The New in Social Research: Javier Lezaun recording

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We are pleased to put online the next in our ‘The New in Social Research’ series, a recording of Javier Leaun’s (March 20th) talk titled Cinematography and the Discovery of Social Kinetics (for download, not to stream).

Lezaun’s talk looks at the use of film by two early 20th century social scientists: (1) Wolfgang Köhler, one of the founders of Gestalt Psychology, and his colleague (2) Kurt Lewin, the pioneer of Social Psychology. In the work of these two figures we find the idea of the social as a form of movement, as a kinetic event, most visibly manifested in the face-to-face interactions of small groups. Lezaun’s talk shows the important role that film played in the creation of this idea of the social in the works of Köhler and Lewin.

Lezaun considers Köhler’s use of film in his famous experiments on chimpanzee intelligence, published in the book The Mentality of Apes (1917). Puzzlingly, the images that illustrate the book are not still photographs, but frames from the film footage shot during the trials. Lezaun argues that film was critical because it allowed Köhler to record the peculiar geometry of movement that, in his view, was characteristic of insightful behavior by apes. Yet, when it came to the question of whether apes had the capacity to act with intelligence collectively, to constitute a social group, Köhler hesitated: the motion pictures were too ambiguous to discriminate between impulsive cooperation and structured sociability.

Lewin, who started his career at Köhler’s Psychological Institute in Berlin, used film in his famous 1930s experiments in Iowa, in which groups of children subjected to different styles of leadership conformed to democratic, authoritarian, and laissez-faire ‘atmospheres’. Lezaun shows how Lewin built on and extended Köhler’s use of film in these experiments to offer a visual representation of these micro-polities. While Köhler used film principally to record experiments, Lewin’s arranged the experimental events so as to produce a cinematic effect. The social scientist, for one, acquired a new role, literally “acting” the role of provocateur.

The different uses of film in Köhler and Lewin are also, Lezaun shows, apparent in their editing techniques: Köhler was interested in individual frames of film while Lewin borrowed heavily from the motion-pictures of contemporary cinema. Where Köhler aimed to capture an image of motion in his experimental subjects, it is the moving image itself in Lewin’s work that enables the social to be put on display. Lezaun argues that this use of film enabled Lewin to arrange experimental situations which displayed a particular form of sociability; that is, the social as a kinetic event.

Find Lewin’s experimental films at archive.org

Artefacts of Mapmaking

Video

“The bird, far from his name, flies from the name that I give it, but continues to fly in the treats of zoology and the poems of St. Jhon Pierce. The gull is in its sky, irreducible to ours, but the language of the taxonomist is in the books, itself irreducible to any gull ever dreamed of, living or dead”. (Latour, Pasteurisation of France, 1988).

This video is part of a presentation done during the visit by the Science Po Master’s Programme for Art and Experimentation in Politics and Bruno Latour to CSISP at Goldsmith, this March 7th. It  was used as visual data to reflect on different traditions of mapmaking´s artefacts.

The presentation´s main questions were about What are maps? How are they translating the world? And What are the cultural traditions involved in mapmaking and mapreading? In this context, maps were considered as an artifact resulting from a long reflexive process of interpretation and translation of the world, which may vary from place to place and from time to time. Maps, was argued, can be understood not as sign about nature, but as producers of nature. They are creating the territory by representing it, and each mapmaking tradition refers to an specific set of behaviours and social practices within a given material culture, recording maps as an object artefact, involving several performative traditions such as gesture, ritual, sing, speech, dance or poetry (Woodward and Lewis, 1998).

From this perspective, the empirical questions were focused on  the specific mapmaking tradition of The Central Andes, South America. The syncretic configuration of this territory, allowed some Ritual Festivities to emerge as performative maps, combining both Western and Andean mapmaking tradition, which through music and dance perform an Imago Mundi of their surrounding world.

The present video was recorded on 2010 during La Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe de Ayquina, Atacama Desert, Chile. This Festivity is structured around a “holly town”, with around 500 houses, inhabited by no more than 15 families during the year, but overflowing with more than 20,000 people for the main day of the festivity. The village was built as a stage: the houses are located on the slopes of the ravine, emulating observation boxes, and the urbanism is articulated around the main square and church, located at the bottom of Ayquina´s ravine.

