Viscerality and abstraction

— Luke Stark –

As a figurative adjective, ‘visceral’ was coined during the Renaissance, but fell out of use through the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, when something visceral was likely to refer specifically to the scientific or medical condition of the human gut and bowels. At the same time, emotions, passions, moods and feelings continued to figure in philosophical and psychological debates about human ethics and values. Before the development of formal laboratory science, human feeling was tied up with studies of perception and the senses; and from the rise of scientific medicine in the middle of the nineteenth century onward, researchers worked to sense and record physical traces of emotional states as a proxy for knowledge about these ‘visceral’ sensations, including the speed at which the heart pumped blood, the electrical conductivity of the skin, and other outwards signs of inward states.

Yet the main currents of academic and commercial digital media have, until recently and with some notable exceptions, largely overlooked emotional and visceral experience as an element in the design, deployment and use of digital technologies. The exceptions include a number of scholars, technologists and designers working with ‘tangible and embodied’ interfaces. In the context of critical computing, work by Philip Agre and Paul Dourish on embodied interaction – ‘the creation, manipulation, and sharing of meaning through engaged interaction with artifacts’ – and Lucy Suchman on situated actions, have drawn attention to the embodied nature of technological engagements, and have bolstered scholars in HCI considering the nexus of human emotion, digital technologies, alongside their implications for social, technical, and cultural expression.

To make data more visceral is to grapple with the injustices and inequalities persisting in many of the lives mediated by digital technologies. The concept of viscerality, of ‘gut’ feelings, is not a conceptually neutral one, but is instead tied intimately to the imbrication of intersections between race, class, gender and sexuality within hierarchies of knowledge and power. A recent issue of GLQ explored the visceral as a nexus point in critical race studies, food studies, and queer studies; as its editors point out, ‘viscerality registers those systems of meaning that have lodged in the gut, signifying the incursion of violent intentionality into the rhythms of everyday life’, especially around exclusionary racial hierarchies. To understand digital data as visceral – both its source and in its reception – fleshes out the observations of legal theorists like Solon Barocas and Andrew Selbst, who note that ‘discrimination may be an artifact of the data mining process itself’ rather than of technical error; or those of digital media scholar Wendy Chun, who suggests the abstraction of much Big Data-driven social and behavioral science is, in its very infrastructure, ‘not designed to foster justice’.

The lack of attention to the holistic combination of sensory and emotional contexts we experience while using our digital device on the part of designers and technologists is where many device designs could be improved, and where we can find an opening to the emancipatory possibilities of the digital media. Affect theorist Sianne Ngai argues that viscerality – a category of experience which, due to its ‘specificity and corporeality seem to have made [it] resistant to theory’ – serves as an antidote to what she calls ‘abstraction’ as a category of human experience. In the context of digital mediation I carry her argument further: the tendency towards abstraction becomes materialized in the very mechanisms through which digital technologies work or are understood to work, alongside the ways in which these technologies perform the schematic classification of human bodies, behaviors, and emotions into machine-legible traits. These technological schematizations interact inelegantly with the subjective sense of human privacy most people experience as part of their daily lives.

Exploring the domain of visceral human experience as the source of both theoretical and practical insights for scholars in media studies, HCI, and STS means taking a diversity of bodies, with the attendant diverse experiences of those bodies, seriously – not as uncomplicated objects of scholarship, but as fellow subjects to think and feel with. Moreover, a focus on the visceral also turns our probes back on ourselves: who are we, as scholars and as human beings, within the sociotechnical networks we describe and critique?

Luke Stark is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Sociology at Dartmouth College and a Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University.

This post is excerpted and streamlined from ‘Visceral data’, a chapter in the upcoming volume Affect and Social Media: Emotion, Mediation, Anxiety and Contagion, and edited by Tony Sampson, Stephen Maddison, and Darren Ellis. Part of the Radical Culture Studies series, the book will be published by Rowman and Littlefield in June of 2018. In the longer piece, I explore the history of the visceral as a concept; examine contemporary ideas about how to make the experience of digital media more visceral; and conclude by proposing a new avenue of research, grounded in toxicology, to apply the benefits of data visceralization to contemporary digital media. In doing so, I hope readers feel the urgency and importance of research on visceral data and other forms of sense-making in our digitally mediated present – ideally right in the gut.