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.


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.


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

[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.

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

Abbott, A. (1988). Transcending General Linear Reality. In Sociological Theory, 6(2), 169-186.
Abbott, A. (2007). Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology. In Sociological Theory, 25(1), 67-99.
Abbott, A. (2014). The Problem of Excess. In Sociological Theory, 32(1), 1-26.
Baecker, D. (2018). 4.0 oder die Lücke die der Rechner lässt. Leipzig: Merve.
Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002). Individualization. Institutionalized Individualism and its Social and Political Consequences. London: Sage.
Couldry, N. and Mejias, U.A. (2018). Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject. In Television & New Media, 1-14.
Giddens, A. (2002). Runaway World. How Globalisation is Reshaping Our Lives. London: Profile.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2010). Our Broad Present. Time and Contemporary Culture. New York: Columbia 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.
Koselleck, R. (1985). Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time. New York: Columbia University Press.
Livingstone, S. (2018). Audiences in an age of datafication: critical questions for media research. In Television and New Media, 1-14.
Reckwitz, A. (2017). The Invention of Creativity. Modern Society and the Culture of the New. Cambridge: Polity.
Sicart, M. (2013). Play Matters. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Tsing, A.L. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World. On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Wacquant, L. (2015). For a Sociology of Flesh and Blood. In Qualitative Sociology, 38, 1-11.

What does the algorithm miss? On the organization and valuation of short-video contents as sites of rest

Vine was a video hosting service that allowed people to create and share six-second long looping videos. Founded in 2012, immediately acquired by Twitter, it announced its end-of-service in late 2016. During that four-year period, Vine managed to gain an active user base of 200 million. However, it was outperformed by innovations from competitors and lacked monetization options hindering a commercial success.

Yet, despite Vine’s ‘failure’, short-video contents still have a major presence today (see for instance the rapid growth of ByteDance’s TikTok). Henceforth, looking where these 200 million Vine users, their cultural contents and practices went, I’ll comment on the following questions: What’s the allure and value of short-video contents? How is their value proposition assessed and organized both community and platform sided?

One place people went and gathered old Vines in montages is YouTube. And as you can see by YouTube’s search suggestions for the query ‘vines that’, a popular way to title such montages, they are often associated with some sort of integral quality of life. The titles being deictic gestures towards Vines, a totality of six-second long videos, that affect or have affected one in the past.

Yet in how these titles are deliberately over-staged, the importance Vines can have is both questioned and reinforced in that mere act of questioning. Which corresponds to the overall leisurely and comedic style inherent to Vines. The central mood appearing to be one of a present liveliness. They continuously move towards the edge of becoming something larger, something historically more significant than life itself whilst reassuring that they are just another present moment in time. Watching Vines is a movement that covers no distance. It’s an experience of life that doesn’t need anything more to itself than itself.

And I think we can only fully understand this experience once we establish an ‘embodied vision’ as meaningful approach to audio-visual contents. For does the allure and value of these short-video contents, I argue and observe, emerge in their affective nature. In requiring an embodied vision, the implication into their presence and rhythms, rather than classical ‘reading’, our attentive selection of relevant information from an interfacing surface through cognitive and conscious faculties.

Why is this important? Through the lens of reading we are still able to account for the value of Vines that are ‘edits’ (re-cuts and remixes of existing contents) or ‘skits’ (short, staged comedic sketches). However, we can do so less for Vines that are ‘clips’ (random moments, things out of place) and ‘bits’ (stunts, tricks, rhythmic interactions and movements). All of these are short-lived and often ‘yet another’ funny moment.

They don’t really have anything more to them than being moments of life. Sure, they are embedded in the contexts of their producers, yet lack a larger narrative context. There is nothing really to learn from them. They are amateur film, bottom-up statements and documentations of life. And I believe the greatest merit of these montages lies in that they show how these short-video contents, these moments of life, matter beyond well-worn tropes of ‘humble entertainment’. They matter as a substantial experience of life (re)lived in the digital.

Again, it’s not the attention we invest into watching a single Vine, but rather the continuous movement, our embodied and rhythmic experience of the temporal gap that arises every six seconds which is constitutive for our experience of watching Vines. Their value rests most notably in their format and arrangement, not their contents. It is this format, this rhythmic experience of life that these montages seek to preserve.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe we still need to look at the contents of these videos. Neither do I want to say that there is nothing to be critical about such. But I argue that we’d do a poor job in taking seriously these emergent cultural practices and experiences unless we defend them from over generalized critique that sees them as yet another manipulative means creating docility and passivity.

Reiterating that these short-videos are created bottom-up, by the community for the community, we can argue that the community-sided organization of such cultural contents lies in the grammars of titling such montages. From within the field we observed that these signifying practices are used by the community not only to indicate Vines to be of integral value, but rather in these titles being over-staged, following a comedic and leisurely mood, that community-sided there is a boundary set to not over emphasise the impact such contents can have. Without explicitly resisting, these short-video contents are space-making practices that reclaim control over the time of experience. That they are not the be all and end all is obvious. Yet they are particular and momentary sites of existential rest. And that’s something of value.

