July 2007


I used to work in the theatre, and to teach it – now they were great days, as they say! Teaching theatre is completely different to anything else – simply because learning is embodied in a very different way (no one seems to care too much about marks for one thing – either it’s too much fun or there’s too much as stake – performance is not the abstract kind of constricted non-performance of performativity). This is by way of introducing the truism that you have to get involved with things to really understand them.

So the last couple of weeks – since I’ve finally had time to do a few things I’ve wanted to – I’ve been engaging with new media differently. I’ve started blogging more. I’ve realized quickly how relational it is – primarily via the generous welcome to the blog world by N Pepperell at Rough theory. I also read blogs very differently when involved. I’ve realized that the level of discussion in blogs is in fact very high – much higher (for academics) than many other contexts one could name. It’s hard to really realize this until you understand how complex a dialogue it is, even if in parallel. I already read a lot of blogs before, but now I’m beginning to realize what a different and complex mode of being it is – socially much more than technically.

Strangely enough, there was also a sudden migration of a lot of my friends to Facebook this week. I’ve long avoided MySpace and so on (although I’ve been using Last.fm, YouTube and Flickr for a while). For one thing, a lot of the lists I’ve been on have been immersed in long debates about all that’s wrong with web 2.0 (see especially the wonderful Institute for Distributed Creativity – Trebor Scholz is one of the most informed and articulate on these issues – and I can’t wait to get The Art of Free Cooperation, published by Trebor and Geert Lovink). Of course, there is a lot to this criticism, especially concerning precarity, but it’s also, as nearly all the critics point out, pretty hard to just step outside the system – and more interesting are the moves in different directions in any case. In any case, my very brief take on this is that there’s much more to cognitive labour, a la Virno‘s description in Grammar of the Multitudes (which I’ve discussed here) than sociable media (the previously mentioned culture of performance in what I call a politics of cognitive models – maybe another post). I guess that I mean there are worse systems of precarity and cognitive exploitation that give very little back to the user/used, although this doesn’t mean we can’t work to make more things open source, and to make sociable media genuinely sociable. In the meantime, in the face of peer pressure, I signed up for Facebook so yet another enterprise could skim my lifestyle profile. We’ll see how long it lasts but I must say I was surprised by how many people I know there, and how active they all are. More surprising was the sudden migration itself, a kind of wave – a sudden instance of a change in resonance in Larval Subject’s subtle and very useful discussion of the term.

Makes my previous discussion about new forms of embodiment in relation to networks and computers more relevant – to myself!

The final instance of this – since I couldn’t go to the Documenta12 publishing week, I’ve been getting involved online. This has been great really. I’ve read papers, listened to podcasts and blogged here and also here (the latter on OpenMute). Of course, the problem is that I’ve also seen the pictures of everyone sitting around drinking beer.

I guess it’s not a question of distribution versus presence. It’s rather a question of a lot different forms of distribution involving different kinds of presence – from the publishing and distribution of blogs to the “publishing and distribution” of beer.

In the first discussions at Documenta12, Nat Muller writes on Text Tactility (registration and login required) and Alessandro Ludovici writes on The Persistence of Paper. Both are understandably attached to paper, particularly to books or, as editors, to the permanence of ink and printing. Both seem equally immersed, however, in the world of pixels, and they capture the strange feeling many of us have of living across worlds. They capture the feeling of this strange new life in which publishing is suddenly so interesting as a cultural issue, as it mutates in a series of strange new lifeforms – or more correctly, modes of living. Nat sums up the ambiguities involved –

Many of us though, seem ourselves to be a bit lost in Genet’s desert, negotiating the best strategy between production and consumption; between ownership and sharing; between how and what to read and how and what to write; between hard copy and soft pixel.

Nat also rightly mourns the lack of subtlety in thinking through this dilemma – in which it too often becomes a choice between “coffee OR tea; boy OR girl; paper OR pixel”. Of course, it’s not a choice that’s even possible, let alone desirable. It’s simply no longer how we live (even if it might be how we still speak about it). We are all paper AND pixel these days (and boy AND girl, although I must admit I’m really a tea person). An increasing number of publications (commercial, art, independent, amateur) find themselves mixing up paper and pixels, bookshops, pdf’s and print-on-demand, quite happily. (my local paper in Sydney actually has an article on ebooks today and there’s another site here).

