Bernard Stiegler: “Rethinking an industrial policy in the era of the Anthropocene and automation”? [translated]

A young man standing in a cloud of yellow smoke

I recently came across an edited interview with Bernard Stiegler published on the website of Philosophie Magazine (17/12/18) [a] in which Stiegler ties together a very brief reading of the ‘yellow vests’ phenomena with the experiments he has been leading in the creation of an ‘economy of contribution’ – a more-or-less as a ethico-political-economic response to the ‘Anthropocene’. It is important to note here that for Stiegler not only means the current global cultural/environmental/social crisis embodied in a new ‘epoch’ but also significantly means the apparently rapid changes in employment/work largely due to technology. I have translated conversations with Stiegler about this topic before and these might be helpful in fleshing out the argument translated below, especially:

Here, in a similar vein to the discussion of previous periods of civil unrest in France (see in particular the books: The Decadence of Industrial Democracy, Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals and The Lost Spirit of Capitalism) Stiegler diagnoses a form of immiseration that comes from a loss of capacities that needs to be addressed through a form of therapeutic response. The ‘yellow vests’ movements are a symptom of a broader cultural-environmental-social ‘entropy’ that is ‘The Anthropocene’ needs to be addressed through a re-imagined industrial policy – to engage in what he terms a form of ‘negentropy’. having said all of this, what is important perhaps about this brief interview is that it locates pragmatic action by talking through what Stiegler and colleagues are doing in the Plaine Commune experiments (for more information follow the links above).

As I have previously observed, I still find it curious that underlying the apparent radicalism of re-thinking industrial strategy, acting together towards (political) therapeutic ends, is a strange sort of unflinching (dare-I-say even conservative) faith in the state and institutions. In particular, the model for the central strategy of ‘contributory income’ is the intermittent entertainment policy of the French government for subsidising freelance and somewhat precarious forms of work in the ‘creative industries’. I’m not criticising this, I think it merits greater discussion – not least because it is being trialed in Seine-Saint-Denis – but there’s something curious about this rather measured scheme being central to the strategy, given the almost apocalyptic and incredibly urgent tone of books like The Neganthropocene and Age of Disruption.

ADD. 24/01/19. I think I probably missed a final step to the thought expressed in the paragraph above: while the scheme for a ‘contributory income’ (based upon the intermittent scheme) currently underway in Plaine Commune is perhaps limited, and while the idea of such an income is, in-itself not especially ‘revolutionary’, perhaps I/we should see this as the beginning of a reorientation – the instigation of a different/new therapeutic ‘tendency’, in Steigler’s terminology – away from a competitive individualised economic rationale towards a collective means of flourishing together, whilst also acknowledging that we need to take some form of collective responsibility. In that vein, as others have pointed out, Stiegler’s ‘activist’ thought/activities take on a particular ethical/moral stance (in this way I have some sympathy with Alexander Galloway calling Stiegler a ‘moral philosopher’).

As usual I have included in square brackets original French, where I’m unsure of the translation, or clarifications. I have also maintained, in the Conversation piece, all of the original francophone hyperlinks unless there is a clear anglophone alternative.

I welcome comments or corrections!


a. The interview appears in a section entitled Gilets Jaune, et maintenant– something like ‘Yellow vests, now what?’

Bernard Stiegler: “Rethinking an industrial policy in the era of the Anthropocene and automation”

For this thinker of technics, the “yellow vests” movement highlights the desperate need for a new policy that would value work rather than employment. Among his proposals is the widening of the government scheme for irregular workers in the creative sector to everyone.

I was struck by the rapid evolution of the “yellow vests” movement, by the way it was presented and in which it was perceived. In the beginning, occupations of roundabouts [and crossroads] were reminiscent of the Tea Party phenomenon in the United States, which paved the way for Donald Trump’s election, and of Sarah Palin’s astonishing statement: “I like the smell of exhaust emissions!”However, despite the presence of the “ultra-right” which is of course very dangerous, the rise of this movement has evolved positively – and very unexpectedly. Compared with the “protest” scene, well-known in France for decades, the “yellow vests” are obviously a very singular and very interesting event, beyond its extreme ambiguities. Amongst the demands made by these leaderless demonstrators, the proposal to create a deliberative assembly for ecological transition is particularly illustrative of what fundamentally new emerging from this movement. This is confirmed by the encouraging sign, which must be interpreted without being under any illusions: the protest and climate march at a junction, in Bordeaux, on the 8th of December.

