post/past threading an echo: affect theory presentation

I’ve wanted to share the paper I delivered at the Affect Theory Conference in October for some time now. I had the idea to record audio for the entirety of the paper; something doesn’t seem quite right that it’s disembodied from voice and body and delivery…but that would be a long recording. I don’t know if it was the death of David Bowie this week, or finishing Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and being hellbent on this idea of mourning writing or writing mourning, or if it’s because it’s the year anniversary of finding out about my mother’s diagnosis, or that in wearing this old denim shirt of hers with the sleeves rolled up that the backs of my hands look a lot like her hands before she started working in the factory [warehouse]. Whatever the reason, today feels like the day.

[end of audio]

instruments of intensity

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Hello. My name is Jana Rosinski and I’m a doctoral student at Syracuse University in the Composition & Cultural Rhetoric Program. This project is part of a larger constellation of work that takes interest in developing practices of reading for affective patterning and representing data as sensory shimmers made accessible and affectable by dynamic visualizations. I want to explore how quantitative instruments help rhetoricians understand something as complex as affect of a text by capturing/constructing attention.

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This is a shimmer, a capturing of my attention as I tried/try to work in between data of an individual body, that of my mother’s with cancer, and the broader experience of ovarian cancer in the bodies, discourses, and environments it exists within. It is labor to make representable two sets of data: that collected from differentiated reading methods, particularly sentiment analysis, and that gathered and annotated as experiential. Outside from my own experience, but not without it, I am working toward a techne of affective reading that is both conventionally quantitative and qualitative—not one or the other.

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Techne cannot be reduced to any kind of action or practical performance that results in a product; it is knowledge that provides an opening through which the being of a work can come into appearance in a world. My field of rhetoric and composition is embracing computer assisted differentiated reading methods and data visualization as possibilities to transform the study of textuality and writing, but I am interested in the development of not just a perhaps a modeling of but a modeling for. In ​S/Z​, Roland Barthes describes a textuality where

the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one… (5)

There is no exterior to the text but that the text itself doesn’t form a whole. The text is not an object that we approach (or produce) from the outside; it is already a part of our ecology, and our engagement emerges regardless of any conscious action on our part. Our texts are extra-textual; ecological, emergent, affective. But often our depictions of them through visualization cannot grasp the “thicket[s] of connections between vague yet forceful and affecting elements”. What would it mean to see knowledge/scholarship as shimmers? Not as subject or object but as event? From Brian Massumi, the dynamic form of the event is perceptually felt, not so much “ in ”vision as with vision or through vision: but as a vision-effect. It is a lived abstraction: a virtual vision of the shape of the event, including in its arc the unseen dimensions of its immediate past and immediate future. The lived abstraction of the event is an amodal perception—a space that enfolds both qualitative and quantitative ways of knowing.

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In Graphesis, a work by Johanna Drucker that works to articulate the creation of visualizations of data in humanities research, Drucker explains that how we know what we know about any given concept, is based on our models of knowing—our models, our visuals, “mediate our experience by providing conceptual schema or processing experience into form” (15). I think this is a provocative and durable statement to hold on to because it both captures the essence of intrigue in the work—the desire to look at something differently to look for things we have not yet seen—as well as the relationship between how we represent data as visual constructions of patterns that exist within the texts we care for and research from.

Drucker compares data versus capta explaining that capta is “taken” actively while data is assumed to be a “given” that is able to be recorded and observed. The difference Drucker sees arising is that humanistic inquiry acknowledges that its knowledge is “situated, partial, and constitutive”—this is the recognition of knowledge as a construction, “not simply given as a natural representation of pre-existing fact” (“Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display”). Drucker calls for a rethinking of data as capta that better expresses its ambiguity over certainty—which gets at what she describes as interpretative complexity. Drucker calls for data that shimmers.

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In the introduction to The Affect Theory Reader— An Inventory of Shimmers”— Gregory J. Seigworth (Seag-worth) and Melissa Gregg explain that there is no “originary state” for affect; instead it arises “in-between-ness” in the capacities to act and to be acted upon in a perpetual “becoming”. Affect theory is a matter of composing as unfolding; or as Seigworth and Gregg describe it, an inventory of shimmers.


