I spent some time this week making the final revisions to a paper. It’s about posthuman agency in the digitally mediated city (and I’m afraid that’s its actual title too, followed by “exteriorisation, interiorisation and reinvention”, just to make it sound a really fun read). It’s a theory piece, surprise surprise, working with Bernard Stiegler to conceptualise posthuman agency as both technically mediated and also differentiated. (Thanks must go to James Ash, Sam Kinsley, Kathryn Mitchell and Sarah Elwood, geographers who’ve already grappled with Stiegler and made my engagement with him a lot easier.)
The main literature my paper engages is the very rich body of work on digitally mediated cities, much of which has been written by geographers and much of which gives a great deal of agency to the technological without paying much attention to the complexities of ‘human’ agency (it’s usually left as just that, ‘humans’ who do things with technological devices).
I won’t give the whole paper way here (though I will post the abstract when it’s been definitely accepted). Because right now I just want to share a thought prompted by my efforts to write about the sense of the urban that Stiegler’s work generated for me. Here’s an edited version of my paper’s effort at articulating that sense:
…cities are particularly concentrated sites of the deployment of digital technologies, digitally mediated retentions and thus for the production of posthuman differentiation. A posthuman, remember, is greedy for those external signs without which they cannot exist, and cities are sites in which those signs are produced, circulated and encountered most intensively. Posthumans in cities are sociotechnically co-produced digitally with many different digital devices while doing many different things – communicating via Snapchat; travelling with Uber, Google Earth and Google Maps; being recorded by surveillance cameras and body heat sensors; playing PokemonGo; glancing at algorithm-generated advertisements on smartphone email apps; writing #blacklivesmatter in tweets; tagging and posting photos on Instagram; liking on FourSquare or Facebook; working on a computer generated image of an urban redevelopment project; viewing crowd-sourced i-documentaries, maps, witnessing plaforms and GIScience efforts to map marginalised urban lives; as well as the many things done with the platforms and databases that now insist that they are ‘the social’ – to name just a few, all of which generate data which is processed to generate innumerable tertiary retentions of many kinds, numeric, textual and visual. Cities thus host and are mediated by dense gatherings of retentions (both digital and not) – critical, hegemonic, banal, silly – which accumulate into a vast “stratified constellation of technical memory matter, composed of resources that shape political and cultural imaginaries… with depth, height, scale, extensiveness and duration… moving in different directions… Its forms may change and its content migrate, accruing or shedding textures in the process” (Withers 2015, 17). This is a reserve not only of retentions but of embodied practices, through which posthumans watch, touch, learn, think, hear, move and gesture, in streets, squares, parks and workplaces, mimicking, recombining, reinventing. It is from this urban “media manifold” (Couldry 2011) that multiple forms of digital posthuman agencies emerge, as myriad retentions are encountered and reinvented.
As well as Stiegler and his geographer-interpreters, that quote makes clear another inspiration for my paper: a book by Deborah Withers called Feminism, Digital Culture and the Politics of Transmission, which uses Stiegler to talk about the work of archiving the UK feminist music scene of the 1980s (Stiegler is very interested in memory). The book is wonderful, not least because it uses a fantastically suggestive vocabulary for describing what Stiegler calls ‘tertiary retentions’, which Withers also describes as a “technical compost, an arena of composition and decomposition from which ideas, practices, knowledges and techniques emerge and diverge through dynamic processes of transformation, becoming, disintegration and solidification” (page 17).
Withers’s rich vocabulary is kind of implicitly organic somehow, suggesting change, growth, density, vegetal-ness. I hope I’m not over-reading the ‘compost’ here… and if I am (ok, I am), maybe it’s because I also went to see the truly amazing film The Girl With All The Gifts a couple of weeks ago – about the posthuman in a rather different sense – and I couldn’t get its image of spore-saturated people and London out of my mind when I was writing this – hence the image above (though actually that’s the one thing I think the novel does better than the film – while the film pictures a kind of plant, the novel pictures a fungal mould thing that envelops London. Oh and Radiohead was in the mix somewhere too – in my writing, not the film.).
Anyway, there I was, relishing and struggling with this feeling of the urban as a site of massified mycorrhizal tendril extensive mobile… with humans totally part of it…
… and I then came across a couple of great pieces in the ever-reliable Progress in Human Geography, one by Colin McFarlane on “geographies of urban density” and one by Ben Anderson. Ben’s is a review of current cultural geography (I wasn’t quite sure where the cultural was in the essay, but who cares, it’s a great piece). Both also evoke a similar language, of intensity, volume, densification, composition (ok, not compost, but close), morphing, extinction, decongestion, dispersal, flourishing, emergence…
This is all very suggestive, and is more complex than the by-now rather thin notion of ‘relational geographies’; as Ben notes, it’s surely a version of that kind of geography but its vocabulary multiplies the modalities of relationality in important ways. And while its theoretical sources are diverse, I want to flag just one in particular which I think hovers over much of this work as it addresses cities: not Stiegler but rather of the work of Nigel Thrift. Thrift wrote a volley of papers five or six years ago now that, as far as I can see, went nowhere in geography as an academic discipline – I tried tracking their citations a year or so ago and came up with very little. (I’ve listed them below, with a couple of more recent ones.) Indeed, I remember reading them myself when they were new-ish and being fascinated by them but also not feeling able to do very much with them, they were so part of Thrift’s own project, formidably referenced and almost visionary, actually.
But I wonder now if what we’re seeing is a kind of fallout from that work, its spores seeding quietly and invisibly, in this work which shares Thrift’s interest in affect and bubbles and atmospheres and intensities (not his alone of course) but is putting it to use in critical and grounded accounts of cities (as McFarlane suggests) and to explore inequalities and violences (as Anderson suggests). One of the repeated criticisms of Thrift’s work is that it isn’t critical enough (nor, as I argue in that forthcoming paper, posthuman enough). Perhaps we’re now seeing that critique come to fruition, as it were, in geographies which seem to me to be oddly fungal.
PS I’m not serious about mycorrhizal as the term for this sensibility, not least because my biology isn’t good enough to know if the term refers to what I’m trying to evoke (Wikipedia wasn’t very clear). I did think about ‘volumetric’ as an alternative but I like the more organismic, vital feel of the fungal… and this is only a blog post after all.
Thrift, Nigel. “Different Atmospheres: Of Sloterdijk, China, and Site.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27, no. 1 (2009): 119 – 138. doi:10.1068/d6808.Thrift, Nigel. “Lifeworld Inc—and What to Do about It.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 29, no. 1 (2011): 5 – 26. doi:10.1068/d0310.———. “The Insubstantial Pageant: Producing an Untoward Land.” Cultural Geographies 19, no. 2 (2012): 141–68. doi:10.1177/1474474011427268.———. “The Promise of Urban Informatics: Some Speculations.” Environment and Planning A 46, no. 6 (2014): 1263–66. doi:10.1068/a472c.———. “The ‘sentient’ City and What It May Portend.” Big Data & Society 1, no. 1 (2014): 1–21. doi:10.1177/2053951714532241.