‘Relay Conversation’ with Flora Reznik (FR), Julia Bee (JB), Sissel Marie Tonn (ST), Christoph Brunner (CB) and Jonathan Reus (JR)
Illustration by: Sissel Marie Tonn
The Reading Room is an event series produced in collaboration with Stroom Den Haag and the Instrument Inventors Initiative. Since 2015 we have been organizing this series with the intention of creating a platform for close-readings and discussion of theoretical texts among an ever-growing diverse community of artists, cultural practitioners and individuals interested in intellectual discourse. For every session we invite guest readers to share their knowledge and guide the community through texts and themes within their field of expertise. The Reading Room is made possible with financial support from Stroom Den Haag and the Creative Industries Fund NL.
As discussions in The Reading Room are so ephemeral, in 2017 we are looking into ways of recording traces of these events. Our 2017 season begins with the first edition of an interview series entitled ‘Relay Conversations’, created in collaboration with the guest readers. These interviews are conducted as conversational relays between the three organizers; artists Jonathan Reus, Flora Reznik and Sissel Marie Tonn, and the invited guests.
The current planetary situation is perceived as one of crises; ecological, economic, and psychological. While it is tempting to surrender oneself to these paralysing processes, it seems ever more urgent to question the current tendency, from Felix Guattari’s original coining of the term “ecology”, to using the “ecological” as a label for anything and everything. The first Reading Room cluster of 2017, Ecologies of Existence, looked to address the question: What kinds of artistic practices and aesthetic strategies emphasize a kind of “ecological thinking”? And how can we conceive of ‘ecological’ thinking as a creative resource that does not become a haunting “new call to order”, falling victim to the reductive tendencies of our mental, political, and social present?
These questions were also discussed in our first Relay Conversation in this series, which can be found here.
The Reading Room #16: Ecologies of Existence, part 2
The Reading Room #16, took place on April 29th with guests Christoph Brunner and Julia Bee. Our focus of study was chapter 6, “Fantasy in the hold” of The Undercommons – Fugitive Planning and Black study, by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. This text was read in relation to Felix Guattari’s ‘Remaking Social Practices’. This chapter of The Undercommons was chosen to highlight overlaps between radical positions in ecological and postcolonial thinking, and the importance of taking histories and systems of colonization into account when considering the histories and lived experiences of logistics that contribute to our current planetary crisis.
In his introduction to The Undercommons, Jack Halberstam describes the book to be about reaching out to find connection (love, fellowship), a common cause with the “brokenness of being”, he underlines that this ‘brokenness’ is also understood as blackness – and that things will remain broken “because this book is not a prescription for repair”. The Undercommons project is clearly described by Halberstam:
“If you want to know what the undercommons wants, what Moten and Harney want, what black people, indigenous peoples, queers and poor people want, what we (the “we” who cohabit in the space of the undercommons) want, it is this – we cannot be satisfied with the recognition and acknowledgement generated by the very system that denies a) that anything was ever broken and b) that we deserved to be the broken part; so we refuse to ask for recognition and instead we want to take apart, dismantle, tear down the structure that, right now, limits our ability to find each other, to see beyond it and to access the places that we know lie outside its walls. We cannot say what new structures will replace the ones we live with yet, because once we have torn shit down, we will inevitably see more and see differently and feel a new sense of wanting and being and becoming.”
For Moten and Harney, blackness, among many things, is the “willingness to be in the space that has been abandoned by colonialism, by rule, by order”. In the Reading Room we tried to grapple with the concept proposed by Moten and Harney of the “refusal to the call to order”, or “dissonance” towards the dominant systems of control. This was specifically relevant in relation to the text by Isabelle Stengers from the first session of this cluster.
The Undercommons questions the standpoints from which colonialism was made possible. It exposes its brutality as well as its weakness, as colonialism was never fully sovereign: there is a subversive force that has always lived incarnated in the bodies of “the shipped”, the expression Moten and Harney use to refer to the commodified subjectivity of black slaves taken to America, perhaps to stress their quality of being on the move.
Only a locatable person can be subject to control, whereas “the shipped” are intrinsically out of place. This status is both a wound and a weapon for resistance. The text speaks towards a certain sensitivity, one that is capable of exceeding the system of control created by colonialism. The undercommons is a voice, a way of saying the unspeakable, an underlying force that both furiously destabilizes and lovingly gathers.
