Noticing the digital

Twice a day I change from Jubilee to Northern Line and back at Waterloo station. There is a moving walkway supposed to speed-up the lengthy transfer between platforms. However, it has been closed for maintenance since an engineer died while working on the travelator last September. The other day I was therefore comparably surprised by a commuter in front of me. It wasn’t the fact that he read a book while walking and wore noise-cancelling headphones, subsequently never looked at what’s ahead of him the entire way. Much rather did his right hand catch my attention. Despite the travelator being shut down for quite some time and reason, he still followed the safety advice and hovered his hand over the handrail. His commute appeared routinised to such a degree that he didn’t even notice or adjust to the changed circumstances at Waterloo station.

Understandably so, is for many people the commute a boring part of their day. This is not to say that there aren’t significant things going on. The 140 meter long tunnel at Waterloo station is loaded with meaning. Newspapers have reported about the fatal accident and city, police, and transport representatives issued statements. And even besides that there is endless potential for interesting observations to be made, passing by twenty-something billboards and countless people and bits of conversations.

Yet, it is in response to these fleeting and short-lived events that people develop what Georg Simmel has labelled as blasé attitude in his The Metropolis and Mental Life. People approach such places with an indifference towards the abundance of stimuli that aren’t substantially related to their personal life. The commute forms a stretch of wasted time, is experientially grey and empty. Something we nowadays seek to fill and colour through our use of media technologies. These technologies can be ‘old’, as the book in the commuter’s hand, or ‘new’, as the wireless headphones paired to his mobile phone. And as consequence of the ubiquitous presence of and access to such media, one could rightly argue that nobody has to be bored today.

Digital media in particular offer an easy fix to boredom, as Judy Wajcman outlines, among other things, in her book Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. They can do so in that they allow for spaces of separation and autonomy to be established seamlessly. Within these spaces a person can be present but also withdrawn at the same time. Yet in contemporary reflections and discussions on the impact digital technologies have on our life this capacity to withdraw is often instead rendered in a different tone, namely as a situation of being drawn in. London’s Somerset House recently opened an exhibition addressing this theme under the title ‘24/7 – A wake up call for a non-stop world’. Ideas of an always on culture, an acceleration of the social, and emotional life governed by digital devices and capitalist industries underlying them are discussed alongside a mix of historical and contemporary works.

Digital technologies are within this nexus observed in an ambiguous way. They have provided a solid solution to what in academic debates is referred to as simple boredom – that means to be bored by something or someone. Yet today’s media landscapes are also seen as source of what is understood as profound boredom. Douglas Coupland illustrates this latter notion of boredom in a piece written on the 24/7 show for the Financial Times: “I think I’m doing OK, but then I look through a year’s worth of iPhone photography and, technically, it looks like I did shitloads of things last year but, for me, inside my head, it all happened in a flash. Time didn’t pass. It did, but it didn’t. You know exactly what I mean.”

Coupland’s statement and the exhibition confront a popular feeling that, somehow, time seems to run faster nowadays. It showcases that while media have provided opportunities to fill and make otherwise empty time pass our lives do not feel as being more meaningful or fulfilled at the end of the day. Ubiquitous access to the digital may have offered a solution for modern city dwellers to endure their daily commute but doesn’t provide an answer to profound boredom, the state in which life presents itself as pointless, in which we relate to it from an indifferent position, in a potentially depressed or melancholic mood.

This notion of profound or also referred to as existential boredom is the one that has received most scholarly attention in the humanities and social sciences. It is linked to socio-material forces of modernity, materialised through processes of industrialisation (setting a repetitive and machinic everyday rhythm), urbanisation (creating an overstimulation and acceleration of social life), rationalisation (disenchanting the ways people relate to their surroundings), secularisation and individualisation (exchanging shared frames of reference with a mode of continuous self-reflection but also self-doubt), and contemporary shifts towards forms of consumer and commercial culture (putting newness and innovation over repetition and tradition).

The idea of profound boredom corresponds with diagnoses of a blasé attitude as outlined by Simmel but also the critical observations and reflections on modern life by Walter Benjamin or Henri Lefebvre. While these scholars explicitly see boredom as consequence, and in most cases inevitable consequence of a changed socio-material rhythm of everyday life, this idea of profound boredom is further anchored in nihilistic strands of philosophy. Søren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or is one prominent example, he himself deeming boredom as the source of all evil. Martin Heidegger’s lectures on The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics forming the more prominent trace present in our reasoning on boredom and all those things that leaves us empty.

For Heidegger profound boredom is a state in which all things lose their meaning – is, as the German term for boredom Langeweile indicates, the feeling of being trapped in a long, seemingly endless stretch of time. This temporal form, this flattening out of time in which past, present, and future stand indifferently to each other catches the attention of Heidegger’s phenomenological reflections because it breaks with a specific temporality. Profound boredom breaks the linear relation of these three temporal states. A linearity which is constitutive for the modern subject that in an imperceptibly short passage through the present reflects on the past and acts towards the future. Breaking this linearity breaks the Cartesian ‘I think, therefore I am’ and thus leaves people disoriented, in a crisis of meaning. Yet this disorientation and crisis is at the same time also opening new paths of relating to the world. It opens up the other side of existence, one not dominated by thought but our senses and feelings instead.

While the idea of profound boredom has been central throughout twentieth-century discussions, its links to simple boredom have often been ignored or neglected. Even if arguable, people have likely always been bored, been left empty by someone or something. However, many of the master thinkers of modernity do not acknowledge this point much. Rather is it common practice to neglect that this more mundane, practical, and concrete experience of boredom is constitutive of the profound state. This neglect stems therein in part from a simple reason. Profound boredom is seen as that form which is said to be historically specific to modernity. It emerged and was popularised, as Patricia Meyer Spacks has outlined in her literary history of the term, during the eighteenth century alongside other ideas like ‘interest’, ‘happiness’, or ‘fulfilment’. Yet crucially it emerged less a phenomenon but more so as a specific intellectualisation of and language to demark inadequacy. Happiness was rendered as a pursuit, as the result of human action and endeavour. Boredom, on the other side, denoted all those things passive and idle, short-lived and repetitive.

Historian Peter Toohey has henceforth argued that the concept of boredom and its associated images can easily be confused with various depressive states. In his ‘lively history’ of the concept he argues that we should not intellectualise it but merely follow the advice the simple emotion of boredom gives us and walk away from the situation that evoked it. Just as the commuter in Waterloo station did, reading a book and listening to music. Appealing as Toohey’s comment is, it’s also unreluctantly undermining the historical discourse at work within such socially accepted and expected responses to boredom. Toohey, critical of the grand claims of profound boredom, still pushes towards the same and unnecessary naturalisation of boredom, as Elizabeth Goodstein has argued in her book Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity. Boredom, both our experience of as well as the rhetoric addressing it, has been psychologically naturalised and philosophically universalised. We seem to have accepted that simple boredom (to be bored by something or someone) is just part of human nature. We see profound boredom (lacking a sense of purpose, fulfilment, or satisfaction in life) as inevitable consequence of the rhythms of modern times.

Returning to the Somerset House’s 24/7 exhibition, I’m thus cautious to blindly follow Coupland when he invokes the same universalised rhetoric, arguing that “You know exactly what I mean”. The life he is referring to in his article is one of missing international meeting calls by messing up time zones. He speaks about the non-stop and always on lifestyle of an artist working and travelling around the globe. An image that also the exhibiting artists and speakers of the opening panel of the show not break with. One just travelled to London for the event from Washington, D.C., was about to board a plane back to the US after leaving the stage. Another speaker had just arrived back in London after promoting his book in Sweden. The host and curator of the exhibition was scheduled to leave for Glasgow the next day to open an electronic arts festival she is organising.

We sure do not all live such lives. And even if so, not all the time, as Wajcman remarks, who was part of the panel as well. But why still make such grand claims then? Do these people really believe such? Some at least were very font of them. Yet confronted with a question from the audience what an individual person can do, they shied away. They agreed that there are no simple answers and fixes to this situation of acceleration and crisis of meaning, to our situation of profound boredom. It requires collective action, Wajcman argued. Yet isn’t making grand claims on the current state of human experience a form of collective action? Didn’t I just spent 90 minutes of my time and £20 of my money to visit a cultural institution which could chart such collective change, chart a new, provocative language on human experience?

