We normally think of irritation as a superficial, mood-dependent emotion, a fleeting sense of discomfort that recedes into indifference. Yet science has privileged it as positive and fundamental. Writing in 1948 in Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener in this way names irritability as “the third fundamental phenomenon of life” after metabolism and reproduction, and related to entropy as “a measure of a degree of disorganization.”
Wiener’s interest in life phenomena related to his theoretical work on “learning machines,” as he called them, and whose electronic circuits he analogized with the “animal nervous system.” This notion of machinal organicity turned out to be more complex than Wiener suggested—after all, machines don’t have the plasticity of animal bodies. Yet we can still appreciate the materialist tendency in his speculations through which he questions the location of life itself. The immediate background for this is how in our era, life itself—understood as a human and more-than-human, ecologically shared condition—is slipping away. We know how digital entities and processes mirror attributes of (human) life, but as Silvia Federici points out, “What threatens us are not only that the machines are taking over, but also that we are becoming like machines.” As foretold by so much critical theory, and by so many sci-fi stories, this implies that the future holds a reduction of affect that inures human subjects to human suffering and catastrophic ecological change: this hegemonic biopolitical operation dulls and defuses life in order to make it controllable and profitable, with the result that life and the conditions for its reproduction are damaged, often irreversibly. It seems that irritability can open up to a complex of issues related to life as a necessarily layered phenomenon whose parts implicate their codependency.
It is instructive to consider deep epistemologies on which contemporaneity is built, but are now more or less defunct—in this case cybernetics as a theory that informed our digital era and its prehistories.
It is instructive to consider deep epistemologies on which contemporaneity is built, but are now more or less defunct—in this case cybernetics as a theory that informed our digital era and its prehistories. Such anachronistic historical rhizomes can irritate our modernity and cloud its transparency. We can take one or two steps further back and consider how, around the time that Immanuel Kant developed the Enlightenment’s philosophical program for art, one of the great controversies in medical philosophy was the European debate on motion and sensation. The Swiss polymath Albrecht von Haller’s contribution to physiology, or “animal economy,” as it was often called at the time, was to distinguish between irritability, which is the capacity of the muscles to contract and produce movement, and sensibility, inherent to the nerves and “responsible for sensual impression.” This enabled elaborations on the interdependence of the two faculties, for instance concerning how strong irritation excites sensibility, and a strong sensation stimulates irritability.
For good reasons, sociology warns against importing concepts from the natural sciences to the sphere of human culture: it is an operation that risks the naturalization of social phenomena.
For good reasons, sociology warns against importing concepts from the natural sciences to the sphere of human culture: it is an operation that risks the naturalization of social phenomena. When I propose to appropriate irritability here, there is a different valorization at stake than is normally the case with such conceptual transpositions, seeing how irritability and irritation are concepts that go against the grain of assumptions of harmony and lawfulness, and other natural metaphors that are used to sell normality and sameness. What specifically interests me is how irritability rubs against moral assumptions that historically have travelled with art and still color our judgment of it, while accompanying it into institutions and marketplaces. But importantly, irritability does so without negating aesthetic experience: it speaks of a different kind of sensibility, a different order of perception and sensation than one attuned to ideas of good, true, and beautiful (and whatever affirmative correlates that they have in the present). As all genuine aesthetic processes, irritability is a disposition to be affected, to become other—in this case, the figure of a vexed becoming. If it has vitalistic connotations they concern a more-than-human vitalism without evolutionary telos, and characteristic of the connected and contingent vital togetherness in the between-and-across that is the symbiotic premise of life.
We can talk of irritated material that is volatile: literally “angry” or opaque, in response to a sick society, as the cliché goes, to a pathology of the body politic. It also suggests that the material is being irritated, being “messed with,” i.e., by the art or the artist. These are results of a problem-oriented artistic practice that relates its analysis to culture at large, and at the same time skeptically examines itself and the historical and contextual contrabands that travel with it. Irritation represents a lower limit of stimulation, friction, and excitement, or other ways in which tolerance is pushed. You can’t count on it to clearly announce itself as a pronounced disagreement or a clean break, nor for it to entirely disappear. It is fuzzy and mobile and hard to locate. It is in the bodies that make up public space and it nags the soul, too. It is for when confusion and dissent are on the horizon, not the desire for comfort or ideologies of ease. So we can also pass through irritation to complicate simplistic notions of freedom.
Irritation is fleeting and ordinary. Without the mystique of the unconscious, the drama of transgression and the allure of big Others, it didn’t have philosophical implications outside of early modern medical science. It is affect in a minor key, grey-toned and sliding in intensity—and not really mine, because I am not truly me when I am irritated. Irritation unmakes as much as it makes.
