I’ve been pondering a new paper in Progress in Human Geography by my former OU colleague, Gillian Rose, which addresses the conceptual and methodological challenges presented to cultural geography by the emergence of digital modes of cultural practice. The paper is entitled ‘Rethinking the geographies of cultural “objects” through digital technologies: interface, network and friction’. Here is the abstract:
“This paper addresses how geographers conceptualize cultural artifacts. Many geographical studies of cultural objects continue to depend heavily on an approach developed as part of the ‘new cultural geography’ in the 1980s. That approach examined the cultural politics of representations of place, space and landscape by undertaking close readings of specific cultural objects. Over three decades on, the cultural field (certainly in the Global North) has changed fundamentally, as digital technologies for the creation and dissemination of meaning have become extraordinarily pervasive and diverse. Yet geographical studies of cultural objects have thus far neglected to consider the conceptual and methodological implications of this shift. This paper argues that such studies must begin to map the complexities of digitally-mediated cultural production, circulation and interpretation. It will argue that, to do this, it is necessary to move away from the attentive gaze on stable cultural objects as formulated by some of the new cultural geography, and instead focus on mapping the dynamics of the production, circulation and modification of meaning at digital interfaces and across frictional networks.”
There is a lot going on in the paper, but two things strike me as important about it: first, it brings into view, that is, it explicitly names the distinctive object of analysis upon which a significant amount of so-called ‘new cultural geography’ depended; and then, secondly, it announces that this object of analysis and associated methodologies of ‘reading’ are more or less redundant. That’s not quite how Gillian puts it, admittedly, but it’s not far off. (It should probably be noted that not all forms of ‘reading’ necessarily presume the specific type of ‘object’ that Gillian defines in her paper – more on that below).
Now, I happen to think that to a large extent both ‘new cultural geography’ and ‘the cultural turn’ really refer to a series of missed opportunities. And it’s in light of this prejudice of mine that I have been provoked by Gillian’s paper. Amongst other things, I have always wondered how this entire field has ever managed to be taken quite so seriously, indeed how it ever managed to take itself quite so seriously, while seeming to be constituted as if radio and television were never invented, or indeed as if The Beatles, Elvis, or The Supremes never happened (interesting work on these worlds had tended to be produced by economic geographers and others, not by cultural geographers). Cultural Geography has always seemed to me to be a bit un-Pop. This is partly, as my colleague Sam Kinsley has suggested, to do with an aversion to considering ‘vulgar’ cultural forms as worthy of attention; but as he further suggests, this has implications for how geographers think about what one might call the ‘ontology of media’.
My second frame for thinking about Gillian’s argument is a broader thought, another prejudice of mine if you will, about the ways in which human geography’s narratives of disciplinary ‘progress’ often tend to invest heavily in the idea that the best way of moving forward is by compounding a series of previously accumulated errors (see: ‘non-representational theory’).
So here, I want to pinpoint one or two aspects of Gillian’s argument about the challenge of digital technologies to cultural geography that might be framed slightly differently: partly these are matters to do with the constitutive elision of ‘the fact of television’, to borrow a phrase from Stanley Cavell, although I would be inclined to extend this into a more encompassing notion of ‘the fact of pop’; and beyond this, to questions of how to avoid mis-attributing to one specific media form a set of relational features around which a broader project of differentiating cultural mediums might be pursued.
The focus of Gillian’s paper is with “the legacy of those new cultural geographers who were concerned to interpret cultural objects”. She is referring to what one might characterise as the self-consciously ‘arty’ end of the spectrum of approaches to cultural analysis in geography, not so much because of its focus on arty-artefacts per se, but because of a distinctively arty concept of the object of cultural analysis. As she puts it, the focus is on discerning the meanings of “stable cultural objects”, such as maps, buildings, films, novels, and photographs. The paper does not say so clearly, but this is a strand of work that has operated with a quite distinct set of understandings of “meaning” and “reading”, when compared, say to the type of ethnographic work on ordinary food cultures developed by Peter Jackson (which elaborates a clear sense of the notion that ‘meaning is use’), or the work developed by Don Mitchell excavating the hidden injuries of landscape, or indeed Gillian’s own work on the practices of domestic photography. I’ll leave it others to determine how extensive the particular strand of work targeted by Gillian in this piece is representative of the best of the whole field.
