Thursday, March 29, 2007

"So. Anne. When are you going to be done your dissertation?"

Darwin 'was committed to publish'
"A Cambridge historian with access to Darwin's papers says there is simply no evidence to show the naturalist held back his evolution theory. Dr John van Wyhe says the scientist was just busy with other writings and also sporadically hindered by ill-health. 'If you read his letters from the 'gap years', as I call them, there are many references to his friends and relatives about what he intends to do with his theory - and that is to publish once he has finished his other work,' Dr van Wyhe told BBC News. 'The problem was that 'other work' took him far longer than he expected'."

Charles Darwin by Stephen Alcorn

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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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Thursday, March 22, 2007

Trains and tumblelogs

So I'm teaching this afternoon and I'm off to Toronto first thing in the morning for the Mobile Nation Conference. I opted on the train instead of flying, which makes it a five-hour trip, but trains are my favourite form of transportation, I've got a stack of student papers to mark, and I'm looking forward to staring out the window as I eat my fancy-schmancy VIA 1 breakfast. I'll do my best to post my conference notes as I go, but the 3-day programme is, well, rather demanding. In any case, if you're there please come say hello!

In other news, Purse Lip Square Jaw now includes a tumblelog of things I find interesting but really don't have anything to say about. It's called, unimaginately enough, the plsj tumblelog and it comes with an rss feed. I started experimenting with Tumblr because del.icio.us has come to feel a bit too tight, and I really liked their recognition that I want to bookmark different kinds of things, and emphasise them in different ways. So far, so good. But I can't vouch for their customer service: after firing off an email to support last week, I still haven't gotten a response.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

BNMI Reference Check: Now Accepting Applications

I'm very excited about my involvement with the Banff New Media Institute's first research-based Co-production Residency programme, Reference Check, taking place this summer in Banff, Alberta, Canada.

If you're doing graduate or post-graduate research on where art, technology and culture meet, and you fancy spending a month this summer in one of the most gorgeous places on earth, with excellent facilities, ten other researchers and three peer advisors, intensely thinking and talking and making and doing individually and collaboratively, then we want to hear from you!

The official call for applications is below -- note the dates and costs -- and if you have any questions or concerns about your proposed project or the application process, please feel free to contact me directly.

Reference Check: A Co-production Residency for Developing Researchers

Residency dates: June 24 to July 21, 2007
Application deadline: April 9, 2007

The Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) invites researchers working with new media at the masters, doctorate or post-doctorate level to spend four weeks at The Banff Centre this summer.

Join BNMI for its first independent research-based Co-production Residency program, bringing together a select group of researchers. Individuals and small networks who are working with art and new media as a research strategy are invited to explore the broader social contexts of technology and digital culture.

Participants will be supported to pursue their self-directed research. They will also be given the opportunity to reflect on the field of new media and contemporary issues such as creative pluralism and multiple modes of knowledge production.

Participants will have the opportunity to develop their research with a peer group of ten participants and the support and mentorship of BNMI alumni and Reference Check peer advisors. These advisors will work with participants individually and as a group to help focus their ideas, and suggest methodologies, collaborative and multidisciplinary forms, and ways of enhancing their work and impact in the world.

Peer Advisors:
Andreas Broeckmann
(DE)
Anne Galloway (CA)
Sarat Maharaj (UK)

The total cost for this intensive, four-week residency program will be $1,369.80, (CND) plus applicable taxes. Nearly $7500 of additional in-kind support for each project will be provided by BNMI staff and the dedicated studio and production facilities at The Banff Centreís Creative Electronic Environment.

More information and to apply

We're looking forward to hearing from you!

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Mobile publics and issues-based art and design

Mobile Nation Conference
22-25 March, 2007 - Toronto, Canada

Mobile Nation investigates design methods for locative technologies, devices and games, showcasing international research, design and engineering ... Participants will share expertise with WiFi, Global Positioning System (GPS), Bluetooth, Radio Frequency ID tags, intelligent garments, ambient media applications, and geo-locative gaming ... Throughout the conference we will be looking at research methodologies and ways that they will be integrated into industry, education, and creative practice.

Speakers | Programme | Workshop | Poster Exhibition

I'm really looking forward to this event - not only are there lots of interesting people participating but it's really nice to see so many Canadian researchers, designers and artists represent. Plus, I've long admired Nigel Thrift's work on technology and space so I'm excited that I'll be the discussant for his social geographies keynote. And at the very end of the first day Eric Zimmerman will be moderating discussion between Jason Lewis, Minna Tarkka, Suzanne Stein, Ron Wakkary and myself. I'll be presenting on some of the more practical aspects of doing what I call issues-based art and design research (you can get the extended abstract here but I like to think it'll be much better in-person) and I'm looking forward to the other presentations and discussions. If you're there, please come say hello!

This presentation actually draws on a chapter I recently wrote for Sampling the Spectrum, edited by Barbara Crow, Michael Longford and Kim Sawchuck, forthcoming from University of Toronto Press.

