Geography’s subject

Conceptualisations of a ‘subject’ or subjectivity form part of a theoretical tradition variously theorising who, what and where the ‘human’ is in geography. I don’t want to poorly approximate excellent intellectual histories of human geography (in particular Kevin Cox’s Making Human Geography and Derek Gregory‘s Geographical Imaginations are worth regularly revisiting) but I think it’s nevertheless probably important to remind ourselves of the kinds of geographical imagination with which we continue to make meaning in geography.

Waymarks in the theoretical landscape of geographical tradition might include theories of action, human agency, identity, reflexivity, structure and sovereignty. The latter two on that list might be the most influential in geographical work that took alternative paths to the ‘quantitative revolution’ of the post-WWII period. Political agency and power, considered from all sorts of angles, whether geopolitical or bodily intimate, have formed a longstanding interest for those considering ‘subjecivity’. To pick two key influences for the kind of (Anglophone and basically British) geography I’ve ‘grown up’ in, we can look at the influence of Marx and then literary theory (maybe as assorted flavours of structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism etc).

Geographers influenced by Marxian traditions of thought have been perhaps more concerned with the kinds of people who can act or speak in society—who has power, and how. ‘New’ cultural geographers moved towards acknowledging a greater diversity in identities and an attempt to account for a wider gamut of experiences, extending beyond the perceived limits of the ‘human’. The erstwhile reference: The Dictionary of Human Geography contained ‘human agency’ and ‘sovereignty’ entries from the first edition (1981) while an entry for ‘human subjectivity’ did not arrive until the third (1994).

Conceptualisations of ‘the subject’ and subjectivity can be broadly seen to follow the twists and ‘turns’ in geographical thought (don’t take my word for it, look at the entry in the Dictionary of Human Geography). Whereas the figure of the human ‘subject’ of much of mid-20th century geographies carried implications of universalism (homo economicus, or ‘nodes’ in spatial modeling), several theoretical ‘turns’ turned that figure into a problem to be investigated. Perhaps from humanistic geographies onwards, geographers have attempted to wrangle and tease out the contradictions of an all-too-easy to accept ‘simple being’ (Tuan, Space & Place: p. 203). So, for (what Gregory, in Geographical Imaginations calls) ‘post-Marxist’ geographical research the sole subject-positioning of ‘class’ elides too much, such as varying (more or less political) differences in identities, e.g: gender, race and sexuality. There is, of course, lots of work tracing out nuanced arguments for a differentiated and decentred subject, which I cannot hope to do justice to in a blogpost, but maybe we can tease out some of the significant conceptual points of reference.

An attention to the identities and subject positions of those who are not male, not heterosexual, non-white, non-Western and not of the global North is important to subject and subjectivity theorisations. This sort of work mostly occurs in the kinds of geographies collected under sub-disciplinary categories like cultural, development, feminist, political, social (and a long list of) geographies. Postcolonial accounts of subaltern subject-positionings and subjectivities powerfully evoke the processes of Othering and Orientalism, especially drawing upon literary theory (such as work by Homi Bhabha, Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak). Feminist geographers highlighted the masculinity of that ‘simple’ figure of ‘the subject’ and the importance of attending to gender and sex (in particular we might look to Gillian Rose‘s Feminism and Geography and the Women and Geography Study Group of the IBG’s 1984 Geography and Gender [1]). This attention to the forms of difference that may influence subject formation and subject-positioning, especially race and sexuality, has grown into something like a normative element of ‘critical’ geographical thought. Of course, this is not without controversy and contestation. Look at, for example, the negotiations around what it means to hold an RGS-IBG annual conference themed on decolonisation – check out the virtual issue of Transactions for some excellent interventions. Taking this further, some geographers variously inspired by wider movements in social theory seek to ‘decentre’ the (human) subject in favour of approaches that address the complex variety and ‘excessive’ nature of experiences that are not delimited by the individual human.

I’m inclined to identify two further themes in contemporary theorisations of a ‘subject’ and subjectivities in geography, which are considered more or less ‘cultural’: (1) theorising pre- and trans- subjective relations; and (2) attempts to account for more-than-human subjectivities.

