Sutradhar Complex. On the transmediale Study Circle Affective Infrastructures.


Sutradhar Complex. On the transmediale Study Circle Affective Infrastructures.

If the notion of “affective infrastructures” points not to physical and tangible systems but to elements that are unstructured and felt bodily, how can such infrastructures be grasped, examined, and possibly embraced? Reflecting upon her work and experience with and within the Affective Infrastructure Study Circle, Maya Indira Ganesh discusses the importance of collectively picking up threads, weaving them together, and acknowledging a binding force that might be only ephemeral. As she recalls, interweaves, and expands on some of the topics tackled, Ganesh invites us to consider the traps of neoliberalism’s “mindfulness” and the violence of atmospheric governance, while she also underlines the potential for new forms of coming together that transcend a fixed understanding of belonging.


How connected we are with everyone...: not just because we have ridden the same catastrophe and the same built environments but also because we have breathed in the dust particles of them. Dust is the effect of contact between skin and the world, and also what buildings catch and the ground gives up. Pinged and hurt and inflamed by contact we’ve become disoriented together, and breathed it out jointly, even when overwhelmed by what’s too hard, or too embodied.1

The Sutradhar (Sanskrit: “one who holds the strings”) is a well-known figure across Indian theater. This character is a shapeshifter: puppeteer, wedding planner, cricket team captain, annotator; as well as the more familiar stage manager in Western theatre. Their superpower is the ability to break through the fourth wall—“one of the most lasting effects of the Western theatre upon contemporary Indian theatre”2 to blur performance and reality, audience and actor. Stepping on- and offstage nimbly, drawing your attention to footnotes and plot alike, the Sutradhar’s role suggests that not everything always makes sense at first glance nor holds together perfectly. The task of picking up the threads and weaving them together is always ongoing, and complex; but the play [of life] is also a complex, as in, it is an agglomeration of many, different things all acting with force, together.

Threads. Complex. Holding together. One of the Study Circles that formed part of the 2019 edition of transmediale was organized around Lauren Berlant’s concept, “affective infrastructures.” Our Circle took on the role of the Sutradhar in working with this concept: annotating, finding threads, weaving, sometimes weaving cat’s cradles, sometimes hammocks. More specifically,

By using the term “Affective Infrastructure,” we tried to get at the way “affect is made infrastructural—how it is stabilized and channeled, manufactured and circulated—and how we are directed to certain attachments over others.” The conversation was concerned with the problematics of care and empathy, the forms of power and privilege that they involve, and foregrounded potentials between autonomy and inter-dependency, non-sovereignty and agency, taxonomy, and messiness.3

Affect includes the cognitive, proprioceptive, behavioral and psychological; facial expressions, respiration, tone of voice, posture, all transmit affect, which means “we are not self-contained in terms of our energies. There is no secure distinction between the ‘individual’ and the ‘environment’… Because affect is unformed and unstructured (unlike feelings and emotions) it can be transmitted between bodies.”4 So the Study Circle’s starting points for thinking about infrastructure and affect, and “affective infrastructure,” were “in the air,”5 ephemeral, unstructured. Some of the experiences we included in our events6 and publications7 were: foraging for mushrooms in parks and finding pleasure-seeking bodies as well; passivity, negative affects, and lethargy; the right to asylum being computed and validated by speech recognition systems; security as distributed and shared; #MeToo and its use of spreadsheets and hashtags. Through these contributions, we asked what it means to be connected to others not only by emotions that are shaped and shared by language, but desires that are visceral, based on feelings, that are pre-linguistic and bodily.8 “Affective infrastructure” pushes up against the notion that “infrastructures” are physical and material relationships; perhaps affective infrastructures are more like synaptic relationships, in which neurotransmitters convey messages across the gaps between neurons by osmosis, rather than how muscles are attached to bones by tendons.

Affective infrastructures can embody multiple dimensions at the same time. For example, consider how our faces, voices, and body language are mined to feed the growing industry of “Emotion AI.” Emotional artificial intelligence is “the process of giving machines the ability to recognize and react to human emotion. The technology has the ability to tell whether a customer is angry or upset, whether a driver is feeling tired or if a patient is feeling lonely or depressed.”9 Humanoid robots, digital assistants and chatbots are perceived to be awkward to interact with because they lack affect.10 So companies like Affectiva, an early pioneer in the field, are developing datasets of human affect and emotion to train future bots and digital interfaces to “understand all things human” as their tag line goes.11 Affect becomes data for algorithms to chew on and learn from, melds into internet infrastructure, and is fed back to us in and as the digital, and as how we relate to each other and ourselves.

