Digital, material, affective

Susanna Passonen, Jenny Sundén, Veronika Tzankova


Since the 1990s, the particularities of digital culture and online communications have been extensively theorized in terms of immateriality and virtuality. As that which does not factually exist yet has effects, the virtual has been defined as the opposite of the actual, the real, or the material. Images or text on a computer screen become perceptible when computers are attached to modems and when files are read with the aid of correct software. As binary code, files are ephemeral in their immateriality, yet tangible in their perceptibility and effects. Encounters with them involve tactile interconnection of technological objects with the fleshiness of the human sensorium, and such encounters are highly material. In fact it can be argued that any clear distinctions between the material and the immaterial, the actual and the virtual grow leaky in the “material virtualities” (Sundén 2003) of online communication.

The intensities of online romance and sex, for example, encompass showing and telling, fantasy, investment, and projection, as well as sensations of connection and disconnection, absence and presence, proximity and distance facilitated by network technologies (Hillis 2009). Online platforms gain in affective stickiness as users stay on, return to, and refresh web pages, and as they read, comment, tag, upload and download. Such examples point to networked communications as comprising and contributing to affective encounters among people, technologies, texts, sounds, images, and ideas. These encounters give rise to attachments and antagonisms, as well as to forms of variously persistent and fleeting intensities that further drive and orient the movements and actions of users across networks.

The three presentations in this panel explore the interconnections of the digital, the material, and the affective in online communication. The individual case studies presented range from: the affective investments of steampunk culture as cutting through the categories of the analogue and the digital; the political potential and affect of Turkish sexual confession sites; and to the heated twists and turns of a Finnish Facebook discussion thread. Clearly distinct in their aims and scope, all three presentations investigate the intersections of the material and the virtual in networked exchanges by asking how intensities move, how they move users, and what they affect. Furthermore, each presentation explores the role and meaning of online platforms and technological objects in and for their individual and collective users. Rather than approaching platforms as instrumental tools to an end, or as passive “stages” for the actions and attachments of users, they are conceptualized as facilitating and conditioning particular uses, sensations and forms of interaction.

Affectivity then becomes an issue of connectivity and contact between and among human and nonhuman agents, and an effect of the circulation of digital files that communicate and help to create and give rise to ideas, values, and intensities. Philosopher Sara Ahmed (2004: 10–11) argues that, “emotions do not circulate among people, objects of emotion do.” With respect to online platforms, such circulation is “virtual” in the sense of comprising immaterial objects (computer files, documents, and code) and symbolic depiction. At the same time, the circulation of objects gives rise to intensities -- of enthusiasm, rage, curiosity, and lust -- that are tangibly felt by the bodies of users. Such sensations are personal and individual yet, as networked, simultaneously shared and collective. Consequently, panelists demonstrate, the networked circulation and accumulation of affective intensities can give shape to, support, and facilitate collective political action.


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Hillis, Ken. 2009. Online a Lot of the Time: Ritual, Fetish, Sign. Durham: Duke University Press.

Sundén, Jenny. 2003 Material Virtualities: Approaching Online Textual Embodiment. New York: Peter Lang.

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