Interview with Erin Manning and Brian Massumi
MARC: What is the concept of value underlying cryptocurrencies? How does it differ from value as conceived of within capitalism?
MASSUMI: It’s very much in line with the rhetoric of how value functions in capitalism. Cryptocurrency designers tend to take up the traditional definition of a medium of exchange, store of value, and unit of account. That traditional market definition, however, doesn’t correspond to how money actually functions in the capitalist economy, because it understands money in terms of exchange and exchange in terms of equivalency. The capitalist economy actually runs on the production of surplus-value, in other words on excess. The very definition of capital is the potential to generate more in the future from a given amount of money invested now. It’s the speculative promise of the perpetual production of a more-than. The libertarian market-fundamentalist ideology behind the design of bitcoin and embraced by its early boosters simply disregarded the thing that is most characteristic of capitalism: which is, needless to say, capital itself. But capital caught up with Bitcoin. Its use as a speculative vehicle has led to a near-total collapse of its traditional money functions.
MARC: So you think the concept of value as it is being presumed bitcoin, for example, is an archaic notion? Or are you talking about capitalism as a whole?
MASSUMI: Yes, I think that the economic ideas designed into bitcoin harken back to very early ideologies of free market liberal capitalism. They don’t correspond to how capital actually works, especially if you take into consideration the present-day dominance of financial capital. If the blockchain, or technologies developing out of the blockchain, are to lead to progressive social innovation, a much more complicated vision of the economy has to be factored in, and for that it is necessary to grapple with finance capital.
MANNING: I think what’s really important to sort of segue the conversation and keep our own interests in this visible, is that for our cryptoeconomic work – the 3E Process Seed Bank, we don’t begin our thinking of value around financial value in that archaic definition that Brian mentioned. We begin with the question of value more broadly: what is value, what are the conditions under which value expresses itself, how does it enter into relations of power, and can it be extracted from those relations of power? Our interest in financial value is in that wider range, because we realized that if we don’t grapple with forms of money beyond money as a medium of exchange – forms like derivatives, options, and futures – we could miss potential alter-economic strategies, or find the activist work we do undermined by not taking these economic realities into account.
MASSUMI: Bascially, we want to think about value qualitatively, rather than assuming that the only viable model of value is quantitative, as it is in the case of monetary value. There are certain points in the capitalist economy where the qualitative basis of value makes itself felt. But it is telling that when it does, it is in the form of what are called “externalities”: things that affect price but aren’t themselves quantifiable. The classic example is the way that perceptions of the quality of life in different neighborhoods affect real estate prices, whether it’s green spaces and good schools or the conviviality and cultural life of neighborhood. These quality of life factors are reflected in the prices, but because they aren’t things that are quantifiable as such, this typically leads to distortions in the market, as can be seen in the insanely high prices in desirable inner cities, and in the onslaughts of gentrification. The monetary expression of value is just that: a numerical expression of something else. And that something else, being qualitative, always eludes capture. It distorts the market, or is distorted by it. So we wanted to ask, is there a way of putting a qualitative notion of value back at the centre of economy?
MARC: In capitalism, there is qualitative value, but capitalism simply reduces it to quantity?
MASSUMI: Capital is a massive quantification machine. In the increasingly digital economy, it is literally becoming a vast computation machine.
MARC: Can tell me how you’re trying to conceptualize value differently?
MANNING: We begin by recognizing of modes of living that don’t even register, or register as not having value. I’m thinking about neurodiverse forms of living. The term neurodiversity was coined to affirm forms of experience that are outside the norm, like autism, but it can be extended to other devalued forms of life, for example what Fred Moten calls Black life, or to forms of gender and sexuality that are excluded. The question of creating conditions for those forms of experience or qualities of life to begin to register has to enter into the question of what an alter-economy might look like. At the same time, we recognize that there are all kinds of danger to economizing forms of life. We risk simply integrating them into the the very mechanism we’re trying to get away from. But if we don’t actively work to register them in the context of value – and, by extension, financial value as we are working to redefine it—we continue to uphold that they fall outside the realm of value. So we’re trying to think across that paradox, and we’re trying to do it in a way that keeps a lot of emphasis on a wider range of alter-economic options, beyond crytocurrency and blockchain as they exist now.
