Atmospheric Phenomenologies, Vibes, and Algorithms

This is an excerpt from the last chapter of GOOD VIBES ONLY. It zooms in on Marina Peterson’s Atmospheric Noise and Eric A. Stanley’s Atmospheres of Violence to examine how critical phenomenology can contribute to a critical analysis of the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation. This excerpt argues that the way Peterson and Stanley figure “atmosphere” makes it an analog for the qualitative vibes and quantitative vector-based models that the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation use to model and govern reality.

Marina Peterson and Eric Stanley use the figure of atmosphere to theorize the lived experience or phenomenology of illegitimate forms of existence – noise and near life. While Peterson thinks atmosphere more geophysically and Stanley in a more figurative way, they both use the concept of atmosphere to articulate orientations shaped analogously to vibes and vectors.

Claiming that “sensory perception figures a body as being part of a world of atmospheric qualities rather than separable from it” (10), the atmospheric is Peterson’s term for situatedness in Beauvoir’s sense or orientation in Ahmed’s. Depending on the situatedness of my body relative to my environment, and that environment’s situatedness vis-a-vis the particularities of my own body, sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing will bring some things in closer proximity than others. I live in Connecticut in the 2020s, and sometimes I can see, smell, and feel in my lungs the smoke from Canadian forest fires that the wind has blown down to New England…but only because I have an unimpaired sense of smell, am not prone to asthma, and I wear glasses to correct my vision. The particularities of my body orient me to the material conditions of my environment, which are in turn oriented by the geopolitical conditions of climate change. In this example, the literal atmosphere of the Earth is the medium in which the world’s orientation to me and my orientation to it are palpable.

Though Peterson says that she “prefer(s) physics over phenomenology” (125), phenomenological language such as “attuning” (5) and “bodily orientation” (120)” saturates her account of atmosphere. For example, she claims that “attuning toward noise is thus also an attuning toward the atmospheric” (4) because “the diffuse and dispersed quality of noise makes people accustomed to experiencing and conceiving of that which is indeterminate” (5). For Peterson, noise and the atmospheric are both characterized by a situated directionality or tendency toward indeterminacy modeled as a spread of nodes or points. Just as the Earth’s atmosphere is composed of layers of different densities of various mixes of gasses and particles (troposphere, stratosphere, etc.), noise, like all sound, is a sequence of variations in the relative density and pressure of air molecules. Despite their diffusion and dispersion, these molecules are perceived as having an orientation, a line putting them together in a particular direction. Noise, for example, is not simply a vibration; all sound vibrates. Noise is vibration perceivers feel is dis-oriented with their own preferences. In other words, noise is a vibe, and the atmospheric is its medium.

Stanley likewise understands the atmospheric as “a methodology of molecular relationality” (16). Here, “molecular” denotes an idea less Deleuzian and more meteorological, such as “fog” (16), where the air near the surface of the earth mixes with water molecules that typically reside high up in the sky as clouds. In the atmosphere, molecules are relatively condensed or rarefied (closer together and under higher pressure or farther apart and under less pressure), and move at relatively faster or slower speeds. Those relative pressures and speeds make some things more possible and others less so; air pressure impacts everything from weather systems to baking times, for example. In this way, the relations among molecules create a situation or horizon of possibility. As Stanley explains, “Atmospheres envelop…the layers of vapor that constitute them are the conditions of breathing life but also the possibility of that life’s rendition” (16). Atmospheres are variable distributions of particles that make some ways of living easier and others harder—orientations in a fairly strict Ahmedian sense. 

For Stanley, the atmospheric conditions in our present reality feature “assemblages of gendered and racialized force and their contestation” that constitute a “thick hang of fog that allows us to know little else” (16). Describing epistemologies of ignorance as meteorological “fog” (rather than “brain fog”), Stanley’s language here evokes ideas of collections of molecules under variable pressure or force, and those of air molecules mixed in with water. The non-ideal reality of patriarchal racial capitalism orients the atmosphere so that it tends towards fog: the sexism, racism, and capitalism are like the dust particles in the air that water condenses around to form fog, and this condensed water refracts light and makes it difficult to see through it. In our world oriented by patriarchal racial capitalism, the vibe is foggy, so to speak.

