“The Accident is not an exception or a sickness of our apolitical regimes; nor is it a correctable defect of our civilization: it is the natural consequence of our science, our politics, and our morality.”
— Octavio Paz, Conjunctions and Disjunctions.
Our lives are filled with accidents, from the mundanity of spilled milk and a slip of the tongue, to large-scale, mediated and mediatized accidents; here we sit, glued to the screens, as increasing numbers of unruly cyclones smash into tropical coasts, as Black-Hawk helicopters fall out of Iraqi and Afghani skies, as friendly-fire death reports issue from the war-zones of the Middle-East, as narcotized teenagers suicide on the side-effects of their over-prescribed anti-depressants. Representations of the accident span the highs and lows of culture; there is a popular culture of the accident and the disaster – remember when The Coast was Toast!? – and an avant-garde culture of chance and aleatoric production. There is a discourse and an aesthetic of the accident, a mode of concerned and shocked reportage and a standard plot-line by which to invite the accident in, to excite, abreact and entertain. Accidents are events, and they produce events, they are constituted within spectacular milieux.
Accidents are generally understood to happen by chance. They are seen as the mark of a failure to maintain control of an environment, or as the unexpected outcome of “natural” environmental occurrences. But perhaps accidents can be seen in another way, as productive, in the sense that seemingly incongruous things and events coincide or collide and together create possibilities and release potentials. Or maybe, as Octavio Paz suggests, they’re not accidents at all! In a world that is increasingly reliant on technological means of knowing and doing, accidents come thick and fast, and the accidentality of the accident is brought soundly into question.
An environment is a fluid milieu of intermingling forces that condition the many contexts of life. Environments are forms of immanence that make life livable, but within certain constraints, liberties and conditions. Environments are permeable – they always exceed the dictates of science, capital and politics that try to control and contain them. An accidental environment, then, is an environment that is constituted on the possibility of accidents happening. There are control environments in which the accident is reduced to a particular instance of a more general problem, but there are also creative environments which feed off the chance incident or encounter, and the singularity of the event. This issue of Transformations is dedicated to the exploration and enumeration of accidental environments, in all their absurdity, surreality and techno-logic.
Today, both the body and the biosphere are accidental environments; as two of the poles of the bio-techno nexus, both formations exceed their discursive boundaries, breaking the banks of phenomenological and ontological constraints. In “Cruel Weather: Natural Disasters and Structural Violence,” Dennis Soron argues that the so-called natural disasters and climate-induced disturbances that occur today with increasing regularity, must be seen not as accidents of a natural environment, but as forms of “structural violence,” the quotidian workings of unscrutinized power structures. For Soron, it is the very accidentality of the environment that must be interrogated, bringing into relief the political, economic and technological workings of decisions that are all too often obscured by either the scale of the effects or the “natural” status of the events.
Likewise, if the environment has become the site of an ongoing techno-social experiment, the body, also, is touched by the same logic. As Bjorn Nansen argues in “Machine Breaths: Assembling the Mechanical Ventilator Body,” prosthetic and other medical technologies such as the Mechanical Ventilator (MV) call into question the relation between the human body and “assistive” technologies. While many contemporary accounts of the relation between the human body and technological prostheses revolve around notions of “the cyborg” and “the posthuman,” Nansen argues the need for an understanding of “situated relations,” wherein it is no longer possible to understand either the human body or the technological apparatus as ontologically bounded and separate. Nansen counters the approach taken by writers such as Paul Virilio, who see technology as an accident of the human, by arguing that the human body is always-already accidental, always-already imbricated in heterogeneous domains and relations.
Continuing this concern for the status of the accidental body in post-industrial society, and linking it to concerns over environmental disasters, in “Toxic shock: gendered environments and embodied knowledge in Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Todd Haynes’s [Safe],” Rachel Carroll calls for an examination of the structured relations between female bodies and environmental toxicity. Carroll traces the processes by which feminine embodiment is problematised through association with cycles of consumption and invasive environmental influences. In this schema, the female body is permeable and open to environmental toxins and illicit pharmaceutical panaceas, not to mention the suggestive powers of a media apparatus dedicated to products and processes of body management.
In “Calculated Uncertainty: Computers, Chance Encounters, and “Community” in the Work of Cedric Price,” Rowan Wilken presents quite a different accidental environment: the mobile and recombinant architecture of British architect Cedric Price. As Wilken argues, the projects of Cedric Price, many of which were never built, represent a concerted effort to build factors of chance and spontaneous creation into the built environment; a built environment that is, ironically, dedicated to its own un-building. Wilken further argues that the works of Cedric Price, with their concern for communities of affinity and the chance encounter, can be understood as prototypes for the “social media” of Web 2.0 and virtual communities of contemporary network culture.