MASSUMI: That’s where the concept of “surplus-value of life” comes in. New forms of currency aren’t enough. Currency doesn’t give you new social forms. It returns you to the same old model of the market. Thinking about the definition of capital, as surplus value generation, might actually move us further. So that’s where we start from. Are there ways of translating surplus value into completely new economic and social forms? In the
capitalist economy, surplus value functions as a kind of engine, driven by the future. It all revolves around quantity, but also exceeds it. The point is to produce profit, but if you’re a capitalist and you just spend all your profit, you quickly go bankrupt. So you plow it back into investment, to keep the process of generating profit going. You move past the profit point, and the quantity of money that you’ve realized at that point gets fed forward into a speculative investment, so that the next profit point in the future is greater than the last. What is driving the system is the feed-forward past each given quantity. It’s supernumerary: more than any realized amount. Now, all of that is based on a quantitative logic. What would the qualitative equivalent be? How does that translate into the “currency” of life? When we profit from life, we have experiences. When we say we value an experience, it’s because it has a quality that we consider as having value in and of itself, completely aside from any numerical expression. This is not a quantity of money– it’s an intensity of experience. The intensity of experience is what we “speculate” on in our lives. We want to feed it forward down the line. It is supernumerary in the sense that it escapes quantification by nature. We don’t want the next experience to be bigger in a quantitative sense. We want it to be unique. We want it to have its very own, unique way of having had a value in itself. In qualitative terms “more-than” means different, registering variety, not quantity. In other words, it has to do with creativity, which can be defined as the production of variety. An intensity of life is a surplus value of life, and the feeding forward of surplus-value of life is the movement of creativity. That’s what we want to figure out how to register and build an economy around. Obviously, this is not creativity in the way it has become a neoliberal buzzword. It’s not about the next new thing. It’s about what Erin calls “life-living.” This becomes political if you take into account that this qualitative more-than that is surplus value of life is best accessed collectively. In a collective activity, there can be a more-than in relation to what an individual can contribute – a kind of synergy that produces more-than the sum of its parts, an intensification that can innovate varieties of experience beyond the capacity of one individual alone. So we’re looking at the movement of experience from intensity to intensity, through collective action – a kind of affective economy that’s fundamentally participatory.
MANNING: One of the particularities of our approach is that we want to include the non-human in that thinking, or what I’ve called the more-than human. I call it that to keep it in touch with that element of excess or surplus Brian was talking about. The generation of that qualitative excess includes the world – it is a worlding. It’s not an exchange that can be mapped onto a transaction between two human bodies, or even a plurality of human bodies. The conditions under which the encounter takes place enter into the equation. What is often backgrounded as part of the surrounds is always a contributing factor, and sometimes it can be a decisive factor. In our work over the last fifteen years at SenseLab, we have become, I think, quite strong in registering this in the analogue world. We’ve worked hard at becoming attuned to affective tonalities, to the edges and contours that make up the event. Following process philosophy, we understand the event as that which exceeds the sum of its parts. An event catches the more-than in its passing. Neurodiversity has assisted us in developing this focus on affective attunement both in the sense of reminding us to remain sensitive to what is excluded from a register of value, and to develop techniques for un-chunking experience, unsettling it from its pre-packaged product-oriented or goal-centred expectations. If an environment is conceived as a lively mesh of tendencies rather than simply as a gathering of humans, something else begins to percolate. This something-else is our most intimate concern. I mention this because this concern is where our main research is situated as regards the 3E Process Seed Bank. It has to be, since cryptocurrencies register on a digital platform, a platform that by necessity will be limited in terms of registering quality. The blockchain ledger is a good example. The ledger registers what we already know how to register : it registers the chunks of action, not the tendencies of process, not the edges and contours of experience-forming. In the vocabularity of neurodiversity, you could say that the blockchain registers neurotypical norms. Now imagine an archive that would register, instead, the things that were backgrounded but made a difference, the acts we don’t usually recognize, tendencies that didn’t make a legible difference in that event, but can potentially make a difference in a subsequent event. This is an anarchive. We envision the 3E Process Seed Bank as an anarchive. The anarchive is speculative, oriented toward the future. Its holds potential value – potential as value. It’s a storehouse of surplus-value of life. To invent a qualitative economy, you have to invent the anarchive, pin the process of value production on the feed-forward of the more-than of potential it holds, and figure out a way to monetize that. Not an easy task. At the SenseLab, we’ve spent years experimenting with anarchiving in the analogue world. The big question we have now, in moving this work towards the financial realm, and specifically the realm of blockchain, is how do you do that in a digital environment? How do you use blockchain, or a technology growing out of it, to register that which generally doesn’t register, and to move a creative process with it?
MARC: So you’re trying to use blockchain and digital technologies to register quality which does not necessarily exist – which hasn’t come into being yet.
MANNING: Exactly. Or to put it another way, to register potential. Potential for qualitative change, as collectively moved. We’re trying to take the knowledge that we’ve built over these past fifteen years, and on that basis develop tools that work in the digital realm that can be used as part of a collective creative practice to help generate these kinds of qualitative more-than effects, or the surplus-value of life that we’ve been talking about.
