Taking up Kathleen Stewart's “New England Red,” the authors dialogue about the post-phenomenological perspective offered in Stewart's compositional writing, drawing on the turns in philosophy to the object, ontology, and twenty-first century media's production of a “worldly sensibility.”
Redness became iconic of a region, establishing a regional worlding on a scenic register (among others). But rather than jump to the meaning of this redness, or pull a rope around a bag of its social constructions, keep in mind the life of redness itself as it etched onto the landscape and into the place through flickering or hardening shards and angles and eventually came, in certain ways, to be lived, sensed, worlded.kathleen stewart, “new england red”1
The immediate effect of reading Stewart's “New England Red” is a sense of richness: the richness of life, its capacity to bring forth abundance. Not a crude/cruel optimism, “New England Red” gives life back to thought. After reflecting on itself for decades, after long winters (critical projects at least since the Enlightenment, searching for conditions and determining forces) and after short winters (poststructuralism, facing limits), thought prepares itself for summer, feels the sun, light, heat, life. In Stewart's writing, it is as if life uses new muscles, listens to new melodies. Concepts become capacities.talha İşsevenler, response to “new england red”2
I feel a rush of relief as I read Talha's response to Kathleen Stewart's “New England Red.”3 Talha is a graduate student taking a course with me, the title of which is “Sociality and the Non-Human Environment.” He carefully attends to the arguments offered in the course readings. He is learning with pleasure; yet he is reluctant to take up the “non-human turn” and what I am proposing to be central to it. Indeed, before students finally read “New England Red,” we had already spent much effort exploring the centrality of data-fication to the non-human. We especially focused on Mark B.N. Hansen's Feed Forward, in which he explores what he calls a “worldly sensibility,” or “the wide swath of environmental data” made available through the data mined from social media, tracking devices, biometrics, and environmental passive microsensors.4 I am relieved as I read Talha's response to “New England Red” because he, like Stewart, brings a worldly sensibility to the reader through writing, through words. Stewart refers to such writing as “more than representational” and, as Talha sees it, it is this writing that makes concepts become capacities. Perhaps “New England Red” is itself a relief from the technicity of data-fication, the quantitative, the non-human. Or is it their poetic counterpart?
Stewart returns to life, perhaps brings something home; or perhaps it is the reverse. She makes home (let's say the time-consciousness of subjectivity) intimate with publics without breaking/forgetting the heart of the subject (life) or making it a stranger (identity). ~Talha İşsevenler
A footnote is attached to “brings something home.” Quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, Talha makes note that home is where the heart is, where our treasure is—what, for Nietzsche, is where
the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as we were born winged creatures—collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with only one thing, to “bring something home.” As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call “experience”—which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time?5 ~Talha İşsevenler
For Talha, Hansen is no Neitzsche and Hansen's arguments would not engage him as much as they do except that Hansen is offering a re-reading of Alfred North Whitehead to show what the philosopher might offer the study of data-fication and to argue that data-fication necessitates just the re-reading of Whitehead that Hansen is offering.6 I imagine Talha is more interested in the link of philosophy to life, not so much its link to digital technology. As Hansen distinguishes his re-reading of Whitehead from more Deleuzian rereadings, Talha is invested in seeing whether Hansen will inspire him to turn from Gilles Deleuze's bio-philosophy, which is represented in another of the course readings: Keith Ansell-Pearson's Germinal Life.7 So, Talha and I will come to think together in asking that old question: What is life?
For Talha, at least at first, this will be a question about the human, the home, the heart; it will also be about thought and the time-consciousness of the phenomenological subject. For me, the question of life will be about the life of data, a matter of a post-phenomenological phenomenology, a time-consciousness of the non-human. In some important ways, our questions are related; they are about quantity and quality, essence and appearances, time-consciousnesses that are human and more than human, or more than representational. But these are not only questions about life; are they not also about death? After all, Stewart is not so much bringing something home as she is being brought home. She is feeling, seeing, even smelling red as she walks through the woods near the New England town where she grew up. She is home, but home is on the verge of having its heart broken and taken away: the winged creatures dispersed from their hives, flying, carrying red with them everywhere. Stewart is home to be with her mother who is dying.
