The Video Way of Thinking

Last week, during a laboratory work exchange in Huddersfield with Nazlıhan Eda Erçin, Caroline Gatt, and Agnieszka Mendel, I happened upon the idea of ‘illuminated video’ as a medium in which textual materials are superimposed upon an unedited audiovisual recording. After working feverishly for a week on a first prototype of this form, I continued reading Agamben’s Homo Sacer, which has been calling to me (via Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus) to rethink its notion of zoê. I believe that the juxtaposition of writing and the audiovisual in illuminated video is more than just a new form of performance documentation or practice as research. Here are my initial thoughts.

The Video Way of Thinking

Ben Spatz
7 July 2017

1.

When someone like philosopher Giorgio Agamben writes that ‘language presupposes the nonlinguistic’ and similarly ‘law presupposes the nonjuridical’ (1998: 20), he begins from a perspective in which language and law are the first phenomena to be explained while that which exceeds them is secondary. This is what I have called the ‘trope of excess’: a habit of thought in which affordances that ought to be considered primary are render secondary to those which in fact ought to be decentered. In this essay I attempt to rethink Agamben’s well-known categories of zoê and bios from the standpoint of a third mode of life: technos.

What we find in video — by which I mean the audiovisual — is that certain aspects of what I will call ‘embodiment’ (understood as first affordance, cf. Spatz 2017) become newly available for inscription into a transmissible and relatively stable technological archive. If we did not have hundreds of years of writing and print culture with which to compare the emergence of video, we might be tempted to suspect that the audiovisual now delivers to us the main truth of embodiment itself, even if we still acknowledged secondarily that there are some modes of bodily ‘excess’ (notably taste and smell) which remain uncapturable in the new medium. However, in the context of the history of technology it is evident that neither writing nor the audiovisual delivers embodiment, in the sense of first affordance, to the archive. Rather, each is able to access and document particular dimensions of lively first affordance. What interests me here is the way in which the new possibilities of audiovisual inscription interacts with writing, thought, and action.

It is not of course that writing, or indeed video, are barred completely from particular zones of embodied life. Writing can and does inscribe taste and smell into the archive through language. But it has been discovered (notably this discovery coincides with the rise of the audiovisual) that writing has two aspects, which are sometimes called the signifier and the signified, or the semiotic and the semantic (Agamben 1998: 25). Writing first of all inscribes verbal technique, the technique of speech. Only because it does so with such clarity is it then able to access, by way of references to speech, other areas of life. The word ‘lavender’, for example, refers first of all to the embodied technique of verbal production by which that word is spoken and heard. It then also refers, via that technique, to a particular smell which may be matched to that particular spoken word. [1]

From the perspective of the audiovisual it becomes possible to recognize that there is such a thing as a writing way of thinking. This way of thinking has been so dominant that we often just call it ‘thinking’, but to be more specific we might use the term logos. With the rise of the audiovisual we are beginning to experience a new kind of thinking, which I will call the video way of thinking.

I think we begin to see the emergence of a video way of thinking in disciplines like performance studies, which despite its rich engagement with the audiovisual has remained firmly within the older medium of writing as far as its outputs or products are concerned. The more recent emergence of ‘practice as research’, with its endless debates over performance documentation, are still-early inquiries that push the matter of the audiovisual further into the territory of knowledge production and towards the institutional heart of the university, which after all is defined by its engagement with the archive. I even suspect that the spread of embodiment as a key concept across the humanities and social sciences over the past several decades is closely related to the rise of the audiovisual and its new ways of thinking. Yet for all this I do not think that the video way of thinking, whatever that is, has fully arrived. Cinema is its prehistory but limited by the narrow economic constraints of that technology. Just as writing could not give us the university when it was bound to the economic and political elite but only as it became more widely available after the advent of print, the era of the audiovisual does not properly begin until video meets the internet.

2.

Now let us think through these developments in terms of what Agamben calls zoê and bios. Please note that I am not attempting to reduce Agamben’s theory of the political to the history of technology. Rather I think that a glance now at the history of technology can help us imagine the future of politics. Just as ‘language’ is understood to refer not merely to the technology of writing but more importantly to the way of thinking afforded by this technology, I ask you here to understand by the audiovisual not specific new digital video technologies but the domains of life which these new technologies allow for the first time to be inscribed in an archive and the ways of thinking and doing to which that new possibility of inscription points.

