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Week Four—Media, Communications and Experience as Flow

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LECTURE

(lecture recordings provided elsewhere)

Media, Communication and Flow

Last week we thought about fields, which are more or less spatial. This week we think about flow, that is, time. Of course the two go together to produce “flowing fields”, or, we could say, “fielding flows”.

How does thinking about flow and relations change some of the ways we think about media and communications?

Let’s see how much you can learn about William James quickly (about an hour and a bit), via a series of brief audios and texts (listen to, read these in order).

1. Listen to these two parts of Andrew’s Sketch of William James’ Ideas (around 9 minutes each—texts are further down this page if you prefer)

 

2. Engage with this short video on William James and Time (about 4 minutes):

The Rugged Pyrrhus (2014) ‘William James: Perception of Time’, YouTube.comhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=huoZnoB_eiQ

3. Engage with these short videos (about 6 minutes in total)

Oliver Sachs (n.d.) ‘William James: foundational figure for neurology and psychology’, ‘William James’ sensitivity to religious experiences’, and ‘William James: “The Adorable Genius”‘, starting on this page http://www.webofstories.com/play/oliver.sacks/336 at webofstories.com. The videos are videos number 336, 337 and 338. The page should open at the first one. You can find links to the second and third videos down the page.

4. Work through this (very) short module on William James and emotion from the Open University (you need to download and read the very short extract from James)

Anon. (n.d.) ‘Emotion: An introductory picture’, OpenLearn, <http://www.open.edu/openlearn/history-the-arts/culture/philosophy/emotion-introductory-picture/content-section-3.1>

5. Read the follow short link materials/material I’ve quoted here

Maria Popova (n.d.) ‘William James and Habit’, Brain Pickings, <http://www.brainpickings.org/2012/09/25/william-james-on-habit/>

This quote from William James on life as transition:

“Life is in the transitions as much as in the terms connected; often, indeed, it seems to be there more emphatically, as if our spurts and sallies forward were the real firing-line of the battle, were like the thin line of flame advancing across the dry autumnal field which the farmer proceeds to burn.”
–William James, “A World of Pure Experience” (1904) (taken from this site though you don’t have to read the article)

Read the quote below—you don’t have to read the Massumi article unless you’re interested but if you are the link is here—a complex article by Brian Massumi on the primacy of relation in William James)

“This brings us to James’ pivotal definition of what constitutes a radical empiricism, and when coupled with pragmatism precludes it being an instrumentalism: the primacy of relation. The world revolves around its momentous relation to itself. Relations, James insists, are as real as the terms in relation (subjects, objects, sense-data). And relations are themselves experienced.

Read the next two quotes:

The relations that connect experience must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system. (James 1996a, 42)

The parts of experience hold together from next to next by relations that are themselves part of experience. The directly apprehended universe needs, in short, no extraneous trans-empirical connective support, but possesses in its own right a concatenated or continuous structure. (James 1978, 173)

6. Read some quotes that relate William James’ Ideas to Media and Communications, in particular to “wirelessness”

This is quote from Adrian Mackenzie’s Wirelessness (2010, MIT Press), (taken from a review by Bree Tahapary here).

If we do not appreciate the of work of algorithmic processes, then we cannot understand the effervescences associated with wirelessness – how chips multiply and flow in their billions into markets, how new forms of embodied habit and conduct appear, how places are transformed into zones of connectivity, and how new species of sociality concresce around them. We also can’t understand the growth of wirelessness, its proliferation, its overlaps and contestation, or its structuring of collective experience. Wirelessness as a state of effervescence develops in assemblages of conjunctive relations: it lies at the fringes of experience, but tinges experience with certain feelings of proximitiy and attentiveness that may very well not register consciously. (Mackenzie, 2010: 69)

Here is a quote from the blurb for Mackenzie’s Wirelessness.

How has wirelessness–being connected to objects and infrastructures without knowing exactly how or where– become a key form of contemporary experience? Stretching across routers, smart phones, netbooks, cities, towers, Guangzhou workshops, service agreements, toys, and states, wireless technologies have brought with them sensations of change, proximity, movement, and divergence. In Wirelessness, Adrian Mackenzie draws on philosophical techniques from a century ago to make sense of this most contemporary postnetwork condition. The radical empiricism associated with the pragmatist philosopher William James, Mackenzie argues, offers fresh ways for matching the disordered flow of wireless networks, meshes, patches, and connections with felt sensations. For Mackenzie, entanglements with things, gadgets, infrastructures, and services–tendencies, fleeting nuances, and peripheral shades of often barely registered feeling that cannot be easily codified, symbolized, or quantified–mark the experience of wirelessness, and this links directly to James’s expanded conception of experience. “Wirelessness” designates a tendency to make network connections in different times and places using these devices and services. Equally, it embodies a sensibility attuned to the proliferation of devices and services that carry information through radio signals. Above all, it means heightened awareness of ongoing change and movement associated with networks, infrastructures, location, and information.The experience of wirelessness spans several strands of media-technological change, and Mackenzie moves from wireless cities through signals, devices, networks, maps, and products, to the global belief in the expansion of wireless worlds.