FR: “Fantasy in the hold”, the chapter we read from The Undercommons, starts in the present. The text describes the present time as of one in which the dominant capitalist science relies mainly on logistics to handle its business. Subjectivity, in this context, has become too “cumbersome”, and capital aims to “dispense with it”. There is an example in the text that I found very clarifying: because of the level of technical development achieved, wars today cannot be won strategically, they are wars with no end, no one seems responsible, and strategy is only applied to deal with collateral damage. This reminded me of Stengers’ “catastrophic times”, in which no exit appears in the horizon, as no human agency can effectively solve the problems we face. Still, Moten and Harney mention that “uncertainty surrounds”: “algorithms are defined by what they can never fully become”, and suggestively add: “something else is on the hold”.
Julia, can you talk to us about this image of “on the hold”? What are the authors referring to with this expression? What is on the hold and how is it connected with today’s reality?
JB: Thanks for the question. The notion of the hold evokes a lot of images – and makes me re-think the notion of the image as operating solely in the realm of the visual since Moten and Harney put so much emphasizes on the haptical instead of the visual. Maybe they do so because the visual was historically and still is very much related to racist regimes of sight and vision. The imagery of the hold is in itself complex since it touches the very capacity of representing an experience as an image, seen from the traumatizing history and terror of slavery that affected these capacities and the ways imagination operates. So there is something that slips from visibility, that flees. It also affects representation in the cultural and the psychosocial way.
I think there is a double meaning of in the hold that circumscribes the project of Moten and Harney very well. This expression both evokes the association of “on hold”, connecting the hold of the slave ship, a site where people were violently transformed into living goods and treated like objects, and the temporality of holding as it defines contemporary logistical culture (I will explain that in the next paragraph). This very capitalistic form, the logistical present, is seen from the historical background of slave trade economics.
The phrase “in the hold” also alludes to the potential for constant re-positioning and re-routing of delivery and of goods – and this is discussed as an important feature of logistic capitalism in recent years. For example, as Gerko Egert brought it up in our discussion in the Reading Room: Amazon and other companies make profit out of moving goods rather than only from the production of goods. So logistics itself became a system producing surplus value. The seamless supply chain becomes a key site where value is produced.
Algorithms are tools for such constant repositioning and re-adaption because they allow for dynamic movement patterns to emerge and to feed back into computing the most economically effective route. To be on hold could also point to the time forms of late capitalism where one is permanently on hold as goods are. In a world of movement capitalism everything has to be reconnected and repositioned constantly. Moten and Harney connect the notion of holding (back), at the same time a traumatic past – the past of slavery – to contemporary logistics. Slavery was one of the first huge logistical operations that characterize what we today call modernity, which involves economic operations built on global trade.
The logistical present is seen from the historical background of slave trade economics.
The authors also describe the hold as the place of hapticality, which I generally understand as a kind of resistance to the seamless flow of logistical operations. But more specifically in relation to the hold hapticality evokes a traumatic closeness resulting from the lack of physical space as it was described for example in Toni Morrison’s Beloved that we read in the reading room. It is a complex philosophical thinking that emerges out of what Michelle Wright in her book The Physics of Blackness terms a middle passage epistemology, a place of a non-place. This place in-between of the atlantic is also the place of non-placibility (so to say) where coordinates of time and space were violently and traumatically destroyed. So very similar to what I said before concerning time of being in/on the hold here the space comes in: the hold has strong implications for a re-thinking of time and space and how a subject connects and perceives herself in relation to time and space – especially when cut off from a place (like in diaspora) or being haunted by the past.
Without simply equalizing it, different regimes of time and space are connected to historical of recent logistics through the term in/on the hold by Moten and Harney. They themselves are deploying non-linear time forms and non-euclidian spaces in their writing to bring the interwovenness of the now and the past to our attention.
Sissel, I am very curious about how you are dealing with aesthetics of hapiticality in your work and how you would connect it to the topic of the ecological. To me it seems that the notion of ‘ecology’ plays a very important role in your artworks. Can you also connect your work to this idea of hapticality (in your latest piece concerning man-made earthquakes)? Do you see a privileged link between the ecological and the haptic? Or is it a different form of hapticality that you are concerned with in your artworks, since it is a totally different historical period and also a different political situation you’re addressing?