Mobile Publics and Issues-Based Art and Design (pdf)

Starting with the 'problem' of the public, I look to select historical and philosophical understandings of publics and politics. Building on the work of early American pragmatists like Walter Lippman and John Dewey, I focus on a public that is fragmented and contingent but still very much capable of judgment and action. In order to delve deeper into the kinds of situations or events in which these kinds of publics can come-together I find inspiration in the carnivals and feast crowds so eloquently described by Mikhail Bahktin and Elias Canetti, as well as in Bruno Latourís "parliament of things" or dingpolitik. I follow that discussion with an overview of recent research into the social and cultural aspects of mobile, context-aware and pervasive computing, and I question the senses of 'public' and 'private' at play. More specifically, following Mimi Sheller, I ask what a non-network model of mobility might look like. The kind of fluid and messy picture that emerges ends up pivoting on acts of coupling and decoupling, or gelling and dissolving, multiple publics and privates around shared concerns or difficult issues. The chapter culminates in a discussion of what I call issues-based art and design, or those mobile and context-aware projects in which a 'public' is convened around a set of shared concerns or complex issue that cannot be adequately handled by more traditional means. More specifically, I look at mobile technologies being deployed in the interests of political and economic awareness and action, as well as environmental awareness and sustainability. Assessing the limitations and possibilities of these kinds of technological, artistic and design interventions, I conclude by asking where the most productive potentials for mobile publics can be found, and what it will take to actually mobilise them.

UPDATE 12.03.07

The new issue of Wi: Journal of the Mobile Digital Commons Network is out and it also takes a look at the benefits and challenges of collaborative research and design practice. Good stuff by Yasmin Jiwani, Alison Powell, Andrea Zeffiro & Daviid Gauthier, Kim Sawchuk & Barbara Crow, Michael Longford, and Janice Leung.

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Friday, March 9, 2007

Biotechnologies, bodies and boundaries

These days when not writing about the politics of touch, my efforts are going towards teaching. We only have three classes left (the final one is a poster session, yay!) and I already know I'll miss our weekly get-togethers. They're an unusually good bunch who just submitted major research papers on topics like the biopolitical implications of assigning life and death, social and political boundaries for biometrics use, transexuality and the construction of otherness, mobile technologies and perceptions of space and time, genetically engineered crops and uncommon ground, public debates on stem cell research, domestic appliances, gender and everyday life, and pharmaceutical regulation of human sexuality. Totally amazing.

The last two classes have focussed on technoscience and bodies. Last week put the beginnings and ends of life up for debate, and we talked about reproductive technologies, tissue culturing, selfhood, markets, property and regulation.

For example, the case of Amillia Taylor offers intriguing insights into the practice of neonatal medicine and the regulation of bodies, as well as public concerns around the practice of abortion and the constitution of life itself. Interestingly, there's quite a bit of ambivalence in this Daily Mail story. The hospital environment is clearly understood to be more controlled/controllable than the "outside" world, but no less risky if we consider the litany of medical problems the premature baby has already experienced within its walls. According to the story, "Amillia was conceived in vitro and has been in an incubator since birth." Born at 22 weeks, this means that the majority of her life--and the very status of her life--has been almost entirely regulated by biotechnology. At the same time her survival is most often described in terms of surprise or the miraculous. Her mother is quoted as saying "now she is beginning to look like a real baby," which suggests it was difficult to recognise her as such before then. And the article concludes by invoking the abortion debate and challenging the reader to ask when but not how life actually begins: "Babies can still be aborted for non-medical reasons at up to 24 weeks. Recent evidence shows that, of those born at 25 weeks, half of them manage to live."

On a more personal note, the pictures of the child startled me. I still have a hard time recognising this creature as something bound for this world no matter how much we try to bind her to it. The medical intervention initially struck me as artifice in the sense of mechanical art, and thus wholly unnatural. But I find all sorts of 'unnatural' things to be beautiful and good and I'm having a hard time explaining why I can't seem to recognise 'life' here. Maybe it's the implication in that final quote that if we can keep a baby alive at 25 weeks then we shouldn't be allowed to abort it at 24 weeks. The problem I'm having, maybe, is that I don't think either creature is a 'baby' or 'child' at all. In fact, it discomforts me that she has a name because it insinuates her into a social world I share and I have a hard time attributing selfhood to bodies kept alive. Plus, it totally disturbs me that Latour's collectives of humans and non-humans could constitute nothing but people, or rather that we assign different people to different sides of the human/nonhuman 'divide'. Biopower and biopolitics indeed.

Yesterday's class focussed on monsters, hybrids and the sexing of bodies. One of my favourite topics because it focusses almost exclusively on what happens between categories, we talked about everything from Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, to freaks, museums and reality tv to conjoined and parasitic twins, intersexuality, body modification, disability, circumcision, cosmetic surgery (including vaginal rejuvenation and designer vaginoplasty), commodities, markets, consumerism and the ever-present matter of taste. Generally a proponent of the 'three-sex' (female, male and both/neither) model, I also keep thinking about the idea that there is only one sex and it exists on a continuum from male to female and different people occupy different positions, like if you view sexuality as a continuum from homosexuality to heterosexuality and people occupy many positions along it over a lifetime.

Anyway, now I'm preparing for the final classes on technology and everyday life. Next week we take a look at domestication and technology, which includes domestication of and by technology, as well as domestic technologies. This means reading some really interesting work by Shelley Nickles on the history of refrigeration in terms of material culture and gender construction, and introducing students to Elizabeth Shove's work on material culture, consumption and practice-oriented design, as well as the larger Designing and Consuming: Objects, Practices and Processes research project and their forthcoming book on The Design of Everyday Life. The final lecture and discussion will focus on pervasive technologies from mobile phones to biometrics, and further investigate the fluid boundaries between public and private in our technologised everyday.

Have I mentioned lately how much I love my job?

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Thursday, March 1, 2007

Passion and longing

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