Read this review of Wirelessness by Jussi Parikka.

Text for Andrew’s Lecture Recordings (above) on William James

A Sketch of the Thinking of William James

part of the lecture materials for weeks 3/4 

Andrew Murphie

Part 1

Welcome to my very short lecture on William James. This is really a bit of a sketch—just a way of working through the material in order to extract the key points that we can use to think about media and communications. But in order to do that we have to understand some of the basic, really quite radical ideas that William James came up with.

After the first week’s quick review of what we already knew about media and communications, last week and this week are a way of dramatically expanding our ideas about what media and communications are, where we might find them, and what their real powers might be. Apart from giving us a better understanding of media and communications generally, this has another purpose—it is only by expanding our understanding of media and communications that we can really grasp what is happening in contemporary media and communications as they assume their full power, and indeed where media and communications might be heading in the future.

In some ways this week on William James follows very clearly from last week’s work in which we looked at the way that von Uexküll and Bateson dealt with the broader fields or worlds in which communications take place. Events/changes in these fields or worlds were what communication was about—what it is. For von Uexküll this was the key aspect of the world that any animal was attuned to—the umwelt—with it’s action-perception functional cycles or circuits between action and perception, body and world that formed, and for Bateson it was a question of metacommunication, of framings, of all those things that media and communications are really about and how these shift as communication occurs.

Well implied in all that is a whole series of flows in the world, and I think the idea of flow  comes very easily to media and communications because we know—we experience—that media and communications seem to involve intense flows. We know that networks aren’t just things, they are flows. Wi-Fi is literally flung through the air all the time. All of us right at this moment are surrounded by a lot of Wi-Fi. It’s flowing around us (or through us) and we flow through the world in the midst of other flows. William James’s philosophy is useful here for us, as it allows us to think of all these events as flows rather than as static objects that just happen to be moving around and meeting each other, to put it rather too starkly.

So to William James. Some regard him as America’s only real contribution to philosophy which is a bit cheeky although I think a lot of people would say that he is probably America’s most famous philosopher. As if that isn’t enough he is also often regarded as one of the founders of modern psychology. Both of these claims about his work are in part because one of his main concerns was experience.  He wrote extensively on experience in general, and famously on “Varieties of Religious Experience”. In taking experience seriously, he was one of the founders of the philosophy of pragmatism—a very American, perhaps the American philosophy. Pragmatism is a philosophy in which the practical value of ideas is what counts. James was doing all this in the late 1800s and into the early 1900s. I won’t say too much more about his life—there’s more in the online references and so on. I just will discuss some of his key ideas.

As I’ve suggested, he gets to the idea of flow via taking experience seriously. For a philosopher or psychologist to be committed to experience at this time was a little bit radical. For a lot of thinkers experience was a distraction from really seriously and scientifically examining the nature of mind, or the world and other things via means that by-passed experience (anatomy for example, or more abstract philosophy). Experience, especially everyday experience, was suspect. However for pragmatism or what William James also called a radical empiricism—that is a radical scientific approach to the world that includes everything that happens in it—experience was crucial. One of the quotes for the tutorial prepations for this week is about this (a very famous quote):

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced.

That’s radical empiricism. In other words if it can’t be experienced then you can’t really let it into the philosophy or the science. And if something is experienced then you have to included it in the philosophy or science, as experienced. You have to explain it. James begins to take a lot of different things really seriously because of this. He takes experience itself— human experience—and I guess we could say from last week maybe experience in animals and so on seriously. He takes subjectivity very seriously. He was the person who came up with the idea for the first time of the stream of consciousness (that’s something we might work with in the lectures a bit—the stream of consciousness) and he took relations seriously. If we experience relations in the world then relations must be as real as any other thing is for such a philosophy (maybe they are the most real thing).

For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system.