The mapping strategy used by the festive´s participants can be understood as idealised metaphors, where the world is not represented through mimetic standards, rather than through transforming its elements into a new dimension, expressed through groups dance performances. This festive map is not only about the reality itself, but also about how social groups can imagine and fantasise the world they are living in.

SPEAP visits CSISP

On March 7,  The Programme in Experimentation in Art and Politics (SPEAP) , an MA programme recently established at Science Po (Paris), visited The Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process (CSISP) at Goldsmiths. The day was part of a longer Concentration Week that SPEAP students and staff spent at Goldsmiths, visting different departments. The week was dedicated to a specific research theme: If nature is no longer a mere background for human acitvities, what change does this entail for art and the social sciences? The theme was communicated to participants in advance, and during the workshop they engaged with it through presentation, film and discussion. Here follows a brief report of the day in 7 photos by Jorge Castillo.

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It may be somewhat complex to capture the remnants of a day marked by the momentum of collaboration between two groups whose main quality is precisely the question of borders and boundaries of the traditional social and political categories. SPEAP (Sciences Po – Expérimentation en Arts et Politique) and CSISP (Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process) were part of an additive experiment during the morning and a section of the afternoon on a Wednesday in March. The support for this –as mentioned– was the idea of nature as part of the processes of social research and artistic action. Here are schematically some moments of this day. As is more often the case, the most important would be what is not said. Time indicated is relative.

At room 143

10:00-10:15. Having crossed Goldsmiths’ labyrinths, the groups from Paris and London are distributed across the room.

Laurie Waller10:15-11:00. After the presentation by Alex Wilkie and Tobie Kerridge (Goldsmiths Interaction Research Studio) about energetic communities, it was the turn of Laurie Waller, a PhD student in CSISP/Sociology. His talk revolved around notions of publicity and assembly at the Science Museum, and the use of electronic music to facilitate immersion in tissues of public and everyday life.

SPEAP at 12th floor.

12:45-14:00. A group of students from SPEAP enjoying the view of London during the lunch hour, on the roof terrace on top of Warmington Tower, outside the CSISP seminar room.

Afternoon Presentations

14:15. After lunch, presentations continue…

David Moats

15:00-15:30. David Moats presents his research on controversies about race and intelligence and the stablization ofi knowledge on Wikipedia. Noortje Marres, of CSISP, is also in the image.

Latour in action

17:45-18:15. After the workshop, a lecture. Bruno Latour during his presentation (Latour in action…). More details here.

Bruno and Noortje

19:15. Bruno Latour, of Sciences Po, and Noortje Marres, of CSISP/Sociology, at the end of the day.

Probably the conclusions of the day were fragmented according to the different reflections that were figured in each presentation. And after this wednesday at CSISP , SPEAP  continued its concentration week with a visit to Politics/Cultural Studies before returning to Paris. I would like to think of our day itself as an initial scaffolding and we hope that a similar event would happen sometime again.

As to the workshop, each presentation was in its own way conducive to the possibility to think and perform nature and place as spaces that transform the political and artistic, which are potential entities themselves, becoming in various ways and acting on these formations. While the process of “naturalization” is understood as tending to block or hide the controversies involved in each certainty or “will to truth”, nature itself escapes these constraints and presents itself disorganized. However, nature is explained, socialized and used as an argument again and again, to be part of the assemblages not only scientific but also political and aesthetic. Nevertheless, the planes of formal representation of the space that constitutes the natural can be subverted, extolling the time -temporality- as a dimension that organizes social, political and rituals practices, in an environment that exceeds the human, objectifying it. Here, nature is not only a support, but an assembler,  linking the living and the inert, being both, and serving as a resource to explicate the social and material, outside the order of the formal and leading us back to being animals or ants…

From Digital Methods to Digital Ontologies: Bruno Latour and Richard Rogers at CSISP

It was a completely full house last week (7 March) in the Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre for Richard Rogers’ and Bruno Latour’s joint presentation as part of The New in Social Research – with students and lecturers lining the steps and craning their necks from the upper deck.

