In this collection of previously published essays Patricia T. Clough is taking the measure of what she describes as “[m]oving from theaffective turn to thedatalogicalturn” (ix). Increasingly concerned with looking at this exact “measure” of affect, or “affect-itself” (3), and proposing to move toward a “datalogical turn,” Clough is in the midst of moving beyond the focus of her prior work, which has so helped define the debate and influence around the notion of “affect,” including Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Technology (2000), TheEnd(s)ofEthnography: From Realism to Social Criticism (1998), Feminist Thought (1994), and as editor (with Jean Halley) of TheAffectiveTurn: Theorizing the Social (2007).
Composed of articles often written for book collections, and other, perhaps less successful, “experimental compositions” (x) that elucidate her collaborative performances and collective artistic works that emerged from this attempted revision of subjectivity and experience, The User Unconscious continues to circle around psychoanalytic notions. Drawing on the work of psychoanalyst Sue Grand, for example, who proposed, “there is a nonhuman stratum to early self experience and thus, the self can accrue a nonhuman physical form” (qtd. xxxi), Clough emphasizes the human psyche’s relation to the nonhuman world. Grand’s idea of the “thing-self,” linked not only to trauma but also to positive cosmological and ecstatic experiences, helps conceptualize what “affect-itself” might look like. For Grand, there is “something like a nonhuman mental ego” (qtd. xxxi). This provides fodder for Clough’s attempt to elaborate a “user unconscious” (xxxii) evoked by all the various digital and computational technologies, to come to grips with the transformations of interaction with the nonhuman. In surveying contemporary changes (The UserUnconscious is extremely efficient in making syntheses, tweaks, and combinations of theories in the field, ranging from those of Mark Hansen and Brian Massumi to Randy Martin, Luciana Parisi, and Tiziana Terranova, among many others), Clough stresses she is not discussing the organism—“The I is not simply humanly embodied and, as such, is not one with the organism. Embodiment can not be contained within the organic skin” (xxxii).
This can complicate traditional Marxian views of exploitation, since according to Clough, at the present time surplus value is extracted in a data economy, where the thermodynamics Karl Marx analyzed in the nineteenth century have been subsumed into information. Instead of the category of abstract labor-power, Clough suggests affect-itself, “meant to address the becoming abstract . . . becoming subject to measure, of that which is seemingly disparate”(3). “We are proposing,” Clough writes, “that there is an abstracting of affect to affect-itself, which disregards the bounded-ness of the human body, thus troubling the conceptualization of the body as the body-as-organism” (7). While this follows the insistence of thinkers like George Caffentzis (against Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri) that “affective” or “immaterial labor” can still be measured, Clough leads the discussion into the self-measuring properties of matter generally. It is this “virtual ontology,” in Timothy Murphy’s phrase (qtd. 9), that provides the horizon for Clough’s weaving together and taking account of developments in new materialisms, speculative realisms, feminism, and quantum theory.
This is an attempt to understand new means and measures of “biopolitical” control, that power “is now engaged with memory and its working at the informational scale of matter” (13), exercising what Parisi and Steve Goodman, among others, have called “preemptive power” (qtd. 13). Typically, as in Parisi and Goodman’s example of genetic engineering/cloning, these efforts to anticipate and foreclose future emergence produces more indeterminacy as a result. Or what Massumi characterized as establishing “affective facts” (qtd. 17). Clough attempts to grasp not so much exploitation of labor as increasing exploitation of life, affect-itself, since it is the case that
data for capacities for living feeds back across all those scales (genetic, human, populational, and otherwise), or how the measure of capacity sets off multiplier effects that precipitate future life capacities and their value, are the questions that remain for developing a political ground adequate for responses to capitalism today. (20)
This field of “pre-individual elements” (6), or what psychoanalyst Harold Searles called “the nonhuman” (xxxi) has perhaps been especially challenging for various incarnations of feminist theory. Clough tracks the revisions and permutations of thinkers like Judith Butler and Elizabeth Grosz, while giving particular attention to the disappearance, or expansion, of bodies-as-organism into the network of what Parisi and Terranova have called “bio-cybernetic capital” (qtd. 77), or Keith Ansell-Pearson’s “techno-ontological threshold” (qtd. xii), where the boundaries are hopelessly blurred between the living and dead, the organic and inorganic. In Clough’s eyes Grosz, or Donna Haraway,1 despite their virtues, do not go far enough in rethinking technology and the body. In fields of post-thermodynamic resolution (whether genetic engineering or new media/digital design), Clough writes, Parisi and Terranova better account for the “letting loose of control of the unpredictable or the improbable in order to take the unpredictable as a resource for capitalist expansion and an object for governmental management” (77). Here measure becomes a “probe for the improbable or the unpredictable” (78).
It was Parisi’s writings on algorithms in a 2012 article, “Nanoarchitectures: The Synthetic Design of Extensions and Thoughts,” that first attracted Clough and led her to rethink many feminist presuppositions. Algorithms, Parisi argued, are “not mere simulations of what already exists” (qtd. xv), and the indeterminacy they feature is not only immanent to the physical world, but to the nonrepresentational nature of the algorithms themselves (qtd. xv). Algorithms do not exist to exclusively predict probabilities; they are also profoundly “conditioned by what cannot be calculated” and thus “have the capacity to unleash novelty in biological, physical and mathematical forms” (qtd. xv). It is in this new algorithmic world in which we can expect, in Alexander Galloway’s words, “a tendential fall in the efficiency of both images and texts, in both poems and problems, and a marked increase in the efficiency of an entirely different mode of mediation, the system, the machine, the network” (qtd. 127–28). On the one hand, Clough takes her myriad means of affective measure as aesthetic, justifying the use of Christine Harold’s phrase “aesthetic capitalism” (178 n. 6), and seconding Graham Harman’s position that “aesthetics is first philosophy” (xvi), while on the other hand describing an environment where any call to a “critical aesthetic” (93) is severely challenged, to say the least. Yet she goes so far as to say that a “critical aesthetic” is “our only hope” (93).
The User Unconscious covers an enormous amount of territory, yet more suggestions about what sorts of artistic transformations are relevant to this algorithmic reality, that also conjunct with Searles’s “nonhuman” or “nonhuman mental ego,” would be welcome. One is reminded of Isabelle Stengers’s argument in the second volume of her Cosmopolitics (2011) that meaning is indeed created without and beyond the human, and without reference to measurement. An adequate “aesthetic” to this era of “datafication” (xxii) remains open and barely limned.