seeing the city in digital times: a lecture

I gave a keynote lecture at the Neue Kulturgeographie XIV conference a couple of weeks ago, at the University of Bayreuth. My topic was ‘seeing the city in digital times’. I talked about the challenges of keeping cultural geography relevant as a critical project when so much visual culture is now digital, and I shared my recent work looking at how so-called ‘smart cities’are pictured on YouTube and Twitter.   You can hear my talk and see the presentation that accompanied it here.

smart-vid

Listen through til the end if you can (or indeed just skip to about an hour in) because I got some great questions afterwards.  It was a privilege to speak as such an energy-filled event – thankyou to my hosts Matt Hannah, Eberhard Rothfuss and Jan Hutta.

is mycorrhizal geography becoming a thing?

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.)

GWATG.jpg

from the film ‘The Girl With All the Gifts’. Nothing mushroom-like in sight but the nearest I could get to the story’s vision of both the city and its people saturated with a fungus.

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. “The Material Practices of Glamour.” Journal of Cultural Economy 1, no. 1 (2008): 9–23. doi:10.1080/17530350801913577.

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.

cultural geography going vulgar and viral

The Open University’s OpenSpace Research Centre held an event in June 2014, its annual Doreen Massey event, which was on the theme of ‘provocations of the present: what culture for what geography?’.  You can find recordings of it here.

Several of those of us who contributed have converted our talks into short papers for the journal Social and Cultural Geography, and three of them – including mine – are online now.  You can browse them here.  Mine is called ‘Cultural geography going viral’, and it reflects again on the impact that social media – and particularly Twitter – might have on the practice of cultural geography.  Sam Kinsley’s excellent contribution – ‘Vulgar Geographies? Popular Cultural Geographies and Technology‘ – is available on his blog here.  Sam’s piece (like mine) looked at things digital, but engaged with them from a rather different angle, suggesting that popular culture is now largely mediated through digital technologies, and thus that cultural geography needs to get both more popular (or ‘vulgar’ – a nice and nuanced prod at the subdiscipline’s longstanding neglect of the mass media, let alone social media) and more digital.

I  also took a paragraph in my essay to reflect briefly on my own writing practices now that I ‘do’ social media (this blog and Twitter really, I use Facebook and Academia.edu pretty minimally).  I think of them as an ecology, a kind of balance between long, short and extremely short forms of writing, each with their own voice and rhythms of production.  (Rather irritatingly, I wrote the essay for Social and Cultural Geography fairly quickly and in my less formal ‘blogging voice’, only to find that it’s taken nearly eighteen months to get published, of course, as it’s in a journal, so now feels less spontaneous and immediate and more sloppy and casual.)  Now that I’m in the middle of trying to write a long paper again though, I’m realising that ‘ecology’ doesn’t quite cover it.  Ecology does indeed imply a sort of balance, and what I’ve learnt is that if I’m trying to think and write long form, then both my blog and my tweeting are distractions that I have to switch off.  It’s more like a zero-sum game: either I distribute my attention in lots of little bits, or I concentrate on one big thing.  Or maybe I’m just getting old…

If anyone is interested, the long piece of writing that I’m working on will be a paper (I hope) with the provisional title of ‘post/human agency in the digitally mediated city’.  The draft has some phrases that I’m quite proud of (though, in my bitter experience, they’re usually the ones that referees dislike for their overgeneralising-ness*, so they’ll probably never see the light of day).  But here’s a taste of what I’m trying to do:

 While the notion of human agency is hardly ever interrogated in scholarship focussed on digitally mediated cities, the agency of nonhuman, emergent “quasi-objects” (Bingham 1996) is described in great detail.  Dodge and Kitchin (2009), for example, catalogue various kinds of agency enacted by coded objects, infrastructures, processes and assemblages, subdividing coded objects into hard, closed, permeable and sensible ‘codejects’; Kitchin (2014) pays similar forensic attention to ‘data’; and every restatement of Thrift’s (2011, 2012, 2014)  nonrepresentationalist account of the digitalised city  is enriched by new vocabulary.  The various modalities of human agency, however, have been left unexplored.  This is inconsistent, particularly in the context of the oft-mentioned Actor Network Theory emphasis on the ‘symmetrical’ analysis of both the human and the nonhuman; as Braidotti (2013 12) says, just as we are learning to think differently about the nonhuman, “we need to learn to think differently about ourselves” too (and see Anderson 2014; Halford and Savage 2010).  In its attention to human agency in particular, this paper contributes to a genuinely symmetrical, posthuman geography of digitally mediated cities.  

(That rather overweening final sentence will probably be revised too.)  I’m  really enjoying reading so much interesting geography on things digital and urban!  And thinking about how to work with feminist, queer, postcolonial and critical race theories of the digital too, which in my view work on digitally mediated cities really needs to engage with.  Watch this space for further updates.

*not only are blogs short-form writing (for me anyway), but they also allow me to use words like overgeneralising-ness on a Friday afternoon when I’m too tired to think of anything more elegant.  But you know what I mean, right?

 

a bibliography for cultural geography on/and the digital – crowdsourced!

