Affect-Mood-Meaning

This post is the preliminary sketch of a methodology along which I seek to better approach our contemporary human condition. I have sought to outline this condition in some detail here and a variety of others posts featured on this blog [1]. However, the observation being, briefly put, that we today simultaneously live in two temporalities. On the one side we experience the world in linear historical time – which exhausts us, as we are missing narratives and traditions guiding our lives. On the other side we do so in a broad present – herein we move without covering any distance yet doing so have an increased awareness of our embodiment and presence in the world. The combination of the two creating a desire to hold onto something, for existential protection and rest.

While we have tools at our hands to understand and imagine how people, in that very simultaneity, seek, establish, and negotiate such holds, I argue that we use them inefficiently. It is thus a matter of repurposing existing tools and adjusting our methodologies to fully uncover and understand our present times.

To tackle this question, Affect-Mood-Meaning is a simple and efficient methodology I propose as addition to our existing frameworks of cultural analysis. And that it is an addition instead of a turn (of which we have seen far too many of the last decades) is a crucial side note. Put simply, the methodology consists of two tools. A methodological stance and a conceptual methodology. Both of which should allow us to better understand contemporary culture, its structure and organization.

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The overall methodological stance is to inquire with a sensibility for differences (Lyotard 1984). Achieved in a constant oscillation between lyrical and narrative sociology (Abbott 2007). Constantly running up and down the ivory tower. Put simply, working on the intersection of momentary experiences and their structural boundaries. On the one side abstract and explain through narration. On the other acquire and communicate sensibility for the lived nature of life in lyricism. Yet the crucial nuance is to study the materialities of communication (Gumbrecht and Pfeiffer 1994). Not only interpretatively identifying meaning-structures but at the same time also reconstructing the grounds upon which these can be articulated.

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Meaning. Following relational sociology (Breiger 2007, Ikegami 2005, Fontdevila et al. 2011, Fuhse 2009, Mützel 2009), I approach culture as emergent from practices of connection (talking to someone) and implication (going to the pub, i.e. the implication into a spatio-temporal arrangement where connections can be established). Within these we have a position from which to experience the world; try to understand what’s going on, where we are, how to behave. Herein we are guided by culture, personal and communal meaning-structures (identities, tastes, expectations, …) which offer a guiding line in experiencing our environment. Put simply, culture is a creative capacity to negotiate and maintain lifeways under different and constantly changing environmental conditions.

Mood. Classical understandings of culture are manifested in symbolic representation, signifying and narrative practices accordingly. I add another layer of embodied experiences (feelings, emotions, …) to this. Following Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (1997, 2004, 2013, 2014), I understand moods as culturally and historically specific feelings of living. Reoccurring patterns of being affected or touched by one’s surrounding environment. Functioning through spatio-temporal arrangements (like going to a concert or reading a novel on vacation), they mediate between reason and emotion (i.e. are both an inspiration of the mind and activation of the body) and in doing so create a feeling of aliveness reminding us who and where we are.

Affect. Studying affective engagements is henceforth a crucial analytical start. Yet, I make a nuance following Mark Hansen (2000, 2004, 2006, 2015). Understanding our experience of technology as embodied, as living in technology, we are today evermore often also technically exposed the grounds (materiality and processuality) upon which our life takes place. Feeding forward such embodied sensibilities of our environment, something exterior into our individual experience, hence creates a sense of place within the larger worldly becoming. An existential experience we desire to maintain in spatio-temporal arrangements and practices of implication, in our culture.

An earlier version of this piece was published at blogs.ed.ac.uk.

[1] This is a work in progress document. A more sopisticated outline of both the methdoology and human condition will be published in July 2019.

Abbott, A. (2007). Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology. In Sociological Theory, 25(1), 67-99.
Breiger, R.L. (2007). Cultural Holes: Networks, Meanings, and Formal Practices. Paper presented at the American Sociological Association annual meeting, Culture Section anniversary session, New York.
Fontdevila, J. et al. (2011). Order at the Edge of Chaos: Meanings from Netdom Switchings Across Functional Systems. In Sociological Theory, 29(3), 178-198.
Fuhse, J. (2009). The Meaning Structure of Social Networks. In Sociological Theory, 27(1), 51-73.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (1997). In 1926. Living at the Edge of Time. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2004). Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2013). After 1945. Latency as Origin of the Present. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
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.
Gumbrecht, H.U. and Pfeiffer, K.L. (1994). Materialities of Communication. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hansen, M. (2000). Embodying Technesis. Technology Beyond Writing. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Hansen, M. (2004). New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hansen, M. (2006). Bodies in Code. Interfaces with Digital Media. London: Routledge.
Hansen, M. (2015). Feed-Forward. On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ikegami, E. (2005). Bonds of Civilty: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1979). The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Mützel, S. (2009). Networks as Culturally Constituted Processes. A Comparison of Relational Sociology and Actor-network Theory. In Current Sociology, 57(6), 871-887.


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