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Corruption, transformation; colonialism, imperialism
This article was possible through consultation with Amelia Piras, specially on the intersection of kink and politics.
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In the Iraq invasion's aftermath, the Paul Bremer-led directorship, responsible for the colonial reorganization of the region and its peoples, saw the entire project as a grand adventure. A unique opportunity to build a country up “from a clean slate”, the idealized subject of neoliberal neocolonialism, transformed and reshaped for this purpose. Iraq was terra nullis, wasteland, of no cultural significance; with the potential to be reshaped to the orthodox culture of the American Imperial hegemony like no other conquest. And so it came to be. People who had mismanaged imperial core states back home into poverty, disease and illiteracy sneered at the nexus of all combined human history as they paved over it with bombs, intentional hyperextraction and destructive neglect. In a shock therapy of erasing the board, they tore everything its peoples could be and left them with only the orthodoxy: Hollywood blockbusters, McDonalds, Pringles, HSBC, Starwoods, General Motors.
I’m at a weird place right now with these articles. Part 3 of Power Fantasies is still far away, my thoughts keep going back to Part 2 and the ways I’m not entirely happy with even the addendum to that, and I have been still left thinking alongside To Change, and the next full analysis is one hell of a brick about hegemony vs the unknown. This has led me to think about how some popular franchises have turned towards corruption and transformation, and how, even seemingly keeping the same aesthetic dimension of the monstrous queer and depersonalized personhood, it is just… not working? It needs to be once again removed from the enclosure by fanfiction and derived works to once again spark.
And this article was me sitting with the “Why?”.
Let’s start with the key process to discern what may be happening there: the recuperation of transformation, corruption, the monstrous queer, etc. It is being efficiently captured, aesthetics replicated, promoted, and expanded. Sometimes where it fails is obvious, but in most times, it seems like what you want, but more of it — which should be good. Quality does not even necessarily decay.
The efficiency of recuperation and translation preservation is not accidental; at the surface level, it is a process that comes easier to the Imperial mindset. On the surface, corruption and transformation are indistinguishable from “shock doctrine”: levelling into dust everything that you are and then remaking you in the image of the Imperial, erasing all you were, making you their vision of perfection and fulfillment. Well, if that is the case, then why it does not work anymore?
The key aspect here has to be the relationships at play, and the relationships it reproduces and how those are crucial to defining context and what is being done.
An unifying appeal of transformation and corruption it is the stressful, forceful, tense and intense seizing of what is possible. It is so because it opens the target to potential and possibility they cannot even imagine; that is also crucial, because they cannot imagine that from where they are, enveloped in all sides by this. All of this. All they know is that they don’t want this. But corruption and transformation is, above all, not this; it is unknown, it is terrifying, but it is unknown and terrifying. You cannot even imagine euphoria and joy you can experience, but you know this is the door for that. This kind of transformation I would call heterodox, for its positioning outside of Imperial hegemonic culture. Even the boldest of leftist visionaries admits that by themselves existing in prisons of capitalist imagination, they cannot imagine the possibilities outside of it; none of us can say what euphoria and joy awaits beyond these walls. The obstacles before us have always started on the imagination.
When the Imperial hegemony culture takes corruption and transformation, they cannot offer that: how can they, when they are the jailers of the soul, the walls that shape the imaginary itself? They are the “man” part of "man-made horrors beyond your imagination”: they are the providers of the errors and the limiters of what you can imagine. Provide the cracking of the egg so you can seek those impossible euphorias, they cannot do. When a big franchise dons the skin of corruption and transformation, it must bleach it out from all possibilities, to make it understandable, known, and shaping it within its own franchise logic — to be made useful, it must be homogenized enough to no longer be heterodox. And thus we arrive at orthodox transformation.
So, orthodox transformation will take you, break you, take everything from you and remake into something… where you can actually have a pretty good idea of what the possibilities available for you are, the potential, the euphoria allowed to you, the terms of personhood and the joy of its struggle. You know, because they are the same as of the Imperial hegemon where you exist now. There is no escape; it is all within the possible.
And if you desired this, you could have gone for it yourself. Achieving that would be fantasy; not being torn and sublimated by a corruptive force.
There is nobody that is not aware of these forces nor is torn apart by them in their daily life; one does not need to be an Imperial to do so — and as such, nobody’s perspective of the real, the possible and personhood are expanded by the process. Those subjected to those forces, in fact, are much more aware than those already part of the orthodoxy: those on the Imperial fringe and beyond, who are themselves deemed heterodox, are pushed by all vectors of Imperial violence. Escaping such violence requires constant interpretative labor to survive said violence, by making themselves somewhat understandable to the Imperial and to understand the Imperial hegemonic culture better than the Imperial themselves — and better than your own neglected culture and/or self-actualization.