Gillian’s argument is that the assumptions about the stable objects of cultural geography have been unsettled by the rise of digital modes of cultural production and distribution. As she puts it, “since the creation of so many cultural objects – though certainly not all, and not everywhere – is digitally mediated now, the stable cultural object is currently the rare exception rather than the rule.” The related claim that “close reading of stable cultural objects is ill-equipped to engage with the defining characteristics of contemporary, digitally-mediated cultural activity” is true enough. But I do wonder why the kind of approach that Gillian focuses on in this discussion was ever considered adequate, 25 years ago and ever since? Or, to put it another way, why is it that it is the fact of digital technology that seems to be the occasion for presenting cultural geography (of one sort at least) with the challenge of grappling with the constitutive role of technologies of dispersal, iteration, recomposition and translation in cultural life? And further, what might be elided by making ‘the digital’ so central to this conceptual and methodological disruption?
In accounting for the predilection for analysing stable cultural objects, Gillian refers to Walter Benjamin’s account of ‘aura’. Her suggestion is that the canonical objects of cultural geography were ‘auratic’ objects: “the new cultural geography emerged at a historical moment when the vast majority of cultural objects could be traced back to an original: an original manuscript, a building, a reel of film, a map.” Gillian’s strong implication is that these forms are, indeed, auratic objects. Now, it seems more plausible that this may have been how cultural geography constructed its objects of analysis. Either way, in so far as it holds true, then it is actually quite extraordinary. Benjamin’s point, in so far as it is a simple one, was that the auratic understanding of cultural artefacts was lost to modernity, and that modern modes of cultural practice opened up wholly new forms of apprehending and experiencing meaning. The argument is an inherently spatial one, in so far as aura is a concept related to the here-and-now presence of a subject before an object as the scene for a certain sort of aesthetic experience. The loss of aura is, in turn, a kind of shattering or dislocation of aesthetic experience, but crucially, of course it is a ‘loss’ that is found to be always already inscribed within the movement of cultural life (I am paraphrasing here, and largely based on half-forgotten readings of Samuel Weber’s rendition of Benjamin’s work on ‘mediauras‘ and on the centrality of the suffix ‘-abilites‘ to Benjamin’s style of conceptual analysis).
To be clear, Gillian’s presentation of how cultural geography addresses a stable cultural object certainly rings true to me. But in so far as it is accurate, we should be clear that this is the result of a motivated theoretical construction, it is not a result of the innate characteristics of cultural practice three decades ago. The significance of Benjamin’s accounts of aura, of ‘the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction’, of translation, and other themes, all written in the 1920s and 1930s, has always been in providing prescient resources for understanding the spatially dispersed and temporally strung-out forms of culture that already defined his time (print, film, radio) as well as ones soon to come (television, video, digital). Which gives rise to the question of how in the world cultural geography ever got away with holding so strongly to what, from a strictly Benjaminian perspective, looks like a distinctively pre-modern concept of culture?
Gillian’s claim in the paper is that received methods of “close reading” of “cultural texts” need to be reconsidered, indeed supplanted, because of the changes wrought by the rise of digital technologies: “For in the three decades or so since the emergence of the new cultural geography, both cultural objects and the technologies and practices in which they are embedded have altered significantly. Over the past 30 years there have been profound changes in the processes and practices of cultural production, in the circulation and display of cultural objects, and in the processes of audiencing, participation and critique.” Taken in isolation, this reads as an uncontroversial claim. But remember, what Gillian is arguing here is that these new developments challenge a notion of ‘stable cultural objects’ understood as more or less ‘auratic’ forms, containing more or less determinate meanings. My point is that this notion of culture was already redundant way back in the 1980s, when we were all busy learning to love our video machines and wrecking the music industry by taping the Top40 from the radio and listening to mix-tapes on our Walkmans. Cultural meaning did not become dispersed across multiple sites, spread across multiple media platforms, ‘massified’, or split up and recombined across fragile networks only recently, in the last couple of decades. Nor did this start in the 20s or 30s, when Benjamin was writing (his point is that it has always been happening, that it a movement that lies at the source of any and all ‘originals’).
