The Hyper-affective Turn: Thinking the Social in the Digital Age

An Interview with Nestor García Canclini and Maritza Urteaga by Emilia Ismael Simental

Mediating ‘Signifying Nothing: “Culture,” “Discourse” and the Sociality of Affect’ by Jeremy Gilbert from vol. 6 (2004) Deconstruction Is/In Cultural Studies

In 2004, Culture Machine published in its volume 6, Deconstruction is/in Cultural Studies, a contribution by Jeremy Gilbert: ‘Signifying Nothing: “Culture”, “Discourse” and the Sociality of Affect’. In this article, Gilbert discusses the search in cultural studies for a theoretical approach that can effectively address the experiential dimension of culture. He makes it clear right from the start: he is not looking for a new conceptual paradigm to define culture or a radical break from Theory, but rather wants to balance out the ‘excessive emphasis on linguistic models’ in describing cultural dynamics and bring into play its affective dimension. Gilbert delineates some of the challenges brought by the logic of discourse that structuralism bequeathed on cultural theory by focusing on (and overly differentiating) signifying practices, thus limiting our understanding of human experience to linguistic meanings. The article interrogates how to understand cultural forms such as music that convey recognizable effects at a corporeal level, effects which are not adequately described or fully understood through linguistic models.

Although Western music’s relationship to language and linguistics has been the subject of a debate for a long time, as part of its own disciplinary configuration and social operations, a problem remains with regard to how the full extent of the role of music in cultural life is linked to an identifiable dimension of musical experience that is registered sensuously (hence the historical tradition of bestowing mystical powers on music). Again, for Gilbert this doesn’t mean that music should not be analysed in terms of signifying structures; yet he stresses that ‘its “culturality” is not limited to its capacity to signify’. Affect, then, as Gilbert suggests, is a concept that allows us to discuss ‘a more or less organised experience, an experience probably with empowering or disempowering consequences, registered at the level of the physical body, and not necessarily to be understood in linguistic terms’. However, his contribution also positions this experience as always organized by social relations. Rather than try to reverse the contribution of deconstruction, with its emphasis on meaning and structures, he argues that experience should be reintegrated into the debate for its productive reassessment of subjectivity as a relational process. Gilbert also suggests that what constitutes culture is ‘as much unmeaningful, asignifying experience as any process of making common meanings’. Given that these processes are relational and contingent, it is precisely the social that affect allow us to access.

But how do we engage with an affective and corporeal ‘social’ that is mediated by technology? In addition to some of the phenomenological concerns raised by Gilbert’s article, several questions arise for me about what to do with bodies, relations and processes of subjectivity that are coming into being through digital and communication technologies. To expand on some of these issues, I have sought the insight of Nestor García Canclini and Maritza Urteaga, two scholars engaged in the study of new technologies and youth culture in Latin America. I think both their work and Jeremy Gilbert’s essay bring under scrutiny the conceptual paradigms operating in the study and critique of culture in the information era. Here are some of their observations from the field and reflections on how to think about the social in the digital age:

E.I.: Could you briefly introduce your work on cultural creatives and youth culture in Latin America to Culture Machine readers?

G.C. & U.: Our approach to creative strategies and youth cultural networks in the creative fields of visual arts, independent publishing, alternative music and digital practices springs from our concern with the role of new technologies in the recent transformations of cultural processes. We have previously identified the significant role of young people as promoters of digital technologies in all areas of creation and cultural communication. The specific question about young people – with regard to how to understand the recent empowerment of musicians among other creative groups in the transformations of contemporary cultural production in the context of the developmental crisis in Mexico and the retraction of the labour markets, with their resulting impact on unemployment, outsourcing, casualization and instability – is a question about the social, about the structures and processes that condition the performativity of subjects nowadays, as well as about the practices and encounters among young people through digital technologies in their particular material conditions and social environments. We have explored the social from the perspective of the creative youth: trendsetters and cultural entrepreneurs, focusing on how they organize and what they do as ‘actor-networks’. We have looked at how they are inserted into the networks that choose and assemblage themselves progressively according to their needs, affective affinities and opportunities. We located ourselves inside the habitual circuits of young people. This directed us towards some more specific networks, ludic creative aggregations and other spaces of encounter in which young people participate. The cultural effervescence found in these creative networks of work and friendship made it difficult for us to describe their actors as participants in only one creative field.