When we listen to the “yellow vests”, we hear the voices of people who are a bit lost, often living in unbearable conditions but with the virtue of expressing and highlighting our contemporary society’s limits and immense contradictions. In the face of this, the Macron government seems unable to take the measure of the problems being raised. I fear that the measures announced by the President on the 11th of December resolve nothing and fix in place the movement for the longer term, precisely because it expresses – at least symptomatically – the collective awareness of the contemporary crisis. The political horizon throughout Europe is not at all pleasant: the extreme right will probably draw the electoral benefits of this anger, while failing to answer the questions legitimately posed by “yellow vests” movement. This highlights the lack of a sense of history by President Macron and his ministers, and equally underlines the vanity of those who pretend to embody the left, who are just as incapable of making even the simplest statement at the height of what is the first great social crisis characterised by the Anthropocene. 

For me, a “man of the left”, the important question is what would be a leftist comprehensive industrial policy to take up the challenges of the Anthropocene and automation – which is to say, also addressing “Artificial Intelligence”. To confront this question is to attempt to overcome what is not thought in Marxian criticism, namely: entropy. All of the complex systems, both biologically and socially, are doomed to differential loss – of energy, biodiversity, interpretation of information – that leads to entropic chaos. The concept of negentropy, taken from the works of Erwin Schrödinger, refers to the ability of the living to postpone the loss of energy by differentiating organically, creating islands and niches locally installing a “différance” (as Derrida said) through which the future [l’avenir] is a bifurcation in an entropic becoming [devenir entropique] in which everything is indifferent. 

The fundamental point here is that, while entropy is observed at the macroscopic level, negentropy only occurs locally through energy conversion in all its forms – including libidinal energy. Freud was, with Bergson, the first to understand this radical change in point of view required by entropy. The “nationalist retreat” is a symptomatic expression of the entropic explosion provoked by the globalization [that is the] Anthropocene. This needs to be addressed by a new economic and industrial policy that systematically values negentropy. 

It is in response to such issues that the Institute of Research and Innovation and Ars Industrialis with Patrick Braouezec (President of the Plaine Commune public territorial establishment) are leading an experiment in Seine-Saint-Denis. In this district of 430,000 we are experimenting with putting in place a local economy of contribution, based upon a new macro-economy at the national level. Above all, this scheme values work rather than employment and aims to generalize the system of intermittent entertainment [added emphasis] [1]: The idea is to be able to guarantee people 70% of their most recent salary in the periods when they do not work, provided that within ten months they begin another freelance [intermittent] job. In the case of freelance [intermittent] performers, they must work for 507 hours, after which they have “replenished their right” to a contributory income. We are currently constructing workshops in the areas of child care, quality urban food, construction and urban trades, the conversion of combustion vehicles into clean vehicles, and so on. This experiment is supported by the Fondation de France, Orange, Dassault Systèmes, Caisse des Dépôts et Consignations, Societe Generale, Afnic Foundation and Emmanuel Faber, General Manager of Danone. Every one of which are stakeholders in the search for a new conception of industrial economy fully mobilized in the fight against the Anthropocene and for the restoration of very-long-term economic solvency, based on investment, not speculation. It is by taking bold initiatives of this kind that we will truly respond to the “yellow vests”.


1. There is no direct translation for ‘intermittent entertainment’/ ‘intermittents du spectacle’ – this refers to state-subsidised freelance workers in the entertainments industry, an arrangement backed by long-standing legislation in France to support their native creative sectors.

AI as organ -on|-ology

Kitt the 'intelligent' car from the TV show Knight Rider

Let’s begin with a postulate: there is either no “AI” – artificial intelligence – or every intelligence is, in fact, in some way artificial (following a recent talk by Bernard Stiegler). In doing so we commence from an observation that intelligence is not peculiar to one body, it is shared. A corollary is that there is no (‘human’) intelligence without artifice, insofar as we need to exteriorise thought (or what Stiegler refers to as ‘exosomatisation’) for that intelligence to function – as language, in writing and through tools – and that this is inherently collective. Further, we might argue that there is no AI. Taking that suggestion forward, we can say that there are, rather, forms of artificial (or functional) stupidity, following Alvesson & Spicer (2012: p. 1199), insofar as it inculcates forms of lack of capacity: “characterised by an unwillingness or inability to mobilize three aspects of cognitive capacity: reflexivity, justification, and substantive reasoning”. Following Alvesson & Spicer [& Stiegler] we might argue that such forms of stupidity are necessary passage points through our sense-making in/of the world, thus are not morally ‘wrong’ or ‘negative’. Instead, the forms of functional stupidity derive from technology/techniques are a form of pharmakon – both enabling and disabling in various registers of life.