Moving towards the platform-sided organization and assessment of this value proposition of these cultural contents, I understand the experience of watching videos on YouTube as audio-visual containment. Put simply, as the ‘interaction order’ in which people, machines, and audio-visual contents interact. The algorithmically ordered chain of videos classified as related and selected to watch. A bounded spatio-temporal arrangement in which people can make meaningful experiences.

To understand how the platform henceforth tries to organize the contents that fuel these containers, I look at the network of related videos for the search query ‘vines that’. For is this network the material upon which audio-visual containers concerning Vine montages are built, showing where these contents are positioned within the larger content traffic on YouTube.

The first and most notable observation we can make is that these montages are situated in a homogenous context. Clusters 0 and 3 are the biggest and most central ones. They feature the overall core Vine montages and drift slightly towards more major media and online contents (music video, clips from tv shows, non-Vine related montages of funny home-videos, …). The network branches out into clusters that feature separate and more specific Vine montages, yet on the sides it’s connected to the wider core YouTube content (vlogs, reactions and discussions, gaming, …). Some still focus on Vine (often created by people who gained their following their), the majority doesn’t. In general, quite unsurprisingly, there is very little presence of news or politically oriented contents. The overall embeddedness following the leisurely and comedic style inherent to Vines.

Yet is this really a symbiotic relationship between community and platform? Focusing our attention to cluster 0 we can see that the algorithm is not neutral. The interesting discrepancy to observe is between topics 5/15 and topics 6/12. All feature similar videos, namely core Vine montages. However, videos in 5 and 15 are tagged and titled with positive terms: funny, happiness, cured me, keep me alive, laugh. These videos are ‘pushed’ by the algorithm. They are more centrally placed in the network, more relevant, more likely to appear in an audio-visual container. Videos in 6 and 12 are tagged and titled with more negative sounding terms such as: depression, lost control of life, medium rare, underrated, think about. These videos are placed slightly less central than other videos.

Is the recommender algorithm, regulating the flow of cultural contents, hence a means to control the mood of unconscious users, promoting neoliberal quests of personal happiness among them? Returning to our observation of how these videos are being titled would argue against that I believe. The algorithm misses more than it seems to be controlling here. As I argued along the grammars, the signifying practices taking place within the field, these more negative terms are not only used in tropes to indicate videos being of value, but also to actively reflect and question the importance these videos can have in the long run. These signifying practices highlight not only peoples’ desire for momentary existential rest that lies in this ‘happy and humble’ entertainment. But rather, without great noise, they show an implicit awareness of cultural forces at work. Not a great revolutionary act against control, but an act of balancing the freedoms and dominations that come with it.

Parts of this piece were presented at the 4th Affect and Social Media Conference, University of East London, England/UK, November 2018 and published previously in an earlier version at

Revisiting the selective tradition: Spaces of experience, participatory culture, and algorithmic recommendations

Since its first premiere in 2011, the HBO produced tv show Game of Thrones has become one of the most watched, illegally downloaded, critically acclaimed, put simply, one of the most anticipated tv series presently available. We may henceforth ask: in what ways and by what means does this show shape and influence contemporary culture? On what grounds and in what forms is it becoming a meaningful part of people’s lives?

To do so, we can start by revisiting Raymond Williams’ conceptualization of a selective tradition [1]. For Williams, culture is shaped and created through selective operations. Through the active engagement of people and institutions with cultural objects and experiences. An active engagement in which certain aspects of a culture once lived are selected to be of value and emphasis while others are rejected. Those of value are recorded and preserved, be it in the form of objects or practices. This recorded culture then shapes and conditions the grounds upon which a contemporary culture emerges, determining what meaningful experiences can look like in the future.

These selective operations hence don’t start from scratch. They are part of a selective tradition constantly evolving. Within this tradition, selective operations are pursued across a variety of linked ecologies, all of which are invested into culture following different objectives, visions, and desires, different histories of their own (often accompanied by conflict and controversy).

We can see this for instance in the Game of Thrones tv show being an adaption of the same-titled George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novel series. Game of Throne’s cultural significance always already has been part of a larger historical trajectory of selective operations. And in doing so, the ecologies of publishers, marketers, literary critics, ‘ordinary’ readers, and fans are expanded. Production companies, tv networks, a whole other set of marketers and critics, ‘ordinary’ viewers, and dedicated fans of the show are all now also part of the selective operations surrounding this cultural conjuncture.

Trying to gain hold onto this continuous development, we can look at two areas within this tradition that we might describe as particularly new within our present digital society. Namely Game of Thrones video montages and their algorithmic ordering.

These montages highlight those parts of a participatory culture in which people negotiate and discuss their experience of the show. But further, and more crucially, they do create spaces in which the show can be experienced and re-experienced in different forms and rhythms. On the one side a discourse and collective memory, on the other a sui generis experience of the show. Their combination creating in the digital an experientially different ground to record and preserve parts of a culture once lived.

However, in being distributed on social media platforms like YouTube, the flow of these contents is regulated by the platform’s inherent logics. While this creates opportunities to connect and make accessible different contents surrounding Game of Thrones, it also raises questions of control and power. For have herein non-human entities such as algorithms, by ordering and recommending contents, become central actors carrying out selective operations, also making determinations of what parts of Game of Thrones and its experience are of value and to be emphasised.