Nearly at the end of “New England Red,” just below the heading “Opening Endings,” Stewart offers something like what object-oriented philosophers call a “Latour litany,” which lets Stewart put alongside each other “chemicals,” “grubs,” “labors,” “nightmares,” and “forms of touch and repulsion.”8 Stewart asks if the worlds these unfold and fold up again “have reached the expressivity of a mood, an infusion, a tone of voice? Do they lighten things or load them down?”9 These questions, the litany, and what has gone before it about red and redness are all we have before we read that Stewart is home to be with her mother: “My mother is dying in the nursing home. I escape for lunch… . Lured by the sight of a red barn, I am veered off into a route through the woods… . Then hours pass lost. I am dehydrated, becoming physically disoriented.”10
On first read, I was stunned, unprepared even though I knew Katie's mother was dying. On one of my visits to Austin, TX, we had talked about her mother moving to the nursing home. It was closer then to the time of my own mother's death. Still, when I read the line, I was thrown back to all I had just read of “New England Red.” Suddenly I knew that although it is only in this one line that there is mention of her mother's death, “New England Red” is all about this death and the worldly sensibility given by red—the elemental to which Stewart's mother is returning—a touching, affective means to consider the non-human, to be with it while awaiting something to reach the expressivity of a mood. Not so much a matter of language, but a matter of writing that is compositional, allowing a mother's death to touch the question of life.
Given Stewart's economical use of the autobiographical, I am not that surprised to learn many of the students did not seem to catch or remember that she tells the reader her mother is dying; did they simply miss the line? Did Talha? He does not mention it in his response paper. Nonetheless, he seems to feel the influence of the mother's dying. In his response, he writes that Stewart's concepts come “after catastrophe”; he quotes Stewart: concepts are “crystallizations filled with the potentiality of dissolution.”11 Indeed, it is not only once that Stewart refers to the potentiality of dissolution. Both loss and dissolution appear a number of times in “New England Red.” These are part of what is dynamic about the woods through which Stewart walks, dehydrated and disoriented, experiencing herself as if near death. Yet death is neither more nor less real than any other of the reals that Stewart encounters as each real becomes part of a compositional writing.
“The point of figuring compositional reals is not just that humans and matter are formed in relation but rather the real of relationality and event has registers and capacities” (Stewart, 21). “Redness becomes improvisatory conceptuality that pushed matter itself into a state of emergent expressivity (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987)” (Stewart, 24).12 ~Talha İşsevenler
Talha is quoting Stewart and her reference to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Like Talha, Stewart is keen on Deleuze and Guattari. Ordinary Affects, I have always thought, is a beautiful way to experience Deleuzian philosophy as Stewart embeds it in ordinariness, the everyday, without fetishizing the ordinary or the humble—not quite autobiography or ethnography.13 Embedding theory (and therefore you hardly know you are reading theory when reading Ordinary Affects) in “New England Red” becomes a matter of writing as “a composition of reals.”14 Not only has Stewart pluralized “real”; but also for her, “a real is a tangle of elements somehow thrown together yet still moving in directions, singly and in clumps, and opening onto other things.”15 Whatever else it is meant to do, this definition allows for a better understanding of the relation(s) of theory, reals, and writing. As Stewart sees it:
Theory can be drawn, through writing, into the ways that people and things venture out into reals—reals that, it must be said, are not the kind of thing that a representation later brings to life or gives meaning, but a recursive haecceity that loops through things starting to emerge or layering into an accretion.16
For Stewart, writing, as a composition of reals, “has to stay nimble in the effort to keep up with the distributed agencies of what's throwing together and falling apart—trying to follow where things (might) go.”17