ST: Dear Julia, thank you for this question. The project you refer to departs from the bodily experience of man-made earthquakes among people living in Groningen – a province in The Netherlands where for the last 60 years there has been an extremely active gas-drilling industry. In this work I am interested in the direct connection between the gas reservoir collapsing underground, and the bodies being shaken above ground. I try to make this interrelationship felt: by using actual seismic recordings of the earthquakes as material for vibratory compositions on the body. With this I want to evoke another layer of knowledge about the effects of the gas-drilling industry in the Netherlands.
Since I already wrote about this work in the first Conversation of this cluster, I want to focus on the last part of your question: Is ecology connected in a privileged way to hapticality? This sentence really had me thinking. The theme ‘Ecologies of Existence’ is an invention of Christoph and Yvonne (Volkart),
intended to critically reassess the term ecology as it is used in the humanities, which has in a way come to mean everything and nothing.
They call for a more rigorous proposition of “ecological thinking”, one informed by artistic practices and aesthetic strategies that resist tendencies for the term to become too reductive. Your question about a potentially ‘privileged connection’ between hapticality and ecology made me wonder whether the hapticality of Moten and Harney could be such an aesthetic “strategy”. In “Fantasy in the Hold”, hapticality is also a strategy, a resistance to the seamless flow of logistics (as you described it), but also to the haunting trauma produced by the hold.
To quote Harney and Moten: “Hapticality, the capacity to feel through others, for others to feel through you, for you to feel them feeling you, this feel of the shipped is not regulated, at least not successfully, by a state, a religion, a people, an empire, a piece of land, a totem.”
To me this evokes the strategy
of collectivity as resistance, the feeling of others in a demonstration, the collectivity of a protest song, or the hapticality of art, such as that described in terms of music and improvisation… They write further: “The hold’s terrible gift was to gather dispossessed feelings in common, to create a new feel in the undercommons. Previously, this kind of feel was only an exception, an aberration, a shaman, a witch, a seer, a poet amongst others, who felt through others, through other things.” This ‘feeling through others’ seems very powerful and makes me think of Brian Massumi’s writings on affect, as something felt and activating that is transferred directly, pre-consciously, through sensation.
I wonder how hapticality can be a strategy to tackle the impenetrability of the ecological crisis, its magnitude and scale. What I found important in reading The Undercommons in a thematic cluster focused on the term ecology is the realization of the interconnectedness of these issues: that the ecological crisis is also connected
in so many ways to the logistics of advanced capitalism and it’s ties to the atlantic slave trade, the ecology of the plantation, and the industrial extraction of fossil fuels and minerals.
There is a strong poetic power in the hapticality described by Harney and Moten that is full of potential, and I think this is part of the kind of resistance they are talking about. Jack Halberstam says in the introduction that the book is not a prescription for repair: “(…)the projects of “fugitive planning and black study are mostly about reaching out to find connection; they are about making common cause with the brokenness of being(…)”. The structures of suppression, of racism and of environmental degradation are intrinsically interconnected, and in order to “tear this shit down”, we need to realize that “they are not only bad for some of us, they are bad for all of us”.
And thus my question to Christoph: I know The Undercommons holds a special place in your work, and that you’ve delved deeply into it.
There is a strong poetic power in the hapticality described by Harney and Moten that is full of potential, and I think this is part of the kind of resistance they are talking about.
I mentioned yours and Yvonne’s initial proposition for challenging the term ecology, and, rather than subsuming it as a ‘label for everything and anything’, you request strategies for using the term as a resistance to Stengers’ ‘new call to order’, which you describe in detail in the first Relay Conversation. My question to you is: Could you explain a bit about Moten and Harney’s concept of ‘the Undercommons’, as a resistance to this ‘call to order’?
CB: Thanks, Sissel for this question. I would like to start with a very practical concern why The Undercommons holds a special place in relation to my practice. I first encountered the work right when it came out, brought to me by friends of the SenseLab and in Zurich. The time the book came out in 2013 was a critical moment which I would name, for a lack of a better word, “the resurgence of identity politics.”