For Tony Sampson, however, the flip-side of social media’s chance encounter and happy accident is the virally-infested, spam-slammed, unstable and accident-prone digital network. Countering the time-worn history of the Internet as a robust military network of Cold-War origin, in “The Accidental Topology of Digital Culture: How the Network Becomes Viral,” Sampson paints a picture of a fundamentally unstable Internet, a fractal network built not on perfectly orchestrated packet-switching and egalitarian data-routing, but on accidental connections that spawn accidental connections, producing spam and virus-ware as a vital off-shoot of this process. Rather than understanding the network through our firewalls and our proprietary software giants, then, Sampson advises us to “look to the lost plans, the emergent nodal clustering, the viruses, the worms, spam pollution, net porn and digital junk – these have all, in various ways, turned out to be significant to our understanding of the becoming of the network.”
Finally, where for Sampson the accident is the trojan-horse to centralized network power, for Don Winiecki, it emerges as a convenient mode of control in contemporary society. In “Accidental Participation in Control, in the Small of Society,” Winiecki draws on ethnographic research in U.S. call-centres to argue that the systems of surveillance, time-management and employee-reward that large organisations such as call-centres institute, both liberate and entrain the “subjects” of such systems. For Winiecki, this is a question of the decentralized and piecemeal constitution of a “control society” that produces accidental freedoms by exerting power over subjects.
The papers in this issue of Transformations make forays into a wide variety of accidental environments, teasing out the complications of accidents that aren’t accidental at all, and environmental disasters that are anything but accidental. In many ways, what emerges is the very (im)possibility of an accidental environment as such. And this is only to be expected, given the complex interweavings of biological, technological, cultural and environmental systems we observe today.
Cruel Weather: Natural Disasters and Structural Violence
Drawing upon the work of Johan Galtung, Pierre Bourdieu, Mike Davis, and other contemporary thinkers, this paper aims to establish a provisional framework for understanding the recent spate of global weather-related disasters not as arbitrary, independently-arising environmental accidents, but as expressions of “structural violence” – that is, the normal, unexceptional, anonymous, and often unscrutinized violence woven into the routine workings of prevailing power structures. In today’s context, the damage wrought by our increasingly entropic weather system cannot simply be attributed to brute, accidental and nonhuman origins; indeed, it has increasingly drawn attention to our own culpability in destabilizing the climate and undermining the support systems that help to shield us from its unmediated effects.
In this sense, ecological violence – that is, the callous misuse and despoliation of nature itself – rebounds back upon us as structural violence, destroying lives and livelihoods, amplifying existing conflicts and inequalities, and exposing countless people to severe storms, floods, drought, fire, disease, displacement, and chronic food and water insecurity. Responding effectively to the structural violence of climate change will require a correspondingly structural program of social change, oriented not simply towards small lifestyle improvements and technological fixes, but towards achieving a greater degree of democratic control over economic life, refitting the scale of production and consumption to respect environmental limits, reweaving our social and ecological safety nets, and creating a culture that respects the integrity, value, and complexity of human and nonhuman life.
Machine Breaths: Assembling the Mechanical Ventilator Body
In his study of the effects of speed, Paul Virilio articulates a theory of the “accident” that locates the destructive side effects and loss produced by and immanent to technoscientific development across transportation, communication and medical technologies. This paper considers this thesis through an analysis of the nexus formed between the body and the mechanical ventilator, mobilising the framework of Bruno Latour and actor-network theory to argue the body is not discrete, but continuous with a heterogeneous range of materials and technologies. This approach exposes the accident to a range of ambivalences and possibilities, broadening it beyond Virilio’s limited and negative definition. The accident, then, is not simply something that happens to bodies, but rather is something that is integral to the body.