A shimmer can be seen, but how can affect be made seen? How can affect be captured?

data visualization constructed not as representation (data: given) but as capta—a partial look, a shimmer experience of acting on and being acted on

What is the affective residue of a text? I draw from the forms and intensities of others to construct a means of seeing affect. As a technique, Byron Hawk’s post-techne allows for the seeing through constellations of relations, often as inventio fitting specific occasions. It’s affectively attuned to kairos, ambience, and emergence to compose in the perpetual becoming. Shimmers like flashes remind me Roland Barthes’ punctum from Camera Lucida; his exploration of a new science for every object, a mathesis singularis. Barthes explained that part of what he was after was a way to articulate something beyond language, a project that embodied his “desperate resistance to any reductive system” (8). Barthes questioned how to work in the space between two languages—one critical and the other expressive— ultimately agreeing to compromise with a power—affect; saying “affect was what I didn’t want to reduce; being irreducible, it was thereby what I wanted, what I ought to reduce the Photograph to; but could I retain an affective intentionality, a view of the object which was immediately steeped in desire, repulsion, nostalgia, euphoria?” A necessary but difficult implication of textuality, for Barthes, was that there is no exterior to the text but that the text itself doesn’t form a whole. I tried applying Barthes’ affect—an in-between-ness of critical and expressive language—as practice for reading texts affectively.

In January this year, I found myself in between critical and expressive language as I struggled to read and write about ovarian cancer.

visualizations of disease: data embodied // January 26, 2015

As someone interested in visualizations of information and composing image texts, I have been thinking about what I would create to illustrate (make visible) the cancer that consumed/s the women in my family. It seems morbid, or at least uncomfortable, to want to depict the disease without emphasizing narratives of overcoming or resilience, that letting it be seen as it is disembodies the bodies that have nurtured it. I have watched videos of surgeries on women that exist only as torsos or of cartoon monster cells sneaking throughout the body, and images that are illustrations of tumors forcing tissue into distorted asymmetries and photographs that look like alien fruit. I can see my own diagnosis as typeface and an exercise of balance and white space on the page, as calendar tickmarks taking inventory of days and anomalies in patterns of pain, and as Rorschach bloodblots that I am too fearful to interpret. I could show my family tree with attention drawn to deep bark carved, extending back, to the bough my mother and I share. I could show each type of cancer with its corresponding woman/body: breast ___________, ovarian _____________, uterine ______________, cervical _________________. Not to forget the nodal tissues connected to these networks of disease as they thrived and spread: pectoralis major, kidney, colon, liver, fallopian tubes—trace the intra-actions. I could create charts that depict the age of diagnosis, comparisons of treatment undergone, or the duration of the disease. Or perhaps an archive of the women (of which I am living materiality), or poems and paintings of the affective dimensions of the rhetorics of silence and pain and disembodiment. Of strength and resilience. Or faces of women I love.

That was a blog post I wrote a few weeks after finding out my mother had stage four ovarian cancer. I’m not sure there’s a method to researching living with a loved one living with this disease, but over the spring and summer I collected hundreds of pages of data about ovarian cancer in sites and materials found and spaces and materials lived. There were first hand accounts and observations; images and writings from myself and my father and mother; scraps from texts from the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, World Ovarian Cancer Day, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Susan Gubar’s Living With Cancer New York Times blog, and from the wellness interface my parents used to manage my mother’s information at the University of Michigan Hospital where she was treated. I tried to match my feelings of dis/embodiment with close and distant methods of reading ovarian cancer: through situating myself within sensory ethnography from Sarah Pink and unfolding texts through sentiment analysis. Through enfolding quantitative and qualitative data to express cancer.

My understanding of cancer was constructed culturally through stories of overcoming: triumphant, brilliant, radiant. There aren’t those kinds of stories for ovarian cancer; seventy percent of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are already at stage three or four. Beyond early detection in the first stage, there is no #SURVIVOR for the disease. Stage four ovarian cancer in my mother was visiting my childhood bedroom now a supply closet of every bandage, gauze, sterile glove, and size of cotton swab. The harsh contrast between the 50s peach bathroom tile and the hospital grade shower/bath stool protruding out of the tub. A three-tiered metal cart in the living room littered with near fifty prescription bottles where the coffee table used to be. Cancer in my mother was embodied, it was becoming in her body unfolded.

