Affirmative Media Theory and the Post-9/11 World – [Part 1] by Gary Hall

[Gary Hall writes to NB] Thank you for the invitation to contribute to your born-digital, dynamic, nimble, open-source, collaborative space at Montclair State University. I’m very happy to join the conversation of your Creative Research Centre and take part in your symposium,The Uses of the Imagination in the Post-9/11 World’.

You’ve asked me to address ‘the inherent viability of the concept of “post-9/11 world’ and explain what this ‘over-arching concept’ means to me.  Perhaps you’ll forgive me, then, if I begin by telling you a little about my own research. This currently involves a series of born-digital, open, dynamic, collaborative projects I’m provisionally calling ‘media gifts’. Operating at the intersections of art, theory and new media, these gifts employ digital media to actualise critical and cultural theory. As such, their primary focus is not on studying the world in an attempt to arrive at an answer to the question ‘What exists?’, before proclaiming, say, that we’ve moved from the closed spaces of disciplinary societies to the more spirit- or gas-like forces of the societies of control, as Gilles Deleuze would have it.

Instead, the projects I’ve been working on over the last few years – which include a ‘liquid book’, a series of internet television programmes and an experiment that investigates some of the implications of internet piracy through the creation of an actual ‘pirate’ text[i] – are instances of media and mediation that endeavor to produce the effects they name or things of which they speak.

The reason I wanted to start with these projects is because they function for me as a means of thinking through what it means to ‘do philosophy’ and ‘do media theory’ in the current theoretico-political climate.  I see them as a way of practicing an affirmative media theory or philosophy in which analysis and critique are not abandoned but take more creative, inventive and imaginative forms. The different projects in the series – there are at least ten at the time of writing – thus each in their own way experiment with the potential new media technologies hold for making affective, singular interventions in the here and now.

The Possibility of Philosophy Today

Having said that, I want to make it clear I’m not positioning the affirmative media theory I’m endeavouring to practice with these media gifts in a relation of contrast to earlier, supposedly less affirmative, theoretical paradigms.[ii] In a discussion with Alain Badiouthat took place in New York in 2006, Simon Critchley constructs a narrative of this latter kind when describing the ‘overwhelmingly conceptually creative and also enabling and empowering’ nature of the former’s system of thought.[iii] For Critchley, the current situation of theory is characterised, on the one hand, by ‘a sense of frustration and fatigue with a whole range of theoretical paradigms: paradigms having been exhausted, paradigms having been led into a cul-de-sac, of making promises that they didn’t keep or simply giving some apocalyptic elucidation to our sense of imprisonment’; and, on the other, by a ‘tremendous thirst for a constructive, explanatory and empowering theoretical discourse’. It’s a thirst that Badiou’s philosophy apparently goes some way toward quenching. It’s ‘refreshing’, Critchley declares.

This desire for constructive, explanatory and empowering theoretical discourses of the kind offered not just by Badiou, I would propose, but in their different ways by Michael Hardt and Antonio NegriBernard Stiegler, Slavoj Žižek  and others, too, is of course understandable.

I can’t help wondering, though, if such discourses aren’t also a manifestation, to some degree at least, of what Germaine Greer has characterized as male display — although the books Greer is thinking of are Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics,  — rather than Badiou’s Being and Event or volumes by the likes of Nicolas Bourriaud and Marc Auge that put forward theories of the altermodern and supermodernity.

Every week, [Greer writes] either by snail mail or e-mail, I get a book that explains everything. Without exception, they are all written by men… There is no answer to everything, and only a deluded male would spend his life trying to find it. The most deluded think they have actually found it. … Brandishing the ‘big idea’ is a bookish version of male display, and as such a product of the same mind-set as that behind the manuscripts that litter my desk. To explain is in some sense to control. Proselytizing has always been a male preserve. … I would hope that fewer women have so far featured in the big-ideas landscape because, by and large, they are more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for. Giving credence to a big idea is a way of permitting ourselves to skirt strenuous engagement with the enigma that is our life.[iv]

Still, as I say, I can recognise the appeal of enabling and empowering theoretical discourses to a certain extent. It’s a different aspect of the current situation of theory as it’s glossed by Critchley I’m particularly concerned with here.

Critchley – who is himself the author of The Ethics of Deconstruction and co-author of Deconstruction and Pragmatism – is careful to name no names as to which exhausted theoretical paradigms he has in mind. But given that a ‘certain discourse, let’s call it deconstructive’, Critchley suggests, is also explicitly placed in a relation of contrast to Badiou’s ‘very different’ creative, constructive philosophy, I wonder if deconstruction is not at least part of what he is referring to?[v]

If so, then I have to say I find it difficult to recognise deconstruction, and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida especially (with which the term deconstruction is most closely associated, and which is very important for me), in any description that opposes it to that which is conceptually creative, enabling, explanatory and empowering.