The heterodox fantasy appeals to those that themselves are made heterodox by the churning machines of orthodox culture. When there is no space for themselves to be a person, any opening is a view into something else: even made into a drone, an object, erased in any conventional way, etc, it is always something else.
This transmutation of your personhood into something else requires acknowledging a personhood that can be the catalysis of change; unlike the non-personhood that makes one the target of necropolitics.
It is not like you are really a person here, so at worst, you are still not really a person. Perhaps you may find new ways of being a person? You know naught, but you know you cannot achieve that as things are now.
But can transformation open you to be novel forms of personhood or experiences the sensual ecstasy of becoming the unknown when offered by the orthodoxy? How can it be so, when you know the Empire so well? The colonizer, the Imperial, is never unknown to you; it is already your life and you already know what it offers you. Orthodox transformation cannot fulfill this fantasy of change and mutation. The orthodox transformation transforms you into an American. It destroys all you are, gives you a can of Pringles and expects you to be a good subject, pay your taxes, consume treats and trinkets and live the life of a "young urban professional" until it is done with you.
There is, however, a different fantasy, one that orthodox transformation excels at providing. Born from a position of comfort, it is the fantasy of being comfortable with the current monstrous status quo and seeing it not only maintained, but the comfort made immortalized perfection. The fantasy of all there is is endless replication of the face, a myriad of mirrors, where nothing as unseemingly as causing discomfort existing. In this fantasy, corruption and fantasy are made the ultimate manifestation of shock doctrine.
This fantasy of orthodox transformation being tied to comfort echoes our previous discussions about the necropolitics of gay tieflings. It is a similar recuperation of the monstrous and uncomfortable, however, it is one that has more in common with other topics of said piece: the dichotomy between heteredox/orthodox transformation is very akin to war machines/militaries. Just as for a definition of “those that war” there is no difference between war machines emerging from the camp-form and state military, if “a sensual expression of corruption and transformation” is all that is used, the distinction seems ridiculous and pointless.
But in either case, it is all about positioning.
Orthodox transformation is an embrace of the monstrous as necessary for euphoria and transformation within this framework, as accepting the violence as necessary. This goes to all the dark messianic and fascistic described in Necropolitics, but the whole queering to the military, making the necessary transformations for the replication of the orthodoxy synonymous with all euphoria allowed within its terms. It justifies what it needs to corrupt and transform you; it makes you more of itself and makes a little queer fascist of you in the process.
Imperial corruption is about seeing yourself replicated ad nauseum, a world full of you, and ultimately, is the fantasy about being comfortable with the status quo and orthodoxy. The problem is what challenges you: if it makes you slightly uncomfortable, you must airbrush it away. What is not you is a violent act just for not being you; anything you do to perpetuate you is no violence you would acknowledge.
And anything beyond you, you would not acknowledge. It would make you uncomfortable, after all.
Heterodox corruption is about surrendering yourself to ways of being and ways of personhood impossible to imagine within the Imperial orthodoxy, so I cannot seek it out; you have to be taken there. It is a fantasy about wanting any break from the all-encompassing hegemon. Both fantasies are exclusive.
Dehumanization is a part of the sensual expression of transformation and corruption. Heterodox transformation knows "I want to stop being human so I can become a person because as I am now I am not allowed to be either” and demands your surrender with the pleasure that fulfilling that fantasy entails. Orthodox transformation does not do that; it demands your submission and refuses any chance for any personhood, “I make you" become form-fitting to the machine around you”.
But how do we allow this to happen? How come we welcome it? How, even when we are subject to its violence, we subject ourselves to this replication?
Well, the answer is obvious: because we have to. Still, there is more to it. Transformation and corruption are about unmaking and making. The Body in Pain reflects on the meaning of that, and how it shapes and enables personhood through rumination of an extensive corpus on the experience, nature of pain, and the embodied existence. A few of the concepts it comes into may be helpful for us, stuck thinking about these intersections.
The most important idea there for these thoughts is the personhood-defining ability of pain: to exist embodied is to be subjected to pain, but personhood is gained when you are not at the mercy of it. Two aspects of the sentient person become essential: work and imagination. Work, is all one does to avoid pain; imagination, is what allows one to imagine a goal beyond pain, what. Sentience is not an inherent essential property but forged seeking relief from pain: imagination sets what is acceptable and what relief looks like; work allows us to imagine that relief and make it happen.
