neural culture

Thought might always have been dynamic, distributed and networked, material but in a way that makes us rethink materialism. It might even always have been somewhat hard to locate, not because it happens in a different dimension, but because of its dynamic distribution, extended through brain, body and world. Thought might not even be “us” - by which I mean you and I - and “our thoughts” might just be figments of the world’s imagination. All this is well known. However, despite literature, film and a host of philosophers telling us this, many of our most cherished models of how thinking works, where it takes place, even what it is, tend to ignore all this in favour of models that have proved to be more convenient in practice (a bit like we prefer not to think too often about the fact - in practical terms - that we are apes, not as dissimilar to Bonobos and Chimps as we might like to think).

In practice, its hard to think at all without modeling thought (in models that play a huge role in whatever thinking is) - our own thought at least, if not everyone else’s. These models pose thought as working a particular way, in particular places (in our souls, in our brains in a kind of brain-magic). As for what thought is - whatever it is, in practice these models assume it’s us! (or more importantly, on a rather crucial operational basis, my thoughts are me!). These more convenient models have, in the process, formed the basis of many cherished institutions, from democracy to the market to our sense of being our very own self, (although it is also true that even the champion of the free market Hayek in the end undermines this rational individual agent in favour of the market’s better, “emergent” “thinking”).

This doesn’t mean that we don’t like to speculate about the strangeness of thought, including our likely delusions about our own thoughts (thus the living to be made by philosophers from poststructuralists to postconnectionists or buddhists, not to mention almost any Psych 101 course). However, if we do speculate about thought, this is often in the comforting shadow of our more convenient assumptions. And for a good reason. The social and cultural institutions and practices we rely on - even those practices that ritually affirm us as individuals - in turn rely on these assumptions (think only of one individual “judging” the thoughts/actions of another, from marking an essay to sitting on a jury).

Yet now our convenient assumptions are challenged not only in theory, which was kind of fun, but in a series of new cultural practices, which is another question altogether. These practices arise in mobile and networked media (not to mention the long history of media “manipulation”), new dynamic social and technical networks, a series of cultural clashes between very different models of mind (and practices of thinking) as cultures come in constant contact with each other, the more dynamic side of cognitive science and philosophy, not to mention neuroscience, genetics and pharmaceuticals (what is mind if it can be changed by taking a pill every day?). Many of these are technics based precisely on dynamic, distributed and networked models of a mind that is extended through brain, body and world, are challenging (or even just on better neuroscientific models of the mind derived from better brain imaging technologies). Of course, our convenient assumptions about mind are also challenged by our everyday experience - when for example our attempt to manage our mind’s performance, to maximise the productivity of “cognitive labour”, eventually seems to steal our mind away from us, in insomnia, in stress, in the kind of breakdown that is rife in the workplace today, in perhaps the feeling that we are captured by “the man”. That’s before you get to the kind of cognitive dislocation faced by migrants and refugees.

The cultures of the enlightment and modernity put a great deal of effort into our convenient models of mind, and, as models, they have proved very effective. Now, however, this is arguably falling apart, as I have tried to describe in very basic terms elsewhere. The impact is being felt in many of the foundations of modern culture: I see symptoms of this in the current debates over religion and atheism, or the need to assert “intelligent design”, both of which reflect a vulnerability in the very concept of independent mind that used to stretch from God to human (although not as far as apes usually, and certainly not as far as birds). Or if that’s too obscure, consider the judicial use of brain scanning, or that our memories come from our media, even from a global technical systems of mediated memories.

More than all this, thought might not even be thought, as in reasonably rational processes separate from emotion, or perception, or action, sensations, or even our simple movement through the world.

Whether any of this true, and which of the new models are right or wrong (scientifically), is up for grabs. My questions, however, are not along those lines. They rather concern the cultural consequences of new models for thinking, of the multiplications and clashes of “cognitive models” that don’t match, or don’t confirm our necessary assumptions, and the way these models don’t just inform but transform our thinking practices. The jury (in so far as we still have juries rather than brain scans) is out on whether culture can survive the new models, with their new practices and assumptions, whether they are right or wrong or a bit of both.

So here is my question: Can we survive dynamic, networked thought? Networked perceptions? The blurring of thought, perceptions and actions in dynamic networks? Can culture in general (I know, which culture specifically am I writing about … but that’s part of my point), can art, can democracy, science, religion, etc survive the new mobilities in perception and cognition/thinking models, practices and yes - perhaps thinking processes themselves (thinking processes that now include perception, action, affect, sensation all in shifting brain-body -world dynamics, to the point that we may no longer be able to talk about, or even assume, “our cognitive processes”).

Part of this is that as thinking/perception, sensation, affect and action all become more networked, more dynamic, more mobile, they are also more “mobilized” in Isabelle Stengers’ sense of the word, in which models and rhetorics are “mobilized” in order to stabilise certain practices, interests, disciplines, (models of affective and cognitive control in the workplace for example, or education, to help maximise productivity). Can we survive this (often “scientific”) “mobilization” of thought, perception, affect and action?

