The Revenge of the Still

David Bissell, Gillian Fuller

Abstract


Who would have thought so much activity and noise over stillness? According to the contributors of this issue of M/C Journal 'still' as phenomenon, state, pause, symbolic field or geopolitical struggle fizzes, vibrates and resonates. It hums; it makes one vulnerable; it draws one into the world differently and it accesses new agencies and movement. Or not. Such is the complexity of the topologies/ecologies and economies (in every sense of the word) of still. For us and our contributors, still is an intriguing theoretical figure that media-mobility-cultural studies and indeed, the world should attend to more closely, more slowly. Now is the time for what Andrew Murphie has called, "the revenge of the still". 

This collection is positioned within a world that has increasingly come to be understood through the theoretical and conceptual lens of animation. There are multiple overlapping antecedents to this, criss-crossing the humanities and social sciences. Metaphors of movement, from Manuel Castells’ space of flows to Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid modernity underpin much work within the ‘new mobilities paradigm’ (Sheller and Urry) that is interested in understanding the world through relations of movement and flux. Moving away from a sedentary metaphysics of being-in-the-world, burgeoning mobilities research illustrates a commitment to exploring the differentiated dynamics of a world increasingly characterised by networks of corporeal, virtual and imaginative mobilities. In a different but related vein, the ‘affective turn’ (Clough and Halley) has generated new ways of attending to the relations between bodies, technology and matter, through a renewed ontological focus on the pre-individual bodily forces that constitute life. Attending to the excessiveness of affect, matter is increasingly apprehended as processual, turbulent and fluid. Indeed it is through a sense of liveliness and energy within which worldly dwelling is increasingly conceptualised. 

Against this buzz of mobility and animation, a topology of stillness haunts the space of flows. Indeed mobility scholars have increasingly recognised the importance of considering the relational dialectic of mobilities and immobilities; or 'mobilities and moorings' to use John Urry's phrase; understanding how these relations are central, not only to the functioning of mobility systems, but how they have the capacity to generate the systematic inequalities that are such a significant (and indeed integral) part of such systems. Yet we want to suggest that to focus on such a dialectic of stasis and movement neglects other registers and modalities which still inhabits, where still emerges through other configurations of matter which are not necessarily reducible to the dialectic of mobility and immobility. What happens if we think stillness not only as rhythm, but also as technic or trope? As attunement or perception? As such, each paper in this collection attends to still through a range of different grammars and vocabularies; illuminating the multiplicity of ontological and epistemological registers through which still moves.

For some in this collection, still emerges as a site of political and ethical potential. For Emma Cocker, the significance of collective acts of still have the capacity to augment the affectual capacity of the body. Here, experimental practices of still in the city constitute events of resistance that disrupt habitual modalities of inhabiting the city, producing fissures within which new lines of flight can emerge. Such deliberative attunement through collective practices of still produces an affirmative model of subjectivity; a challenge to the choking assemblages of governance that stratify bodies. Similarly, for Natalia Radwyl, the body’s affective intensities are enhanced and augmented through still. Still here works as a reflexive figure, serving to focus attention on how we are conditioned and desensitised by habitual rhythms of the everyday. In a rather different context, Sebastian Abrahamsson’s discussion of the still of Gunther van Hagen's plastinates also highlights how still enacts a mode of resistance, in this instance to the temporal organisational logics of modernity. Such an affirmative vitalism works to emphasise the presencing tendencies of still; how still enables bodies to become aware of the otherwise imperceptible rhythms, materialities and intensities that are more often than not subsumed beneath the hallucinatory effects of the dizzying flux of contemporary flows. 

We might consider this still as attunement where still provides the necessary conditions under which productive, focused activity can emerge. Greg Noble and Megan Watkins emphasise how such attunement in educational settings might be achieved through a particular set of corporeal postures characterised by still. Still here generates a more receptive body, enhancing a disposition towards learning. In a radically different context, Peter Adey describes how still functioned to prime the body in a variety of different ways during the air raids of World War II. Here the development of anticipatory structures of feeling through still formed part of a strategy of affectual management where achieving still was a means of survival. 

Others in this collection illustrate the problematics of aligning still with such affirmative presencing; the calling into being of a body. Paul Harrison considers the nature of agency and determination through an exploration of gestures of ‘suspension’, ‘decline’ and ‘remaining aside’. In the absence of wilful or effective action, where resolution is suspended, we are forced to rethink the morality of action and the persistent ‘telos of the political’ that is often assumed to inhabit action. For Harrison, far from constituting resignation or failure, this suspension of meaning and value in ‘remaining still’ exists as a condition of political possibility.

Debbie Lisle too points to the radical incommensurability of still, where meaning stutters and fails. Her discussion of the still of photographic images thus problematises the assumption of the role of media to generate and transmit meaning. In a similar non-relational vein, J.-D. Dewsbury also problematises the assumption of a reflexive, intentional body, arguing that still invites us to consider the ‘neutral presence of life itself’. This is not the surrender to still that emerges through Radywyl’s discussion, rather it is the still point which brings bodies into being, and provides the conditions through which it is possible to comprehend as a body. This still not only promises a sensitivity to the susceptibility and vulnerability of corporeal being in the world, but also radically decentres the body from analysis; demonstrating an appreciation for an expanded repertoire of materialities. 