Given the vast storylines featured within Game of Thrones, we will take House Stark as case to inquire these developments. Accordingly looking through the field of video montages related to Stark characters, we can identify four main areas House Stark as such is remembered by and presented along.

Firstly, there are montages of Ned, Benjen, and Robb Stark. They are often used to highlight themes of honour and loyalty, themes seen as integral to House Stark. While less frequent in number of videos, these montages are produced in high quality and have a broad reach and acclaim among viewers. They are edited to appear very dramatic, feature slow music yet forward paced and fast-moving images. Their focus is on action and they display lots of fighting scenes. Honour and loyalty are herein not presented as abstract concepts but as put into practice. The dramatic edit seeking to engage people into how the meaningfulness of House Starks comes to matter. Yet further these montages also seek to highlight narrative ties within the larger storyline. For instance, through cross-cuts and voiceovers, they make present connections between scenes that before where not related in the original edit of the show.

Secondly, we find montages of Brandon, Rickon, and Catelyn Stark. They are often used to showcase themes of courage and strength associated with House Stark. While these videos are seldom of high quality, they are also not that frequent. However, their existence is acknowledged when you look at what people say about them, for do they show aspects often marginalised and overlooked according to many. Courage and strength are herein presented in slow and dragging edits that retell the story of the characters. They have a particular focus on close-ups, seeking to highlight a deep reading of the characters’ emotions and their overlooked meaningfulness for the story.

Thirdly, a key strand focusses its attention on the characters Arya Stark, Sansa Stark, and Jon Snow. Doing so, they less explicitly direct attention towards House Stark, but instead focus on the themes of becoming and identity within the characters’ storylines. However, it is this development of finding and reclaiming a place within the family and world that is often seen as characteristic element of House Stark’s significance within the Game of Thrones experience. These montages seek to do so in dramatic edits. Both music and images are uprising, they are very rhythmic. Not retelling the original storyline, but rather telling a story on its own within. They vest the identity struggle and development of the characters with a rhythmic movement of images. Doing so, they primarily seek to engage people into the becoming of the characters.

Lastly, a major strand of videos focus on House Stark as such, looking at the themes of becoming and home in particular. These montages are very frequent and most of them are of high quality. They are forward paced, feature lots of cross-cuts and voiceovers, are often action laden, and incorporate a large variety of musical genres and styles that are in many cases unrelated to Game of Thrones (most of the character montages use pieces from the original score or a similar style of music). Taking this form, they less seek to retell the story of House Stark, but rather make present the feeling and mood of it; the emotional journey of finding back home. While they show key moments of and parallels between the different Stark characters, they mainly showcase the fall and rise of House Stark. Do so less in explaining the contexts surrounding this trajectory, but rather in rhythmically engaging people into this dynamic and existentially challenging movement.

Following these four areas of montages, we are confronted with a space of experience on the platform. It is within these community-created video montages that people not only highlight and negotiate different aspects of the show and why they are of value (for them an others). But rather, in that these montages are audio-visually engaging contents, they create a themed space in which the mood associated with House Stark in particular and the show in general can be made present again. Even further, they create a space in which Game of Thrones can be experienced in a form that is unique from the original tv series. A unique experience that allows people to be engaged and attuned.

While video montages are one form of engaging with the show in the digital, they are part of a larger content stream available on the platform. Contents that are ordered and made accessible via YouTube’s related video network [2]. Looking at the network for our case of House Stark, we are confronted with around 37.000 unique videos that were classified as related. Using computationally supported content analysis techniques and network modelling [3], we can identify twelve clusters or themes of videos within the overall network.

The most interesting things to observe here are the four big clusters in the centre of the network and the four clusters at the edges in the top left. These more marginal, yet still big clusters are interesting in that they feature tutorials and displays of practices that seek to recreate or materialize aspects of the show. We find a lot of videos that are piano tutorials that teach people how to play Game of Thrones themes but also many other musical scores. We can find many videos that are tutorials showing how to recreate certain symbols and artefacts from the show using woodworking or origami techniques. But there also is a group of videos in which people recreate and stage battles from the show within video games.

Moving to the centre, we have three big clusters surrounding one medium sized one. This medium sized cluster entirely consist of reaction videos, i.e. people capturing their reaction while watching certain, often very dramatic scenes of the show. The three surrounding clusters can be divided in community, commercial, and show related videos. Community related contents are especially videos that discuss the show in more depth and make connections between it and the novel series. Commercial videos feature the official behind the scenes materials, interviews with cast and production staff and connect towards the broader entertainment industry in form of late night tv contents or music videos. The show related cluster features video montages like those discussed above but also unedited clips and scenes from the show.

Put simply, looking at the related video network shows us a larger variety of different forms and formats along which House Stark and Game of Thrones (can) become a meaningful part of people’s lives. Within these clusters different ecologies are at work, following different logics, highlighting and emphasising different aspects of the show to be of value. Yet in addition to these ecologies that are directly invested into Game of Thrones, YouTube now is too. We may hence try to understand in what ways their algorithmic recommendations play a role in shaping contemporary culture.