Both speakers were gracious co-hosts: Rogers referring to himself as “the appetiser for the main course”, while Latour framed his talk as “a footnote” to Rogers’. But the two lectures, which addressed “digital methods” and “digital ontology” respectively, were more closely entwined: Rogers’ cutting edge mapping and internet research techniques provided “an occasion” for Latour to vindicate the theories of Gabriel Tarde, while Latour’s Tardian ontology provided validation and grounding for Roger’s methodologies.

Rogers, who runs the Digital Methods Initiative in Amsterdam, began with brief history of internet research. In the late 90s, the hyperbolic pronouncements of the “cyberspace” era gave way to more sociological studies which situated the online in the offline world (following Miller and Slater 2000). But Rogers argued that we have now entered a new phase in which internet activity need not be studied as something categorically separate from “the real”. The online, rather than the real, is now “the baseline”.

He gave the example of Google Flu Trends, which uses keyword searches of “flu like symptoms” to locate the spread of the flu (and other diseases) geographically – much faster than traditional epidemiological techniques. He contrasted these new ways of using Google as a research tool – such as mapping regional differences in language (“soda” versus “pop”) or Thanksgiving eating habits (“sweet potato pie” versus “yams”) – with the traditional equivalents: where sociologists physically drove around the country in “word wagons” collecting data on local language practices. Rogers posed the question what characteristics does internet data contain (such as time stamps) which distinguish it from from these inherited forms of data ike surveys.

He also addressed the ubiquity of Google and how it has transformed the search engine into a mass media resource. But ironically, even from the early days, it was always thought of as a research tool – as stated in Google’s patent application. Rogers explained how to turn off various settings to convert google into your own research engine.

Many of the DMI’s recent works were also on display. Rogers used the Issue Dramaturg tool to reveal a rare incident of a website (a 9/11 conspiracy blog) temporarily disappearing from the Google listings. He examined differences in the language versions of articles in Wikipedia which spoke volumes about how countries represent historical conflicts differently (different death tolls or more provocative photos). We also saw how the health of national internets (as defined by IP address or WhoisGuard) could tell us about what was happening on the ground in conflict zones. But Rogers also stressed caution in applying these approaches uncritically: discussing throughout his talk the messiness and limitations of internet data sets, as well as the politics behind them.

While Rogers explored what was exciting and new about internet research, Latour stressed continuity by relating this new kind of data back to the work of Durkheim’s contemporary Gabriel Tarde. While Durkheim assumed that there was an aggregate called “society”, arising “ex abrupto” out of aggregated individuals, Tarde saw “scale”, in this sense, as a sociological invention. Latour described scale in Tarde’s vocabulary as a function of connectedness between “monads” which are defined by their relations to other monads through a kind of reciprocal possession. Thus for Tarde, the whole is always smaller than its parts – in the sense that a grouping of people is not a container for individuals nor a baseline of shared characteristics, but a few select features within each member.

Some authors have already speculated about the potential application of Latour’s reading of Tarde for the internet (Kulenberg and Palmås 2009) but here and in a forthcoming paper (Latour et al 2012) Latour made this connection explicit. He explained how the internet finally allows us to do sociology in a Tardian way, offering online profiles or CVs as an approximation of a monad in the way they represent internalizations of relations. With the advent of digital methods we now have the ability to see both this individual data and aggregates simultaneously on the same screen with a few clicks. So what has changed is not the basic format of data but the speed at which it can be accessed and zoomed in and out. It was the slowness of surveys and stats that kept collectives and individuals at arms length in the past. Latour also related these techniques to past studies of scientific journals and “paradigms” where this level of individual data has been available for some time.

The momentum continued in the then muggy theatre with a lively question and answer session. Rogers was asked how he triangulated his findings, to which he replied that his team was still nervous about the data but were currently working on triangulating it with other online data. Moderator Noortje Marres similarly wondered if there wasn’t a danger in “going native” – that the methods themselves could format the data – leaving blind spots for the researcher.

An audience member at the end wondered if perhaps this Durkheimian brand of macro-sociology Latour was railing against wasn’t something of a straw man, and that most practitioners of anthropology or social science, at least those in the room, never suffered from these theoretic deficiencies in the first place. Latour agreed that this was not directed at the audience but that there were practitioners (economists?) who very much rely on collectives as objects. As usual, Latour defused tensions with his self-deprecating humour and precise comic timing. When asked by one audience member if there were any special properties of “social” monads which made them distinct from say, bacteria, he pretended to think for a second before tentatively approaching the microphone to bark “non!” to a big laugh.