MASSUMI: When we talk about a digital platform that can be used “as part of” a collective practice, we mean that there’s “more than” the digital involved. We’re talking about a collective creative process that cycles through events off-line, in the analogue world, where surplus-value of life is generated in live relation. Blockchain technology is actually a problem from this point of view. You could say that its design is anti-event. What characterizes an event is that you’re never really done with it. It leaves traces of its eventfulness, residues of potential that continue to work in the world. Aspects of it might pop up again, and take on importance later, in a follow-up event. The time of the event isn’t a straight line. It loops back on itself. It feeds aspects of its own past forward, to occupy the future. The time of the event is the future-past. Events are unique, but always repeat. They change conditions in the world in ways that can help set the conditions for its own return. But when the event does return, it is ways with a difference. Events are difference engines. The have a kind of memory of the future built into them in the form of their own repeatability-with-a-difference. That’s what we’re trying to get at with the concept of the anarchive. Because the event is never really over an done with, its potential is never fully absorbed in its punctual occurence. The whole idea of a blockchain ledger is to form a complete memory. Its center of gravity is in the past. Each transaction in the present sinks completely into the past, and the past makes itself present again as the ledger is validated. It’s in the present-past, in the said and done, rather than in the memory of the future that is potential. Potential is radically open to variation. The blockchain works for the purposes it was developed for. It iterates radical closure. Our work is to explore ways in which to design ledgers that are capable of carrying potential. So we know that traditional ways of doing blockchain aren’t going to work for us. But perhaps new developments out of blockchain can work, especially if they open up what a smart contract can be, beyond an atomized transaction between two self-interested individuals. And if its structure is opened up into a more rhizomatic, multilateral notion like the holochain. At the same time, we’re very attracted to the idea of distributed autonomous organizations that surfaced with the blockchain. Their decentralized, self-organizing nature appeals to us. But for the DAO to be relevant to our project of a qualitative alter-economy, we have to open it up to the memory of the future, to iterative events of variation, rather than just using it to make a more perfect account book immortalizing what has already happened. Another problem with the blockchain for us is that it was designed, in libertarian fashion, for transactions between individual parties. It atomizes relation by reducing it to a private exchange. This chunking cuts up the continuous feeding forward of process into a succession of punctual transactions. This writes out that collective synergy that we’ve been talking about, and neglects the self-driving movement of surplus value.
MARC: The DAO is really interesting to me, and it reminds me of what you were talking about, Erin: about trying to include the more-than-human. A DAO would be a way of involving marginalized people’s consent in the processes of quantifying their lives.
MANNING: I would say that what we’re trying to do is not so much to target individuals who are different, which could come across as condescending, but to recognize and value the diversity in diversity. By that I mean, the qualitative richness in events that is always producing new tendencies collectively, in a process of ongoing diversification, experienced as a value in itself. To do this, any digital platform involved would have to generate new ways for people to come into relation, allowing for other ways of collaborating. In the spirit of the kinds of techniques we’ve developed so far at SenseLab, our sense is that this involves not consent so much as lures, since consent tends to leave us within the realm of the individual (individual action, individual agency). What we want are emergent collectivities, emergent tendencies across constituencies (reinventing what the constituency can be). We have been rethinking smart contract in that spirit, using the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s idea of the proposition. He says that a proposition isn’t just a verbal formulation or the logical content of a statement. He says it’s a “lure for feeling.” That means that it’s performative. It’s a kind of event itself that takes up the parties involved in a collective movement based on desire or appetite, rather than pinning them down through consent to a contractual obligation. We want to try to rethink smart contracts as lures for feeling. So we’ve renamed them with this in mind. We call them SOPs: self-organizing propositions.
MASSUMI: The idea of the SOP is to open up the realm of what a smart contract can be, starting from the basic structure of the contract, which is a conditional statement: an if/then. Conditions are put in place, and when those conditions are met, that fulfillment is registered, automatically by the system in the case of a DAO. We want to open up that conditioning so that it applies collectively, and is propositional in the sense being invitational, a lure. Although a certain fulfillment is projected as an endpoint, the exact form it must take is not predefined. In that way, the emphasis shifts from the endpoint itself to the interval leading to it. A relational space is opened that fills with all kinds of intensities of interaction. Now if each fulfillment is not so much an endpoint as a threshold leading to another phase in the collective process, the process moves from intensive interval to intensive interval, rather than from punctual endpoint to punctual endpoint. It can then take on a momentum that makes it self-organizing. The propositions would have to be entirely configurable, and a whole variety of them that could relay each other to move the process along would have to be strategized. So that is what we would like to do instead of the usual gesture of beginning by setting up a rule-based governance structure. The whole rhetoric of governance structures, invariable rule-sets, authorization, and transactional obligations runs counter to our basically anarchist ethos. So instead of a rule-based governance structure we want to set up an allure-based propositional field through which the process channels itself, in as self-organizing a fashion as possible.
MARC: Sounds like you’re describing machine learning?
MASSUMI: Machine learning is one of the avenues we’re exploring, but it can’t be everything. No one thing on its own will suffice. It has to be an ecology.