Drawing theory to reals through writing might be taken to be Stewart's version of an object-oriented ontology, part of the non-human turn. “New England Red” is, after all, about objects, things, and environments, about their liveliness, the liveliness of matter, of the elemental. And for that matter, there is not just one Latour litany. There are many that are produced as Stewart describes her walk in the woods, the reals moving in their own time all around her as they will do for the reader. But it is her treatment of red that comes the closest to being an object-oriented gesture as red (or better, redness) is treated as a “quale” that “pushed matter itself into a state of emergent expressivity.”18 Here, Stewart treats redness much like Graham Harman might.19 Redness is the quale connecting each object that is part of Stewart's compositions of reals; as she puts it: “In its long, prismatic path of lines, redness had lifted into a color quale—the whatness that made a particular feeling or experience what it was.”20 Red “out-survived all its particulars to become a singular hinge opening onto a world throwing together and falling apart.”21 As Harman proposes, real objects, to which there is no access, nonetheless relate to other real objects through their sensual profiles, their qualia that also are objects.22
This is a post-phenomenological phenomenology in that the relationship between objects is not only a matter of human consciousness or even bodily-based perception. The relationship that objects make with one another—“the distributed agencies of what's throwing together and falling apart”23—also are objects. As Stewart puts it: “the real of relationality and event has registers and capacities”—those, I would say, of an object.24 Red is making objects real for some other objects. Red is implicated in and implicates writer and reader in an aesthetic causality, or what Hansen would call (following Whitehead) “the causal force of the present.”25
The way twenty-first century media cut across scales of matter pushes us to reconsider the optics with which we came to define life in relation to living, and matter in relation to mattering. Although previous critical theory dealt with the duality of matter and life in various ways in order to privilege life over matter, following both Hansen's media theory and Whitehead's ontology, the optics change and the focus shifts from a self-replicating organization of life to entities, environmental agencies, amplified by twenty-first century media that make possible and impossible life as we know it. ~Talha İşsevenler
If Stewart's compositions of reals are a more-than-representational form of writing that gestures to the philosophical movements that are part of the non-human turn, then they are also a form of writing that is resonant with the optics that Talha concludes twenty-first century media offer for understanding life. Reading Stewart is moving Talha to reconsider Hansen, who argues that twenty-first century media are distinctive in their relationship to human experience. That is to say, the data-fication of twenty-first century media is no longer a matter of storing human experience as such; rather it is a matter of storing the bits of data that “register molecular increments of behavior” that are never an expression of lived human experience.26
Twenty-first century media have shifted media from “addressing humans first and foremost” to registering “the environmentality of the world itself,”27 providing a “worldly sensibility” that is prior to human consciousness and bodily-based perception. As such, Hansen argues that twenty-first century media re-embed “consciousness in a far richer context of the causally efficacious lineages that have produced it.”28 The data-fication of twenty-first century media makes life as we know it possible and impossible precisely because it shows that consciousness and bodily-based perception are accomplishments that involve “the coexistence of multiple experiential presents—multiple, partially overlapping presents from different time frames and scales.”29 The worldly sensibility that twenty-first century media provide displaces consciousness and bodily-based perception as central to human experience. Worldly sensibility is not only supplemental to consciousness and bodily-based perception, but it is also the condition of their arising.
