Life Methods

Image: Alexander Andrews

Thursday 23rd February, 2017

Des Fitzgerald

Panic on the streets of Swansea

In May 2016, in its online ‘Cities’ section, the Guardian reported on a survey about the rate of panic attacks in a range of different UK cities. The article partly caught my eye because, according to the survey, South Wales (where I live!) is the most stressed-out conurbation in the country: in a table compiling the percentage of residents in each city, who reported a panic attack at least once a week, Swansea and Cardiff occupied numbers 1 and 3 respectively. What also caught my attention, though, was how the journalist wove a particular sort of relationship between city living and stress around this finding: ‘it’s no surprise,’ she suggested, ‘that urban environments can contribute to the onset of panic disorder. Noise, jostling crowds, treacherous and painfully slow-moving traffic, lack of green, open spaces, filthy pollution, high crime rates and living costs, and social anonymity are some of the factors city dwellers say make them uneasy’. The article goes on to describe how the brain then mediates these relationships: activity in the amygdala is associated with city stress; an increase in the acidity level in synapses around the amygdala associates with increased activity; and elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the air increase this acid. And so a chain of associations begins to emerge: stress and jostling in the urban milieu; competition; density; traffic; poor air quality; carbon dioxide; brain acidity; amygdala activity; panic.

But here was the most interesting thing of all: as I read on, it became apparent that this research was carried out by (or on behalf of) the manufacturers of a device aimed at reducing urban stress—called the ‘bcalm.’ The bcalm is a small, inhaler-like object, that works by giving the urban dweller a space to expel her potentially stress-causing CO2-laden breath, and to inhale, in exchange, air filtered by the device to have the CO2 level of ‘forest air’. The bad air of the city goes out; clean, pure, forest air comes in:

bcalm immediately lowers the CO2 level in your throat, meaning that your brain is sent a new message: it‘s okay again, let‘s relax.’ In effect, your air supply has been 'scrubbed' of high CO2...…You can now get on with enjoying your day, without worrying about having another episode – after all, you didn't have an episode. Bcalm stopped your panic developing further’.

What are we to make of a device like this? What can we say about its claims to knowledge and intervention? How should we think about the affective and physiological weight of urban life—including our capacity to get a hold of that weight—in a world where a device like the bcalm seems to potentially make a certain kind of neuropolitical and technosomatic sense?

At stake here is a longstanding but still (I think) poorly understand ethnographic object, which for the sake of convenience I’m going to call ‘urban stress.’ For the last couple of years, my collaborators and I have trying to think about urban stress, and how, both as a claim and an experience, it has come to matter across a range of scientific and historical practices. We’ve especially been trying to think through the history and present of research in urban ecology) the embodied stresses of urban experience, and the city as a space in which it seems (sometimes?) hard to disentangle an interior from an exterior, a citizen from her milieu, a brain from a street.

We’ve been doing that for its own sake, but also partly as a way of attending to the empirical practice of sociology itself, and its relationship to the technological and biological world in which it finds itself in the opening decades of the twenty-first century. We’ve been thinking (in affiliation with many others) about the potential for that relationship to be otherwise—which is also what draws me to the bcalm, and to the assemblage of materials, spaces, affects, bodies, interests, and capitals that inhabit it. At least, I am interested in how this otherwise unremarkable by-product of early twenty-first biocapital works—how it stages and switches a neuropolitics of urban pace, There are complex relays and exchanges here, between a sense of anxiety, a measure of carbon dioxide, a dream of a forest, a moment of breath, an acid in a synapse, a panic in Swansea… and so on.

As Nikolas Rose, Ilina Singh and I argued recently, the association between cities, stress, and mental health has been around since the late nineteenth century, and indeed contributed in important (and problematic) ways to the emergence of disciplines like psychiatric epidemiology and urban sociology in the first place. We have written about this history in, for example, the emergence of the Chicago School of sociology, and ‘ecological’ sociology more generally. We have been especially concerned with the form of lively sociology at stake in this history, and have been thinking about how such a form of inquiry may or may not get tracked through the present. It is that concern that makes me interested how the social come to matter in a device like the bcalm—a nagging sensation that there may be epistemological, as well as commercial and physiological, stakes in how it purports to get a hold of urban experience, as well as in how it proposes to transform it.

