A screenshot from the dance film "Korper" by choreographer Sasha Waltz.

Part of the series on the society of stimulation, this post introduces the idea of rhythms as theoretical machines and political tools of capital and workers.

In his inaugeral lecture at the Collège de France, published as How to live together, Roland Barthes goes into great detail on the subject of rhythms in order to answer the question of community. For Barthes, as it must at least sometimes be for the 50% of the global population that now live in cities, the question of community is that of whether it is possible to live together and alone at the same time. Barthes will eventually attempt to answer this question via an eccentric concept of rhythms. In this post I want to begin to approach the question of the rhythms of bodies and the rhythms of capital.

The WHO currently predicts that by 2050 up to 70% of human bodies on earth will be distributed within the urban environment. Many of the cities these bodies live and will live in are already subject to overcrowding as a result of strategies of urban planning that divide cities between their gentrified locations and clustered pockets of poverty stricken ghettos. More and more the answer to this problem seems to be that of a return to the vertical ghetto, the high-rise building that reaches up from the ground towards the sky, an idea that has even been put forward as a perverse "solution" to the Palestinian state, this time stripped of the radical and utopian dimensions of modernism. A familiar rhythm: the building of social housing- vertical or horizontal- in order to alleviate the problems of poverty and overcrowding in "the slums" followed by a period of planned neglect that leads to demolition and regeneration, which then reintroduces the problem of overcrowding in spill over regions. In Glasgow we are about to broadcast to the world, as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, the aseptic orgy of spectacular destruction with the demolition of Red Road flats.

Under these conditions Barthes's question, his fantasy as he describes it, must occur to more and more people, not least those who lack any sense of personal space cramped together as they are in the shanty towns, the genuine ghettos, the 5 to a one bedroom flat house, the however many migrant workers sharing a single room. I lived in Kilburn from 11 to 23 years of age, but only recently did I come across the comment that:

Only a manic optimist could look upon Kilburn High Road and not feel suicidal: it's going to take a lot of gentrifying.

For a period of years there was 7 of us living in what was a fairly generous 3 bedroom housing association flat: myself, 3 younger brothers, my mother and her husband and my uncle. It was more than once that I dreamed of living alone, feeling a faint guilt for it, and wondered whether it was possible to live with my family but in such a way that I could also be alone. I traveled to school on foot but by working age I had to commute, like most people, by the bus or the tube: packed into hot, enclosed, small spaces, sometimes pressed together in the tiny standing-room only doorways. On certain streets, much the same. Even out in the green spaces, a body found no space to be alone. Kilburn is under the process of being gentrified, becoming a little less unhomelike every time I return to visit, but continues to resist that gentrification in a number of ways. The background conditions of my life, suicidal urbanism and the pharmacology of gentrification, are spread across the populated centres. A condition of urban living is a deprivation of isolation. Is it any surprise that we thus hide behind newspapers, novels, headphones and iphones? These are technologies of alienation; coping techniques for being getting a little distance in an overexposed situation.

This description of the urban environment isn't one that many affluent people would get: there is an undoubted class component to this question. But the problem is one that has its models elsewhere. I've already touched on the ghetto, but we could also find models of suicidal urbanism in the camp, the psychiatric ward, the prison. In other words the model is disciplinary space. This is how disciplinary regimes tend to reproduce themselves within societies of control: as the logic governing the logic of the interior of spaces that are otherwise open to a regulated flow, and none more so than in the functional atavism of explicitly carceral space. Of course, these spaces are not without the class component: they act as cryogenic treatments applied to the flows of bodies, freezing them in place, arresting the space of their mobility and thus restricting their capacity for spatio-temporalisation: their rhythmicity. Which bodies? Those that have been marked out as the scapegoated life not worthy of living, those who have broken the laws of state and capital, and those who have refused to comply with the codes regulating public and private patterns of speech and behaviour: the subhumanised immigrant other, the criminal, and the mad.