Focussing our attention to the three central clusters featuring the community, commercial, and show related videos, we can see that YouTube is not ‘neutral’. Videos that overall discuss Game of Thrones and interviews with the cast are placed without emphasis. They are placed neutrally. However, videos that focus on specific characters, instead of the show at large, are pushed (placed more centrally in the network, are more likely to be recommended to people). Especially those video montages concerned with Jon Snow and Sansa Stark discussed above are emphasised here. However, it also pushes community videos that discuss and make predictions about the upcoming final season of the tv show.

Contents that are suspended by the algorithm (placed less centrally, are less likely to be recommended to people) mainly follow two strands. On the one side general major media content such as music videos or bits and clips from tv shows. On the other side, primarily community videos that establish and discuss connections between tv show and the novel series.

This is not to say that YouTube and its algorithms are engaging in the discussion and selective tradition with a clear and purposeful intention. But rather do they follow a logic inherent to the platform. Currently, this logic, at its core, seeks to maximize time-spent on the platform per user. In observing and quantifying their activities, they make predictions what contents will keep people interested in watching videos. Yet further, creating user-profiles from this data, they auction targeted ad space and monetize activities unfolding on the platform.

There sure is a need for more research into the impact and implication of these recommender systems. Yet while I think that them having an impact is without question, the degree to which most present research raises alarming voices about the amplification, captivation, and control that comes with such systems seems questionable (even if there are cases where I would agree). For does it feel like that this often entails doing the same mistake mainstream media studies did decades ago. Looking at what media do to the people instead of what the people do to the media.

It is thus with little surprise that scholars like Sonia Livingstone critically ask the field to take seriously the experiences people make within such digital worlds. Not to undermine the power imbalances and domains of control presently at work. However, in doing so be able to better understand, rethink, and reclaim these systems. As Nick Seaver, studying recommender systems through an anthropological lens of traps, argues, we should not aspire to free us from such systems that (seek to) captivate us. Rather, thinking about ways to reclaim control over them and the ways they (could) enrich our lives is what we need to do. Something, as Fred Turner argues, might also entail establishing democratic governance structures, laws and institutions dealing with these sites of our contemporary culture; for have, according to Turner, the ideals of connecting the world and simply amplifying and broadcasting what people do failed as did the communes of the 1960s.

This is not to argue against those sites running on a commercial basis. However, to argue in favour for them to more acknowledge the impact they have on shaping contemporary culture. The way YouTube currently is taking part in the selective tradition is one option. However, returning to our case, just as people feel that the experience of courage and strength in the characters of Brandon, Rickon, and Catelyn is often overlooked and undervalued, so do the algorithms also overlook and undervalue them.

As platform operator, it is easy to position oneself as plain mediator here. Yet, we may ask, is this the right thing to do? Is this really the best option out there, given all the data and computational resources at hand? Not that I am particularly anxious about the socio-economic futures these systems help create. But rather that I am slightly sad and disappointed about the chances for those futures they seem to miss and be unaware of day after day.

Parts of this piece were presented at the 1st International Popular Culture Conference, University of Seville, Spain, December 2018.

[1] Williams has most notably discussed this idea in The Long Revolution (1961). A more concrete application can for instance be found in Williams’ The Country and the City (1973). In tracing the persistence and historicity of the rural-urban divide in literary works since the 16th century, Williams highlights not only those selective operations that emphasised and rejected the lived experience of the country-side, but also how these shaped future experiences and socio-economic contexts of industrialisation and urbanisation accordingly.

[2] In order to personalize the experience on the platform, YouTube recommends each user videos based on a variety of factors, often with the intend to increase the likelihood to watch another video, i.e. increase time spent on the platform. Accordingly, most of the videos people watch were recommended to them by YouTube. The backbone for doing these personal recommendations is the related video network. It consists of videos that are classified as related or similar to one another based on different factors (content data, metadata, activity data) following a dynamic modelling process. This backbone dataset is then used to, based on a person’s activity data, guess what videos might be of interest to be watched next. Implicit feedback, the activity data gathered by YouTube for each user using the site and each video being watched/used on the site is hence of crucial importance here (Baluja et al. 2008, Davidson et al. 2010, Bendersky et al. 2014, Covington et al. 2016).

Reconstructing related video networks (the data is partially and with limited access available publicly) hence allows us to understand three sides of user-generated content platforms like YouTube: Firstly, what variety of contents there are available, i.e. contents created by individuals and organizations. Secondly, how the experience of watching videos related to a certain topic can look like for a broader variety of people. Lastly, how YouTube positions certain videos to be more accessible than others within a given topic, i.e. how YouTube takes part in selective operations of emphasising and rejecting contents.