Shades of the post-human are evident in Ross Harley’s paper which considers the dynamic geometries brought about by a range of non-human materialities in the airport. Here it is only a spectre of the human that haunts these images which are instead inhabited by a world of hums, transparencies, lightwaves, luminosities and glows. Reworking the oft-invoked dualistic relation between the attentive body and inattentive spatiality, these ‘techno-veins and tendrils’ reach out and press into a body tending towards still. Indeed the stubborn obduracy of matter is also underlined by Nour Dados in her discussion on the endurance of the archive. Contrary to a corporeal emphasis, Adey also points to how still might be better apprehended as a sensibility distributed through ‘bodies, feelings, materials and atmospheres’. 

And yet this collection also warns us that we need to be attentive to the shadows of still; where still is seized upon and engineered by other forces - particularly through channels of authoritarian capitalism to great material and symbolic effect. Whilst still often denotes as a threat to neoliberal capitalism, for Sarah Sharma, even under conditions of capitalism disintegration, the inexorable power of capitalism is revealed through its wily recalibrations. The constraints placed on mobility during periods of capital restructuring open up new avenues of exploitation, which, when folded through sentimental, insular nationalist discourses culminates in an intoxicating profusion of moral responsibility to be still and an obedience to capitalism that only exacerbates socio-economic inequalities. Whilst remaining still is presented as a necessary consolation of the broken promises of capitalism, it also serves to illustrate the tensions that simmer between the impression of an agentive, autonomous individual taking charge of their situation, and the parallel still of the credulous ‘passenger’, swindled yet again by the overbearing affective and discursive power of capitalism. This echoes Cocker’s assertion of the power of capitalism to generate ‘sad affects’. 

Such a sinister manipulation of still also emerges through regimes of governmentality. For Andrew Murphie, still has always been and remains a powerful ‘technic of modernity’, which has the capacity to coerce, organise and stratify bodies in harmful ways that reduce their potential for action. In contrast to vitalist-inspired literature that explores how corporeal limits can be transcended affectually and materially through various configurations of practical activity, coerced still can push bodies to limits in ways that diminish their potentials. Here, still can inflict wounds, tear and break down the body, reducing its capacity to act. In a similar vein, for Nicholas Gill, still emerges as a crucial tool of political strategy to organise and arrange asylum seekers’ bodies.

But in attending to still, are we merely just reversing the glamour of animation? World-weary with the dizzying effect that chasing movement induces, have we become self-effacing post-humanists, taking respite by languishing in the resignation and reprive that tending to still might offer? Does still offer an escapist fantasy from the hell of constant commodified and complicit motion, as Cocker asks? Or in tending to still are we just acknowledging the failure and fallout, not only of systems and networks, but also of representational, symbolic and discursive systems? There are certainly many suggestions that we need to slow down. Indeed many writers have draw attention to the epistemic problematic associated with the impulse to relentlessly move conceptual understandings beyond; a drive that is often characteristic of academic practice. An unremitting desire to put things in the 'post-'. The implication here is that speed, and the resulting displacement, as a particular characteristic of engagement does not provide the space for a sustained involvement within - or sufficient reflection through - worldly phenomena. Decisions and interventions made too hastily, where the unabating power of affect curtails apparently sensible, reflective dispositions, are often condemned for being overly reactive, partisan or thoughtless. Here, still is related to tropes of mindfulness, contemplation and responsibility where an enhanced, attuned ethical sensibility is forged out of a suspension of judgement. Still might enable composure and provide the conditions through which a responsibility towards depth and detail can emerge.

Whilst there certainly might be inflections of each of these suggestions, this collection does not proffer a critique of hyper-mobility.Indeed reflection on recent catastrophic events illuminates how the ‘still’ aligned with inaction is often taken to be ethically scandalous, not to mention politically disastrous. No writer in this collection evidences an urge to simply escape, transcend or withdraw from the liveliness of being-in-the-world. Still is not a state or place of escape. It is not introspective or purposefully deferential. Still here is resolutely not about the wilful invitation of an 'agency to come' in the words of Harrison. Whilst each of these papers works to undo the pejorative associations with indolence and laziness that so often accretes around paranoiac renderings of still, equally they do not advocate that still should be put to work to generate productive, purposive activity.

Yes, still can be optimised, engineered, governed. But is is the radical aporia that still presents which gives it its significance to our thinking. Taken together, what this collection demonstrates is a sensitivity to still as a relation-to-the-world that moves beyond the dualisms of mobility and immobility; activity and inactivity without  transcending them. The promise of still is a particular mode of engagement with a world that rearranges intensities, folds through the vital and the vulnerable, providing a new set of political and ethical concerns.

Is there a still that is still? Is still to cultural studies what God might be to the process philosophy of Alfred Whitehead. If as Paul Harrison suggests still can be thought of as a theoretical figure without value - a condition of political possibility in all forms, then there is much value in this lack of value as it produces a still that is neither immanent nor transcendent but which provides a new mode of 'coherence' through which we might explore the flux of the world.

Acknowledgements

We would like to take this opportunity to thank each of the contributors for making this issue sparkle. We would like to extent our debt of gratitude to the referees for providing such thoughtful, detailed and helpful commentaries on each of the papers. We would also like to thank Elly Clarke, our cover artist, for providing such a pertinent image to front our collection.

References

Bauman, Zygmunt. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity P, 2000.

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 1996

Clough, Patricia, and Jean Halley. The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social. Durham: Duke U P, 2007.

Sheller, Mimi, and John Urry. "The New Mobilities Paradigm." Environment and Planning A 38.2 (2006): 207-226.

Urry, John. Global Complexity. Cambridge: Polity P, 2003.

 


Keywords


still; mobilities; bodies; subjectivity



Copyright (c) 2009 David Bissell, Gillian Fuller

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