By that I mean a discomfort felt by “critical” scholars, artists and activists, among others, in the potential for certain theories to gloss over the real, lived and experienced differences that racism and violence against minorities around the globe produce every day. The fear, or concern, is that the effects of this violence become institutionalized and executed, and that critical theories of primary difference and performativity might not have sufficient traction to enact change. Wary of this problematic, which, on a theoretical plane, might also be a coming to terms with post-structuralism as a deliberately neoliberal and relativistic project (an accusation I do not share), The Undercommons intervenes on all levels.
The book’s point of departure is an immanent critique upon the figure of the critical academic (not unlike Gramsci many years before). Rather than over-coding the nuances of the resurgent concern with post-structuralism
and particularly issues of identity and difference, The Undercommons argues for a very different approach – one that follows thinkers like Tiziana Terranova, Luciana Parisi or Gilles Deleuze, developing a conception of difference that is primordial (“things differ in their emergence as an event of something new”), rather than oppositional (“this differs from that”).
Thus, ‘undercommons’ are a relational texture of differences that have a power to affect and be affected, depending on the constellations or events under which things come together or resonate. That is, as Julia laid out above, why such concepts like ‘the hold’ become both a logistical marker of the cruelties of modernity and, at the same time, a complex relationality occurring in resonance with and in resistance against this logistical order – thus the hold is both a historical fact and an immanent potential for the future.
To return to the situation of the resurgence of identity politics: The text refers to another debate. One that was part of the edu-factory email list, publications and gatherings, of which Gigi Roggero was one of the most prominent figures. In that discussion the concern was the increasing precarization of adjunct teaching staff at universities and the neoliberalization of the university. It was recognized that this “critical” debate needed to be transformed in order to generate another concept of knowledge. It had to share and relay experience (hapticality), do something different than what the knowledge of the critical scholar does, which is to perpetuate a system of value extraction based on critique – critique as a motor for the neoliberal university. From here one might also see the diverging and converging lines of Fred Moten and Stefano Harney. The prior deeply involved in the question of poetry and black study, the second teaching
in a management department interested in the functioning of neoliberalism and operations management in academia and the arts. Working at the intersection of arts, education and politics, I was gifted with multiple reading sessions of The Undercommons with fellow comrades in Zurich and Montreal and the SenseLab’s EU-Hub skype group. Across these multiple situations of reading The Undercommons there was and is an attempt to develop modes of thought and practice outside of assumed identities and a mode of critique that positions before it activates. The latter was also the motivation to read The Undercommons as the first text within the ArchipelagoLab in Lüneburg. We were confronted with the task of interpellation, as Althusser would say; of installing a lab on transversal practices at an Institute of Philosophy and Art Studies, at a university that values critical scholarship, especially in the form of grant money.
Undercommons is not a We and is not an Us – here I strongly divert from Jack Halberstam’s introduction to The Undercommons – but rather an emergent collectivity that is concerned with how to make events that move between different modes of thinking, feeling, and doing. One might also bear in mind that the We and the Us takes its point of departure (as I outlined above) from a Western, if not North-American, debate, and thus we should be careful of universalizing the propositions in this book in the way Halberstam seems to be doing. Undercommons affirms that there is always a movement, a tendency towards a relational creation of experience. It is a response to the question of how to activate or animate these tendencies in a manner that they diverge from the repetitive habits of knowledge and practice in an academic or activist or artistic context. Thus, the undercommons is one element in an ecology of practices,
Undercommons is not a We and is not an Us but rather an emergent collectivity that is concerned with how to make events that move between different modes of thinking, feeling, and doing.
going back to Stengers’ and our initial question on what ecology might be able to do as a concept and movement. It is also a way of thinking through what we encountered in the reading of Félix Guattari’s text “Remaking Social Practices” at the heart of an ecological transformation of life on earth. I want to emphasize again that this is not a universal claim but rather one of micro-practices, of activating relays and affections towards events where critique emerges always differently in the presence of the practices’ own diverging (paraphrasing Stengers once again).
Thus, my question to Jon and Flora: We have had the joy of collaborating with the Reading Room and had four very diverse and intense sessions, mostly with people that were new to many of us. For me it was absolutely impressive how the shared desire of reading together generated such joyous and deeply enriching encounters.