For me, Alessandro’s evocative description of the failure of pixels to overwhelm paper and print is important and compelling. Yet I’m also wondering about our body/our feelings in relation to pixels – how does that side of things play out? The problem is perhaps one of re-embodying our relation to text – to words and images – differently. It takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it’s happening. And although we can talk about the rights and wrongs of it, it’s not something we can resist. This also had to happen with paper and print. It has to happen for each of us. As individuals (over a certain age perhaps) our attachment to books began early. Like a lot of people, I remember the first times I stayed awake in bed reading because a book. Here was something I could hold, more than that, an object that set up the world of my body and its sensations completely differently. It seemed to give me its entire attention – it “looked back at me” – precisely because it did close me in on my own world (not that different from a laptop really). I also remember the books my grandmother used to buy me. My grandmother (who came from a long line of Welsh school teachers) used to buy me “classics”, often leather (or at least pseudo leather) bound and yes, I can remember how they looked, their feel. I also remember, when a graduate student of literature, finishing Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which has a peculiarly sad ending, and getting so angry with the book – the physical object – that I threw it against a wall.

At this stage, I’d never seen a computer, and didn’t have to contemplate my relation to different forms of text, to pixels in short. Now I do. I work with text on screen for at least eight hours a day – and I’m sure this is also leading me to embody a relation to text in pixel form. It’s just as passionate. I might not have thrown my powerbook against the wall yet – but that’s only because it’s too expensive. I’ve had to stop myself a couple of times – we have a definite love-hate relationship. And I know I embody different affective ecologies with pixels, differently across different packages. Email is a shocker at the moment – my whole body shifts in expectation (for better for worse) when I open the browser for it. I can’t stand Word, although I use it (swearing) all the time. I like some other text programmes. For some reason I don’t mind writing online, especially in collaborative environments (it never quite feels so lonely). There are also an increasing number of things I like to read online, rather than offline. At the same time, like a lot of people, I can’t imagine reading a novel online – yet. Although, I like good design in paper and pixels (actually I think I prefer good design in pixels to paper now – as much as I love both).

I guess I’m repeating the point that it takes time for us – individually and culturally – to create new ecologies – complex, deeply affective ecologies of relations to our own bodies, objects and the bodies of others – in which we can embody a relation to pixels (and more importantly, the much more complex relations that we now experience across a range of forms of publishing, atom-based and pixel-based, often all at once). The story/myth goes that once (into the middle ages) there was very little silent reading. When this simple fact sinks in, you realise how important silent reading is. Much of our sense of being an individual, and a diminishing of our sense of being dependent on others – living communally – depends on it. Yet for a long time, not only could many not read, if they could, many couldn’t read without speaking the words (there is of course debate about this, although this is more than a question of literacy). Silent reading – which seems “natural”, is something that had to be learnt – culturally and individually. Learning it transformed culture. It led to new pleasures, and perhaps the a new kind of person (the individual). These new experiences were no substitute for reading aloud, which persists today, but they did add to it immeasurably. They also departed from it. And of course, this changed culture immeasurably.

Much of the same applies to the relations between pixels and paper. This is about unstable text versus more stable, and about “interactivity”, but it is also perhaps about more than this – socially at least; and affectively. There’s actually been a lot of discussion about the instability of pixels, and about interactivity. Indeed, we are probably fairly used to the idea of thinking through how interacting with text makes a culture of pixels different – McLuhan, Ulmer, Pierre Lévy and many others have discussed this kind of thing. This is valuable, but thinking about interaction in this way – as the “new” thing happening to text – is to look at pixels from the point of view of the past, not the future perhaps … from the point of view of the printing press, or from that of the kind of individualism made possible with the “invention” of silent reading. Much more interesting today even than the revolution in interactive reading per se, is the publishing revolution (a huge shift in the relations between reading and writing, between the individual and the collective). Ulmer in particular has dealt with this in a highly original manner. This is not so much a question – in fact to some extent it is a question to be avoided – for the larger companies and established institutions, even if they are trying to figure out how to leverage the digital. Smaller independents (such as Alessandro’s Neural), are able to respond in much more interesting ways. As importantly – so is everyone whose interests are not invested in a given arrangement of reading and writing. Here the shift that pixel publishing provides in terms of community is crucial. I guess I think Alessandro is right about the possibility of knowing (print) and now knowing (pixels) the audience when one publishes in these different forms (although I’d like to hear more). However, it is also true perhaps that sometimes these days online one can know one’s audience – precisely because they are one’s friends, or become one’s friends, and because in the process writing, reading and publishing are never quite finished.