This is very radical. Other people conceive of relations but they usually consider them as secondary, “not quite as real” things that are kind of an effect of objects and subjects. Think of the classical mathematical model of communication developed by Shannon and Weaver, in which communication is a message with a kind of limited reality, between much more real subjects and objects (people, transmitters and receivers). For James, however, all these—subjects, objects, transmitters, receivers would themselves also be bundles of real relations (other thinkers after James would come to suggest that reality was in fact just a ongoing shifting series of sets of relations, and that there were in fact no stable objects or subjects .. all we are are shifting relations that make up the fields or worlds that we talked about last week).

Part 2

So really it’s perhaps his approach to experience and relations that is the most radical aspect of James’s thinking. I think these are particularly appropriate ideas for the dynamic culture that we live in with contemporary media and communications, with the complexity of flows and the rich and varied and constantly changing experiences we have now in a very fast flowing “stream of consciousness”.  I think that that makes him a very interesting philosopher. He gives us the concepts (the tools) to ask about our contemporary streams of consciousness now. As he writes:

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as “chain” or “train” do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life.

And this is at the heart of subjective life for him and there’s a little video that follows this talk that you should watch which is really good on his idea of the perception of time and consciousness.

As I’ve said, James thought we had to explain experience but he included a lot of things in experience. He’s also famous, for example, for a whole new theory of emotion. He thought that emotions came from our experience from the world rather than starting as an internal state. Let me explain. Most of us assume that we feel fear (internal state) so we run, or we get angry (internal state) so we clench our fists, etc. However, James  suggested that, no, we first react to a situation by clenching fists and from this we become angry, or we first run and then we feel fear, or we cry and then become sad. If you think about your own experience this may resonate with how the experience actually works—the order of the experience. But this begins to overturn many of our fundamental assumptions about the relationship between events, emotions and thinking. Thinking no longer controls everything. Not even clearly defined emotions do. Rather relations in the world produce both as a kind of important side effect (one that feeds back into the situation after it has begin to develop).

So James included a new idea about emotion in relation to the world and to thought. He took into account vague feelings (feelings at the fringes of things). He took tendencies into account as also as real as actions. Thus he took potential as a real aspect of any situation. All of these were a part of his radical empiricism. Habit became important. A lot of the readings for tutorials and lectures are about these aspects of his work.

Now a large result of all this for James was that thought is in constant change. He writes that:

I do not mean necessarily that no one state of mind has any duration – even if true, that would be hard to establish.

The change which I have more particularly in view is that which takes place in sensible intervals of time; and the result on which I wish to lay stress is this, that no state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before.

So this is a radical notion of constant change in ideas, practices and so on (although perhaps less radical in some non-Western contexts which have accepted this kind of change for thousands of years). For James something like habit is as close as you get to constancy but that is also changing. Essentially streams of thought and streams of experience are constantly changing, and so is the world.

Now contemporary media and communications thinker Brian Massumi (who we’ll be looking at later in the course) has taken this to mean that we have a stream of experience in which we are always immersed. There is no outside to our experience. We ‘become conscious of a situation in its midst’, when we ‘are already actively engaged in it’. Again, you’ll probably understand this when you look at experience in the context of contemporary media and communications, networks and so on. Our ‘awareness is always of an already ongoing participation in an unfolding relation’ (Massumi, 2002 [Parables for the Virtual] 13, 230-1)

And—slightly tricky bit—our own experience in some ways exceeds the way that we think about our experience.

Experience overflows the borders and boundaries that mark out the principal lived functions of subjectivity-self, institution, identity and difference, object, image and place (quote from Adrian Mackenzie).

So this has all really been by way of a simple introduction or sketch. I will put on a few quotes from a few people who think about William James with regard to media and communications. Adrian Mackenzie himself has written a very good book on what he sees as a new condition of “wirelessness” in culture. This wirelessness involves a constant experience of transition and he uses William James extensively. And other people have used William James—other thinkers who take flow seriously, thinkers who emphasise relations or just take experience seriously, or vague perception, religious experience—all these as very real aspects in the world that we have to take seriously in accounting for the way things work. And I guess the kinds of lives that we might want to live. Because the way we model or conceptualise our lives, from a pragmatic point of view, whether it’s technically “right” or “wrong” tends to produce what happens in our lives.

Extra Materials (not required but since I’ve found it I might as well direct your attention here)

John Gabrieli (2013) ‘Lecture on Emotion and Motivation’, MIT, Videolectures.net, <http://videolectures.net/mit9000s11_gabrieli_lec15/> (it’s about William James’ take on emotion from about 8 minutes for a few minutes)

Russell Goodman (2013) ‘William James’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/james/>

TUTORIALS

Media, Communication and Flow 

Group work guided by your tutor.

