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Text as a technology for care and understanding

Research Seminar hosted by the Research Program “Rearticulating the Formation of Motivation”.

17.06.2021 | Knud Holt Nielsen

Dato tor 19 aug fre 20 aug
Tid 13:00    18:30
Sted Danish School of Education (DPU), Aarhus University, Campus Emdrup, room A200, Tuborgvej 164, 2400 Copenhagen

Research Seminar hosted by: Research Program “Rearticulating the Formation of Motivation”, School of Education, AU.

Organizers: Morten Nissen, Cecilie Ramsing (School of Education, AU) & Tine Friis (Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen)


August 19: Seminar at School of Education, Aarhus University (DPU), Emdrup

13.00 - 13:30
Introduction (TF & MN)

13:30 - 15:30
Psychology as a technology of texts. A conversation with Emily Martin

15:30 - 16:00
Coffee Tea Fruit

16:00 - 18:00
Presentation and discussion (Gerald Moore and Nikolaos Mylonas)

  • Nikolaos Mylonas: ‘And the winner wins a Big Book’: Autonomy and automation in addiction recovery

18:00 - 18:30
Rounding off (TF & MN)

19:30 -

August 20: Seminar at School of Education, Aarhus University (DPU), Emdrup

09:00 - 11:00
Jette Kofoed: Loud lessons on ethics

11:00 - 11:15

11:15 - 13:15
Morten Nissen: Textual motifs and meta-motives

13:15 - 14-15

14:15 - 16:15
Presentation and discussion (Louise Whiteley and Adam Bencard)

  • Louise Whiteley: Write like a Microbe?
  • Adam Bencard: Between text and objects – on anecdotes and counterhistories in exhibitions

16:15 - 17:00

Abstracts and readings

Text excerpts are available by emailing Cecilie Ramsing

Psychology as a technology of texts. A conversation with Emily Martin

In her newest book, Emily Martin traces how the discipline of psychology branched off from a root common with anthropology, and then goes on to uncover the social and moral practices of experimental psychology. She demonstrates the implications of how psychology developed as a science, both of its narrow focus and of the broad repercussions of that focus, in the commercial behavior design of big tech. The complex social culture of standardizing and individualizing behavior, which she finds in the psychological experiment, is how we now unknowingly form our lives and ourselves. 

In this conversation, we plan to further explore the relations between the technologies that carry and perform anthropology and psychology. How are the textual standards of academia part of what disciplines psychological experiments and connects them with the algorithms of social media? And how does this relate to the ways that anthropologists discipline themselves with their texts?

Suggested reading: Martin, E. (in press): Experiments of the Mind, ch. 10-11

Nikolaos Mylonas:  ‘And the winner wins a Big Book’: Autonomy and automation in addiction recovery

One of the most popular conceptualizations of addictive behaviour portrays the phenomenon as a disorder of compulsion (Lüscher, Robbins & Everitt, 2020). From this perspective, the addict is seen as making impulsive choices attempting to establish, through the use of psychotropic substances or other mind-altering activities (such as gambling), a pathway towards short-term pleasure and/or pain relief. Using philosophical terms, this understanding of addiction corresponds to a loss of individual autonomy (Shell, 2009), a state where the subject’s free will is compromised. It was the French philosopher Bernard Stiegler who insightfully understood technological artefacts as prosthetic pharmaka, forms of inorganic matter that can be both curative and toxic. Following his thought, we could consider psychoactive substances as forms of technological prosthesis which, while enhancing a subject’s autonomy by facilitating self-regulation, in the long-term undermine it by automatizing the transition to other states of mind. In this sense, addictive habits constitute a form of automation of the psychical apparatus replacing autonomous action with impulsive, technically mediated repetition. To a certain extent, addiction recovery can thus be considered as an attempt towards dis-automation, the regaining of the autonomy to make decisions that are not compulsive. In this endeavour, therapeutic texts function as another form of technological prosthesis that promote recovery through their systematic representation of the necessary steps towards a non-addicted way of life. The Big Book of Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) can be considered a primary example of such a text. Utilizing story-telling and other forms of narrative (Strobbe & Kurtz, 2012) the Big Book appears as a technical artefact of care, where personal stories attempt to represent the progression from addiction to sobriety (Ford, 1989) by the implementation of the 12-step method. Nevertheless, the emphasis of AA on surrendering to a ‘Higher Power’ and on following other addicts’ recovery principles hardly corresponds to a regaining of autonomy despite the group’s insistence on personal responsibility. This paradox can be found in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where the author’s ambivalent and often critical approach to AA’s paradigm of treatment appears to contradict the ‘successful’ AA-based recovery of the novel’s character Don Gately (Hayles, 1999). Through a close reading of Don Gately’s recovery, this paper will investigate whether addiction treatments aim at the restoration of individual autonomy, constituting a process of dis-automation, or instead achieve their therapeutic outcomes by promoting a transition from one form of automation (addiction) to a less destructive one.