On the one side they argue that they’ve figured it out, market the exhibition as wake up call. And similarly the show has been reviewed in the press as provocatively dismantling how our time is controlled by digital devices and the organisations selling them. Artists – following the argument of Johnathan Crary’s book 24/7, which is guiding the exhibition – are said to be at the forefront of solving these issues. But are they really? And if so, where and when? Pessimistic accounts of technology seem to have become the norm today. There has hardly passed a day in the last years without public debates on the negative impact digital devices have on our life. And we may even ask if the system needs dismantling when its reality is one of blunt and obvious tracking, personalisation, and engagement attempts. There seems, I would say, little provocative in staging a wake up call while shying away to take a stance and present an answer – even if that is an experimental one.

Boredom seems profound not in that all our experience is grey and empty but much rather that our language of describing experiential qualities has increasingly become so. The exhibition tries to counter these notions, yet not with a critical reflection of these ideas but rather with the attempt of reconciling us towards communality – touched by the warmth of light, the tranquillity of a room only filled by bird song, or an assemblage of voices calmly humming. It advances the statement that acceleration, that our non-stop world and sleep deprived culture neither popped up overnight nor is solely driven by digital technologies. Yet it is not this fact that makes it timely. Much rather is the Somerset House’s 24/7 timely in that it is a reminder that our intellectual approaches towards digital technologies are still utterly unable to take them seriously.

Eager to defend the fragility of a reality that we call, or at least once called, ours, we seem without hesitation ready to sacrifice the potential to inhabit another. Have they never been in a situation of solitude where the light of your phone screen has been the only one guiding? Have they never found that same atmospheric comfort of birds singing or voices humming communally in the digital? 24/7 not only fails to address but even further occludes the meaningfulness of these things, these moments of finding hope within the mere capitalist ruins that are today’s digital media landscapes. It is right in locating the sources of our modern malaise in manifold domains, the digital being one of them. However, how can it so prominently fail in putting up the same standards towards its search of a solution?

A provocative perspective within the discourse on the consequences of digital technology use would be that which asks: Have we even attempted to notice and take seriously the digital media environments we are surrounded by and talking about so much? For does it appear that the digital has seldom been anything but subsumed within well-rehearsed tropes of cultural criticism, subsumed by the only ground common to our existence, a nihilistic and sceptical one. We agree that life is lacking qualities. We know that something meaningful is missing. Yet addressing anything but this lack appears when not impossible at least intellectually infeasible. Rethinking the parameters of what defines a meaningful and fulfilled experience, rethinking the rhetoric of boredom promises to be a start in order to break from this short-coming. For where would our thoughts arrive once the abundance of short-lived intimacies and flat entertainments overflowing our screens are understood precisely not as such but instead as a joyful and satisfying moment in our lives? It requires openness and patience, requires you to listen and pay attention not to a historical discourse and ideas of thinkers long gone but the intensity of a moment. To really notice the digital and the myriad ways it’s affecting our lives, instead of seeking to master it through our thoughts, we require nothing less than what Heidegger has longed for in his work all the way – Gelassenheit, the capacity of lettings things be. And it is this capacity which 24/7 does quite simply not deliver on.

On contemporary culture and the creative imperative

A blurring of lines between practices and institutions is characteristic for today’s complex societies. Consider for instance the increasing number of people producing media content and texts. An increase ever so little located within media organisations themselves. The online news site Buzzfeed, for instance, laid off their entire quiz and many of their popular culture editors because it suddenly realised that unpaid community contributors already also do the job. Everybody is allowed to create quizzes, but, as it happened, so did a single college student from Michigan manage to become, without really knowing so, Buzzfeed’s second largest global traffic driver.

The number of people carrying out creative work, producing aesthetic and cultural value, has increased drastically. The rapid boom in design professions as well as the cultural significance attached to the idea of creativity and the creative industries is a testament to that. The primacy of aesthetic discourses has moved from the galleries and academies towards ‘the people’. Or at least this seemed the hope of many cultural policy initiatives, like those of New Labour in the UK. The hope of the ‘project of modernity’ within which finally all can participate in the social, economic, and cultural production of society. Everybody has creativity – everybody can create and care for something, everybody creates and cares for something. And the young and dynamic creative industries sound way more egalitarian than the old and bourgeois cultural industries ever could anyways. Yet that New Labour avoided questions of aesthetic value at arm’s length and ultimately surrendered them not to ‘the people’ but the neoliberal rationale of ‘the market knows best’ should be common sense by now.

Contemporary cultures are haunted by the futures they missed – haunted by the ubiquity of a cultural memory expanding in the infinite step of meaning being produced. Digital technologies, the intrusive drivers enlarging this step, transgress through their computational logic and entropic generation of data a constant element of randomness into contemporary culture. Digital media create, as some argue, an immobilising ‘pitch-black deep space of thought’ in which we are unable to sufficiently remember ‘the’ past and predict ‘the’ future. It is the same trajectory in which tech evangelist gifted us the pervasive ethos of productivity and efficiency – only to shortly after start themselves promoting counter initiatives of mindfulness and well-being.

There lies, at the heart of contemporary culture, an ever so strong creative imperative. We are supposed to live in the now and constantly re-invent ourselves before, beneath, and beyond old institutions. We are supposed to work for all of them at once and none of them at all. And when I say ‘we’, I mean ‘I’ – the ‘we’ of ‘Is’. There are countless, and predominantly Western, I suppose, narratives that urge one to live life ‘fully’ – whatever that means. It is ok to be ‘gelassen’, to live in the moment and appreciate life’s immediacy – yet apparently only if you do so efficiently. But those who do not hesitate to break up ‘old’ institutions to unlock a direct and immediate connection with life seem ever so often unable to realise that the greatest of all institutions are not those in-between people but incorporated within the ‘I’.

The resilience of this obsession with creators seems obvious. Those who manage to create something singular are rewarded – of course only after this uniqueness is asserted by a critic still. The lucky lottery winners of the creative industries are rewarded by being enthroned the primacy over the discourse of socio-economic success. Filmmaker and prominent voice of ‘the’ YouTube creator community Casey Neistat embodies this most clearly. ‘Do What You Can’t’. We are supposed to celebrate those who make, those who create, keep creating, keep putting the work in to do more of what they can’t. But it is at the same time Neistat, the living American dream of self-made entrepreneurial millionaire and pop icon, who, just human too, realised at the heights of his career the values of family, of ‘old institutions’. First he shut-down his daily programming, then came back, once or twice (I’ve lost count), only to leave again and again, preaching ever so less the ethos of ‘do more’ and instead that of ‘spend time with those you love’. Yet I would suppose, it is precisely that what many people can’t do. They work their lives off in the hope to spend time with their family, for there to be a future of time spent together.

Artist, entrepreneur, and intellectual Alexander Kluge argues that we, once again, need to learn to be more poetic. A trajectory I believe many would and do agree with. However, a trajectory so often misinterpreted still. For doesn’t the poet’s ‘work’ start not with the word gracefully expressed but the world viewed and experienced much more slowly and intimately than any theodicy of productivity, progress, and creation could ever lend?

Of the many scenes in Kluge’s ‘The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time’, one especially stuck with me. A car, loaded to the roof with luggage, turns up the driveway of house, a mansion even. The passengers are a child, whose parents died in a car accident, and the foster parent, who took care until the authorities managed to find relatives willing to take care. They enter the house within which the child’s new family is currently moving in. Busy people moving all kinds of expensive furniture for even more busy owners. Nobody has time for the visitors, nobody seems to really care for the visitors – not even the new mother. The only thing she cares about is getting everything ready for the dinner reception this evening. They wait, are told to wait. The foster parent has notes prepared on little pieces of paper. She has written down everything the child likes and needs and eagerly tries to explain it first to the mother and then manically to anybody passing by. The child, meanwhile, is sitting alone, left to itself and waiting in front of the past and future collide.

The social sciences and humanities are not excluded from the developments outlined above. While not less driven by the ethos of productivity and illusion of originality, they ever so often still seem the first and loudest to critique the former. Scholars are supposed to be cutting-edge researchers, inspiring teachers, elegant writers, technical presenters to their peers and clever ones to the public, sombre administrators of the academy, appealing consultants to policy and industry, and, most importantly, successful fundraisers. Myself writing piece after piece, haunted by deadline after deadline, trying to figure out my own academic future of solitude, I can only sit here and wonder: Who is this child we at once care for so much but spend so little time with after all? The role of the academy as institution seems ever so strongly to resemble that of the foster parent knowing and fighting for the needs of a child not truly one’s own.