This week we consider another set of important issues that might make us think very differently about media and communications. Although some of these are in fact ancient philosophical issues, they have been given a new twist in the diverse, fast-flowing, and highly relational worlds of networked media and communications. All the questions involved are in fact simple. Yet they all require us to think differently, and to think perhaps against many basic assumptions we might usually rely on to frame our worlds. The questions include:

  1. Is the real world fundamentally one of objects (and subjects) or of relations and processes? Or all of these? Or, to put this differently, are relations real? Or at least as real as anything else? What difference might it make to think in terms of process first, rather than more fixed objects and subjects?
  2. Does the world stay fundamentally the same, or does it constantly change? Is the world one of “beings” or “becomings”? Or both?
  3. What is the status of our experience? How much should we ground our understanding of the world in what we directly experience or perceive?

Practical Preparations

Although the ideas this week work in all situations (for example a simple conversation or even just looking at the stars), they seem more obvious in more obviously active examples. One of these is sport (you might also think of all kinds of gaming but we’re discussing that in another week). So, just as we looked at infrastructure and design last week, this week we might consider sport and media, in the light of concepts such as ‘pure experience’, flow, the ‘stream of consciousness’ and the reality of ‘relations’ (indeed last week you would have read about the tension between these two in the article on biometrics and the NBA. Consider how sports themselves, and media engagements with sport involve different aspects of: flow, becoming, the real experience of ‘tendencies’ or ‘vague fringes’, of shifting relations in ‘constant change’. What difference does online or offline, for example, make to all this? You might think here of the kind of mediated engagement with the experience of a sport (or other mediated event) you’re interested in most. How might such ideas help you to understand involvement and immersion, in the moment? What are the differences between print, television or radio (live commentary) and, for example, sports blogging, when it comes to experience and change?

A more philosophical example of sports blogging can be found here, at sportsBabel.net, by sports philosopher and artist Sean Smith. The link will lead to posts tagged <relationality>. Note also the post ‘American Pragmatism’—which is as perfect an example of flow and fields as you’ll see (ice hockey players forming a perfect kind of spiralling pattern as they score a goal).

http://www.sportsbabel.net/tags/relationality

For something different to do with media and flow, perhaps try this hack of GTA, involving a deer with a life of it’s own. It’s strange but I think interesting—http://sanandreasanimalcams.com/ (this is a deer wandering through what is usually the quite violent world of the video game Grant Theft Auto … haven’t been totally through this but it seems reasonably safe to view from what I’ve seen so far).

You might also just pay special attention to your own experience this week, especially in media engagements. What’s really happening in/as your thinking/feeling—in detail—when you are experiencing your own engagement/flowing with the world? What is your experience when engaging with different media and communications—gaming, phone, across different platforms?

Required Readings/Preparations

Not so many required readings this week for the tutorial, but they all require some thought as they tend to cut across some of the more normal ways of thinking about events.

[online] Guillaud, Hubert (2010) (on Danah Boyd) ‘What is implied by living in a world of flow?’, Truthout, January 6, <http://truth-out.org/archive/component/k2/item/87704:what-is-implied-by-living-in-a-world-of-flow> [ if you wanted, you could engage the video of the talk at the previous link, or, the text of this talk is here—http://www.danah.org/papers/talks/Web2Expo.html]

[online] Wikipedia (n.d.) ‘Becoming (philosophy)’, Wikipedia.org, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Becoming_(philosophy)>

[online] Byrne, Michael (2016) ‘How To Break the Information Age Trance of “Continuous Partial Attention”’, Motherboard, January 17, <http://motherboard.vice.com/read/welcome-to-the-age-of-continuous-partial-attention>

The following quotes, from the late nineteenth century by/about psychologist/philosopher William James (who famously emphasised the importance of experience, and was one of the founders of modern psychology) are also required reading:

About radical empiricism, the reality of experience (about what James saw as a ‘world of pure experience’ as opposed to a world one thought about abstractly, as if from a distance …  and also about relations being as real as anything else (spend some time with this quote):

To be radical, an empiricism must neither admit into its constructions any element that is not directly experienced, nor exclude from them any element that is directly experienced. For such a philosophy, the relations that connect experiences must themselves be experienced relations, and any kind of relation experienced must be accounted as ‘real’ as anything else in the system. (James, William (2014) ‘A World of Pure Experience’, in Essays in Radical Empiricism Adelaide: [email protected], <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/william/radical/chapter2.html>.)