Life Methods

Of course, we are far from the first to worry about our grip on the social world, and especially to so worry in the midst of (to be simplistic about it) the set of digital, biological and other transformations with which many social lives are today entangled. In the last decade or so (certainly in the wake of the ‘empirical crisis’ diagnosed by Mike Savage and Roger Burrows in 2007), scholars have proposed different ways of approaching this question. Perhaps the most potent contribution came in a special monograph issue of The Sociological Review, ‘Live Methods,’ published in 2012, and edited by Les Back and Nirmal Puwar. ‘Live methods’, as Back and Puwar point out, is a response to a situation in which the volume and frequency of social information is increasing, even as sociological method finds it harder and harder to gain purchase on that information. Rather than simply proposing a set of new tools, however, live sociology offers a set of dispositions and orientations for the methodological present: these include a focus on collaborative research in real-time, speculative and collaborative design of new devices, coming up with new ways of performing sociological stories, becoming more attuned to the sensory world, remembering what being crafty might mean for sociology, and others.

In Les Back’s solo-authored contribution to the same volume, he outlines in more detail some of the ways in which sociologists are now confronted by a new reality—one that is non linear, emergent, processual, digital, and mobile. In the face of such developments, Back argues, the solution is not to tinker around the edges of method. Instead, and much more directly, we should accept that ‘there are some aspects of sociological practice that we need to bury’. Indeed, not only a burial, but first ‘an autopsy on dead sociology’ is called for – to eliminate practices that are ‘no longer vital’ to the sociological enterprise.

In the postmortem that follows, Back roots out what he calls ‘fossil facts,’ ‘lifeless conceptions,’ and ‘zombie concepts’. ‘Dead sociology’ he argues, is ‘objectifying, comfortable, disengaged and parochial,’ whereas what is needed is a ‘vital sociological future’ – which will be attained through an embodied multiplatform and multisensory openness to the mobilities of social life, as well a renewed attention to the craft (and especially the digital craft) through which that life gets registered (for reasons of space, I am eliding here much of the detail and richness of Back’s proposal). The point is thus ‘how to account for the social world without assassinating the life contained within it’. And centrally at stake in such an accounting are ‘vital texts,’ which will not only help us to bring sociology to life, but actually help sociologists both ‘to live and sustain the life of things’.

There are many things that might be taken from this self-consciously provocative proposal, as well as the important essays that come after it. And if I am riding roughshod over much of the subtlety here, I want to stress that I think Back’s diagnosis about the intensely stultifying nature of much sociological work, and especially the relationship of his diagnosis to the preferences of high-prestige journals, is surely right. But what I want to draw attention to here is something different, and this is the discursive register in which this vision of the future takes place, especially the relationship of that register to processes of living and dying. Fossils. Zombies. Autopsies. Burials. Organic intellectuals. Vital texts. Lively things. An impetus for ‘assassination.’ A desire ‘to live.’

What can we say about the stakes of such a vocabulary? At least it seems to me that two important questions follow: (1) How is it that the most pressing empirical problem in sociology, in a moment of transformation and crisis, turns out to be, at the same time, a question of life? (2) Why is it that the image of life intended to underwrite a reanimation of the present nonetheless seems so peculiarly… lifeless. Because it is striking to me that a ‘live sociology’ is not a sociology of flesh and blood. That it involves organic intellectuals, but no organic subjects. That it draws on sensory methods, but not biological ones. That there are well-laid plans for autopsies and burials–yet none for measuring vital signs. As Elizabeth Wilson points out: we have lately learned to be astute about ‘the body’ in social and cultural theory. And yet we remain somewhat willfully ignorant about anatomy.

When I call attention to a certain kind of ‘lifelessness’ in this text, I don't mean this as any kind of aesthetic judgement— I mean to say only that ‘life,’ in this literature, seems to be taken as determinate, and as binary, and thus as an object of adjudication. Which is to say, if I may add my own interpretive gloss, that sociology somehow must be dead or alive; that it has a future or it doesn’t; that existence is sustained or quenched; that concepts are vital or fossilized, that the future is digital or analogue, that ‘knowing capitalism’ will put us out of work or make us rich; that we are all, finally, silicon or carbon, possible or impossible, buried or resurrected; incorporated or zombified. This is what the image of life is doing here: not only adjudicating the future, but doing via reference only to the conventionally organic binaries and taxonomies of the recent past.

What was sociology?

