Conflationary Friction

Contributed by George Akhvlediani Student at University of South Carolina
December 06, 2014

 Introduction

As a group we discussed the nature of a ‘site’, specifically one of thoroughfare. Citing J. Macgregor Wise’s Attention and assemblage in the clickable world, we modeled this site as an assemblage, a collection of “objects, practices, and desires”(159) that interacts and overlaps with other sites. In the scope of Columbia, South Carolina, these assemblages codify public behavior into a system of laws, labels, bodies, and discipline. We developed our report through exercises of mass observation in particular urban sites. Our goal was to parse the details of a thoroughfare's function, and the applications of this understanding. This is an effective approach when analyzing the properties of a specific assemblage, but successive observations indicated that thoroughfare is only one aspect of many. Therefore, I will expand the scope of discourse to encompass urban sites (of all types) as assemblages. My individual focus is of the aberrations and conflicts that emerge in spite of their influence. I will first expand upon their properties as assemblages.

The fundamental physical properties of space serve as a site’s functional basis. People may walk on the ground, swim through water, and climb trees. The government directly modifies these conditions by constructing streets, sidewalks, and bridges. Signs, lights, and lanes further facilitate the mechanism of law, though they lack physical substance and must instead perform upon those observing them. In either case, these are installed in order to adapt the space to a human logic. People abide and orient a variable agency of discipline that regulates the function of a site and may also transmute it. (A block party, for example, converts a functional roadway into a ‘more’ private affair). These agencies are not site specific, but rather constitute an incorporeal aspect of the assemblage. As Wise states:

An Assemblage is always stratified…On the one hand is a stratum they called the collective assemblage of enunciation, a semiotic system, characterized by incorporeal agency… the ability to act at a distance, symbolically”,  

The system of law affixed to the streets, signs, and traffic lights shares this property, but the extent to which it is regarded varies from site to site. The sites overlap one another as assemblages, wresting control over space as their respective influences fluctuate.

Our studies in Columbia appear to reciprocate Wise’s claim that “Assemblage is always in process”. Vehicles and pedestrians tear across the space of a Main St. intersection in one moment, and in another hordes of parked cars line the empty street. In our previous discourse, we defined a thoroughfare site in part by distinguishing it from a place of origin or destination. In this instance, a site of thoroughfare on Main St. yielded to one of sedentary commerce. One assemblage engulfed another, shifting the paradigms of the contingent space.

Wise produces the four terms, “reduction, disappearance, control, and attention” to characterize the assemblage of the clickable world.(161) I will reinterpret them in the context of sites, or spatial assemblages as they operate in Columbia.

Reduction

Reduction, as defined by Wise, “refers to the reduction of experience and environment to information”.(161) All facets of a site assemblage can be observed to operate reductively. Sites themselves are segmentations of space, forging ‘places’ of residence, commerce, industry, and culture. These abstractions reduce space to a mapping of zones, places to belong and to avoid. Reduction of physical space recursively divides the earth into continents, continents into nations, nations into states, states into counties, and cities as nodes within counties. This mapping of information thickens from street signs, to internet renditions, back to gps navigation; immersing sites deeper and deeper into an augmented reality.

Wise notes that “Augmented reality systems seek to overlay the world with information attached to people, places, and objects.”(161) Reduction itemizes and indexes information to represent all that occurs with an assemblage. In the context of a process in process, reduction closely resembles premediation in Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11.(Grusin)

Premediation renders reality, specifically the future, into a collection of possible events. The construction of streets and designation of lots initiates an urban site. Grusin relates the formulation to:

a space of virtuality where links and network are already laid out to enable use to navigate only according to possible paths.”(47)

When an asphalt street is built, that space is premediated to be traversed by motorized vehicles in the future. The future of a lot is pared down to three options; appropriate structure, emptiness, or a future redesignation. Urbanization reduces space to an allocation of urban objects, structures, and bodies (the elements of an urban site assemblage). The interface and composition of a site is premediated. It restricts urban space to a set of rules and labels, street names, stop signs, and sidewalks.