Derrida’s thought is all of these things – although in a different way to Badiou’s philosophical system, it’s true.  The interest of Derrida and deconstruction lies with systems – including what Badiou, in the same discussion with Critchley, refers to as ‘the classical field of philosophy’ – but also with what destabilizes, disrupts, escapes, exceeds, interrupts and undoes systems. And this would apply to Badiou’s own system of thought (‘and this is a system’, Critchley points out). This doesn’t mean deconstruction can be positioned as ‘melancholic’, though, and contrasted to construction and ‘reconstruction’, as Critchley and Badiou would have it.

For all his interest in radical politics, theatre, poetry, cinema, mathematics, psychoanalysis and the question of love, there’s an intriguing return to philosophy, and with it a certain disciplinarity, evident in Badiou’s work (as opposed to the interdisciplinarity associated with cultural studies, say — or the trans-disciplinarity of your CRC). Badiou refers to this as being very much a philosophical decision on his part:

And finally my philosophical decision – there is always something like a decision in philosophy, there is not always continuity: you have to decide something and my decision was very simple and very clear. It was that philosophy was possible. It’s a very simple sentence, but in the context it was something new. Philosophy is possible in the sense that we can do something which is in the classical tradition of philosophy and nevertheless in our contemporary experience. There is in my condition no contradiction between our world, our concrete experiences, an idea of radical politics for example, a new form of art, new experiences in love, and the new mathematics. There is no contradiction between our world and something in the philosophical field that is finally not in rupture but assumes a continuity with the philosophical tradition from Plato to today

And we can take one further step, something like that. So we have not to begin by melancholic considerations about the state of affairs of philosophy: deconstruction, end of philosophy, end of metaphysics, and so on. This vision of the history of thinking is not mine.  And so I have proposed – in Being and Event in fact – a new constructive way for philosophical concepts and something like a reconstruction – against deconstruction – of the classical field of philosophy itself.[vi]

Yet, what kind of decision is actually being taken here? What is it based upon or grounded in? How philosophical is this decision by Badiou?  Couldn’t it be said that any decision to the effect that philosophy is possible, that a ‘reconstruction – against deconstruction – of the classical field of philosophy’ is possible, has to be taken by Badiou in advance of philosophy; and that his decision in favour of a ‘new constructive way for philosophical concepts’ therefore takes Badiou outside or beyond philosophy at precisely the moment he is claiming to have returned to or defended it? As such, doesn’t any such decision do violence not just to deconstruction but also to the classical tradition of philosophy?

These are questions that Derrida and deconstruction can help with. For Derrida’s philosophy is nothing if not a thinking of the impossible decision. As someone else associated with deconstruction, J. Hillis Miller, puts it:

Responsibility… must be, if it is to exist at all, always excessive, always impossible to discharge. Otherwise it will risk being the repetition of a program of understanding and action already in place… My responsibility in each reading is to decide and to act, but I must do so in a situation where the grounds of decision are impossible to know. As Kierkegaard somewhere says, ‘The moment of decision is madness’. The action, in this case, often takes the form of teaching or writing that cannot claim to ground itself on pre-existing knowledge or established tradition but is what Derrida calls ‘l’invention de l’autre [the invention of the other’].[vii]

From this perspective, what’s so helpful about Derrida’s thought is not that it disavows the possibility of taking a decision in favour of a reconstruction of the classical field of philosophy; it’s that Derrida enables us to understand how any such decision necessarily involves a moment of madness. This is important; because once we appreciate the decision is the invention of the other — of the other in us — we can endeavour to assume, or better, endure ‘in a passion’, rather than simply act out, the implications of this realisation for the way we teach, write and act, in an effort to make the impossible decisions that confront us – including those concerning philosophy – as responsibly as possible.[viii]

The Concept of the post-9/11 World

Why am I raising all this here, in response to the CRC invitation to address ‘the inherent viability of the concept of ‘the post-9/11 world’?

I’m doing so because if Critchley is right and the current situation of theory is characterised by a thirst for constructive, explanatory and empowering theoretical discourses then, as I say, I can understand this. I can also appreciate that the concept of the ‘post-9/11 world’ may be of service in this context (including, perhaps, in terms of what Badiou refers to as the political name or poetic event). In fact, it has already been adopted as a new means of historical periodisation by some. But as far as practicing a creative, affirmative media theory or philosophy is concerned, it seems to me that whether what you are referring to as the ‘over-arching’ concept of the post-9/11 world is ‘viable’ or not, in the sense in which my dictionary defines viable – as ‘being capable of functioning successfully, practicable’, as being ‘able to live in particular circumstances’ – is just such an impossible decision.

