Structures of Feeling and the irreducible quality of lived social experience

by Dalida María Benfield and Christopher Bratton
20th May 2018

(This blogpost is part of a series of that will be posted in the six days leading up to the Museum of Random Memory: The Sound of Forgetting, happening in Cardiff/UK and Cork/Ireland. See all blogposts in the series.)

The “Sound of Forgetting” means leaving the commonsensical, datafied understanding of data and acknowledging there is another sense of experiences that might not be at all apparent/heard.

It means stepping outside of “testimony” and its conventional, normative, mediatized definition. The conversational aspect of asking participants for their contributions means considering why and what are the conditions of “sharing” and “listening”, which is specially meaningful in an era of datafication. These dialogues connect not only participants and us (the un-curators), but also the local invited artists, those who are not with us, the algorithms, the sound systems, the space, etc, thus creating a network across (in)visibilities/(in)audibilities.

A conceptual idea that has been moving this inquiry is Raymond Williams’ idea of “structures of feeling.” Williams was Welsh and a child of the working class, which strongly inflected his work. That experience of class and belonging to a national minority was particularly evident in his complex understanding of culture as a dynamic field of struggle and social articulation. The concept of structures of feeling was his attempt to describe the irreducible quality of lived social experience as opposed to definitions dictated by official and defined forms. A structure of feeling, Williams said, is fundamentally paradoxical. It is a structure because you perceive it as an aspect of many things, one after another, manifest but not obviously connected, in inflections of speech, the use of a color, in rhythms and shapes. It is a pattern of “impulses, restraints, and tones.” People understand this not as thinking per se, but rather “thought as felt” and “feeling as thought”.

Williams’ intervention, much like our own, highlights the essential aspects of experience that aren’t captured by the terms a society uses to describes itself, whether commonsensically, as in the undisputed value of a certain type of data, or through organized disciplinary knowledge including the social sciences and philosophy. Williams located his insight in the tension between description and analysis on the one hand, and the lived present on the other. Such terms as “society” and “culture” are understood as formal, fixed wholes, predicated on actions that have already occurred and therefore of the past. In contrast, our day to day lives are always moving and forming, and are represented by all that we consider subjective, such as “consciousness”, “experience” and “feeling.” When we convert what we experience to habituated thought, as Williams said, “only the fixed explicit forms exist, and living presence is always, by definition receding.” This is a political fact, in that this reduction rules out of bounds any alternative view and possibility of transforming the societies in which we live.  

Rather than reduce the social to fixed forms, structures of feeling emphasize the complexity of experience and the fundamentally social nature of the subjective. Works of art, in particularly, exist within this semantic and lived tension. A work of art, while wholly past, is only realized in the act of reading, the completion of an inherent process that make it art. In the case of Cardiff/Cork, it is the listener/speaker who produces the work. Their experience becomes the material of the larger scape, an assemblage of other sounds, some archival, and some like their own, of the moment, although quickly sliding into the past, too. It is the space of a present, always and inexorably becoming a past, and a past that is always present.  

Thought and feeling structure the patterning, the mix, of the sound as produced by the performers, and their tools, particularly the application. The integration of others into the patterning via live feeds. Not only a time, but here, too, is a space, one marked by the deported and the departed, seen and invisible, defined and inarticulate. All possibility lies in that which is apprehended, but only yet becoming articulate, The cut, the movement from one sound to another, in both space and time… meaning is contained in between … the movement between thought and feeling, is THE point of possibility.

The sound of forgetting, the space of possibility. 

Museum of Random Memory: The Sound of Forgetting
Data Justice Conference (Cardiff/UK) and Webworkhouse (Cork/Ireland), 21-22 May 2018
This iteration is born out of a collaboration between: Dalida Benfield, Chris Bratton, Annette Markham, Milton Peña, Jack Lynskey, Shannon Walsh, Mórna O’Connor, Anu A. Harju, Robert Ochshorn, Robert Brooks, Gabriel Pereira, Antonio Santos, Stevie Grainger, GENERIC PEOPLE, and Shaun O’Connor
A project of futuremaking.space, Aarhus University, and Center for Arts, Design + Social Research

For live updates from the field, follow @MuseumOfRandMem

Creating Future Memories

This page is part of Creating Future Memories, an Aarhus University funded research project exploring speculative, future-oriented, and participatory methods for citizens to understand and better control the data being produced through and around the everyday use of digital media.