I am trying to make two related points. First, that digital technologies no doubt introduce all sorts of new dimensions into cultural life, but that whatever these might be, they are not best understood by reference to the idea of stable cultural objects that have held cultural geography in thrall. Secondly, the stability of cultural objects presumed by cultural geography, according to Gillian’s account, should not be mistaken as some sort of inherent ‘material’ feature of forms such as the novel, films, or photographs. If this is how cultural geography thought of its objects of analysis from the 1980s onwards, then this is something that needs to be accounted for on other grounds (as a specific response to a certain intuition of loss, perhaps?). Approaching paintings, or photos, or novels as stable cultural objects to be read for meaning is a particular achievement, one that depends on various procedures such as practices of exhibiting, or paratextual networks of reviewing and marketing. Take, for example, the way in which ‘Film’ has become a staple object of analysis not just in cultural geography, but in other fields such as Classics and Political Theory in the last three decades. Before that, the academic analysis of Film, and its most famous theoretical products such as Auteur Theory or Screen Theory, were largely the preserve of specialist film schools. Now, we can all do it. This generalisation of ‘Film’ as a potential stable object of academic analysis is dependent, of course, on the widespread dissemination of video technology from the 1980s onwards, that is, it is dependent on the widespread and cheap distribution of an archive of film history, and the possibility of recording films off the telly, and in turn the possibility for anyone to watch and re-watch, stop and pause and rewind, and to do so not only as ‘research’ but also as a teachable methodology.
This is just one example of how the stable cultural objects that cultural geography focussed on were made available by a series of distributed, networked, mobile technologies that stand as the conditions of possibility of that imputed autonomy and stability. (You could make a similar argument about the degree to which the emergence of a shareable canon of Theory upon which ‘the cultural turn’ depended, that could be learnt and mastered even in an odd discipline like Geography, was dependent on the photocopier). And I invoke this example because it indicates how the attributes that Gillian defines as peculiarly new ones, associated with digital technologies, are not just discernible in other modes of cultural practice, but more precisely, that the erasure of these modes of mediation from ‘new cultural geography’ might well be the condition for the particular framing of the challenge of digital technology as it is now felt in geography and articulated so clearly in Gillian’s paper.
Gillian’s argument is that the artefacts of digital technologies are distinguished by three features, understood by reference to the magical signifier ‘materiality’: they are mutable, multimedial, and mass. I think the categories are really useful, but they clearly do not categorically distinguish digital artefacts from non-digital ones (they only appear to do so because of what we have established to be a bizarrely restrictive construction of the object of cultural-geographic analysis). I think there is a danger here of reserving for one particular mode of cultural practice, the digitally mediated, a set of features that actually should be better understood as relational terms of comparative analysis and judgement, as if they were attributes of a particular mode. The language of ‘materiality’ just reinforces this tendency, which is a kind of category error.
Lots of practices of meaning are mutable (you can forge other people’s handwriting, or fake photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald in the backyard (maybe)); lots of cultural forms are multi-medial (song is a theatrical form, an amplified form, a recorded form, only sometimes all at the same time; films have soundtracks); writing, as Raymond Williams memorably demonstrated, is a form inscribed in all sort of non-literary cultural forms, from public speaking to theatre to television and film (and digital technologies are significant not least, surely, for reviving and inventing a range of practices of literacy); and ‘mass’ culture, defined by what Gillian refers to as ‘the sheer amount of cultural production now’, but which really refers to a difficulty of containing and tracking where meaning flows that is not just about quantity, has been with us for quite some time, at least since the time of Caxton.
I suspect that the difference that digital technologies makes to these practices of translation, movement, and projection is better theorised in terms of the reconfiguration of parameters of speed, expertise, perhaps crucially, cost. Trying to pin down the distinctive features of digital technology by reference to the assumptions made about stable cultural objects, assumptions that we have seen depended on pretending that a whole history of modern media simply did not impinge on cultural-geographic analysis, threatens to misapprehend not so much what is new and different about digital technologies, but rather to misconstrue how to go about conceptualising what is new and different about any media practice. Going back to Benjamin, one thing we might think about is the idea that historically novel forms actually throw into new relief the characteristics of ‘old’ ones – they enable us to acknowledge features of the old ones previously unavailable to perception or sense. Related to this, we might pause and consider the degree to which thinking seriously about culture and media and technology really requires us to engage in some reflection on the nature of a particular sort of reasoning, namely analogical reasoning. ‘New’ media and the cultural forms they make possible are routinely made sense of through a process of selecting and enforcing authoritative analogies: this is the case in legal decision-making about new technologies; it is also evident in the very names given to innovative forms of cultural expression associated with new digital practices – forms such as e-mail, webpages, YouTube. These are not mere lazy affectations, they are small indices of the ways in which ‘new’ media forms emerge through process of learning that draw on formal and informal competencies to draw and act upon appropriate analogies.