What does it mean when everyone is a publisher as a well as a reader and writer? This is a different question to that of interactive pixels. This has even become a bit of a commercial problem for ISPs in Australia. Most of them don’t currently charge for uploads, because in the past people were mostly downloading (I can’t remember the rate but it was something like only 5-20% of traffic was uploads). Now uploads to downloads are occurring in a ration approaching 1/1. Many are thinking of charging for uploads.

These kinds of shifts put institutions and traditional practices into a strange position. Let’s take the university – where shifts in the nature of publishing affect things from funding for research to the cultural (and embodied) habits of students in relation to learning. Academics are natural pixel users themselves – I think led by the sciences more than the humanities or even design/arts. Yet many academics – and certainly many universities – by and large don’t understand, or want to understand – this shift in the distribution of power and the new forms of embodiment in relation to the communal experience of knowledge. Some are adapting – famously MIT for example (my impression is that a threshold is being reached as regards these changes in places such as Amsterdam). However, the fact that many students are used to creating their own contexts for writing and reading – and want flexible contexts often different to those provided for them by the institution – is a difficult one to deal with. It’s difficult for academics, they have long been used to holding the keys to the literacy kingdom. (I’m not saying that students shouldn’t have to read books – and I do think there are problems in the new formations of reading and writing involved in new media … we still need to adapt however).

This is reflected in other areas. It’s difficult for publishers, for designers (it’s terrible I know but I love clunky amateur web design – I’d never go for it in a book), for writers, for similar reasons. In general, as established publishers, artists, designers, publishers, we all have an affective investment in what our bodies, minds and feelings are good at, what sensations we are good at dealing with (although Spinoza – and everything that follows him – would suggest that we try and expand beyond our habitual investments). Our institutions tend to follow the investments of those who work there – and vice versa – the more the more senior they are. The sad result is that innovation is often blocked. This doesn’t mean there is no need for academics, good writers and editors, designers, publishers, institutions – it doesn’t mean that everything has to be abandoned. However, it might fundamentally change what these professions and institutions do. Or rather it is changing things fundamentally, and an increasing amount of conflict within traditional institutions surrounds this change.

Personally, I know things are changing for me. When I “studied computing” the first time (in 1974), the “computer” was a large calculator. Computers will never be “natural” to me. Despite this, I know that in terms of academic publishing my ratio of reading online/self-edited material to offline/other edited material is now towards 1/1. I have different relations to them but I am developing am embodied/affective relation to them both – and often both at once.

These relations are not always what one might expect. I used to be well-known as a PhD student for always carrying around a worn copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (a book as a kind of talisman). This book gave me great pleasure – more than tactile, this book was a crucial part of my “umwelt”. However, after I finished my PhD I suddenly realised one day that I never finished reading it. My pleasure in the object was indeed in the object – not necessarily in reading it. On the other hand, I read a massive amount of material online now – more usually than not several things at once. I think one reason for this is precisely that I tend sometimes don’t treasure specific pixels as much as the book (or not quite in the same way). So reading can be a funny thing in relation to the objects – paper or pixels – with which we read.

A couple of days ago I was supposed to be on a plane to Germany. I’d been invited to Documenta12, often regarded as the world’s most important art event, to talk to some very interesting people about the current state of publishing. I was of course grateful to the good Documenta people, and looking forward to it.

I’d also been pushing things fairly hard, trying, a bit like a lot of modern publishing (as we shall see) to keep control of a situation that had become completely out control long ago. I decided to go for a run to destress. No warm up – as usual, despite my partner’s advice – but hey, like modern publishing, I knew what I was doing. I’ve been running for 40 years! This is not quite as long as the printing press has been around, but long enough.

About 4 kilometres out (and 2 k from home) I heard a sudden snapping sound. This was the sound of my calf muscle tearing.

Weirdly enough, there’s something I find fascinating about these sudden accidents, especially when in the end they don’t matter that much. Obviously they change things, and that’s always interesting. More importantly, I think they’re fascinating because they’re impersonal events (the calf muscle, that I seldom even think about, now with an existence all on its own, in rebellion). At the same time, such events – especially in their banality – couldn’t be closer to home (well it is also my calf, and its tearing changes my life). The dual nature of these events takes you out of yourself like nothing else. They break up your easy path through the world, your plans, and so on. I don’t just mean going to Germany. I mean your whole proprioceptive system breaks down over one “speciously present” extended moment. Where you are, who you are, what your next move is, are all up for grabs, and even when things get themselves together again, much has changed.