The architectural environments that these bodies are compelled into coupling with produce worlds in which privacy is already disappeared. Within prisons this has an open surveillance function whereas in the psychiatric mode surveillance is combined with a caring paternalism, a "watchful eye" that wants to attend to those in its charge. Despite this the earliest psychiatric spaces were based on the architecture of the prison and little has changed- in my own experience at least. Common aspects of psychiatric architecture are the placing of corridors along which bedrooms are arranged as branching from a central location from which the nurse and nursing assistants can easily view everything that goes on. Communal areas are likewise open to the clinical gaze and bedroom doors, individual, small rooms, mostly with en suite toilets but not always, also come with windows through which the patient can be seen. These small intrusions are huge deprivations when you stay in one of these places for more than a few days. They're justified via the argument that patients may harm themselves or harm other patients and/or staff members (the idea that staff should be observed is less of an issue). Locked doors, sometimes including the perverse "air-lock" situation, create a segmentation of the hospital's space traversed by only the right body at the right time under the right conditions, whether it is staff or patient. All of this, as anyone who has read Foucault will know, is designed to achieve a specific effect of moral subjectivation, a point that is entirely revealed in the idea of a '

'. These spatial arrangements that correspond to the abstract machinism of panopticism are accompanied by an imposed serialised temporality: a routine.

In the addictions center where I work the routine runs as follows:

7-9am: clients may get up, wash, dress and eat. This is free time but it needs to be given over to these activities. Where-ever free time is stated it is also expected that clients will engage with any outstanding work that needs done (ie. care plans, phone calls to other agencies and so on).

9am-onwards: am medication round. Clients will get medicated at any point during the next hour to two hours, depending on what people are getting and who is giving it, and whether or not medication time is used as a way to have conversations with clients about their desires, hopes, plans so on.

11:30: Groupwork.

12:30: Lunch.

13:30-14:30: Free time/medication.

14:30-15:30: Groupwork.

15:30 onwards: free time.

18:00: Medication. From this time clients may access mobile phones.

18:30: Group activity (usually NA or equivalent).

Onwards: Free time.

21:00: Medication.

00:00/01:00: Curfew/weekend curfew.

We can see that the rhythm established for the day is one based primarily on reintroducing chaotic drug-users into a "normal" daily routine. This is a rhythm that is coupled to and determined by the dictates of a society based on work. The client may have been a long time out of the daily structure that most workers are expected to adhere to, getting up whenever they get up, taking a hit, going to get some more, doing whatever whenever, as dictated by the rhythms imposed by the pharmacological interactions between drug and metabolism. Up in time for work, get started, get your shit done and then lounge about later: it mirrors the routines of most people outside the ward environment, although at this point it is probably more rigid than is the routine of people living as cells of precarious labour time. This has always been part of the point of asylums, hospitals, in-patient treatment centers of all kinds: the provision of a structure to one's day, to return the subject from its wanderings, its laziness or hyperactivity, into the regularity of the mass rhythm of an organised existence. I am passing no judgement on the idea that routine is therapeutic as such, it certainly can be. However, what is important to note is that this routine is imposed. In fact, as most of the activities undertaken by residents are accompanied by their various workers it is also the case that this routine is imposed on those workers too. The extent to which a client makes herself "fit into" the ward or unit routine is also the extent to which her engagement with her recovery and/or treatment is to be gauged. There is thus established a direct link between compliance to the new routine, the bringing to bear of will (talked about in terms of volition, motivation, and desire), the acceptance of responsibility, and the process of recovery itself. Collapsing all this down, it is quite possible to find nursing notes that simply say "Settled day today; attended all group and activities, interacted well".

The structuring of the day inside the unit is meant to encourage the likelihood of the individual similarly structuring their day outside the unit: the disciplinary aspect of treatment regimes coming out on a macro-scale when we consider the above conflations so that the ward routine becomes a scaffold and a training for the growth of the apparent flourishing of personal autonomy. Those who comply with the routine are rewarded. This can't simply be reproduced to the formula that the rhythm of the unit is the disciplining of the body along the requirements of the rhythm of capital, as it is well documented that a lack of any structure whatsoever can lead to depression (this is one of the ways that unemployment mediates mental suffering).