[i] See: New Cultural Studies: The Liquid Theory Reader – co-edited with Clare Birchall and others, and published by Open Humanities Press in the Culture Machine Liquid Books series.

Liquid Theory TV;

Gary Hall, ‘Pirate Philosophy (Version 1.0): Open Access, Open Editing, Free Content, Free/Libre/Open Media’, Culture Machine, Vol.10, 2009. Originally placed on the Mininova torrent directory, ‘Pirate Philosophy Version 2.0’ is currently available from AAAAARG.ORG, Alive Torrents, Torrentslib, and Torrentzap, among other places.

For more on the media gifts series, see

[ii] A desire to avoid positioning the affirmative media philosophy I’m attempting to practice in a relation of contrast to previous theoretical paradigms is one of the reasons I’ve taken the decision not to explicitly relate the media gifts series to the so-called affective turn. For an example of the latter, see Richard Grusin’s recent book on affect and mediality after 9/11, where he writes:

one of the attractions of affect theory is that it provides an alternative model of the human subject and its motivations to the post-structuralist psychoanalytic models favoured by most contemporary cultural and media theorists. Affectivity helps shift the focus from representation to mediation, deploying an ontological model that refuses the dualism built into the concept of representation. Affectivity entails an ontology of multiplicity that refuses what Bruno Latour has characterized as the modern divide, variously understood in terms of such fundamental oppositions as those between human and non-human, mind and the world, culture and nature, or civilization and savagery. Drawing on varieties of what Nigel Thrift calls ‘non-representational theory’, I concern myself with the things that mediation does rather than what media mean or represent.

(Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11

Another of my reasons for not relating the media gifts series to affect theory lies with the fact that, as I have already intimated, I’m not so interested in developing ontologies or ontological models of understanding the world.

Still another is that, just as such affect theory attempts to do away with oppositions and dualisms, so it simultaneously (and often unconsciously and unwittingly) seems to repeat and reinforce them – in the case of the passage from Grusin above, most obviously between before and after 9/11, between representational and non-representational theory, and between post-structuralist psychoanalytic models and affect theory itself. And that’s without even mentioning the way Grusin’s book is constantly concerned with providing a representation of the logics and practices of mediation after 9/11; and with explaining what things such as the global credit crunch mean in this context in a manner it’s frequently difficult to differentiate from the kind of cultural and media theory he positions his book as representing an alternative to:

remediation no longer operates within the binary logic of reality versus mediation, concerning itself instead with mobility, connectivity, and flow. The real is no longer that which is free from mediation, but that which is thoroughly enmeshed with networks of social, technical, aesthetic, political, cultural, or economic mediation. The real is defined not in terms of representational accuracy, but in terms of liquidity or mobility. In this sense the credit crisis of 2008 was a crisis precisely of the real – as the problem of capital that didn’t move, of credit that didn’t flow, was seen as both the cause and consequence of the financial crisis. In the hypermediated post-capitalism of the twenty-first century, wealth is not representation but mobility.

(Richard Grusin, ibid, p.3)

[iii] Simon Critchley, ‘“Ours Is Not A Terrible Situation” – Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley at Labyrinth Books’, NY, March 6, 2006.

[iv] Germaine Greer, in Germaine Greer, Andrew Lycett and John Douglas, ‘The Week in Books: The Male Desire for Explanation; the Real Quantum of Solace; and Merchandising Fiction’, The Guardian, 1 November, 2008.

[v] For Badiou’s work to be understood in the US and for his influence to grow there, what is required, according to Critchley, is ‘the creation of a new theoretical space or a new intellectual space where a number of things come together’. Along with a radical politics, ‘an interest in theater, in poetry, … for cinema, for psychoanalysis and… also for mathematics’, these  include ‘a very strong and constructive idea of philosophy, which is in a certain way novel and unlike what one is used to within a certain discourse, let’s call it deconstructive’ (Simon Critchley, op cit.).

[vi] Alain Badiou, ‘”Ours Is Not A Terrible Situation” – Alain Badiou and Simon Critchley at Labyrinth Books’, NY, March 6, 2006.

[vii] J. Hillis Miller, in J. Hillis Miller and Manuel Asensi, Black Holes: J. Hillis Miller; or, Toward Boustropedonic Reading (Stanford, California: Stanford  University Press, 1999) p.491.

