posthuman agency in the digitally mediated city

That’s the title of the paper that I’ve just had accepted by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and here is its abstract:

Accounts by geographers of the ways in which urban spaces are digitally mediated have proliferated in the last few years.  This significant body of work pays particular attention to the production of urban space by software and digital hardware, and geographers have drawn on various kinds of posthumanist philosophies in order to theorise the agency of the technological nonhuman.  The agency of the human, however, has been left undertheorised in this work, often appearing in the form of excessive resistance to the agency granted to the digital.  This article contributes to understanding the digital mediation of cities by theorising a specifically posthuman agency: that is, a human agency both mediated through technics and diverse.  Drawing on the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler as well as a range of feminist digital scholarship, the article conceptualises posthuman agency as always already co-constituted with technologies.  Posthumans are simultaneously individuated and exteriorised in that co-constitution, and this permits agency understood as reinvention.  The article also insists that such sociotechnical agency is differentiated, particularly in terms of the spatialities and temporalities through which it is organised.  It concludes by arguing that geographers must reconfigure their understanding of digitally mediated cities and acknowledge the inventiveness and diversity of urban posthuman agency.

Annals divides each issue into four sections, and I think this will come out in the ‘Methods, Models, and GIS’ section (GIS stands for ‘Geographical Information System’).  If you’d told me early in my academic career that I’d ever have a paper in any way associated with ‘GIS’, I would never have believed you. I was taught that GIS was the positivist (boo) technological tool of the military-industrial complex (double boo).  Which I think at that point probably wasn’t too inaccurate.

But GIScience has changed a lot since then.  Not only has does it now include many different theoretical approaches, including feminist work of course, it’s now embedded in a much more extensive range of practices, including data visualisations in journalism and geolocated social media analysis.  So it’s expanding in all sorts of ways… and as I’ve argued before, I think at least some of the cultural geographers of the same sort of generation of me should be moving too, rethinking our work in the light of the practices and theorisations of ‘the digital’ that GIScience, among other things, is now generating.  My paper tries hard to draw on that digital expertise, even if my goal remains focussed on what cultural geography was so interested in thirty years ago (oh my god it is thirty years ago): the making and remaking of meanings.

 

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?