MANNING: Sometimes it helps to have an image of what these processes might look like. I’ll give an example. How people enter is always an issue in collectives, and a great deal about the orientation and potential of the collective is decided right at that moment, at first contact and during the integration into the group. The SenseLab has an ethos of radical openness. We have never had membership, and we try our best, in keeping with our commitment to neurodiversity, not to impose normative models on people’s ways of contributing. The legalistic gesture of identifying yourself and agreeing formally to a set of terms in order to enter a platform and begin participating is not in keeping with our ethos. So the first SOP we are working on is called Entryway. Simily to the day to day work of SenseLab, this SOP allows for lurking. An interested participant registers the process from the perspective of observation, feeling-thinking, and this for as long as they wish. Their participation will come to make a difference but not in normative ways associated to legible gestures. They make a difference by committing to being-amongst, in relation. The way they register actively into the 3E Process Seed Bank is by (eventually) giving a gift of process. This could be a proposition, or simply a comment, or a contribution of a concept, or an image, or a poem. Anything at all. Then a follow-up Welcome Wagon SOP is activated, where that gift is taken up and responded to in a creative vein, rather the individual being personally welcomed and put on the spot. The Entryway SOP goes from the entrance into lurking to the registering of the gift, at which point it automatically relays into the Welcome Wagon. With the Welcome Wagon SOP what we aim to highlight is not the punctuality of the gift but the complex duration it carries. It has been our experience that a lurking can go on for years and that the gift of process, when it comes, can bring with it a rhythm of time that bends the present into a future-past. Recognizing the gesture of the gift is therefore also a registering of non-linear time, and acts that move through differentials of lived experience. Differentials, rather than discrete points in time or separate chunks of action, are central to us, because they are by nature relational. They straddle a spread. We’ve done alot of brainstorming about how these SOPs might work and how our process might straddle itself across them. We have a number of others that we’re in the process of conceptualizing for all kinds of functions that are usually dealt with by formal protocols. The most thorny issue is decision-making, because there is actually nothing less collective and more de-intensifying than voting. We’re putting alot of time into thinking about how to use SOPs to make decision itself self-organizing, meaning that the creative momentum of the process shepards itself, instead of being subordinated to formal moments of decree. This is coming out of thinking that occurred very early in SenseLab’s history. From the very beginning we asked ourselves what kinds of conditions you could create that would allow people to come together in ways that didn’t choreograph the encounter in predictable ways. We often work from the university, or the art world, or between the two. Both the university and the art world are predicated on forms of self presentation, so it’s very likely that when you meet people in those contexts you will be asked what you do, where you study, or where you’re from. And we know that those kinds of questions can be extremely destructive to a collective process because they set up expectations right off the bat about hierarchy, positioning, and expertise. The SenseLab has worked to really explore this idea of thresholds and ask where the thresholds of the encounter are. Some of them are really obvious. How people walk into a space. What can you do at that threshold to facilitate coming together? But there are other thresholds, transversal thresholds, that go unregistered (for some of us). Thresholds that guarantee racial homogeneity, actively excluding black and brown bodies from white spaces. Thresholds that priviledge neurotypical frontal modes of organization that literally keep neurodiverse bodies from being able to enter. The work on SOPs is a direct engagement with these kinds of questions that have been part of our work from the beginning : what kind of participatory preparation can happen in the crafting of conditions for entering ? What happens when you share a concept, how can concepts be activated, and move into embodied interaction? How does the configuration of the space of encounter modulate the movements of relation that happen in it? What about material thresholds? How can the materials offered as affordances to the collective process shephard the process? And movement thresholds? How do lures for movement and rhythms of movement make a difference? We’ve multiplied these thresholds over the years, and what we’ve learned is that you can’t presuppose that what worked in one encounter will work in another situation. Each event requires its own very particular techniques for crossing the threshold, and what that means is that you have to work on the conditions appropriate to the encounter. That involves setting in place what we call enabling constraints – catalyzers of relation that get the collective process moving and orient the movement. You have to work with a kind of deep sensitivity to the conditions that are converging toward the event, and how they can foster the capacity for improvisation. All of this applies to the digital platform as well. The SOPs are digital enabling constraints. They have to be capable of malleability, reprogrammability. They have to be able to produce enough complexity to facilitate more than one way of engaging and moving through the interval they open up.
MASSUMI: Going back to maching learning, we also want to let loose on our platform a species of operator similar to bots. We call them POTs, or Processual Operator Thingies to signal that they’re about the furthering of self-organizing process – in which what takes form is emergent, and therefore not entirely unforeeable – rather than the automation of already known functions.