Thinking along the lines of a politics of the undercommons and the critique of critique, how do you feel about the Reading Room as an ethico-aesthetic and political (in the ecological sense) practice?
JR: Thanks for the rich question, Christoph. Sissel and I were originally attracted to the idea of doing a public event around the topic of Guattari’s conception of ecological thinking. I was introduced to the term originally by Eric Kluitenberg as a foundational philosophy for thinking through the entanglement of technology, environment and society. And you could say it’s become a sort of immanent concept within a lot of the artwork Sissel and I have produced together over the past years. In retrospect, the Ecologies of Existence cluster turned into something we weren’t expecting – I think because we hadn’t considered the collectivising aspects of Guattari’s ecologies of the mental, social, environmental that are so strongly presented in ‘Remaking Social Practices’, not to mention The Undercommons! For me these texts and our discussions have given cause to reflect on what we do here together as a collective, it’s a meta-discourse on The Reading Room itself.
You mention Guattari’s concept of the ‘ethico-aesthetic’ – which I understand as thinking about artistic practice (in a primordial sense) as the foundation for a social and ethical life that is in a flourishing state of experimentation and reinvention.
For me this is an extremely pragmatic philosophy, advocating mindfulness of the role a curator assumes as a community builder. It makes me wonder what the contemporary art world would look like if this aspect of community building were more deeply ingrained at the upper levels of power. Certainly curating a program like The Reading Room is one way of bringing forth a social collective, however mercurial it may be.
To relate our work here to The Undercommons; The Reading Room began as an inside job, a response to the institutional frameworks of academies by students of the academy, and thus finds some common genesis with Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s philosophy.
The series itself began as a gut reaction of myself and Sissel to our learning environment at the academy here in The Hague. In this case we are particularly responding to the division of knowledge in the art academy (as we know it here in The Netherlands).
We didn’t directly discuss Moten and Harney’s use of the term “study” in the Reading Room, but I think it’s important to mention in this context. To quote: “Study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice”.
Their notion of ‘study’ is thus linked with being together. This is an interesting way of reading The Reading Room’s original educational impulse. At the most basic, we are a community of people sharing ideas, inspirations, and understandings-in-progress; and we believethis kind of reading shouldn’t be separated in some way from artmaking due to its so-called ‘intellectuality’.
Right now the educational landscape in the Netherlands is such that art academies are in a race to create more and more masters programs. However, creating formats for this cycle of education is proving exceedingly difficult. Even 18 years after the Bologna declaration, they are hindered by an entrenched theory-vs-practice dichotomy.
Here the spirit of the undercommons seems especially valuable in thinking about the ways in which new formations might take hold. And I find the concept of ‘study’ especially appealing because it complicates the relationship between theory and practice. What has traditionally fallen to the Dutch Hogeschool as a matter of teaching ‘practice’ also is intellectual. To quote Fred Moten, “The incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities was already there. These activities aren’t ennobled by the fact that we now say, ‘oh, if you did these things in a certain way, you could be said to have been studying.’ To do these things is to be involved in a kind of common intellectual practice”.
Of course this comes to bite us in the back every once in awhile – I mean – how can we counter such dichotomies and at the same time curate ‘experts’ who more often than not are professional academics? I think we’ve been extraordinarily lucky to have guests who have resonate with and embrace what we are aiming for, who are willing to spontaneously form a collective with us, remaining open while adjusting aim along the way. Also the very nature of our community, in its diversity, and the blend of actors involved in producing and hosting the events serves to put us in a difficult-to-categorize cultural space that enables, I think at a formal level, the kind of curiosity and experimentation that Guattari emphasizes.
FR: I would like to jump in this issue with some insights from my recent involvement in the curatorial team of the Reading Room. As Christoph mentioned, there has been an effort in some spheres of the academic world to make a critique of the critique, out of a vital impulse to transcend the limits of the academic language.
The ‘ethico-aesthetic’ – which I understand as thinking about artistic practices (in a primordial sense) as the foundation for a social and ethical life that is in a flourishing state of experimentation and reinvention.
At least this is my very own personal experience: after some years of reading and writing in this languages, I felt encapsulated. It was not only about expressing my beliefs in a more open way, but about reaching out to enrich my input, to be able to listen to other discourses from different disciplines.