Musicians and producers, as much as visual artists, independent editors and digital creatives, are articulated through multiple collaborative networks that intersect and juxtapose at interdisciplinary nodes, to work on short- and long-term music and creative projects, promote their products or facilitate their distribution, thus contributing to the emergence of creative environments. Within the vast set of actors in the creative scenes that encompasses our studies, the trendsetters are those with the capability to affect and be affected by the discourses and practices of musicians, editors, and contemporary artists, and, consequently, to establish the trends. The affective dimension cuts across all of their networks in a significant way. Although sociality has been identified as a vital dimension of youth worlds by youth studies, our research has found complex articulations between youth networks and creative networks. The sociability between peers is constitutive of those creative networks: ‘the work that I have done is because of friendships, in general they are my friends, or they become my friends along the way; I have never worked with someone with whom I haven’t established a relationship’. Paraphrasing Raymond Williams, we could say that these networks of feeling or sensitivity, and their physical and virtual spaces of encounter and creative leisure, are sources of affirmation, recognition, and trust, providing the participants with a certain affective stability through time.

Digital networks have facilitated the interaction, creativity, and innovation among young creatives in various ways: by boosting collaborative associations among young people with different professional profiles and links to other networks, by allowing them to work in both traditional cultural fields and innovative environments, and by supporting through the social relations generated in the leisure spaces that foster the creative scene. The young subjects in our studies are located within the more educated (generally belonging to professions related to creative industries), urban, middle-class, socialized and incentivized fringe. They all had early childhood exposure to technology. Their biographies and trajectories reveal a continuous encounter with technological devices that have effectively configured their needs, intentions, desires, interests, bodies and relations. We have identified some important effects of these changes on the subjects: greater openness to events outside of their own country and the adoption of a more global perspective; disposition to being permanently connected by diluting the distinction between work and leisure, private and public contexts; reliance on technological convergence; an aptitude for being an artist, musician, editor, or multiple-occupation creative; flexibility to occupy different functions in diverse projects, including their own; capability to construct networks and interdisciplinary associations to work on specific projects, where everyone shares their expertise and collectively develops innovative solutions to problems; the permanent search for information and experimentation; the use of creativity to produce innovation and generate entrepreneurships; high social skills to construct and expand, inside and outside of their own countries, amicable creative links with a multiplicity of others; and, last but not least, disposition for transparency and constant interchange. Our research indicates that these habits, grouping and organizational forms, as well as the work styles of the young creatives are not simple derivatives of the shared agency between the young subjects and machines, there are also implied by the marketing conditions determined by operators, service providers, platforms owners, and the different institutional and informal regulations of uses and practices; as well as the many socio-cultural mediations of diverse origin.

Cultural production in networks is also the result of a complex articulation between discourses and practices from very diverse areas of quotidian youth experience: school, companies, artistic creative activities, institutions, work, family, creative industries and their social spaces. It is also affected by the precariousness of the ephemeral jobs they have access to; the demand to be self-employable and available all the time; the need to supplement their income as artists, editors and independent musicians with additional jobs. Although digital networks facilitate versatility – between different trades, forms of collaboration, and even languages and countries – this is a requisite demanded by the flexibilization of the markets and the uncertainty of future employment. Having several professional profiles and learning to work with specialists in other fields are sociocultural, environment-based needs. These new forms of organization and work are driving a major restructuring in the development of symbolic goods and their forms of production, communication and access. These are not widespread or consistent. We found out that industrial and (digital) forms of post-industrial production and circulation of goods and contents coexist with old habits. They form new communities and business areas, combining the tastes for mass culture with ‘new’ forms of craftsmanship, of the local and the transnational. Rather than replacing one system with another, youth enterprises develop as a supplement to multiple learning and friendship relations, existing alongside collaboration with major institutions, competition, and entrepreneurship.

For all this, unstable working conditions – an instability of several decades, since there are two or three generations that have experienced this kind of labour precariousness – has led young artist-subjects to internalize the conviction that is not possible to develop a career but only to work on projects. This continuous experience engenders a detached affection, more so than in the previous generations, with greater disposition for changing projects, disciplines and group memberships. We would say that affective relationships are structured with a discontinuous ‘naturalness’. It is not just because an objective precariousness of labour markets or due to the incessant obsolescence of technological devices. It implies a subjectivity and an affectivity organized as unstable.

E.I.: Given the influence new technologies have had on the current practices of music production, it seems that music as a discipline has been taken beyond discourse as well as beyond its materiality and affection on and of the body. Music does not seem to be just about sound any more but first and foremost about production, distribution, marketing, product design, etc. If affect subverts the dichotomy between mind and body because of its capacity to organize human experience, how does affect allow us to think practices where the body does not seem to be present or constituted in the same way? When we hear that digital technologies and the Internet articulate new social relations, how are we to understand such new phenomenological experiences?