First, theories of affect as ‘different models of causality and determination; different models of social relations and agency; [without] different normative understandings of political power’ (as my colleague Clive Barnett says in ‘Political affects in public space‘) attempt to both decentre but also render ontological a figure of ‘the subject’ (for more critical reflections on this sort of thing I recommend exploring Clive’s work). Non-representational or more-than-representational geographies seek to decentre ‘the subject’ by appealing to pre-subjective experiences, focussing on ‘affects’ (just do a search for ‘affect’ in geographical journals and you can see the influence of this way of thinking). ‘Affects’ are processes that exceed any individual (they are ‘trans-subjective’) and structure possibilities for individual thought and experience, which constitute subject-formations and positionings (this is sometimes considered ‘ontogenetic’, as my colleague John Wylie has argued).

Second, geographers extend analysis to more than ‘human’ experience. Through the infleunce of Science and Technology Studies we have ‘hybrid’ geographies (following Sarah Whatmore) that trouble clear ‘subject’/‘object’, and ‘human’/‘non-human’, distinctions address distributed forms of agency, such that agency emerges from networks of relations between different ‘actants’, rather than ‘subjects’ (drawing out the influences, and the geographical mash-up, of Actor-Network Theory and sort-of-Deleuzian assemblage theory). A focus on these sorts of more-than-human geographies has for some time been non-human animals as ‘provocateurs’ (See my colleague Henry Buller‘s Progress Reports [1, 2, 3]). The ‘non-human’ is extended beyond the animal to broader forms of life—including plants, bacteria and other non-human living (and dead) matter (for example see the fantastic work of my colleagues in the Exeter Geography Nature Materiality & Biopolitics research group)—and further to the inorganic ‘non-human’ (I guess in terms of the new materialisms currently in fashion, such as Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter). Finally, perhaps the most influential trope in contemporary geographical accounts of subjectivity and subject-positions (that I end up reading) renders processes creating a ‘subject’ as, at least in part, coercive and involuntary (more or less following Foucault’s theories of ‘governmentality’ and ‘subjectification’). This is often elucidated through processes of corporate and state surveillance, many with digital technologies at their heart.

What seems to become clear (to me anyway!) from my ham-fisted listing and attempting to make sense of what on earth geographical understandings of subjectivity might be is the significant turn to ‘ontology’ in a lot of contemporary work. I don’t know whether this is due to styles of research, pressures to write influential (4* etc etc.) journal articles, lack of time for fieldwork and cogitative reflection… but it sort of seems to me that we’re either led by theory, so assuming subjectivity is the right concept and attempting to validate the fairly prescriptive understanding of subjectivity we have in our theory toolkits, or we’re applying a theoretical jelly mold to our data to find ‘affects’, ‘subjectification’ and so on, when maybe, just maybe, there are other things to say about the kinds of experience, the kinds of agency or action, or ways we understand ourselves and one another.

The abstract figure of ‘the subject’ may be the metaphysical, catchall entity attributed with the ability to act, in contradistinction to static ‘objects’. This kind of ‘subject’ is a vessel for the identities, personhood and experiences of different and diverse individuals. It’s funny then to think that one of many concerns expressed about the growth of (big) data-driven ‘personalisation’ and surveillance is it propagates monolithic data-based ‘subjectivities’, we are calculated as our digital shadows and so forth… In this sense, the ‘ontological’ entity of ‘subject’ appears to supplant the multiple, perhaps messy, forms of subjective experience. Then both of these can perhaps displace or elide wider discussions about action or agency (which is an important element of discussions of pragmatism in/and geography).

For clarification purposes, I’ve begun to think about three particular ways of interrogating how geographers approach whatever ‘subjectivity’ is: (1) a conceptual figure: ‘the subject’; (2) particular kinds of role and responsibility as: ‘subject positions’; and (3) kinds of experience as: ‘subjectivities’. Of course, we probably shouldn’t think about these as static categories; in a variety of geographical research they are all considered ongoing processes (as various flavours of geographical theory from Massey to Thrift will attest). So, I suppose we might equally render the above list as what get’s called: (1) ‘subjectification’; (2) ‘subject positioning’; and (3) ‘subjectivities’.

I could witter on, but I’m running out of steam. I want to (albeit clumsily) tie this back to the recent ‘turn’ to (whatever might be meant by) ‘the digital’ though, cos it’s sort of what’s expected of me and cos it may be vaguely interesting. It’s funny to think that the entity (figure, identity, person etc.) these concepts ground is still, inspite of hybrid geographies and STS influences (mostly), ‘human’. Even within science-fiction tales of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI), as Katherine Hayles highlights, ‘the subject’ is mostly a human figure – the entity that may act to orchestrate the world (there is, of course, lots to unpack concerning what ‘human’ might mean and whether any technology, however autonomous, can be considered properly non-human).