MANNING: The POTs go back to our concern for the nonhuman or more-than human. They are ways of making the platform an active participant in its own process. They’re like little nudges that the system injects into the interactions that might catalyze a change of direction or the gelling of a propositional movement. We don’t think of them in terms of functions, which is why we use the word “operator” instead. We think of them in terms of qualities of experience that shift the tonality of an event. They’re surplus-value of life catalyzers. An offline example could be something as simple as sunlight. You’re working in a space that is heavy with four o’clock in the afternoon fatigue, and suddenly the sun comes in through the window. The feel of the room palpably shifts. The interactions are re-energized, or take an unexpected veer. The sunlight has performed what I call a “minor gesture”: an almost-nothing that triggers a shift in the relational field, even if it wasn’t singled out and directly recognized – especially if it wasn’t singled out, but just merged into the very shift it brought about. The POTs are meant to be the digital equivalent of this, minor gestures contributed by the system itself. In a normative event, the sunlight will tend to be ignored. Because it’s not considered functional, it’s not considered central, it’s not allowed to make a difference or take on importance. So it becomes a kind of externality in the way Brian was talking about: if we notice it, we dismiss it at insignificant. Insufficiently useful or goal-oriented. What we’re trying to do with the processual operators is foreground these qualities of experience that really do change the tonality, and to create the opportunity that we can be moved by them. Our hope is to create a platform where we can be moved by the more-than, where we can be a little less sure of our own agency as participants on the platform, a little less individualistic in our participation. The POTs, these qualitative nudges, are a technique to re-tune us enough to foreground the collective movement of the Seed Bank over individual actions, inspiring different ways of engaging. This is an enormous challenge given our entrenched (goal-directed) online habits. What we are relying on in the design of POTs is the constant proliferation, in the online world, of modalities of encounter, and of the appetite we feel, as a large international network, to find new ways not of transferring pre-packaged knowledge but of transducing experience—moving it through creative phase-shifts. How to work not in a descriptive mode but in an affective one ? On the 3E Process Seed Bank it might look something like this : You read an article that moves you and decide you would like to leave a snippet of text. The goal is likely quite straightforward : you mean to perform a quick drag and drop function. But upon entering with the text your action is intercepted by the nuzzlebot, a lure for bringing tendencies into relation. The nuzzlebot puts your text in relation to a colour-field that, for a brief moment, makes the writing illegible. While your first response may be frustration (ach ! get this colour off my words !), this cephalopodic gesture may also bring out the animality of the textual tendency (because suddenly you’ve found yourself googling cephalopods to better understand how their bodies shift colour in what seems to be an affective response to a shifting environment), and the thought about colour might spark an idea for a different kind of contribution, which in turn might lead to a proposition about affective attunement. That’s really what we’re hoping for, that these forms of coding can deviate from what we see currently on digital platforms, which is intensely individualized self-presenting and relentless self-promoting. The like button on Facebook is exactly what we want to avoid.
MASSUMI: This brings up a very difficult problem – the biggest problem we face, that has really pushed us to the limit of our imaginations. For something like a POT to work, it has to somehow be registering qualities of interaction, and respond to those in a quirky but fitting way, injecting a dose of randomness, but fit to the conditions. So the system has to be able to register qualitative intensities, intensities of relation. It has to be affectively attuned to the quality of the process as it is evolving. Even more, it has to be able to in some way sense when the process is reaching a potential turning point, and help nudge it over that threshold into a phase-shift. It is with this in mind that our third piece of the puzzle is being coded : the affect-o-meter. The affect-o-meter performs a qualitative analysis digitally. This is especially important to us because it is also the key to how we want to monetize our platform. It’s a key to the alter-economy we’re envisioning. We literally want to invent an affective economy, an economy that runs on intensities of relations, and values those, their process, more than any particular product. We have three small teams of artist-programmers working on the design of the SOPs, POTs, and affect-o-meter, but we’re a bit stuck on the monetization link (how qualitative processual energies can be given a number that allows their production to translate into currency). We’ re sure the mathematics exists, but we need help for this.
MANNING: Before we go more into the economy, perhaps we should say what kind of activity we’re talking about ?
MASSUMI: Ok, I’ll start. The SenseLab is a laboratory for experimenting with forms of creative collaboration that foster qualitatively different experiences of collectivity in action – surplus-values of life whose production is so integrally collective that it can’t be factored down into individual parts or inputs without losing a sense of the intensity of the experience. We refer to this as emergent collectivity. The process – that of emergent collectivity – is our product. We don’t produce any kind of separable, saleable product. What we want to do is spin off momentum from group experimentations in creative techniques of relation. The dissemination of creative activity is our object. We’re thinking of 3E Process Seed Bank as a creative process engine designed to help seed collective creative practices. Most collective action is thought of as simply the sum of its individual parts. Everything revolves around individual input, and ultimately individual interest. There is no sense of the collective as a surplus value, as a more-than of what the individuals could do as individuals. If there is any thought given to the collective, it’s usually equated with a constituency: basically a convergence of individual interests. This implies that we already know what we need or desire, and what will fulfill us. The ethos of our project is to say that we can desire more than we know, and go beyond what we take to be our individual interests, into unknown intensities. This is not just knowing different things, it’s knowing differently – inventing new modes of knowledge. This can only be done by leveraging collective energies into an emergence that no one individual, or simple aggregate of individuals, could have charted in advance. This ethos of acting at the limit of what we know and how we can be together requires constant attunement and care. Our conviction is that it has to be built into the programming as much as it’s built into how we interact with each other offline. There has to be a kind of continuity between them, where what happens online is embodying the same qualities of relation as we work (and play) to embody offline. For that reason, we model our digital SOPs and POTs first in analogue, in offline interactions. Only then we do go to the programming, where the question becomes: how can we code so that digital program becomes an analogue of the analogue? How do we make what happens online resonate with the lived qualities produced in the offline events, rather than working as a framing, organizing, or governing module? How do we make code neurodiverse? How do we value that?
MARC: So do you think this model you’re developing with the SenseLab, where the product is a process, translates into other forms of organization? Do you think you can replicate it so that the product is something other than a process?