If there is a resonance between Stewart and Hansen as I am suggesting there is, it must be remembered that Hansen's rereading of Whitehead moves away from Deleuzian ones. It is a shift from conceiving the potentiality of conscrescence as affective excess or a virtuality that is ontologically distinct from actualization. Instead, Hansen argues that the potentiality of conscrescence “bleeds or seeps into the contribution the actual entity makes to the settled world.”30 That is to say, potential is in “the contrast among already existing actualities,” “the real potentiality of the settled world at each moment of its becoming”—becoming different with each new actuality or what Whitehead refers to as “data.”31
Hansen describes data's power to give rise to more data as the “causal force of the present”; following Whitehead, he proposes that “every actuality includes in its present feeling, its potential to impact future actualities but also… that it feels the potentiality for the future in its present and indeed as part of what constitutes the causal force of the present.”32 Stewart too writes of “a present saturated with potential,” offering “the occasional glimpse” of emergence that “ends not in meaning but in the haptic, multiangled, sensorimotor qualities of a world's unimaginable detail.”33 Quoting Wallace Stevens, she proposes: “‘The present is physical, if the eye is quick enough.’”34
The data-fication of twenty-first century media, as Hansen sees it, is quick enough. As such, data-fication refashions not only the relationship of the present and the future, but also the relationship of causality and probability. Data-fication makes causality a matter of tendencies rather than “acts of discrete agents,”35 drawing on the continual becoming of the worldly sensibility that data-fication provides. Presenting “a wide swathe of environmental data,” data-fication, Hansen argues, can offer only the opportunity to produce patterns or information that are not inherently there in the data; rather they produce “probabilities in the wild.”36 As datasets cannot be totalized, probability ceases to function either as an “a priori calculus of probability” or as “empirical probabilistic systems” when probability is in relationship to the number of possible outcomes that can be considered equiprobable.37 Rather, quoting Whitehead, Hansen proposes that “probabilities are expressions of real forces, of actual propensities rather than empty statistical likelihoods.”38
Hansen concludes that data-fication “seems to yield an ontological transformation of probability itself: probability ceases to function on the basis of mere possibilities and instead comes to operate as the index of ‘real propensities.’”39 As such, there always is a “surplus of sensibility,” no matter the precision of the “predictive analytics” of twenty-first century media or the measures of data-fication.40 While data-fication raises profound concerns, it also urges us to reconsider number, quantification, and calculation. As such, there is a challenge to the still taken-for-granted assumptions that inform the distinction of qualitative and quantitative methods of the social sciences.
Hansen's Whiteheadian take on probabilities points to what Luciana Parisi refers to as “qualitative quantities.”41 Parisi also draws on Whitehead, with a somewhat different emphasis than Hansen, although with a similar intention of rethinking data and the algorithms that parse them. She argues that algorithms no longer exclusively aim to predict or calculate probabilities but rather operate so that “any set of instructions is conditioned by what cannot be calculated”; that is, the incomputable quantities of data are “included in sequential calculation… so as to add novelty in the actual architecture of things.”42 Parisi therefore points to what she describes as “the residual power of algorithms, the processing of rules and the indeterminacies of programming, which are able to unleash novelty in biological, physical, and mathematical forms.”43 Like Hansen, Parisi rethinks the present: “algorithmic objects are the spatiotemporal matrix of the present.”44
For Parisi then, rather than mere links between real objects algorithms are, themselves, real objects—spatiotemporal data structures, with indeterminacy immanent to them. It is in these terms that Harman's object-oriented ontology is useful to Parisi. As she notes, real objects, while irreducible to other objects, nonetheless, are “multi-mediatic” such that the qualities of objects are media spaces or media objects, not just channels or the links in the relations between objects.45 Objects relate to each other through these media spaces—their qualia—and these relations are also objects. But objects also cannot be reduced to the sum of their qualities, as qualities are also objects, sensual objects. The causality is aesthetic, vicarious, indirect. For Parisi, this suggests a “nonlinear, and asymmetric process of conjunction and disjunction of parts” that leads her finally to offer a critique of Harman's focus on only sensual qualities such as color or shape.46 She insists that quantity must also be considered, since, from the perspective of algorithms, the quantities involved are not merely reductions of qualities, sensory or physical; nor are they immanent to qualities.47 They are quantities conditioned by their own indeterminacies just as algorithms are inseparable from incomputable data or incompressible information; they are qualitative quantities. They are data with the potentiality to produce more data.
Having made use of Harman's object-oriented ontology, Parisi then turns to Whitehead to argue that real objects, while singular and irreducible to other objects, are incomplete; algorithmic objects have incompleteness or indeterminacy internal to them. Here again is the importance of noting the quantities as well as the qualities of objects. For Parisi, this incompleteness refers her to Whitehead's concrescence of prehensions; it refers Hansen to the potential in “the contrast among already existing actualities,” “the real potentiality of the settled world at each moment of its becoming”—becoming different with each new actuality or datum.48 The difference between Parisi and Hansen is relevant here; for Hansen potentiality is in the contrast of already existing actualities and for Parisi it is in the speculative. But for both, the way objects or things connect cannot be assumed; nor can it be assumed that all things are already related. Relations always are in the process of being composed and as such, contributing novelty.