It is a testament for today’s times that academics feel the need to be the most vocal advocates for society. Abstracting needs, creating recommendations or critique, engaging with people who care a great deal about dinner parties. This seems to be the bread and butter of contemporary intellectual practice. However, are academics really the best people to do these things – the most intelligible inquirers, writers, or speakers for society? One can only wonder what the world looks like through a child’s view. And I can only ask: Should the academy not to be the institution sitting right next to the child instead of fighting above its head? Not the institution for but of society. Not the creator of actions for a world to come but broker of sensibility for a world about to pass. A sensibility for the now which today seems ever so often overshadowed by the urge to create.


A central output of my research thus far has been the development of a sociological methodology able to address the material and embodied dimensions constitutive to culture. Joining cultural analysts who observe processes of aestheticisation, meaning processes within which people increasingly search for meaning in surrounding themselves with things and settings that first and foremost appeal to their senses, I have questioned the central role symbolic representations and narrative resources still have in mainstream sociological analyses of culture today.

With that I do not want to deny that social life is organised through symbolic interactions. However, there is increasingly, as I and other scholars observe, an element missing or hidden when we talk about what constitutes meaningful human experiences today. Affect-Mood-Meaning is therefor an attempt of extending in a social scientific process the analytical task of ‘reading’ culture towards that of ‘feeling’ its materiality. It seeks to promote ‘arts of noticing’ or an analytical attentiveness towards all those moments and gestures within which things and people resonate with one another.

Charting this endeavour, the central aim of this methodology is outlining moods. They are, to put it simply, reoccurring patterns of affects. They are culturally and historically specific feelings of being that rely on certain spatio-temporal arrangements to emerge and certain deictic gestures direct towards these sites and felt resonances with the world to be organised socially. Doing so moods are, I argue, of similar structural quality as are for instance narratives. Moods provide, so to say, a footing and guiding line in life’s continuity not so much in aligning past and future actions through a certain historization (be that individually in one’s biography or more communal in historical narratives). Much rather do moods provide stability and orientation for people in that they are sensibilities of the now one remembers and thus feels attached and belonging to.

The crucial nuance, however, is that moods do neither really belong to ‘the world’ nor to ‘the social’. Much rather are they the edge through which these two resonate with one another (pulling these distinctions further apart is thus the key difference with similar intellectual projects of Bruno Latour, Karin Knorr-Cetina, or Antoine Hennion who rather opt towards amalgamating them). In order to arrive at and outline this structural dimension, I henceforth sharpen the analytical distinctions between experiential, organisational, and structural spheres. I pull apart the experiential dimension of worldly resonances (affect) and the organisational dimension of gestures and discourses directed towards these felt sensibilities (meaning). Between them I locate moods as structural dimension which is the result of the culturally and historically specific oscillation between experiencing affects and trying to organise and make sense of them.

Doing so culture is now understood as meaning-structure constituted in a historically specific mood or feeling of being – neither unitarily situated in the world’s materiality nor in social subjects, their practices, actions, and knowledge. Herein we are to outline more sharply that culture or meaningfulness is neither part of ‘the world’ nor part of ‘the social’ but only emerges from their interaction. Confronted with this new constitution of culture, we are then able to rethink ideas (such as love, friendship, family, or the home) used to organise life’s meaningfulness more efficiently. To put it differently, we do not have to give up all the resources that organise social life to arrive at a point within which we can emphasise that a meaningful life does not rely on one’s capacity master the world in reading and transcending it historically. Much rather is meaningfulness now framed through as those intimate engagements with socio-material surroundings that offer a sensibility for one’s place in the world.

Digital Society – A New Hope? Comments on the assessment of contemporary culture in times of digitization

What differentiates our present society from other societal arrangements existing before? What is distinctive about the time and world we live in today? What characterises the mood of our time?

Digital technologies paired with well-worn modern notions of progress and rationalization. The focal point, it seems, around which many understandings of our present society unfold today. An apparent need and desire for new narratives guiding our futures. A desire for rest and existential protection. Sounds just like the good old times of early globalization that started losing the traditional decades ago (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002, Giddens 2002).

Well, I believe this obviously comes with little surprise. No society is distinct from the past upon which it emerged. Not distinctive but disjunctive societies. Like two spheres that partially overlap; still the same thing however slightly different at the same time. Yet still, how do we fully understand and grasp onto this blurry difference between yesterday and today?

The vital question here is how and where to make marks on the linear scale of time for comparison. Dirk Baecker (2018) does so in a media historical view, comparing modern societies and the invention of the printing press with contemporary societies and electronic media. What is decisive for our time is hence the move from an excess of critique that the printed word allowed to an excess of control that electronic media created. In this comparison, we realize that we no longer experience time as a clearly set arrow pointing towards the future, rather live in an iterative process of the future collapsing and attempts of building it up again. Reclaiming control over time hence becomes an exhaustive, political struggle. Where we once were integrated based on history, on our past and traditions, we are today based on an uncertain future.

Once a space of stability, today a field of contingency. We live in a constant state of nothing seeming to be impossible anymore while also nothing appears to be necessary. Everything could have happened otherwise. Our life taking place in what Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2010, 2013, 2014) describes as broad present. The future a daunting horizon of ecological struggles and catastrophes coming towards us. The past unavoidably omnipresent with seemingly no new history coming about. Nothing moves except the ever broadening present. A present that breaks with linear conceptions of time.

We simultaneously live in two temporalities. On the one side, linear historical time (still the primary domain of politics or the humanities) in which we seek to learn from the past to in an imperceptible short present act towards and anticipate the future (that’s the historicist version of Rene Descartes’ I think, therefore I am). As Reinhart Koselleck (1985) outlined in his historical analysis of the period between 1780 and 1830, it is on the ground of the institutionalization of this linear historical time, which we confused with time itself, that modernity sat (see obviously Michel Foucault’s ‘Les mots et les choses’ here too). And it is such confusions that clouded our view from what really is or at last could be happening today that was not there yesterday.

This today, on the other side, takes place in the temporality of a broad present (the primary domain in which we live our everyday life). It is not, still following Gumbrecht here, an imperceptible short present, but rather an ever broadening one. This partial break with modernity hence gave rise to new experiences of time and accordingly our body (yet also new ways of trying to govern it). Where we once only needed to be wielders of symbols, we are now ever more often, in a perceptible present, reminded that we are also human beings of flesh and blood (Wacquant 2015). This is obviously the more formal and academic version of what started with 1960s counterculture movements and now has become integrated into the foundation of our cultures in imperatives of ‘live in the now’ and ‘be creative’. More broadly speaking institutionalized in a general aestheticization (Reckwitz 2017) and gamification of society (Sicart 2013). The creation of ever more objects whose main intention is to appeal to our senses and feelings (something which before was primarily left open to the arts).

So, how do we approach and understand this present and new human condition we, and this is important, hence caps, ALSO live in today? For instance, Andrew Abbott (1988, 2007, 2014) argued that the prevalence of general linear modelling techniques in the social sciences, the dominance of social theories based on the assumption of scarcity opposed to the one of excess, and the sociological persistence on narrative opposed to lyrical analysis hindered us to differently view and imagine the social process. Leaving us focused on a mess of ill applicable tools at hand to imagine and enact new futures for our human condition that today is a simultaneity of different temporalities.

This is not to say that we need to fundamentally reinvent the tools upon which we engage and understand our present times. Most of these tools already exist. Yet we need to arrange our methodologies, our analytical view differently. Tackling the task of understanding and imaging better futures, given the simultaneity that characterises our present human condition, requires a twofold movement. We need, again caps, because this is important, NOT ONLY follow approaches of for example Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias (2018), who seek to learn from the past to imagine better alternatives to the capitalist exploitation and manipulation that arises through increasing datafication, BUT ALSO the ones of for example Sonia Livingstone (2018), who asks us to take seriously experiences people make within and beyond such contexts. We need to institutionalize, as Anna Tsing (2015) argues, not a new political economy but an arts-of-noticing. Sharpen our view to recognize and trace the associations that already make possible the emergence of new and desirable lifeways in our contemporary capitalist ruins.

An earlier version of this piece was published at

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Abbott, A. (2007). Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology. In Sociological Theory, 25(1), 67-99.
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Gumbrecht, H.U. (2014). All that Matters is Invisible: How Latency Dominates our Present. Shulman Lecture Series in Science and the Humanities, April 8, Yale University.
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Reckwitz, A. (2017). The Invention of Creativity. Modern Society and the Culture of the New. Cambridge: Polity.
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Tsing, A.L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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Understanding the garden as place-to-be: Approaching embodied experiences and the feeling of felicitously being at rest

The contemporary landscape discourse tends to move towards an open conceptualization of its central term of discussion (Franzen & Krebs 2006). Instead of solely understanding landscapes as aestheticized and idealized forms of nature (a perspective that at least has been common-sense since the 18th century, see von Buttlar 1989 or van Dülmen 1999), the scope has been broadened.