But this shouldn’t mean simplifying. Many times I have encountered people complaining about that philosophy texts are simply too hard to understand. Well yes, they are. We are used to handling only short sentences (this is an English paradigm mixed with technologies of mass communication), obvious and redundant messages, objects designed for the comfort of our hands. At a political level, anti-intellectualism is on the rise all over the globe, supported by a common sense that misinterprets the goals of democracy and dictates: my opinion is as valid as yours, resulting in a vague an empty consensus that leaves all the room for quieter forces to operate outside the realm of the public discussion.
The texts that we are dealing with are hard, for one and each of us. They are difficult because they are a specific language, but which is luckily in constant flow: new concepts need to be invented to tackle new problems, to face new realities. They are open systems. I would like to think that they are closer to poetry than to newspaper articles. I think that the people that participate actively in the Reading Room get that philosophy is not superfluous, as much as art is not just entertainment.
In the Reading Room artists, theorists, architects, lawyers, and literally anyone who would like to join (we keep an open invitation through Facebook) gather, and we do our best to promote a comfortable atmosphere so that everyone feels entitled to talk. It is not easy, but this is the experiment we are striving to promote, by means of different ways of moderation, activities, and, as Jon mentioned, by asking our “expert” guests to be true facilitators, and not merely lecturers. In this way knowledge from different disciplines come together:
we are trying to put thought in motion by taking it out of it’s usual compartments. What we do in the specific case of the Reading Room, I think, is one instance of what Stengers (to go back to the previous cluster) calls the emergence of an event, if we ought deserve such a name.
We are not a discussion group, we don’t gather after the moment in which each of us understood the text in the privacy of their homes to discuss it. We are trying to read together, to grasp some of the meaning of a text that another thinker wrote, who very likely also struggles every day trying to make some sense of all these texts being written before her. Concepts are not merely representations of reality, they are tools to create community. Of course some people feel excluded and get bored in our meetings. This is inevitable. But we are trying to make it as open as possible, without giving up on our goals. Every time I see the sparkle in someone’s eyes or this little smile coming out of the edge of someone’s mouth
when speaking in the Reading Room, or even a trembling voice when asking a question, I feel so lucky to be around people who actually feel thought. This feeling tells us about the imbrication between affect and agency: at the same time we are being affected and we are being empowered, because we are being drawn into the collective force that is at action, busy creating new forms of thought. I think the notion of hapticality that was being discussed above has much to do with this experience.
And here I want to go back to the notion of critique of the critique that Christoph brought up (already one of those phrases that would make more than one roll their eyes, and perhaps a topic for a future cluster?). What we need to criticize is the activity of asking questions, the structures that make the privilege of the question maker possible. This privilege of the voice that requires the presence of the speaker in the debate arena, the public assembly in plain sight for everyone to see and understand, is an image
supported by an old philosophical tradition, and one that current Western liberal political discourses cannot do without. I am convinced that what we are doing in The Reading Room goes in a divergent direction. We are trying to let ourselves be interrogated by the texts, which are the result of the quiet labor of devoted thinkers, and be in the vulnerable position of the one who does not understand. It is not the snobbish attitude of the typical academic (this might be a demonized idealization) that we are trying to promote. And from this disposition we set ourselves to collaboratively engage in the meticulous labor that is required to build new interpretations, new attempts to read and be in the world.
One of the main features of this labor is being able to listen to others. The Reading Room is a place for encounters. It creates the conditions for new emergences. It is not us as individuals who think, it is thought itself that is forcing us. There is a violence of thought in action here, to quote one of my favorite Deleuzian figures.
I am glad that there is some violence around us, something to take us out of the monotonous comfort of our own thoughts. Our voices are responses not in the sense of that we have the right answers, but in the sense of that we respond to something that addresses us. Something that cannot be analyzed, limited, put into the categories of thought: that is the other of philosophy, what resists the subsumption of the Idea. It is then something unthinkable, something that will come as unidentifiable, and that already inhabits (since always) in the interior of its certainties. It is what forces all philosophies to be political philosophies.
JR: Julia, I would like to aim the last question at you. Would it be possible to try and revisit the importance of communications media in Guattari’s “Remaking Social Practices”. In The Reading Room you brought up the term “post-media”. And Guattari, particularly in this essay, is if I’m not mistaken one of the early influential thinkers to wrestle with a post-media reality.
