The Politics of Materiality and Scales

I recently had the pleasure of writing for Kritik, the blog for the Unit for Criticism and Intrepretive Theory (which I am an affiliate of) at the University of Illinois. If the opportunity to contribute to a really vital dialogue on campus was not stimulating enough, it was also an invitation to write about a talk from Professor Zsuzsa Gille, whose work and perspective has been greatly helpful for me in my current efforts, on her new book. She graciously contacted me after the post went live to commend me on the summary, which you can find up on Kritik.

Gille.Poster 2016

What Zsuzsa had to say in terms of the operations of multiple scales – that of the local and the global – at work in her research on Hungary really relates to the work of this space. Her work is quite persuasive on the point that researchers must look at the interoperation of these scales at the level of materiality and practices. In this regard, her work has often reminded me of that of Anna Tsing, particularly in Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection.

Tsing advocates that researchers juggle between the universal and the situated in order to understand global forces. [1] Tsing, rather than taking global forces like capitalism as an a priori explanation, instead aligns herself with scholars like Timothy Mitchell and Doreen Massey in positing a research agenda centered on identifying friction – “the awkward, unequal, unstable, and creative qualities of interconnection across difference” that produce culture. [2] In this framework, encounters between global ideas and local situations produce culture; it is not the supposedly inherent authority of a global force that determines culture faithfully.

This renders the universal as an aspirational category, one which encounters and is changed by the circumstances surrounding the particular. [3] Tsing looks at knowledge as mobilizing beyond the local, recognizing its circulation into global frameworks while equally recognizing that such knowledge can then run into different tensions in different locales. It is this facet of the circulation of knowledge between the global and the local which generates unexpected outcomes worthy of further research. Recognizing the circulation of knowledge in this way also affirms friction as an avenue of possibilities, something that a priori explanations often exclude. [4]

Thus, as I allude to in the post, the “off the ground” perspective of the global scale comes into conflict with the particular contexts and modes of knowledge production inherent at the local scale. There is always a multiplicity of scales at work in a situation, and it operates in ways that a structuralist or deterministic agenda is not likely to notice. Indeed, it is often only through the dynamism of material practices, such as those that Zsuzsa focuses on, that the operations of these scales gets demystified, which is why it is pivotal for social researchers to follow said practices.


  1. Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 267.
  2.  Ibid, 4.
  3.  Ibid, 7.
  4.  Ibid, 18.

Citizen Mapping as Resistance Practice (4S Presentation)

Alas, I meant to post the slides from my recent presentation at 4S right after I returned from the conference in Denver, but my obligations for the semester kept getting in the way. You’ll now find the Google slides version here, though! The presentation in many ways built off some of the work I’ve been conducting in this space, so I definitely wanted to make sure that I posted it here.

I deeply appreciate the productive dialogue that came out of the panel, entitled “Joining Reference and Representation: Citizen Science as Resistance Practice.” For that, I thank my fellow panelists and those who stopped in for our presentations. Stay tuned for similar work in this area here, too, since we’re interested in collaborating moving forward based on our conversations at 4S!

Citizen as Sensor: Scale and Neoliberalism in the Nonhuman Turn

For this contribution, I’m posting portions of a short paper I presented at an on-campus workshop centered on new materialisms. The reason I’m doing so is because much of my current slate of readings has focused on citizen science and its invocations toward democratic ends. In his recent book Alien Ocean, for instance, Steven Helmreich points out that scientific efforts often render experts as media in and of themselves toward such ends, something that the “citizen as sensor” frame I discuss similarly does for lay publics. At the same time, Bruce Braun and Sarah J. Whatmore, in dealing with the intersections of geography and science studies within their edited volume Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life, discuss how, in similar efforts, the “democratic” label isn’t as fully fleshed out in terms of its political potential and what exactly its politics mean within such an invocation.

With that in mind, for reasons that will become clearer in the piece itself, I’ve been returning to the ideas of this particular paper as I prepare for my upcoming projects and presentations. The focus on scaling within it, too, makes it particulary apt for this space and potential topics I may contribute in the future. So, without further ado, here it is:

In situating his new text The Carry Home: Lessons from the American Wilderness, naturalist Gary Ferguson positions the wilderness “as a canvas to project fears and aspirations,” revealing its “power for the imaginative capacity of culture.” [1] Yet he also emphasizes the preservation of nature so that we can enjoy it and learn from it, preserving the exceptionalism of the human in doing so. This is certainly not a tendency exclusive to nature, as we often treat technology in the same light. The Quantified Self movement, which creates personalized algorithms through self-tracking to represent the data individuals exude, is one notable instance of us looking toward technology in part to reaffirm our own exceptionalism, as we are constantly working on ourselves through personalized data.