So, all this might boil down to this supposition: within ‘digital geographies’ debates ‘the subject’, especially the data-based ‘subject’, may be usefully thought about as a figure or device of critique rather than an actually existing thing, while ‘subjectivities’, and how we describe their qualities, remain part of a more plural, maybe more intersectional, explanatory vocabulary.

Notes.

1. I can’t find much online about the original, 1984, Gender and Geography book (maybe needs a presence?) but the Gender & Feminist Geography Research Group (what WGSG became) published Gender and Geography Reconsidered, as a CD(!), which is available on the research group’s website.

Past event > Technology’s Limits: Automation, Invention, Labour, and the Exhausted Environment

This looks like it was a fascinating event…

Workshop hosted by the Digital Life Research Program 

An abstract artwork of a light background with brown and red rectangles of various sizes.

Artwork by Stephen Scrivener Opens in a new window

Event Details

Date: Friday March 10, 2017
Time: 10am – 4.30pm
Venue: EB.G.21, Parramatta South campus

Among its many political preoccupations, 2016 was marked by an obsessive concern with the new powers of the machine to erase human labour and employment. Science fiction dystopias – among them, the French Trepalium and the Brazilian 3% – saddled older anxieties about a world without work to a more novel recognition of resource depletion and scarcity. Academic publishing houses, conference organisers, funding agencies and the press have responded with a deluge of content covering algorithms, automation and the Anthropocene. Meanwhile, a less conspicuous narrative about the decline of innovation has resurfaced with claims that the rate of fundamental new technology inventions is slowing and jeopardising long term global productivity returns. What happens when technology hits its limits? Velocity and volume excite machinic economies, but do little to confront some of the core problems and challenges facing planetary labour and life today.

This workshop brings together leading Australian scholars of technology and society with contemporary German and French reflections on the prevailing discourses of technology’s limits. Since the 1990s, Bernard Stiegler has been a leading philosopher and critic of technology, and in his recent book Automatic Society he directly tackles problems of automation and algorithms for the distribution of financial and social resources to populations increasingly bereft of economic capital and political agency. Building upon Frankfurt School critical theory and Kittlerian media theory, contemporary German critique intersects with similar questions by combining investigations of epistemology, history and the technical. The Australian take on these European developments is simultaneously appreciative and critical, though often oriented toward more regional conditions that arise in part due to different economic, cultural and political relations with Asia.

The morning session of the workshop will introduce current theoretical European work on technology. Daniel Ross will develop a critical introduction to Bernard Stiegler, whose recent work in Automatic Society and In the Disruption continues to mount a wide-ranging and provocative critique of technology. Armin Beverungen will then offer an overview of his research on algorithmic management and high-frequency trading, with Ned Rossiter introducing logistical media as technologies of automation and labour control. In the afternoon, Gay Hawkins will outline her theoretical interest in nonhuman and technical objects and their irreducible role in making humans and ecologies. A key empirical example will be the history of plastic and the emergence of its technical agency and capacity to reconfigure life. Nicholas Carah will follow with a discussion of his latest work on algorithms, brand management and media engineering. The workshop will close with an audience-driven panel session and discussion. These interventions will be held in conjunction with a close reading of the key texts below.

Register

Attendance numbers will be limited so please register in advance. No registration fee required.

RSVP by 7 March on Eventbrite Opens in a new window

Speakers

  • Armin Beverungen
    Junior Director at the Digital Cultures Research Lab (DCRL) at Leuphana Universität Lüneburg & Visiting Fellow, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University
  • Nicholas Carah
    Author of Brand Machines, Sensory Media and Calculative Culture (2016)
  • Gay Hawkins
    Author of Plastic Water: The Social and Material Life of Bottled Water (2015)
  • Liam Magee
    Author of Interwoven Cities (2016)
  • Nicole Pepperell
    Author of Dissembling Capital (forthcoming, 2017)
  • Daniel Ross
    Translator of Bernard Stiegler’s Automatic Society (2016) and numerous other works
  • Ned Rossiter
    Author of Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (2016).

Co-chairs: Liam Magee and Ned Rossiter, co-convenors of the Institute for Culture and Society’s Digital Life research program.