In The Power at the End of the Economy, Brian Massumi provides an understanding of body and bodying that is able to unfold between critical and expressive language. From Spinoza, Massumi describes a body as what it can do as it goes along, constantly changing as it affects and is affected. The body is one with its transitions—there is no body, but continuous bodying that presents itself as intensities. What I worked to capture were moments that captured me.

trying to communicate through sensory ethnography

In Sarah Pink’s Doing Sensory Ethnography, Pink outlines a process of sensory ethnography (rethinking ethnography through the senses, sensory ethnography in practice, interpreting and representing sensory knowing) that accounts for how multisensory experience, perception, knowing, and practice are integral to the lives of people who participate in research and how ethnography is practiced (1). While reading this book, I was struck by the beauty of the method Pink espoused. She explains:

Ethnographic places are the places that we make when communicating about our research to others. Whatever medium is involved, ethnographic representation involves the combining, connecting and interweaving of theory, experience, reflection, discourse memory and imagination. It has a material and sensorial presence…it can never be understood without accounting for how its meanings are constituted in relation to readers and audiences through their participation (42)

She sets up a sensory subjectivity and inter-subjectivity (53-56) that requires a researcher to reflect on their role in the production of ethnographic knowledge (sensitive to the contingency of identity in relation to environment). If identity is continually negotiated through intersubjective relations with material and sensory environments, it is too negotiated through sensory relationships with and between participants. The method/ology is multisensorality in its interconnectedness of the senses and their relationship to perception; is work of imagination or collective practice for collective memory carried out in social and material relations; and is self-reflexive in that it is ethnography that is also autoethnography.

Sensory ethnography allows for emplacement, Pink’s combination of space and place, that extends beyond limits of body-mind relationship (from embodiment) to attune to the sensuous relationship between mind-body-environment. I wanted to know how I there at home and I here at school was present and removed, coping and supporting, understanding and refusing. I took inventory of shimmers: texts about what my mother was able to eat; lists of medication times; photos of the hospital room mise en scene; maps that tracked my meditative afternoon walks like unraveled yarn knotted.

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I collected food tray items and object markers on slow walks, group message threads, and litanies: tropical atrium, leukocyte count, box of chocolate, Müllerian adenocarcinoma, “mom sends a big kiss”, epithelial tissue, “her spirit is high”, subcutaneous drain. At the same time I gathered narratives of diagnosis, clinical texts of symptoms and treatments, and tweets from World Ovarian Cancer Day and Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month from bodies not my mothers, but enfolded in cancer.

measuring sensory, measuring sentiment 

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Here are two (one read as negative and the other of the most re-tweeted tweets from the World Ovarian Cancer Day account:

  • negative: @OvarianCancerDY: How many voices does it take to raise awareness about ovarian cancer on #WorldOvarianCancerDay? Just one. Yours.
  • positive: @OvarianCancerDY: Submit your #unbreakblebond pictures with the women you love

The designation of positive and negative comes from a sentiment analysis program.

In the positive tweet, the use of the word love signifies “positive” feeling, even though many of the photos tweeted with the hashtag #unbreakable bond are of women who have died from the disease. I puzzle over the negative wondering what signifies a “negative” feeling. None of the negative tweet results explain what semantic features indicate the tweet as negative like they do for the positive tweet. Something like World Ovarian Cancer Day uses many negative terms, like “disease”, but as I skimmed the tweets, I wondered how the program read positive affirmations that use question marks; the frequent use of “NOT” as an affirmative declaration (as in “here’s an easy way to make sure ovarian cancer is NOT the most overlooked cancer”), and just the word cancer itself; and how might be able to better parse through personal narrative accounts from organization informative statements.

The program cannot parse through the semantic elements differently though. The tweets cannot be taken as given sentiment of positive or negative accounts of ovarian cancer. Nor can my personal account/archive. But both are sets of data, each with the capacity to capture experience and the captivation and addition of other people, spaces, purposes. They oscillate between cancer discourse of critical and expressive accounts; and of the cultural stadium and the personally wounding punctum. They provide space in their in-between-ness for the interpretation as performative, bringing objects/bodies into view through reading or other acts of intervention/intra-action, foreclosing the possibility that autonomous objects or phenomena exist within the horizon of human experience. Phenomena of human experience are constituted as interpretative acts. Our representation and access to data has to match in intensity in its collection, annotation, and representation.

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