Don De Lillo’s 1984 novel White Noise and Todd Haynes’s 1995 film [Safe] both depict “toxic events” which prompt crises of the body and of knowledge: the boundaries between normative and transgressive gendered identities and between legitimate and illicit knowledges are questioned. Moreover, in both texts the body and identity of a woman becomes the focus of this questioning; the ways in which these toxic events are acted out through the bodies of women reveals the implication of discourses of toxicity in discourses of feminine embodiment. Both Babette in White Noise and Carol in [Safe] suffer symptoms without cause, whose meaning the (masculine) discourses of medicine and psychiatry cannot articulate; they are converted from exemplars of normative gendered and sexual identity into deviants whose bodies exhibit a silent protest. In depicting the projection of crises of toxicity onto the body of a woman, these texts illustrate the persistence of cultural narratives which pathologise the female body and hystericize feminine subjectivity; the “authenticity” and “legitimacy” of a woman’s experience of a crisis of embodiment is placed in question by dominant cultural narratives which construct feminine subjectivity as incapable of self-knowledge and female materiality as irrational. By placing the discourse of toxicity in these texts in the context of discourses of feminine embodiment, especially those of consumption (bodily and economic) and of pathology, I intend to explore how these conspiracies of the female body prompt crises of masculine knowledge, discourse and power.
Iconoclastic British architect and theorist Cedric Price is noted for the comparatively early incorporation of computing and other communications technologies into his designs, which he employed as part of an ongoing critique of the conventions of architectural form, and as part of his explorations of questions of mobility. Three key unrealised projects of his are examined here which explore these concerns. These are his “Potteries Thinkbelt” (1964-67), “Generator” (1978-80), and “Fun Palace” (1961-74). This paper explores his use of computing and communications equipment in these projects, as well as the theoretical influences (including systems theory and cybernetics) that informed his approach to designing them. These influences, it will be argued, are interesting for the way that Price employed them in the development of a structurally complex and programmatically rich architectural environment which was, simultaneously (and somewhat paradoxically), to be an “accidental environment”. In examining his work and evaluating its lasting significance, two arguments are developed. First, it is argued that Price’s work is significant for its engagement with the self-contradictory idea of the “prepared accident”, in which meticulous planning and preparation are employed in order to encourage chance, serendipity, and accident. Secondly, it is argued that Price’s work is important for its theoretical rigour and its early incorporation of computing and communications technologies. More specifically, his Fun Palace project in particular is significant as an early exploration of experimental forms of technologically mediated social interaction.
The Accidental Topology of Digital Culture: How the Network Becomes Viral
Drawing upon recent empirical studies carried out in the field of complex networks and Deleuzeguattarian assemblage theory, this article argues that by grasping the composition of what appears to be an increasingly accidental topology, we can enhance our understanding of digital network culture. Contrary to those authors who have pointed to the cold war origins of the Internet (a manifestation of network power) as an essential property that seemingly structures network identity, this article explores the role of the unessential in the open-ended evolution of network culture. By doing so, the author sets out to challenge the causality afforded to essences by considering the role of unforeseen emergent properties and the mode in which the action of subsequent future events and accidents can inversely impact upon the unity of network identity.
The article initially situates viral vulnerability as an unforeseen emergent property, which evidently destabilises the axiomatic robustness of the network. According to assemblage theory, such topological properties can emerge from the symbiotic interactions that can occur between the material and expressive components of an assemblage producing new territories, which in turn interface with the assemblage – decoding, deterritorializing and transforming its topology. It is argued here that network vulnerability is actualised within the complex topological interactions that occur between capitalist network power and a social multiplicity (the multitude). In this process of transformation novel topological properties emerge that can trigger seemingly anomalous future events and accidents, like viral contagion and spam pollution. These events and accidents are as much a part of the network composition as the planned events found in its militarised history. In this way, they replace essential causality with a mode of fuzzy intermediate determinism described by DeLanda as “laying between the two extremes of a complete fatalism, based on simple and linear causal relations, and a complete indeterminism” (Deleuze and the Open-ended Becoming of the World). Indeed, Deleuze argues that the divergent actualisation of topological forms “takes place entirely within the unessential” (Difference and Repetition 189). It is this machinic process that ensures that the identity of capitalist network power is never absolutely guaranteed.
Accidental Participation in Control, in the Small of Society
The concept of “control society” arises from the post-structural formulations of a group of late 20th century philosophers and social theorists whose investigations into particular institutions in society show how definable regimes of thought and rationality come into being and become “normal”. These studies provide models that, when taken together, gesture toward an encompassing regime of thought, rationality and institutionalised action over Western society – what has been called “control society”. However, with few exceptions, studies of control environments take a high and abstracted view of the possibilities immanent in such a consolidation of rational regimes of thought and action. This paper responds to this gap in the literature to show how individuals participate in the accidental production of elements of “control” through their actions in the small, inter-institutional spaces of society.