I ask Talha to consider that Stewart perceives algorithms in the woods as she walks and as she writes—“not as an iconic ideological message imprinted on experience but as a structure of attachment to the future already passing, to a present saturated with potential and threat.”49 As such, redness is “not a representation actualized but an actual composition spun into representations, objects, and states of sensory alert.”50 Together Talha and I consider that in Stewart's compositions of reals, or in each litany of them, words also are resonant with number; number is of their movement, of the writing of red again and again. Simply put: Stewart's writing is a composition of human and non-human objects, things, environments—a composing of and through their qualities and quantities. Her compositions ontologically participate in the potentiality in the contrast of already existing actualities—the reals. As Stewart puts it, “in composition, categories, meanings, and plays of force become generative in the course of something taking place.”51 Moreover, “it catches attention, sets off lines and habits, spreads into an ecology of paths that matter by means of the things that happen in a present in which we are lost yet attuned.”52 As in the productivity of wild probabilities, writing as composition produces patterns or information that are not inherently there in things that are happening, or patterns that go on moving; and yet the compositions are real.
Stewart's writing does not pretend that she is able to turn life into examples or cases of something. This reminds me of the final chapter of Hansen's Feed-Forward, where he takes up Jordan Crandall's “Gatherings,” and its implications for the critique of ethnographic writing. Concepts are not there to judge life, or measure life in order to exclude what is excessive. Concepts emerge out of life to make it possible to venture out again along the fold of excess without imprisonment. As such concepts can face the abundance of life from which they emerge. Ah red and its territory! ~Talha İşsevenler
Hansen concludes Feed-Forward with Jordan Crandall's performance Gatherings as it assists him in exploring the implications of twenty-first century media for human subjectivity. Not only is Crandall a theorist of digital media, he also makes use of digital technologies and data-fication in his performances, which, as Hansen sees it, best communicate the implication(s) of twenty-first century media. For Talha and me, Crandall's Gatherings gives further evidence of the relationship between twenty-first century media and Stewart's compositional writing.
According to Hansen, Gatherings shows the artist's becoming “implicated within larger technical circuits” as large data sets surpass the artist's subjective point of view, “assimilating the artist's subjective point of view into a broader environmental perspective.”53 As the performance also shows the artist's subjective perspective always has been implicated in the environmental perspective, it supports Hansen's argument that consciousness and bodily-based perception are not only implicated in, but can also be enriched by, the digitally-expanded worldly sensibility that makes more apparent the causally efficacious lineages that always have produced consciousness and perception. For Hansen the subjectivity produced in performance does not belong to the human subject alone; instead “human bodyminds always are implicated within—and always acquire their agency from—experiential situations that exceed their perceptual grasp.”54 The subject produced in Gatherings is not the subject of phenomenology, although Hansen will find an echo of his own post-phenomenological phenomenology in Maurice Merleau-Ponty's proposal that the world is “self-sensing.”55
Drawing on Merleau-Ponty, Hansen offers a post-phenomenological “phenomenology of implication,” that looks not to the transcendental subject but to the self-sensing world, “to the worlding of the world (to ‘de-presencing’)—as the source for the total situation within which appearances arise and can be made manifest to consciousness.”56 The phenomenology of implication points to a newfound subjective capacity that is “facilitated by the technical feeding forward of environmental information into just-to-come apprehension of consciousness.”57 This would seem to fit Stewart's method of writing well, what she describes as a “compositional method scored through matter, a leaning into a worlding.”58 Writing, like red, is a worlding of a world; writing participates in red as “a quality that becomes atmospheric, sensory, an ecology of potentiality marked by violence and care.”59 So, if Stewart's writing is ethnographic, then it is an ethnographic writing that comes after a critique of writing generally and ethnographic writing specifically. In the afterwards of critique, Stewart's writing is not all that self-conscious. It is a writing that has moved on; a writing that moves. It is a writing that shares in the newfound subjective capacity that Hansen suggests is facilitated by the data-fication of twenty-first century media and its opening to the liveliness of the non-human.
