An Interview with Artist and Theorist Johanna Drucker
by Broc Rossell
Johanna Drucker’s newly published work, The General Theory of Social Relativity, addresses the fundamental question of how we are to understand the forces at work in the social world, and presents a radically innovative framework for thinking about social processes. A century ago theories of quantum physics and general relativity exposed the limits of Newton’s classical, mechanical, approach to explaining the forces at work in the physical world. But the social sciences, including critical aesthetics rooted in 19th century political theory, remain caught in a mechanistic paradigm. Drucker’s formulation offers a non-mechanistic approach to the understanding workings of the social world and the affective forces at work in non-linear politics and aesthetics.* Broc Rossell, publisher of The Elephants, spoke with author Johanna Drucker in Vancouver and Los Angeles last month regarding her new book with The Elephants, The General Theory of Social Relativity.
BROC ROSSELL: In Hannah Arendt’s 1958 The Human Condition, her chapter “The Public Realm” asserts that “the reality of the public realm relies on the simultaneous presence of innumerable perspectives and aspects in which the common world presents itself and for which no common measurement or denominator can ever be devised.” How do you see The General Theory of Social Relativity engaging this idea, if at all?
JOHANNA DRUCKER: I don’t know the full Arendt text well enough to know how she is formulating the constraints she identifies. What resonates with GTSR is that the appearance of the world in all of its familiarity allows it to pass as simply “what is,” but that any attempt at creating a method for a full account of how that world appears – let alone how it is – will be woefully inadequate. Of course I agree with this, if that is her point, because the infinite unfolding variety of the phenomenal world is barely accessible to us in all of its richness. The workings of the social world are harder to apprehend than those of the physical world. We apprehend what falls within our cognitive and sensorial realms, but not what is outside their ken (heat waves, force fields, moving charges, processes of exchange). The point of my approach in the GTSR, especially those parts of the book that are directly concerned with proposing the workings of the system, is to try to create a vocabulary for description and analysis of phenomena that I believe can be apprehended but are not adequately served by current vocabularies and frameworks from the human and social sciences. So, if I note that inertia is the strongest force in the social universe, then that has all kinds of implications for explaining what occurs in the “common world” and the way these occurrences present themselves – in the same way that some account of gravity’s force is essential for explaining how an object falls and what are the rules governing its acceleration. But each instance, every occurrence, any event will have in its manifest instantiation some features that cannot be contained in the general or “common measurement” conceived as generalizable. You cannot have all particularities and a common measure that explains or extends to all instances. They are incompatible, since every instance contributes to the sum of the “common” whole. Does that make sense? It is just a logical issue.
ROSSELL: Arendt’s definition of public space is apparitional – that the commons only become real when they appear to the many, and that its (peer-reviewed, independently verified) appearance is what defines it from the private sphere and immanent experience. (She doesn’t engage substantially with affect theory or subject formation.) Her idea is that shared reality – public life, public culture – is demonstrous, as it were: an uncontainable, dynamic, ongoing revelation that can’t be reduced to the sum of its parts. Is it fair to say that your hope or goal for this project is to grant those concerned (social scientists, cultural critics, et al) the tools required to gain a greater understanding of forces at play? Does the impossibility (at least it seems to be impossible) of that task matter less than the effort? Your book ends on some rather disquieting notes. The penultimate chapter, for instance (“Cultural Melancholy”) concludes with the remark that “These are not yet the darkest times. These are moments when the light is diminishing.”
While American democracy was an incredible concept, particularly the notion of the Social Contract and “natural rights” of human beings, it was, of course, built within the conditions of European colonial expansion and exploitation. Paradoxes abound. Those blind spots come back to haunt us now in the legacy of structural racism, global asymmetries of power, ecological disaster, and the history of systematic genocide of indigenous peoples.