Agamben traces to the ancient Greeks — one of the origin points of Europe’s writing way of thinking — a division of life between zoê and bios. I want to rethink these categories in a way that does not begin from writing and the law and work backwards towards embodiment but which rather begins from embodiment and asks about the relationship between writing/law and the audiovisual.

Recall that embodiment here means no more or less than first affordance. Embodiment in this sense is a timing, lively thing, both with and without organs (Deleuze and Guattari 1987), more than the body but less than a full ecology. Aristotle’s city or polis, which is the etymological and philosophical root of politics, emerges from the development of a new technology — writing — which captures in a relatively stable and hence transmissible form a certain aspect of embodiment, namely the technique of speech, and allows it to appear as a stable system of what then becomes law or nomos. In the city, the full (written) life of bios becomes distinguishable from the much older mere or bare (unwritten) life of zoê, which humans share with other animals. [2] Agamben tells us that the culmination of this division, two millennia later, is found in the concentration camp, wherein zoê is radically severed from bios in the absolute objectification and debasement of human beings. We are left with an opposition between zoê and bios in which the former is a horrifying reduction.

What if the apparent binary opposition of zoê and bios is an artifact of the writing way of thinking? If bios is written life, then from the perspective of writing zoê is merely the excess, the remainder, of that life. I would refigure zoê (as Alexander Weheliye [2014] begins to suggest) as the full body, embodiment as first affordance, which precedes writing and the writing way of living but hundreds, thousands, or millions of years. The concentration camp is then not so much the site of zoê as the site of zoê’s abuse at the hands of logos (writing) and bios (written life). In the sites of embodied activation studied by anthropology and performance studies, where writing is either not yet dominant or intentionally postponed, we find something like a relatively free manifestation of zoê, or at least zoê in a state of equilibrium with bios rather than zoê as producted by the violent subtraction of bios. But it is not enough to look for places in which zoê appears not as the remainder of a violently metastasized bios, and not as an excess of bios, but on its own terms. What we need to ask is why zoê seems to be appearing for us now in a new way, why life is entering newly into philosophical and political and scientific discourse. To answer this question requires us to expand our ancient Greek bestiary with a further entity, which I will call technos.

3.

In the polis or city — which here stands for all kinds of institutionality, such as the national and the international, that are made possible by inscription and its archives — zoê is not opposed to bios. Rather the city allows for bios as a harmonic relation of zoê and logos, of life and writing, in which pre-writing ways of thinking and doing are structured by writing ways of thinking and doing. In the polis, writing and bios both constrain and enable zoê, to be sure ranking different forms of life (citizen, woman, slave, animal) but not in order to destroy or annihilate any of them. In the concentration camp, on the other hand, this relatively harmonious relationship between bios and zoê is overturned as the former seeks to eradicate the latter. In the camp, bios and zoê are radically split, as prisoners are debased to a state of pure zoê and the guards are required to act as pure disciplinary incarnations of bios. [3] (This is not to say that the split is every completely achieved. Even in the most horrific situations, victims and prisoners find moments of dignified thought and action. The concentration camp is merely the most extreme example of the potential to divide life.)

We now have zoê and bios, united in the polis and torn asunder in the anti-polis space of the concentration camp. What then if another form of inscription, a wholly different way of incorporating zoê into polis, appears? What should we call the audiovisual in this sense, understood not as a specific set of technologies (photograph, phonograph, cinema, video, hologram) but as a distinct mode of contact between zoê and polis? It is telling that we do not have a word that specifically incorporates the auditory and the visual in their moving conjunction. The linking of recorded sound with motion pictures in the twentieth century produced a completely new kind of inscription that unites what were previously understood as two different senses or zones of embodiment: audio + visual. This is neither zoê, in the sense of embodiment as first affordance, nor the kind of bios that is produced by the dominance of writing or logos. It is rather a distinct and new territory of inscription which I will now begin to refer to as technos.