Suggested readings: Moore, G. & Stiegler, B. 2020. Detox politics. Thinking-Salving the Retreat of the Public. In Hesselberth & de Bloois (eds.). Politics of Withdrawal. Rowman & Littlefield

Extracts from 

  • AA: 2001. The Big Book, 83-88
  • Wallace, D.F. 1996. Infinite Jest, 343-367

Jette Kofoed: Loud lessons on ethics.

In this talk I will address matters of ethics as it surfaced in a recent study of digital sexual assault where images (videos) are spread widely. I think of these videos as ‘text’. Entangled with these ‘texts’ is my production of text. Whatever was brewing in the case of digital sexual assault I studied, in obvious ways related to what was unfolding in the writing and thinking. In that process somehow the lessons on ethics and care seemed to be louder. In this talk I will unpack how all these texts found multiple shapes and forms and how they entangled in unforeseen manners, and not least, how, what I have come to think of as a restless ethics was at stake.

Suggested reading: Kofoed: Drawings in the Air: Digital Sexual Assault as an Event

Morten Nissen: Textual motifs and meta-motives

Is there a way that aesthetic motifs can suggest meta-motives? This question arises from aesthetic practices pursued as new ways to address the motivational dilemma in addiction counselling: That you must be motivated in order to benefit from a treatment of your motivational disorder, your ‘disease of the will’. Viewing aesthetics with Rancière as dissensus, art is neither instrumental nor its own purpose: Rather, it suggests reconfigurations of purposes. So a (creative) ‘Writing Group’ at a counselling facility can be ‘post-therapeutic’, a way of reflectively overcoming identities and problems framed as ‘clinical’. Interrogating poems for their motifs (form / content tensions), and for their place in intertextual landscapes, can be a way to openly address meta-motives rather than to manipulate motives as an answer to the motivational dilemma.

Suggested reading: Bank, de Neergaard, Nissen (in prep). Aesthetic Motifs and the Materiality of Motives. Theory & Psychology

Louise Whiteley, Write like a microbe?

Medical Museion and CBMR, University of Copenhagen


Recent scientific research suggests that the microbes that live on and in us can profoundly influence health and wellbeing, beyond the drama of infectious disease. In one sense, this is completely unsurprising. In another, it seems to lift a veil on an aspect of the world we have largely ignored. As if we have applied a new, microscopic filter to our perception, and can suddenly see microbes everywhere. In daily digestive discomforts, in mysterious chronic conditions, as an invisible factor in health inequalities, as an evolutionary partner, a constant companion or even constitutive part of all our tissues, organs, and systems. This has deep implications for how we care for ourselves, our communities, and an environment that refuses to remain outside the body. But we lack ways of articulating what a ‘holobiont’ human is, does, and experiences, which I argue has inhibited critical discussion of microbiome research, and eased its co-option by individualized notions of holistic health. The exhibition Mind the Gut at Medical Museion experimented with ways of relating to the microbial self, and a creative writing course Writing from the Gut used the exhibition’s objects, stories, and texts as sites to generate new texts. The course used writing exercises including perspective taking, translation, scale-shifting and world-building, in attempts to playfully sidestep the apparent gulf between the invisible organism and the inhabited body; navigating the territory between the intimate and the uncanny. I will describe some experiences from the course, and the ways in which the difficulties, even impossibilities, of writing in this way then acted as a scaffold for discussing the ethics and epistemics of thinking of ourselves as multispecies holobionts. Contrasting the exhibition and the writing course will also draw out the importance of considering where the ‘readers’ of the texts are situated and how their meaning-making is imagined.  

Suggested reading:

Short blog post: https://www.museion.ku.dk/2020/12/writing-from-the-gut-microbes/

Bencard, A., & Whiteley, L. (2018). Mind the Gut—displaying microbiome research through artistic collaboration, Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease, 29:2, 1555433.  