DRUCKER: The notion of a consensual apparition is a perfect demonstration of the application of quantum theory to social relations. The probability of arriving at any agreed upon version of social activity is an effect of the multiple wave functions of mutual perception, communication, and efforts at coming to a consensus. This never fully occurs – we can’t get inside each other’s minds, and we cannot see how the projection of our individual perceptions creates a full, multi-dimensional, field. But at a certain moment of apparent agreement, the wave functions and their probabilistic conditions collapse. We have an “outcome,” though it is only one of many possible outcomes – and its definition is illusory, since the ongoing process of the field of charged potentiality continues to exist. The difference between a mechanistic approach to understanding social conditions and a probabilistic one is that the mechanistic model depends on a model of communication in which messages are sent/received directly from one consciousness to another – as if this could ever happen! The probabilistic account recognizes that sender/receiver are producing a probabilistic field of potential communicative outcoes across discrete states of possibility. This charged field “collapses” time after time in the process of social exchange. The process is neither deterministic nor mechanistic/linear, but always probabilistic and indeterminate. Some outcomes may have a higher likelihood than others, but even these conditions are governed by affective forces, not rational or predictive ones.
The dilemma is that we are always inside (and influencing) the very circumstances we are trying to analyze. Our perspective on historical conditions is a good example. The light diminishes every day and the sun rises again – so how are we to know what scale of destruction we are witnessing within the historical frames of reference that we use? And what are those? The length of a human life? The arc of an empire? The course of human evolution? The evolution of life on earth? All are relevant. But the urgent issue is that we are, I believe, the first species to be aware of the conditions that might result in our extinction and still do nothing about them. Those conditions can be addressed mechanistically through a radical re-engineering of infrastructure. But the will to do this has to be manufactured in another realm – and that is where the quantum fields of human culture come into play. Where does opinion manifest and assume agency? How is will produced in the aggregate and collective? When does it become a force for transformation in its own best interests and or for our survival? From a rational perspective, it’s inconceivable that we are racing towards a planetary disaster. So obviously, reason is insufficient to prevail. What can? Affective force, the passionate connection to life, value, humanity, living systems of all kinds and the co-dependencies on which they flourish? The amount of transformation that has to occur is at once mind-boggling and simple. Growth, progress, and accumulation of wealth, wage labor, and exploitation of human and natural resources for individual gain have to be replaced with a system of sustainability, common good, meaningful labor and an integrative, holistic, social ecology that is regulated in ways that do not preclude the drive towards entrepreneurial innovation or aspirations of achievement. The systems on which we depend are neither natural nor inevitable. We don’t need wage labor in the way we did in the 19th and 20th centuries. We need a work-life relationship that sustains local ecologies within global systems. The agency of capital is one of the great mysteries of history – can it be regulated? Where is the will to do so?
ROSSELL: You’ve written about Enlightenment reason for this magazine before, when you aligned the historical limits of reason (colonialism, chattel slavery, the enshrinement of the tyranny of majority rule, etc.) with genetic engineering. Like CRISPR technology, we can view the various quantum social forces you detail in the GTSR as challenges to one-person-one-vote democracy itself. Is this one aspect of the “radical re-structurings of infrastructure” you mention above? If so/if not, what are the other objectives? And how do these objectives square with the eco-catastrophic timeframe?
DRUCKER: The difficulty of relying on reason – or Reason – is that it was a human construct, not a natural force, and works only within contractual belief systems in which agreements among communities and individuals are entered into and negotiated in good faith. Invoking CRISPR technology was a way to talk about the strategic destruction and selective reconfiguration of features of political system devised in the 18th century as an Enlightenment experiment. While American democracy was an incredible concept, particularly the notion of the Social Contract and “natural rights” of human beings, it was, of course, built within the conditions of European colonial expansion and exploitation. Paradoxes abound. Those blind spots come back to haunt us now in the legacy of structural racism, global asymmetries of power, ecological disaster, and the history of systematic genocide of indigenous peoples. But the ills besetting the American democratic process are enabled by the rule of capital – the deregulation of nearly every aspect of American culture from environmental to fiscal and political practices. The question of how capital works is open to debate. Can it be controlled through regulation, or do we have to conceive of a post-capital condition for restructuring a social order responsible to the survival of people, other species, the planet? Affective forces have their downsides, but if a major re-set of the current trajectory, which I take to be catastrophic, can occur because the group-mind does a re-think towards survival, then great. The motivation for survival should overwhelm that of self-destruction – but will it?
Our political systems operate on the basis of a belief in reason, and on other ideas and institutions inherited from the Enlightenment. They are failing radically, and we wonder why, attempting to fix a twenty-first century phenomenon with eighteenth-century tools. Would you put a circuit board on an anvil to hammer it back into shape? … Our social sciences are stuck in a paradigm that has been far outstripped by the forces at work around us.
