Interactivity, Government and Affect

On: June 16, 2007
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


Partly in response to that stumper from a while back, ‘What’s a blog?’, this is another: What is interactivity?

I’ll start with the top result from a “define: interactivity” google query:

If your Web site is not interactive, it’s dead.

I really like this definition. It gives a sense of urgency – as in, “I want my website to be alive!” – without really saying anything. With its knowing inadequacy, the definition serves as a reminder that I don’t just want an interactive website, but also an interactive phone, an interactive television and of course – with every reference book I buy – a ‘free interactive CD-ROM’. The list goes on: I prefer interactivity when it comes to education, to politics, and to my social life. And more than anything else in this world, I really want an interactive pet robot.

Perhaps a more responsible approach to understanding interactivity is to ask, how does one go about ‘making’ it? One of the many books on the subject is Design for New Media (Barfield, 2004), in which interactivity is demystified and even replaced on page 9. Interactivity is equated with usability, or a “measure of the effectiveness, efficiency and satisfaction with which specified users can achieve specified goals in a particular environment”.

I don’t like this definition of interactivity via usability. It takes the fun out of it, and makes it cold with talk of ‘effectiveness’, ‘specified’ this and ‘specified’ that.. who wants an ‘effective’ pet robot?

The two major themes that run through Design for New Media – communication with users and the control of systems – say a lot about why we would think of interactivity in this way. That is, they remind us how closely aligned interactivity is with cybernetics, or the “the study of feedback and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organisations”.

The founding of cybernetics, attributed to Norbert Wiener and his work to improve antiaircraft artillery during the second World War, flattened the subject-object landscape, understanding control as a matter of ‘messaging’ between otherwise anonymous systems. More than a half-century later, the website is like an antiaircraft gun, one system interacting with another called ‘user’. Now, design principles for new media include things like ‘getting rid of noise’, focusing on feedback and improving user models. In other words, interactivity becomes a measure of effectiveness. (If your website is not effective, it’s dead.)

With this more traditional genealogy in mind, here I discuss two counter-intuitive approaches to interactivity: the first is interactivity as government, as put forward by Andrew Barry, and the second is interactivity as affectivity, an approach that draws on the work of Brian Massumi (and many others). Hopefully this is written in such a way that will suggest potential connections between the two.

Interactivity and Government

In Political Machines, Andrew Barry offers a definition of interactivity as a form of government, a “diagram for organising the relations between objects and persons” (2001: 129). In doing so, he’s relying on Foucault’s notion of governmentality, which denotes much more than political institutions, and should be thought of as a range of “schemes, programmes, techniques and devices which seek to shape conduct” (Rose, 1999: 20). Or in even more succint terms, government is “the conduct of conduct” (ibid: 3).

For Barry, interactivity is a technical and social arrangement, referring both to ‘interactive’ technical objects as well as to the social forms and practices associated with them. Increasingly, he says, interactivity is put forward as a solution to the problems of government – making citizens more active, more responsible in terms of self-government and better informed about contemporary concerns surrounding science and technology (from genetic engineering to climate change). To illustrate how this occurs in practice, Barry turns to the science museum.

From the 1960s on, an emphasis on interactivity has contributed to a transformation in the manner in which science museums look to educate the public. Barry traces a shift of focus toward ’empowering’ visitors and turning them into ‘users’. Opposing classical or disciplinary forms of education – say, the lecturer in front of the class, or the encased, authentic object of learning at the museum – interactivity is characterized by a hands-on and often spectacular experience. Science is aestheticized, blurring distinctions with the art installation. The expert fades to the background, and users make scientific principles visible to themselves. A typical interactive exhibit:

In each new context, interactivity changes. Where in the U.S. it is closely connected to an ideal of empowerment, in Britain it translates into a solution to the problem of waning interest in science and technology. What remains, however is that interactivity appears as a technological fix to any number of perceived social or economic problems. Summing up, Barry writes that “interactivity is intended to turn the user (visitor, school child, citizen or consumer) into a more creative, participative or active subject without the imposition of a direct form of control or the judgement of an expert authority” (2001: 149).