Sub-question: What are thought, affect, perception and action when they are now so obviously in such complex are fully mobilized circuits? Are they anything stable or even nameable at all? (I don’t claim to be able to answer this question, but a basic beginning might be here).

I’ve been trying to figure out my ambivalence to mobile media for ages - not least because I teach them all the time. We are planning a workshop on the issue of mobility at CCAP in December, and an invitation to submit some questions led to this.


What exactly are the new technics of mobility? Can we even pin them down? Are mobile media media technics in the old sense, like film or tv (with their own disciplines, their own established forms of mediation)? Or do we need to rethink the whole question of mediation? How do we map the new technologies and techniques of mobility, along with the social processes, individuation of collectivities or subjectivities they make possible? What modes of living - of work and loving - come into being in a mobile world? What are the new relations between experiment, model and experience in life, work and love?

In reality, mobility is today both poison and cure. Increased mobility, and new mobile techologies are given as the solution to the problem of mobility itself. In such a context, what are the new relations between social collectivity and new mobile media?

To what extent do mobile technologies (and concepts, techniques of mobility) allow us to become mobile in what might best be called an experimental way? To live, love and work in a better way?

On the other hand, to what extent is the proliferation of new technical and social practices of mobility swept up in something like the “mobilization” described by Isabelle Stengers (in The Invention of Science)? This is a mobilization now found in the arts and social sciences as much as the physical sciences, in art itself as much as science (even as the borders between the all these blur). For Stengers, “mobilization” accompanies the very real, experimental “proliferation of practices” [114] in science. In that these practices inevitably depart from the old, a “mobilizing model”, along with a series of rhetorics, is designed to recapture them. In “mobilization” a model (or series of models) is mobilized to maintain “order in the ranks of researchers” and “arm them against what would otherwise disperse their efforts” (something like mobilization might even be found in the “models” of social relations within the naming of the “Creative Industries” - that is of course the risk taken by the term and the discipline). These models re-affirm certain disciplines against that which escapes them. There is a price to pay. As Stengers asks, “what knowledges and practices will be destroyed, or prevented from being invented, in the name of what must be called a ‘mobilizing belief’ - namely, the faith in a future where the body will show that its rational representatives were indeed right”?.

Many questions follow this contest between invention, experiment, mobilization and capture. What modes of living survive? What are the forms of suffering found within the contested flows of the new mobilities. If, as Freud noted in Civilization and Its Discontents, “The communal life of human beings had … a two-fold foundation: the compulsion to work, which was created by external necessity, and the power of love…”, what are the precise conditions of work and love in the new mobilities? Are the intertwined fates of love and work the two key issues within the new mobilities?

First - work. Psychoanalyst of work, Christophe Dejours, has suggested that suffering is the very essence of working. This is a particular kind of suffering. Here “suffering” “means bridging the gap between prescriptive and concrete reality“. This definition of work perhaps allows us to rethink the relations between technics, the prescriptive reality of models or “mobilizations”, lived experience and the necessity of experiment. As Dejours puts it -

… there is no such thing as purely mechanical work.

This means that there is always a gap between the prescriptive and the concrete reality of the situation. This gap is found at all levels of analysis between task and activity, or between the formal and informal organisation of work. Working thus means bridging the gap between prescriptive and concrete reality. However, what is needed in order to do so cannot be determined in advance; the path to be navigated between the prescriptive and the real must constantly be invented or rediscovered by the subject who is working. Thus, for the clinician, work is defined as what the subjects must add to the orders so as to reach the objectives assigned to them, or alternately, what they must add of themselves in order to deal with what does not function when they limit themselves to a scrupulous execution of orders. (”Subjectivity, Work and Action,” Critical Horizons 7(1), 2006:45-62)

I love this definition because it rings so true of the experience of work, its mediation of model, demand and contingency - contingency not only in the sense of changing circumstances but of a changing change itself which evades models. The questions that arise? What are the gaps that must be bridged between prescriptive and concrete reality in a world immersed in the models, practices and concrete if fluid realities of mobilities? Who and what are put at risk in order to maintain social order in the new space of flows? And if the new mobilities for the first time begin to take note of the complexity of relations between virtuality and actuality, if only because they capitalise on them, does this only mean there is more work to be done? More bridging the gaps that keep opening up in the production of the real? In short, is “concrete reality” a lot less “concrete” these days (or … is concrete reality more fully revealed as a fraud by the new technics of mobility)? Does the new mobility demand a new materialism while drawing attention to the poverty of the old (one that still informs so much disciplinary work, so many models of mediation, so many demands in the workplace)? Or does the new mobility demand an ongoing reconciliation of prescription, model, and variation - a reconciliation that is at best partial and always unravelling?

