continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 5.2 / 2016: 48-52

Mark Hansen

a continent. inter-view

(image by Nina Jäger, continent.)

Mark Hansen is professor of Literature and Visual Studies at Duke University. His work is fundamentally and quintessentially interdisciplinary, traversing interests in literary studies, film, media, sensing systems, classical and continental philosophy, science studies, and cognitive neuroscience. His primary concern in invoking these interdisciplinary perspectives is to look at the effects of technology, human agency and social life on one another. Exploring the relentless technological exteriorization that characterizes the human as a form of life on this planet, Hansen’s research pays particular attention to the key role played by visual art, literature, and cultural techniques in brokering individual and collective adaptations to specific technologies, and technology at large, from the industrial revolution to the digital revolution. His monographs include Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing (University of Michigan Press, 2000), New Philosophy for New Media (MIT Press, 2003), and Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (Routledge, 2006). He has published essays on technology in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Deleuze and Guattari’s biophilosophy, the viral in William Burroughs, Char Davies’s virtual reality environments, Robert Lazzarini’s skulls, ‘post-photographic’ digital installations, Deleuze’s reading of Foucault’s ‘Superman,’ the convergence of body and space in contemporary architectural practice and theory, and the correlation of information and meaning in contemporary media theory. Hansen argues for the potential of new media technologies and practices to overcome the performative nature of cultural identity, former philosophical divisions between epistemology and ontology, revealing and potentially manumitting the corporeal body as an “instrument of capitalist semiotics.”[1] How did you get here?
MH: I was eating a late lunch and this guy named Jamie Allen tapped me on the shoulder (laughter in the room) I was invited by Bernard Geoghegan, I am sure in conjunction with the HKW staff, to come and give a couple of talks at this event, and I flew here on an airplane. And then, actually, I spent a lot of time on an airplane because I missed two connections. What technical systems are operating on us right now?
MH: A microphone operating on us.... A microphone is ‘operating on me right now. Certainly there are waves and stuff going through this room, and they are probably operating on us right now. That's what I'll point to: the air. What pieces of the technosphere do you have on you?
MH: I think everything on me is a piece of the technosphere. The easiest answer would be the phone in my pocket; but all of my clothing, me, my body.[2] The core of Peter Haffs argument about the technosphere is that it is a systematic process that is operating on a level of complexity certainly higher than ourshumans and human perception and so onand implicated in it in complex ways that make it difficult to respond in simple ways.[3] As a human being I'm implicated in the technosphere, for sure. What is the technosphere?
MH: I am committed to the idea that humans have been technical since we evolved in conjunction with the development of tools and language, and the means of transmission of our knowledge, and I think that if one broadens that beyond the human[4], the technosphere is not simply the introduction of simple technologies, but I would say it is part of the process of cosmological evolution.[5] So I wouldn't say "waves", or "air", but it's a dimension, and an element of the cosmos that's been there all along.[6] I would take it in the big picture. Please pick one image that resonates with your idea of the technosphere.[7]
MH: I am going to go with the fridge with food in it. Why? Because of the relationship between humans and food, and all of the things that have to be done to make food, express something about the complex mediations between natural resources and life. Notes

[1] Mark B.N. Hansen. New Philosophy for New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004), 130.

[2] EDITORS’ NOTE: The body, as an expression of the technosphere, is systematised to determine the extent of agency for its particular form. In his discussion on the digitalisation of identity, Mark Hansen writes on the performativity of the abject body in digital environments where it may be possible to express identity through a “prosthetic” self that is idealised as being outside of, for instance, racialised identity. Hansen explores the potential of a “universality of address”:

“If we all must imitate cultural images of how particular bodies should appear in order to acquire agency  if we must give up our own singular bodily experiences to occupy a constituted textual body - then we all must live the erasure of our lived bodies. We might say then that what is most significant about the transcendence of visibility in on-line interpellation is less the possibility it affords for new modes of represented agency than its exposure of the violence exerted on bodily life by generic categories of social intelligibility. By severing imitation from visual appearance on-line passing allows cultural signifiers to appear as what they are, social codings that have no natural correlation to any particular body and are profoundly reductive of bodily singularity.” Mark B.N. Hansen. “Digitizing the Racialized Body or The Politics of Universal AddressSubStance 33, no. 2 (2004): 114.

