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Brian Massumi - Biography

Brian Massumi, Ph. D., is a political theorist, writer and philosopher, and is currently a professor in the Department of Communication Sciences at the University of Montréal in Quebec Canada, where he directs both the Ph. D program and the Workshop in Radical Empiricism (Atelier en empirisme radical). He is well-known for his translations of several major texts in French post-structuralist theory, including Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus, Jean-François Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, and Jacques Attali's Noise. Brian Massumi received both his Masters and Doctoral degrees in French Literature from Yale University and completed postdoctoral work at Stanford University.

Massumi's research is two-fold: the experience of movement and the interrelations between the senses, in particular in the context of new media art and technology; and emergent modes of power associated with the globalization of capitalism and the rise of preemptive politics. His work, likewise, emerges primarily from two distinct sources of inspiration: French post-structuralism and radical empiricism. The various thinkers who can be seen to speak to his work are Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and William James. Massumi's work engages with questions surrounding the affect, the virtual, and perception. In his work, he intends to break the hold of signification to find the emergent states of intensity outside of the linear order of narrative continuity. Rather than directly opposing intensity to signification, he sees them as interacting on two different levels, the linear and the superlinear. He associates intensity with affect and endeavors to create an "asignifying philosophy of affect." Massumi believes that any contemporary theory of media or culture must take affect into account as much as the signifier had been in structuralism, if for no other reason because "the skin is faster than the word."

Working with the senses, Massumi distinguishes between 'virtual' and 'artificial' reality, two terms that became linked with the rise of digital technology. Instead of a delineation between natural and cultural (or artificial) form can instead be seen as quite active. In an interview with Thomas Markunson for Intelligent Agent Massumi describes the architecture of Greg Lynn (an architect and fellow reader of Deleuze and Guattari's work) who worked with programming forces instead of forms. The virtual environment in prospective relationships to virtual objects produces form that is dictated through interaction of the potential modifications. Further in the interview, Massumi discusses how architecture, as a form that is expected to give form is truly reliant on the the perceptions of people, "Only by continuing the process of form emergence on a different level, in the register of the embodied experience of the people who use the building," he continues, "In other words, by building into the architecture forces of perception that interact in ways designed to trigger experiential events. Likewise, in regards to neuroscience and brain activity, it is important to move past the idea that the brain passively "transmits impressions," but that it is fully engaged in the environment around it and it "coordinates events" actively.

That Massumi's work is two-fold does not mean that it isn't entirely complimentary. From the approach of an active relationship within the mind as well as within spaces, the affect of everyday life and its dimensions can be seen to reach out into the political. Massumi's term 'affect' can be seen as similar to 'hope' in that it traces the 'margins of maneuverability' thus providing an access to the present or underlining the importance of the present. Instead of setting sights that encompass a grand utopian vision or scheme, to be available to the possibilities of affect is to live more intensely in each and every moment and "focusing on the next experimental step" as Massumi explains. He also uses Spinoza's importance of considering 'affecting' and 'affected' as the one and the same force, "When you affect something, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected in turn, and in a slightly different way than you might have been the moment before." Affect is therefore a threshold experience, a transition possible in everyday life which is necessarily embodied - these concepts building from Spinoza and then being supplemented by the intensities of experience found in Henri Bergson's and the connectedness found in William James.

Using these focal points of vocabulary, Massumi's shift to political illuminates Foucault's original thesis that power is not from without and over the people but within. Massumi underlines that power does not force us to do certain things, but that it comes up within us to work on forming us to power's standards. He explains that power "‘informs’ us, it’s intrinsic to our formation, it’s part of our emergence as individuals, and it emerges with us — we actualise it, as it in-forms us." He also remarks, true to Michel Foucault, that it is important to keep in mind that power doesn't necessarily repress as much as it regularizes. As for ethics and ethical relationships, Massumi again draws from Spinoza and his resistance to stating that anything can have an intrinsic positive or negative value. Ethics becomes about a becoming, it is a pragmatism in that ethics arises in situations. "The ethical value of an action is what it brings out in the situation, for its transformation, how it breaks sociality open. Ethics is about how we inhabit uncertainty, together. It’s not about judging each other right or wrong," Massumi. In regards to the contemporary climate of late-capitalism, Massumi's brand of ethics can be seen to be quite valuable when encountering the plethora of various interest groups propagated by identity politics. He describes, "There are any number of practices that can be socially defined and assert their interest, but all of them interact in an open field. If you take them all together there is an in-betweenness of them all that is not just the one-to-one conflict between pairs, but snakes between them all and makes them belong to the same social field — an indeterminate or emergent ‘sociality’." Ethics can be seen here then as being able to perhaps work on the level of affect, working in and between, being small and seemingly inconsequential but producing a ripple-like effect with possibilities of intensifying in its movements through groups.

Massumi has authored several books: Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (2002), A User's Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Deviations from Deleuze and Guattari (1992), and First and Last Emperors: The Absolute State and the Body of the Despot, with Kenneth Dean (1993). He is also the editor of The Matrixial Borderspace: Essays by Bracha Ettinger (1997), A Shock to Thought: Expression After Deleuze and Guattari (2002), Bracha Lichtenberg Ettinger: The Eurydice Series (2002), and The Politics of Everyday Fear (1993). Massumi was the founding editor of the University of Minnesota Press book series Theory Out of Bounds (1991-2006; co-edited by Michael Hardt and Sandra Buckley) and has written numerous articles which have been published in collections. His translations include: A Thousand Plateaus Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1987); Heterologies: Discourse on the Other Michel de Certeau (1986); Nomadology: The War Machine Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (1985); Noise: The Political Economy of Music Jacques Attali (1985); The Postmodern Condition Francois Lyotard (1984, in conjunction with Geoff Bennington); and assisted Martha Evens in the translation of Writing and Madness Shoshana Felman (1985).

In addition to his theoretical work and teaching, Massumi works with Erin Manning in her research-creation laboratory Sense Lab located at Concordia University in Toronto. Sense Lab holds monthly reading groups and hosts a speaker-series as well as Technologies of Lived Abstractions (a series of international events). Massumi and Manning co-organize these international events and activities that are dedicated to the collective exploration of new ways of bringing philosophical and artistic practices into mutually beneficial interaction (lecture series, special intensive seminars, annual international research-creation workshop, and grouphub). These international events have included Dancing the Virtual, Housing the Body, Dressing the Environment and Society of Molecules. Massumi and Manning also edit an MIT Press book series of the same title (Technologies of Lived Abstraction) as well as having founded the journal Inflexions: A Journal of Research-Creation.

Brian Massumi has been a Professor of Critical Empiricism at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he conducted an Intensive Summer Workshop.