My recent request on this blog and on Twitter and Facebook for references to work done by cultural geographers on digital technologies provoked many generous responses from a wide range of geographers, telling me about their work and the work of others. Thankyou! I thought it might be useful to share the resulting bibliography.

Please note: I am sure this is not complete in any way. I’m know some references are  missing; some significant pieces are in the journal special issues that are listed rather than individually named; for some prolific authors, you should go to their websites or blogs for a comprehensive list of their publications.

And of course I haven’t resolved the thorny issue of just who is a ‘cultural geographer’ and who isn’t. My rule of thumb when I started to gather items together is that a paper or a chapter had to discuss ‘culture’, ‘representation’ or ‘meaning’ fairly centrally. However, that’s rather a traditional reading of what cultural geography is about, and one of the things I’m still thinking about as a result of all these studies is just what happens to those concepts when the work of creating representations and meanings is distributed between specific combinations of humans, hardware and software, and across extended networks of their combined agency.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, the list is on a separate page on this blog – click the ‘bibliography’ tab above. Thanks again for all the help putting it together.

cultural geography and the digital: what’s been written by cultural geographers?

I’m working on the written version of the Progress in Human Geography lecture I gave at the Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers annual conference in London last month. The opening section marvels at cultural geographers’ lack of engagement with anything digital.

The only references it currently contains are:

Bingham, N., 1996. Object-ions: from technological determinism towards geographies of relations. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 14(6), 635 – 657.

Bingham, N., Valentine, G. & Holloway, S.L., 1999. Where do you want to go tomorrow? Connecting children and the Internet. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 17(6), 655 – 672.

Bingham, N., Valentine, G. & Holloway, S., 2001. Life around the screen: re-framing young people’s use of the internet. In N. Watson & S. Cunningham-Burley, eds. Reframing Bodies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 228–243.

Crang, M., Crang, P. & May, J. eds., 1999. Virtual Geographies: Bodies, Spaces, Relations, London: Routledge.

Holloway, S.L., Valentine, G. & Bingham, N., 2000. Institutionalising technologies: masculinities, femininities, and the heterosexual economy of the IT classroom. Environment and Planning A, 32(4), 617 – 633.

Parr, H., 2003. Research bodies in virtual space. In A. Blunt et al., eds. Cultural Geography in Practice. London: Arnold, pp. 55–68.

Given the long shadow that cultural geography casts across the discipline, of course it’s rather tricky to demarcate who is and who is not a ‘cultural geographer’ – and my list obviously and deliberately excludes the very rich literature on critical GIS, neo-geographies, participatory mapping and so on, as well as Rob Kitchin’s groundbreaking work.

But if any of you are aware of any other publications in cultural geography on digital technologies that are not related to mapping, please send them my way!

three ways cultural geographers can start to think about digital culture

I’ve been working on the lecture I’m giving at the annual conference of the Royal Geographical Society with the Institute of  British Geographers at the end of August, and I want to enthuse about three books which I thought were great first time round, and are all even better second time round as I re-read them to write the lecture.  They all look at the pervasiveness of mass online engagement, and they all argue strongly and convincingly that the last twenty years have seen profound changes in popular culture, and they all conclude from this that scholars interested in understanding that culture really need to engage with that pervasiveness, with the online and with the mass.  A point that most cultural geographers seem to have missed, and which is my lecture in a nutshell.  So a big thanks to:

John Hartley and his book Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies.  This book goes first because it’s one of the very few academic books that have made me laugh out loud (because it’s deliberately funny, that is).  I posted about it here after I read it the first time.  It’s a very persuasive argument for looking at populations of images rather than single images.

Helen Grace and her book Culture, Aesthetics and Affect: The Prosaic Image.  The first chapter is one of those where you start making notes and realise that you’re pretty much copying out the whole thing.  An amazing and passionate argument for those populations of banal images being vital new form of mass cultural expression, written quite specifically from Hong Kong.

Nana Verhoeff and her book Mobile Screens: The Visual Regime of Navigation, which you can download for free here.  Like Grace, Verhoeff explores the pervasiveness of digital screens, large and small, in the urban everyday, and argues for a new kind of spatiality that’s performed when we navigate through the spaces they offer us.

 

cultural geography’s provocations of the present: webcast now available

The OpenSpace research centre at The Open University hosted an event on 6 June which reflected on the status of cultural geography now, and, in particular, how the subdiscipline should respond to the demands of the present moment.  Members of two panels were given eight minutes each to explore ways in which the current context is, or should be, shaping cultural geography as a sub-discipline.  It was a great day, very interesting and, well, provocative.  The whole event was webcast live, and you can now watch those recordings here.  Enjoy.

 

provocations of the present: what culture for what geography?

The OpenSpace research centre at The Open University is hosting an event this coming Friday, 6 June, reflecting on the status of cultural geography now, and, in particular, how the subdiscipline should respond to the demands of the present moment.  Full details are here.  The event itself is sold out; you can listen to its live stream online but you still have to register.  From the looks of what my fellow contributors have posted on the Geography Matters Facebook page, it looks like it will be a lively discussion.