G.C. & U.: We analyze music as a cultural, creative and economic activity. One of the most important changes in this creative environment when it comes to the use of new technologies is that they have allowed for the development of new strategies for the access to, and dissemination of, information through the active participation of consumers. This has resulted in a readjustment of consumption habits and the empowerment of the public. The derivative creation and collective authorship, supported by digital tools (platforms and interfaces available today), have fostered new communication practices between creator and listener. This state of events has in turn thrown up new challenges that have to do with insertion into this headless machinery of creation. Closely linked to the new concept of the creative process – copy / transform / merge, and then, share and disseminate objects in digital spaces – the new strategies include calls from and for Latin American musicians and producers to perform covers and gather the process and results in collective or individual platforms, to allow the public access to that information in almost real time. These processes invite the public to remix the songs through user-friendly applications and then place these remixes as promotionals on their networks as free downloads. The streaming and the use of social media or crowd-sourcing, through which the public creates, adopts and promotes their favourite works turns them into creatives, broadcasters, and producers of meaning.

These and other strategies transfigure the subjects that are engaged in them. For example, the opening of platforms and/or their convergence with new social applications on the web enable more interactive connections between creators and audiences, while also leading to a change in the quality of these connections (they become more personal and intimate, with participants sharing their musical and literary references, world views or aspects of their home life and lifestyle). The exposure of the bodies of musicians and artists (via photos, sounds, profiles, etc.) online, beyond being just a form of presentation, representation and inscription, provides these bodies them, as Jeremy Gilbert suggests, with an intense and exciting experience of empowerment that can motivate action. This has fostered unprecedented levels of collaboration and meaningful exchange, in different contexts or geographical locations. In many cases, it has also resulted in audiences coming together to support their artists, as in the case of ‘sympathizers ‘ or organized active supporters – who, by using various innovative strategies, capture the attention of their followers. These innovative practices not only reveal technological skills of the actors; the actors themselves, including their bodies and their relations, are transfigured by technological mediations, exchanges, expressions, actions and proceedings (as Bruno Latour puts it). Many of the supporters (self)-position themselves in the networks of the ‘operatives’. The new technologically mediated communication practices between artists, producers, promoters and consumers are part of the daily life of those who participate in them. They are practical ways, as Gilbert maintains, of organizing cultural experience; or new phenomena that reveal in the present time something that the anthropologist Edward Hall described some time ago when referring to technologies as ‘extensions of the body’.

E.I.: It may be said that, through our encounters with digital communication technologies, we are beginning to face a kind of ‘ disembodiment of experience’. Where would we then locate the materiality of experience, those corporeal intensities in the organization of the social, the bodies that affect is supposed to touch?

G.C. & U.: One must clarify the last statement in the light of the development of internet platforms and social networks today. Rather than seeing any kind of disembodiment of experience, our research has identified a certain compulsiveness among young creatives to actually intensify their corporeal affective experiences with others, both those far away and those close by. There is a desire to attend ‘everything’ and be everywhere simultaneously. This is reflected in young people’s intensive and creative use of social networks and of the technological convergence. Consequently, their bodies are being transfigured by their experience with technology, while also generating intense experiences in the community. Interdisciplinary approaches in urban studies have identified this kind of ubiquity of contemporary urbanites, while youth studies have introduced to the space of sociality that playful form of social exchange as a fundamental dimension in the formation of youth agency and in young people’s construction of reality.

Young creatives combine daily work and leisure time by building and maintaining social networks (of a present and virtual character) that they themselves recognize as vital in their lives. Seeing friends, innovating and sharing aesthetics, ideas, and creative projects as well as meeting new people with different profiles is an important motivation for moving towards ‘places where things happen’: attending openings, exhibitions, book presentations, cinemas, theatres, performances, cafés, bars, taverns, concerts – and then continuing to work on the project, or keeping on partying. The interviews we have conducted indicate that these relational spaces facilitated the spontaneous emergence of creative projects among friends and ‘friends of friends’, with the goal of experimenting and playing. The satisfaction experienced as a result of participating in such projects springs from doing something for themselves, from sharing, meeting and being recognized among their peers, and from gaining confidence in themselves. The connections that emerge are rhizomatic links that traverse collaborative networks of young creatives. Just as musicians do at festivals and on alternative networks, independent publishers mobilize by looking for the playful rather than the lucrative. This is the style that prevails on the web: young Internet users do not operate in it primarily for business purposes but first of all to talk, listen and be heard. They love to communicate and build communities, to transmit information on a wide scale and to know quickly what has just happened and what others are discussing. Digital experiences, while displaying the latest advances in technology, resemble those old forms of cultural and social life such as immediate exchange, co-presence and partying. Perhaps this is the key reason why any attempts to suppress free downloads and discipline Internet users by subordinating them to the economic performance of industrialized culture under market rules fail over and over again.