ROSSELL: Can we bracket the notion of reason for a minute – the downside to being reasonable in the midst of crises is obvious – and consider one small but largely product of its historical rise: that of scientific reasoning, the scientific method, of logic and hypotheses? How does it square with the necessity of the imagination, of imaginative and innovative thinking?
DRUCKER: Science as empirical science, the explanation of repeatable and predictable processes and outcomes, depends upon a concept of knowledge as observer-independent and mechanistic. When Werner Heisenberg countered this he upset many physicists, including Albert Einstein, who refused to believe in uncertainty. The agency of observation is counter to empirical method. We know that many phenomena in the natural world, and the social world to some extent, can be described adequately in mechanistic terms. I can predict the trajectory of a billiard ball given the angle and force of the stroke of a cue. But can I predict the trajectory of a love affair simply based on demographics? Or of a political race? The force fields of affective charge are too complex, too unstable, and sufficiently indeterminate that they contain multiple possible trajectories. Scientists are imaginative people, and advances in quantum theory and relativity were one example of 20th century imaginative innovation. But so was the analysis of genetic code, and that is largely – though, I would argue, not exclusively – mechanistic. DNA contains probabilistic conditions for activation and agency that depend on environmental triggers and specific sequences of events, for instance.
But the capacity to imagine beyond our paradigms is always part of the scientific inquiry. When astrophysicists suggest that we only “know” about 4% of the universe, they are not merely suggesting that we have not seen all of the real estate, but that also, our capacities (sensory, cognitive, intellectual, mathematical etc.) are insufficient to explain a significant percentage of phenomena. We can’t map the universe with a twelve-inch ruler and a bathroom scale. Our conceptual instruments have to evolve to engage features of a physical world for which we have not yet developed sufficiently advanced models. We can imagine those features, even beyond the space-time continuum we inhabit, but in general, that tips science towards science fiction. The same is true in the social sphere where, for instance, no amount of demographic analysis can explain charismatic force.
ROSSELL: I’d love to hear you answer your own questions here regarding the agency of capital…
DRUCKER: I think I touched on this above, but it would be naïve to imagine that the only form of agency is fully sentient and apparently free-willed and human. Our individual agency doesn’t even conform to that model! How often do you do something without thinking? Electric current has agency, and it does not, I think, have sentience. I am not a new-age mystic, even if I think that the world is animate. Agency can be instrumental and mechanistic – a flood has tremendous agency. Capital, I think, has agency in the same sense – it is a phenomenon that has momentum as a system of dynamics that are structured into social systems and practices. How to control it? Because it is integrated within human systems, it has first of all to be isolated, analyzed, and assessed in its mythic (explanatory and ideologically potent) as well as actual (instrumental and systematized) dimensions. What does capital do and how does it work and, in so doing, become naturalized as a domesticated concept? Do we need it? I am not the only person who imagines a world without capital as a fundamental feature of rethinking the social organization of human systems.
ROSSELL: In what ways do you see GTSR as an intervention?
DRUCKER: GTSR combines a response to my own panic in seeing the forces at work in the culture, particularly the outcome of the 2016 election, and a long-term project to understand social processes. The aim of the book is to provide a different set of vocabularies, and thus conceptual frameworks, for understanding human behaviors in a non-mechanistic way. Force fields of opinion exist. We are porous in ways we do not acknowledge, part of larger systems of energy and influence. Our exchanges of symbolic information are powerful, and our connections operate at great distances. Affect is a powerful driver of action. Reason cannot really compete. And yet our political systems operate on the basis of a belief in reason, and on other ideas and institutions inherited from the Enlightenment. They are failing radically, and we wonder why, attempting to fix a twenty-first century phenomenon with eighteenth-century tools. Would you put a circuit board on an anvil to hammer it back into shape? Try to tie a knot in the broken communications from a cell tower to a phone? Create radiation in a stove pot? Our social sciences are stuck in a paradigm that has been far outstripped by the forces at work around us. The sheer rate and volume of transactions that occur in the multiple-mediated environment we occupy escapes the traditional methods of analysis.
