TC: Some of the notions we most frequently use
to characterise the new media are connected to the idea of relation, though
giving it other names. One of these terms – perhaps the most important – is
interaction. But we also talk a lot about “connectivity”, “link”, etc… Do these
terms reflect some ideology of our times?
The idea of relation is very important for thinking about the new media and the
effects that they’ll have, as they became more intensely implanted in society.
The term interaction or interactivity seems questionable to me and I think that
it is important to make a distinction between relation and interactivity.
When people talk about interactivity, they’re usually talking in a frame where
the properties of the objects or people in interaction are assumed to be known.
They usually put it in a frame of use or utility. Lots of people think of the
problem of designing in new media as analysing and fulfilling the needs that
already exist. But if you take that approach nothing new happens, because
you’re just explicitly externalising what you already see in people. So when
interactivity is used in that way I think it limits possibilities and reduces
the potential that might be in the new media. As an alternative or as a
complement to the notion of interactivity, I think it is interesting to play
with the notion of relation ; to think of some space where people are in
participation, but in a way that isn’t yet determined, so that the outcome
isn’t yet certain. So, when I think in relation, I think of that kind of space
where there’s a large margin of indeterminacy or of something as yet undecided,
that happens in between stimulus and response. A concept like relation
determines the objects through the bodies that are in relation. So the concept
of relation is connected to the possibilities of change, rather than simply
acting out what is already implicit in us.
M.T.C.: But is it possible to speak of “relation”, in that sense you are
describing, in the case of digital space? Does not the notion of cyberspace
imply instead a form of unavoidable determinacy, which Deleuze called “control”
and Wiener, more specifically, “retroaction”?
B.M.: I think it’s a mistake to think
of this in either/or terms, a sort of a realm of freedom, where unity can arise, or
determination, where unity takes place in a world that has been
The idea of retroaction and
feedback is extremely important because determinations of meaning, patterns of
interaction or function could enter back into a relation with one another, so
that the field of a relation is never completely lacking in determination or
constraint. There is no either/or of constraint and freedom, it’s
more an effect of the complexity of the interaction. This isn’t just as in
physics where two bodies, two celestial bodies for example, might have very
determined patterns, determined by their gravitational fields in relation to
one another, as stated in Newton’s laws of physics. But if you have a third
body, a third gravitational field, you could no longer predict in the long term
what the patterns will be, because there is some kind of indeterminacy effect
that is generated in the complexity of these three interactions. So when you have deterministic rules, you
have constraints. But if you allow them to enter into a certain kind of relation, often or primarily enabled by
feedback, then, even considering the constraints, new effects could arise.
M.T.C.: And what about the notion of “connectivity”?
B.M.: I think the concept of
connectivity depends on the notion of network. And a network is composed of
nodes, connections between the nodes and branching out of the connections. It
is still basically linear because each segment is a linear trajectory between
two nodes and they may branch out in a very complicated way. But if you look at
any particularly segment of the network you see it is a straight line, a simple
bifurcation or a node, so that kind of topography doesn’t get us very far. It
is still a very simple spatial and linear way of thinking the world, only
multiplied. So it isn’t qualitatively different.
What concerns me, what is interesting to me, is to think of what happens when things
are fed back from various locations in the network and come together
simultaneously at the node: an event takes place. And for me
relation has to do with that event, rather than with a topography of
connectivity. And the problem becomes how to think about what events take place
at a cybernetic node.
M.T.C.: Can we say that interactive media are disclosing the true nature of
B.M.: I think every medium does that
and every technology does that, from the most primitive record, pencil and paper, to the most advanced computer
technology. I don’t think that there is a
great break between what we think of as natural perception and the kind of
perception that is at play in the Internet. There isn’t continuity but there’s
a reconfiguration, maybe an accessing to new potentials, which were there but
were not expressed in the same way. And these new potentials are a bodily
creation in conjunction with technology.
I don’t subscribe to the idea that the digital world is disembodied or that the
analogical world would be left behind, because it implies accessing
perceptual possibilities that are connected with the rest of our experience and
are basically analogical in orientation, if you think of the analogical in a
broader sense, as a sort of continuity of cross-medium transformations. So if
you think of the analogical in relation to perception,
the senses are always translating themselves into each other, there’s always an input of
touch, of tactility or of the feeling of movement and of posture into vision, and vision can’t function without those
cross-sense inputs. To me that’s the analogical process, because
there’s some kind of ongoing impulse, a participation that is translated across
media, in this case the sensitive media. What’s is interesting to me is what
happens in between and what enables that kind of operation between the senses.
I try to understand the phenomena of synesthesia, the nature of connections
between the senses. The connections between the senses are neither visual, nor
tactile, nor perceptive, nor auditory. It is what psychologists call amodal.