The general atmosphere seemed to be positive and receptive but not without some healthy skepticism towards the newness of Roger’s techniques or the practicalities of Latour’s “flat ontology”. But as we learned, neither the methods nor the ontology are categorically “new”, merely amplifications of old techniques and a reignition of old concerns. The point where Tarde’s brand of Sociology finally becomes realised through new technology on the internet is still a latent potential, but it’s a tantalizing one.

– David Moats

Photos by Jorge Castillo

References:
Kullenberg, C. and Palmås, K. (2009) “Tarde’s contagiontology: From ant hills to panspectric surveillance technologies” Eurozine http://www.eurozine.com/pdf/2009-03-09-kullenberg-en.pdf

Latour, B. et al 2012 “The Whole is Always Smaller Than It’s Parts A Digital Test of Gabriel Tarde’s Monads” British Journal of Sociology (forthcoming)http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/123-WHOLE-PART-FINAL.pdf

Miller, D. and Slater, D. (2000) The internet: an ethnographic approach. Berg, Oxford & New York

HeHe’s Environmental Method

Video

http://vimeo.com/25615090

Last summer I went to Norwich to watch the artist collective HeHe launch their project Plane Jam from the roof of the Theatre Royal, as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. Below is my report of the day, which I only recently finished and which touches on some themes relevant to this blog, including that of how material settings can be deliberately deployed to produce moral and  political effects, which I think of as ‘environmental method.’

On the Art of Minor Modification in HeHe’s Plane Jam

Noortje Marres

One sunny morning in May I took the train up to Norwich to attend the launch of Plane Jam, a site-specific art project by the Paris-based collective HeHe. The plan was, as promised by the press release sent out in advance, to fly a miniature airplane out of a theatre building, the Theatre Royal in the historical centre of town. The small plane was to emit unusually big — for a plane that size — clouds of white smoke, thus producing a strange and possibly estranging variation on what must be a pretty routine occurrence in a town like Norwich as in many other places, the passing of a plane. The project was intended as a next chapter in a series of HeHe works provisionally called ‘catastrophes domestiques,’ a title whose meaning wasn’t exactly clear to me, but which invoked a range of things, including a number of publicity campaigns initiated by governments and business in recent years, which sought to bring global crises like climate change down to the level of everyday experience, in the process ‘taming’ or ‘domesticating’ these crises, robbing them of their more disturbing features, as well as, quite possibly, their capacity to disturb. (One recent example is a Renault tv commercial which features various very mundane scenes – a dinner in a restaurant, a trip to the supermarket – except that all appliances featured in them – the portable PIN machine; the cash register – are powered by small combustion engines emitting small clouds of smoke.) But HeHe’s project had caught my attention also for a more specific reason, namely as a possible instantiation of a technique that I call – for the moment – ‘environmental method.’

What are environmental methods? The term loosely refers to attempts to deploy material environments to modify human behaviour and/or raise awareness. Such techniques are today being developed in a variety of domains – art, design, human-computer interaction, social science, architecture and urban policy – as the concept of ‘behaviour change’ has come back into fashion, for no doubt complex reasons, which may or may not include a renewed preoccupation with lifestyle, increased popularity of registrational technologies of monitoring and feed-back, and a generalized sense of crisis. Whatever the reason, there are currently a multiplicity of environmental methods under development, those that operate on atmospherics (such as light and heat – eg the light in a chicken barn grows dimmer when the chickens in it get more agitated) and those that produce specific cues (for example, anti-ergonomics which make it hard to turn up a thermostat). Environmental methods, then, tend to involve relatively minor modifications of material settings in order to disturb embodied routines in some determinate way. As such, importantly, environmental methods are suggestive of an alternative account of what ‘environmental awareness’ might consist of. Rather than referring to a cognitive state of insight into the consequences of our actions, as in rational and utilitarian definitions of awareness, environmental methods invite a much more material and embodied account of it: awareness here becomes an effect of the disturbance of habitual, embodied ways of doing things, accomplished by way of the modification of everyday settings. As such, environmental methods also are of special interest aesthetically speaking. Among others, they invite a particular take on what is usually called ‘site-specific art.’ Can site-specific interventions in art, too, be approached as forms of environmental provocation? What kind of operations upon the setting, if at all, are specific to this type of aesthetic intervention?