Afterwards, I realised I had experienced an enhanced version of the famous Libet lag (important both to Brian Massumi and academic/”Digital Thoughtographer” Mark Amerika). This is the time taken, after an event, for consciousness to pull an event together. During the Libet lag consciousness gets to a) construct the pretence that there really was a present in the event while it was happening – a series of experienced moments via which it, consciousness, experienced the event in situ, and b) pretend to itself that it was making the decisions all along.

My enhanced Libet lag was followed by a return to normal Libet lag … a bit of standing around in pain getting things together while I wondered how to get home (“hobble”, was the answer). As one might expect if you’re me, a very friendly dog came up to me briefly, as if to see if I was ok. I think it was a Springer Spaniel.

Decades ago, when I was trying to finish my honours thesis, I tripped and fell through a plate glass window. This time I (or maybe a version of “not-I”) really inhabited the Libet lag, and it was a lovely experience, although it was another banal accident really. I first broke the window with my hands as I fell. I then hit the ground within the window frame. A shower of falling glass landed on my head, and time slowed down almost to the point of stopping. The blood dripping from my head mixed with falling glass. It was all very beautiful. The glass was catching light as it fell, and there seemed a lot of blood, the redness also catching the light. In slow mo, the glass falling also sounded exactly like hundreds of tiny bells. For what I guess was a second or two (but seemed more like ten or twenty) I thought to myself … with all that blood these seconds could be the last few of my life. Yet I was strangely calm, happy even (I guess the aesthetic took over).

Of course, the injuries were minimal, but I never forgot the experience of the event, even how so very ordinary it felt. A friend – also now an academic – told me he had a similarly enjoyable experience after being hit over the head with a beer bottle (!). As for me, I was able to say that, as I finished my thesis, there was blood on the typewriter.

In any case, the calf injury has stopped me going to Documenta. That’s been a real disappointment (though lying around on the couch with my leg elevated for a few days hasn’t been all bad – for one thing, I’ve been able to start blogging at last, and even had a generous response within hours – that really made me realise, with pleasure, how much publishing has changed).

All of which is by way of introducing a few posts to come (time permitting) on publishing. In the lead up to Documenta, I’d been thinking about publishing quite a bit. About its health. About the politics of publishing, but I guess more importantly, about publishing’s importance to politics.

There are obvious parallels with the music industry and music – although part of my point here is that the music industry and music are not at all the same things. It struck me long ago that few of the debates surrounding the effect of the digital technologies on the music industry were about music itself (despite constantly mobilizing fear about “what might happen to music” – in fact music production has never been more diverse, music listening has never been so great, and live music is in a great state, according the Guardian at least). Likewise, I think that few of the debates about publishing have centred on what publishing is really for – that is, the circulation of ideas, affects, events. In both case the debates have mostly been about the survival of established industries, institutions, authors, practices etc. About laws, about copyright, and morality. About consumers, payments and the circulation of capital. Not, however, about the publishing as the circulations of ideas, affects and events, or how changes in publishing change this.

Anyway, it’s a bad analogy (aren’t they all?) … but traditional publishing seems to me to have just crashed through a plate glass window, or at least pulled a few muscles. There are a lot of things coming together in what is now a perfect storm for publishing. There is digital distribution, and the promise of new viewing platforms for what until this point have been physical books. With that, there is the possibility that what happened when records became mp3’s might happen when books become digital files. There is also the rise of self-publishing. Perhaps most crucial are more and more people collaborating in online environments in order to write and publish – this changes what writing and publishing are for. This is followed, as in music, by a massive increase in the diversity of forms of writing, of the specificity of niches for forms of publication, and even very new understandings of what writing might be. As regards the last of these, I will discuss Mark Amerika’s views on this in another post, but new concepts of writing mean you might write with all media – images, video, code, text. More importantly, you might “write” with the in-between of all of these, for example in cross-signal processing, where for example, video signal produces changes in the audio feed, or vice versa (a common example is where music changes video effects: we even used to see this in discos when I was young). This is before you get the possibility of a kind of last.fm for all kinds of publishing. This all adds up to what Eugene Thacker calls “extreme writing”.

There are obviously any number of important questions regarding social change involved – which we all live, but which we still often talk about in terms of the failure of institutions, not in terms of a new form of health, a new society even.

Indeed, although this might feel like much of this a bad thing – it might be an opportunity to rethink where publishing is, and in fact how healthy it is becoming.