One has to pass through an amodal state in order to connect the different
sensory modes. And if the senses are as integrated as they seem to be, then
it’s possible to think of the most seemingly impoverished technological
connection - sitting immobilized with the mouse in front of our screen - as
granting access to fields of perception, fields of experience that aren’t
actually present. It is a great concern of modern painting to access feelings
of movement, even despite the stillness of the canvas, through the relations
between colours. There is a potential in computer technology to access feelings
of movement – kinaesthesia - through moving images and icons on the screen.
So, perhaps, as technology develops and integrates more
media, becoming multimodal itself, it will be interesting to see what ways
designers will find of addressing non-visual senses through vision, and
bringing a sort of virtual perceptual world into participation with what is
actualised on the screen. A lot of artists and architects are
working in systems that, for example, integrate motion-sensing, so their
interaction addresses the entire body and its movements, and these are very
powerful tools, because all perception is axed on movement. And motion-sensing
rather captures the changes in environment, thus allowing you to put
interaction in a space that’s by nature more complicated and allows for greater
participation and interaction
M.T.C.: The design
of some simulated environments does create that virtual synesthetic perception
of which you speak. But is this not a sign of these environments’ limitations?
When, for instance, the “elevation” experience is only communicated through a
“flying eye”, to use a critical formula of Simon Penny (who has created some of
these virtual environments), does not that mean that we are still confined by
an essentially visual culture?
B.M.: I think that Simon Penny argues
there is still a very strong Cartesian undercurrent in many of the ways people
think about technology. And the eye is thought of as connected to the mind. But
the eyes are an organ of the body; they are very intimately connected with the
movements that take place throughout the body. And
I think we have to adjust our thinking, to put the eye back into the body and
to try to explore the implications of that and to try to get around that
duality between the eye and the mind, on one hand, and the mind and the body,
on the other. I think the mind is, to use a certain current jargon, an emergent
property of the body. It’s an event that takes place, a relational event that
takes place within and through the body. So I think new currents in fields like
embodied cognition are starting to be drawn upon and that could be helpful.
M.T.C.: Another notion that is part of the current
jargon related to these issues, namely to the idea of a body that evinces
“emerging properties”, is “prosthesis”… But it seems you don’t have a use for
B.M.: It’s not a
very useful concept for me because I think it is still a part of the
interactive models of which I was talking earlier, where the organism is seen
as something complete, with a determinative form and functions that are
embedded in that form. And the prosthesis is another form that extends those
functions and extends the organism. So it is connected to what is already there, what is already
functioning. It might extend it or prolong it but it’s
not qualitatively changing it. When I go back to the senses I think it is
important to think them in a new way. There aren’t deterministic systems. And
by invoking the senses I’m not returning to the concept of the natural body as
it is before society. The body is shocked through and through with cultural
responses. And the senses are, by nature, open to those, as they are by nature
in continuity with culture.
The perceptual apparatus builds itself through gaps that create indeterminacy. We have many
gaps in our perception, physiological gaps, that we have to fill in through our
movement, through our relation to the world. We have the gaps between our two
eyes, we have the blind spot in our retina, we have the gaps between the
synapses, and we have whatever gap exists between different sense modalities,
sense channels, through touching, through hearing, through sight.There’s a sort of a gaping of the perception and also a
creation of chaos in front of the perceptual apparatus. Where there
is a sort of chaotic background firing off the neurons, there is a chaotic
movement, like the movement of the eye. There is an addition, a physiological
addition of scrambling noise. That means that we aren’t taking input processing
like the computer, that produces output in some linear fashion or even a looped
fashion. What we are doing is receiving energetic impulses that take place in
every level of the body, in the gut; there’s even a neural system in the gut. There are proprioceptive receptors
in our muscles and our joints. So this processing that is happening in the flesh, before it ever reaches the
brain, is a kind of distributive system where, again, the products of each one of the
senses, in their different
cultural levels, get scrambled (and not so much processed) in a way that is not
necessarily predictable. Perception is a creative filling-in and an active
relation with the world.
M.T.C.: Does movement play any privileged role in
that active relation with the world and in filling in these perceptional gaps?
For instance, our perception of space is especially related to the way we move
across it, and not just to some “visual representation” of that space. Is our
traditional cultural fixation on the sense of sight and, consequently, on a
visual representation of the world, threatened by the emergence of image
technologies that integrate movement?
B.M.:. I think
that it is important to notice that if vision depends on movement for its
functioning, which it does, developmentally and physiologically, then even when
you could act or receive active input from the other senses, there is still a
trace of some sort of movement in vision.
So even the most purely optical experience is a kind of spectral movement, a virtual movement that we can work with and
maybe access through technological innovations. It’s another level
of the virtual, that’s not simply the same as simulation. It is about
potentials that exist within each of the differentiated levels that we
experience, within the vision, or within touch, that exist on the screen, on
the bodies, that infinitely multiply what can be. So rather than designing for
perception, in order to allow a natural state of the human to express itself,
designing for perception, I think, allows for perhaps greater potentials, for
expressing a sort of becoming, beyond what we know.