While recognising the contamination of this “prosthetic” self by the violence of social systems to which the corporeal body is bound—and the reality of digital environments being shaped by hegemonic, often racialised mechanisms—Hansen considers the potential for subverting these same constructs through imitation, or modulation of visibility inherent in human-computer interfaces (HCI), specifically the digital-facial image (DFI):

“As the catalyst for a dynamic re-embodiment of the interface, the DFI reverses precisely this process of facialization that, we can now see, comprises the very principle of the HCI as an instrument of capitalist semiotics. In the experience of the DFI, that is, the face becomes the catalyst for a reinvestment of the body as the rich source for meaning and the precondition for communication. The DFI thus forms the very vehicle of contact between our bodies and the domain of information that would otherwise remain largely without relation to us.” Mark B.N. Hansen. “Affect as Medium, or the ‘Digital-Facial-Image’” Journal of Visual Culture 2, no. 2 (2003): 208.

[3] “The promise of digital interactivity is its capacity to bring into correlation these two distinct virtualities: new media artworks facilitate interaction with virtual dimensions of the technosphere precisely in order to stimulate a virtualization of the body. By placing the body into interactive coupling with technically expanded virtual domains, such works not only extend perception (i.e. the body’s virtual action); more important still, they catalyze the production of new affects—or better, new affective relations (Simondon, 1989)—that virtualize contracted habits and rhythms of the body. For this reason, virtualization can be said to specify the virtual dimension constitutive of human experience.” Mark B.N. Hansen, ibid. 217-218.

[4] EDITORS’ NOTE: Afropessimist thought makes a critical distinction between the limits of humanness in frameworks across ethics and ontology—and this expression through digital identity and activism—recognising the body as captive to negation through word as through skin. Calvin Warren argues that the possibility for an autonomous existence of a black self is negated in existing ethical frameworks, but also by the seemingly allied anti-oppressive discourse of queer theory. Queer theory, Warren explains, provides a language with which to express the anguish of this negation of blackness, but it retains a cosmology of othering. This ontological limitation of the human entraps blackness, especially black queerness, into “a body without the flesh,” where it may be desired, but is denied its own desire. That-which-is-human is the essential expression of violence, and humanist, rational frameworks are insufficient to address this violence:

“The violence that constitutes the human and produces suffering is sustained through an ontological antagonism. The boundaries of the human are shored-up by this antagonism and without it, the human, and the world within which it lives, would cease to exist. The non-ontology of blackness secures the boundaries of the human; it delimits the coordinates of the human. Blackness is an exclusion that enables ontology. In its exclusion from the realm of ontology, blackness is unthinkable, innominate, and paradoxical. In essence, blackness exists to not exist—it embodies the most perplexing paradox that sustains ontology.” Calvin Warren. "Onticide: Afropessimism, Queer Theory, & Ethics" Ill Will Editions, 2015: 6-7.

In a parallel examination of Afropessimism, K. Aarons addresses this ontological dissonance in anti-capitalist, feminist, and queer revolutionary theory, where each discourse is “speaking in a voice that precisely draws its signifying power from Black nihilation. Black and non-Black identity politicians who nonetheless continue to pursue a symbolic valorization of Black life (e.g. in certain currents of the “Black Lives Matter” movement) do so only provided they ‘structurally adjust’ or whiten the grammar of Black suffering to suit a Human grammar. In this way, rather than seeking a way out of the desert, they in fact only deepen it.” K. Aarons. "No Selves to Abolish: Afropessimism, Anti-Politics, and the End of the World" Ill Will Editions (2016): 13. [See also: Lucy Suchman, responsibility in networked infrastructures, theories of power.]