Similar affirmations, ironically, occur within the nonhuman turn.[2] This reinforcement of human exceptionalism raises questions on the stakes of this turn and how we should best redefine the human while giving sufficient definition to objects. I want to begin thinking through these questions in focusing on digital mapping communities and platforms. I will contend that a focus on the nonhuman scales the politics involved in these contexts and troubles notions of the visual field. Furthermore, I discuss a fashioning of citizen as sensor within the current media landscape. Citizen as sensor is a term that I borrow from a method for citizen science mapping which refers to having lay users document geographically salient data with GPS and other sensor devices, often for purposes of environmental justice.[3] Intriguingly, a sensor is a tool, something that measures and/or reacts to a physical object or a physical phenomenon. Here, I posit that the nonhuman turn, in its particular nuanced sense of scale, affords a critical explanatory framework for analyzing humans as sensors. This, in many ways, complicates human exceptionalism by recognizing, though not reducing, the category of human as it becomes ‘enroled’ as an object for neoliberal ends.

One relevant project out of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, YardMap, enlists users to map their backyards and other outdoor public spaces. From there, the project gives users “landscape details and . . . tools . . . to make better decisions about how to manage landscapes sustainably” and boasts a social media community “focused on sharing strategies, maps, and successes to build more bird habitat.”[4] Such project operations can be seen as neoliberal to a significant extent, and I will pick back up on this later. For now, more broadly, such projects can show what Anna Tsing discusses with fungi in arguing “human nature is an interspecies relationship.”[5] Beyond that, however, these communities also involve scaling technologies and nature on multiple levels: the individual, the device, the community, the software, the technological infrastructure, the specific local context, and the broader environment. Here, Tsing’s concepts of foraging and familiar places may prove helpful. Tsing contends that foraging works through making places familiar through regular visits. These familiar places serve as the beginning of appreciation for multi-species interaction, cultivating a sense that more that one species learns and works the land. Citizen science mapping projects, then, may forge familiar spaces toward such recognitions.

Privileged demographics, though, often comprise mapping communities. Psychogeography is often constituted and critiqued for its largely white, male, and affluent demographic.[6] Even OpenStreetMap, considered the most egalitarian dominant digital mapping interface, has a predominantly white and male community.[7] The typical whiteness of mapping groups, then, marks a privileged identity category assuming the privileged status of scientist in assessing the field of multispecies in bolstering the privileged category of the human. Conceptualizations of citizen as sensor may have important underlying racial ascriptions influencing citizen science mapping groups representing the nonhuman.

While Wendy Hui Kyong Chun conceptualizes mobilities in relation to the nonhuman as well, her discussion pertains to navigation and guidance through the media landscape of software. She argues that situating “[s]oftware as thing re-conceptualizes society, bodies, and memories in ways that both compromise and extend the subject.” She identifies that “interfaces– . . . as a means of navigation – have been key to creating ‘informed’ individuals who can overcome the chaos of global capitalism,” citing that governmentality promotes self-navigation. For Chun, this ties into the neoliberal fantasy of “the seemingly sovereign individual, the subject driven to know, driven to map, to zoom in and out, to manipulate, and to act. The dream is: the more that an individual knows, the better decisions he or she can make.”[8] Chun, in turn, elucidates how the guiding function of software matches broader neoliberal prerogatives. It instills a sense of control on the user’s part while simultaneously guiding and constraining possible user actions to a significant degree.[9] Here, too, the Quantified Self movement is notable; it brings responsibility wholly upon the individual, rather than environmental factors, for failures to meet certain standards. But this is also emblematic of broader trends towards increasingly personalized media economies as well. Chun underscores that “[b]y interacting with these interfaces, we are also mapped: data-driven machine learning algorithms process our collective data traces in order to discover underlying patterns.”[10]

Chun also shows how neoliberal the frame of citizen as sensor can be. The faith espoused in objectivity within such platforms implies the accessibility of more and better information across a range of involved actors would prompt better decision-making. Scaling, then, becomes critical here given that the view a scale affords (be it, by way of analogy, the god’s eye view of positivism or the situated knowledge of an STS or ethnographic perspective) becomes a knowledge claim in and of itself, one that, in these cases, emerges in the designers’ framing of each platform. What is so interesting about considering Chun’s work within the nonhuman turn is that it borrows so much from Foucauldian thought, particularly governmentality, within a turn often posited as a reaction to Foucault’s writing, perhaps one which is “post-Foucault.” Order emerges as an aspirational category out of the mess that constitutes the systems we study. Citizen as sensor, in scaling the underlying politics involved, masks a great deal of those politics, and has serious implications for the framing and “ordering” of what is being mapped.