MANNING: There are people all over the world we don’t know who are doing this kind of work, who are creating ways of working together, inventing new forms of collaboration, engaging with complex ecological models of encounter, who are inventing new forms of value. We never believe we are alone doing this work. The question we have is isn’t the usual start-up question of to how scale up, it’s how do we create techniques for the registering of that which doesn’t register? For the most part, these emergent forms of surplus value invention are seen as excess in the negative sense: as extra to the “real” work, or again, as externalities. The “real” work is producing products, and valorizing them in the neoliberal economy, which means subordinating them again to the quantitative notion of value. The question of modes of knowledge is key, because the university, and the education system as a whole, is becoming increasingly neoliberalized. We mean for what we do, and the economy we’re trying to build, to challenge that. As education becomes a province of the neoliberal economy, it affects how the value of knowledge is understood. More and more, the corporate model of performance auditing is taking over at all levels. The learning experience is reduced to numbers, and more in the quantitative sense is defined as better. The best of all is more IP licensing bringing more money back to the university, skewing its entire mandate toward the generation of profit. This is a profound devaluing of process, and a normative disciplining of emergent knowledge. Another aspect of the same transformation is that the university is becoming more and more a site of debt creation, and the classroom is becoming less and less capable of managing diversity in diversity, as it continues to exclude so many folks either through poverty or because of their difference in ways of learning. The 3E Process Seed Bank is deeply allied to this question of what else learning and living can be, having grown out of its sister project the 3Ecologies Institute. We actually began there, with the 3Ecologies Institute, working from Felix Guattari’s definition of the three ecologies as the conceptual (psychic, mental), the environmental, and the social. It was only two years ago that we realized that thinking value transversally across the three ecologies required us to also take financial value into account. We never know quite how to define the 3Ecologies Institute. We often call it an alter-university, but that puts it right back into the university realm, and we emphatically don’t what to be granting credits or degrees, which would just be feeding into the existing ways of valuing learning. We see the 3E as a kind of intensifier of modes of thinking and living dedicated to inventing ways that we can continue to learn together, regardless of our age, background, or learning style. We don’t see it as an opposite to the university, we see it as a parasite. You could put the emphasis on the site: a para-site, a para-institution that maintains relations with the institution of the university, but operates by a different logic. It would be very naive of us to think you could just walk out of capitalism. We’re not that naive. Neoliberalism is our natural environment. We therefore operate with what we call strategic duplicity. This involves recognizing what works in the systems we work against. Which means : we don’t just oppose them head on. We work with them, strategically, while nurturing an alien logic that moves in very different directions. One of the things we know that the university does well is that it attracts really interesting people. And the degrees it gives, although questionable from many perspectives, can be useful and enable them to continue their work. The university can facilitate meetings that can change lives. It’s full of incredible pedagogical experiments that go against the grain. At an individual level, from one professor to another, there are many examples of what the university does well. But systemically, it fails. And the systemic failure is getting more and more acute. And so what we imagine is that the 3E Institute, assisted by the 3E Process Seed Bank, will create a new space that might overlap with some of the things the university does well, without being a part of it (or being subsumed by its logic).
MASSUMI: When I said that the process is the product, I was being a bit reductive. Products do happen. But they happen as spin-offs or derivatives of the process, rather than as ends in themselves that drive the process, and that the process strives for. We actually make a lot of products. We produce books, articles, ephemeral artworks, we run a journal and a book series, we organize all kinds of activities and events. But what we really want to produce, through all of that, are what we call techniques of relation. Because it’s the techniques of relation that produce the spin-off. A lot of collaborations have in fact spun off from the SenseLab into individual and group writing and art projects, pedagogical projects, and political activities, in ways that exceed the SenseLab itself. In a sense, the project is to out-do our own process, to be exceeded by it, and let it go in the world, beyond where we can go. When we say we want to develop a creative process engine, that’s what we mean. What we hope we can offer is a kind of prototyping of processes of creative collaboration that can be adopted by others, and adapted to their unique circumstances and projects, that would spin off and seed elsewhere. The platform, and the overall model of how the digital platform resonates with offline events would lend itself to any collective project where there’s a drive towards the intensification of experience and the exploration of new modes of working together, new modes of thinking, new modes of acting in concert and perceiving differently, which might well produce products, but doesn’t see them as the end, that doesn’t exhaust itself in them. Many kinds of creative endeavours would fit, including experimentations with new forms of political intervention that have an element of collectively improvised creativity to them, and perhaps in that sense have an aesthetic dimension that traditional political forms that are more linear and programmatic don’t have.
MANNING: I just want to add to that the “we” is really open. The SenseLab has no membership, so it isn’t a closed group of people who work together. It’s radically open. And that’s important to us because none of the things we’re mentioning are things we can do on our own. We’re constantly being fed by processes that we encounter in the world, and their seeds can then germinated by the work that we do, or vice versa. So it’s very much a collaborative platform in that sense as well. We need the other ways that people do this kind of work to continue so that we can learn from them. My original purpose in founding the SenseLab was to make a place where I could always continue learning. Unfortunately, that’s something that’s a lot rarer than you’d think in the university.