[3] Network clusters are reconstructed using the Louvain community detection algorithm (Blondel et al. 2008) because, as YouTube builds relations based on similarity (see citations above), clusters within the network are assumed to be densely connected within themselves but not with the rest of the network. The Louvain algorithm maximizing the modularity measure henceforth comes in useful. Additionally, those nodes/videos connecting clusters with each other are assessed through the betweenness centrality measure (Brandes 2001). Lastly, a force-directed layout with scaled gravity is used for visualising the network (things central are placed centrally, which is further enhanced through more compact and comparable spatialization Bannister et al. 2013).

Computationally supported content analysis has become a prominent tool within sociology and the social sciences over the years (DiMaggio et al. 2013, Fuhse and Mützel 2011, Mützel 2015, Lewis et al. 2013, Lucas et al. 2015). Given the large number of videos available, these tools can be used in assessing themes of clusters through analysis of video titles and video tags. To do so, three steps are applied to each network cluster. Firstly, an inductive categorization of lower and upper bound of central (betweenness centrality) and influential nodes/videos (view count and engagement ratio) is undertaken from within the field. Secondly, central terms for each network cluster are extracted through co-occurrences analysis (Deerwester et al. 1990, Lund and Burgess 1996). These two steps are concluded by labelling each cluster. Lastly, in a final step, by fitting a structural topic modelling for each cluster with centrality and influence measures as covariates (Roberts et al. 2013), algorithmic ordering practices are sought to be reconstructed.

Bannister, M.J. et al. (2013). Force-Directed Graph Drawing Using Social Gravity and Scaling. In W. Didimo and M. Patrignani eds., Graph Drawing. GD 2012. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 7704. Berlin: Springer, 414-425.
Baluja, S. et al. (2008). Video Suggestion and Discovery for YouTube. Taking Random Walks Through the View Graph. In Proceedings of WWW 2008, Beijing, China.
Bendersky, M. et al. (2014). Up Next: Retrieval Methods for Large Scale Related Video Suggestion. Proceedings KDD 2014, New York, US.
Blondel, V.D. et al. (2008). Fast unfolding of communities in large networks. In Journal of Statistical Mechanics, P10008.
Brandes, U. (2001). A Faster Algorithm for Betweenness Centrality. In Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 25(2), 163-177.
Covington, P. et al. (2016). Deep Neural Networks for YouTube Recommendations. In Proceedings of RecSys 2016, Boston, US.
Davidson, J. et al. (2010). The YouTube Video Recommendation System. In Proceedings of RecSys 2010, Barcelona, Spain.
Deerwester, S.C. et al (1990). Indexing by latent semantic analysis. In Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 41(6), 391–407.
DiMaggio, P. et al. (2013). Exploiting affinities between topic modelling and the sociological perspective on culture. In Poetics, 41, 570-606.
Fuhse, J. and Mützel, S. (2011). Tackling connections, structure, and meaning in networks: quantitative and qualitative methods in sociological network research. In Qual Quant, 45, 1067-1089.
Lewis, S.C. et al. (2013). Content Analysis in an Era of Big Data A Hybrid Approach to Computational and Manual Methods. In Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 57(1), 34-52.
Lucas, C. et al. (2015). Computer-Assisted Text Analysis for Comparative Politics. In Political Analysis, 25, 254-277.
Lund, K. and Burgess, C. (1996). Producing high-dimensional semantic spaces from lexical co-occurrence. In Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, and Computers, 28 (2), 203– 208.
Mützel, S. (2015). Facing Big Data: Making sociology relevant. In Big Data & Society, 1-4.
Roberts, M.E. et al. (2013). The structural topic model and applied social science. In Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems Workshop on Topic Models: Computation, Application, and Evaluation.
Williams, R. (1961). The Long Revolution. London: Chatto & Windus.
Williams, R. (1973). The Country and the City. London: The Hogarth Press.

Convergence culture beyond alternate readings: Movie trailers, community trailer re-cuts, and the desire to be engaged

Contemporary popular film culture is marked by franchise practices and strategies. In the centre the production of often yet another prequel, sequel, spin-off, remake, or reboot. A seemingly more manageable risk compared to the alternative of Hollywood’s spec-script market. However, creating reiterations of stories already told still comes with risks of its own. As Variety’s Owen Gleiberman puts it, scaling the same mountaintop all over again leaves ‘the audience’ more self-consciously reflecting on their experience of the franchise than being empathically engaged with the movie itself.

Creating new forms of creative collaboration among different commercial sectors, movies themselves remain a focal, yet often only one among many aspects of the socio-economic form that is the franchise. They transcend and are materialized beyond the screen, creating new revenues streams beyond the box-office for the industry. However, doing so require the transformation of people’s short-lived attention into longstanding, sophisticated, and calculable interest.

Coming from the other side, fuelled by the emergence of digital media technologies, new forms of participatory culture and amateur film practices take shape, moving from self-documentation to aesthetic appropriation. Speaking back to the franchise and industry bottom-up, creating a new shared language of popular culture. A language that seeks to reclaim control over the way popular culture takes shape and shapes people’s lives. Control over the decision what parts and forms of culture are of value, now and in the future.

And movies like ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’, one of the many recent additions to the Lucasfilm produced and Disney owned Star Wars franchise, highlight the conjuncture of these developments with ease.