Let’s go back a bit and define some terms. By traditional publishing, I first mean the big publishers. I like a lot of these, I love books, I have friends who work with the big publishers, and I don’t think they’ve made no attempt to adapt. I just think that they’ve been hamstrung by their decades of experience and established practices (not to mention bottom lines) to some extent. I mean more than the big publishers, however, by traditional publishing. I mean the traditional practices of publishing, the very concept of what publishing is, what it does, how it fits into social practices – in the university for example (here I mean all kinds of publishing, from refereed academic journals to the student essay). Traditional publishing as a whole – whether commercial or established practices – has been acting like it probably thought it could handle the stress it’s been under. Yet many of its adaptations have so far been fairly reluctant and fairly small (there has been little real adaptation to the cultural shift behind plagiarism within traditional institutions, for example). Like its more famous sub-branch, the music industry, traditional publishing has thought it knew what it was doing, and probably didn’t have to change too much. Hey – it’s been doing it for centuries and hey, it understands media better than anyone, even if they’re changing. And of course books (and journals and magazines) have been an old-fashioned succcess story in the world of new media, maybe the biggest.

Yet it is for all these reasons traditional publishing hadn’t been watching where it was going. It hasn’t been listening to warnings. It thought experience – tradition perhaps – was the only thing that mattered. It perhaps thinks it has adapted more completely than it has.

However, the music industry’s problems and solutions show what general publishing’s problems and solutions are about to become, perhaps have just become. A key point is that although older forms of publishing – that is, for example, books and films – will survive, they will do so in a much larger, more complex and diverse environment. This is changing not just publishing, but the social as a whole. A second point is that – as regards traditional publishing, the punters might just not care (something the music industry has never recovered from).

So the next few posts are what I think about publishing. There’s nothing radical here – but I thought I would try to sum things up, for my own sake as much as anyone else. After all, a lot of what I do is writing, publishing and editing. I’ve been involved with traditional publishing, and with much in-between. I’m moving towards extensive online collaborations (and offline). Like everyone else, I’d like to be a VJ. Maybe I could even VJ collaboratively (another post).

I actually think that publishing is both genuinely threatened and in excellent health – like music. I think things have already changed – they’re not just challenged or changing. I think there is a lot of resistance to this change, especially from those who, as in the case of the music industry, have vested interests (and certain kinds of experience, skills that have been valued in the market place). I think that authors, like lesser-known musicians, tend to get a bit of a raw deal sometimes (not always) from larger publishers. Yet I think too much of the debate has been on what are these really less important issues.

I think that maybe we’re all experiencing a bit of collective “Libet lag” while we catch up with events.

I think we should be taking a lead from the current and future diversity of publishing – the thinking about publishing that sees the possibility of its greater “health”. We should be asking much more how these changes in publishing change the social, the opening up of possibilities for universities, education, art.

Finally, we should perhaps acknowledge that the end of the medium – as “message”, as basis for institutions and cultural practices – is at hand. Although media such as books and films have so far survived in something like their older forms (well not much else but these two actually) – new forms of publishing present a much more dynamic context in which media intermix constantly. This is to the point that there can be little disciplinarity surrounding a “medium” and fewer constrained forms of practice based upon particular media. If new forms of publishing signify nothing else, they signify the rise of the social. This is a social freed from media – narrowly defined, and controlled by narrow interests.

Thought might always have been dynamic, distributed and networked, material but in a way that makes us rethink materialism. It might even always have been somewhat hard to locate, not because it happens in a different dimension, but because of its dynamic distribution, extended through brain, body and world. Thought might not even be “us” – by which I mean you and I – and “our thoughts” might just be figments of the world’s imagination. All this is well known. However, despite literature, film and a host of philosophers telling us this, many of our most cherished models of how thinking works, where it takes place, even what it is, tend to ignore all this in favour of models that have proved to be more convenient in practice (a bit like we prefer not to think too often about the fact – in practical terms – that we are apes, not as dissimilar to Bonobos and Chimps as we might like to think).

In practice, its hard to think at all without modeling thought (in models that play a huge role in whatever thinking is) – our own thought at least, if not everyone else’s. These models pose thought as working a particular way, in particular places (in our souls, in our brains in a kind of brain-magic). As for what thought is – whatever it is, in practice these models assume it’s us! (or more importantly, on a rather crucial operational basis, my thoughts are me!). These more convenient models have, in the process, formed the basis of many cherished institutions, from democracy to the market to our sense of being our very own self, (although it is also true that even the champion of the free market Hayek in the end undermines this rational individual agent in favour of the market’s better, “emergent” “thinking”).