Where I work the reward for those who engage is often as simple as being taken out to the shop or being allowed to attend the cinema on weekends. If you are compliant with the routine, a regime that established a regularly segmented temporality, and if you also comply with the micro-routines within those segmentations (saying this then, doing that now, being seen here at this time) then you are also compliant with a particular distribution of bodies within a spatio-temporalisation that comes from the organisational space of the unit itself. The same is true for all such spaces, I'm only sticking to the one I'm most familiar with. In the medical, psychiatric and addictions domains this routine is also determined by the fact of medications (this drug needs to be taken now and then at this time, due to its half-life, its possible interactions, surgical requirements etc), and by bureaucratic requirements: on day one at the unit the client must receive a room key, be oriented to the unit, have GPs, care managers, criminal justice workers, psychiatrists (etc) informed of their admission, service agreements must be signed, and all paperwork for the above must be signed and co-signed; a few days in and care plans must be complete; a week or so in and a review must have been arranged and undertaken; everything is finally dictated by the discharge date, all arrangements with all agencies having had to take place by that more-or-less fixed date.

Individuals come into the unit at different times, the rate of their detox being different from each to each, their discharge time being different depending on their needs and date of admission, but their days structured the same, almost identically, with only minor deviation, for the length of their stay. There are many ironies we could draw out of all this, especially those surrounding the development of responsibility and autonomy from within strictly controlled confines where noncompliance is punished, but that's not within my scope. I need to get back to the question of rhythms.

What I hope the foregoing shows is that life on the unit where I work- as it is in psych wards, prisons, camps, and, in some jobs, the office, factory or kitchen- is largely determined by the imposition of a particular rhythm on all the bodies that enter into that space. Salzman-Erikson (2013) has gone so far as to suggest that 'caring in intensive psychiatry can be accurately described as the projection of rhythms and movements'. In that dissertation Salzman-Erikson talk of nurses bringing movements to bear on distressed individuals, and equates movements with 'cultural knowledge', or implicit and embodied knowledge, such as knowing how and when to talk to an aggressive individual in such a way that they are soothed and calmed or de-escalated. In the language of his dissertation Salzman-Erikson tells us that psychiatric nursing is focused on a 'culture of stability' in which the goal is to apply a series of movements in order to produce a rhythm of stability. To this is counterposed the 'turbulence' of moments of crisis, disorganisation, uncertainty, and resistance. I can't help but read this "projection" via the psychoanalytic idea of projection as an exteriorisation of some interiority- the mapping of a phantasy onto the material- that is inflected by embodiment. In psychoanalysis projection is the core of the mechanism of transference through which the analyst is met by the analysand via a series of interpretations that are haunted by others (the analysand treats her analyst as if she were really her father). But in the present circumstance the idea is closer to one in which the nurse's movements, his literal embodiment of certain bodily know-how (talk with this voice; stand at this distance; in this stance; eyes making contact for this length of time; so on), create an overall effect in which he projects them onto the patient. The patient is thus induced to behave as the nurse behaves not so much by the content of the nurses semiotic productions, his speech and the ideas they express, but by the semiosomatic coupling of the said and what it represents with the social codes and physiological mechanics of the saying: a soothing voice is more de-escalating than a shouted command to calm down.

In the text it is sometimes hard to tell whether this rhythmic structure of stability-turbulence applies to nurses, patients or the organisation of the ward itself. Most likely this is because it applies to all three. Having a rhythm of stability on an intensive psychiatric ward, an acute ward or any other minimises the risk of violence or other confrontations. Some forms of ward routine, such as those in the intensive psychiatric wards, are designed specifically to produce zones of destimulation in which hyperaroused bodies are given a stimulus-poor environment so as to attempt to environmentally control triggers by minimising stress. But there is a difference between a stabilising rhythm and stabilised rhythm, just as their is a difference between constituting power and constituted power. One refers to a kind of responsive rhythmatics, while the other is rigid and imposed. The stabilised rhythm is the one that I referred to above as a serialised temporality. With this term I'm directly invoking Sartre:

There are serial behaviour, serial feelings and serial thoughts: in other words a series is a mode of being for individuals both in relation to one another and in relation to their common being and this mode of being transforms all their structures (Sartre 2004, 266).