I feel so lucky to be around people who actually feel thought. This feeling tells us about the imbrication between affect and agency.
Could you perhaps expand on this concept a bit and give us your take on what the contemporary status of “post-media” is?
Also as we reach the end of this cluster I’d like to return to the term ‘ecologies’ and get your take on it. The original ‘Ecologies of Existence’ symposium at Leuphana, as I understand it, came out of a concern that the concept potentially ‘needed saving’. For you what was the initial power and potency that drew you to this concept, and do you have any thoughts on its relevance and potency today?
JB: Thanks for the question Jon. I will start with the second one, but I think both questions are connected through the actuality of Guattari’s thinking around pressing problems that connect the social, the environmental and media. I hope my answers are not super scholarly, in the sense of explaining media theory from a privileged point of view. I am rather surprised that you discussed the concept of ecology needing saving, since it is being discussed urgently in several places and disciplines right now.
For sure several people have a different take on it, some take creative approaches to Guattari’s thinking and this might change its original meaning. To me the ‘ecological’ means the intermingling of former divided areas like nature and culture, society and nature, the psychic and the social etc. It offers new methods for rethinking the situation on planet earth for humans and non-humans, the communication with Gaia, and surely media plays a key role in this re-thinking. To think ecologically in a Guattarian sense means to perceive a place or environment in its entangled complexity on different levels at the very same time – a place or milieu might be perceived by its very connection with technology and nature, emerging from a specific mix of both, which reshapes inside-outside-relations of subjectivities.
Take for example forests that exist under surveillance to record ecological damage, or take Bateson’s dolphin embassy, in which he tried to communicate via information based linguistic tools with other subjectivities: dolphin-technology-subjectivities emerged
from that ecological encounter. Or take every average city or ICE train – it basically consists of different media technologies, and it itself is a medium, too, changing the perception of place and space (both historically and also constantly in everyday life). At the same time, a specific subjectivity temporarily emerges from this environment, by the running together of technologies of information, but also of place, space and the collective, shared situation. Today Guattari might help us to connect these divided spheres of the so-called nature and technology like art, design and media, as it was also done in the sense of a deconstruction and an undoing of the nature culture dichotomie in feminist theory decades. Guattari talks of three ecological spheres the social, the environmental and the psychic, which constantly interact in everyday life. This interaction can be experimented with, especially in the arts – including the arts of trees, birds and the weather. The aesthetic intervenes in our thinking, imagination and perception of places and environments as given, and is already existing without being perceived.
I would say that with Guattari they exist in the sense of being constructed by perception, as being intrinsically aesthetic phenomena. This does not necessarily mean perception by a subject. Part of today’s media sphere is an environmental conception of “thing thoughts” – as philosopher of experience William James would say – of material-immaterial ecologies strongly shaped by the affective register of their existence.
Guattari understands the media not as mass media alone, as something operating from the outside of subjects, or as a stable apparatus with fixed borders. Rather, media becomes more of an environment producing fundamentally mediated subjectivities. Guattari experienced the turn from technologies of TV and print to the internet as decentralized network based media – and it is through this very scenario of mediality he formulates his thought.
Media does not form a single apparatus or dispositives (meaning a hub or network of technologies of making see and perceive) of information technologies alone, but takes part in intersecting and intra-acting with emerging milieus, for example infrastructures of technology, hope and fear.
So Guattari believes that the aesthetic operates in our very perception as part of strongly self-constructing environments. Subjectivities are intimately connected to these so-called “existential territories” and exist all over those places and spaces. I think Guattari forces us to think of media as an existential tool for both culture and nature. He provided us with a concept to think media as a technology of existence as well – both in the technological and the artistic sense.
So “post media”, I presume, means a certain notion of media that is no longer mass media alone, but media understood in a very broad sense.