Do we really think the social world is other than the physical world? The hubris of refusal, rejection of alternative and innovative thought, is simply defensiveness against one’s own sense of inadequacy at being confronted with thought systems that are unfamiliar. The history of knowledge is the history of ignorance in all of its specificity.
ROSSELL: How do you intend to respond to academic challenges to your hypothesis – from those who might say, for instance, that there’s no evidence of force fields of opinion, or who might say more generally that speculation and imaginative hypotheses have no place in serious debate? Or does serious debate itself have some fundamental flaws? It seems like pulling up stakes on Enlightenment reason seems more and more necessary in some ways, but also raises some frightening prospects (the various incarnations of anti-science, for instance).
DRUCKER: The resistance to GTSR is quite strong. Even some of my friends are baffled. What is this? Are you serious? Is this tongue-in-cheek? They want a way to bracket the work, not have to address it, think around it, or contain its implications. If serious debate is going to address the as-yet-unthought premises on which we operate, then works like GTSR have a role in shifting the discussion. Yes, I do believe that force fields of influence arise in social systems in ways for which we do not have an adequate account. Again, no one would find it odd if I suggested that thermal systems emerge across and through multiple locations and scales, and that energy moves through them. The same is the case with electromagnetic fields and their capacity to transmit and conduct energy. A mere physics of the social is the simplest aspect of GTSR, and in that regard, no quantum dimensions have to come into play. But the quantum levels feel as important to me as these more physical explanations. Again, what is love if not entanglement at a distance? Are we not motivated by acts of simultaneity that are linked across time and space? The realms on which we are ignorant – that is, for which we have no systematic explanation, analysis, or prediction – far exceed those for which we have systematic understanding. Any physicist will tell you that.
The estimate is that we have an understanding of only about 4% of the workings of the universe. That doesn’t mean that we have only seen or been able to engage with 4% of it. Instead, it means that the methods, intellectual frameworks, knowledge systems we have only provide a small part of the explanatory power we need to understand the universe. Do we really think the social world is other than the physical world? The hubris of refusal, rejection of alternative and innovative thought, is simply defensiveness against one’s own sense of inadequacy at being confronted with thought systems that are unfamiliar. The history of knowledge is the history of ignorance in all of its specificity. I am not claiming to have solved the mysteries of the universe! Merely to be pointing to a framework of understanding and explanation that seems evident to me. I believe that the social world cannot be addressed in traditional approaches to its workings. I expect to be rejected. I take it as a good sign that so few people can figure out how to process what I am saying (though I am a little disappointed in my friends lack of imagination, I admit). That means it is genuinely innovative. As to the problem of giving up on Reason, what can I say? Reason is not a natural law, but a cultural construct, and in its name, vast abuses were permitted, and in its absence, even greater ones. I would happily engage with a condition of Re-Enlightenment, with all of the insights that revisionist histories can provide. But it might be concepts of negotiated reasonableness and multivalent ethics, not Reason that would guide this.
ROSSELL: To the question “Do we really think the social world is other than the physical world?” many would hesitate to say no… they’d ask, I imagine, whether geothermal dynamics function under the same laws as social dynamics, or whether they’re merely an analog, a metaphor. How would you respond to those reservations?
DRUCKER: The idea that quantum theory and social relativity are merely metaphoric is a convenient loophole for skeptics, and gives them a comfortable spot to retreat to in the face of theoretical ideas that are disturbing. But theories of relativity were ways of describing gravitation in relation to momentum and energy in ways that went beyond Newton’s explanations. Space-time was not part of Newton’s system – which was calculated in standard metrics and coordinates. The conception of space-time as an effect, the curvature of space-time under the influence of gravity, can’t be explained in his system. When we think of human beings as autonomous, bounded, beings or entities, we ignore the multiple dimensions of their participation in systems of forces that are constituted by their participation. Therapists understand this very well in looking at families – individuals are not autonomous agents in a mechanistic family structure, they are elements of codependencies that are in constant shift. The force fields are there, not mechanistic, but charged with inertia, momentum, velocity, spin, and many other elements. That these constitute a warping field of curvatures that can only be described by affective metrics seems obvious. This is not a metaphor. It is a description. The system that describes these conditions is the GTSR, or, at least, it is a beginning. To the skeptics I simply say, offer a better description.