To be sentient and a person is, by requirement, a transformative and changing experience. To be human, is to be able to go beyond “the human body”; sentience does not allow, sentience needs it. It may be easy to imagine something this outrageous, but it is something we do every single moment as part of our attempts to claim personhood: the easiest to relate example as to be the “homunculus flexibility”. Initially proposed as the way humans adapt to “be” a “self” that incorporated nonhuman elements, it draws from many observations coming from art and neurosciences: that by our senses we build a self and a map of the self and our body different from “human default” — whatever that means.
Homuncular flexibility is what enables us a virtual presence, to integrate our clothing and our disability aids as part of us, visualize and produce art, to drive a car or even to use tools. This is how work and imagination allow us to take agency over pain: we can imagine the transformation of the body and we can work to make tools and use tools that make our bodies and our sentient self something else that approximates that imagination. Doing this allows us to make ourselves into a person, reproducing that personhood as our homunculus' seamless changes.
Once aware of this and going back to the orthodox corruption, the horrifying degree of violence required to enforce it dawns upon anyone connecting the dots. It is not only that they must limit our imagination; it has to obliterate it. It not only narrows the possibilities, it unmakes us and the ways we have to make ourselves; it takes the tools and makes them weapons. It denies us on a fundamental level: without imagination, we cannot take control of our work, we cannot define what is acceptable, cannot manifest relief and cannot become what may free us from pain.
It leaves us with the pain we have and promises only more and more pain. Endless pain, without agency on what is acceptable, what is work we can do, what relief we can do for work. It leaves us with pain and work that does not alleviate that pain. Destroying personhood and any connection we may have to the transformation, it painfully forces it upon us.
It deprives us of tools, leaving anything that would help us make our bodies reduced to weapons that can unmake someone — and all we get close to relief is that they are turned to someone else but us.
What can we do? How do we acknowledge the unmaking and making power of pain? For personhood? And how we claim back the power of our work to make our acceptable imaginary closer to reality? Are not all environments and worlds of this art of our making, with our assumptions of the “human default” and orthodoxy we reproduce uncritically?
For that, another concept will be useful: the trinity of tool-weapon-artifact; very useful for this art-form and something worth spending time thinking about on another day.
As Friedman and Chicago Boys have been saying even as they reshaped the entire world, true neoliberalism has yet to be tried.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran (2007), “Imperial Life in The Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone”
Not from the recuperation and upscaling; it decays from the same reason why everything else in post-capitalist, post-production society has been decaying: since they only seek to collect rent, they really don’t care how bad it is — they have no incentive to even pretend to care about product quality.
For a given angle of not working, of course, drawing comparisons to what it recuperated. It should be obvious by now that there is a particular fantasy that this excels at fulfilling.
David Graeber (2011), “The Very Idea of Consumption: Desire, Phantasms, and the Aethetics of Destruction from Medieval Times to the Present”
David Apter (1965), “The Politics of Modernization”
David Apter (1971), “Choice and the Politics of Allocation: A Developmental Theory“
Neil L. Whitehead (2004), “Violence”
It can however, offer you the horror of being transformed to fit the orthodoxy; which has a long, long history of being recuperated into the monstrous queer and the feminine terrors by those threatened by it. Of course, the merits of such art and the sensual gestures of those belong not to the franchise tyrants of the Imperial hegemonic culture but those that liberate it from them.
Me, sweating and making the aforementioned interpretative labor for the Imperial eyes: “see, it is the difference between monsters in Pan’s Labyrinth vs Shape of Water”.
Achille Mbembe (2018), Necropolitics
Elaine Scarry (1985), The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World.
Lanier, J. (2006). Homuncular flexibility. Edge Foundation, Inc., 2006.
Clark, A. (2007). Re-inventing ourselves: The plasticity of embodiment, sensing, and mind. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 32, 263–282
Haans, A., & IJsselsteijn, W. A. (2012). Embodiment and telepresence: Toward a comprehensive theoretical framework. Interacting with Computers, 24(4), 211–218.
Ramachandran, V. S., & Altschuler, E. L. (2009). The use of visual feedback, in particular mirror visual feedback, in restoring brain function. Brain, 132(7), 1693–1710
Won, A. S et al (2015). Homuncular Flexibility in Virtual Reality. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, Volume 20, Issue 3, 1 May 2015, Pages 241–259
Loomis, J. M. (1992). Distal attribution and presence. Presence: Teleoperation and virtual en-vironments, 1(1), 113–119.
Biocca, F. (1997). The cyborg's dilemma: Progressive embodiment in virtual environments. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 3(2).