Culture & technology – the text of my ‘provocation’

The video recordings of the two panel sessions for the Provocations of the Present event at the OU earlier this month have been posted online (links at the bottom of this page). The event was an enjoyable opportunity to engage with a range of contemporary concerns in cultural geography and a moment of reflection on the politics of such concerns – refracted through engagements with Doreen Massey’s work (it was, after all, the ‘6th annual Doreen Massey event’) and Peter Jackson’s Maps of Meaning (which, as Phil Crang observed, is in its ‘silver jubilee’ year, having been published 25 years ago).

The panelists were asked to offer a ‘provocation’ in advance of the event that would be posted to the Geography Matters Facebook page in order to promote discussion. We were instructed to write short provocations that made punchy points – a difficult task for a wordy academic(!) but this is my contribution:

All culture is in some way technical: it is an expression of technicity, understood as the ways in which technologies (in their broadest sense) are intimately enfolded into our experience of the world. How does this challenge or (re)configure understandings of ‘the human’ in human geographies? What kinds of politics does such an understanding of culture either reveal or elide?

In the talk I gave at the actual event I developed some of these themes in two ways: first, I asked how contemporary forms of mediation might prompt cultural geographers to think about popular culture and the ways we study it; and: second, I questioned what kinds of assumptions about ‘the human’ are we making when we talk about the ‘non-human’ or the ‘post-human’, and how does this influence how we talk about technology in relation to culture.

So, à propos of nothing apart from making this text do something more than be read aloud, here is what was basically a script of my talk:

Provocation:

As the introduction to the event highlights, in the conclusion to Maps of Meaning Peter Jackson offers the provocation that continues to resonate in contemporary debates around cultural geography, whether we are debating affect and emotion, identity and difference or the human and non-human:

If cultural geography is to be revitalised, … ‘It can only be by an engagement with the contemporary intellectual terrain – not to counter a threat, but to discover an opportunity’ (Jackson 1989: 180; Stedman Jones 1983: 24).

I want to address the kinds of discovery we might engage in, and in particular focus on two ‘provocative’ questions about what counts in the study of cultural geography. These carry with them the implications of the earlier provocation I was invited to post to Facebook that: all culture is in some way technical: it is an expression of technicity, understood as the ways in which technologies (in their broadest sense) are intimately enfolded into our experience of the world.

So, the first question I will pose is in relation to ideas about popular culture; and the second is in relation to the status of the human in cultural (human) geography.

My first provocation, then, is: should cultural geography be more vulgar? Which can be phrased differently as: how might we better accommodate geographies of ‘popular culture’ in our cultural geographies?

In a recent essay on the recurring accusation of ‘vulgar Marxism’, Makenzie Wark articulates several ways in which the epithet of vulgar gets used and I want to discuss a couple here.

First, vulgarians too readily align themselves with the interests of the working class, or to put it in Clive Barnett’s words, “the implication is that, by even suggesting that there may be some relationship between the higher things in life (opera, literature, fine wine and so on) and base considerations like work, causal explanation itself is guilty of bad taste”.

Second, vulgarians don’t think in great revolutionary leaps but rather in more modest durations. We might think here about the mundane and the everyday, and the micro- spatio-temporalities of repetitive and taken for granted tasks.

What then, might it mean to do ‘vulgar’ cultural geography?

One might argue that the first twenty-something years of ‘new’ cultural geography are founded on readings: reading various landscapes and other spatial formations as texts – as the Duncan’s and others asked of us in the late 1980s. This, of course, speaks to a particular understanding of the medium and the expression of culture: a deliberative cogitation on particular constellations of meaning. One might argue that this implicitly goes hand-in-hand with a particular aesthetics of literature, when asked to ‘read’ landscapes it is analogous to reading Charles Dickens or Milan Kundera, and not Dan Brown or EL James. We apparently ought to aspire to an ‘unbearable lightness’ and not ‘fifty shades’ of cultural geography.

To attend to the everyday and to the popular one might suggest that different media and forms of expression of culture can become more suitable analogies. What does it mean to think in terms of television, radio, the smart phone and the tablet? So, perhaps a range of different sensibilities of watching, listening or touching needs to be added to reading. Such sensibilities might be more accommodating to recent proposals of atmospheres, not least by Ash and Anderson, in addition to landscapes of meaning and sensation. I am thinking in particular here of recent work by geographers that has been described as post-phenomenological (for example, see Ash & Simpson’s forthcoming piece in Progress in Human Geography).

Our techniques for thinking are intimately tied to the mediums through which we express thought and so, to pursue the metaphor, as increasingly ‘multimedia’ scholars we might well supplement the reading of landscapes as text with the watching of, listening to and touching forms of spatial experience as image and sound and haptics.

The subtitle to this event: what culture for what geography? Is for me pregnant with an additional question, so my second point of provocation is the question what do we mean by the “human” in human geography as it is discussed today? and in particular how might this relate to the various ways in which we figure things as not or perhaps after whatever it is we mean by human?

We have all variously framed our research in relation to different formulations of ‘the human’ – humanistic geographies, and their critique; the non-human; the post-human, but the category of the human can still be left as assumed. Such assumptions behind this prefixed ‘human’ condition and constitute how we understand and describe experiences of spatiality. So, this strikes at the heart of a key, ongoing, concern for cultural geography and the contribution we as cultural geographers can continue make.

Specifically, I want to raise this in terms of the implications of our various uses of the non-human, the post-human and invocations of technology.

As others, including Castree and Nash, have observed the assumptions that ‘the human’ carries with it are expressed in binaries – the normative human and its others. Nevertheless, by proposing a prefixed, non- and post- human we risk slipping back into reaffirming the category of the ‘bracketed off’ or ‘exceptional’ human, and so need to remain vigilant.

In particular, technology has been packaged up into the ‘non-human’ and particularly ‘post-human’ whereby the implication is that particular kinds of technology are entirely separate from us, humans, and can be seen to have ‘effects’ upon us and our societies. This is acutely evident in relation to digital technologies through forms of spatial imagination that can imply servitude to an autonomous and powerful technical master on the one hand and a gateway to the transcendence of material form on the other. While geographers have been rightly critical of these simplistic binaries of human/technical, there remains a common habit of referring to technologically mediated activities as somehow extra-spatial, as virtual, in contra-distinction to a ‘real’.

I have argued recently in Progress in Human Geography that, rather than propagating a peculiar human exceptionalism, we can understand ‘the human’ and technology as existing in a co-constitutive relation that can be called ‘technicity‘. There isn’t the one without the other. So, for example, rather than appeal to an amorphous alternate realm from which digital technologies draw their agency, we can instead study the particular spatial formations in which agency and technicity are generated.

Geography is, in this way, well placed to inform and enhance social scientific research concerning digital technologies, particularly in relation to the articulation of spatial experience and knowledge.

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