On the ‘stream of thought’ or ‘stream of consciousness’:

Consciousness, then, does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as “chain” or “train” do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows. A “river” or a “stream” are the metaphors by which it is most naturally described. In talking of it hereafter let us call it the stream of thought, of consciousness, or of subjective life. (James, William (1983) The Principles of Psychology George A. Miller (ed.) Harvard University Press: 239.)

This excerpt from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy account of William James:

In the deservedly famous chapter on “The Stream of Thought” James takes himself to be offering a richer account of experience than those of traditional empiricists such as Hume. He believes relations, vague fringes, and tendencies are experienced directly (a view he would later defend as part of his “radical empiricism.”) James finds consciousness to be a stream rather than a succession of “ideas.” Its waters blend, and our individual consciousness — or, as he prefers to call it sometimes, our “sciousness” — is “steeped and dyed” in the waters of sciousness or thought that surround it. Our psychic life has rhythm: it is a series of transitions and resting-places, of “flights and perchings” (PP 236). We rest when we remember the name we have been searching for; and we are off again when we hear a noise that might be the baby waking from her nap. (Goodman, Russell, (2013) ‘William James’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2013/entries/james/>.)

On the changing nature of thought:

Thought is in Constant Change.

I do not mean necessarily that no one state of mind has any duration – even if true, that would be hard to establish.

The change which I have more particularly in view is that which takes place in sensible intervals of time; and the result on which I wish to lay stress is this, that no state once gone can recur and be identical with what it was before. (James, William, (2014 [1890]) ’The Stream of Thought’, in The Principles of Psychology, Adelaide: [email protected], <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/william/principles/chapter9.html>).

On always being in the midst of change

As James writes, ‘change taking place’ is a unique content of experience, one of those ‘conjunctive’ objects which radical empiricism seeks so earnestly to rehabilitate and preserve (161). In this respect, it is not typical empiricism. Brian Massumi has developed this strand of James work’ in his account of the transcontextual aspects of experience (Massumi, 2002). In reflecting on James account of experience, Massumi describes the streamlike-aspects of experience: we become conscious of a situation in its midst, already actively engaged in it. Our awareness is always of an already ongoing participation in an unfolding relation (Massumi, 2002 13, 230-1). Experience overflows the borders and boundaries that mark out the principal lived functions of subjectivity-self, institution, identity and difference, object, image and place(my emphasis) (Mackenzie, Adrian (2008) ‘Wirelessness as Experience of Transition’, the Fibreculture Journal, 13, <http://thirteen.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-085-wirelessness-as-experience-of-transition/>)

Extra Resources

[online] anon. (n.d.) ‘William James > Quotes’, Goodreads, <http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/15865.William_James> [some of the more everyday quotes from William James demonstrate his very different approach to life. He was not only important to the discipline of modern psychology but to a different kind of psychology that everyone could use in everyday life to take more control of their own lives].

[online] Konnikova, Maria (2014) ‘Being a Better Online Reader’, July 16, The New Yorker, <http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/being-a-better-online-reader>

[online] Brunner, Christoph and Fritsch, Jonas (2011) ‘Interactive Environments as Fields of Transduction’, the Fibreculture Journal, 18, <http://eighteen.fibreculturejournal.org/2011/10/09/fcj-124-interactive-environments-as-fields-of-transduction/> [rethinks interaction design via the work of Gilbert Simondon on relations and transformation]

[online via the library] Comello, Maria Leonora G. (2009) ‘William James on “Possible Selves”: Implications for Studying Identity in Communication Contexts’, Communication Theory, 18(3): 337-350.

[online] Mackenzie, Adrian (2008) ‘Wirelessness as Experience of Transition’, the Fibreculture Journal, 13, <http://thirteen.fibreculturejournal.org/fcj-085-wirelessness-as-experience-of-transition/>. [highly recommended, although it’s complex, as Mackenzie uses William James’ philosophy to explain the experience involved in wireless networks]

[online] Pomerleau, Wayne P. (n.d.) ‘William James (1842—1910)’, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, <http://www.iep.utm.edu/james-o/>. [includes an account of his life]

[online via the library] Russill, Chris (2005) ‘The Road Not Taken: William James’s Radical Empiricism and Communication Theory’, The Communication Review 8(3): 277-305 [an interesting review of the origins of mainstream communication thinking and William James’ challenges to some core ideas in communications].