Arguably, the work of HeHe can be understood as both a creative exploration and critical reflection of environmental methods. Their projects alter everyday settings ever so slightly and sometimes absurdly, introducing fictional elements into mundane environments, like a giant green cloud projected onto a smokestack, as in their most famous project Nuage Vert, or making an iron fly. Thus, in a recent piece, Domestic Catastrophe 1, a flying iron swings around on an invisible wire suspended from a motor fixed to the ceiling, emitting disproportionally large white fumes. In Plane Jam, the project I came to see for myself, HeHe let a small airplane fly our of the Theatre Royal, or more precisely, between the Theatre Royal and the next door Dencora House, a quiet residential block. The insertion of the miniature aeroplane into the historic centre of Norwich, too, effected a minor modification of the setting (even if we should also note that, in some ways, this small intervention wasn’t minor at all, and required extensive negotiations of health and safety regulations). But, as there is no measure by which we can estimate the size of a plane in the sky, a viewer might easily be tricked into believing this was just a plane flying by, except, that is, for the white fluffy smoke and wiggling that only miniature planes do. Only model aeroplanes, that is, make the type of jerky movements that Plane Jam made, meaning that it could never be fully credible as a plane. And the fact there is something off may just be strong enough to catch someone’s eye. It is then through the relatively slight disturbance of a routine circumstance that HeHe’s project seeks to achieve its strongest effect.

In orchestrating minor disturbances of the mundane, one of principal techniques deployed in Plane Jam, as well as other HeHe-engineered domestic catastrophes, is that of the modification of scale. Scale manipulation is a tried and tested method and feature of site-specific art, ever since the land artist Smithson built his Spiral Jetty in the salt lake near Salt Lake City, and produced a video showing a very small looking artist running around in his sizeable artwork (which was filmed from a little aeroplane flying overhead). But scale manipulation in site-specific art – and the more particular tactic of ‘miniturization’ deployed by HeHe – might also be understood as offering a commentary on socially predominant instances of it. One could say that in our societies there is a strict hierarchy of different forms of ‘miniaturization’, and this we need to address. That is to say, as regards the capacities of miniturization – what it is supposed to make possible – there seems to be substantial inequality among different experimental regimes, say science and art and ordinary life. Thus, the scientific laboratory has been described as basically a machine for scale manipulation: by miniaturizing a phenomenon, say the outbreak of a disease or a flood, the laboratory makes the phenomenon made available for human intervention (Latour, 1988). However in other cases, say attempts to bring global environmental issues down to the level of domestic life, in campaigns for sustainable living, miniaturization seems to enable a rather pedagogic mode of being in the world. Here the miniature setting of the home is to make it possible for ordinary (little) people to familiarize themselves with big issues, like resource scarcity or peak oil, but not much more. In the one site, then, the scientific laboratory, miniturization holds the key to power (over nature), while in the other case, the home, it is equated with myopism and ordinary people’s lack of agency. Where should we locate a site-specific intervention like Plane Jam on this scale?

One possibility would be to say that Plane Jam offers a way of scrambling the scales of ‘big’ and ‘small’ scale manipulations, by occupying an uncertain location like the roof of the Theatre Royal, which is neither a domestic space, nor the sacred world of the laboratory, and thus frustrating our learned habits to relegate scale manipulations to either side of the spectrum going from capable laboratory sciences to incapacitated domestic subjects. At the very least, there is an argument we can extract from Plane Jam. And this is its insistence on, and cultivation of, our capacities to see things out of proportion – rather than in proportion. This seems increasingly necessary to the ethical and aesthetic life in technological societies. That is, rather than needing to see things ‘in proportion’ as 19th Century English moralists would have it, we 21st century people need the assumed proportionalities of everyday life to be messed with, in order to be able see things clearly and squarely. Rather than needing to grasp the ‘proper proportions’ between, let’s say, the pleasure we derive from airflight and environmental harm, what we need rather is the proportions of things like aeroplanes and their emissions to be pushed out of order – the more slightly, the better – in order to be able to take notice of them.

