Subtractive Subjects

Colonialism has eaten worlds and smartified commons on an unprecedented and lasting scale, one well explored by legions of authors (and to which later posts will return). To think of the multiple territorialities of the Smart City, one may return to the colonial city. Not the segregated city of parallel territorialities, but its self-administered international settlements and their radioactive extra-territorialities that beamed into their environment pegged to people, papers and processes rather than just ground.

Crucially, endeavors such as Sidewalk Labs do not claim to supplant existing state, legal and security (infra-)structures. They do not replace but integrate them to their type of platforms (e.g. the JEDI–Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructures) and therewith assimilate and subject them to the logics of these platforms (see the upcoming posts on Chinese social credit systems or US. bail-algorithms), not unlike colonial modes of incremental sovereignty. Smart Worlds move components of the State from the state’s realm of territorial power into the platforms realm of power, not simply by occupying them, but by assisting the State in becoming like them and continually divesting of these components in favor of the Corporations who, after all, do it better. Worlds become Smart by recognition of and then assimilation to the political physics of Smart capitalism.

In this context, it is as vain to refer to the State as the instance protecting the citizen from its commodification and extraction by platforms–be they Smart Worlds or the still more common simple digital forms such as social media or applications–as it would have been for the colonial subjects to seek State protection from the extra-territorial colonial agents. The economic force and attraction of progress (and its military potential) is simply too strong to resist for a State aware that its foundation–territory, population, monopoly of power–is evolving away from it.

As argued earlier, this is not just a constitutional but first and foremost a conceptional shift from politics as the self-determination of a community in a place to politics as technocratic and cybernetic administration of populations and platforms. As territorialities change, the emphasis of politics of resistance is no longer who should resist, or: how should resisting communities constitute themselves, but where? In Smart Worlds the WHO will be increasingly over-determined by the WHERE within the multi-dimensional smart assemblage of the City. This will extend beyond social status to include all matters physical, up to and including kill-ability. As opposed to the post-modern subject that sought to be everything and everyone at once and pursued a form of multi-morphously perverse enjoyment that soon became the mayor force of capitalism and control, resistance in Smart Worlds will require subtractive subjects, subjects that do not exit the Smart Worlds, but seek its interstices so as not to be all-of-it, but precisely not-all-of-it.

A mayor paradox of Smart Worlds is that they reclaim for themselves the right to be floating while insisting that populations and their members be clearly identifiable, trackable and readable at all times. Thus, interpellation, identification and capital extraction through control of territorialities is where a first mayor interstice opens in the GhstRmnEmpire. Spectral commons are as much about the creation and maintenance of “dumb” communal spaces and their powers of subject-making as anything else. To explore the commons is always to explore non-propertied life forms and spaces and/as alternatives to immersive dystopias, be they corporate smart worlds or State cybernetic regimes.

In this sense, the spectrality of commons arises out of their extension from physical space into the n-dimensional City-assemblage (and beyond). Consider an arbitrary example of a non-spatial spectral trail related to subtractive subjects. According to the paradigms that underpin extractive democracy, citizens are generally rational choice agents. If they search for a product or have a general interest in certain matters that is well established through the data extracted from them–a mode based on observation of correlations and no longer causal explanation–then money can be made by selling that consumption prediction to a provider of sought objects of desire who can then target-advertise its product to the person prognosticated to have or be on the verge of developing said desire and executing a purchase. The challenge offered by this is to disrupt or transcend linear predictability without giving up notions of responsibility or accountability (something the Trumpian right had no qualms about doing when they introduced alternative facts and fake realities, demonstrating their masterful command of post-modernity as a tool of power over and against the left commonly associated with it). Such continuity without predictability may seem a high order, but only if one fails to be precise about which reality-dimensions one is talking about. Unpredictability as a consumer in no ways precludes predictability as a comrade. Perfect spiritual continuity may seem highly disruptive and chaotic to capitalist epistemologies. Modes of being of not-all-of-it yet more-than-one may be battlefields for auto-determination, from trance-style possession and alternating legion subjectivities to enmeshed multitudes between subjects of different scales, such as an I-EGO and multiple communal-egos whose relationship and orders of primacy may not (yet) be captured by algorithmic reality. Subtractive subjects are not defined by voids or disorder but by a platform’s inability to reach a degree of capture that makes these subjects sufficiently legible, extractable ad predictable. An interstice to game here would be the one between general presence (a pedestrian on a crossing) and identified and tracked singularity (consumer X purchasing entity Y; suspect N performing action J). Subtraction along this trail, then, is based on the intersections of concrete and virtual realities but are firmly rooted in the former and dependent on maintaining parcels of “dumb” reality for that purpose, i.e. a street whose capacity for face-recognition is low enough for an individual to disappear in a large crowd or a shadow.

Many scholars, as yet focusing on the digital space of the internet, argue that such subjective strategies of resistance to data extraction are limited to the few with either the smarts or the cash to pay those with the smarts and that therefore, one should rely on the state to provide protection, that protection being focused not on an impossible to achieve halt of data-extraction but on the regulation of data-use (e.g. Frank Pasquale in his The Black Box Society). This of course assumes independent and sovereign States, something–as was argued above–that is slowly disappearing. At best, current events offer a choice between corporate smart worlds and State-like cybernetic security regimes not that different. At its most normal–see JEDI–citizens have to deal with hybrid life-worlds made of both. In spite of its elitist dimensions, then, subtractive subjects seem necessary. They are not the answer to Smart Worlds but constitute an initial response essential to protecting the basis of future communities from total smartification. In other words: they need to be seen as counter-territorial identities, not digital strategies, and they revolve around and arise from commons not platforms, but they are also within the platforms, within the digital, within The City. Different from, yet historically linked to Homi Bhabha’s hybrid post-colonials, subtractive subjects retrace their own becomings to reactivate what has been erased, to recapture the commons below the radar, a bustling black market of life under the Smart World’s extra-territorialities.

Looking back at the aforementioned classic definition of the State as an entity that holds a monopoly of violence over a defined population within a specific territory, Smart Worlds announce the end of the State, whereas multinationals only demonstrated their limitedness. If the State describes a relationship between violence and territory as two distinct units codified into law, then the platform describes a set of algorithms and economic paradigms posing as natural laws that constantly recreate territory as an effect of their own activity. When algorithms stop, smart territorialities and the hybrid activity they enable disappear; or, rather, regress into analog reality. No more advertising or derivative trade without its medium. But smart worlds are not just algorithms. They also consist of the sensors (infrastructure and practices) that feed them and interweave them with the physical world. Cybernetic regimes are not just virtual but also physical, they do not only ascribe categories, but violently realize them, from macro-level politco-economic and security infrastructures to police breaking legs and shooting people. Resisting them is not just going on a digital diet, but reconfiguring how we relate in and through space, and how we construct and perceive our corpo-realities. Like colonial extra-territorialities, smart territorialities radiate into everything near them, rewriting the relationship between virtual and actual/physical world, between discourse and bodies, between practices and potentials. Yet, below all this code, the palimpsest seethes.

[Image: Map of foreign concessions in Shanghai, 1884. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C. 20540-4650 USA dcu]

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