the positional grid].

It doesn’t preexist and has nothing fundamentally to do with mediation.

Here, abstract means: never present in position, only ever in passing. This is an abstractness pertaining to the transitional immediacy of a real relation-that of a body to its own indeterminacy (its openness to an else­ where and otherwise than it is, in any here and now) .

The charge of indeterminacy carried by a body is inseparable from it. It strictly coincides with it, to the extent that the body is in passage or in process (to the extent that it is dynamic and alive) . But the charge is not itself corporeal. Far from regaining a concreteness, to think the body in movement thus means accepting the paradox that there is an incorporeal dimension of the body. Of it, but not it. Real, material, but incorporeal. Inseparable, coincident, but disjunct.

One way of starting to get a grasp on the real-material-but-incorporeal is to say it is to the body, as a positioned thing, as energy is to manner.

The body’s potential to vary belongs to the same reality as the body as variety (positioned thing) but partakes of it in a different mode. Integrating movement slips us directly into what Michel Foucault called incorporeal materialism.

Paraphrasing Deleuze again, the problem with the dominant models in cultural and literary theory is not that they are too abstract to grasp the concreteness of the real. The prob­lem is that they are not abstract enough to grasp the real incorporeality of the concrete.


[Ref Bergson’s analysis of Zeno’s paradoxes of movement]

A thing is when it isn’t doing. A thing is concretely where and what it is­ for example a successfully shot arrow sticking in a target-when it is in a state of arrest.

Fluidifying with Bergson has a number of far-reaching consequences:

(1) It suggests that a distinction between extensive and intensive is

more useful than any opposition between the “literal” and the “figural” if what we are interested in is change.


(2) The emphasis is on process before signification or coding.

(3) The Bergsonian revolution turns the world on its head. Position no longer comes first, with movement a problematic second. It is secondary to movement and derived from it.


(4) Another way of putting it is that positionality is an emergent quality of movement. The distinction between stasis and motion that rcplaces the opposition between literal and figurative from this perspcctive is not a logical binarism.

“Passing into” is not a binarism. “Emcrging” is not a binarism. They are dynamic unities.

(5) lt is not enough for process concepts of this kind to be ontological. They must be ontogenetic: they must be equal to emergence.

(6) If passage is primary in relation to position, processual indeterminacy is primary in relation to social determination.

To say that passage and indeter­minacy “come first” or “are primary” is more a statement of ontological priority than the assertion of a time sequence. They have ontological privilege in the sense that they constitute the field of the emergence, while positionings are what emerge. The trick is to express that priority in a way that respects the inseparability and contemporaneousness of the disjunct dimensions: their ontogenetic difference. The work of Gilbcrt Simondon is exemplary in this regard.


(7) As Simondon reminds us, it is important to keep in mind that there is a contemporaneous difference between social determination and so­ciality.

The idea is that there is an ontogenesis or becoming of culture and the social (brack­eting for present purposes the difference between them), of which determinate forms of culture and sociability are the result.

(8) That there is a difference between the possible and the potential needs to be attended to.

Possibility is back-formed from potential’s unfolding. But once it is formed, it also effectively feeds in. Fedback, it prescripts: implicit in the determination of a thing’s or body’s positionality is a certain set of transformations that can be expected of it by definition and that it can therefore undergo without qualitatively changing enough to warrant a new name. These possibilities delineate a region of nominally defining-that is, normative-variation.

Potential is unprescripted. It only feeds forward, unfolding toward the registering of an event: bull’s-eye. Possibility is a variation implicit in what a thing can be said to be when it is on target. Potential is the immanence of a thing to its still indeterminate variation, under way.

(9) If the positional grid feeds back, then the success of that opera­tion changes the field conditions from which the determinate positions emerged.


The distinction between potential and possibility is a distinction between conditions of emergence and re-conditionings of the emerged.


Conditions of emergence are one with becoming. Re-conditionings of the emerged define normative or regulatory operations that set the param­eters of history (the possible interactions of determinate individuals and groups). History is inseparably, ontogenetically different from becoming.

(1o) The difference between the actual stopping that occurs when a continuity exhausts itself and reaches a terminus and the logical stopping that goes back over what then appears as its path, in order to cut it into segments separated by plottable points, is not as great as it might seem at first. The retrospective ordering enables precise operations to be inserted along the way, in anticipation of a repetition of the movement – the possibility that it will come again.

Before measurement, there was air and ground, but not space as we know it. Ground is not a static support any more than air is an empty container. The ground is full of movement, as full as the air is with weather, just at different rhythm from most perceptible movements occurring with it (flight of the arrow).

Measurement stops the movement in thought, as it empties the air of weather, yielding space understood as a grid of deter­minate positions.

The practices enabled by the spatialization of ground convert it into a foundation for technological change. This is not simply a “cultural construction.” It is a bccoming cultural of nature. The very ground of life changes. But it remains as natural as it becomes-cultural.


The point is that the “natural” and the “cultural” feed forward and back into each other. They relay each other to such an extcnt that the distinction cannot be main­tained in any strict sense. It is necessary to theorize a nature-culture continuum.

Nature and culture are in mutual movement into and through each other. Their con­tinuum is a dynamic unity or reciprocal variation. Things we are ac­customed to placing on one side or another or the nature-culture divide must be redistributed along the whole length or the continuum, under varying modes or operation, in various phases or separation and regroup­ ing, and to different degrees or “purity.”

(11) The status or “natural law” (the normative self-regulation or na­ture; nature’s self-rule) becomes a major theoretical stake, as does the naturalizing of cultural laws with which cultural theory has more traditionally been concerned.