Studying social, political, and economic aspects of landscapes is no new paradigm. However, in an open conceptualization of landscapes, they are supposed to be embraced. Yet more crucially, this new conceptualization tries to cope with the changing forms of human movement that emerge within our complex cultures and societies shaped by processes of urbanisation.

An open conceptualization of landscapes is concerned with spatial structures that have become evermore patchwork-like. Contemporary landscapes have become more dynamic and particular; they have become more complex. Or as policy makers would say, today there simply are more stakeholders whose perspectives must be considered.

Instead of talking about a new aesthetic of the garden, I will therefor try to grasp onto the episteme of it. In the broadest terms of this concept, I understand the episteme of the garden as the root upon which we can establish different understandings and meanings of it. And I will try to outline this root of contemporary gardens, public and private, in what is the embodied experience of them. The embodied experience of human movement in what is the complex spatial structures we call garden today.

Thanks to my good friend Helena [1], I use the term embodied experience for the reason, as she said, that one immediately understands and feels what is meant. Within this immediacy, I hope to show how gardens allow us to gain hold onto the immediacy of the world. In understanding them as place-to-be, I will try to show how in their embodied experience we can gain hold onto something like the ‘unconcealment of being’. Experiences of our human embodiment that we might describe as beautiful, or, put more broadly, as felicitously being at rest.

Following conceptual reflections on the nature of space and the form of the garden, in situating these experiences, we will hence try to show their importance and reach. Leaning on fieldwork in the Schönbrunn Gardens, the Heiligenstädter Park, and at a garden party in Lower Austria, we will approach the embodied experience of contemporary gardens with a focus on their spatial structures.

Conceptualizing space

Understanding space as something that constantly is made, unmade, and remade, the political task that is spatial planning has a long-standing history in the fields of quantification and mathematics (Behrisch 2006). Mathematics and geometry are thus the appropriate tools to shape space in its physical materiality. However, culture, the relational space of symbolic representations and orderings of the world, is the tool to shape the possible meaningfulness of spaces. Hence, “a social order is hidden in the order of space” (Lefebvre 1974: 288).

In this juxtaposition of an absolute-physical and relational-cultural space, we can situate phenomena like ‘lieux de memoire’ – sites of memory (Nora 1984). They are material spaces that in their symbolic representations and social functionality are vested with historical significance. We can situate ‘heterotopia’ – other spaces (Foucault 1984). They are simultaneously mythic and real spaces, taking the form of contradictory sites. In this contradictory nature, they are entered through specific ways (and rituals), break with traditional time and representation of the world in creating a microcosm. We can situate ‘topophilia’ – approaching felicitous spaces (Bachelard 1958). They are the spaces we love and protect. They are the spaces we do not only experience in their geometrically orderedness, but in the intimate imaginations we live and lived them in.

The form of the garden

Gardens, public and private, appear to take the shape of all the above phenomena. They are today often sites of memory, places where we remember historical events and progressions. Accompanied with museums, they make the past present again and are supported in this functionality through the display of symbolic representations in the form of signs and tours, guiding our movement and view. Yet gardens are contradictory sites, bringing together different parts of the world. They are part of nature, but nature ordered by humans to display views of the world. In the words of Foucault, ‘the garden is the smallest parcel of the world and then it is the totality of the world’. They are places we love and protect. They can be quite intimate places, as only in the contemplative movement and imagination that emerges from the views they create they reach their full meaningfulness.

Reading through a portrait of André Le Nôtre, the principal gardener of King Louis XIV of France (Orsenna 2001), one can immediately see the importance of geometry and culture in creating such garden spaces. For had he, apart from his formal education, rested his career in close relationships with philosophers and artists. His mathematical obsession was paired with an understanding of beauty influenced by Italian culture through his teacher Simon Vouet; though Le Nôtre only visited Italy at the end of his career (and was disappointed).

Yet his career also is a reminder for the importance of pragmatic political and economic aspects, inscribing the social order of a time into the garden. Apart from the task of allocating and managing the necessary resources, Le Nôtre often was confronted with adapting the symbolic representations created within Versailles in ways that corresponded to the image it was supposed to communicate to guests, political and private.

But still, Le Nôtre’s gardens only reached their full meaningfulness, for him and others, in what is walking through them. He has been described as always walking, though in a sense never covering any distance – and since he spent his entire life working, he only ever travelled from one of his gardens to another. For him the eye, the view is as important as is human movement, because only in the movement the view is vested with life. Accompanied by eye and movement, walking in the same garden all over again, the same continuously becomes something ephemerally different yet remaining already known.

Walking without covering distance might hence be associated with what one can understand as ‘unconcealment of being’ or ‘event of truth’. While the view allows for the emergence of things being there, it is in the horizontal movement that is walking without covering distance that we are able to gain closeness to these things. In this closeness, they can have an appearance, present themselves, put simply, touch us (Gumbrecht 2004: 64–78). And it is in this touch of our surrounding material environment that we can experience that form of ‘inspiration of the mind and an activation of the body’ we might call human life (Gumbrecht 1997: 137-139).

Schönbrunn Gardens

Concerning the embodied experiences connected to such movement, I think the first aspect of the episteme of the garden rests in the ways a garden is entered. More precisely, in the way a sense of knowing is established. For is it that upon the moment a garden is entered one has not yet become an actor in the dyadic roleplay of the knower and the unknown. And I think the Schönbrunn Gardens in Vienna have the potential to be an exemplary case of a spatial structure nurturing this feeling of knowing.

In this sense, I don’t want to undermine the historical significance that lies within this space and the way it is presented and made present again in the various museums and tours offered. I also don’t want to undermine the importance of what is the landscape and garden art present or its history. Yet I am neither equipped with the disciplinary tools nor with the intentions to focus on these aspects (if interested in Viennese gardens from this perspective, see Berger 2016). However, while I think there is one other aspect that has the same constitutive force capable of differentiating this from other gardens, namely the views created while ascending the garden hill, I’ll have to disregard it in this piece.

It is within the different gates available to enter the garden that not only the particular and dynamic uses of it become visible, but also that the garden as distinct space from the surrounding city is created. However, in focussing on the available gates, especially the ‘Hietzinger Tor’ on the north west side of the gardens, we can outline the Schönbrunn Gardens to be a complex spatial structure. It is this complex structure that creates a representation of the city located in by experiencing the feeling of knowing upon entering.

The first thing one notices quite heavily when entering the garden through the ‘Hietzinger Tor’ is the change in ambient noise. More radical than at any other of the possible five gates to enter the garden does the sound of the surrounding city and traffic break this fast (The main entrance is still accompanied with the typical city noise of tourist streams; the ‘Meidlinger Tor’ requires you to move through two gates to enter the gardens, hence breaking with the city much slower; the ‘Tirolertor’ is embedded in the accompanying ‘Maxingpark’; ‘Engelstor’ and ‘Maxingtor’ are only being used by the gardening and forestry facilities; the ‘Maria Theresia Tor’ might have a similar effect, yet who uses this gate anyway?). Put differently, the break takes this kind of odd auditory effect that when turning around after walking a few meters you still can see the city and cars moving but not hear them anymore already.

What follows this break immediately is a view of the garden created at the intersection between ‘Palmenhaus’ on the right side, ‘Postwiesen’ on the left side, and the ‘Finstere Allee’ in the centre leading towards the ‘Große Parterre’ infront of the Schönbrunn Palace and ‘Neptunbrunnen’. The gate still in the back, behind oneself on the left side cars of the gardening and gastronomy facilities passing onto the ‘Hietzinger Fahrstraße’, on the right groups of students, families, and couples walking towards the Schönbrunn Zoo.

It is at this intersection that one is confronted with the made-nature of cultural heritage on the right side, less symmetrically ordered nature and broadly open space on the left side, and a distanced but focussed view on an open space of cultural heritage occupied by streams of tourists in the centre. Within this view that is experienced upon entering the garden, an image of the city is presented within the garden’s structure. Its embodied experience creating a feeling of knowing as one is presently situated in Vienna; a city vested with culture and history which one most of the time inattentively lives by, falling back to less ordered spaces that are yet more open and distanced from tourist streams, hence surrounding oneself in the traffic and presence of those living and working the city. The contemporary experience of the garden is shaped by the dynamic experience of what is moving through the city. Yet in being an image, a parcel presenting the totality, it is much easier to gain hold onto this dynamic and be at rest.