As the anthropologist Stefan Helmreich reminds in his paper, ‘What was life?’, the theoretical object of biology—life—has itself become unmoored in recent years. Which is not to say that concept of life has dissolved into nothingness, but is rather a recognition that research exploring the limits of life—research pursuing what Helmreich calls ‘limit biologies’—has begun to push at the edges of what we think it could actually mean (or what it could come to mean) to be alive.

By limit biologies, Helmreich means research in areas like astrobiology (the search for biological traces beyond earth), oceanic microbiology (the study of deep ocean microbial life) or the pursuit of artificial life (the practice of modelling biological life in digital space). What distinguishes these research-areas, for Helmreich, is that that push on the edges of what biologists think might be possible for sustaining vitality—that they are practices ‘in which “life” is conceptually stretched to a limit calibrated to uncertainties about what kinds of sociocultural forms of life biology might now anchor’. At such limits, it is not simply that we find either living things or only dead ones. It’s that what we come into contact with, what we encounter, and measure, and parse, and model actually contains the possibility of expanding our account of what life might mean in the first place.

What could such a notion of limit do for us in the social sciences? Is is too soon (or too morbid) to ask: what was sociology? If it is not (and i think maybe it is not), where might we then seek analogously sociological edge-practices—by which I mean practices exploring, and pushing on, the limits of what we can safely call ‘social’ in the first place. To once again invoke Elizabeth Wilson: might it be possible to seek out the social, as a vital (and even a biological) agency, but to do so while expanding, rather than contracting, the present moment of transformation? What would it mean to think the material present of sociology as a question of life – but to do so in the absence of a convention that takes biological data, and biological concepts, to be ontologically determinate. What would it mean to think in a lively methodological way, if ‘life’ was not already a limiting factor in advance?

To be clear: I think that Les Back, Nirmal Puwar, and their colleagues, diagnosed the situation totally correctly when they figured the current ‘crisis’ in sociological methods as a question of living, of liveliness, of life. I think they are surely right, too, in their instance that a plurality of methodological dispositions are underwritten by this recognition—that there is no method, tool, or device (digital, biological or otherwise) that is going to instantly get a hold on the informational complexities of the present. What I am trying to do, as a (belated) contribution to that proposal, is is to take the life in live methods seriously. I am trying to think about what a transformational methodological disposition for sociology, could look like if it was not only lively but explicitly lifely too.

Of course ‘the social, as we have come to know it in sociology, has many genealogies. Perhaps the best known is Jacques Donzelot’s account of the emergence of a circumscribed space of the social, at a specific moment in the history of the third French Republic. For Donzelot, social right, social solidarity, and social responsibility, are how that state broke the moral claims of capital and labour—how it re-calibrated a classical debate of right as a technocratic and (thus) modern dispute between welfare and economy. Of course, I don’t want to over-generalize from one fairly provincial French case. But Donzelot reminds us that, so far as the empirical practice of sociology goes, ‘society’ and ‘the social,’ no less than that much deconstructed object, ‘life,’ might be only placeholders, or temporary stops—stops, indeed, that are now in the midst of a material, digital, and biological mutation.

I also think that this is what sits at the root of sociology’s ‘empirical crisis’ (in passing: I think crisis is not at all the right word for this moment)—just as with the work of the astrobiologists described by Stefan Helmreich, we are starting to reach not only the limit of this theoretical object, ‘the social,’ but beginning to get a sense of how we might push at the edges of that limit, extend it, even look for agencies beyond it. Might we not say then, and by way of analogy with the limit biologies described by Stefan Helmreich, that these dilemmas might spark the emergence of limit sociologies—empirical procedures that actively expand the ontological terrain that they themselves are working on.

To wonder how live methods might become life methods too is my methodological guide to this limit. Carbon dioxide might be important for a life-methodological approach to the stresses of city life. So too brain synapses and their acid levels. So too forests and trees. And so too, for what's worth the wider nexus of bio-political and bio-proprietorial objects that are beginning to populate and lay claim on these kinds of spaces (see Hinterberger and Porter). Certainly there are risks—political and epistemological—to such an approach. But the challenge, as Donna Haraway puts it in her recent Staying With The Trouble, is to ‘become more ontologically inventive and sensible within the bumptious holobiome that earth turns out to be'. I think Haraway is surely right about what need to happen, methodologically, My question is about whether a pivot from lively to lifely forms of attention might not be an important step for such an act of sociological invention.

Des Fitzgerald is Lecturer in Sociology at Cardiff University. He tweets at @Des_Fitzgerald.

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