Irritation is fleeting and ordinary. Without the mystique of the unconscious, the drama of transgression and the allure of big Others, it didn’t have philosophical implications outside of early modern medical science. It is affect in a minor key, grey-toned and sliding in intensity—and not really mine, because I am not truly me when I am irritated. Irritation unmakes as much as it makes. It is beyond good and evil, but not heroically so. You can live with it. Or, you have to live with it, because irritability is a characteristic of life as a biological fact, and because it is the primary friction of the individual’s trade-off with civilization as the price we, according to psychoanalysis, pay for being cultured subjects (Freud’s “uneasiness in civilization”).
But if philosophers neglected irritation, artists and sub-and countercultures recognized its potential in the dimension of everyday life. Freaks, punks, hip-hoppers all had a knack for being annoying: this was their cultural literacy for getting on the nerves of straight society. You can call this a technique of infrapolitics that plays out on the invisible, subterranean territory of subordinate groups. In this light, too, the production of irritability can be seen as an avant-garde methodology for the integration of art and life. Hardly revolutionary in itself, it might be a way of keeping utopia on the agenda while giving hierarchies of expression, perception, and taste a good frottage.
While it is always good to be able to appreciate vanguard gestures that put a finger in your eye, I will mention a more classicist example here. In the mid-1950s, Lygia Clark discovered what she called “the organic line.” This doesn’t have the touch of human hands, nor is the organic line given by nature. It is “the line that appears when two flat surfaces of the same color are laid touching,” Clark writes. A momentary, near-invisible refutation of separation through a negative space. In her early work, Clark left between elements in her paintings and objects small lines of void that would draw in frame and surrounding space onto the painting’s surface. For Clark, this was a reply to mid-twentieth-century concerns about relations between plane and space, art and reality. Yet because the organic line permitted her to investigate liminal conditions beyond the question of form, the organic line makes for connective tissue, a structural coupling to something different, to an Other, or to the negative, by accepting divergence, while keeping in mind the multiple. Suely Rolnik employs her concept of o corpo vibrátil, or “the resonant body,” to talk about how Clark constructs a body-as-a-whole, in which all the senses—not only the visual—give it “the power to be receptive to the forces of its otherness, to be vulnerable to them.” Irritability, you could say, takes place on the organic line that modulates spaces or bodies and crosses being in the plural.
We can extend Clark’s and Rolnik’s insights to how social space is irrigated with unplanned encounters that are the by-products of its ordering mechanisms. Irritability suggests an intimate relationship between what Judith Butler calls materialization—“the effect of boundary, fixity and surface,” and what Sara Ahmed calls intensification, which is how impressions are created on a bodily surface. This negotiation of materialization and intensification plays out between intensively felt, yet always retold and cognitively mediated sensations and emotions, and our judgment of them. The outcome is a dynamic process that invariably speaks of thresholds and situations, and of the “sociality of bodily surfaces.” This is the transposition of Clark’s organic line to the social realm, perhaps, with all the nervousness and meta-nervousness that this implies.
Geared towards a maximum exchange of flows—money, information, commodities, subjectivities—a hyperconnected culture is a very irritated one. “When information is brushed against information…,” as Marshall McLuhan intoned in the late 1960s—without finishing this sentence: supposedly, in McLuhan’s info-utopia a sweet itching were to result. Seen from the perspective of today’s informational pathologies—the spread of misinformation, conspiracies, fake news—humankind long ago reached critical mass of info-brushing. Irritation is prone to break out where conviviality depends on transactional relations and consensual arrangements. Here it lurks as something that can be put aside for now. But its preconscious character and inconstant, deferred temporality make it volatile and prey to forms of exploitation that engage it as a substrate of antagonism. Our mixed togetherness must be mobilized and celebrated as such, in all its inherent differences, to challenge pure ontologies and nostalgia for origins that inflammatory discourse can flip into intolerance and hate.
Irritation creeps between entities and systems, and between the boundaries and surfaces of bodies as a persistent test of autonomy. More than this, if contemporary life is damaged life, to echo T. W. Adorno, this is also reflected in the brokenness and uncertainty of language. Irritability presses against language: it represents the ineluctable proximity—“extimacy” in Jacques Lacan’s neologism—of concepts, and of social institutions that are present in language and thereby mediate and massage, or repress and reduce, our self and our disposition for sensing and expressing ourselves. This is the pressure that rests on the language we use for working through the proximate Others that are co-constitutive of Self or of inside, and thus cannot be captured dialectically. It is a necessarily involved (multi-) perspective that urges us to address figures of sameness and alterity, human and more-than-human, actuality and virtuality, without privileging any of these terms, for our living-in-difference.
As Lygia Clark knew, this layered and dynamic contact consciousness revolves around vulnerability and receptivity. That which comes over you and acts on you shows you as being already-open, already-receptive. The experience that produces such rawness can be the beginning of a conversation based in the shared and embodied intensity of lived experience. Because our discomfort is more open-ended and transformation-prone than that which we believe is already dealt out and settled, it touches on the chronopolitics of art’s becoming into what is not-yet dominated in and by the present.