How appropriate is technos as a term for the audiovisual and its associated ways of thinking and doing? Ancient Greek scholars may correct me, but is not techne that kind of knowledge which is practical and which is not easily inscribed in writing? Is not episteme knowledge that can be written, knowledge articulated through the embodied technique of the verbal, which is retroactively defined by its availability for inscription by writing? Remember, this does not mean that episteme knowledge is actually written down but only that it can be expressed verbally, that is, within the writing way of thinking. And is not alethia, truth, not that kind of knowledge which cannot be inscribed by any means because it pertains so specifically to a particular moment, which precedes all writing and which for us would be linked to zoê? Then is not techne, which we more recently refer to as the ‘how’ of knowing (‘know-how’), a kind of knowledge that appears between or alongside episteme and alethia and is not synonymous with either of those?

But the ancient Greeks did not have audiovisual technology of the kind I have described. How then could they have encountered this category of knowledge as distinct from both episteme and alethia? But is not techne precisely the kind of knowledge that can be shown in drawings, that is, with the help of analogues of life (such as maps and charts) rather than symbolic alphabetics? And is the drawing not the ancient precursor of the audiovisual? If so, then perhaps technos is really the right word for the kind of knowledge that is made by possible analogue inscription, from ancient drawings to contemporary digital video, and the mode of thinking and doing that is afforded by this knowledge can with some accuracy be called technos.

We then have alethia, knowledge that is present without inscription, and the mode of life (zoê) afforded by that knowledge. We have techne, knowledge arising from analogous inscription (the audiovisual in a broad sense), and the ways of thinking and doing, the mode of life (technos), made possible by that knowledge. And we have episteme, knowledge arising from symbolic inscription (writing or logos), and its associated ways of thinking and doing, its mode of life (bios). At long last the ancient hierarchy is reversed and logos-bios-episteme is no longer our starting point. We can now begin to grasp the idea of video epistemology, or the video way of thinking and doing.

4.

If technos begins with drawing, which predates writing, is surpassed by writing at the founding of the ancient Greek and Jewish traditions, is further rendered secondary after the advent of print technology, and then begins a new ascendency as the photograph and phonograph become digital video — then what is its future? Does the new era of the audiovisual bring us closer to zoê, to life itself as primary affordance and the true origin of all inscriptions and archives? Or does technos merely supplant bios as a new system of domination, exploitation, and abuse?

It is not at all clear that the concentration camp, the site of total abjection and annihilation of zoê, was dominated more by bios than by technos. The Nazi system was surely a culmination of some kind of horrible power found in the logos, which from Hitler’s book Mein Kampf to the printed schedules of the death trains allowed for the coordination of genocide on an unprecedented scale. And surely the racialized logic by which the victims of the Holocaust were ejected from the polis, violently deprived of bios, and reduced to bare life (zoê) followed the mechanisms of racialization that were developed by European colonialism via the logos during in the Renaissance and Enlightment periods. But Nazi propaganda, as seen most vividly in Leni Riefenstahl’s films, was powerfully audiovisual. The Nazis themselves documented their own camps with audiovisual recordings. We should therefore in no way carry an expectation that technos will depart from the violent history of logos unless unfolding history guides it to do so.

It is not difficult to imagine a tyranny of the audiovisual that would rival or surpass that of the logos, from colonial genocides to the Holocaust. It is not difficult to see how zoê might be absolutely objectified before a new law or nomos that consists not in written rules, orders and policies, but in a set of absolutely charismatic audiovisual commands and exemplars. The appearance of self-administered biopolitical violence like anorexia and mass shootings (terrorism in general, including the terrorism of the state) seems to whisper of this potential horror. The question is whether we can imagine a different future in which technos is enlisted to right past wrongs.

Perhaps there can be a new polis, necessarily planetary, based on a triangulated mode of care in which the gifts of logos are combined with those of technos, not in order to further discipline and control life (zoê) but in order to support and sustain it. If globalization was made possible by the unrestrained zeal and zealotry of the logos, could the rise of technos become linked, historically, not with an expansion of global exploitation but with the development of a planetary politics? Will the audiovisual take us further away from the earth, as some proponents of virtual reality seem to desire, in a final nihilistic spree before the crash, or could it actually bring us back to earth and life?

