Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Mobile Nation 1: Halos

Last night in Toronto, the Mobile Nation Conference wrapped up three days of really interesting presentations, workshops and discussions on research and design methodologies for mobile devices and applications. I'll break my reflections into three parts, each of which will cover a particular theme, starting with halos.

An absolute joy for me was Nigel Thrift's opening keynote, Halos: new apprehensions of political time and space, on what new political forms of togetherness might be possible in a mobile nation. I had the pleasure of being the respondent to his presentation, and only wish we could have spoken longer. I'd been aware he'd been working on the spaces of political feeling, and I was looking forward to see what this had to do with halos.

Nigel started by suggesting that one of the problems with politics today is that it's too limited in its understanding of what political activism might be. And to borrow the phrase he most often used as a response to my comments, I don't disagree. In the West, he explained, political activism is very normative, and martial--the single feature that most puts off large numbers of people and thus limits both individual and collective agency. He then asked how we can move to become different kinds of political subjects, and introduced the notion and process of affective flows.

Nigel described the halo in early Christian art in terms of its ability to create affective empathy, to signify infectuous relationships and chains of imitation. Take these paintings by Giotto:

In Meeting at the Golden Gate, Joachim and Anna seem to melt into each other's embrace and kiss, signifying great intimacy and passion. In The Kiss of Judas, Christ and Judas are almost as close physically but without the shared halo their distance and lack of shared affect is plain.

Nigel stressed that the important bit is that halos signify affective contagion, or the bringing together of people around shared affects or passions. The notion of affect is most often associated with Deleuze, but this also reminds me of the kind of politics I borrow from Latour, Marres, Stengers and Maffesoli.

He went on to explain that affective contagion is a largely biological, semi-conscious (also following Tarde) but definitely embodied process. I was reminded of how yawns are contagious. Animal behavourists have explained this as an evolutionary adaptation amongst pack animals in which the alpha male signals the pack to sleep when he is ready. I also remember reading somewhere that amongst people, yawns are only contagious if you like, or are neutral towards, the person yawning. This also suggests that refusing to catch a yawn, or share an affect, is a form of social resistance.

Nigel, again mobilising historical examples, pointed out that in the 17th century there was a common sense of activism rooted in passivity. Now this isn't a hippie kind of passive resistance, but rather the rejection of autonomous agency in favour of being one who acts for another, or is licensed to act by another authority. He pointed out that at the time this other authority was God, but reminded us that it doesn't need to be. He argued that the idea that acted upon, we act is still a powerful politics. In other words, there is still hope that we can be moved.

The second kind of halo he described was related to the videogame. Talking about environments as affective objects enabled by new kinds of material culture, he focussed on the ability to trap affect, to produce a world for objects--not just the objects themselves--and inscribe users in the process. By generating decisive moments and creating suggestable environments, with non-linear arrangements, dispositions and narratives, these spaces bring people together in order to produce particular affective moments and move people in particular ways.

In the 17th century, Nigel explained, public communication mostly involved non-discursive writing and in Victorian times there was still the notion that things like flowers had voices. I was reminded of Elizabethan writing rings, but his point was about allowing objects and surfaces to speak, and this led him to a third, and final, kind of halo involving fugitive knowledges. When he spoke of producing such spaces, he wasn't talking about bounded places but rather about embodied relations within space. This involves performativity, improvisation, producing, modulating and pushing affective flows. These kinds of knowledge, he explained, will probably be a bit ephemeral and a bit fugitive, and we may have to finally admit that we don't have the words to explain the social processes in play. I think that I really like this idea.

For me, the most useful and hopeful bit I got from all this is that there can be powerful and passionate forms of agency without autonomy. The relationship between agency and autonomy is a difficult one, but what I most appreciate about Nigel's perspective is that he brings this all back to the realm of the everyday and our relations with others. The notion that we can be--and indeed are--moved to defend or oppose certain values is really at the core of public relations and political action. But the notion of affect, or emotion, becomes really interesting in terms of how we do this. It raises the possibility that what one person considers respectful intervention is emotionally and bodily resisted by another person who sees those same actions as unbearably rude. I'm imagining a game called Share-the-Halo, in which we come together and perform our passions and then either embrace or distance ourselves from each other.

If I had been more on the ball, I would have spent some time discussing what all this has to do with the background image on my presentation slides:

In Bruegel's The Battle Between Carnival and Lent, I see the space of most hope for these kinds of political and ethical action, and the space of greatest potential conflict. I see people moved by divergent passions, arranged into temporary publics, a messy space that is not well-suited to clean explanations of networked sociality. In any case, I think that Nigel managed to move us closer to an idea of mobile politics and ethics than any other presentation at the conference and it set a great stage for what followed.

Next: Mobile Nation 2: Relentless Empiricism

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Blogger Chris said...