The history of science (writ large, including philosophy, history, critical theory, as well as the “sciences” narrowly conceived) is marked by paradigmatic breakthroughs. At a certain point, the limits of the visible are transgressed by microscope and telescope, then by electron microscopy and computational imaging. These technological transformations are also conceptual ones, just as notions of set theory, calculus, and relativity are transformative.
ROSSELL: We could unpack those reservations with two more questions: whether, to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak, imagination is an act of epistemological performance, or whether the postulation of an innovative theory maps proven facts onto unproven ones, and therefore merely gestures toward the unknown, the 96%, as it were, with a familiar vocabulary. Second, this book leads back (remarkably, incredibly) to a central problem in western thinking, namely the problem of consciousness: does it constitute a natural, physical fact, or do merely its consequences? (Or are the consequences of consciousness all that matter to us here?) Is this perhaps one way of making the distinction between a “mere physics” of the social and the quantum?
DRUCKER: If all we were ever able to do was to project old paradigms of explanation, we would always be colonizing the unknown with the known. To some extent that is true, but the history of science (writ large, including philosophy, history, critical theory, as well as the “sciences” narrowly conceived) is marked by paradigmatic breakthroughs. At a certain point, the limits of the visible are transgressed by microscope and telescope, then by electron microscopy and computational imaging. These technological transformations are also conceptual ones, just as notions of set theory, calculus, and relativity are transformative. The GTSR isn’t that radical, it is merely a way of offering a systematic explanation of social phenomena according to concepts of quantum theory (indeterminacy, superimposition of states, wave functions) and relativity (space-time phenomena).
As to consciousness, I fall down on the “emergent effect” side of this argument since I am a biochemist-phenomenologist at heart. That is, I think the emergence of the complexities in the natural world, particularly the capacity of organic compounds to become the self-supporting and replicating entities that we are, is fully within the domain of chemical processes, but that the effects of these processes are to create forces, fields, wave functions, and conditions that in aggregate are more than the mechanics of each part. Heat is produced by the mechanical parts working together and we do not have to imagine strange or quantum forces at work to explain this. But the heat of anger and the force of love are equally palpable effects, often perceptible influences at a distance, and to describe the workings of these affective forces requires receptivity to explanations not previously systematized. That is what I am trying to do with the General Theory.
ROSSELL: GTSR concludes with a coda, a short poetic essay titled “After Speaking in Tongues,” which you recently described as engaging questions of singularity and “within-ness.” To what notion of singularity does it adhere? It reads to me as a sort of interior landscape of the post-human – the social and technological conditions, intellectual and geographical contours, and various populations, sentient and otherwise, that delimit our solitary lives. Is that a fair reading? And what are the political implications, if any, of the ideas hinted at there?
DRUCKER: What I was setting up in my comments was an idea of specificity without alterity, identity without otherness. So much of the theory of colonialism, gender, power relations, race, and oppression has been analyzed through a construction of subjectivity defined through otherness. But as a solitary person, I experience the world and my identity within it quite differently. I am aware of the specificity of my identity as locational, within a topography of being in the world. In that construction, specificity does not require alterity to function as a unique, individual, position within any number of complex coordinate systems (spatial, visual, auditory, physical, graphical, coordinate etc.). The term “withinness” is meant to indicate the possibility of individually specific identity as a position, rather than one defined by “otherness”. Specificity of entities “among” others does not depend on binaries, but on relational structures and positionality. Difference, differentiation, still occur, but not in the binaristic sense. The fact that my existence, on a daily and long-term basis, is constructed without the mediation of an other is striking to me. I do not want to mediate my relationship to myself through a relationship with an “other,” imaginary or actual. That fundamental fact of my existence means that the specificity of my identity is defined in relation to the larger conditions of being-in-the-world. I think the political implications of this construct are profound, as specificity does not rely on defining patterns of otherness in which a hierarchy of difference and inequity is always binaristic. Instead, identity becomes a matter of a specific place in the world, among others, and that includes non-human others.