Of tremendous help in looking at both sides is the concept of habit. Habit is an acquired automatic self-regulation. It resides in the flesh. Some say in manner. As acquired, it can be said to be “cultural.” As automatic and material, it can pass for “natural.” Sorting out the identity or difference between law and habit, and distributing the result along the nature-culture continuum, becomes a promising direction for inquiry.


(12) The kinds or codings, griddings, and positionings with which cultural theory has been preoccupied are no exception to the dynamic

Gender, race, and orientation are what Ian Hacking calls “interactive kinds”: logical categories that feed back into and transform the reality they describe (and are themselves modified by in return. Ideas about cultural or social construction have dead-ended because they have insisted on bracketing the nature of the process.

If you elide nature, you miss the becoming of culture, its emergence (not to mention the history of matter). You miss the continuum of interlinkage, feed-forward and feedback, by which movements capture and convert each other to many ends, old, new, and innumerable.

Some kind of constructivism is required to account for the processual continuity across categorical divides and for the reality of that qualitative growth, or ontogenesis: the fact that with every move, with every change, there is something new to the world, an added reality.

Perhaps “productivism” would be better than constructivism because it connotes emergence. […] Is a construc­tivist evolutionism conceivable? An evolutionary constructivism?

(13) If you want to adopt a productivist approach, the techniques of critical thinking prized by the humanities are of limited value. To think productivism, you have to allow that even your own logical efforts feed­ back and add to reality, in some small, probably microscopic way.

Once you have allowed that, you have accepted that activities dedicated to thought and writing are inventive. Critical thinking disavows its own inventiveness as much as possible.


Prolonging the thought-path of move­ment, as suggested here, requires that techniques of negative critique be uscd sparingly. The balance has to shift to affirmative methods: techniques which embrace their own inventiveness and are not afraid to own up to the fact that they add (if so meagerly) to reality.


(14) The logical resources equal to emergence must be limber enough to juggle the ontogenetic indeterminacy that precedes and accompanies a thing’s coming to be what it doesn’t. Vague concepts, and concepts of vagueness, have a crucial, and often enjoyable, role to play.

(15) Generating a paradox and then using it as if it were a well-formed logical operator is a good way to put vagueness in play. Strangely, if this procedure is followed with a good dose of conviction and just enough technique, presto!, the paradox actually becomes a well-formed logical operator.


With the body, the “walls” are the sensory surfaces. The intensity is experience.


Distinguishing bodily direction without a determinate form? In other words, without distance? That could only be tendency, pure tendency. Tendency is futureness: pure futurity. So there is a futurity that is contemporary with the past’s con­temporaneousness with the present.

[Ref Leibniz and Spinoza]

[Spinoza] was referring to a body’s capacity to enter into rela­tions of movement and rcst. This capacity he spoke of as a power (or potential) to affect or be affected. The issue, after sensation, perception, and memory, is affect.

For Spinoza, the body was one with its transi­tions. Each transition is accompanied by a variation in capacity: a change in which powers to affect and be affected are addressable by a next event and how readily addressable they are – or to what degree they are present as futurities. That “degree” is a bodily intensity, and its present futurity a tendency.

The Spinozist problematic of affect offers a way of weaving together concepts of movement, tendency, and intensity in a way that takes us right back to the beginning: in what sense the body coincides with its own transitions and its transitioning with its potential.

The link to sensation comes in with the added remark that the variation in intensity is felt.


The sensed aspect of intensity doubles the affect understood as pure capacity: we are back at self-multiplication. And we are back at emergence, because the sensation is the first glimmer of a determinate experience, in the act of registering itself as itself across its own event. A first glimmer of definable self-experiencce: back at incipient subjectivity.

Where we might loop into shortly is empiricism, at the other end of its history. William James made transition and the feeling of self-relation a central preoccupation of his latter-day “radical” empiricism.

If incorporeal materialism is an empiricism it is a radical one, summed up by the formula: the felt reality of relation. A complication for radical empiricism is that the feeling of the relation may very well not be “large” enough to register consciously.


The reason for the constant reconstellation of concepts, and the differences in their casting when they make repeat appearances, is that I have tried to take seriously the idea that writing in the humanities can be affirmative or inventive. lnvention requires experimentation.


As a writing practice, exemplification activates detail. The success of the example hinges on the details. Every little one matters. At each new detail, the example runs the risk of falling apart, of its unity of self-relation becoming a jumble. Every detail is essential to the case. This means that the details making up the example partake of its singularity.

It might take over. It might shift the course of the writing. Every example harbors terrible powers of deviation and digression.

The result is not so much the negation of system as a setting of systems into motion. The desired result is a systematic openness: an open system. For the writing to continue to belong in the humanities, it must take into account and put into use already established concepts drawn for one or another humanities discipline, or better, from many all at once (philoso­phy, psychology, semiotics, communications, literary theory, political economy, anthropology, cultural studies, and so on). The important thing, once again, is that these found concepts not simply be applied.


This can be done by extracting them from their usual connections to other concepts in their home system and confronting them with the example or a detail from it.


You have left your readers with a very special gift: a headache. By which I mean a problem: what in the world to do with it all. That’s their problem. That’s where their experimentation begins. Then the openness of the system will spread. They have found what they have read compel­ling. Creative contagion.


[Discussion on the use of scientific concepts in the humanities]


The point is not just to make the human­ities differ, but also to make them differ from the sciences in ways they are unaccustomed to.