In these and other places – music festivals, meetings, labs, book fairs, biennials of art, film and media, protests, etc. – participants’ bodies are reaching to, and searching for, each other through mediating technologies. In this way, young people are able to share with their ‘friends’ in real time the joyful experience of ‘being there’. The discontinuity in creative practices and their accompanying events, to which we referred earlier, has its counterpart in the loss of the predominant musical standards of the past. Instead of storytelling, which used to organize the development, in different ways, of opera, boleros, tangos, ballads and even the rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s, we find that in these new cultural forms it is principally music and rhythm that transmit and promote sensory experiences – or vibrations registered by the dancing and listening bodies, as noted by Jeremy Gilbert. The physical effects become more important than discursive meanings. The empowerment that this form of music enables does not derive from a shared sense of a narrative but rather from shared bodily relations. The key place hip hop and other recent musical forms take in young culture exemplifies this trend, but perhaps a more extensive analysis should take into account the prevalence of rhythm and physicality over lyrics and narratives in the so-called ‘tropical genre’ (salsa, cumbia and other music of Afro-American origin).

E.I.: For me it is obvious that in your work Cultura y Desarrollo. Una visión crítica desde los jóvenes [Culture and Development: A Critical Perspective from the Youth] (2012), the nineteenth-century concept of creativity on which Western musical practice has been based is widely questioned by the use of new technologies. The concept is challenged by, among other practices and ideas, a collective rather than individual author. The author is thus not defined in terms of an ‘enlightened’ being with specialized training, and creativity is not an act of inspiration or genius. On the contrary, creativity seems to be well supported in its ability to generate wider transmedia strategies of communication and production, beyond sound. Creativity does not derive from specialization but rather from the diversification of skills. New technologies seem to make it evident that creativity is permanently subjected to technique and technology: it is being mediated today by the available digital platforms and their accessibility as well as the flow of information and its immediacy. Can we reconcile these observations with a notion of affect that encapsulates the contingency of social relations? Are affective relations also not inscribed in the signifying structures facilitated by technology?

G.C. & U.: Among the changes driven by the shared agency between new technologies and creative youth is the displacement of the concept of creativity that has been inherited from the nineteenth-century tradition and the industrial culture. Our research has discovered that, compared with the filters imposed by the concentration of musical and editorial production in a few companies, the new models of creation in networks for magazines, blogs and social sharing sites have opened social routes for creativity, leading to an interplay beyond the industry of books and records. With digital devices, new models of independent transnational communication such as festivals which are not governed by commodification are being invented. Young creatives can now access visual arts, literary and musical creation, and whole other sectors – and even countries – which used to be excluded. They can now find some new ways of sharing, remixing, disseminating and evaluating cultural property. The possibility to be creative – and to achieve better working and living conditions – has been extended to larger sectors of society through increased connectivity. Conversely, socioeconomic disadvantages and the risk of exclusion (unemployment, instability) are associated with the lack of competition in the new forms of creativity and connection.

This extended assessment of creativity does not operate as a resource that can help us structurally overcome the loss of work security, instability and precariousness. What we have captured instead are some new ways in which certain sectors (in this case, those located among the more educated and with better access to technology) are relocated. A proper evaluation of their reach requires us to observe them in the context of the rising unemployment; under the conditions of outsourcing, temporal subcontracting and informal networks where exploitation of labour and time prevents many from completing a school education. Young artists, musicians and actors from other branches of cultural production say they are used to organizing projects of short and medium duration. Creativity and innovation, rather than lasting professional skills, are two highly prized features when it comes to finding work. The pressure of the instantaneous, of what is discovered or reported today, reinforces this relationship with the fast timing of biographies: everything is ephemeral, renewable and then obsolete, including the working groups organized by young people. This transient effect of entrepreneurship works against innovation and performance in cultural practices that require large investment – and whose capacity for economic recovery is slow. The question about the displacement of creativity is therefore a question about the mediations of creativity, where we need to consider not only the experience of musicians and creative, and their use of new technologies, but also a wider set of socio-cultural mediations (aka power relations).

To sum up, our ethnographic studies have revealed how creativity is constructed, how local young actors – who are in complex patterns of social relationships with institutions, markets, groups and individuals, both in a physical and virtual way – build their practices and notions of creativity. The study has opened up five key issues:

  1. The role of certain structures and institutions (school, extracurricular education, family, cultural industries, fields of cultural production and their institutions, neoliberal corporate culture, networks of friends) in promoting or hindering creativity.
  2. The significance of the present cultural and political context (labour market and employment crisis, political crisis, stagnation, poverty, violence) in the diversification of creative strategies in the new ways of working and sociability.
  3. The role of available technological platforms and their characteristics, the marketing conditions set by the operators, owners and servers, the institutional regulations of their uses and practices, and their articulation with access and technological skills in the creativity of users.
  4. The tension between the agency of subjects and the attachment to their peer groups and networks for recognition and legitimacy in the creativity of young people.
  5. The tension between the rules of the traditional fields of creativity, the rules of the national and global market, and the new rules of creativity in the practices of the young creatives.

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