For did ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ not have an easy start since its first announcement. From unworkable script to creative differences in pre-production leading to Ron Howard stepping in as director to difficulties while shooting the movie. ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ looks kind of rough from the production side already. Yet additionally, it is part of the ongoing negotiation between community and Disney owned Lucasfilm about the future of the franchise, the way it is pursued and taken out. Some fans wanted ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ to fail and, well, at least financially it didn’t meet expectations for sure. People from within the industry commenting that something like a ‘Star Wars fatigue’ remains a myth whilst highlighting the avoidable creative mistakes Disney did in managing the franchise, creating a disappointed audience they’ll probably lose in the long run.

Looking not at the movie itself, but rather the means and sites along which people are sought to be engaged and their interest sparked, we may turn our attention to movie trailers. More particular, their distribution on social media platforms which have become ever more present and important sites of control, struggle, and negotiation between industry and community (whatever fixed and imagined entities these might be).

The official trailer can easily be interpreted along a franchising logic. It starts by introducing characters already known from earlier pieces of the Star Wars Saga; creating and reactivating narratives ties within the larger story universe. While speaking to those already familiar with it, it at the same time also features lots of broadly understandable encounters and humour. The edit being slow at the start, only gaining some kind of speed moving towards the end of the trailer. The music feeling like an awkwardly keyed version of the original Star Wars scores. The overall mood being one of a ‘fun movie’.

Looking at its distribution context, unsurprisingly YouTube’s algorithms have placed it within cluster 6 – a cluster that features lots of general and major media contents such as movie trailers, interviews, clips and bits from late-night tv, and other promotional media contents that promise more focused attention towards their subject.

Looking at a community trailer re-cut, we are confronted with a different view. The trailer is edited fast and features a continuous, rhythmic movement of images. Its focus is entirely on Hans Solo; no other characters are really introduced, no narrative ties made. There is a strong absence of language and signifying practices, but rather an emphasis on action and movement. The entire edit cut onto a piece of Bestie Boys’ Sabotage. The trailer, in its form, is made resistant to interpretation. There is nothing really new we learn from it. Rather, we are only reactivated a feeling already known. The overall mood communicated being one of an ‘adventurous movie’.

Looking at its position within the larger content traffic on YouTube, it’s being placed within cluster 0 – a cluster that features lots of upcoming and on-the-market major studio productions, covering a variety of genres, also featuring more general contents such as music videos and the likes. Broadly speaking, while not placed within the more focused attention that cluster 6 promises, the community trailer re-cut still is able to push towards the centre of the discussion and content traffic on the platform.

These two trailers showcase not only two different visions of the Star Wars franchise and its future – more fun and family-friendly vs. more action-laden and adventurous – but also show different structural positions and forces at work. For are in the context of digital media, formerly promised as ‘holy land’ of participatory culture, existing structural position largely reproduced, governing attention and legitimacy over how popular culture is shaped. And while there sure is a need for more research into the ways the companies operating these digital platforms have become a newly linked ecology within popular culture, an awareness of these forces is not absent from the discussion within the audience already.

Looking at comments on the official trailer, we especially are confronted with four major topics. Many people are suspicious of positive comments on the trailer, claiming they were bought or created by bots commissioned by Disney to better position the trailer and its online presence. Others are critical of the way movie trailers can function as means of engaging people or the capabilities of Disney and Lucasfilm to control the franchise. Yet in some sense opposing these three perspectives and their inherent critique, there also is a lot of people that come back after watching the movie, commenting that it wasn’t as bad as the trailer made it look like. Going further, being critical of all the buzz created by the community around it online.

Moving to the comments on the community trailer re-cut, we, however, can make a differently interesting observation. For are people here less concerned with the vision of the franchise in the sense of its contents and production context. They are less concerned with an alternate reading of the story. But rather do they express their desire to be engaged. Their desire for an immediate and present experience within a site of popular culture they’re invested in. A site that allows them to be attuned and affected, coordinate personal and communal being.

For does the community trailer re-cut highlight a desire for rest. It doesn’t seek to move forward but rather to be a movement that covers not distance. The official trailer seeks to be more than Han Solo. The community re-cut seeks to be just Han Solo. It wants to reactive a feeling once present and substantial to many people. Not through signification and interpretation, but through rhythmic and embodied experience. Not the be all and end all of what Star Wars franchise and popular culture should look like. Not ruling out critical capacity of the audience or the necessity of creative innovation within movie and story itself. But highlighting the meaningfulness of a restful experience of movies in particular and our human life in general that often is neglected today.

It is this dimension of meaningfulness, the value of immediate and present experiences, that the trailer re-cut brings to the centre of discussion. And maybe what’s to learn from this contribution is similar to what David Ehrlich finds reviewing ‘The LEGO Batman Movie’: “More fun than funny, more clever than smart, ‘LEGO Batman’ moves too fast to acclimate audiences to the world it so eagerly dismantles and rebuilds (and too fast to make them want to stay there for a minute longer), but it serves as a frenzied reminder that laughing at the things we love is sometimes the best way to remember why we love them. Can Batman ever be happy? It’s hard to say. But, for the first time in a long time, at least his fans can be.”