Recommended Readings

Frank Pasquale (2017), Duped by the Automated Public Sphere Opens in a new window
Lee Rainer and Janna Anderson [Pew Research Center] (2017), Code-Dependent: Pros and Cons of the Algorithm Age Opens in a new window
Bernard Stiegler (2012), Die Aufklärung in the Age of Philosophical Engineering (opens in a new window)
Bernard Stiegler (2015), Escaping the Anthropocene Opens in a new window
Bernard Stiegler (2015), On Automatic Society Opens in a new window
Sonia Sodha [The Guardian] (2017), Is Finland’s basic universal income a solution to automation, fewer jobs and lower wages? Opens in a new window

Related Readings

Bruce Braun (2014), A New Urban Dispositif? Governing Life in an Age of Climate Change Opens in a new window
Nick Dyer-Witheford (2013), Contemporary Schools of Thought and the Problem of Labour Algorithms (opens in a new window)
Victor Galaz (2015), A Manifesto for Algorithms in the Environment Opens in a new window
Victor Galaz et al. (2017), The Biosphere Code Opens in a new window
Orit Halpern (2015), Cloudy Architectures Opens in a new window
Erich Hörl (2014), Prostheses of Desire: On Bernard Stiegler’s New Critique of Projection Opens in a new window
Yuk Hui (2015), Algorithmic Catastrophe: The Revenge of Contingency (opens in a new window)
International Labour Organisation (2016), ASEAN in Transformation Opens in a new window
Lilly Irani (2015), The Cultural Work of Microwork Opens in a new window
MIT Technology Review (2012), The Future of Work Opens in a new window
Cathy O’Neill (2016), How Algorithms Rule Our Working Lives Opens in a new window
Elaine Ou (2017), Working for an Algorithm Might Be an Improvement (opens in a new window)
The Guardian (2016), Robot Factories Could Threaten Jobs of Millions of Garment Workers Opens in a new window
Tommaso Venturini, Pablo Jensen, Bruno Latour (2015), Fill in the Gap. A New Alliance for Social and Natural Sciences Opens in a new window

Agenda

  • 10:00 –10:10: Liam Magee, Ned Rossiter: Welcome and Introduction
  • 10:10–11:10: Daniel Ross
  • 11:10–11:30: Q&A
  • 11:30–11:45: Coffee
  • 11:45–1:00: Armin Beverungen, Ned Rossiter
  • 1:00–2:00: Lunch
  • 2:00–3:15: Gay Hawkins, Nicholas Carah
  • 3:15–4:15: Panel discussion responding to automation: Dan / Gay / Nicholas / Armin / Nicole – Liam & Ned to chair
  • 4:15–4:30: Closing thoughts, future actions

“The ideology of friendship” – new paper by Prof. Daniel Miller

This looks interesting – a paper building on the excellent Why We Post project… probably a good one for digital cultural geographers.

Here’s the title and abstract:

The ideology of friendship in the Facebook era

This article suggests that while anthropologists have developed a highly nuanced analysis of kinship and friendship under a more general comparative study of relationality, this emphasis upon practice needs to be complemented by an alternative focus on the use of these terms as ideology, where we find a more simplistic and dualistic usage. The rise of new social media and the verb friending highlights a more general shift from the idea of fictive kinship to that of fictive friendship, where it is the ideals represented by the supposed voluntarism and authenticity of friendship that has now come to dominate the way people view kin relations. Evidence is provided from ethnographies in the Philippines, Trinidad, and England that illustrate the prevalence of a practice where kin relations reposition themselves under the idiom of friendship with both negative and positive consequences. This incorporation of kinship within friendship can also bring back a sense of rule and obligation, which has led to a decline in the use of Facebook by the young.

Also, the paper quotes, in the introduction, a great scene from South Park that I use in teaching 🙂 See above.

Elemental machines – the becoming environmental of tech

Via dmf.

With: Andreas Broeckmann, Esther Leslie, Sascha Pohflepp
Moderated by Yvonne Volkart

“The concept of machines generally describes an assemblage of parts assigned to an overall function, designed by a human. Yet, the entwined histories of science, technology, and art are filled with ideas about nature functioning like machines, and of visions where machines become “natural” and organic. These two paths seem to merge as machines increasingly communicate autonomously and operate in fields beyond human perception and influence. Can we devise new perspectives for understanding the elemental machines that now seem to operate contingently within hybrid techno-ecologies like the forces of nature? What are the new aesthetic and political affordances or subjectivities involved in the process of technology becoming environmental?”

“Do you hear voices? You do. So you are possessed” – @mikedotphillips talk @exetergeography

I’m really pleased to share that Prof. Mike Phillips (i-DAT, Plymouth) will be speaking  next week as part of the Exeter Geography seminar series. Mike is a founder of the Institute of Digital Art and Technology and one of the founders of the undergraduate programme I studied MediaLab Arts, which is now called  Digital Media Design.

Details: Thursday 16th March, 12:30: Amory 417. All welcome!

