What if we think of a milieu as a medium for living in a strong sense, as in the way that paint or color is a medium for art—both the means of art’s expression and conceptualization and its point of pragmatic-material-noumenal interest, or even obsession? The artist thinks with, in, and about color or sound or lighting or the way musical notes or words relate to each other or build something. Art-thought is a percept (Deleuze and Guattari 1994) fundamentally linked to the things in its milieu because they have qualities like rhythm or intensity, because they react to a prod or a brush stroke or they ring. Conceptualizing a milieu by acting with it and in it is an experiment with a stake, a conceptualizing channeled through form and matter that thereby ventures out, becoming both exploratory and generative. Bruno Latour (2010) tells us this is compositional thought and being, and it extends into all domains of life in which, for whatever reason, there is a sharp, even immersive, attunement to a surround that has become animated or activated enough to create something with what presents. Georges Canguilhem’s “The Living and Its Milieu” moves in this same terrain, deftly mapping out the groundwork.
Here, to think of milieu as the medium for living is not just to underscore the tired mantra that “everything is mediated,” as if that’s enough said, as if it’s good enough to gesture at laws of context and means without getting into the specifics. Instead, it replaces this distant gesture at mediation with the prismatic singularities of an actual scene of composition and decomposition forged in fractious points of contact that inspire and directly induce lines of action or simple shifts in direction or duration. Here, milieu as what is entered or otherwise engaged in the process of doing and being something—a rough, mixed-use, not necessarily positive, vivid pragmatics (Stengers 2009) of a social-aesthetic-material-affective suspension that animates and initiates. Medium as a milieu is an atmosphere with qualities, an imperative demanding a response, an objective, a pooling up that can overflow its bounds, a track on which to somehow venture out.
Let me give you a tiny example to illustrate thought compositionally attuned to a milieu. I found a tick stuck in my head last summer in New England. Because I didn’t want to repeat any part of what ensued (the pulling it out with tweezers, holding it up close to identify it through coloring and shape, its prolific legs twitching chaotically, grasping at air close to my face, then the persistent pain on my scalp, the trip to the doctor’s office for a prophylactic antibiotic, the waiting for the telltale red ring of Lyme’s disease), I am now, this summer, in a state of a vivid pragmatic attention in relation to ticks. But I only remembered this state, or, rather, it was activated, when I read in Canguilhem’s “The Living and Its Milieu” that a tick can sit dormant on the swaying tip of a branch for eighteen years waiting for the one thing that activates its life—the smell of rancid cheese it senses from a mammal passing underneath. Then it drops onto the mammal, attaching when it senses the heat of its blood pressure, its legs extending out of its body for the first time. I thought, “What?” This outrageous detail of just how weird relationality actually is spurred in me an affective, open-ended process of conceptualizing myself in an immediate milieu with the waiting tick, a newly vulnerable and precarious being; I had changed.
This sense of a tick-mammal milieu and my position in it is akin to what Isabelle Stengers calls thinking from the middle—a kind of thought that trains itself on the iterations, durations, and modes of being taking place (2009). Karen Barad underlines the attention in this milieu-shocked thought to “the process of mattering,” in which things come to matter in both senses of the term (2003, 817). This attunement to the world as a pressing milieu might be seen as the necessarily engaged awareness of what Graham Harman calls the robust or weird realism of a life de-objectified, or de-literalized, to become a play of energetic surfaces and force fields, qualities, and remainders (2008, 2011, 2012). A fractious sensory surround of tendencies, singularities, a series of precisions that animate. Donna Haraway goads us to build the muscles of being that would enable us to, as she puts it, stay with the trouble (2016). Patricia Clough (2018) reminds us that the trouble in a milieu extends beyond perception and consciousness, lodged, for example, in algorithmically and technological-driven environs such as datafication or the data-mining of the internet, tracking and sensing technologies, and all kinds of mobile devices into an affective infrastructure of commerce and mood.
