January 2018

Tony Cokes: Evil.12.(edit.b): Fear, Spectra & Fake Emotions


What happens to democratic discourse if politics reaches us at a pre-dividual level? What if the social body is made not so much of independent points of view, but a networked social body that is affected and reflexive, rather than effective and reflective?

Tony Cokes’ animated text video pairs an essay by Brian Massumi with music against a shifting chromatic backdrop. The essay, “Fear (The Spectrum Said),” analyzes the color-coded terror alert system put in place by the George W. Bush administration after the September 11th attacks. The system’s relationship to threat is entirely speculative; this is not due only to the tenuous justifications for raising or lowering the “threat level” seemingly at random, but also the nature of threat itself. As Cokes/Massumi put it, “A threat is unknowable. If it were known in its specifics, it wouldn’t be a threat.”

This suggests that the alert system has little to do with warning, and is instead a way to calibrate public fear. Like the colors of the alert system itself, fear is felt before it is perceived—we do not feel fear as something else, but rather we feel ourselves being afraid. Color also has this quality: we do not so much come to perceive the color red, as we perceive ourselves reacting to the red that we already perceived. In Cokes’ video, we find ourselves reacting to color and music before we can digest the text; this “efficiency” in distinction to language highlights the challenges to deliberative democracy. We are already worked over by affects before we begin to consider action, and even if we do act, our action does not then effect the future, but is governed by it—the threat is the virtual future, which acts on us prior to our capacity to consider action and forecloses our potential futures.

How can a democracy deal with these questions of affect and time, with pre-dividual networks and virtual threats? While the social nervous system may be stimulated to react to the uncertain threat of a terrorist attack, somehow the same elements work in reverse with a crisis like climate change, in response to which our sense of emergency towards a virtually certain disaster is dulled. The dispersion of the terrorist threat into a “surround” of fear seems to make it inescapable, while the same dispersion around climate change, the difficulty perceiving it as an object or event, allows a perpetual deferral of action. This suggests the need for a theory of democracy which can account for affect in more complex ways; we ignore them at our peril.

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