[1] “Gardens of England; Quiet Places in the City; The Wilderness Act,” Travel With Rick Steves, retrieved from

[2] See Timothy Morton, “Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object Oriented Ontology,” Levi Bryant, “Wilderness Ontology,” in Preternatural, ed. by Celina Jeffery (Punctum Books, 2011), 19– 26.

[3] “What is Citizen Science Mapping,” Geo.Geo: Mapping Solutions for the Majority World,” retrieved from

[4] “About Us,” YardMap, retrieved from

[5] Anna Tsing, “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species,” retrieved from

[6] Andrea Zeffiro, “A Location of One’s Own: A Genealogy of Locative Media,” Convergence 18.3 (2012), 249.

[7] Chris Perkins, “Plotting Practices and Politics: (Im)mutable Narratives in OpenStreetMap,” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 2014.

[8] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions: Software and Memory, MIT Press, 2011, 8.

[9] Ibid, 8.

[10] Ibid, 9.

On Spatial Definitions (And How Pac-Man Enters In)

Due to some summer travel and quite a bit of summer reading in preparation for upcoming exams, I’ve been away from working on this site for some time. I have a bunch of ideas for topics moving forward, and I’ll start here by combining two ideas that I had for blog posts a while back: laying out unmuddled, accessible definitions of space, place, and location (the latter of which I’ve been thinking quite a bit about in my own research), and a recent example of Google Maps’ experiments gamifying space.

A space is a general milieu or context for activity. If I am speaking broadly about different activities or sites generally found in cities, I am speaking of urban space. If I see an empty storefront and wonder aloud what stores might be best to move in there, I am speculating on that space. A place, then, is a space with meaning. If an empty storefront becomes an Urban Outfitters, it has become a place because it is imbued with a meaning performed by those who come and go into the space.

Location, meanwhile, is something that I find much less discussed than space and place, but just as relevant in our rich media environment. Location, as I see it, is a particular position that an individual or a community holds that facilitates place-making – that is, imbuing the space with some sort of meaning. If a consumer receives an advertisement while using a smartphone for the Urban Outfitters store the consumer is about to pass, this is a location-based advertisement and fits with this definition of location. Or, if the Urban Outfitters moves into a bigger storefront a few blocks away, one is likely to speak of its old location and its new location. Both places, then, are now transformed by different contexts of consumer movement toward them (in other words, the store’s relocation).

Now, allow me to bring PacMan into the fold. A few months ago, a colleague of mine, knowing it would be relevant to my interests, sent me the news that Google Maps had taken up various spaces and turned them for a limited time into settings in which one could play PacMan on their interface. Given Google Maps’ previous instances of gaming space on its interface, I was hardly surprised. I was intrigued, however, by how this might tie in to critiques of popular mapping interfaces as simply navigating users through efficient routing to sites of consumption and sending them relevant ads accordingly based on geofencing. Consumption underpins PacMan’s own history; even aside from PacMan’s high status as an arcade game and its eat-or-be-eaten nature of play, its creator, Toru Iwatani, the character itself was based on a pizza. That underlying theme of consumption matches the consumer-driven thrust of Google Maps.

3673756798_2906d1e1d8_o_dIf all my examples thus far seem to appeal to consumption and the commodification of space and place, there’s a reason for that. One of the leading movements influencing how we conceptualize space and place, Situationism, is also tied to consumerist critiques of spectacle given its ties with Guy Debord. This, in turn, has been inflected as a popular mode of critique, particularly for those who study locative art and location-based media platforms.

That, of course, does not mean that my definition of location is restricted to such critiques, something I feel is worth developing given some of my previous research. In the little time I’ve even been in town this summer to go on-campus, I’ve encountered examples of my conceptualization in searching out library book locations (the place a particular book is that one must go to, transforming a shelf into where the place that one book is located) or in navigating on-campus research study locations – you go to the specified location at the chosen time, wherein that room becomes about a given study rather than the manifold other academic activities that likely occur in said room.