In this discussion, ‘traffic’ refers to the physical motion of an urban site. All urban sites, by definition, seek to control traffic in some fashion (note Wise’s four characteristics of an assemblage). A distinction between vehicular and ambulatory traffic might help one parse their roles. The space for vehicular traffic (automobiles etc) is defined additively, as streets and parking lots must be deliberately constructed to allow their passage. However, the space of ambulatory traffic (pedestrians) is defined subtractively, in the form of restrictions. By default, pedestrians may walk anywhere and cars may only go where there are roads. One might presume that the greater restriction on vehicular traffic corresponds to the greater threat it poses to life and property, but the specifics of the ‘why’ are not of immediate significance. In either case, both types respond to their respective territories, mediated from the environment they simultaneously inhabit.

Disappearance

Disappearance, in the case of the ‘clickable world’ , evaluates the disappearance of assemblage technologies into the environment. Urban sites thrive on this phenomenon. Traffic follows the directions of lights, signs, lanes, and vehicles unerringly. Citizens assume that all such beacons represent the will of the law. They treat a frail line of traffic cones as an impenetrable barrier. Police officers rarely appeared during my observations. Urban sites operate subconsciously, non-designated space fades into the environment, away from critical examination.

Surveillance exhibits the twin desires of acknowledgement and concealment. The administrative aspects of surveillance make every attempt to disappear. Signs indicating video surveillance never mention where the footage is held, who is viewing it, or the camera’s schematics. Instead they reinforce the deterrent image of the camera. These efforts emulate the characteristics of an omnipresent governance. The illusion of omniprescence is sufficiently governing when it becomes indistinguisable from the genuine form.

Control

Control is the third dimension, referring to the integration of these systems into systems of surveillance and governmentality.” (Wise 162)

Wise suggests that society transitions towards control schemes that rely more upon bio-power (“continuous control and instant communication”), than they do juridical force. Those are not his words, but rather corresponding Foucauldian terms. They mark the beginning of Ewald’s Norms, Discipline, and the Law, which examines this mechanism of governance rigorously.

The notion that society transitions to a scheme of bio-power no longer applies to urban sites in Columbia, as they are built from the schematic of surveillance and control. It’s not a state of conversion. All vehicles must have plates, all drivers carry a license, and this is the way it must always be. In this manner the past is remediated, the concept of pre-surviellance space eradicated. I would claim that the notion of security is already deeply embedded in the public lexicon.

Bio-power "aims to produce, develop, and order social strength"(Foucault), and is the primary mode of governance presiding over urban sites. Earlier I described the ways in which aspects of law and surveillance demonstrate the phenomenon of disappearance. In Panopticism, Foucault states:

"Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable"(201)

Disappearance conceals the administrative functions of surviellance. The emphasis on the image of surviellance is itself a means of concealment. Wise mentions ubiquitous computing,(159) in which the computation of digital technology is obfuscated in favor of glossy, limited interfaces. The form of surveillance takes emphaisis over function in the exact same manner. No one knows who, if anyone, controls the cameras mounted on Assembly st. (See my Mass Observation report for details). They are there to be seen, to imply that a network of surveillance is in place and certify the "norm of the law"(139). 

Attention

Attention is the lynchpin of the Attention and assemblage in the clickable world discourse. If one assumes that the collective intent of urban sites (their incorporeal agency) is of normativity, then its opposition takes the form of aberration, deviation from those norms. Urban sites are so aggressively refined and reduced into information that any unexpected or unmediated phenomena can utterly disrupt them. 

Earlier in this discussion I indicated that the paradigms of site-contingent spaces shift in response to competing assemblages. In this way the assemblages appear to compete for the attention of the space as a whole. Assemblages yield to those of higher prioity. However, I observed these sudden transitions to cause significant issues. 