If this sounds apocalyptic, the case is the opposite. Despite the new “mobilizations” that accompany contemporary mobility, there might be many aspects to the suffering or bridging gaps between prescription and concrete (if both virtual and actual) reality that are liberating. If so, in what sense would we mean “liberation” here? What would a genuine social or artistic innovation using mobile (or dynamic) media be? Is it just a question of creating forms of mobility escape mobilization? How are these to be nurtured? Is it time for the individual again, released by the new mobility, even for the collective individual? Does it depend totally on context?

Is this simply a question of practice (although of course questions of practice are never simple, especially in this context)? What are the concrete (a “concrete” taking account of both virtual and actual) alternatives within the new mobilities in terms of social organization, individuation and concrete modes of living?

One practical solution that is already underway: Let us list and share the new practices and principles. Databases should - more than they perhaps do - form nodes of replication of these practices - not just classification and conservation. Technical “life” and social life should support each other productively (while leaving behind the overcoding mobilization of “productivity”). Is that what mobile media are really for, even if such practices and principles are always also “mobilized” in the service of the new dot.coms?

Or are we so busy liberating ourselves with mobile media, or just “bridging so many gaps” that they open up - in short, overworking - that we are lost before we begin? Should we be refusing this work (even as, in sociable media, it masks itself as leisure)? Franco Berardi, in returning to an older refusal of work in Operaism, suggests that -

Virtual workers have less and less time for attention , they are involved in a growing number of intellectual tasks, and they have no more time to devote to their own life, to love, tenderness, and affection. They take Viagra because they have no time for sexual preliminaries.
The cellularisation has produced a kind of occupation of life. The effect is a psychopathologisation of social relationships. (“What is the Meaning of Autonomy Today?”)

Are we then, addressing the wrong questions in trying to pin down the nature of new media (as I asked at the beginning - “What exactly are the new technics of mobility?”)? Is there too much “work” being done on this kind of question. Is constantly going back to this question a misplaced suffering, even if the question itself is not intrinsically incompatible with the questions of work and love? Would it be better to ask clinical questions of mobility - that is, questions of diagnosing the health or available capacities in a situation. Would this diagnostic approach allow that mobility might well be the cure to its own problem, in the right circumstances?

Perhaps this is a question of therapy. In Sydney in 2004, Berardi finished a talk by remarking -

The problem of therapy is at the centre of the next phase of the movement .. the media (media activism) has to become a process of reactivation of social emotion, of social affection, of social ability to love.

This “therapy/activism” might engage - in a “clinical manner” - with the embodied individuation of network experience (here the value of the like of Gerard Goggin’s interest in disability and contemporary media). In simpler terms this might be to question the “relation” between mobility, the “compulsion to work” and the “power of love” described by Freud (of course, this is not a questioning that needs to take place in Freudian terms). Anna Munster frames such questions this way in Materializing New Media -

…”digital embodiment” is an unstable and uneven condition produced out of the differential impact of bodies and technologies as they globally impinge upon each other in widely varying circumstances. Material differences make themselves felt by being produced rather than inhering to substances .. it is the movements, modulations and transformations peculiar to global digital culture that make the political and ethical relations we form (or deny) with other bodies so important. [184-185].

So far much thinking about mobility has made much of this a secondary issue, if one at all (even if work and love are in fact, in everyday life, the “material differences” produced in a new way by mobile media). It has been more concerned with dealing with the situation as a to and fro between stasis and change, that is mobility. Social effects become a much measured (somewhat secondary) measure of this to and fro (”64% of those surveyed about their mobile phone use said …”). However, even if one is thinking - perhaps necessarily - in these terms, things are more complicated than is often allowed. Mobile media technologies - and the modes of life they are in symbiotic relationship with - are themselves constantly moving, evolving. As Brian Massumi puts it, “change changes”constantly (Parables for the Virtual:10). This is a difficult - if not impossible - fact for disciplinary forms of knowledge, models, rhetorics and other “mobilizations” to digest (not only in the academy, but in the workplace, even in relationships outside of work). This perhaps explains our rather torn - at best ambivalent - thinking about mobile media. No discipline, no model, no rhetoric can ever capture the mobility of mobility. Indeed, we inhabit this enhanced and increasingly self-reflexive “changing change” by working the gaps between theory and “concrete reality”. In this context we should perhaps be aware that our very thinking through of mobilities (whether in the serviced of social innovation or the established “Creative Industries”) is “cognitive labour” in Dejours’ sense. Although again, despite its demands, work does not inhabit this changing change alone. It does so in a series of tense relationships with the problems of “social affection”.

It is therefore perhaps through the questions - and practices - of love and work that we should locate mobile media, and the broader problematic of mobility. This will always be a question of ongoing experiment, whether in the reactive attempt to capture this change or in the attempt to find new ways of loving and working.