In “Digitizing the Racialised Body,” Hansen recognises the complication of the abject body as it is expressed across digital interfaces, but experimental forms of new media “suggest, precisely because and insofar as they facilitate this belonging to the improper, this process of forging the "whatever body”, and a “reinvestment of the body beyond the image, for an exposure of the rootedness of life in a source, affectivity, that lies beyond identity and individuality and thus beyond the reach of commodification.”

As we see across the discourse around networks and their infrastructures, it is not only language and its contained cosmologies that exhumes colonial violence on the racialised body, but the trauma of racialisation is made manifest in the structural and geographic systems that constitute these networks. In the case of Hansen and Suchman, whose research examines identity creation and expression through digital interfaces, a material violence bursts through the ‘invisible’ [inter]faces of “prosthetic” identities.

Hansen writes,

“Because race has always been plagued by a certain disembodiment (the fact that race, unlike gender, is so clearly a construction, since racial traits are not reducible to organic, i.e., genetic, organization), it will prove especially useful for exposing the limitations of the internet as a new machinic assemblage for producing selves. For this reason, deploying the lens of race to develop our thinking about online identification will help us to exploit the potential offered by the new media for experiencing community beyond identity.” Mark B.N. Hansen, ibid. 108. [See also: Michael O’Rourke. “Afterlives of Queer Theorycontinent. 1, no. 2 (2011): 102–116; and Mushon Zer-Aviv in this issue on the material violence of digital interfaces].

[5] Bruno Latour writes how the “Political representation of nonhumans seems not only plausible now, but necessary when the notion would have seemed ludicrous or indecent not long ago. We used to deride […] peoples who imagined that a disorder in society, a Pollution, could threaten the natural order. We no longer laugh so heartily, as we abstain from using aerosols for fear the sky may fall on our heads.” Bruno Latour. “On Technical Mediation: Philosophy, Sociology, GenealogyCommon Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 55.

[6] EDITORS’ NOTE: Such a rhetoric of interconnectivity and “revealing force” is especially significant to Indigenous cosmologies that assume as foundational the co-evolution, interdependence, and complex mutual-implication of matter. Romola Vasantha Thumbadoo describes this entanglement as “spanning time and place in non-linear, integrated and emergent ways, reflecting the energy of ontogenesis and becoming.” Thumbadoo further writes on “the contemplation of the Indigenous assessment of technology” through the legacy of Algonquin Elder William Commanda, and the teachings of the Wampum Belts. Revitalising the rhetoric of indigeneity into contemporary political discourse emphasises the urgency of recognising the “ontology of relationship with the living Earth as compared to the headlong rush to technology and mechanism.” Romola Vasantha Thumbadoo. “A Circle of All Nations: Reflection on George Grant’s Lament for a Nation.” (ca. 2015).

“This might entail embracing the shifting relationality, complexity and circularity of Indigenous knowledge as productive and necessary. The situatedness and place-specific nature of Indigenous knowledge calls for the validation of new kinds of theorizing and new epistemologies that can account for situated, relational Indigenous knowledge and yet remain engaged with broader theoretical debates within geography. There is a danger in ghettoizing Indigenous geographic knowledge as ‘other’ or a curiosity, rather than engaging this knowledge in broader efforts to actively decolonize geography, navigating among differing power relations at the scales of both the individual academic and the broader discipline.” Sarah Hunt. “Ontologies of Indigeneity: The Politics of Embodying a ConceptCultural Geographies 21, no. 1 (2014): 27–32. [See also: Marisol de la Cadena on indigenous Peruvian rhetoric of resistance (Scott Knowles, fn 1).]

[7] EDITORS’ NOTE: During the discussions, interviewees were asked to pick from a set of somewhat random images. This collection of different phenomena served as a prompt for thought on the forms of appearance and the visuality of the technosphere. You can view the set here The discussion here refers to