Crucially, moreover, we need props to achieve this type of perceptual effect: only with the aid of devices like Plane Jam will we even be able to perceive ‘environmental issues.’ I guess this is how I would like to read the term ‘catastrophe domestique.’ It gives a very particular meaning to the term disturbance, where it is not so much about a wild and sensational provocation of morality for its own sake, but rather the trickery that is today required for anyone to take notice of disturbing affairs that are difficult to localize, and for this reason, among several others, are adequately presented by the figure of the cloud.

The New in Social Research: Ruppert recording

We are pleased to put online the next in our ‘The New in Social Research’ series, a recording of Evelyn Ruppert’s lecture titled ‘Doing the Transparent State: Methods and their Subjectifying Effects/Affects’ (Feb 28th).

'Who's lobbying?' data interface

Building on themes explored in the previous talk by Fuller and Harwood, Ruppert looked at the effects (and affects) of the UK government’s data ‘Transparency Agenda’, insisting on the generative capacities of this device. This includes the release of detailed data, via publically accessible, comparatively easy-to-use online platforms (e.g. government produced data apps), ranging from details of MPs expenses to itemised lists of departmental spending. This data, in turn, can be – and increasingly is – downloaded, manipulated and mediated by organisations and institutions, whether by journalists looking to produce eye catching visualisations , or companies hoping to unearth market value hidden in the relations between and amongst different data sets.

Where does my money go

'Where does my money go?' data visualisation

A key argument was that Transparency and Open Data arrangements anticipate the moral failure of government: they enrol people as vigilant subjects monitoring such potential failures. This mode of government/public engagement, Ruppert argues, calls forth certain kinds of witnessing public, the production of what she termed (uncertain, hypervigilant) ‘data subjects’. This mode of witnessing implies a reorientation of both the responsibilities of political subjects and the medium for political action. Increasingly, responsibility for detecting moral, political failure is relocated away from the business of politics itself and onto a public charged with monitoring, sifting, detecting, calling attention to potential government failings lurking in the depths of the data, but also rendering subjects complicit in this ultimately passive mode of governance by transparency.

To hear more, including Ruppert’s reflections on whether or not this mode of witnessing can be considered ‘new’ (a key question given the aims of this series), download the recording below.

Recording (to be downloaded; these are not designed to stream)

1. Evelyn Ruppert – Doing the transparent state

The New in Social Research: Fuller & Harwood recording

As part of our ongoing series exploring claims to newness in social research, we are pleased to put online a recording of this week’s event (Feb 21st), ‘Database as funfair’.

Matthew Fuller and Graham Harwood, drawing on work done by YoHa as part of the Invisible Airs project, explored what can be learnt from, and done with, relational databases released to researchers as part of a government drive towards data transparency (themes to be explored further by next week by Evelyn Ruppert – more details about upcoming events are on the CSISP homepage).

Having been given access to the expenditure database of Bristol City Council, they soon worked out that the data – in itself – wasn’t particularly interesting (in fact, as they write, part of the power of this data operates specifically because of its inability to command interest, through the “multiple layers of boredom” which it generates in its readers), to a degree because of what was absent, excluded, or rendered unintelligible.

Two things were, however, far more interesting. The first is what could be read not from the content of the data, but from the data architecture. This includes the limitations imposed on who can see, read and write what, and the degree of granularity within particular data types. These controls and limitations could be seen as having effects on working practices, while also revealing different forms of power within an enterprise, and the existence of very distinct ‘views’ on this data.

Expenditure data book stabber

And second, YoHa decided that far more interesting things could be done with the data than analyse it. To this end, they have constructed a series of ‘contraptions’ aimed – it seemed to me anyway – at exploring the potential for different modalities of ‘public interest’ in relation to these streams of seemingly banal expenditure data. Here, for example, is their expenditure data ‘book stabber’.

The rest is probably best left to Fuller and Harwood. Further images of the contraptions and people using them (including the mayor of Bristol on their expenditure data ‘rider’), as well as the documentary you will hear on the audio, can be found on the YoHa Invisible Airs site.

Recordings (to be downloaded; these are not designed to stream)

1. Matt Fuller & Graham Harwood – Database as funfair