MASSUMI: Going back to the question of value, we want to create an economy around the platform that does not follow any of the usual economic principles. It’s not going to be modelled along market principles. There will be no individual ownership or shares. There will be no units of account, no currency or tokens used internally. The model of activity will not be transactional. Individual interest will not be used as an incentivizer. As anti-neoliberal and anti-libertarian capitalist as you can get. What there will be is a complex space of relation for people to create intensities of experience together, in emergent excess over what they could have created working separately, or in traditional teams. It’s meant to be self-organising, with no separate administrative structure or hierarchy, and even no formal decision making rules. It’s anarchistic in that sense, but through mobilizing a surplus of organizing potential, rather than lacking organization. You could also call it communistic, in the sense that there is no individual value holding. Everything is common.
MASSUMI: Yes, undercommonly. The undercommons is Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s word for emergent collectivity, which is one of our inspirations. We want to foster emergence and process, but at the same time find ways of making it sustainable. That means that the strategic duplicity has to extend to the economy as we currently we know it. We have to be parasitical to the capitalist economy, while operating according to a logic that is totally alien to it. What we’re thinking of is making the collaborative process moving through the platform function according to the radically anti-capitalist principles we were just talking about, centering on the collective production of surplus values of life, and separating that from the dominant economy by a membrane. A membrane creates a separation, but at the same time allows for movements across. It has a certain porosity. The idea is that we would find ways, associated with the affect-o-meter we were describing earlier, to register qualitative shifts in the creative process as it moves over its formative thresholds, and moves back and forth between online operations and offline events. What would be registered is the affective intensity of the production of surplus value of life, its ebbs and flows. The membrane would consist in a translation of those qualitative flows into a numerical expression, which would
feed into a cryptocurrency. Basically, we’d be mining crypto with collaborative creative energies – monetizing emergent collectivity. The currency would be “backed” by the confidence we could build in our ability to keep the creative process going and spin it off into other projects, as evidenced by the activities of the 3Ecologies Institute as an experiment in alter-education. On the side of the membrane facing the monetary economy, we would be producing a recognizable, quantifiable movement of value. But the membrane would shelter the creative process going on inside the platform from being colonized by that logic. We’d try to have the best of both worlds. It would be essential that the currency not be just a speculative vehicle that joins the crowd of coins. Our economic space would have to inhabit an ecology of other economic spaces experimenting with adapting blockchain and post-blockchain autonomous organization to cooperative endeavours. We’ve been working with a group called the Economic Space Agency (ECSA), which is proposing just that kind of cooperative ecology where the principle is mutual stakeholding and mutual buttressing rather than competition. But that ecology itself would have a kind of membrane that would allow it to interface with the traditional crypto market and the national money markets, so that our currency could be convertible. All of the proceeds would be plowed back into the 3E project. The key, once again, is finding workable solutions to the problem of how to use qualitative analysis to register movements of creative intensity – how to coax numbers into an alliance with qualities of experience. There is a new concept being developed by Nora Bateson that she calls “warm data” that has a similar goal, in relation to basic science, that we’d like to hook into.
MANNING: The currency that we’re proposiong is called Occurency to mark the centrality of collective event-making to the process. And just one point of clarification: the tendency we’ve noticed when we discuss the affect-o-meter is for people to think that what we want to register is what stands out as most visible. From our point of view, that would be exactly the wrong thing to do. When we speak of the affect-o-meter, it’s informed by our experiences in collective process that it is often the things that barely register at the time that turn out to have made the difference in an event. These tendencies might be felt, orienting experience without actually taking form. Or they might be so backgrounded that they go into a kind of processual dormancy to come back later to make a difference, like traces of potential reactivating themselves. This is the idea of the anarchive that we were talking about earlier. If I think about it in the classroom, it’s very clear to me that the student who speaks all the time may not be the student who’s learning the most or even contributing the most. But we have a tendency to register them more than the others. This follows from the value system at work in the educational institution which tends to place speaking above listening and understands the production of knowledge as that which can be parsed into a form that is already legible. For that reason, I try to be attentive to what is not appearing immediately, to the work that is taking a form that isn’t immediately categorizable, or is moving under the surface and might erupt into something truly notable six months or six decades later. I try to create the conditions in the classroom for those qualities to register. What this is about is recognizing that there are diferentials at work in the classroom, different durations, different tendencies, different textures, different values striving to express themselves. The affect-o-meter will have to be similarly attuned to differentials. It will have to unhinge itself from what easily registers, from effects and imputs that are already visible, already computable. For example, when you have fifty people suddenly excited about something, there’s definitely a registering of a certain kind of intensity. But there are other forms of intensity which have different peaks, or different qualities. Between the SOPs and the POTs and the affect-o-meter, we hope to be able to create the conditions that enable these anarchival aspects of incipient collaboration to flourish, and to be able to register them as occurencies. We want to be able to generate interest in what I have called the minor gestures. Facebook is the perfect counter-example: somebody will post something that will be liked by a thousand people, or a hundred people, or even ten people, and if those ten people are important to you, the likes feel important, like they make a difference. But they’re not differentiated one from the other. One like is like another like. It’s homogenizing. It’s just their quantity that counts. They don’t produce potential or complexify the conversation.
MASSUMI: They just conventionalize. It’s profoundly normative.