Parts of this piece were presented at the 24th International Film Studies Conference, Roma Tre University, Italy, November 2018.

Suspend / Resume: Notes on digital culture and lively sensibility 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 [1].

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.

[1] 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.


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.)

Barthes, R. (1975). Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption. In E. Foster & R. Foster (eds.), European Diet from Pre-Industrial to Modern Times. New York: Harper and Row, 47–59.
Bourdieu, P. (1982). Die feinen Unterschiede: Kritik der gesellschaftlichen Urteilskraft. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.
Connerton, P. (1989). How societies remember. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
de Certau, M.; et al. (1998). The Practice of Everyday Life. Volume 2: Living and Cooking. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Elias, N. (1976). Über den Prozeß der Zivilisation – Soziogenetische und psychogenetische Untersuchungen. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (1997). IN 1926. Living on the Edge of Time. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.
Gumbrecht, H.U. (2003). Production of Presence. What Meaning Cannot Convey. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Hartmann, A. (1994). Zungenglück und Gaumenqualen. Geschamckserinnerungen. München: Beck.
Hartmann, A. (2006). Der Esser, sein Kosmos und seine Ahnen. Kulinarische Tableaus von Herkunft und Wiederkehr. In R.-E. Mohrmann (ed.), Essen und Trinken in der Moderne. Münster: Waxmann, 147-158.
Heinzelmann, U. (2014). Beyond Bratwurst: a history of food in Germany. London: Reaktion Books.
Keppler, A. (1994). Tischgespräche: über Formen kommunikativer Vergemeinschaftung am Beispiel der Konversation in Familien. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.
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Köstlin, K. (2006). Modern essen. Alltag, Abenteuer, Bekenntnis: Vom Abenteur, entscheiden zu müssen. In R.-E. Mohrmann (ed.), Essen und Trinken in der Moderne. Münster: Waxmann, 9-22.
Pilcher, J.M. (2006). Food in World History. London: Routledge.
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van Dijck, J. (2007). Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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.

Abbott, A. (2016). Processual Sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Berger, P.L. & Luckmann, T. (1966). The Social Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Penguin.
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Gumbrecht, H.U. (2013). Historisierung der Beobachtung zweiter Ordnung – eine epistemologische Rahmenerzählung. In P.C. Pawling, A. Mazzucchelli, H.U. Gumbrecht (eds.), Beobachtungen zweiter Ordnung im historischen Kontext. München und Paderborn: Fink, 7-22.
Halley, J. & Clough, P.T. (eds.)(2007). The affective turn: Theorizing the social. Durham und London: Duke University Press.
Hicks, D. (2010). The material-cultural turn: event and effect. In D. Hicks & M.C. Beaudry (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 25-98.
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Reckwitz, A. (2016). Kreativität und soziale Praxis: Studien zur Sozial- und Gesellschaftstheorie. Bielefeld: transcript.
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White, H. (2008). Identity and control. A structural theory of social action. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

A practitioner’s guide to “been there, done that”: Understanding the sofa as quasi-object in vacation and museum settings

In 2016, the City of Vienna has registered almost 7 million people visiting the city [1]. This might not be a surprise if you look at the Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking in which Vienna has been occupying the first place for 8 years in a row [2]. We might thus ask, what happened during these 8 years, because visitor numbers have not always been that high. Actually, since 2007 in total 2.7 million more people have been visiting the city. That’s a growth of almost 24%. One answer to that development can surely be seen in an increased marketing effort. However, the marketing budget only did grow around 3 million Euros between 2007 and 2016 [3].

What might explain this development more profoundly can be observed in 2004. In 2004, the Vienna Tourist Board hoped for more visitors from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia [4]. And then, out of no respectively somewhere, they all came. Between 2007 and 2016 the number of people from Asia visiting the city has increased by 44%. That’s almost twice as much as the number of people from any other regions visiting the city has increased.

Going deeper, and assuming that the Vienna Tourist Board has been successful at reaching their desired audience, we can describe these people coming over as on average above 25 years of age visitors that have a high level of education and mid to high income. As visitors that come to Vienna because of its arts and cultural offerings as well as the traditions and cityscape. While mostly being first time visitors, they do not come alone, stay between 4 to 7 days in a 4 to 5 stars hotel and preferred in the months between July and October [5].

We might thus confront ourselves with the question: What can we learn from these people that appeared as needed the most? How can we become more like them to supply the obvious global need of more Asian tourists?

It’s obvious that the only real answer to this question will be provided in my forthcoming book: How to Become an Asian Tourist. A Practitioner’s Guide. However, to do for the moment, I will try to present in this piece the first drafting step of this endeavour. Resting on extensive (as well as intensive) fieldwork conducted at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, we are able to outline four ways of being an Asian tourist at an art museum.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien appears to not only be a relevant case to study because it has one of the highest, even if slightly declining, visitor numbers in Vienna [6]. But more importantly, because it has the both quantitively as well as qualitatively best offering of sofas in and outside of the exhibition spaces. Various colours, various materials, various styles, various sizes – you name it, they got it. Besides that, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien also has a fairly high proportion of languages from Asian regions used for their audio guides.