Garden Party in Lower Austria

Upon being in a garden, I think the second aspect of its contemporary episteme rests in the embodied experience creating a sense of functioning. Functional purposes of gardens today are presumably more complex than just the idealized display of nature (and maybe always have been, yet not broadly and publicly available I assume?). More dynamic and particular, their spatial structure must hence provide the possibility for varying leisurely and social activities to unfold within the same space. In unfolding these spatially ordered activities, functional purposes are transformed into a lived-in, a functioning space. And I think a garden party in Lower Austria I was invited to can be seen as exemplary case in establishing such embodied experiences.

The key parameters in creating a fitting spatial structure nurturing the embodied experience of functioning are proximity and visibility – laying the grounds for what is movement without covering distance. Yet again it is necessary to mention that I am not capable of discussing what is the garden art and history of this space, at the same time do not want to undermine its importance for appears the garden to be presently well thought and worked through. Hence I’ll try speaking of visibility and not view for am I not concerned with a perspective created and contemplated, yet.

The core layout of the garden party can be seen in three horizontally aligned main areas. On the outer left a small setup soccer field and tennis court accompanied with some open space and a ping-pong table. Both areas divided by a small and I presume most of the time empty area with bar tables. The overall area separated from the centre area by a straight garden path with the visibility being blocked by the pool house on the upper and bushes on the lower side.

The centre main area of the party featuring a put aside yet used trampoline and setup archery range on the lower part. Behind the two an open space on the left and seating area on the right side featuring a food stand and benches behind it facing towards the outer right main area. A straight line of bushes dividing the main area in two parts. The upper area commencing with open space and bar tables, small buffet and band. In front of the pool house on the upper left side a lowered seating area and fire place, inside a bar plus couches and tv to watch the soccer world cup. On the upper right side the pool surrounded by seats and deck chairs.

The outer right main area almost entirely consisting of water from the pond surrounding the garden featuring two rowing boats and two inflatable swans. On the other side of the pond, hidden in low-hanging tree branches what I assume to be something playground-like. The overall variety of activities, seating areas, and foods available perfectly balanced on the grounds of choices haven been made, yet still there being room to make them on their own within.

In this setting the variety of different activities present were placed in that kind of proximity and visibility that they at the same time allowed kids to be on their own yet still in auditive and visual reach of their parents. Pool, archery range, and trampoline featuring the clearest visibility. Soccer and playground offering limited visibility but yet still clear sounds. Tennis court and accompanying open space neither establishing clear visual or auditive connection to the central main area. Seating at the food stand and bar tables in front of the pool house offering the most visibility and proximity to all areas. Lowered seating at the pool house and seating behind the food stand only limited visibility yet still centrally positioned. Bar and tv area mostly hidden yet connected to the central open space. Seating around the pool offering varying degrees of proximity to the main area.

In the way all different areas and activities are weaved together through their varying degrees of proximity and visibility the embodied experience of movement (be it directed towards carrying out an activity, seeking openness or closeness from others, or to contemplatively stroll around) nurtures a feeling of functioning. The movement never becomes functional and hence distant from what is the leisurely and recreational space of the garden party. It is a movement that covers no distance. All the particularities brought together in what is the entity of the garden space are hence experienced in a form of readiness-to-hand. They are not distant but in reach, not theoretically functional but empirically functioning. And I think in this certainty of things being in reach, of possible otherness we can experience in our movement and hence our self lies the ground upon which we can easily feel at rest.

Heiligenstädter Park

The third and last aspect of the garden episteme lies in a feeling of being, yet more precisely not a feeling of being evoked upon entering or inside the garden and not while leaving, but in the acts of remembering and reflecting the embodied experiences made once the garden is left. Such acts being highly individual, I reckon there to be no exemplary case. Hence I’ll try to describe this aspect of the episteme in what is my experience of the Heiligenstädter Park in Vienna.

Yet again, I am not able to provide any real depth into what is the history and structure of this space. From its early stages shaped by Josef und Leopoldine Kugler to some kind of geopolitical significance within the Vienna Danube regulation to a Beethoven memorial and heritage-protected lodge of the Rothschild-Gärten, there seems to be a lot to remember within this park. And within its history and present structure, the Heiligenstädter Park appears to always have been a more or less complex recreational space.

It is accompanied by the Döblinger public swimming pool, Hohe Warte Stadion, and an allotment garden (which in the bureaucratic wonderland of spatial planning that Austrian authorities must be allows two-story buildings within a garden; while I never knowingly talked to a German allotment gardener, I assume this is something they spend their entire gardening life dreaming of). Featuring multiple basketball and tennis courts, playgrounds for kids, lots of open space areas, and an oddly well placed fenced area for dogs to go about their business, the park seems to be very aware of what is serving the needs of its stakeholders today.

In this assemblage of particularities one finds within the Heiligenstädter Park, remembering the embodied experience made while walking through evokes a feeling of being. And I think it is best described as a feeling of felicitously being at rest. Walking through the garden, what in my case was a single five to ten minutes ascension of the hillside that is the Heiligenstädter Park, it is not the strong sense of an image of the city as I found in the Schönbrunn Gardens nor is it the certain sense of functioning I found at the garden party in Lower Austria.

Sure, all of the three cases presented in this piece have the qualities of all the outlined aspects of what is the garden episteme. And all of them, in their different ways and forms allow to set the path to feel felicitously being at rest. Yet, in what is my experience remembering the Heiligenstädter Park, I only afterwards found that rest of what is acknowledging the clearness within the complex spatial structure of the garden.

I reckon the contemplation of the views and movements experienced does not lead to any kind of fundamental epistemic consequence, something I think Le Nôtre hoped to find in Italy. But rather does it evoke a sense of appreciation for that form of contemporary human life inscribed into the spatial structure of the garden that aspires to have nothing more to itself than itself. It is on this ground that the garden becomes constituted as a place-to-be.

In this sense, however poorly equipped this piece is with historical perspective and evidence, and in accordance with what Jan Georg Söffner and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2014) have written about barbecues in Germany, we might assume: The gardens as such, public and private, remained the same, yet have become more complex – are not the same anymore.

[1] Writing this piece I am both thankful and fearful at the same time. This piece, as so much of my work, would not be possible without Helena. She is more historically educated, more presently situated, more driven towards the future, put simply, more human than I could ever be. For within her continuous feedback and support I owe so much to her. And hence I fear that this piece won’t be able to match the richness of what is experiencing the garden the way she showed me.

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Eating pizza in a mediated world: On remembering and making lived experiences present again

Practices of “[e]ating the things of the world …. [understood] as the most direct way of becoming one with the things of the world in their tangible presence … all belong to one obvious and crucial mode of world-appropriation – a crucial mode of world-appropriation, however, about which we don’t like to talk and that we constantly struggle to project toward and, above all, beyond the margins of our own meaning culture.“ (Gumbrecht 2003: 86).

While eating is unavoidably connected to a dimension of presence, there seems to be a cultural-historic development that transformed these practices into a set of practices situated in a dimension of sense and meaning. Eating in the sense of ‘Verzehren’, the physical act of eating, has historically been transformed into cultural practices of ‘Essen’, the structured act of eating a meal, and embedded into discourses of tastes and diets. Put more concretely, one of the most direct ways of becoming one with the things of the world has been surrounded by a set of meanings and understandings, by discourses and thus institutionalized ways of speaking and thinking about it.

But, we can still observe practices that ultimately deal with eating in a dimension of presence. Concerning the experiential form of lived experiences, and thus an intensified and immediate experience of being in the world, we can get hold onto presence in especially those practices of eating that are more extraordinary than ordinary, that are connected to beautiful aesthetic or emotional experiences.

In trying to understand the role of an immediate dimension of our reality in contemporary cultures and societies, we might therefore look at the above mentioned historical development and the practices used to work against or around these regularized and interpretative frameworks of being. I argue, through outlining the case of eating pizza, that practices of remembering or attempts of making lived experiences present again form ways of producing presence – that they are practices of finding immediacy in a mediated world. In short: I believe that we still find eating set in the context of presence when it is remembered as an embodied experience that one might want to experience again.

Looking at works that deal with food and practices of eating in a historical perspective, we are however confronted with a more problematic view. We find works like Elias (1976), looking at changes in practices of eating, among other things, to account for wider societal progressions. But, practices in these perspectives are less understood per se than as field of sociality. For example, we can find more contemporary works like Keppler (1994), understanding the situational frames of eating in the family home as field of communicative community formation.