[viii] For Derrida, such ‘a double bind cannot be assumed’ by definition; ‘one can only endure it in a passion’ (Jacques Derrida, Resistances of Psychoanalysis (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998) p. 36).

To be continued. Watch for Part II of Gary Hall’s essay coming soon on the Creative Research Center Web Site.

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  • This is a deep and fascinating conversation you have begun. As a painter, it occurs to me that the concept of trying to pin down or explain the world through a philosophy or overarching theme is akin in some ways to Modernist beliefs that one could reduce ideas to their absolute essence, making subject matter (the things of the world) obsolete in the search for a Utopian ideal that contained the truth. Post-modernism, with its detached coolness, also has that melancholic, darker philosophical stance that you mention in terms of deconstruction but has the positive effect of embracing multiple points of view and a tolerance for the uncertainty and transience of life, certainly part of the post-911 shared consciousness. Keeping intact the preference for a tolerance of ambiguity and poetic response to life that modernism and also “male display” theories reject, post-modernism is an idea that some contemporary painters are starting to reject as well in favor of an alternative that would convey exactly the traits you are starting to define for a reconstructive philosophy: a re-appreciation of beauty, a sense of poetry (meaning partly an acceptance of the enigmatic quality of life), and fluidity of ideas rather than static, highly explained and limited views. I will look forward to the second part of your essay. Thank you.

  • Kathleen Hulser says:

    Liquid and Solid?
    While I much appreciate the intellectual liquidity of Hall’s approach, does it border on a brinksmanship not unlike that of the euro in an age of sovereign credit incredulity and currency meltdown supervised by history-scarred Deutschmark hardliners? Meanwhile, situated squarely at a crossroads of history at the New-York Historical Society, I witness an incredible thirst for concrete objects. The imagination –nightmarish, and inevitably tethered to 9/11 — sprouting in NYC seems to hunger for historical objects, be they relics from the tragic moments imbued with ascribed meanings or earlier objects that can be perceived as redolent of some earlier American innocence. Putting irony and historical adjacency in play, consider the fact that St. Paul’s Chapel functioned as a key collecting site for September 11th memory, while its arriere history was as the site of the split Episcopalian denomination broken off at the American Revolution from the church-led Anglican creed of the British empire. This asks observors to tune into history, empire, religious tolerance and American foundations when examining the further reaches of post-9/11 imaginings: that is those aspects, digital, aesthetic and philosophical, hypothesized by Hall.

  • Gary Hall says:

    Thanks for the generous comments. It’s kind of you to take the time to respond.

    I’ll be interested to see what you make of Part II of the essay, especially in relation to the way the concept of a post-9/11 world is currently being incorporated into debates over the place of Muslims in US society.

  • Thomas Krampf says:

    I’ve been following your Creative Research Center closely and I came across something that might be of interest to you and your readers. I was researching the Italian monk/philosopher, Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake during the Inquisition. Although his writings are known to be poetic, I was looking for some actual poems, maybe with the idea of translating some of them.
    What I found, among others, was an article called “Reviewing the Reviews: Giordano Bruno and Marshall McLuhan.” You can find it on Google: “Giordano Bruno and Marshall McLuhan.” It seems McLuhan relied very heavily on the thinking of Bruno to convey the message in his book The Medium is the Message. Apparently, when James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake, he also made considerable use of Bruno’s philosophy.
    And this in turn fits right into the philosophy of what your Creative Research Center is trying to do. Bruno was a visionary and a rebel who understood how infinity was “necessary” when everybody else was still stumbling around in an anthropocentric universe.
    More importantly, he saw the wrenching change in the arts and sciences, in fact all society, brought on by the printing press. Just as McLuhan, in the information age, understood the effect on the human being and our way of thinking and perceiving the changes in media technology would bring..
    Researching further, I found a study called, Giordano Bruno and The Philosophy of the Ass, by Nuccio Ordine, and translated out of the Italian (Yale University Press, 1996). The metaphor or symbol of the Ass (donkey) was a term used in the Renaissance to either praise or satirize one’s contemporaries or literary peers.
    More pertinently, two important final chapters in this book were “The Entropy of Writing” and “Natural Science and Human Science: A Nouvelle Alliance.” Reading these, I could see why McLuhan was so taken by Bruno, aside from his cruel fate at the hands of the church. (Strangely enough, McLuhan converted to Catholicism). As far as I am concerned, Bruno has an immediate and current impact for anybody interested in the arts and sciences, i.e. writing. NASA even refers to him in its space explorations.

    — Thomas Krampf, Hinsdale, N.Y. 9/28/10


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