Given such a postulate, we might categorise “AI” in particular ways. We might identify ‘AI’ not as ‘other’ to the ‘human’ but rather a part of our extended (exosomatic) capacities of reasoning and sense. This would be to think of AI ‘organologically’ (again following Stiegler) – as part of our widening, collective, ‘organs’ of action in the world. We might also identify ‘AI’ as an organising rationale in and of itself – a kind of ‘organon’ (following Aristotle). In this sense “AI” (the discipline, institutions and the outcome of their work [‘an AI’]) is/are an organisational framework for certain kinds of action, through particular forms of reasoning.

It would be tempting (in geographyland and across particular bits of the social sciences) to frame all of this stemming from, or in terms of, an individual figure: ‘the subject’. In such an account, technology (AI) is a supplement that ‘the human subject’ precedes. ‘The subject’, in such an account, is the entity to which things get done by AI, but also the entity ultimately capable of action. Likewise, such an account might figure ‘the subject’ and it’s ‘other’ (AI) in terms of moral agency/patiency. However, for this postulate such a framing would be unhelpful (I would also add that thinking in terms of ‘affect’, especially through neuro-talk would be just as unhelpful). If we think about AI organologically then we are prompted to think about the relation between what is figured as ‘the human’ and ‘AI’ (and the various other things that might be of concern in such a story) as ‘parasitic’ (in Derrida’s sense) – its a reciprocal (and, in Stiegler’s terms, ‘pharmacological’) relation with no a priori preceding entity. ‘Intelligence’ (and ‘stupidity’ too, of course) in such a formulation proceeds from various capacities for action/inaction.

If we don’t/shouldn’t think about Artificial Intelligence through the lens of the (‘sovereign’) individual ‘subject’ then we might look for other frames of reference. I think there are three recent articles/blogposts that may be instructive.

First, here’s David Runciman in the LRB:

Corporations are another form of artificial thinking machine, in that they are designed to be capable of taking decisions for themselves. Information goes in and decisions come out that cannot be reduced to the input of individual human beings. The corporation speaks and acts for itself. Many of the fears that people now have about the coming age of intelligent robots are the same ones they have had about corporations for hundreds of years.

Second, here’s Jonnie Penn riffing on Runciman in The Economist:

To reckon with this legacy of violence, the politics of corporate and computational agency must contend with profound questions arising from scholarship on race, gender, sexuality and colonialism, among other areas of identity.
A central promise of AI is that it enables large-scale automated categorisation. Machine learning, for instance, can be used to tell a cancerous mole from a benign one. This “promise” becomes a menace when directed at the complexities of everyday life. Careless labels can oppress and do harm when they assert false authority. 

Finally, here’s (the outstanding) Lucy Suchman discussing the ways in which figuring complex systems of ‘AI’-based categorisations as somehow exceeding our understanding does particular forms of political work that need questioning and resisting:

The invocation of Project Maven in this context is symptomatic of a wider problem, in other words. Raising alarm over the advent of machine superintelligence serves the self-serving purpose of reasserting AI’s promise, while redirecting the debate away from closer examination of more immediate and mundane problems in automation and algorithmic decision systems. The spectacle of the superintelligentsia at war with each other distracts us from the increasing entrenchment of digital infrastructures built out of unaccountable practices of classification, categorization, and profiling. The greatest danger (albeit one differentially distributed across populations) is that of injurious prejudice, intensified by ongoing processes of automation. Not worrying about superintelligence, in other words, doesn’t mean that there’s nothing about which we need to worry.
As critiques of the reliance on data analytics in military operations are joined by revelations of data bias in domestic systems, it is clear that present dangers call for immediate intervention in the governance of current technologies, rather than further debate over speculative futures. The admission by AI developers that so-called machine learning algorithms evade human understanding is taken to suggest the advent of forms of intelligence superior to the human. But an alternative explanation is that these are elaborations of pattern analysis based not on significance in the human sense, but on computationally-detectable correlations that, however meaningless, eventually produce results that are again legible to humans. From training data to the assessment of results, it is humans who inform the input and evaluate the output of the black box’s operations. And it is humans who must take the responsibility for the cultural assumptions, and political and economic interests, on which those operations are based and for the life-and-death consequences that already follow.