As Stanley emphasizes, the atmospheric isn’t inherently yoked to bad vibes. For example, Stanley argues that the 2018 film about the Stonewall riots Happy Birthday, Marsha! is “formalistically…atmospheric” (88). That means it is composed by “stitching together a number of seemingly disparate media, including digital video and archival VHS footage of Marsha” (88); in this respect, it plots out a vibe much in the same way the social media users I discussed in chapter 2 do by collecting together various objects and/or data points. Because these clips depict evidence of both anti-trans/queer oppression and trans/queer joy, they exhibit an ambivalence that renders them “opaque” to the tradition of narrative cinema and its politics of representation (i.e., where artistic depiction is conflated with political representation). “Here,” Stanley argues, “opacity names the doubling, which allows oneself to be unmade by the shattering beauty of trans visual culture, while also knowing that images are never enough” (90). The vibes here may be opaque, but this sort of opacity is oriented differently than the fog of patriarchal racial capitalist epistemologies of ignorance: it tends toward an otherwise of “sensuous beauty in the ruins of representation’s hold” (91). Patriarchal racial capitalist fog and trans cinematic opacity make different things possible for different people: the former helps to reproduce an oppressive cisheterosexist reality and make things easier for people who tend toward wealth and white cishetero masculinity (and femininity to some extent), whereas the latter helps people who tend away from those positions or privileges imagine a reality oriented otherwise. Fogginess and trans cinematic opacity are both forms of indeterminacy whose vibes are ultimately subjective: whether they bring you good or bad vibes depends on your own orientation to them and to the worlds they make possible.

For Peterson, both noise and atmosphere are indeterminate phenomena because they cannot be defined either fully objectively or fully subjectively, but somewhere in between the two. For example, noise can be measured objectively in decibels, but no matter what its volume, a sound’s status as noise depends upon the subjective preferences of its auditors. I experience my spouse’s quiet humming along to music in their headphones as noise because it is an unwelcome intrusion into my sonic environment; however, because we share the same taste in music, if they were to blast that same music on the speaker I’d likely enjoy it. Peterson grounds the atmospheric’s capacity to model indeterminacy across objective and subjective registers in the definitions of the term “climate”:

Climate is defined first as a region of the Earth characterized by its weather…or figuratively, attitudes or conditions–an atmosphere understood as mood. The turn in the word’s definition from the distance of the objective to the proximity of the subjective allows weather and politics to be drawn together, as literal and figurative meanings of climate collide and collude (130) 

Used to refer to both the geophysical phenomenon of the weather and the sociopolitical phenomenon of a group’s attitudinal orientation (e.g., the “hostile climate” of sexual harassment), “climate” condenses objective and subjective registers into a single orientation or vibe. 

This modeling of indeterminacy as simultaneously subjective and objective is, as I explained in chapter 2, what distinguishes Bayesian probabilities from Gaussian ones. As Joque put it, Bayesian probabilities supplement hard numbers with “subjective belief” about future likelihood. For this reason, Peterson’s and Stanley’s concept of atmosphere isn’t modeling phenomenological orientation or horizon in a general sense, but in the sense specific to the biopolitics of algorithmic legitimation. Orientations are plotted out as molecules in space and thus have an objective material reality, yet their ultimate valence is dependent on contingent or subjective factors like the sensitivity of an individual’s hearing or the existence of patriarchal racial capitalism.

Peterson and Stanley’s atmospheric analytics model the same sorts of phenomenological orientations as vibes and vectors do; in this respect, these atmospheric analytics are philosophical analogs for the qualitative and quantitative models that ground the biopolitics of legitimation.