This doesn’t mean that we don’t like to speculate about the strangeness of thought, including our likely delusions about our own thoughts (thus the living to be made by philosophers from poststructuralists to postconnectionists or buddhists, not to mention almost any Psych 101 course). However, if we do speculate about thought, this is often in the comforting shadow of our more convenient assumptions. And for a good reason. The social and cultural institutions and practices we rely on – even those practices that ritually affirm us as individuals – in turn rely on these assumptions (think only of one individual “judging” the thoughts/actions of another, from marking an essay to sitting on a jury).

Yet now our convenient assumptions are challenged not only in theory, which was kind of fun, but in a series of new cultural practices, which is another question altogether. These practices arise in mobile and networked media (not to mention the long history of media “manipulation”), new dynamic social and technical networks, a series of cultural clashes between very different models of mind (and practices of thinking) as cultures come in constant contact with each other, the more dynamic side of cognitive science and philosophy, not to mention neuroscience, genetics and pharmaceuticals (what is mind if it can be changed by taking a pill every day?). Many of these are technics based precisely on dynamic, distributed and networked models of a mind that is extended through brain, body and world, are challenging (or even just on better neuroscientific models of the mind derived from better brain imaging technologies). Of course, our convenient assumptions about mind are also challenged by our everyday experience – when for example our attempt to manage our mind’s performance, to maximise the productivity of “cognitive labour”, eventually seems to steal our mind away from us, in insomnia, in stress, in the kind of breakdown that is rife in the workplace today, in perhaps the feeling that we are captured by “the man”. That’s before you get to the kind of cognitive dislocation faced by migrants and refugees.

The cultures of the enlightment and modernity put a great deal of effort into our convenient models of mind, and, as models, they have proved very effective. Now, however, this is arguably falling apart, as I have tried to describe in very basic terms elsewhere. The impact is being felt in many of the foundations of modern culture: I see symptoms of this in the current debates over religion and atheism, or the need to assert “intelligent design”, both of which reflect a vulnerability in the very concept of independent mind that used to stretch from God to human (although not as far as apes usually, and certainly not as far as birds). Or if that’s too obscure, consider the judicial use of brain scanning, or that our memories come from our media, even from a global technical systems of mediated memories.

More than all this, thought might not even be thought, as in reasonably rational processes separate from emotion, or perception, or action, sensations, or even our simple movement through the world.

Whether any of this true, and which of the new models are right or wrong (scientifically), is up for grabs. My questions, however, are not along those lines. They rather concern the cultural consequences of new models for thinking, of the multiplications and clashes of “cognitive models” that don’t match, or don’t confirm our necessary assumptions, and the way these models don’t just inform but transform our thinking practices. The jury (in so far as we still have juries rather than brain scans) is out on whether culture can survive the new models, with their new practices and assumptions, whether they are right or wrong or a bit of both.

So here is my question: Can we survive dynamic, networked thought? Networked perceptions? The blurring of thought, perceptions and actions in dynamic networks? Can culture in general (I know, which culture specifically am I writing about … but that’s part of my point), can art, can democracy, science, religion, etc survive the new mobilities in perception and cognition/thinking models, practices and yes – perhaps thinking processes themselves (thinking processes that now include perception, action, affect, sensation all in shifting brain-body -world dynamics, to the point that we may no longer be able to talk about, or even assume, “our cognitive processes”).

Part of this is that as thinking/perception, sensation, affect and action all become more networked, more dynamic, more mobile, they are also more “mobilized” in Isabelle Stengers’ sense of the word, in which models and rhetorics are “mobilized” in order to stabilise certain practices, interests, disciplines, (models of affective and cognitive control in the workplace for example, or education, to help maximise productivity). Can we survive this (often “scientific”) “mobilization” of thought, perception, affect and action?

Sub-question: What are thought, affect, perception and action when they are now so obviously in such complex are fully mobilized circuits? Are they anything stable or even nameable at all? (I don’t claim to be able to answer this question, but a basic beginning might be here).

I’ve been trying to figure out my ambivalence to mobile media for ages – not least because I teach them all the time. We are planning a workshop on the issue of mobility at CCAP in December, and an invitation to submit some questions led to this.

