Saturday, April 19, 2008

Intensities and multitudes



Pieter Bruegel
The Fall of the Rebel Angels
1562

"In Bruegel's rendering, the violence is expressed not in the bitter nature of the battle--indeed St Michael and his sparse troops do not appear particularly threatened by the demons--but by the intensity of the fall--infernal and endless--of this crawling, hideous multitude that invades the entire surface of the picture, in a remarkable unity of action which increases its impact."

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Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Blogging as affective politics

Melissa Gregg's discussions of intellectual labour and the politics of academic speech have made a valuable contribution to my dissertation's discussion of blogging. In particular, her 2006 book Cultural Studies' Affective Voices "draws attention to the significance of individual writers' voices in maintaining commitment to scholarly life" and she brings this perspective to bear on PhD and junior faculty blogs in her articles Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship and Banal bohemia: Blogging from the ivory tower hot-desk (Draft).

Her basic argument about early career blogging is quite elegant:

"The participatory nature of writing, response and counter-argument on blogs allows for ongoing debate, critical refinement and thinking-in-process. In this sense, what is rarely acknowledged about blogging is how much it contributes to and mirrors traditional scholarly practice rather than threatening it. One of the main reasons graduate students have taken them up with such fervour is that blogs offer solidarity out of isolation, especially on long projects. They create the conditions for collegiality, brainstorming and frank, fast feedback while also generating and maintaining interest, enthusiasm and motivation. Even the best supervision in the most convivial university department cannot offer this kind of support on a regular basis. The persistence with which established academics condemn blogging as a distraction preventing graduate students from timely completion and participation in their desired career does a disservice to the many instances whereby blogs are utilized as a sophisticated research tool. It also wilfully ignores the wider economic and political circumstances making the potential for a tenured academic career increasingly unlikely for a new generation of graduates.

[…]

Blogs are a modest political tool in that they can help overturn the hierarchies of speech traditionally securing academic privilege … Blogs allow us to write in conjunction with non-academic ‘peers’ and ‘colleagues’ who not only value and improve our ideas but practice their own rigorous forms of assessment, critique and review. Blogs are counter-heroic in that they expose the life of the academic as banal. They help lay bare the fallacy of the ivory tower scholar secluded from the concerns of the ‘real world’" (Gregg 2006:153-158).

**

"For those entering the academy today, the natural order of succession and class reproduction that once applied to their vocation is changing at a macro level. Diminished opportunities for tenure and the casualisation of the academic workforce pose fundamental problems for the model of patronage and initiation that typified the profession earlier.

[…]

That those in tenured positions did little to resist casualisation or the increasingly gruelling requirements for tenure are simmering tensions on many junior faculty blogs. However accurate, this is a genuinely felt generational grievance that spreads beyond the blogosphere. It is directed towards senior scholars who are perceived to have had a less brutal experience of professional advancement and failed to protect this possibility for others.

[…]

Through blogging, early career academics are making this unpalatable condition public. They reveal a fast receding loyalty to the promise that the university life was supposed to offer but does not deliver. Having grown up unable to ignore the realities of economic rationalism on their employment fortunes, these bloggers’ experiences of becoming professional differ from their predecessors ... This newly marginalised middle-class professoriat blogs to gain support for work and life choices that they feel have been constrained by wider social pressures; they write to retain a degree of credibility from a sympathetic audience.

[…]

By virtue of their positions, junior faculty and PhD bloggers are structurally prevented from influencing many of the decisions immediately affecting their work lives. In this situation, their readership communities offer a form of solace and support as they struggle up the career ladder, while the blogs themselves provide resources for others considering a similar move" (Gregg 2007:29-31).

And for more on academic or research blogging, don't miss Jill Walker's Blogging from inside the ivory tower.

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Sunday, December 2, 2007

Affect

"The radical novelty of modern science lies precisely in the rejection of the belief, which is at the heart of all popular religion, that the forces which move the stars and atoms are contingent upon the preferences of the human heart." - Richard Adams


Update 05.12.07:Should have actually looked this up before posting. In the comments, Jean-Louis attributes the quote to Walter Lippman which makes much more sense but, sadly, isn't quite as interesting.

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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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