All of these quotes more-or-less exhibit my version of what an ‘organological’ take on AI might look like. Likewise, they illustrate the ways in which we might bring to bear a form of analysis that seeks to understand ‘intelligence’ as having ‘supidity’as a necessary component (it’s a pharmkon, see?), which in turn can be functional (following Alvesson & Spicer). In this sense, the framing of ‘the corporation’ from Runciman and Penn is instructive – AI qua corporation (as a thing, as a collective endeavour [a ‘discipline’]) has ‘parasitical’ organising principles through which play out the pharmacological tendencies of intelligence-stupidity.

I suspect this would also resonate strongly with Feminist Technology Studies approaches (following Judy Wajcman in particular) to thinking about contemporary technologies. An organological approach situates the knowledges that go towards and result from such an understanding of intelligence-stupidity. Likewise, to resist figuring ‘intelligence’ foremost in terms of the sovereign and universal ‘subject’ also resists the elision of difference. An organological approach as put forward here can (perhaps should[?]) also be intersectional.

That’s as far as I’ve got in my thinking-aloud, I welcome any responses/suggestions and may return to this again.

If you’d like to read more on how this sort of argument might play out in terms of ‘agency’ I blogged a little while ago.

ADD. If this sounds a little like the ‘extended mind‘ (of Clark & Chalmers) or various forms of ‘extended self’ theory then it sort of is. What’s different is the starting assumptions: here, we’re not assuming a given (a priori) ‘mind’ or ‘self’. In Stiegler’s formulation the ‘internal’ isn’t realised til the external is apprehended: mental interior is only recognised as such with the advent of the technical exterior. This is the aporia of origin of ‘the human’ that Stiegler and Derrida diagnose, and that gives rise to the theory of ‘originary technics’. The interior and exterior, and with them the contemporary understanding of the experience of being ‘human’ and what we understand to be technology, are mutually co-constituted – and continue to be so [more here]. I choose to render this in a more-or-less epistemological, rather than ontological manner – I am not so much interested in the categorisation of ‘what there is’, rather in ‘how we know’.

Janelle Monáe – Dirty Computer, an emotion picture

Still from Janelle Monáe's Dirty Computer video

I came across Janelle Monáe‘s work a while ago, through Twitter, I was really taken by the video for “Many Moons“, which is beautiful. Metropolis, the album from which it is taken, is a really interesting blend of pop, sci-fi and perhaps afrofuturism, or at least forms of sci-fi that don’t conform to, or queer, standard Western/Global North sci-fi themes/norms. Some have argued Monáe’s videos blends American and African Sci-Fi themes (a teaser trailer for Dirty Computer was shown before cinematic performances of Black Panther) in a sort of queer aesthetic (that’s my reading of what longer pieces say anyway) and I think I can see it in several videos, though my knowledge of other work that might complement or contrast this is very limited.

In the “emotion picture” (what a beautifully evocative term) for the album Dirty Computer we’re presented with a rich and confident, feature length, work of art. I’m not currently able to dedicate the time to offer a lengthier visual analysis, I’m simply going to post the video, below. All I can say, really, is: wow.

Reblog> Digital Neuroland

Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters with a brain scanner on his head

Via Tony Sampson. Freely available digital publication, follow the link

Digital Neuroland by Rizosfera

Very pleased to be part of this great series…



Introduction by Rizosfera
Digital Neuroland. An interview with Tony D. Sampson  by Rizosfera
Contagion Theory Beyond the Microbe
‘Tarde as Media Theorist’: an interview with Tony D. Sampson by Jussi Parikka
Crowd, Power and Post-democracy in 21st Century by Obsolete Capitalism
Crowds vs publics, Ukraine vs Russia, the Gaza crisis, the contagion theory and netica – a dialogue with Tony D. Sampson by Rares Iordache

Another new book from Bernard Stiegler – Neganthropocene

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

Open Humanities has a(nother!) new book from Bernard Stiegler, blurb pasted below. This is an edited version of Stiegler’s public lectures in various places over the last three or so years, hence Dan Ross’ byline. Dan has done some fantastic work of corralling the fast-moving blizzard of Stiegler’s concepts and sometimes flitting engagements with a wide range of other thinkers and I am sure that this book surfaces this work.

It would be interesting to see some critical engagement with this, it seems that Stiegler simply isn’t as trendy as Latour and Sloterdijk or the ‘bromethean‘ object-oriented chaps for those ‘doing’ the ‘anthropocene’ for some reason. I’m not advocating his position especially, I have various misgivings if I’m honest (and maybe one day I’ll write them down) but it is funny that there’s a sort of anglophone intellectually snobbery about some people’s work…


by Bernard Stiegler
Edited and translated by Daniel Ross


As we drift past tipping points that put future biota at risk, while a post-truth regime institutes the denial of ‘climate change’ (as fake news), and as Silicon Valley assistants snatch decision and memory, and as gene-editing and a financially-engineered bifurcation advances over the rising hum of extinction events and the innumerable toxins and conceptual opiates that Anthropocene Talk fascinated itself with–in short, as ‘the Anthropocene’ discloses itself as a dead-end trap–Bernard Stiegler here produces the first counter-strike and moves beyond the entropic vortex and the mnemonically stripped Last Man socius feeding the vortex.