“After Speaking in Tongues” is an homage to the language of machines and the experience of hearing them speak – not to me, but around me. My subjectivity is constituted in relation to these voices, not in an exchange, but in an awareness of where I am within that complex soundscape. I love the beingness of the world, its infinite variety and non-replicability, each instance and instantiation distinct, differentiating, unfolding. So simple, really. And our capacity to perceive its manifest and unmanifest aspects has its limits, of course, and that includes a basic inability to see the complex systems of the social as a field in which quantum phenomena are at work. I see those processes everywhere, and always at work, in the most banal daily transactions and exchanges, fully present, and also in those many entanglements at a distance that form the multiplicity of bonds across time and space.
Before we finish, I wonder if I could turn the questions in your direction? I’m wondering how you see your role as a publisher in the current intellectual and cultural climate?
ROSSELL: As you know we launched our project not quite two years ago. We are as small a press as can be with only two books published each year. With such a modest program our cultural “role” is purely aspirational, but with that being said we do see ourselves as working against the ossification of ideas and language. Jordan Scott and I are poets, and the press is informed by poetry and poetic thinking, but we are emphatically not limited to poetry as a genre; we define poetry in its most capacious sense, as a means of generative engagement with the world via certain permissions of language. Like scholarly disciplines, literary genres are conventions and constructs, only true historically, and adherence to discipline or genre is a function of that ossification we oppose. In that sense, The Elephants is really just an expression of a more basic project, which is to develop multiple avenues toward more primary modes of apprehension. Books like yours help us do that.
DRUCKER: I was really thrilled by your interest in my work, as you know, and continue to be profoundly appreciative of your engagement with my project. What risks and challenges do you see in publishing GTSR and how does it fit in your larger vision of The Elephants as a platform for innovative work?
ROSSELL: The thrill is ours! It’s hard to imagine a project better suited to ours, which is to publish heterodox materials in solidarity with the communities that produce them (and now thinking again of the interior vistas of “After Speaking in Tongues”). GTSR takes some intellectual and political positions we hold dear and roughs them up to the edge of utility – it challenges and rewards us in deeply, gratifyingly troublesome ways. And if these goals bring us in contact with a specific kind of reader, we at least hold out hope for the possibility of kinship with them. We find both the content and form of GTSR to be urgent, dangerous, and beautifully surprising, and we hope those qualities are noticed by potential future authors – please, writers of the world, take note!
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*Introduction courtesy of The Elephants
Broc Rossell is Lecturer in Critical and Cultural Studies at Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver, BC. The author of the poetry collections Unpublished Poems (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2012) and Festival (Cleveland State University Press, 2015) and co-editor with W. Scott Howard of Poetics and Praxis ‘After’ Objectivism (University of Iowa Press, 2018). He is also publisher and, with Jordan Scott, editor at The Elephants.
Johanna Drucker is a writer, scholar, and artist who is the Breslauer Professor of Bibliographical Studies at UCLA. The author of more than a dozen works of critical scholarship, including: The Visible Word: Modern Art and Experimenal Typography 1909-1923 (University of Chicago Press, 1996); Theorizing Modernism (Columbia University Press, 1996); The Alphabetic Labyrinth (Thames and Hudson, 1995), The Century of Artists’ Books (Granary, 1995), What Is?(Cuneiform Press, 2013), Graphesis: Visual Forms of Knowledge Production (Harvard University Press, 2014), Graphic Design History: A Critical Guide, with Emily McVarish (Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2008) Digital_Humanities, co-authored with Anne Burdick, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, (MIT Press) was published in 2012. Ten of her books of creative prose have been published, including: Italy (The Figures, 1980), Three Early Fictions (Potes and Poets, 1994), Dark Decade (Detour Press, 1995) Diagrammatic Writing (Onomatopée, 2014), Fabulas Feminae (with artist Susan Bee, Litmus Press, 2015. Downdrift: An Ecological Fiction is forthcoming from Three Rooms Press (2018). In addition, she produced almost three dozen editioned books under the imprint Druckwerks, including The History of the/my Wor(l)d (1990), The Word Made Flesh (1989), Narratology (1994), Testament of Women (2006), and Stochastic Poetics (2012) which are held collections throughout North American and Europe and were the subject of a retrospective, Druckworks: 40 years of books and projects, that began at Columbia College in Chicago in 2012. She is currently working on a database memoire, ALL the books I never wrote or wrote and never published.