VI: Circulation / Bodies / Affect
Interview: Part 6 of 6
DE: Thinking about speed, I'm also thinking about circulation and distribution and what makes that speed possible. Scholars in rhetoric and writing have been thinking a lot more about circulation lately. It's gone far beyond the original rhetorical situation, which is someone standing in front of a crowd speaking. It would be a very standard situation that could be taught, based on the way that those situations repeat over time. But in networked environments, something fundamentally different—or, I kind of want to ask you whether it's fundamentally different—because for millennia it's been paper, tablets, printed works. But these digital contexts raise questions about presence and absence, materiality and immateriality, place and placelessness. And I know that your work deals with these issues in a lot of really interesting ways. But I think that they also return us to these fundamental questions about writing, which we sort of talked about. I'm thinking, now, about what media studies can offer us. Specifically, I wanted to pick your brain about this topic: As someone who thinks about this bleeding edge of media circulation, what questions should we be asking today about how texts circulate in digital contexts that are often thought to be virtual and placeless and absent of bodies?
BH: Right. My view, with the absence of bodies or whatever else, is that that's a little bit of a sleight of hand, that we should always seek to return it to the materiality of those infrastructures. Again, we've had this theme before. But Twitter—it's like little birds in the cloud. And it's 140 characters and it's very lightweight. But it's not. You're using it on a machine that has rare Earth metals in it. It's travelling over an infrastructure that's required vast Earth—moving. It's stored in data centers that have climate control, and have their own atmospheres. There's an immense and heavy material presence behind these supposedly lightweight things we do. I like the tension between the idea of "in the cloud" and then "data mining."
BH: They're talking about the same thing. But the metaphors collide in a productive way. You put it up in the cloud and it's light and whatever. And it's like, no, we're extracting value. Like, it's data mining. So, heaviness and lightness flow through this. But in general, circulation ... I think, in the last several years I've learned more and more about affect theory and how that relates to new media. I think that's productive to think about in this context. That when you have this churn of social media—Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and all these things—that there's a certain volume and rapidity to all these things that end up making it more about intensity and flows than about individual semantic messages from supposed people. If we're talking about, again, the perspective of an individual human, it's like "presence" and "absence" and "virtual" and "What are you saying?" and "Are you there?" or "Are you not there?" But that might be a red herring to the larger issue of these material flows of intensity that move between networks, that join together in some kind of bodily, corporeal sense, these different feelings or reactions to things. You think about certain events, whether they're horrible news events that happen that then spread through social media, or certain joyous occasions or whatever else—they are kind of measured in intensity, measured in the response and pull and flow of these things rather than an oratorical message of meaning. All these services are designed to capitalize on that. Facebook ... it capitalizes on our base emotions in a certain way. It's an appeal to these feelings of belonging or not.
DE: It seems like that would encourage more focus on the infrastructures themselves, right? If we're talking about flows and we're talking about intensities rather than my message to my friends or my political debate with someone on Facebook. It seems like those material infrastructures would become primary, or would become, at least, a bigger subject of study.
BH: Yeah, yeah. And it's very clear, this progression through which these writing technologies become closer and closer to the manifold of the body, right? A computer starts as something that's in a room, that you go to, and you sit down and you type up something you've already written. Then that moves to a personal computer that, then, you own. And it's in your house. It's associated with your home or information center. And then that transitions to the laptop. It moves around with you. You can work anywhere. But then we turn to phones and tablets that now—you don't carry it. It's kind of on you. It's in your pocket. You start getting the buzz. That's a very intimate thing. Things vibrating in your pocket. It's a message. It's a text message. It has that kind of writing aspect to it. But it's also literally vibrating in your pocket. And you get a little thrill, right? There is some kind of response or excitement that happens when that happens. So we go to wearables now. And we see companies like Apple advertising things like sharing your heart rate, which is ridiculous on some level, but also really intriguing and maybe indicative of the intimacy that these things are creating. So we're measuring footsteps and heart rate and all this, and that starts to move under the skin. If we think about emotion or affect being this, in a sense, negotiation of boundary, of territory, of, am I opening this and incorporating something or am I pushing it away, or, what does that feel like on the level of contact, the fact that these writing technologies, these pieces of communication infrastructure are more and more present in that actual contact, in that material envelope of the self, where emotion happens. You know, that's not accidental. That's very much the evolution of how these things go, that there's less distance between infrastructure and the body than ever before. And there's some kind of desire for that. Yeah, I think that's where to look at it. Maybe start thinking about writing with the body, or how these things act as pressure points or something, rather than exchanges of messages. It's like contact.
DE: I think that's a fascinating point to end with. So, thank you.
BH: Thank you.
DE: I'll look forward to more of your work. Thanks for talking to me and the readers of Kairos. Talk to you soon.
BH: Thanks guys.