Gillian’s analysis of these three features of digital technology culminates in a claim about the distinctive spatiality of digital culture, according to which the analytical challenge is to appreciate that “meaning is performed and materialized at specific sites; it is accessed, made to travel, searched for, modified, patched and laboured over in an uneven, variable and frictional network held together by diverse forms of work which do not always succeed in making meaning move.” This is a great description of how we might conceptualise the geography of meaning; only, it seems to me that it stands as a perfectly good description of modern print cultures, or of how broadcasting emerged as a cultural form in the 1920s, or indeed, a quite good paraphrase of what certain sorts of literary theorists once conceptualised as ‘textuality’. Again, my point is not to suggest that there is nothing new or distinctive or unsettling about digital media, just that the interesting question is to ask how these dimensions are configured by this mode of meaning-making, rather than supposing that they are emphatically characteristics of this mode alone.
There are important questions raised by Gillian’s paper about how one might approach the task of doing ‘media ontology’. I happen to think that thinking in terms of the ‘materialies’ of particular media or forms or technologies is likely to lead us astray, not least by encouraging the mis-atttribution of relational modalities or emergent ‘-abilities’ to singular forms or technologies. I prefer thinking about what Albert Hirschman liked to call ‘structural characteristics’ of practices, by which he meant the different combinations of spatial and temporal wiggle-room or latitude that shaped the pathways of different projects. I also like Cavell’s style of thinking through the ontology of film, as well as television, one which gets at what is distinctive about different mediums by asking, for example, what it is about a new medium that attracts disapproval. But more profoundly, Cavell thinks of the ontology of different mediums as what it is that they allow to be revealed or acknowledged about the human condition (and yes, this requires a certain sort of ‘reading’ of more or less canonical objects, but not of the sort which would be much approved of by cultural geographers I suspect (it would appear too naively characterological); besides, perhaps we should also allow that there is more than one way of ‘reading’ a ‘cultural text’, that Fredric Jameson’s style of addressing a film or novel as a totalising crystallisation of historical epochs is not quite the same as the reading by Robert Pippin of Westerns or Noir as allegories for certain recurrent political dilemmas, and further, that none of these examples looks much like anything undertaken in cultural geography).
Cavell’s discussion of ‘the fact of television‘ revolves around the idea that there might be something about TV that seems to resist acknowledgement, that it seems to be a medium distinguished by it being so taken-for-grantedly there and available (the occasion for Cavell’s discussion was the early 1980s ‘video revolution’). So the absence of TV from cultural geography is not necessarily a failure, it might be part of a broader phenomenon (one related, while I think about it, to the degree to which a great deal of critical academic discourse is shaped by an understanding of pressing political imperatives that derive from the world routinely disclosed to us as ‘News’). One of Cavell’s recurring concerns is with thinking of the distinctive qualities of different mediums in terms of genre. The problem of genre is for him the entry point for acknowledging the ontological qualities of film, or television, or painting. One of the qualities of film that passes over into television, he suggests, is the series; television, in turn, he suggests, is characterised not by particular objects, more by formats (like the sit-com). The point of recalling this sort of analysis is to indicate how the singular, stable objects of cultural analysis are made available to us from within these elusively structured modes of making meaning (and by the forms of forgetting that inhere within them too).
Anyway, all of this work about ‘genres’, ‘structural characteristics’, and ‘-abilities’ has one thing in common that might still meet with resistance from the paradigm of new cultural geography that Gillian’s paper addresses: none of it allows one to suppose that the best way of approaching cultural analysis is by supposing that cultural forms somehow shape or change subjectivities. The idea of subjectivity is the principle of totalization that continues to anchor cultural geography – from the presumption that culture is a medium for the construction or, worse, the production of subjectivity; to the ways in which this same idea remains the primary reference point for asserting the significance of stories about affectively imbued flows and encounters; and now, it seems, an interest in distinctive forms of digital or online subjectivity. It is this idea – that there is a thing called ‘subjectivity’ that it is the task of cultural analysis to comprehend in all its contingency and variety by attending to its modes of production – that is the most enduring feature of the paradigm of analysis that focusses on finding the meaning of stable cultural objects. And for as long as this anchor point remains in place, taken for granted even when disavowed, little progress will have been made in moving beyond the closures of the new cultural geography.
