The Politics of Surplus: An Affirmative Strategy of Resistance

This essay (download here) was submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the MA special subject Geopoetics at the Department of Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths, University of London, 2016-17. Below is Kodwo Eshun‘s feedback on the essay.

This is a theoretically sophisticated essay that demonstrates a confident grasp of its sources and its arguments. Compelling indeed is the opening section of the essay which interprets the post-Revolution politics of Iran through the Marxist notion of surplus. This concept is reformulated as the practice of those that ‘claim the surplus by reorienting the infrastructural means’ of their contribution to the ‘continuity of an exploitative apparatus’ so as to ‘redraw the lines of social forces’ and ‘rediagram the balance of power’. 

This complex formulation of surplus is read firstly through the 2009 protests as a ‘negation of the regime’ and secondly through the student protests of 1999 against the Khatami regime which is understood as the ‘first upsurge of the political surplus since the revolution’, which in turn is analysed as the heir to the post Iran-Iraq War ‘technotheocratic’ government of Rafsanjani.  

These examples do indeed demonstrate the need for an understanding of state-power in Iran as an ‘intricate patchwork of sovereign privileges.’ More examples treated in more detail would have been welcome. However, the essay develops a detailed formulation of Deleuze’s formulation of power as the relation of active and reactive forces and as the mutual presupposition of the diagram and the strata.

The result is a highly abstract and yet vivid conceptualisation of the surplus as a ‘specifically affirmative  strategy of resistance’ within contemporary Iranian politics. The surplus is to then understood in ‘the moments when anonymity takes over’ and is specified as a ‘living nonorganic social entity’. The emphasis is on the ‘nonorganic life’ of the surplus as a ‘non-organism’ that ‘diagrammatically doubles’ the Body without Organs and ‘seeps through the strata’ as formulated by De Landa. 

At this point, the essay loses focus somewhat. The parallel that is drawn between the Post-Communist transition of Eastern European states to neoliberalism and the ‘contradictory push and pull’ between the ‘desire for economic growth’ and the ‘stubborn refusal of liberal ideals of freedom’ in the Iran of Ahmadinjad, understood as different versions of opening to the Outside is useful but is self-admittedly inexact. It is a comparison that begs as many questions as it seeks to answer. 

The changing signification of the logo of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting is more germane to the context and could have been developed in more detail. Even better is the analysis of Ahmadinejad’s ‘ophidiophobic’ regime from 2005 onwards. The analysis of Ahmadinejad administration’s phobic aversion to the adaptive behaviour of the snake whose shape shifting movements diagrammed the mode of power of control society according to Deleuze, narrates a specific political moment in a way that enacts a specific diagram of forces. This analysis of Iran’s nuclear program and sanctions against Iran’s economy eloquently speaks of ‘Iran’s particular history of openness in relation to a range of orientations towards the outside.’ Here the balance between the abstract and the conjunctural, the philosophical and the political is working well. 

In order to analyse the ‘enigma of openness’, the essay draws upon Negarestani’s distinction between ‘being open’ to the Outside and ‘being opened’ by the Outside, which in turn inverts Gibson’s theory of affordance. Negarestani introduces further complications to the location of the outside by characterising oil as ‘the outside emerging from within’ and conceiving of Openness as that which ‘comes from the outside, not the other way round’, This is thought through in relation to Deleuze’s argument that the diagram represents ‘the outside of the strata’.   

The stakes of this analysis are finally clarified in [a reading] of Deleuze’s understanding that the ‘thought of the outside’ is the ‘thought of resistance’. As connected to Deleuze’s notion of a ‘certain idea of life that resists death’, the essay is able to position Deleuze’s affirmative inorganic vitalism of the outside against Negarestani’s position in which ‘life does not resist death but emerges from [within] it’.

To think through the political stakes of this distinction, the essay turns towards petroleum as that which reassembles the earth as an Artificial Geo-Intelligence. Here the notion of resistance and the surplus and the non-organic converge in a geocosmopolitical imagination of the Outside envisioned as an example of Eugene Thacker’s notion of the Planet that has detached itself from Earth and from World. 

The attempt to think through ‘unlife’ at the level of what Lyotard calls the ‘unthought’ is a compelling conclusion to an essay that devotes itself to a patient reading of Deleuze’s formulations of the diagram and the strata and Negarestani’s formulations of opening to the Outside. 

Undoubtedly, the relation between the diagrammatic and the conjunctural could have been better developed. Even Foucault’s writings on the moments before the Revolution, as reformulated by Melinda Cooper’s writings on neoliberalism’s restructuring of the oikos or economy would have provided insights that could have been elaborated upon for a post-1979 context.

Nonetheless, this is a theoretically ambitious essay that is stylistically eloquent and demonstrates a high degree of attention and ambition.