As for me, I now wear a hat when I walk in the woods (or I feel I should have worn one but I was too lazy or too reckless, the not-wearing making me both at fault and my own person). I am always aware of the tick that waits (though that awareness is also always receding and then perhaps gets re-initiated), and I am changing, have changed, have developed tendencies, stretched certain muscles of living and not others. The tick is not only part of my activated, robust milieu but my relationship with it has initiated the very flowering of the milieu, setting off an excess of significance. I’m affected by the strangeness of the story of the tick that waits, and by the weirdness of my life as a mammal (who knew we all smelled like rancid cheese?), and by the cascading problematics of agency and impact the tick-mammal relation poses. Through this disturbance in my field of being, I recognize Canguilhem’s own deep engagement with milieu as a medium activated between two centers of force in contact (tick, mammal), an ambient situation that hones beings in contact to singularities that shine out of their latching (I am rancid milk; the tick waits, legless, for eighteen years). And from the singularity of this tiny encounter, the idea of the milieu grows for me, as it somehow did for Canguilhem, into an anthropological object irreducible to the academic shorthand of notions of codes, internally coherent cultures, or themed imaginaries.
A milieu, like affects, rhythms, atmospheres and everyday life itself, is the kind of anthropological object capable of loosening the heavy presumptions of a proper and automatic relationship between thinking subject, concept and world abstracted from animus and impact. Recent anthropological approaches in affect studies, new materialism, multispecies studies, sensory ethnography, science studies, and the study of ecologies and infrastructures are some of the lines of return to the long-standing anthropological effort to open the conventions of academic argument to the generativity and volatility of life as such. A birdsong triggers a sense of being. A mood is a world-producing presence beyond the subjective. Events unfold, resonate and initiate in acts, encounters, missed steps. Such strands of thought propel anthropology out of the mental habit of describing its objects as if they were fixed, out of the strangely and unintentionally idealist paradigm that imagines the things of the world as a direct reflection of abstracted categorical distinctions and into a process of what Heidegger (1951) called worlding—an intimate, compositional process of dwelling in spaces that bears, gestures, gestates, worlds. Zones of belonging or exclusion take place by moving with a landscape (Ingold 2000). The subject is formed and deformed through our orientations and disorientations, our capacities and incapacities to initiate and venture forth into and through whatever it is we’re dealing with (see Bohme 1993). The forces in what surrounds register differently, multiply, unsteadily, in achieved durations of politics, beauty, contact, trauma, arousal, remainder, and return.
Read another piece in this series here.
Barad, Karen. 2003. “Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs 28 (3): 801–831.
Bohme, Gernot. 1993. “Atmosphere as the Fundamental Concept of a New Aesthetics.” Thesis Eleven (36): 113–126.
Canguilhem, Georges. 2001. “The Living and Its Milieu.” Translated by John Savage. Grey Room 3 (Spring): 6–31. First published in 1952.
Clough, Patricia Ticinento. 2018. The User Unconscious: On Affect, Media and Measure. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. 1994. “Percept, Affect, and Concept.” In What is Philosophy? Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell. New York: Columbia University Press.
Haraway, Donna. 2016. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Harman, Graham. 2008. “DeLanda’s Ontology: Assemblage and Realism.” Continental Philosophical Review 41, (3): 367–83.
———. 2011. “Realism without Materialism.” SubStance 40, no. 2 (125): 52–72.
———. 2012. Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy. Winchester: Zero Books.
Heidegger, Martin. 1975. “The Thing.” In Poetry, Language, Thought, translated by A Hofstadter. New York: Harper Collins Books. First published in 1951.
Ingold, Tim. 2000. The Perception of the Environment. London: Routledge.
Latour, Bruno. 2010. “An attempt at a Compositionist Manifesto,” New Literary History (14): 471-490.
Stengers, Isabella, Brian Massumi, and Erin Manning. 2009. “History through the Middle: Between Macro and Mesopolitics – an Interview with Isabelle Stengers.” Inflexions: A Journal of Research Creation (3).