Theorizing Temperatures and the Social
14-15 June 2017, Hamburg
When heat and cold appear in the humanities and social sciences, they are often treated as metaphors. Since the very beginnings of sociology at the turn of the twentieth century, key theoretical concepts such as community and society have been described in hyperthermal terms: authors like Ferdinand Tönnies and Helmuth Plessner, from different normative perspectives, described the formation of the modern, urbanized society as a cooling process that freezes the warm, authentic community. Thermal metaphors turn out to be useful—perhaps even constitutive—tools that make abstract notions imaginable and tangible. However, the question of temperature was mostly overlooked by sociological theory, especially in its material relation to social phenomena.
The phenomenon of fire, for example, has been investigated from both scientific and cultural-historical perspectives and has been understood as crucial for the formation of the social. On the one hand, fire as one of the elements has been conceived of as a timeless force beyond society. On the other hand, the control of fire is seen as a precondition for culture—not only for basic cultural techniques like cooking, but also for language development and group formation. In a representational line of thinking, sociology tends to reduce the sensory qualities of heat and cold to mere metaphors for culture and the symbolic. The example of fire shows that the metaphoric and literal dimensions of heat are closely intertwined. Highlighting temperature leads us to a range of questions about the sensory materiality of the social, including the senses, the mediality of heat and cold, the conception of thermal objects, and thermopolitics.
Sensory studies have addressed sensory dimensions that are not explicitly listed in the classical five senses, such as the sense of motion and the sense of temperature. But is thermoception only an additional field for sensory studies, or does it also inflect our understanding of the social? In contrast to the sense of sight, which separates the seeing body from the object world, the thermal sense annihilates the subject/object divide. Thermal information always indicates directional effects: the perception of coldness, for example, presupposes that an object or the environment makes a body colder. From this perspective, affect theory has described heat as affect, as the “catalytic” and potentially emancipatory energy of becoming and involvement.
In this rather enthusiastic account, the question of the relation between the metaphoric dimension—for instance, in terms like “flow” and “energy”—and the sensory dimension of heat and coolness re-emerges. How can we take into account our own use of (thermal) metaphors in our arguments and recognize their productivity? And how can we theoretically account for more-than-human thermal objects and elements, such as clouds, dust, or fire, without idealizing and anthropomorphizing them?
Returning to our earlier example, fire has clear infrastructural and mediating functions. Fire generates a thermal environment that consists of specific objects, infrastructures, and media technologies. When we grasp thermal elements as media, their material characteristics and properties become visible: for instance, their rhythms and movements, and their capacity to store, transfer, and conduct, but also their relatively short half-life. Do we need an enlarged notion of media in order to theorize thermal objects? Which sensory effects and relations do they produce? When we move away from the human body as the point of reference, the thermal qualities themselves become crucial. Smoke, dust, and clouds are bodies that have no simple edges or borders; they are, rather, absolute surfaces turning on themselves. Drawing on the account of Michel Serres, who has described the skin (not only of human bodies) as a milieu or a place of minglings, we will address thermal objects and atmospheres as phenomena that are perceived by their heterogeneously configured surfaces. How do different thermal bodies and surfaces meet, and how are their minglings and detachments organized? How are the senses of touch and temperature related?
There seems to be something genuinely controlling and regulating about thermoception, as it helps to maintain a certain body temperature. The biologic notion of homeostasis, which was taken up by cybernetic thought, turns us to the important question of measurement, control, and regulation of temperature, for instance in new thermal technologies of sensory control used by public security systems, the military, and the police. The politics of temperature have received renewed attention in and due to the discussions on climate change and its political effects (e.g., climate refugees, environmental catastrophes). However, the question of thermopolitics should not be reduced to that of climate change: we need a broader social and media-theoretical account of thermoception and thermal objects.
Agustina Andreoletti (Cologne)
Leo Matteo Bachinger (Troy, NY)
Elena Beregow (Hamburg)
Nigel Clark (Lancaster)
Wolfgang Ernst (Berlin)
Desiree Förster (Potsdam)
John Hockey (Gloucestershire)
Esther Leslie (London)
Helmut Lethen (Vienna)
Gunnar Schmidt (Trier)
Paula Schönach (Helsinki)
Elena Beregow, Urs Stäheli
Conference Venue - Day 1 (14th of June)
Steinstraße 5-7, 20095 Hamburg
Conference Venue - Day 2 (15th of June)
Heilwigstraße 116, 20249 Hamburg