MANNING : And yet there is a residue, or there can be. When a Facebook post creates a deep response, there can be a sense of nuance despite the economics of the platform, a sense that there is a proto-engagement with a collectivity that cannot quite be expressed. This tendency accompanies all acts, and it is this we are working to find ways to bring into the computational realm of the 3E Process Seed Bank.
MARC: I have one more question. You are talking about creating a system that has a membrane separating it from everything else; and you’re also talking about how you’re not naive enough to step outside of capitalism. I also read somewhere on your website, the phrase “occupying an abstraction.” So I wonder, do you think of this economy that you’re developing, is it an occupation?
MANNING: If we’re “occupying an abstraction,” we’re doing it in a way that is extra-territorial. All of this is a thought experiment that we want to help sow, but needs to be continued by others, and with others. It will be interesting if it manages to produces process seeds that get away from us and end up going beyond anything that we could have imagined. I’m not sure what Brian would say, but my feeling is that if we’re occupying anything, it’s the imagination. The postcapitalist imagination.
MASSUMI: Another way of saying it is that we talking about creating what’s often been called a temporary autonomous zone, but recognizing that we’re all complicit with capital, and not pretending we can just step outside that and go our merry way. If you do that, you only end up carrying unexamined presuppositions with you, and everything breaks down. That was the lesson of 60s communalism: “we have met the enemy, and he is us,” as a cartoon character of that era was fond of saying. We want to work from and with that
complicity, using strategic duplicity. That doesn’t mean being deceptive. It means working in two registers at once. We want to create a temporary autonomous zone (TAZ), following anarcho-communist logic, while at the same time being able to articulate it to the existing neoliberal economy, because like it or not, those are the conditions under which we live, and its grip is so tentacular, reaching not only all around us but inside of us, that it would be naive to think you could just step outside of it. You have to work hard and with great technique to start loosening the grip. You have to find ways of inhabiting the present, while setting off sparks of futurity that prefigure a postcapitalist world to come. So it’s an occupation in the sense that it’s a cohabitation. The TAZ isn’t a world apart. It’s a pore in the world as it is, in which something else can grow. It’s a relational space that you can enter without the conceit that you’re leaving the existing world. It starts by supplementing, rather than purporting to replace right away. Hopefully that supplementation grows and takes more and more of our cohabitation in, to the point that it can rival the dominant economy. The phrase “occupying an abstraction” comes from Occupy Wall Street. In a sense, that’s what we’re trying to do in a different way: occupy money, occupy finance, take back value. Wall Street and the world of finance are the dominant sector of the economy now. You can’t confront capitalism without grappling with them. The dominant financial instruments, like derivatives and credit default swaps, and are highly, highly abstract. And they all run on surplus-value production in its capitalist form. They run on speculative energies oriented toward the more-than. If we want to occupy finance, it’s to take back those speculative energies, for creating new modes of living together. We want to occupy the imagination – but it has to be a collective imagination.
MARC: I think one of the biggest successes of the Occupy movement was the fact that it spread and it brought so many people together. And even though occupying parks is only going to get you so far, because finance is an abstraction, it was able to spread, and it did bring people together, which is extremely important. So it sounds like you’re trying to continue the same thing: you’re trying to create an occupy movement that will spread.
MANNING: That’s beautifully said. I think one of the biggest misconceptions of the last decade of political uprising, including Occupy, is that they haven’t worked. Of course they worked, and they continue to work. They work exactly in the sense that they create process seeds that then emerge somewhere else, in another form. The normative, neurotypical understanding of political success is always institutional. Movements are judged by whether or not they formed an institution that can be recognized already as having value in the terms we already understand. What was so amazing about Occupy was that it resisted that. It resisted its own institutionalization. It refused to say what it was, or to make immediately digestible demands. To ask the question of what a different conception of value and a different economy could be is terribly difficult. None of us at the SenseLab have that kind of background, none of us thought we were going to try to occupy that space, it just fell upon us, in the form of a challenge from ECSA. It was they who pointed out that everything we were doing was bound to wither away if we didn’t occupy finance to make it sustainable. It was a challenge to speculate harder, but to speculate differently. And as SenseLab does, we followed the lure of that challenge.
MASSUMI: If the Occupy movement had been successful at occupying something concretely, an actual space, it would have failed because it would have become a territorial apparatus. In other words, it would have already started to become a mini-state. A new state is not the goal. The goal is a new society. Occupy was on the right track, because the assembly form it innovated is precisely that: a social form that allows people to live, if only for a flash, in something like the way they imagine they will be able to live in a postcapitalist world, which is to say valuing being together, creating together, affirming the diversity in diversity with radical openness. It needed to be an assembly, it needed people to be together, it needed to be enacted and embodied. But the embodiment had to be speculative, not self-solidifying and self-interested. It had to look beyond itself to the potential for new forms of sociality and economy, on all kinds of levels, and spreading to other places. So in a sense Occupy succeeded precisely by acting in a way that a lot of people talk about as its failure. It did create those kind of flow on effects. Assemblies cropped up all over the world. The momentum is still there, even if it has become backgrounded, taking a more minor or undercommonly form. We think of the 3E Process Seed Bank as paddling in its wake. So if we fail – which is a distinct possibility – we hope we fail as well it did.