Rollin fast. The first way being an Asian tourist can mostly be observed in groups and couples of visitors, while not being confused with Rolling with the squad. Rollin fast means getting an overview, not hanging around, trying to see everything and then waiting for your friends at the finish line respectively the lobby. The crucial trade-off to make in this mode is the one of being efficient and being part of the group. Avoiding any verbal interaction during this is crucial while still being connected to your peers. Sitting down is thus only an option if you need to stay connected. Traveling with children is no problem. You can give them a name tag at the entrance so the museum personnel know how to pronounce their names and you will be able to easily find them afterwards as they get lost on your run.

It is crucial that you gather enough information and experiences (so to say pictures on your mobile phone [7]) that you afterwards can effectively communicate ‘been there, done that’. Maintaining an interest in the matter is, however, crucial to be efficient. You still are visiting this country because of its arts, culture and traditions, but also the city, so don’t waste too much time inside an old building. Rolling fast means being pragmatic while being on vacation. Audio guides would be a helpful tool for you, but not using them is your preferred option: saves both time and money. Dressing accordingly can be useful, however, this is a very common mode, so being commonly distinct is not necessary. But, as guideline, to roll fast, most of the young people tend to wear sweatpants or jeans and sneakers. Slightly older people tend to dress in a casual business style or go very touristy, meaning beige cargo pants.

Rollin slow. The second way of being an Asian tourist can mostly be observed in formations of couples or singles. Rollin slow means going deep, taking time, sitting down, listening and reading close. Even if you travel with a group, you will lose them eventually since you spend most of the time staring up and pressing the audio guide into your ear. You do not need to worry about making any trade-offs because this is what you’re here for. It appears that most of the distractions that could happen (children, running out of time, missing a sofa to sit down and falling on the ground because you’re so deeply focussed) have been taken care of beforehand. So, making sure everything has been taken care of beforehand is crucial.

However, more crucial is having an audio guide. The audio guide is both your shield and source of information. It shields you from your peers who think they know one or two things they need to tell you about this or that painting. More importantly, it is your source of information about these paintings, because again that is what you really came to this country for, right? You need the guide because otherwise you do not get the information and experiences to be able to afterwards communicate ‘been there, done that’.

But don’t get too excited. You are very serious about this – you have a contentual interest in these things, or at least you appear to do so. Dressing accordingly is very crucial. Moreover, dressing commonly distinct is even more crucial respectively this is not to say that you have to dress differently than normal. Just dress modern and slightly cosmopolitan to serve some global aesthetic codes. Dress distinct, but so distinct that you are still common for distinct people. Unless you are slightly older, than it really doesn’t matter what you wear, even if it is beige cargo pants.

Rollin with the squad. The third way of being an Asian tourist can in most cases be observed in formations of larger groups and in some cases of couples. Rollin with the squad means moving fast while going slow. You only move as a group – because you have no audio guide, so you have to guide each other. Pointing and shouting at things is a thoroughly accepted means of interaction. Sharing is caring and you care very much about your peers. Whatever you might think is interesting is also of interest for them. Thus is why you have to move fast while going slow – you don’t have much time, because finding a schedule that fits everyone is hard. Some people might be more interested in the paintings than you are, so help them. Spread out, read everything and provide a short summary. However, as David Ehrlich reminds us in his The LEGO Batman Movie Review [8], “laughing at the things we love is sometimes the best way to remember why we love them.” So do not hesitate to make a joke, you’re still here to have fun and sure, again, for the arts, culture, and traditions as well as the cityscapes.

Being a master at making trade-offs is thus a very crucial part of your vacation. However, at this point of your journey you probably already have seen the traditions and culture of the city through a wonderful Vienna Big Bus Tour, which also includes enjoying the cityscapes and visiting the Schönbrunn Palace. Managing things that foster the stability of the group are already taken care of beforehand. As this, again, is a very common mode, you do not need to dress specifically. However, to foster the integration of all the group members, you might wear matching jackets. Oh, and don’t worry about being able to communicate that you have ‘been there, done that’. All the people that care are already with you.

Not rollin at all. The last way of being an Asian tourist can only be observed in formations of singles – maybe in very few cases in couples. However, as in the other modes, they are in most cases also part of a larger or smaller group. Not rollin at all is a very simple, twofold, but powerful mode. Not rollin at all either means not wanting to be there or simply just being there. If you do not want to be there, sit down, take out your smartphone and do whatever you want to do. Maybe walk around so you don’t lose connection to your peers. However, you might also go through the exhibition and wait at the finish line respectively the lobby. If you are, on the other side, just being there, just be there.

At the end of the day, you are not missing out, if you just sit around (or sleep) – because at the end of the day, if you are on vacation, it can just be satisfying to not pursue to be somewhere or someone else – it can be satisfying not having to roll fast, to hold some kind of identity, to roll slow, to gain some kind of identity, or to roll with the squad, to help create an identity. A sofa is a very good place to do so. And maybe finding that rest is exactly what we can learn from Asian tourists visiting Vienna.

[1] All data regarding the City of Vienna:
[7] However, leave your selfie stick at home, it’s 2017.

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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