From Context to Atmosphere – a reflection on language

A short intervention given for a workshop on Atmosphere in Denkerei,Berlin 21-October, 2012

A few years ago when I was working on the question of context, with related to the research on the history of artificial intelligence and Heidegger, Alfred Schutz, Goetz Bachmann introduced to me the concept of “Atmosphere” after his research in Japan. That posed me a question, which is not yet fully resolved: what is the relation between context and atmosphere? Are they the same thing? If not, what could this relation be. This inquiry came to my mind from time to time, and what is more intriguing is with related to my research at that time is: if a language of context is possible in Artificial Intelligence, how about a language of atmosphere? This was the ultimate question between language and atmosphere I wanted to pose. But that is not the focus of this intervention, I want to step back and look at another relation between atmosphere and language, and against the previous speakers, I want to propose that atmosphere is not a feeling, always linguistic, or in other words, it is an expression, maybe I can say, an expression of context.

I want to start by a short poem by Goethe, that was my first encounter with German language:

Wanderers Nachtlied

Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln spürest du
kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur,
Balde ruhest du auch.

Written on 6 September 1780 on the wall of a wooden hut at the peak of the Kickelhahn mountain near Ilmenau, in this poem there is no doubt a certain atmosphere, that brings tranquility to the wanderer. The peaks, trees, birds, quietness, the breath, etc, that we can extract from the picture, all these elements construct a context, but what would be the condition that it becomes or produces an atmosphere ? Or is what we call “atmosphere”, simply the wanderer’s own fantasy or feeling? Noted that the word atmosphere is closely related to “air” to “breath”, but shall we reduce it simply to the biological and physiological effect?

In 1934, Von Uexkull published his book Streifzüge durch die Umwelten von Tieren und Menschen: Ein Bilderbuch unsichtbarer Welten, which was an inspiring source to Heidegger’s take on the “world”. The world become the source of significations, that enables our orientation in our everyday life. In the well known example given by Von Uexkull, a tick, an insect without eyes, is resting on a branch, and detecting the signals from the wind, the smell, the change in temperature of its surrounding, in order to fall itself to the body of an animal passing by. Now, lets imagine a cow passing by, it creates a context defined by different parameters, which trigger the tick to “fall”, if the tick is lucky it can stick itself to the skin of the animal, and suck its blood. Otherwise, it will have to slowly go back to the tree and wait for another passing-by animal. Is the question of atmosphere thinkable for the tick, who doesn’t have a proper language? Or this pre-linguistic or semiotic nature only constitute an context but not an atmosphere? This requires us to move from a semiotic interpretation to a linguistic interpretation.

In 1979, Kittler published a commentary on “Wandrers Nachtlied” entitled “Lullaby in Birdland”, based on his method of discourse on discourse channel condition, he reposed the question: who was speaking in this poem? Was it the nature, or the wanderer? And Kittler introduces the third person, who is not present in the visible and audible setting: it was the voice of the mother who was speaking. According to Kittler, it was the emmergence of bougeoise nuclear family in the late 18th century, that turns the mother into a role of caregiver, the lied has close relation to the new technique of child rearing practices. Regardless of the critique of Kittler’s method, and his interpretation of Lacan, Heidegger,etc, some other readings of the oriental influence on Goether, what is clear is that something arises from this context, which is neither entirely subjective nor objective. If by subjective we mean personal feelings of the wanderer, and by objective, the appearances of things. The atmosphere becomes a voice that is speaking, that is necessarily linguistic, and at the same time always absent. Now I want to propose that this voice is the expression of the context. What is particular in this expression is tension.

I would like to re-introduce the idea of tension into the concept of atmosphere. In Chinese and Japanese, atmosphere is also closely related to air, but without any national pride, I tend to think that the Chinese correspondent of atmosphere has a richer meaning. The two characters “chi feng”, “qi” is air or gas, but “feng” has an etymology of “evil or unfavorable signals”, it was originally used to describe wars. Atmosphere is always a tension, and if I have time, I would love to connect this to Simondon’s individuation. It was a winter night in Paris, after giving a talk on Uexkull and Simondon, I had dinner with Bernard Stiegler, he was quite serious during the dinner, and he finally told me: “Yuk, we are not ticks, we have coats, we have computers, you must not stop at Heidegger and Von Uexkull”. Yes, we are not ticks, we speak, we reproduce things. And I think today if we are going to think through the question of atmosphere in the domain of philosophy, media and politics, we must re-access this linguistic expression.

Let me cut it short: in the Wandrers Nachtlied, or in the example of the tick, there is a particular relation between ontology and language, world manifest itself in the breath of the observers in harmony. A steady dialogue between the observer and the world around him or her is possible. Stabilization. We have several names for such harmony, the sublime – with Kant, or aura, with Walter Benjamin. Resonating with Goethe’s description of trees and mountains, Walter Benjamin posed a doubt, also an affirmation of the transformation of this aesthetic experience.

What is aura actually? A strange tissue of space and time: unique appearance of distance,however near it maybe. Resting on a summer evening and following a mountain chain on the horizon or a branch, which throws its shadow on the person at rest that is to breathe the aura of these mountains or this branch. With this definition it is easy to comprehend the particular social determination of the present decay of aura …

If I am allowed to read it in this way, the mechanical reproduction, especially the invention of the cinematographic language, intrude the stable registration between language and ontology, and re-create another voice, or another linguistic function. This reading moves away from the discourse on the condition of discourse of Kittler, to a more intimate relation between language and atmosphere: that is to say media and technologies’ ability to program contexts, and the control of the “distance” between the subject and objects in order to reconstitute the aesthetic experience…

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