M.T.C.: Does this reflection on perception and
affects, increasingly important in your work, allow you also to think about
It is very important for me, but emotion is also a potential trap because the ways that we
have to think about it are emotional expressions that have become highly coded
and highly stereotyped. So it’s sometimes difficult to approach it from the
level of the «emotions», but at the same time there is an intensity in an
emotion that overspills the coding.
There’s always an excess in an emotion. There is an excess in an expression of anger that
cannot be contained in words. I’ve got to be in the situation to feel it, and
you do feel it physically. The word “emotion” etymologically means outward
motion, moving out. And I think you can almost take that literally, as a
certain moving out through intensity, as commotion, because it is always a very
intensive relation situation and it never happens in isolation. It
only takes place in front of a virtual presence. Even when you are angry alone,
there is still someone there receiving it. So, I think that if you make a
distinction between the intensity of the experience of the commotion and its
every expression, if you can make a distinction between that and the intensity
itself - I call intensity affect –
I find it most useful to think affect as much as possible in terms of movement, of potentials
for movement, of potentials for connections in a state that has been determined
before in one way or another, as angry or conciliatory, for example.
So affect for me is very tied to event, whereas
emotion is more tied to coding and communication, sending out signals of the
way people could think about it. I think most digital media develop
by addressing themselves to affect, much more directly than to information.
That is so especially with the multiplication of sources of information – the
World Wide Web, for example – when information almost disables itself by virtue
of its over availability. There is so much on the web that you can’t access it
all, it’s difficult to tell what is important and what isn’t: it’s difficult to
access, access in terms of accuracy or usefulness. It’s a sort of mess of
information that I think disables the communicational function of the media.
But in that disabling of this function, I think, the intensity of the affect
comes to the fore and that could be very dangerous, it could lend itself to
very simplified expressions, as it has happened in relation to mass media after
the World Trade Centre events, where a media expression of the affect has been
channelled directly into ideological responses that are extremely limited,
aggressively and extremely dangerous. But on the other hand I think it could be
the counter-practices of the affect that open the avenues of the responses.
Perhaps the role of the Left today is to explore those avenues, rather than
following the usual ideological argumentationTo go back to arguing only the
rightness of our ideological positions is to ignore the changes that are taking
place through the mass media and through the more differentiated digital media
and the World Wide Web. It’s to ignore the fact that affect has become the
medium of culture more than information. And if the Left doesn’t realize that,
this leaves the affective field totally open to the Right and to the
proto-Fascist tendencies that are expressed in the United States now. And then
that affect legitimates responses that are perhaps not very well thought out
and actually lead to a greater violence. I don’t see the consequences of
continuing this loop of violence. So I think that affect is important
politically as well as in terms of what technological potential or artistic
expression might be found by rethinking affect in relation to emotion and both
their relations to policy and ideological expression.
M.T.C.: What kind of affect is terror? The 20th
century has familiarised us with the word «terrorism». But the idea of terror,
namely as a particular political affect, entered politics long before, at least
since the French revolution. What kind of affect is terror?
B.M.: In the late
19th century terror among anarchists was propaganda by the deed. It was making
an ideological point, an instruction through violence. And that approach to
terrorism was continued by Marxists and leftist liberation movements into the
20th century. What is happening now, I think, is fundamentally, qualitatively
different. Terrorism is no longer a way of propaganda through the deed. It’s a
performative act, it’s an event that triggers an almost uncontainable emotion and
that emotion is fear. And all these affects take place within that fear, which
creates insecurity. And insecurity is something that is very difficult to
respond to or to know how to live within because it’s, by nature, in contact
with something that is unknown or indeterminate.
M.T.C.: Could you explain more clearly that
distinction between an ideology that resorts to action or, as you say, to
“propaganda by the deed”, and the “performative acts” of terrorism? Isn’t there
a common passion for the “event” as “accident”, and for its “unpredictable”
B.M.: No, it’s a
technology of the event that recreates the social field as a field of
indeterminate threat, what Paul Virilio calls the unqualified enemy. In a
social field, it becomes just a potential point of emergence of an enemy that
you don’t know. Who are they? What are they? Where are they coming from? Why
are they coming? So it’s very much a technological event and it is now
exploiting many of the connections I’m talking about, between event and affect.
I don’t think that it means that we should turn away from the notion of event
or affect, because most philosophical notions which are useful or important, I
believe, are also morally neutral. They are what they are made into, because
they have to do with potential. And potential can lead to pressure or to a new
form of State control. But, at the same time, whenever there is a creation of a
control, there is a creation of a corresponding way of screwing around with it.
Every multiple power invents multiple resistance. So the two always go together
and we’ll never step outside of control into free space but at the same time
there will always be degrees of freedom, no matter how tight the networks of