Enjoyed this piece... Wanted to take you to task on a very minor point, though... (An utterly irrelevant ramble follows):

"Animal behavourists have explained this as an evolutionary adaptation amongst pack animals in which the alpha male signals the pack to sleep when he is ready."

I'm doubtful of any actual research that could reflect this (although open to citations!) so I have to wonder if this should say "animal behavourists have guessed". It's a picky point, I know, but since this crosses into my bailiwick... :)

Fully social animals (and semi-social animals like humans) take cues from each other, for instance, when birds take flight as a flock from the motion cue of just a single bird. But alpha behaviours are enforced by the alpha's. Alpha's don't enforce yawning (how could they!) so trying to tie this to alpha behaviour is probably a wild guess.

Also, since yawning has not been demonstrated as a sleep cue (it is equally likely to occur during waking) this also renders the original statement suspect.

Cats appear to yawn to each other to show that they're comfortable (unthreatened); this contradicts the alternative theory that yawning is threatening (it shows the incisors) - I don't find the latter theory very credible, but I mention both to reiterate that this is at best a grey area.

This seems to be another instance of telelogical game playing - the animal behaviourists who advance this idea presumably presuppose selective advantages, then invent a credible hypothesis... I find it misrepresentative to suggest that such a game is explanatory rather than conjectural. :)

Before animal behaviourists can advance a credible "theory of social yawning" they must first develop a tangible "theory of yawning". So much about yawning is unknown.

I would, however, venture a guess that mirror neurons - behaviourists latest toy - will be key to whatever *social* theory eventually advances, and if you pushed me to make a wild guess, I would suggest that yawning represents a transitional gesture - that is, something that occurs during a change from an active to a restful state or vice versa. The synchronisation is likely to be normal social mimicry.

Of course, I am just guessing. But at least I say so. ;)

Best wishes!

Anonymous anne said...

thanks chris, and you're right: i should not have presented that as fact. i could have said that some scientists think that yawns are contagious for social reasons, particularly dominance and submission within groups. or maybe i should have said that no one really knows all the reasons why animals yawn or what the embodied social processes are.

but yawning does seem to be contagious amongst animal groups, and the idea that emotions are contagious was at the heart of nigel's talk. i think all this points to yawning--and affective contagions--as mangles of biological and social processes.

but you know, i think i disagree with this:

Before animal behaviourists can advance a credible "theory of social yawning" they must first develop a tangible "theory of yawning".

doesn't a tangible theory of yawning always already include its social aspects?

Anonymous b.kligerman said...

Its important to sometimes step back so that we can see the container as well as the content.
Nigel Thrift's means of representing a very contemporary, accelerated phenomenon by using images (graphic and historical) coming from a very different technological space is, in and of itself, an incredible statement. This is a difficult exercise for both speaker and audience, but the take-away on all levels --cultural, technical, meme... seems heightened by this radical mashup of old-to-new, past-to-future, images-to-ideas, technique-to-art, technology-to-religon...
Great post, thanks for the introduction to Thrift's work (I'm already checking it out) and I look forward to the rest of the series.

Anonymous anne said...

thanks b.kligerman - and actually, that was the very first point i made in my response!

Anonymous Miguel Caetano said...

Hi, Anne

did you know that Jacques Attali's Noise has that same painting by Bruegel on its cover?

Blogger Chris said...


It certainly should be more ambiguous than my phrasing suggested. ;) I guess my point is that a theory of social yawning is only meaningful as part of a tangible theory of yawning, or something similar.

But surely now I have moved beyond useful distinctions and into minutae (if this did not occur considerably earlier!) :)

I was in Toronto this week for a think tank at the Kingbridge centre; would have liked to have met up briefly to discuss Hannah Arendt and whatnot but my schedule didn't allow it. Maybe next time...

Best wishes!

Anonymous jamesb said...

Hey Anne, nice post. Nigel's claim that "social science needs to draw on approaches that are willing to countenance a formative role for the biological" is welcome, there's too much friction currently between discourses of social and physical science. But, I'm still struck by how it is seemingly so difficult to actually articulate the politics Nigel describes. It's a huge barrier to such a politics being understood and then being constructively and progressively used and debated.

On a different tack, the notion of agency and autonomy is such a rich area - I remember being moved by the resistance of Indians under the Raj, using mimicry to politicise [and frankly 'cope' with] their subjugation. There's so much that could be done in terms of space and social "contagion" too... how people bodily resist to the power dynamics of the workplace and how gang members play out their power dynamics with repetition and nuanced physical resistance. And then there's the home.... All good food for thought..
I'm so stacked out with "everyday" jobs I don't have time to unearth interesting research like this, so thanks - and if you come across anything particularly in the area of autonomy and agency with contemporary research examples *please* let me know :D

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