As a counterpoint to the enthusiasm surrounding interactivity (in museums or anywhere else), Slavoj Zizek (2002) offers the concept of interpassivity. Where interactivity is normally sold as democratic and empowering, Zizek suggests it often translates into false activity, the hurried action that hides how we are passive. Like people who talk endlessly to soothe tense situations, false activity is a kind of neuroticism that allows for more fundamental, passive behavior. A case in point, I think, is the Whatever Button – active, continuous clicking through registration forms, for example, obscures how passive we have become about giving away personal information on the Web.

Whatever Button

With interpassivity, Zizek reminds us that substitution – e.g. the displacement of a belief onto an object – has its own liberating potential, as it allows us to be active elsewhere. “In the case of interpassivity, I am passive through the Other.” Opposite to false activity, interpassivity occurs when the Other carries out the ‘work’ of the subject – his or her enjoyment, suffering, etc. A classic example of this, Zizek says, is the infamous canned laughter, or laugh track, on TV sitcoms. And perhaps the most obvious case on the Web is an MMPORG like Second Life, where the pleasures and discomforts of social being are so thoroughly displaced onto avatars that you get a virtual version of the elevator effect, i.e. the need to look or walk away when someone else stares or stands too close.

In one sense, substitution is freedom: with canned laughter, the TV simply does the work for you. In another, however, it reveals something about being a subject that stands opposite to freedom: despite what you think is happening, “it was NOT YOU who laughed, it was the Other (the TV set)”. Zizek points out that this paradox – personal freedom through impersonal substitution – is related to the Foucauldian school of thought which says that power and freedom are not opposed to one another: “By submitting myself to some disciplinary machine, I transfer to the Other the responsibility to maintain the smooth running of things and thus gain the precious space to exercise my freedom.”

Barry’s and Zizek’s arguments, then, act as cautionary tales – while obviously neither is a value judgement or argument against interactivity, both raise serious questions about its supposed nature. They complicate the term by pointing to the inconsistencies with which we think about and develop interactivity, from its status as a solution to the problems of government to its more sinister form as false activity. It is hardly a stretch, then, to see how various normative accounts of interactivity – from techno-entusiasm to high-culture elitism – are readily deconstructed by the instability of that which they are promoting/decrying.

Interactivity and Affect

As noted by Barry, interactivity has become associated with spectacle and with the aestheticization of science. Equally, it has come to imply an embodied, rather than purely intellectual, experience of an object: the ‘hands-on’ experience or even the happening – you simply had to be there.

“You had to be there,” is exactly what I heard from friends who visited the Tate Modern a few months back, when Carsten Höller’s 55-meter slides had transformed the main hall into a giant playground.

From Höller’s biography:

Carsten Höller holds a doctorate in biology, and he uses his training as a scientist in his work as an artist, concentrating particularly on the nature of human relationships. Viewer participation is the key to all of Höller’s sculptures, but it is less an end in itself than a vehicle to informally test the artist’s theories concerning human perception and physiological reactions. Equal parts scientific experiment and sensual encounter, Höller’s works are most frequently devoted to his singular obsession—chemically analyzing the nature of human emotions.

His work, then, reflects some of the points Barry makes about interactivity, namely its ‘spectacular’ character, the aestheticization of science (here in inverse form) and the importance of the individualized, embodied response. With the slides, the work of art is displaced onto the body of the viewer/user, it’s literally a sensation, but one that extends well beyond the moment it is experienced. Borrowing from a concept Richard Grusin is developing – mediality – what I would argue is that the intensity of the experience seems to be matched by the need to record and share it, thus one hears often that “you had to be there”, and one finds plenty of phonecam videos of the piece on YouTube. For instance:

Cameraphone @ Carsten Holler expo

So Höller tends to highlight the visitor’s role in completing the artwork. This is equally apparent in another piece of his, Sliding Doors, also captured on cameraphone:


The series of mirrored sliding doors give the impression that you are walking down a long empty corridor. These visitors are obviously startled and shaken when doors open and they see another group of people, but within a split-second they laugh, realizing their ‘mistake’. This initial, bodily reaction that precedes the conscious, reasoned response is closely connected to what Brian Massumi understands as affect.