Taking a broad historical perspective on food, we can describe it as always set in the context of power – negotiated along class relations, used in processes of cultural distinctions and hegemony, driven by trade and global transitions. Starting in the introduction of agricultural systems to early forms of establishing wider tastes and cuisines in festive contexts, the description of eating seems to always be set in a social and cultural context (Tannahill 1973). Going into 19th century developments that are constitutive for our present condition, while eating practices are discussed in a variety of settings, moving away from a focus on festive contexts, we are still less focused on the practices of eating themselves. Resting in broader discourses of biopolitics and scientific and technological advancements, we can observe the emergence of diets as broadly institutionalized health discourse. However, we can also observe the continuation of an ongoing separation of producers and consumers, an increase in variety of foods available, and a differentiation of tastes and cuisines. In short: the 19th century establishes food and eating practices as more complex parts of culture (Pilcher 2006).

It is in this move of food and eating becoming complex parts of culture that they become superimposed by the logics of producing and reproducing cultural relations and dynamics. They become signs, losing substance to gain ascribed meanings (Barthes 1975). As signs they mark difference, becoming resources in a relational space to induce social and cultural distinctions (Bourdieu 1984). As both cultural artefacts and practices they form a horizon of possibilities along which one can make cultural decisions and create narratives of the self that can be observed by others, enabling the creation and maintenance of an identity (Köstlin 2006).

Taking pizza, whose first appearance we can see in the late 19th century Naples, and eating it as case, we are able to situate both artefact and practice as predominantly constituted in the above outlined modern conditions. However, the global appeal of pizza must be observed in the early to mid 20th century. While migration especially played a crucial role in bringing pizza to North America, in Europe and especially Germany wider changes regarding the amount of free time and travel mobility available were important (Heinzelmann 2014). What makes this development of particular interest is corresponding phenomena that are emerging around the mass tourism of the 1950s. It is in this context of travel that we find people from a variety of social, cultural and economic backgrounds confronted with the experiential horizon of vacation – and in the case of Germany also a broad range of people confronted with the Italian cuisine (Thomas 2006).

For many the main context of food and eating in the everyday life was dominated by a functional context, a discourse of diets, and traditional cuisines. While folk events offered a way into a different experiential context of eating for the many, the discourse around fine tastes that ultimately revokes eating its functional purpose was historically constituted in festive and bourgeois conditions. Understanding vacation as institutionalized leisure and recreational space opposed to work, opposed to functional purposes of our actions, mass tourism opened the task of creating foods and practices of eating that are keyed to an autotelic logic like we find it in discourses of fine tastes, however, with mass appeal.

Hence, in the 1950s mass tourism and beyond, we find ways of sharing, negotiating and approaching the Italian cuisine following logics of enjoyment. In mass tourism becoming more organized and established, especially pizza, as more affordable dish, has been moved to the attention of tourists through travel guides (Thomas 2006). Given different economic backgrounds and the confrontation with a culturally and culinarily unknown setting, travel guides shared experiences once made, mediating places and foods that might have an appeal for eating with the intent of enjoyment. They negotiate the economic conditions in recommending affordable places and foods while structuring the way the Italian cuisine is approached at large. In recommending and guiding through the foreign, they induce order, bringing not only forward a notion of what one might understand as traditional Italian food and culture, but also framing the mere contact points experiences can be made at.

Following wider changes in the organization of the everyday life – changing roles in family settings and moves of detraditionalization – in the 1970s and beyond, we are confronted with a situation in which not only foods, practices of eating, tastes and diets change (de Certau 1998), but also the experiential logics of how we approach them in our everyday life (Köstlin 2003). It is in following these conditions that the Italian cuisine gained hold in the German culinary horizon – it being more light and easier to prepare than traditional heavy German meals. In its institutionalization, we are not only confronted with Italian restaurants and shops opening in Germany, different Italian foods of different qualities and prices being available, but also with the integration of eating practices associated to Italian culture and the appropriation of Italian dishes like pizza (Thomas 2006).

Moving from vacation to everyday life, eating pizza became less reliant on the organizing principles of how to find food to enjoy than principles of how can I eat the food I enjoyed again. As the Italian cuisine becomes more known, people are confronted with moments of remembering the lived experiences possibly made – for example while eating pizza on vacation. Grasping onto the notion of presence, it is not only in the lived experiences themselves, but in the mere acts of remembering that we (re)gain closeness to the world. Remembering experiences of eating food are hence not only practices of retelling a story about enjoyment or evaluating it, but they are always also sensual memories of our embodiment, of the space we ate in, its visual and auditive materialities, as well as the gustatory perceptions that come with physically eating a meal (Hartmann 1994, 2006).

Instead of travel guides recommending places and foods to eat, in this new setting we see newspaper articles recommending recipes of how to make pizza the right way or discussing Italian restaurants offering pizza the true and traditional way. In short: we find organizing principles that try to bring us (back) into situations and contexts where we might be able to re-experience the enjoyment of eating pizza we remember. Taken into a more contemporary context, these discourse practices of the true pizza are further enhanced through digital technologies. Ranging from blogs discussing pizza to online platforms aggregating restaurants reviews and recipes to algorithmic powers managing attention of pizza related contents and search queries to online assemblages like the subreddit /r/pizza, we find pizza discussed in a variety of settings with a variety of intents – eating with the intent of enjoyment being one of them.

In our present media cultures and societies, it thus appears that we might not have the means to directly address the highly individual and ephemeral present experience we can have while eating. However, in practices of remembering and attempts of making these experiences present again, we can observe a way an immediate dimension of our reality is latently at work in our cultures. While remembering – be it the experience of eating pizza with the intent of enjoyment – is in a first step always an incorporating practice and thus in some way present when we approach the world, it only becomes impactful for others, and thus culturally impactful, through practices of inscription (Connerton 1989) – be it in travel notes, letters or guides, recipes, blog posts, restaurants reviews or pictures we post online.

The advent of digital media technologies sure confronts us with the challenge to reflect upon the mere ways we can remember today (van Dijck 2007). And the changing nature of structural boundaries of leisure and free time settings dominant logics of how we approach the world sure have to be considered in our observation of immediacy being mediated and having an impact culturally. But still, it seems that besides possible concrete distinctions we might explicate, we are confronted with a more general logic at work. We might therefore understand the latent work of lived experiences – in acts of remembering eating pizza and the attempts of making the experience present again through fostering a discourse of the true and traditional way – as the mere moments of difference that force us into a position where we have to (re)negotiate our sense of place – our identity and understanding of human life.

“Nothing is as concrete and real as Life, yet Life eludes all subjective planning and order. Life thus becomes a value that is almost obsessively attributed to whatever appears overwhelming and sublime, to whatever lies beyond the reach of concepts and conceptual distinctions … Life exceeds the rationalities of all the different everyday worlds, and therefore acquires a transcendental status … The enthusiasm for Life’s overwhelming strength … is almost always accompanied by a certain disdain for – or sheer absence of – thought.” (Gumbrecht 1997: 360ff.)

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Gumbrecht, H.U. (2003). Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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Specters of immediacy

“Specters of immediacy” aims at highlighting situations, moments, and conditions in which we experience the world immediately. Leaning on the works of Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (2003), I am concerned with the dimension associated to lived experiences (Erleben). Analytically speaking, lived experiences can be understood as the present experiences of the world after it has been physically perceived through our senses, but before it has been culturally structured and interpreted. These experiences form a kind of closure, a finite and immediate experience of being in the world. Concerning the concept of identity, the sense of one’s place, we could thus understand them as temporarily stable footings (White 2008) in a complex world that heavily relies on mechanisms of stabilization. They form stable footings in which we experience contingency becoming order (Luhmann 2008), in which we are not concerned with reflecting on being somewhere or becoming someone else.

“There is nothing edifying in such moments, no message, nothing that we could really learn from them – and this is why I like to refer to them as ‘moments of intensity.’ For what we feel is probably not more than a specifically high level in the functioning of some of our general cognitive, emotional, and perhaps even physical faculties.” (Gumbrecht 2003: 98).