The Mind the Gut catalogue 

Adam Bencard: Between text and objects – on anecdotes and counterhistories in exhibitions

Medical Museion and CBMR, University of Copenhagen

Exhibitions weave together things and texts, creating spaces which circulate both meaning and presence. This makes them interesting places to think about theoretically about and experiment practically with how texts can function. This talk takes its point of departure in the exhibition Mind the Gut and the catalogue that accompanied it, in order to discuss two theoretical notions that influenced it, both borrowed from literary theory. The first is the concept of the anecdote as counterhistory, as developed in particular by Stephen Greenblatt and other proponents of the so-called new historicism. The other is the conceptual pairing of metaphor and metonymy, developed by the Dutch philosopher of history Eelco Runia. Both are tools with which to explore and explode the work texts can do, and which I will argue have a particular resonance for the spaces in between texts and objects.

Suggested reading: Bencard, A. (2014). Presence in the Museum: On metonymies, discontinuity and history without stories. Museum & Society, 12(1),29.

General Description

The recent and ongoing transformations of information technologies give rise to renewed considerations of text as technology. In philosophy and in the social sciences, Derrida’s theoretical legacy is revisited (e.g. Latour’s concept of ‘inscription devices’ and Stiegler’s reconstruction of the ‘pharmakon’ of text), the conceptual distinction and overlap between poetics and knowledge is reformulated (Rancière), and alternative forms of academic writing and presentations are explored (Haraway, Neimanis). The reconsiderations of text as technology also unfold as empirical explorations of textuality - in general (e.g. www.Scriptopolis.fr), or more specifically in various fields of practice.

Textuality is related to governance by standardization of practices such as those of education, medicine, or care (Smith, Mol). In teaching, this governance interacts in complex ways with the traditional place of text in the education of literate and enlightened citizens. In practices of mental health care, text is also studied as performative and cultivated in for example ‘writing groups’ for psychiatric patients or users of drug counselling,  and in the use of poetry in narrative therapy. Such practices experiment with various aspects of textuality, developing purposes and forms that move beyond institutional traditions of care. The relation between textuality and governance is part of the wider transformation ‘from cure to care’ that has popularized health and medicalized everyday life. Self-diagnosing through social media or internet biosocialities can, for example, be seen as a contemporary textual technology of healthcare - in addition to traditional medical records and journals. Changing publics, communities and genres of health derive from and give rise to changing purposes, and thus to questioning the multiple forms and functions of text in this field.

Similar problematizations arise from the aesthetic field along with the growth of hybrid arts, relational aesthetics, and the fusion of art with aesthetic theory (Groys, Rebentisch). Poets (like other artists) explore the implications of breaking down the distinction between the person and the position of the author, of inviting or sampling ‘outsider artists’, and of reshaping the texture of texts.

These theoretical and practical problematizations connect to a growing field of studies, investigating how texts (or derivates, successors, etc. of text) are made, used, and have an impact when they are carried by new media such as emails, twitter, SoMe, TicToc etc.  Such recontextualizations of ‘text’ prompt reconsiderations of how and when ‘texts’ are (un-/)healthy,  (mis-/)informative, stultifying or edifying - and also of what constitutes ‘text’ as such. 

To say that this research is “about textuality” has two meanings: 1. Research turns textuality into its object of study, and 2. Research reflects on itself as reading, producing and performing text. In some cases, both aspects are relevant, for example, in the methodological tradition of ‘Memory Work’ (Haug and others) where writing is seen to recreate the selves who are studied and further cultivated toward publishing, thus used as data and method. This reflexivity of text is connected to disturbing the conventional image of research as a linear progression: state-of-the-art → problem → method → data → analysis → publication. In a similar vein, exhibitions are ”about textuality,” investigating a topic through exhibits, while reflecting on itself and its visitors through fund applications, informative texts on walls, catalogues, advertisements and exhibition events etc. Museum and research practice goes hand-in-hand at Medical Museion, a medical museum and research department at the University of Copenhagen. Besides being the location of the course, the exhibitions and practice of Medical Museion form part of the problematization of textuality, for example in public science communication about health.

The issue of text as technology opens questions about the demarcations between academic disciplines if we take up the reflections following Derrida. Text is no longer a (scientific or otherwise) representation, nor an inconsequential or perverting formalization, of a more true and authentic speech, practice, or everyday life. Research can thus no longer be “about” processes that are outside of text. Reflections on textuality in philosophy, science and technology studies (STS), anthropology etc. question the constitution of the objects of psychology as of any other science. Conversely, psychological, public health and other practical or scientific analyses and experiences are pertinent to philosophical reflections on the textual performance of thinking.