Sartre's most famous example of seriality is that of the queuing for the bus. Sartre points out that while we're waiting for the bus we are waiting among others who are also waiting among others. We are aware that we are an other to those others and that the others are others to us. The nature of this otherness is that they, and we, are indifferent others to one another. To illustrate the point Sartre draws our attention to how people waiting for a bus do not speak to each other or how, if they do speak to each other, that they do not care about each other. In Sartre's words they are 'a plurality of isolations' (2004, 256). In the bus queue stands a black woman, a couple of white men, one who is a working class gay man, the other is a middle class straight guy, and a pair of old women; some of these people may be politically active, while others are not; some may be ill and others well; they will have diverse backgrounds, commitments and projects; none of which matters the slightest to any of them insofar as they remain members of the queue waiting for the bus. They do not live with one another in this context, they only 'live side by side' (2004, 256). For Sartre this isn't just a question of the processes of waiting in a line but is also the result of the praxis of those waiting in line: he describes how we have practices whereby we turn our backs on one another, how we might avoid eye-contact, put the paper up to our faces as a shield that cuts off the possibility of visual contact, a strategy that Sartre points out isn't completely realisable- we always see and hear others.

Nonetheless, we can see in this example of seriality part of the core of the phenomena as exactly what I described above as techniques of alienation. In the absence of any genuine sense of living-with we instead opt for and become involved in an active arrangement of ourselves as isolated units. The bus queue is the series that I partake in as someone waiting for a bus side-by-side with others. It might be worth pointing out here and now that someone who didn't get involved in the practices of seriality, someone who didn't isolate himself from the others, who didn't recognise himself as fundamentally isolated and isolating, and who thereby transgressed the unwritten rules of series, by talking to others, laughing with them, maybe touching them, would be considered at best a weirdo and would risk, at the very worst, being immediately categorized as mad. If taken too far and enacted in the wrong setting, such refusal to get invested in the practices of seriality could result in the diagnosis of a psychotic illness. Here is one way to think about psychosis then: the spontaneous refusal of serialised existence. At the bottom of seriality, which Sartre makes more explicit in his examination of the seriality of 'the market', we find the phenomena of interchangeability:

each of them is effectively produced by the social ensemble as united with his neighbours, in so far as he is identical with them (2004, 259).

Each individual in the series, insofar as she is both made to be and makes herself to be nothing more than a practitioner of the practices of queuing for the bus, and insofar as she makes herself into an incompletely isolated and isolating subject, is producing herself, via the general compliance to the practices of queuing and catching the bus, as a bus commuter. This holds true for each of the members of the series who are only really others to the others even as they are the same. In waiting at the bus stop nothing matters but the practices and performances of waiting for the bus. It doesn't matter who or what you are, your singularity being of absolutely no relevance, indeed it being something of which you seek to rid yourself, and as such you, me, and everyone else at the bus stop become completely interchangeable. This is obviously an example of capitalism on the small scale. A factory worker, in Sartre's time, could die and from the perspective of the factory nothing would have changed because another worker could be made to stand in his place. In today's circumstances, after neoliberalism's recomposition of labour, we stand as cellular units of labour-time that capital is able to turn on or off as it wants, fractals in Bifo's terms, and as such our seriality is ever more intensified. In a rare break with a version of humanism Sartre even states that seriality is even induced by nonhuman bodies: the organisation that administers public transport erects a bus-stop and the bus-stop serves as the rallying point, the gravitational centre, around which the commensurable bodies of commuters gather.