Gumbrecht calls the dimension associated with such moments presence and contrasts it with the dimension of sense and meaning, which is in dominance in our present media cultures and societies. That it is a dimension in dominance does however not mean that it is an either or between the two. Rather, sense and meaning, engaging the world through interpretation or meta-physically ascribing meaning to objects beyond their physical materiality, form a dimension that historically constituted, and for good reasons, has been centralized in the constitution of our human condition (Gumbrecht 2013). As Helmut Plessner (1981) anthropologically argued, we are today driven by the need of interpretation. Constantly being faced with the question “What is it that’s going on here?” (Goffman 1974), culture emerged as framework providing institutionalized answers to these kinds of questions. In the social constructivist sense, what constitutes us as human beings is therefore rested in the interaction with others (Berger & Luckmann 1966); culture being the shared set of meanings and understandings that emerges from these interactions through the mediation of experiences and negotiation of representations of the world. Being able to differentiate between things being either meaningful or random, giving the world some kind of order and ourselves a place in it, we thus rely not only on the use of culture, but as culture always is a human product, we also rely on the continuous reproduction and reflection of it (Soeffner 2000).

“We can communicate and ‘share experience’ as that which is interpreted and cast into concepts, but lived experience, as that which precedes such interpretation, must remain individual.” (Gumbrecht 2003: 84). If what is immediate to us must remain individual it at the same time must become a potential threat for the stable reproduction of a shared social and cultural order situated in. Not central to our human condition, historically being placed outside, lived experiences only appear ephemerally in form of moments or effects opposed to the dimension of sense and meaning – as sepcters of immediacy coming into the world. Thus inevitably being embedded in continuous processes and situations of meaning making that constitute our life (Abbott 2016, Knorr-Cetina 1988), in their difference they must be either disregarded or appropriated – they have to be dealt with.

There is a broader ongoing debate trying to reintegrate an immediate, a bodily and worldly dimension into the fundamental understanding of our human existence (overviews in Gumbrecht 2003: 54-90 or Reckwitz 2016: 217-230). We can find further attempts in the humanities and social sciences to discuss this dimension in the context of an affective (Halley & Clough 2007), material (Hicks 2010) or practice turn (Schatzki et al. 2001). Scholars like Latour (1993) have not only shown the general potential in overcoming the subject / object paradigm that is underlying our present condition, but also its implications for understanding the social. But still, a material and physical, a bodily and worldly dimension of our existence seems hard to grasp on in the social sciences (Kaldewey 2011).

In trying to contribute to this ongoing debate, “Specters of immediacy” is primarily concerned with looking at the ways lived experiences are dealt with socially and culturally. Instead of using deictic gestures in the way Gumbrecht uses them to outline and make visible the specters of an immediate world, I am concerned with people making sense of these specters. “The first object of social analysis ought, I think, to be ordinary, actual behaviour – its structure and its organization.” (Goffman 1974: 564). What interests me in the first place is thus not the dimension of presence per se, but its appropriation, the organizing principles and structures at work when confronted with specters of immediacy. I am interested in the role of lived experiences in the constitution of our cultures and societies.

To do so, I, at large, follow the stance of ethnographic works. “Whatever else ethnography may be, it is above all a rendering of the actual, a vitality phrased.” (Geertz 1988: 143). In rendering different cultural phenomena, highlighting the situational frames in which moments of lived experiences are situated, I try to grasp onto the organization and structure, the conditions an immediate dimension of reality becomes meaningful in today. Being required to negotiate an analytical position between focusing on individuals and works (Gumbrecht 2006, 2011 or Bachelard 1964), discourses and logics in dominance (Reckwitz 2016), and systemic and structural boundaries at large (Luhmann 2008), ideas of emergence come in useful. Tracing the spectres of immediacy through individual experiences and works, discourses and logics, structures and systems, hence allows us to reconstruct the generative process in upon which things matter to us. Upon which meaningfulness and our culture emerges.

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Why do people watch a train ride? A cultural-historic note on technology fascination, aesthetic landscapes, and participatory online practices

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ (literally: “railway romance”) is a German television program, broadcasting train rides and railway related reports. Since its creation in 1991, the show, produced by the German regional public broadcaster SWR, has aired almost 700 episodes. While there sure have been earlier iterations of romanticising railway technology and its history, taking a cultural-historical stance, we, at least in this piece, might assume that ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ had a governing discursive position in defining the parameters of how and why we watch a train ride today.

Understanding the form and content of the show as paradigmatic, we are, therefore, confronted with three major areas creating the interest underlying practices of watching a train ride. The display of a social context of use, the display of historical and technological details, and the display of the train’s plain movement through a landscape. There are related shows like ‘Germany’s Most Beautiful Railways’, being used as night-time feature on television channels of the joint German public broadcaster ARD, consisting of uncommented train rides, focusing on specific areas of the paradigm. However, in the assemblage nature of ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’, and television’s formerly central role, we might understand its governing position as creating a space of identity; creating image spaces as well as mediating information and social knowledge around which cultural identities can emerge (Morley and Robins 1989).

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ provides resources and contexts, enabling watching a train ride to become a meaningful practice; be it through embedding it in documentary style social knowledge of our everyday worlds or in providing historical and technological information on the trains. However, it at the same time also is the primary and central resource for the image space of train rides themselves. In broadcasting perspectives normally not broadly available to the public – i.e. cab rides, meaning viewing a train ride from the train drivers position [1] – the television program becomes a gatekeeper, regulating not only why but also how to experience a trains plain movement through a landscape (apart from being passenger on an actual train obviously).

Embedded in social and historical contexts of use, watching a train ride means watching a ‘technology-in-practice’ (Orlikowski 2000). Apart from a general interest in the history and contents of our social worlds, the underlying interest takes form of a technology fascination. The trains plain movement through a landscape becomes of instrumental value. What’s to see and to experience is the technology-in-practice. That’s what appears to be the desired meaningful frame to be in. That’s the desired syntagmatic chain to follow if the practice of watching a train ride has to be communicated as meaningful [2].

It is in the syntagmatic chain of technology fascination that we are ultimately confronted with historical ordering practices. What is of interest rests in the classical episteme (Foucault 1970), in creating taxonomies through practices of classifying different types of trains, train parts and manufactures, or railways. Maybe at least partly driven by the 19th century desire for history to be an uninterpreted continuity (Foucault 1972), interest in watching a train ride, embedded in a report of its social and historical context of use, hence lies in collecting and preserving knowledge about cultural heritage objects so present to transportation in our everyday life. In documenting these contexts of use, we are confronted with the attempt to give order to and access a history underlying these everyday life technologies. However, we are at the same time confronted with modern forms of knowledge, resting in experts, trust, and reflexivity (Giddens 1990).

What we access through the tv program thus is expert knowledge about transportation systems we don’t necessarily need to know to use them. However, we rely on trust in the accounts of these experts, therefor are seeking the feeling that there lies historical consistency behind it. Reflexivity as the motion of continuously building up on the present knowledge does thus conclude the constitutive core of how watching a train ride can become meaningful. It sits at the centre of accumulating the past of our transportation systems to understand the present world we life and use these technologies in.

Contrasting this notion, some outline a contemplative aspect in perceiving a landscape while being passenger on a train (Burckhardt 2006). Again, the train ride itself becomes of instrumental value. The underlying interest rests in the windowed view, embedded in what is understood as something like a 17th century bourgeoise aesthetic understanding of landscapes (Ritter 1974). What does this mean? As nature had increasingly been appropriated and controlled through technology, the opportunity to approach landscapes as de-functionalized harmonic entities of nature emerged (Groh und Groh 1991). What rests within this is the discourse of 16th and 17th century landscape art. Approaching nature as art, landscapes were hence transformed into beautiful objects (Büttner 2006, Ketelsen 1999). And within this transformation our view towards landscapes too is changed. It becomes (the imitation of) an artistic view, projecting and reflecting the likes of culture, society, human condition, and the world within the landscape (Dinnebier 2004).

In this syntagmatic chain of contemplative landscapes, what constitutes watching a train ride as meaningful is artistic projection and reflection. Understanding this view as cultural technique, taking the shape of cultural critique, we can describe it as always moving between nature and history. The latter being accumulated materialities, positioning ourselves in the world. The former being the present worldly condition situated in, enabling us to continuously re-question our historically constituted positioning in the world (Baecker 2016). Hence, the desired outcome in projecting the present condition into the landscape, changing our view of it to reflect on where else we could be, is to experience ‘contingency becoming order’ (Luhmann 2008). While technology fascination takes the stance of historical ordering practices, accumulating pasts to understand the present, contemplative landscapes projects the present to reflect about and construct possible future orderings of our world. Put more synthetically:

Contrasting the first two syntagmatic chains in which watching a train ride becomes a meaningful practice, we might bring a third option to the table; namely embodied experiences themselves. This is not to undermine the role of our embodiment in the former two chains. We always are situated corporal beings (Wacquant 2015) and more specifically does interest always need to be inscribed into our bodies (Bourdieu 1998). In both chains we are confronted with different (physical) materialities of technologies and landscapes; be it through historical trains and railways made present again or in a landscape’s mere worldly concreteness. In both chains our experience is mediated around something concrete, something real and immediate coming into our reach. However, that is mediated around might be the key point.