Guattari helps us to adapt notions of media to planet-changing activities right now (e.g. the Anthropocene debate). This includes natural media, like the media of nature, as it is discussed from several theoreticians across media and cultural theory right now. The earth is a medium, as Jussi Parikka and others suggest, and for example fungi live in strongly mediated environments where they spread their spores. Air can be a medium for that. But notwithstanding the spores: discussions in media theory are no longer solely about information spread or shared by mass media, no longer about transmitter and recipient in their separated, yet connected worlds. Guattari’s concept enables us to think different dimensions of mediality as well as the flow of information and perception operating together as reception-perception-assemblages. They are not limited to media in the sense of electronic and digital media alone.
Guattari believes that the aesthetic operates in our very perception as part of strongly self-constructing environments. He provided us with a concept to think media as a technology of existence as well – both in the technological and the artistic sense.
Paradoxically the prefix “post” in the term post-media does not hint to a post in the sense of “over”, but suggests a new and bigger thinking of mediality. It also intervenes in the social sphere since it makes media a key technique in building infrastructures of existence. Mediality is a tool to reinvent the everyday life, social life and subjectivity as well as mediating our relation to planet earth.
We must re-appropriate not only a notion of mediality,
but with media we have the chance to reinvent subjectivity and collectivity – as social and psychic techniques.
Media is no longer something on the outside of the subject (even if thought of as influencer), but rather something that operates from the inside, from scenes of media environments. Every subjectivity is intrinsically connected to the complexity of mediality. Even the psyche is mediated, our body, sense of smell and hapticality.
In this scenario, the aesthetic, once again, holds a privileged access to the thinking of mediality, because it centers our attention around questions of affect and perception, which are key for today’s media techniques that transform the means of producing sensibilities in ways that are often not consciously perceived.
Christoph Brunner is assistant professor for cultural theory at Leuphana University Lüneburg. He works on the intersections between art, philosophy and activism with a specific focus on emergent collectivity and technopolitics. Together with Yvonne Volkart he organized the symposium “Ecologies of Existence” in 2016. He is member of the SenseLab in Montreal and initiated the ArchipelagoLab for Transversal Practices at Leuphana.
Julia Bee is assistant professor for image theory at Bauhaus University Weimar. She works on perception and desire, visual anthropology and images based research practices. Last publications include “Dramatisierungen des Anfangens. Die Intros von Homeland, True Blood und True Detective.” (Dramatization of Beginning. The Intros of Homeland, True blood and True Detective, in: Gerko Egert und Adam Czirak (Hg.): Dramaturgien des Anfangens, Berlin 2015; “Gewalt, Begehren Differenz. Zu einer Politik der Wahrnehmung” (Violence, Desire, Difference. Toward a Politics of Perception), in: Jochem Kotthaus (Hg.): Sexuelle Gewalt im Film, Weinheim und Basel 2015.
Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist living in The Hague. She works with multi-media installation, textiles and writing, and her processual approach is driven by a great deal of curiosity and the possibilities of building relationships across fields. Her work revolves around an interest in structures of attention and perception within ecologies undergoing subtle or profound changes. Within this discourse her work explores these environmental (often humanly induced) changes, extending the public debates towards epistemological issues connecting these events to the body and its sensing of presence. She completed a master in Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2015 and will be a resident at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht in 2017.
Jonathan Reus is an American musician, researcher and curator whose work blends machine aesthetics with free improvisation. His broader research is into instruments and instrumentations, and their potential to bring new insight into knowing the world. Jonathan is associate lecturer of Computing and Coded Culture at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media in Leuphana University, Lüneburg, where he has created teaching methods for hybrid coursework blending science, mathematics and cultural studies. He is also a lecturer in performative sound art at the ArtEZ academy of art in Arnhem.
Flora Reznik is an Argentinian artist based in The Netherlands. She was born in Buenos Aires, in 1986. There she studied in Universidad del Cine (FUC), obtained a diploma in Philosophy (University of Buenos Aires), while she worked as a video editor in film and TV, and co-funded the contemporary arts magazine “CIA”. In The Netherlands she graduated from the ArtScience Interfaculty department, in The Royal Academy of Art, and currently co-curates the artist initiative Platform for Thought in Motion, while she develops her work as an artist in the fields of video, performance, installation and text. She is busy with the notions of physicality, territory and time.
From the curators of the Reading Room: Thank you again to Christoph Brunner and Julia Bee for their insights both in The Reading Room and in this piece! We hope to welcome you both back in Den Haag. And special thanks to all the participants that joined in this gathering.