While these are more everyday examples, I’ve been driven in my current research pursuits to more fully flesh out what location means in relation to contemporary media in a way that can be portable for other disciplines whose work may involve looking at space and place. In my particular work, I’ve expanded my research to think more so through the nonhuman, state-managed geographies, and citizen science. These are areas that expand prior avenues of focus in situating these different definitions, and ones I hope to flesh out more on this site coming up.

Interface Theory and Cultural Technique

I last posted about extratextual scholarship, which is worth expounding upon here. The concept was not only fundamental to my reasoning behind starting the blog, but also a facet of academic work that I plan to continue highlighting here (particularly in relation to mapping platforms). As such, in this post, I want to think more specifically about the interface – its interpretive flexibility, its performative capacity, and, ideally, its iterative and dialogic nature.

Johanna Drucker writes on interface theory and specifies the theoretical trajectories from which she contends interface theory should borrow. She accomplishes this in part through her presentation of performative materiality. Within this concept, the operations of the system outweigh how it can be read structurally and critical interpretation is paramount to one’s analysis. It stresses, therefore, the imbrication of performative systems within broader cultural systems.

The role of the material in providing platforms facilitating oppositional readings of the ubiquitous is key to Drucker within performative materiality. Drucker often reiterates that the interface serves to facilitate performances, making certain readings, subject positions, and alternative projects possible. In this focus, Drucker positions performative materiality to demystify the context, labor, and production behind the very act of reading the interface.

In light of Drucker’s perspective, I thought it would be worth discussing Shannon Mattern’s Urban Media Archaeology class and its use of the Urban Research Toolkit. When considering the interface as a space of affordances as Drucker submits, it is notable how little trace there now is of the Urban Media Toolkit and how little the class projects based off it offer in terms of repeatable cultural technique. Here, I want to think through the mapping of both theory and the city as interfaces and the role that media archaeology plays in this mapping. Regarding the former,  the following from Drucker’s piece really resonated with me, in large part due to my research:

Cultural geographers, annoyed with the assumption that a map could represent a spatial experience, pushed for a non-representational approach that is particularly germane to virtual environments. The concept pushes attention squarely towards the codes and formal structures of those artifacts. This emphasizes the understanding that material forms create the mediating expressions that are transactional objects of meaning production. In such a framework, objects don’t represent, they perform.

The resistance against the solely representational in favor of the productive returns to a question I’ve asked at various points during my academic training: how useful is a visualization if its foundations are black-boxed and not open to further manipulation? Many of the Urban Media Archaeology projects, despite rightfully investigating cities and bodies of theories as modes of interface, seem more about making for the sake of making rather than actually putting production front and center, especially given the growing obsolescence of the technological platforms used in their interventions.

Regarding media archaeology, Drucker contends that media archaeology does not adequately portray the dynamism of the material and can reify different media forms as determinative of the discourses within which they become situated. In this sense, Jussi Parikka’s emphasis on using media archaeology toward investigations of making and the genealogies of theory remains intriguing yet becomes susceptible to the aforementioned forms. While these methods obviously lend themselves nicely to exploring the nature of cultural technique, I question how much they create a space of affordances within the interface for audiences to actually enact cultural technique. In other words, I am interested in the lack of dialogism facilitated within such projects.

My aim in identifying these tendencies is not to critique media archaeology per se, though one could rightfully question if media archaeology adequately addresses the questions of power that Foucault bases it on originally. Rather, I want to reinforce how right Drucker is to advocate a broad body of theory in approaching the interface. In concluding her essay with an invocation to emphasize production over product in critical interpretations of interfaces, Drucker recognizes various webs of cultural meanings and structures of interaction within interfaces. If artifacts of making are then structured as finalized projects rather than open and manipulable entry points into the production process and the circulation of cultural meanings, they undermine the potential for unforeseen avenues of interactivity and interpretation.

I’ll close with a quote from Conor McGarrigle, a theorist of locative art whose work I’ve been recently reviewing, on how he situates the nature of his own artistic interventions through technology: “Rather than producing works which are complete and finite, I am more interested in providing artistic tools and procedures which can be adopted, renegotiated and expanded on by their participants.” Such a stance recognizes the dialogism that technological interfaces afford without constricting the focus of a given project on the novelty of the technologies used. Work that is foregrounded by such philosophies becomes more about, as advocated previously, the poignancy of production rather than making for the sake of making.