We have begun to see the public audiovisual documentation and dissemination of governmental and international debates. With Facebook ‘live’, political events of all kinds are increasingly streamed directly to massive audiences who comment individually upon them in the old medium of writing. This is already a shift in the operation of the polis, but certainly not yet the full arrival of technos to work alongside logos in the custodianship of zoê. What will happen to the role of the politician as the audiovisual continues to ascend? How will the law or nomos be transformed when it becomes possible to write and sign a legal document in audiovisual form? Again, it is easy to track the rise of celebrity culture and its horrors, from Reagan to Trump, but also necessary to link the growth of alternative and radical movements and lifeworlds, from the World Social Forum to Black Lives Matter, to the audiovisual.

Can we dare to hope, with anarchists and other embassadors of embodiment, that instead of a shared sovereignty between logos and technos, to the further detriment and imprisonment of zoê, the rise of the audiovisual will rather displace the primacy of inscription and initiate a return to the sovereignty of zoê, with logos and technos in merely supporting roles? Would this be desirable?

What, after technos, is the zoê?

5.

The exploration, intensification, and expansion of the audiovisual is unstoppable and needs no supporting argument. Let me then offer a reminder of what else there is.

As scholars of performance and embodiment have been saying for two decades now, the audiovisual is not life itself, technos does not deliver zoê to the archive. The video way of thinking and doing and the writing way of thinking and doing exist alongside older, pre-writing modes of life (zoê). Whenever we see the latter figured as an excess of the former, we should remind ourselves of the order of things, not only as a chronological history of technology and mythopoetic origin story but perhaps more importantly as a set of ethical comments that must be renewed in every moment: embodiment, not writing or the audiovisual, is first affordance.

The pre-writing way of thinking persists as embodied technique: activities organized by memorized repetition, including the repetition of memorized words in poems and songs. Writing has been ascendant for so long that we now often think of words as if they derive their meaning from their inscription.[4] As the audiovisual continues to rise, we will more often think of our own movements and words and sounds in terms of their inscription and recording in technos. Yet the relationship of the audiovisual to embodiment is not the same as that between bios and zoê. Where bios is based on a symbolic logic, technos is analogical (even or especially when it is digital). This affords a dangerous substitution of technos for zoê, but perhaps also a powerful sensory return to life itself.

Among our priorities during this period should be, paradoxically, the defense of the logos. That is why the university remains an important and valuable institution. If we consider the neoliberal attack on universities as an attack of technos upon logos, we can immediately see that the destruction of books and laws and their replacement by images and sounds is not a path we can risk treading. If the video way of thinking is to develop in a historical arc towards sustainability and justice for zoê (and there is no reason to limit zoê here to human life only), it will do so in dialogue with the logos. Writing and the audiovisual must be counterbalanced in service to life. We must not, in our heady march into the audiovisual, abandon the writing way of thinking. In the illuminated video, we do not only approach zoê from the new standpoint of the audiovisual but also attempt to find a proper place for logos within technos. Correspondingly, I have attempted in this essay to articulate the meaning of the audiovisual through the writing way of thinking.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the discovery of illuminated video came in the context of a project aimed to investigate Judaism through the embodied technique of song. After all, Judaism is the other mythic origin point, along with the ancient Greeks, of the European logos. As we have seen here, logos is not the spoken or sung or danced word but the written word, the inscribed word. There could not be any clearer statements of the ascendancy of the logos over the technos during the past two millennia than the commandment against graven images (drawings) and idols (sculptures) and the resulting nickname ‘people of the book’. There is no returning to a time before the logos, but there may be some hope for a time after the logos, a time of the technos that points back to the zoê, and time that privileges not video itself but the video way of thinking and doing.

REFERENCES

Agamben, Giorgio (1998) Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari (1987) A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Spatz, Ben (2017) ‘Embodiment as First Affordance: Tinkering, Tuning, Tracking’. Performance Philosophy 2.2: 257-271.

Weheliye, Alexander Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

FOOTNOTES

[1] What I am saying here applies to alphabetic writing and print. I cannot say to what extent it applies to other technologies.

[2] I do not engage here the question of whether other species also share partially in bios or in what I will call technos. It is not at all necessarily to my argument to overly isolate the human species apart from others.

[3] The fact that the isolation of zoê does not imply its debasement is evident in the apparent — but only apparent — similarity between the prison cell and the monastic cell. Both produce a kind of return or reduction to bare life, but only one of them is an act of violence.

[4] Or rather, the ‘word’ as such (distinguishable from sound, utterance, and song) does not exist until it and it alone can be written.