Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Society for Cultural Anthropology
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Materiality
Secondary Theme: Technology
LED street lamps are transforming urban lightscapes and so too the experiential landscapes of inhabitants. Independent media attune users to the radio frequency of resistance. Toxic traces of late industrial labor live on in the bodies of workers long rendered redundant. Walter Benjamin (1969) writes of the Proustian tenacity with which memory is preserved by the sense of smell; indeed, the stench of mildew in damp apartments (Schwenkel 2015) and diesel generators in off-grid areas (Larkin 2015) index the mémoire involontaire of civic malfunction.
Sensory surrounds such as these constitute the ambient infrastructures of the technosphere (Haff 2014). Ambient infrastructures, we suggest, hover at the margins of perception. They delight and disenchant, haunt and habituate. Ambient infrastructures both create and themselves comprise affective atmospheres (Anderson 2009) that calibrate the sensory ecologies of extra/human ecosystems. Beyond sensory input, they flicker and falter within collective social networks and regimes of value; what Gregory Bateson might call “an infinite regress of relationships” (1978:249; cf. Star 1999).
The anthropologies of ambience featured on this panel consider the worldmaking and unmaking potentials of such relations at a range of conceptual scales from the pixel to the planet. In contemporary Copenhagen, the efficient aesthetics of bright green urbanism retool residents’ subjective senses of comfort and coziness, while in Germany, LED lightscapes draw citizens’ attention to changing governmental priorities—which some contend put municipalities’ finances above the well-being of individuals. In southern California, the lively materials of residential soundproofing invite us to consider the resonant acoustics of glass as airplanes launch and land overhead. As a case study in Kandahar demonstrates, computational landscapes of expert knowledge configured through remote sensing render the very materiality of the pixel an ethnographic object. An investigation of sucrochemicals in Brazil asks us to examine how our reliance on petrochemicals has conditioned expectations of everyday sensory experiences and their implications for energy transition. And in Mexico City, drainage systems which leak fetid sewage in the city’s periphery constitute an olfactory and tactile manifestation of socioeconomic divisions. Across the panel, presenters reflect on sensory experiences conditioned by urban technologies, the responses and social implications of those experiences, and the modes of entry, presence, and exit that compose the atmospheric.