But in “New England Red,” Stewart's writing also is utterly human, drawn as it is to the violence and care of a New England town to which she is finding her way back. Stewart's writing of the “red-piqued world”60 lets its environmentality touch the mother-environment that Crandall points to when he links Gatherings to what Daniel Stern discusses as mother–infant attunement. If, from the mother's observing perspective, attunement begins prior to the infant's individuation as an “I,” then for the infant, in the early months, there is neither mother nor baby.61 Even when Donald Winnicott refers to “the maternal matrix or environment,” it is not to suggest that it is an outside for the infant.62 Rather, during the early months, there is an illusion of a mother–baby unit or compound, in which external and internal realities are one and the same. The illusion is sustained as the mother responds to the baby's needs. As Winnicott proposes, “the infant's gesture gives expression to a spontaneous impulse, the source of a gesture,” indicating the existence of a potential in the infant.63 The baby is not reacting to the mother as the mother is not outside the infant. Yet, as “the good enough mother” responds to the gesture, even at times in ways that frustrate the infant, the potential existing in the baby is kept psychologically, if not also biologically, alive. The maternal matrix or environment of infant and mother, according to Winnicott, forestalls further development, so to speak, giving the baby some time before separation and individuation.64
This forestalling of development as part of development resonates with Stewart's walk in the woods, forestalling not only the experience of the death to come, but also the dying itself—like my students' forgetting the line that finally announces Stewart's mother is dying. But then again, the maternal matrix is in a state of continual erosion from the start of the infant's life in order to sustain the infant's life. For Winnicott, this erosion allowed by the mother herself, over time also will allow for the baby's engagement with “transitional objects” that “are not part of the mother's body yet are not fully recognized as belonging to external reality.”65 The potential space of transitional objects or phenomena continues to be a resource of creativity, of play. It is also the analytic space, one of imagination for gatherings or compositions of reals.
In this light, it is interesting to note that in The Nonhuman Environment, Harold F. Searles draws on Winnicott to propose that for humans, the early experience of the indistinction between human and non-human objects, things, and environments—while usually linked to pathology in later life—is an experience that continues to be a resource throughout life. It is a resource of creativity and cosmological, even ecstatic experience.66 As if drawing on this psychoanalytic insight, Hansen gives a sense of the subjectivity of twenty-first century media by quoting Crandall's own take on Gatherings, which is about subjects who “solicit one another, act upon one another, recruit one another, harness and channel one another's transmissions. They are agency of one another. They extend and consolidate. They attune… to the sensory, rhythmic and atmospheric exchanges that compose them.”67 Subjects are “constituted in a teeming vibratory instantaneity. They are excessive ‘beyond themselves’—impersonal—rendered public and precarious not at the center, not primary or alone.”68
“New England Red” is about a mother's death and also about living on, as the mother's death touches the liveliness of the woods through which Stewart walks. There, in the qualities and quantities of things, objects, and environments, there is an answer to the question of life. Or, as Talha puts it: “With twenty-first century media's calculation of propensities something that did not exist before gets to be invented and that something becomes the ground of a new mode of being.” Whatever that mode of being might be and however it may be threatening, violent, or caring, Katie Stewart likely will continue to take us on walks that bring us as near to life as death, from the finite to the ecstatic.
- © 2016 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Request permission to photocopy or reproduce article content at the University of California Press's Reprints and Permissions web page, http://www.ucpress.edu/journals.php?p=reprints.
Patricia Ticineto Clough is Professor of Sociology and Women's Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York and Queens College. Correspondence to: Patricia Ticineto Clough, The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016, USA. Email: (. )
Talha İşsevenler is a PhD student in the Sociology Program at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Correspondence to: Talha İşsevenler, The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10016, USA. Email: (. )