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What exactly are the new technics of mobility? Can we even pin them down? Are mobile media media technics in the old sense, like film or tv (with their own disciplines, their own established forms of mediation)? Or do we need to rethink the whole question of mediation? How do we map the new technologies and techniques of mobility, along with the social processes, individuation of collectivities or subjectivities they make possible? What modes of living – of work and loving – come into being in a mobile world? What are the new relations between experiment, model and experience in life, work and love?

In reality, mobility is today both poison and cure. Increased mobility, and new mobile techologies are given as the solution to the problem of mobility itself. In such a context, what are the new relations between social collectivity and new mobile media?

To what extent do mobile technologies (and concepts, techniques of mobility) allow us to become mobile in what might best be called an experimental way? To live, love and work in a better way?

On the other hand, to what extent is the proliferation of new technical and social practices of mobility swept up in something like the “mobilization” described by Isabelle Stengers (in The Invention of Science)? This is a mobilization now found in the arts and social sciences as much as the physical sciences, in art itself as much as science (even as the borders between the all these blur). For Stengers, “mobilization” accompanies the very real, experimental “proliferation of practices” [114] in science. In that these practices inevitably depart from the old, a “mobilizing model”, along with a series of rhetorics, is designed to recapture them. In “mobilization” a model (or series of models) is mobilized to maintain “order in the ranks of researchers” and “arm them against what would otherwise disperse their efforts” (something like mobilization might even be found in the “models” of social relations within the naming of the “Creative Industries” – that is of course the risk taken by the term and the discipline). These models re-affirm certain disciplines against that which escapes them. There is a price to pay. As Stengers asks, “what knowledges and practices will be destroyed, or prevented from being invented, in the name of what must be called a ‘mobilizing belief’ – namely, the faith in a future where the body will show that its rational representatives were indeed right”?.

Many questions follow this contest between invention, experiment, mobilization and capture. What modes of living survive? What are the forms of suffering found within the contested flows of the new mobilities. If, as Freud noted in Civilization and Its Discontents, “The communal life of human beings had … a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love…”, what are the precise conditions of work and love in the new mobilities? Are the intertwined fates of love and work the two key issues within the new mobilities?

First – work. Psychoanalyst of work, Christophe Dejours, has suggested that suffering is the very essence of working. This is a particular kind of suffering. Here “suffering” “means bridging the gap between prescriptive and concrete reality“. This definition of work perhaps allows us to rethink the relations between technics, the prescriptive reality of models or “mobilizations”, lived experience and the necessity of experiment. As Dejours puts it –

… there is no such thing as purely mechanical work.

This means that there is always a gap between the prescriptive and the concrete reality of the situation. This gap is found at all levels of analysis between task and activity, or between the formal and informal organisation of work. Working thus means bridging the gap between prescriptive and concrete reality. However, what is needed in order to do so cannot be determined in advance; the path to be navigated between the prescriptive and the real must constantly be invented or rediscovered by the subject who is working. Thus, for the clinician, work is defined as what the subjects must add to the orders so as to reach the objectives assigned to them, or alternately, what they must add of themselves in order to deal with what does not function when they limit themselves to a scrupulous execution of orders. (“Subjectivity, Work and Action,” Critical Horizons 7(1), 2006:45-62)

I love this definition because it rings so true of the experience of work, its mediation of model, demand and contingency – contingency not only in the sense of changing circumstances but of a changing change itself which evades models. The questions that arise? What are the gaps that must be bridged between prescriptive and concrete reality in a world immersed in the models, practices and concrete if fluid realities of mobilities? Who and what are put at risk in order to maintain social order in the new space of flows? And if the new mobilities for the first time begin to take note of the complexity of relations between virtuality and actuality, if only because they capitalise on them, does this only mean there is more work to be done? More bridging the gaps that keep opening up in the production of the real? In short, is “concrete reality” a lot less “concrete” these days (or … is concrete reality more fully revealed as a fraud by the new technics of mobility)? Does the new mobility demand a new materialism while drawing attention to the poverty of the old (one that still informs so much disciplinary work, so many models of mediation, so many demands in the workplace)? Or does the new mobility demand an ongoing reconciliation of prescription, model, and variation – a reconciliation that is at best partial and always unravelling?

If this sounds apocalyptic, the case is the opposite. Despite the new “mobilizations” that accompany contemporary mobility, there might be many aspects to the suffering or bridging gaps between prescription and concrete (if both virtual and actual) reality that are liberating. If so, in what sense would we mean “liberation” here? What would a genuine social or artistic innovation using mobile (or dynamic) media be? Is it just a question of creating forms of mobility escape mobilization? How are these to be nurtured? Is it time for the individual again, released by the new mobility, even for the collective individual? Does it depend totally on context?