In the essays and lectures here titled Neganthropocene, Stiegler opens an entirely new front moving beyond the dead-end “banality” of the Anthropocene. Stiegler stakes out a battleplan to proceed beyond, indeed shrugging off, the fulfillment of nihilism that the era of climate chaos ushers in. Understood as the reinscription of philosophical, economic, anthropological and political concepts within a renewed thought of entropy and negentropy, Stiegler’s ‘Neganthropocene’ pursues encounters with Alfred North Whitehead, Jacques Derrida, Gilbert Simondon, Peter Sloterdijk, Karl Marx, Benjamin Bratton, and others in its address of a wide array of contemporary technics: cinema, automation, neurotechnology, platform capitalism, digital governance and terrorism. This is a work that will need be digested by all critical laborers who have invoked the Anthropocene in bemused, snarky, or pedagogic terms, only to find themselves having gone for the click-bait of the term itself–since even those who do not risk definition in and by the greater entropy.

Author Bio

Bernard Stiegler is a French philosopher who is director of the Institut de recherche et d’innovation, and a doctor of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. He has been a program director at the Collège international de philosophie, senior lecturer at Université de Compiègne, deputy director general of the Institut National de l’Audiovisuel, director of IRCAM, and director of the Cultural Development Department at the Centre Pompidou. He is also president of Ars Industrialis, an association he founded in 2006, as well as a distinguished professor of the Advanced Studies Institute of Nanjing, and visiting professor of the Academy of the Arts of Hangzhou, as well as a member of the French government’s Conseil national du numérique. Stiegler has published more than thirty books, all of which situate the question of technology as the repressed centre of philosophy, and in particular insofar as it constitutes an artificial, exteriorised memory that undergoes numerous transformations in the course of human existence.

Daniel Ross has translated eight books by Bernard Stiegler, including the forthcoming In the Disruption: How Not to Go Mad?(Polity Press). With David Barison, he is the co-director of the award-winning documentary about Martin Heidegger, The Ister, which premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival and was the recipient of the Prix du Groupement National des Cinémas de Recherche (GNCR) and the Prix de l’AQCC at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, Montreal (2004). He is the author of Violent Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2004) and numerous articles and chapters on the work of Bernard Stiegler.

About an Organology of Dreams – After An Organisation of Dreams, Bernard Stiegler & Ken McMullen

Bernard Stiegler being interviewed

Over on Backdoor Broadcasting you can revisit a session that was part of the Film Philosophy conference in 2012, with a film piece by McMullen “An Organisation of Dreams”.

Stiegler responds to the film with a talk listed as: About an Organology of Dreams – After An Organisation of Dreams, here’s the blurb:

Beginning with well-known proposition that the cinema serves as the perfect enactment of Plato’s cave, I would like to examine in this paper the question of transcendental cinema, returning to the problems that I raised in Le temps du cinéma, but also reopening the possibility of a transcendental stupidity – or transcendental negativity, to put it otherwise.  By turning to Freud and the notion of the dream, I will explore my hypothesis by looking briefly at a work which is itself rather brief, and which suggests an archeology of cinema that begins thirty thousand years ago, in the Chauvet Cave.

Some resonances here with Keynote Stiegler delivered at the same conference, translated by Daniel Ross: The Organology of Dreams and Arche-Cinema. The first footnote of which reads:

This keynote address was delivered on September 12, 2012, at Queen Mary, University of London, for the “Film-Philosophy Conference”, and began with the following opening remarks: “I would like to begin by thanking John Mullarkey for inviting me here, allowing me to continue a discussion with Ken McMullen that began a long time ago, with Ghost Dance (UK 1983), and passed through Jacques Derrida, and which was then pursued in various directions, in particular with An Organization of Dreams (UK 2009). I would also like to point out that Dan Ross, who was kind enough to translate my lecture into English, is also the director, along with David Barison, of The Ister (Australia 2004), another film in which I was fortunate enough to participate at the very moment I was writing Le temps du cinéma. I here thank Ken, Dan and John, and hope that perhaps some day there will be an opportunity for the three of us to have a discussion.”

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.


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.