The central object to all chains, and the discussion of this piece obviously, is the train ride. The question asked, how and especially why do we watch a train ride? How does watching a train ride become meaningful? We might propose that the embodied experience of watching a train ride can be meaningful on its own. And Gumbrecht’s (2004) use of Heidegger’s term ‘Gelassenheit’ (composure), the capacity of letting things be, might be key to understand this process. “For could Heidegger’s Gelassenheit not mean being simultaneously quiet and wide-awake?“ (Gumbrecht 2004: 136).

‘Gelassenheit’ becomes a disposition through which we approach our embodied experience of the world. It takes both the form of a disposition we take and a disposition we are moved into. Put differently, it is the matter of a context we set or set context we are set into, allowing us to let the things be. To be quite for a moment whilst being wide-awake. To experience “the things of the world in their preconceptual thingness will reactivate a feeling for the bodily and for the spatial dimension of our existence.” (Gumbrecht 2004: 118). So how does watching a train ride become meaningful in this stance? It does, if the context we are in requires nothing more than being present.

Taken forward, we might see such contexts in their clearest forms in tv programmes like ‘Germany’s Most Beautiful Railways’, meaning the plain train ride itself. A body in motion through space which we can latch onto. However, the entitlement of most beautiful might still be hindering in freeing the train ride from the meaningful context of syntagmatic chains one and two. For isn’t the aspiration of the most beautiful not already the attempt to be somewhere else instead of just being present?

Looking into participatory online practices that emerge with the advent of new and digital media (Hay and Couldry 2011), we can observe the creation of a new image space of plain train rides. Taking the case of the video distribution platform YouTube, we can find a variety of train and railway related footage, among which the already mentioned cab ride videos are a part [1]. What we find more precisely is over-the-top content par excellence, participatory in nature that the footage uploaded comes directly from the drivers of the trains.

These new image spaces are not, or at least far less, framed through the meaningful discourses of social and historical contexts of use that are so present to the governing position of the image spaces of ‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’. Sure, every video is historically specific, however, the perspective of the video is a windowed one. There is no focus on the driver’s actions, no view of the dashboard. The view focusses on the trains’ plain movement through a landscape. Altering the view from passenger to driver, we are at the same time confronted with a different view of landscape. What we see are not landscapes in their classical windowed frame, but rather landscapes divided by a centred track. It neither really is a technology-in-practice nor a contemplative landscape. It seems as there is nothing really to it apart from it being a body in motion we can watch and be part of.

In this sense, this piece maybe didn’t want to show anymore than the possibilities of change within syntagmatic chains, a change of contexts, that comes with new media technologies. The contents, the footage of the train rides has always been there, however, it seems like that only in this new setting of participatory online practices the possibility to broadly and publicly set it free from the contexts of technology fascination and contemplative landscapes emerged. This is not to undermine their form and relevance, but to highlight the existence of a possible otherness, a syntagmatic chain, a meaningful way into reality, in which we are not ‘forced’ to surround our human embodiment, the immediacy of the world with ideas and concepts, but have the capacity to let it presently be meaningful on its own.

‘Eisenbahn-Romantik’ sure still plays a paradigmatic role in creating the space of identity that is romanticising railway technology today. However, it is within the advent of new media technologies that new ways into reality emerge and thus it’s formerly centralized position is being contested. However, as these technologies do not change the contents but rather the way we approach them, we might need to hope that we finally forget logics of scarcity in allocating resources to the production of our cultural contents, so that we finally are able to fully grasp onto the particularities that can emerge within our ever evolving digitized and mediatized cultures and societies. It is within such a position that we might need to sharpen our view on homologies; not to look for difference in contents, but rather in contexts that achieve the same but in a different way. Leaning on positions from the postmodern discourse, we might argue for more sensitivity towards differences ‘to tolerate the incommensurable’ (Lyotard 1984). Leaning on arguments present in the ethnography discourse, we might ask to strengthen the ‘arts of noticing’ (Tsing 2015).

[1] e.g. and or

[2] For the distinction paradigm / syntagm we lean on them as linguist concepts used in science and technology studies to map the development of scientific controversies as the simultaneous production of text and context. “The first (syntagmatic) dimension defines how many different elements may be held together in a meaningful assemblage, while the second (paradigmatic) dimension defines the meaningful substitution that may be done at each point along the syntagm. The first dimension defines association, and the second substitution – or, still more synthetically, AND and OR.” (Latour, Mauguin, and Teil 1992: 36). However, we aim to understand this mapping in the broader sense of power relations associated with technologies used (Latour 1991). Put more concretely, we aim to outline different syntagmatic chains, meaning an assemblage of content (more broadly experiences of social knowledge, historical knowledge, landscapes or embodied experiences) and media technology parameters (more broadly what frames the experience from window, to television program, to online video distribution platform), defining the power relations necessary for watching a train ride to become meaningful.

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Notes on being a sofa: Reflections from the extraneous life

In working against or around predominant logics of how we, both academically and in our everyday life contexts, approach the things of the world (Gumbrecht 2003), we can make use of ‘riskful’ thinking (Gumbrecht 2002). The desired outcome of this piece therefore is to create semantical complexity through going one step too far. More precisely, I attempt to understand what it means and feels like to be a thing – in this case a sofa (couch or any other etymologically similar denotation).

It is in this step that we may be able to move, for the moment, beyond approaches that already work against these predominant logics in understanding things as actors (Latour 2005, 2013) or constitutive parts (Serres 2007) in the construction of our relational cultures and societies (e.g. Simmel 1992 or Tarde 2009). Hence, instead of asking in what way do things and their materialities induce meaning and sociality, we have to seek out to understand what the mere ontic implications are, or would be, if one was a thing of the world – if one was a sofa.

Relying on the encyclopaedia ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’, in form of the corresponding books, novels, films, and tv shows, as field of inquiry, we are, however, confronted with the dilemma of every cultural studies oriented analysis. Culture is at work implicitly. We don’t need to understand something as explicitly cultural for it to be at work in a cultural way. Trying to understand what something means or how it feels like has thus to be approached from within (Baecker 2016).

One might illustrate this with the following conversation between Ford and Arthur as they find themselves in form of sofas after an infinite improbability drive: “‘Ford?’, ‘Yes?’, ‘I think I’m a sofa’, ‘I know how you feel'”. Trying to understand the mere conditions and operations behind this “I know how you feel” is what cultural studies are ultimately concerned with. And just as you only can understand how it feels like to be a sofa if you’ve once been one, a cultural studies oriented inquiry, working from within, from the experience and context of being a sofa, can only be one among other cultural techniques of seeking to understand and mediate the very context situated in.

Understanding a sofa as both a physical object and at the same time as historically constituted artefact, we might understand how it feels like to be a sofa following its ‘unconcealment of being’ (Heidegger 1927, 1935). It is in this process that we are confronted with a double movement towards and away from the threshold dividing being as substantiality of the world and the well-ordered grid of things and meanings that is culture. Reflecting on the ontic experience of being a sofa, we might understand it as the oscillating experience of being-in-the-world, substantially, while at the same time being-ready-to-hand, already culturally interpreted (Gumbrecht 2003). Located on the threshold, as sofa one can thus neither bring truth into culture nor culture into truth. While this might seem like a quite extraneous life, the mere implication of this ontic experience has to be seen around composure (Gelassenheit) – meaning the capacity of letting things be.

Translating this implication into the fields of cultural techniques, going one step back into the domain of human life and attempts of finding immediacy, of finding closeness to the things of the world, we could for instance associate ‘Gelassenheit’ with the sofa as quasi-object. But, we could also associate it to broader tempo-spatial keys like vacation, forgetting, or being a child. What these have in common is that they transform our present contexts of human life to a stance where letting the things be is maybe not only a thoroughly accepted way of being, but maybe also more constitutive than reflecting on it.

“To children returning from vacation, the home is new, fresh, festive. But nothing has changed in it, since they left. Only because the duties were forgotten, of which every piece of furniture, every window, every lamp is otherwise a reminder, does the Sabbath peace once more repose, and for minutes one is at home in the multiplication table of rooms, chambers and corridors, as it will appear for the rest of one’s life only in lies. Not otherwise will the world appear, nearly unchanged, in the steady light of its day of celebration, when it no longer stands under the law of labor, and the duties of those returning home are as light as vacation play.” (Adorno 1978)

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