Consider the following examples. Woebot, a therapy bot in an app, helps track your mood, and talks you through the reality of living with depression.12 And Lovot,—“powered by love”—is a silly, adorable little robot that just wants to make you happy.13 Ashley Madison,14 the website for married people to have affairs discreetly, developed more than 70,000 bots to masquerade as women to engage at least 11 million men in sex chats.15 This was revealed only when the website was hacked and the data leaked. Such intimate spaces might only become more fulfilling as they become better at generating affect through the processing of our own emotion and affect by machine learning. However, the male clientele of Ashley Madison were already readily fulfilled by bots, even though they “weren’t exactly smart” and were “fairly annoying.”16

The Circle’s discussions focused less on advances in AI technologies, but more on the body—material and digital—in the “webs of relations” we began to build. Marija Bozinovska Jones, for instance, introduced the quantified self, and how the body was recorded as data in order to control its fluctuations and restore it to order. In the Circle’s collaborative writing exercise she refers to how “information overload to a point of feeling overwhelmed” leads to disengagement; “and then we need to re-learn how to breathe.”17 She brought in examples of how breathing-based wellness culture, self-care, yoga, meditation, “gong baths, motivational talks, positive affirmations, personal growth” and the quantified self cohere into a neoliberal response to psychic and social crisis. Miya Tokumitsu puts this in perspective, writing:

Neoliberalism has not only given us crippling anxiety, but also its apparent remedy. It is no coincidence that as we become more nervous, “wellness” and “self-care” have become mainstream industries. Over the last few decades, workplaces have become ever more oppressive, intensely tracking workers’ bodies, demanding longer hours, and weakening workers’ bargaining rights while also instituting wellness and mentoring programs on an ever greater scale.18

It is a good thing to breathe deeply; but “mindfulness” and “self care” manipulate the individual to blame and rely on herself when things go wrong, rather than to organize in the workplace, reach out, and rely on others. Breathing as self-care under conditions of neoliberalism, precarity, and inequality stands in contrast to conditions of apocalyptic breakdown in other parts of the world. For example, New Delhi’s air quality (or lack of) is now worse than Beijing’s.19

And if it is not pollutants, then it is poison: In the conversation Affective Infrastructures: A Tableau, Altar, Scene, Diorama, or Archipelago, Study Circle members Lou Cornum and Tung-Hui Hu refer to the conditions of institutional violence that migrants to the United States face. Writing at the end of 2018, Cornum speaks of tear gas as being “in the air” at the border. Hu says that the frame of “affective infrastructures” allows us to see how affect—as tears from tear gas, fear, violence, or algorithmically provoked tears—“is made infrastructural—how it is stabilized and channeled, manufactured, and circulated.” Anna Feigenbaum’s book Tear gas: From the Battlefields of World War I to the Streets of Today20 shows how “atmospheric governance” as a concept allows us to see the infrastructural control exerted by borders that exist in all dimensions, such as above our heads and not just on the ground. Feigenbaum has a quote by Susan Saxe on her website that almost literally appears to resonate with the notion of “affective infrastructure”: “What inspiration could invent the infrastructure of the vine, the grass revolt against cement, the rebellion of the dandelion?”21 And to return to affective computing in the space above our heads, a future police force could upgrade from tear gas to surveillance drones hovering in the air and running software that will predict violence based on bodily affect,22 specifically bodily posture and pose recognition.23

The Study Circle turned to another dimension of affect as infrastructure by unpacking online and offline activism and the #MeToo movement. #MeToo started as “affect data,” anonymous lists, spreadsheets, and hashtags detailing violence and discrimination. These bottom-up, flexible approaches to naming abusers disregard formal structures of the law and “due process”, and shake up established institutions.

There is material, and mostly invisible, work that takes place around, behind, and on the sidelines of #MeToo disclosures on social media. For example, we spoke of a new chapter for women bringing complaints of sexual harassment against their bosses and colleagues. Women are making new affective infrastructures with and for each other: getting legal advice, support with leaving their jobs and looking for new ones, assembling evidence for legal cases, managing and mitigating online attacks. They are organizing and supporting each other in WhatsApp groups, in Twitter DMs, in codes of conduct, new investigations into old abuses, and new tactics to negotiate intimacy in personal and professional relationships.

Study Circle member Pedro Oliveira invoked Édouard Glissant’s framing of donner avec to imply a “web of relations” one must enter in order to belong without appropriating: “the nod, the glance exchanged, the deep breathing people often exchange with one another that transcends the necessity of making-sense-of.”24 Connections and belonging are forged from such subtle and fleeting things. But the task of picking up the threads of this belonging and weaving them together—and acknowledging that their ephemerality has power—is affective infrastructure. This is especially complicated when the threads are not actual threads, but, as in theater, are glances, pauses, tension, presence. How do we read these as parts of the play of life, movements, and relationships, and maintain them, or resist and challenge them? Like the Sutradhar, our Circle was tasked with weaving these subtle, sometimes unseen and only felt, dimensions of a story together: what is happening on stage is actually perhaps forming and un-forming elsewhere, somewhere outside the proscenium arch, hovering in the air.


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