I have been assuming throughout my discussion here that Gillian is essentially correct in saying that the new cultural geography rose to prominence through the elevation of a distinctive method of reading for the meanings of stable cultural objects. I have suggested that this should be recognised as a motivated construction, rather than a more or less natural response to the ‘materialities’ of pre-digital media cultures. And I have tried to raise some questions about what we are to make of this closure of questions about the mediums of media cultures, a closure that I think might well continue to frame discussions of the challenge presented by digital technologies to established paradigms of geographical analysis. I have also suggested there is one thing that remains constant across Gillian’s discussion of the new cultural geography and its stable cultural objects, and the new forms associated with the interfaces, frictions and networks of digital cultures: the assumption that the main thing at stake is understanding something called ‘subjectivity’. What remains constant, across more constructivist approaches, self-righteously ‘non-representational’ approaches, and new work on digital culture, is the strong idea that cultural technologies do things to people, and that understanding what they do to people is the key concern that justifies ‘critical’ analysis.
The persistence of this problematic of subjectivity is indicated by Gillian’s refrain about the need to attend to how the “forms of contemporary subjectivity” are being changed by digital technologies. Once upon a time, the idea that subjectivity was constructed through culture depended on the assumption of stable spatial and temporal relations between a singular cultural object and a fixed viewer/reader. These days, the image that recurs is one of mobile bodies immersed within environments saturated with affectively configured meanings, moving from one screen to the next. In both cases, ‘the subject’ is assumed to be totally encompassed within the milieu of its own subjection. It’s the recurring image that once underwrote important arguments about ‘cultural politics’ and assertions of ‘resistance’, and which now underwrites misanthropic arguments about the ability of states to manipulate people’s feelings or about the real subsumption of subjectivity to capital.
In Gillian’s argument, there is an analytical slippage involved in counterposing the idealised model of a viewer/reader in front of a photo, film, or book to a nuanced description of the conditions through which digital technologies enable cultural forms to be produced and circulated. This is not comparing like with like, it should be admitted. I’ve already suggested that the conditions through which those stable cultural objects are made available for analysis are not quite so different from the conditions defined as distinctively ‘digital’. But one might perhaps be a little more charitable towards the analytical constructs of the new cultural geography. One thing that this mode of analysis does at least begin to approximate is the ordinary ways in which cultural forms are apprehended – as novels, as films, and so on. The concepts of ‘reading’ invoked in such work were highly stylised version of more ordinary modes of engaging with cultural forms, to be sure. But they do at least acknowledge that people engage with identifiable cultural forms, and not with technologies. Gillian’s characterisation of the distinctive features of digital culture seems to take for granted the adequacy of the previous formation of stable cultural objects in their own time, but in the wrong way. Reckoning only with the obvious limitations of that paradigm threatens to erase its virtues (an appreciation of the ordinary forms through which culture circulates): a complex, nuanced understanding of the modes of production and distribution of cultural forms is, after all, only ever interesting in relation to a concern with those ordinary formations – it is not a substitute for them, and it is certainly not the secret to understanding how power is exercised through mediated cultural artefacts.
It is best not to think of any type of understanding of the conditions of meaning as somehow throwing ‘critical’ light upon ordinary forms of engagement; as revealing constructions of subjectivity, the exercise of power, or the manipulations of affect. It is better to think of any such understanding as a resource for the better appreciation of what is at stake in those ordinary forms of apprehending cultural forms. Having outlined an account of the networks through which digital culture circulates, Gillian suggests in her conclusion that there is a need for “a richer analytical vocabulary for the power relations performed through this convergent network”. Perhaps what is really needed is a reassessment of the very idea that culture is a medium for exercising power at all; and a reassessment too of the idea which anchors this assumption about power, namely that it is at all respectable to think of people’s subjectivities as primarily formed in a subordinate relationship with their favoured cultural forms. In fundamental respects, the paradigm of cultural analysis that Gillian dissects in this paper might well get things the wrong way around, making a mistake that the diagnosis of digital cultures is only likely to compound for as long as it is not recognised: what William Kentridge calls the ‘pressure for meaning’ is not best thought of as an imperative imposed upon subjects by so many produced, circulated, distributed, dispersed cultural forms; it is, rather, something that we bring to those forms, more or less expertly, more or less successfully, and with more or less serious or hilarious consequences.