The predominant site of a space is a matter of consensus, but at times this consensus is not readily obtained beause the protocols of the space change before bodies can perceive them. I observed an example in the form of a alarmed fire truck en route to an emergency scene. It needed to cross a densly occupied intersection, but the cars in front of it did immediately move to make way for the emergency vehicle, even though that was the clear prioirty. They saw themselves in a site of casual throughfare, and the time it took them to react to the change may have been costly in both life and property.

Conflationary Friction

I have coined this phenomenon 'conflationary friction', as I believe the conflation of intents and norms causes friction in assemblage, impairing its ability to adjust and therefore its very function. 

The versatility of urban sites enables a democratization of public space. Not democracy as the will of citizens, but one between the mechanisms of surveillance and discipline employed by municipal and commercial interests. 

Authoritative entites engage the same means for different ends. Norms are a conflation of desires that contend for the attention of the urban assemblage, and by extenstion the people within. Citizens are compelled to abide by many different modules of discipline that may include work, finance, and road safety. Drivers may only vaguely understand the traffic norms to follow, guided away from deviance by the vague sensation that wrong has been committed. It's what schoolchildren call 'being in trouble.'

To be in trouble is to bear all the anxiety of violating norms without necessarily understanding why. It it is a broader form of panoptic self-discipline and a natural consquence of the proliferation of normative surviellance technologies throughout urban assemblage(s). 

Ironically, the anxiety of trouble often disrupts the rule of norm. Anxiety causes lapses in attention and judgment, imparing social function. Perhaps it is a side effect of overexposure to contending bio-powers. In any case, it creates a docile, obedient population, utterly lacking adaptability and independence.

Sources

Ewald, Francois. “Norms, Discipline, and the Law.” Representations 30, Special Issue: Law and the Order of Culture (Spring 1990): 138-161.
 
Grusin, Richard. “Premediation” and “The Anticipation of Security.” Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11. London, UK: Palgrave/MacMillan, 2010. 38-63 and 122-142.
 
Wise, J. Macgregor. “Attention and Assemblage in the Clickable World.” Communication Matters: Materialist
Approaches to Media, Mobility and Networks. Eds., Jeremy Packer and Stephen B. Crofts Wiley. Oxford:
Routledge, 2012. 159-172.
 
Mass Observation Diary excerpt. 347-351.
 
Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Discpline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 1977. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York:Vintage Books, 1979. 200-228
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Comments

Response from
Grace Miyaji

December 08, 2014

Re: Conflationary Friction

The manner in which you broke down Wise's terms and made your own was very interesting. Breaking down the terms and implenenting things we did in class to these terms was also interesting. 

DarrylUSC 2015's picture
Response from
Darryl Burkett

December 08, 2014

Re: Conflationary Friction

Do you think we are being controlled to a certain degree by surveillance? Why or why not?

Response from
George Akhvlediani

December 08, 2014

Re: Conflationary Friction

I'm not certain there's a clear answer to that kind of question. In many ways, we definitely are, as the feeling of being observed directly effects our behavior. However, the sites we interact with are influenced by us in the same way they are influenced by everything that they are comprised of. 

It really depends on what is meant by 'control' and in what capacity. 

cooleyh's picture
Response from
Heidi Rae Cooley

December 07, 2014

Re: Conflationary Friction

I want to understand more fully the relation between "conflationary friction" and what it means to be "in trouble." You arrive at this relation but I think there's more to be said.

Response from
George Akhvlediani

December 08, 2014

Re: Conflationary Friction

Well, I felt it necessary to work my way towards that subject from the concept of site assemblages in order to estblish the conflation of sites and their respective mechanics. Reduction reduces the environment and experience to a system of identifies. We might be lead to believe this simplifies space, overlaying it with a network of data. However, I meant to indicate that these components of augmented reality 'thicken' as space is further subjected to a variety mediations. Additionally, certain base assumptions for how a particular site should operate can make adjustment cumbersome.