If seriality is a kind of making isolated that is a drawing together that preserves isolation then it is a kind of negative community, a community based on practices of distancing between self and other that ultimately draws out the disappearance of singularity in that mode of relation: I distance myself from you in a shared context that neither of us really manages to share and in which neither of us feels like "myself". Sartre doesn't just talk about what you and I do, he also talks about when you and I do it. We wait for the bus this morning, we are commuting from where we are resident and so have lived for whoever many months or years, the journey takes a certain amount of time, and we might organise it so as to give ourselves a little time before we get to work. The queuing and the bus is experienced as a certain 'daily eternal return'(2004, 259). Within this series 'everything is temporalised' (2004, 259). This temporalisation that occurs in advance (streets, roads, buses, bus lanes, bus stops, ticket machines....all appear prior to the commuter) is not just the temporal dimension of seriality but also the seriality of temporalisation.

This serialisation of the rhythms of everyday life must be updated from Sartre's time to include the cloud-connective electronic domains of the smart phones and ipads, augmented reality and google glass. In this new situation seriality itself has been updated by Franco Berardi in the idea of desingularisation. He even has roughly the same example as Sartre, that of the train. The commuters now are

travelling alone in their lonely relationship with the universal electronic flow. Their cognitive and affective formation has made of them the perfect object of a process of desingularization. They have been pre-emptied and transformed into carrier of abstract fractal ability to connect, devoid of sensitive empathy so as to become smooth, compatible parts of a system of interoperability (Berardi 2011, 132).

Seriality proceeds via the introduction of a rigid massified rhythm. This can be more or less total, more or less disciplinary, more or less explicit. The carceral spaces don't need to hide what's going on, while the therapeutic spaces modify them for their own ends and end up having to justify those same practices as forms of management or else as rehabilitative. These spaces, serving a laboratories for the social field as a whole, come into contact with pharmacological techniques for the management of everyday life and the subordination of bodies. What changes from Sartre to Bifo is less the development of specific cybertechnologies but more the emptying in theory of bodies of workers that capitalism would like to achieve in materiality. With Sartre we see a process whereby the commuter takes up a negative stance in praxis that renders them exchangeable, whereas in Bifo there is only the pre-emptied component of a process of interoperability. The difference between exchange and interoperability is that between a replacement part or a new device and the USBification of all devices into totally compatible units. What Bifo misses that Sartre allows for is some kind of agency on the part of bodies; what both miss is the possibility that bodies have their own rhythms that resist the imposed rhythmicities of power and which it must alter via methods of biotechnological colonisation on the scale of the molecule, if it wants to live up to the phantasy Bifo conjures for it. What is lost in each treatment is the sense in which becoming-isolated isn't only an effect of capital or power but is also a means of coping-with-capitalism in conditions where social circuitry of solidarity is under erosion.

A rhythm may be imposed or it may be generated by those who move in accordance to it. Under each condition it will look very similar, but paying attention, a scarce cognitive resource, reveals a difference. Here we are returned to Roland Barthes's How to live together. Specifically, we are placed in a position of agreement with Barthes's conclusions:

Before anything else, the first thing that power imposes is a rhythm (to everything: a rhythm of life, of time, of thought, of speech) (2002, 35).

The next part of this series on the society of stimulation will focus on other examples and modalities of how power operates via the imposition of rhythms, taking its point of departure from this idea that power imposes a rhythm. In particular I'll focus on biorhythms and technorhythms and how each are open to intervention by the other, and at how drugs are used (and "mis"used) as ways of producing specific rhythmicities by power and by those who oppose or attempt to survive it. Both are attempts to generate rhythms of stability within a turbulent existence.

A further future article will look at responses to the problem of the rhythm that might be useful to anarchists, including Roland Barthes concept of ideorrhythmy and RD Laings autorhythmia.

Other posts coming in the near future are part two of the history of CBT, and a post on RD Laing and the politics of the family.


Barthes, R. 2013 edition. How to live together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces. New York: Columbia University Press.

Berardi, F. (Bifo). 2011. After the future. Edinburgh: AK Press.

Sartre, JP. 2009 edition. Critique of dialectical reason. London: Verso Books.

Posted By

sometimes explode
Apr 13 2014 06:48


  • Before anything else, the first thing that power imposes is a rhythm (to everything: a rhythm of life, of time, of thought, of speech).

    Roland Barthes

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