Austronaut.io is a website that aggregates videos which are uploaded on YouTube yet have almost no views. It runs search queries for video titles that are in the format a camera outputs them. IMG 0540, a 54 second clip from an electronic music festival. MOV 0026, 38 seconds of people dancing at what seems to be a wedding reception in the Caucasus region. IMG 0083, 44 seconds of a slightly grumpy looking British middle-aged man driving his car and listening to the radio.
MOV 0204, my favourite. Best video I’ve ever seen on YouTube. A 2 minutes and 37 seconds long car ride, drivers view, through what seems to be a mountainy area in Canada. In the background the radio playing Moby’s ‘In This World’. The lyrics: ‘Lordy don’t leave me / All by myself / Lordy don’t leave me / All by myself’. To be honest, I reckon the 39 views on the video are either due to me watching or sending it out to all my friends .
Why? I grew up in the Lower-Rhine area in Germany. No mountains. Just flat land and endless country roads. Hence, when we went on vacation in autumn, going to Switzerland, there was nothing more satisfying for me to sit in the car driving by the mountains. There just is a certain immediacy to it, a certain presence of the mountains that emerges in moving by them. Something you can only experience in this kind of movement towards an object.
When I randomly found this video, I was immediately reminded of that feeling. It just felt like driving by the mountains again. Even though I wasn’t in Canada, I was sitting in my college dorm room. Even though the video was published almost a year ago (who knows when it was actually recorded). It evoked a feeling of contemporaneity. I remembered and re-lived. I related to that person whom I’ve never met (and will probably never meet). It felt present, it felt meaningful, it felt lively.
Yet how can videos like these become of meaning? I think their meaningfulness can emerge in the mere fact that there is nothing really to them. They are not primarily a representational setting of life that asks us to reflect on the situation displayed. Rather do they ask to implicate us into their liveliness. Or, well, at least they make it easier to resist the predominant notion to search for some sort of hidden and deeper meaning. They are life recorded, stored, and distributed, put simply, life assembled in the digital. And I think we can approach this more profoundly following three conceptual ideas. Mark Hansen’s worldly sensibility (2015), Bruno Latour’s network operations of suspend and resume (2005), and the way Karl Ludwig Pfeiffer and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht understand materialities of communication (1994).
Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer understand materialities of communication as “the totality of phenomena contributing to the constitution of meaning without being meaning themselves.” (1994: 398). Accordingly, they associate it with a shift of our analytical view. Instead of interpretatively uncovering meaning structures we should instead focus on reconstructing the processes upon which meaning can at all be articulated.
In a similar trajectory, we find Latour’s network operations of suspend and resume. Confronted with crisis and conflict, something that transversally questions dominant understandings of live and living, we can either suspend this movement or resume it. In suspending that what is different from us, we control and protect the social as we know it construed. If we resume this movement, we implicate ourselves and follow “many non-social entities which might become participants later; if pursued systematically, this tracking may end up in a shared definition of a common world.” (2005: 247).
Accordingly, for Hansen, the experiences twenty-first-century media create can only be achieved “by means of the subject’s implication within its broader environmental logic.” (2015: 256). It is not an experience due to the subject’s synthesis but of becoming entwined in a larger worldly metamorphosis. He thus speaks of a worldly sensibility, the feeling of ecologically being part of a shared common world. Constituting human experience not in the conscious reflection of the other in the self but rather in the implication of the self in the assemblage of others. Yet remaining a movement that one either must suspend or resume, that according to Hansen we should embrace in contemporary digital cultures as crucial mode of being.
While talking about twenty-first-century media in their encompassing sensor technologies, approaching the worldly sensibility and our implication into this larger assembly as pre-individual, I think, understanding life as Hansen and Gumbrecht do, we might add a dimension of lively sensibility to our contemporary digital cultures. Not understood as pre-individual, but as intensified first-order individual experience of being touched by a surrounding environment.
For Gumbrecht (1997) life or the experience of liveliness is almost always accompanied by a disdain for thought. It’s what eludes subjective planning and order, instead being attributed to what is sublime and overwhelming. Accordingly, for Hansen (2004) liveliness is achieved in exactly that moments we are least contained and sovereign over ourselves. It’s achieved in the encounter with one’s constitutive incompleteness, the “condition of being consigned to life as something that cannot be assumed” (623).
Lively sensibility is thus achieved in resuming a movement in what is assemblages of life in the digital. Lively sensibility in digital cultures means being affectively engaged by the materiality of audio-visual contents and following this materiality. It’s the implication not into an all-encompassing network of sensors but into a present liveliness unfolding. It’s not the reflection of being somewhere or becoming someone else, but rather the touch of material surroundings that reminds us of our incompleteness. And when done so systematically, this touch might evoke a remembrance of what has mattered to us in the past, of what is the condition of our human life.
 On that note: my favourite Christmas related YouTube video (MOV 0055) which I send out on far too many occasions other than Christmas.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (1997). In 1926. Living on the Edge of Time. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gumbrecht, H.U. and Pfeiffer, K.L. eds. (1994). Materialities of Communication. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hansen, M. (2004). The Time of Affect, or Bearing Witness to Life. In Critical Inquiry, 30(3), 584-626.
Hansen, M. (2015). Feed-Forward. On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.