In ‘The Autonomy of Affect’ Massumi (1995) explains that there are two levels of image reception. There is image quality, or the work of signs and meaning, and there is affect, or image intensity, which is the unformed, relatively content-less and pre-conscious reaction alluded to above. Massumi says these are complexly intertwined, with meaning feeding back onto intensity, which then feeds back onto meaning again – intensity may dampen or amplify the effects of the image. The first key point about affect, then, is that it forces us to understand image reception as an event rather than a kind of repeatable experiment. Instead of thinking of images as containers for meaning, with affect things become a little less certain.

The second point follows from the first, and connects affect with potential. Drawing on empirical work in cognitive science, Massumi points out the complexity of processes of perception and response. Experiments have shown how bodily activity precedes conscious decisions to activate the body – the case of the ‘missing half-second’ – leading researcher Benjamin Libet to suggest that free will may not be a matter of initiating actions, but either allowing them or rejecting them after they arise in the body (Massumi 1995: 90). “The half-second is missed not because it is empty, but because it is overfull, in excess of the actually performed action and of its ascribed meaning” (ibid). So in Massumi’s account the response to a stimulus is always virtual first, a “pressing crowd of incipiencies and tendencies” (ibid: 91). The actual course of action is in a sense up for grabs, and will depend on affect or intensity.

A third point is that affect is pre-personal. While affect seems related to the subjective content of emotion, e.g. sadness or happiness, these terms should be distinguished from one another (Shouse 2005). While we might ‘share’ feelings and emotions in the sense of displaying them or discussing them with others, they always belong to a subject. As Massumi (2005) argues, affects differ from emotions because they occur at the limit between the subject and the world, and deal with the contacts or relations between things. Tarja Laine (2005) says that in the cinematic experience, skin is a medium of intersubjective connection, suggesting that we feel images and that they feel back. Crucially, I think, the cybernetic flattening of subjects and objects returns here in ‘affective’ form. As Eric Shouse explains, the importance of this is found in the notion of resonance:

Because affect is unformed and unstructured (unlike feelings and emotions) it can be transmitted between bodies. The importance of affect rests upon the fact that in many cases the message consciously received may be of less import to the receiver of that message than his or her non-conscious affective resonance with the source of the message.

The spread of fear through a crowd, or just among museum visitors as in the video above, serves as a microcosmic reminder of the possible political implications of affect. In the essay ‘Fear (the Spectrum Said)’, Massumi (2005) outlines how affective politics can be so potent. Like the fear of terrorism being used to justify greater executive power for the Bush administration, an affective politics is the great mobilizer, but also a realm of potential and therefore “as enormously reckless as it is powerful” (ibid: 47).

Interactivity as Affectivity

I’m still reading the literature and trying to figure out whether/how to connect these theories, but here is at least an attempt at a conclusion.

It’s been said often enough that the imperative attached to interactivity – that of effective communication – stands in the way of good design. Reviewing one of the less conventional books on the subject, Windows and Mirrors, Steven Shaviro writes that “the interface should also be valued for itself; this is what makes ‘interactivity’ possible, as well as being where aesthetic pleasure resides. Web design should be pleasurable, rather than just nakedly utilitarian”.

Maybe this can be taken a step further with a theoretical approach to interactivity that foregrounds its relationship with affect, and assesses specific instances of interactivity which it can engender a capacity to be affected. This would be a renewed appreciation of interactivity in terms of the connections and relationships that it creates or breaks down – since each of these sites of contact represents a pathway for an intensity of feeling, for the activation of people and things.


Lon Barfield (2004), Design for New Media: Interaction Design for Multimedia and the Web, Pearson Education Limited: London.
Andrew Barry (2001), Political Machines: Governing a Technological Society, Athlone Press: London.
Tarja Laine (2006), ‘Cinema as Second Skin,’ New Review of Film and Television Studies, 4(2): 93-106.
Brian Massumi (1995), ‘The Autonomy of Affect,’ Cultural Critique. 31: 83-109.
Brian Massumi (2005), ‘Fear (the Spectrum Said),’ positions 13(1): 31-48.
Nikolas Rose (1999), Powers of Freedom: Reframing Political Thought, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Eric Shouse (2005), ‘Feeling, Emotion, Affect,’ M/C Journal, 8(6). Retrieved 16 June 2007 from <>.
Slavoj Zizek (2002) ‘The Interpassive Subject,’ The Symptom, 3. Retrieved 16 June 2007 from <>


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