Is this simply a question of practice (although of course questions of practice are never simple, especially in this context)? What are the concrete (a “concrete” taking account of both virtual and actual) alternatives within the new mobilities in terms of social organization, individuation and concrete modes of living?

One practical solution that is already underway: Let us list and share the new practices and principles. Databases should – more than they perhaps do – form nodes of replication of these practices – not just classification and conservation. Technical “life” and social life should support each other productively (while leaving behind the overcoding mobilization of “productivity”). Is that what mobile media are really for, even if such practices and principles are always also “mobilized” in the service of the new dot.coms?

Or are we so busy liberating ourselves with mobile media, or just “bridging so many gaps” that they open up – in short, overworking – that we are lost before we begin? Should we be refusing this work (even as, in sociable media, it masks itself as leisure)? Franco Berardi, in returning to an older refusal of work in Operaism, suggests that –

Virtual workers have less and less time for attention , they are involved in a growing number of intellectual tasks, and they have no more time to devote to their own life, to love, tenderness, and affection. They take Viagra because they have no time for sexual preliminaries.
The cellularisation has produced a kind of occupation of life. The effect is a psychopathologisation of social relationships. (“What is the Meaning of Autonomy Today?”)

Are we then, addressing the wrong questions in trying to pin down the nature of new media (as I asked at the beginning – “What exactly are the new technics of mobility?”)? Is there too much “work” being done on this kind of question. Is constantly going back to this question a misplaced suffering, even if the question itself is not intrinsically incompatible with the questions of work and love? Would it be better to ask clinical questions of mobility – that is, questions of diagnosing the health or available capacities in a situation. Would this diagnostic approach allow that mobility might well be the cure to its own problem, in the right circumstances?

Perhaps this is a question of therapy. In Sydney in 2004, Berardi finished a talk by remarking –

The problem of therapy is at the centre of the next phase of the movement .. the media (media activism) has to become a process of reactivation of social emotion, of social affection, of social ability to love.

This “therapy/activism” might engage – in a “clinical manner” – with the embodied individuation of network experience (here the value of the like of Gerard Goggin’s interest in disability and contemporary media). In simpler terms this might be to question the “relation” between mobility, the “compulsion to work” and the “power of love” described by Freud (of course, this is not a questioning that needs to take place in Freudian terms). Anna Munster frames such questions this way in Materializing New Media

…”digital embodiment” is an unstable and uneven condition produced out of the differential impact of bodies and technologies as they globally impinge upon each other in widely varying circumstances. Material differences make themselves felt by being produced rather than inhering to substances .. it is the movements, modulations and transformations peculiar to global digital culture that make the political and ethical relations we form (or deny) with other bodies so important. [184-185].

So far much thinking about mobility has made much of this a secondary issue, if one at all (even if work and love are in fact, in everyday life, the “material differences” produced in a new way by mobile media). It has been more concerned with dealing with the situation as a to and fro between stasis and change, that is mobility. Social effects become a much measured (somewhat secondary) measure of this to and fro (“64% of those surveyed about their mobile phone use said …”). However, even if one is thinking – perhaps necessarily – in these terms, things are more complicated than is often allowed. Mobile media technologies – and the modes of life they are in symbiotic relationship with – are themselves constantly moving, evolving. As Brian Massumi puts it, “change changes”constantly (Parables for the Virtual:10). This is a difficult – if not impossible – fact for disciplinary forms of knowledge, models, rhetorics and other “mobilizations” to digest (not only in the academy, but in the workplace, even in relationships outside of work). This perhaps explains our rather torn – at best ambivalent – thinking about mobile media. No discipline, no model, no rhetoric can ever capture the mobility of mobility. Indeed, we inhabit this enhanced and increasingly self-reflexive “changing change” by working the gaps between theory and “concrete reality”. In this context we should perhaps be aware that our very thinking through of mobilities (whether in the serviced of social innovation or the established “Creative Industries”) is “cognitive labour” in Dejours’ sense. Although again, despite its demands, work does not inhabit this changing change alone. It does so in a series of tense relationships with the problems of “social affection”.

It is therefore perhaps through the questions – and practices – of love and work that we should locate mobile media, and the broader problematic of mobility. This will always be a question of ongoing experiment, whether in the reactive attempt to capture this change or in the attempt to find new ways of loving and working.