So the conflation of sites results in a contradictory body of influence. Some might find themselves at odds with workplace punctuality and driving protocol. Surviellance implies visibility from anywhere (but not everywhere), such that citizens adjust to whatever authority is most actively observing them. So one might speed up on a neglected route, or openly jaywalk if accompanied by a sufficient crowd. However, when the scope of surviellance is ambigious, one might become subject to anxiety in the form of trouble.

Trouble derives from the panoptic notion of discipline in that it is self-applied in accordance to the feeling of being observed. However, it might be considered an extreme consequence of conflation. The multiplicty of the means and ends of surviellance in public space render one incapable on recognizing which system of authority they have failed. With so many simultaneous schemes of surviellance, it is nigh impossible to avoid violating one or another for brief moments. Some are overwhelmed with the sensation of being in trouble such that it impairs their ability to function within the assemblages of public space. 

In a personal experience, I accidently bumped the back of a car when I was in hurry to get to class. Initially I did nothing to address my mistake, fleeing the situation in the parking garage in order to meet the needs of the academic disciplinary system (and avoid to injury to my financial status). However, shortly afterwards I felt consumed with guilt stemming from the notion that the event was likely recorded on camera. I didn't know what the consequences of a hit & run were, and in a moment I felt consumed by apprehension. 

I knew there were cameras in the garage, and I attempted to research them online to determine how their footage might be retrived. I found no mention of them, and their utter invisibility (genuine disappearance) led me to assume the worst. 

I rushed back to the event to leave a note of what I had done, hoping against all hope that the vehicle was still there so that my actions wouldn't be interpreted as criminal. My inability to comprehend how the assemblage of the cars, cameras, and police operated placed me within the sensation of 'trouble', but did not correctly guide my pattern of behavior until some time after. 

I mean to illustrate that the conflation of sites and their disciplines in contention for attention (as discussed Wise) may overwhelm individuals. The excessive presence of varying authorities leads one to priotize those most present, but this behavior can collapse in on itself when acting in accordance to one means dereliction of the other. 

cooleyh's picture
Response from
Heidi Rae Cooley

December 09, 2014

Re: Conflationary Friction

I agree that sites might "thicken" in the digital connected present. But what does "thickening" mean? After all, it's not explicitly thick. But it is thick on some level. This is where notions of layering come into play, yes? Striation. Palimpsest. Archeological digs.

Response from
George Akhvlediani

January 04, 2015

Re: Conflationary Friction

Indeed, I'm aware that I need a better definition 'thickening'. It is in reference to the continued development of the augmented reality; the induction of new networks, identities, methods of data overlay, and expansion of said overlays.

I propose that the means to establish thickening don't lie proving the process per se, but rather indicating that it continues, as the prescence of augmented reality guarantees that it existed. I may even consider it a process in process, it's certainly compatible with my logic thus far. 

This might involve acquiring existing literature on the topic, or building the argument through research. 

cooleyh's picture
Response from
Heidi Rae Cooley

December 07, 2014

Re: Conflationary Friction

From Evan Meaney (Media Arts)

I really appreciate the multi-layered approach to surveillance discourse here. However, I see it expanding beyond the present/seen and present/unseen. In your section on Control, you explore further the disappearing power structures, but what of the one’s hidden in the first place. The camera’s feed to databases. The databases are created through legislation. What are the edges of Columbia’s disappeared surveillance? Is there anything not part of that system?

Response from
George Akhvlediani

December 08, 2014

Re: Conflationary Friction

Well, it's really not clear what is and isn't part of that disappearing system. In my mass observation report, I indicated that the purpose and proprietor of the cameras in the proximity if Assembly St. are completely obscured from public view. This suits panoptic discipline, as it lends greater creedence to omnipresence. The potential for how these cameras are used vastly outstrips a specific understood function. 

I mean to say that it allows the cameras to perform as unspecified objects of surviellance, thereby contributing to the disciplinary influence of any authority that could occupy that space. This widens the possible trangressions that one might suspect the camera to observe. This ties directly into my logic of conflation, wherein several agencies of authority influence space and their respective objects/mechanics cannot be readily differentiated.