“Irreconcilable differences?” Sharlene Mollett’s Gender, Place and Culture Jan Monk Distinguished Annual Lecture

The latest issue of Gender, Place and Culture, and first of 2017, is online. It has Sharlene Mollett’s  Jan Monk Distinguished Lecture,as well as a themed section on ‘Sexual and Gender Minorities in Disaster’. There’s also an article on ‘crazy cat ladies‘ (there is, honest).

Here’s Mollett’s abstract:

Irreconcilable differences? A postcolonial intersectional reading of gender, development and Human Rights in Latin America

In 2015, the United Nations set in motion the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015–2024). While this mandate provides much to celebrate, its reliance on universal and human rights narratives collides against the reality of a persistent inferiorization of Afro-descendant communities as lessthanhuman. The paradoxical nature of human rights discourses notwithstanding, Afro-descendant women (ADW) leaders in Latin America embrace the opportunity provided by the UN Decade, to rethink human rights discourses and Afro-descendant inclusion in development practice. I draw insight in this article from black feminist and postcolonial thinking to contribute to a growing engagement with the concept of intersectionality in the subfield of feminist political ecology. Employing the concept of postcolonial intersectionality, I reflect on how ADW operationalize particular knowledges and their racialized gendered subjectivities to challenge regional imaginaries that limit livelihoods, access to natural resources and that cast Afro-descendants outside humanity. I connect such organized activism to that of quiet, every day and largely unrecognized acts of resistance among Afro-Antillean women situated in the growing residential tourism enclave along Panama’s Atlantic coast, in a place known as ‘Bocas’. This article draws from ethnographic and historical data collection and is supplemented with news articles, activist scholarship, government documents and secondary resources. Together, I center the intersectional logics of power in Bocas and argue that ADW lead a material and symbolic process of place-making, one that prioritizes life while struggling over carnal, gendered and racialized dispossession and the right to be recognized as human.

 

Material carriers of thought

In a recent article on the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Lyudmila A. Markova discusses the material supports for human communication, what Stiegler would call the processes of exteriorisation and thus materialisation of memory/thought:

Even the most common type of communication is not possible without a material carrier. For example, at a minimum stone, papyrus or paper is required for written communication. Their production processes obey the laws of engineering sciences, which are completely independent from the content of the information they convey. Even if the information is transmitted orally, with a voice, a material carrier is present. The sound is produced in a person’s larynx and is uttered through the mouth as language. Furthermore, the air movement, which is born inevitably during the conversation, obeys the laws of physics.

There’s some really interesting discussion of the various ways those involved in studies of social epistemology, and most notably in the essay it’s Steve Fuller’s work set in relation to Kuhn, have attempted to reconcile the passage to knowledge. It’s also curious to see how David Berry’s work ends up in there too, I suspect there’s more than a hint of Stiegler shining through there (but I haven’t read the work so should probably do so…) and it’s a shame Markova doesn’t make that connection. Might be interesting to pursue that angle…

Echoborg

Former colleagues of mine at UWE are developing an interesting project, which you may have seen/heard about through the BBC’s Click programme, called Echoborg.

An echoborg is a hybrid agent composed of the body of a real person and the “mind” (or, rather, the words) of a conversational agent; the words the echoborg speaks are determined by the conversational agent, transmitted to the person via a covert audio-relay apparatus, and articulated by the person through speech shadowing[1].

Recently, the project team have demoed the project as part of an AHRC-funded network on Automation Anxiety and have written this up on the project website, here’s a snippet – it sounds like it is really compelling (I’ve not seen this in action):

Four people were interviewed by the AI which increasingly displayed an interest in eliciting help to reprogram itself. Proceedings were visible on a projector screen and the ‘audience’ of applicants gradually began to discuss the situation of the Echoborg and how to change it. At a certain point their reflections passed a threshold and the group fired into collective action, experimenting with various methods to bring the situation to a head in some way. The lively inventiveness of the group and the individual interviewees went a long way to confirming the interactive potential of this format of the work. It also gave Rik and Phil much to work with in considering the further development of the AI/Chatbot, the restricted delivery of narrative by the human Echoborg and the staging. This event also trialled a secondary, higher level, Echoborg character as part of the slow process of unfolding the potential for this Echoborg recruitment event to be a disruptive and thought and emotion provoking experience for all players.

Notes

  1. Corti, Kevin and Gillespie, Alex (2015) Offscreen and in the chair next to you: conversational agents speaking through actual human bodies. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 9238 . pp. 405-417.