What is non-representational theory?

[Extract from Simpson, P. (2010) Ecologies of Street Performance: Bodies, Affects, Politics. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Bristol, Bristol, pp. 7-10]

A Short Introduction to Non-representational Theory

Non-representational theory has emerged since the mid-1990s in a series of papers and book chapters written by Thrift (see Thrift 1996; 1997; 1999; 2000; 2007) and has also evolved in the work of a range of his postgraduate students during that time (Dewsbury, et al. 2002; Dewsbury 2000; 2003; Harrison 2000; 2007; 2008; McCormack 2002; 2003; 2005; Wylie 2002; 2005; 2006), and a few others (Anderson 2006; Laurier and Philo 2006; Lorimer 2005). In its most recent articulation, for Thrift (2007: 2), non-representational theory represents, most simply, an interest in “the geography of what happens” and, “[i]n large part, it is therefore a work of description of the bare bones of actual occasions”. In a little more detail, Lorimer (2005: 84) suggests that its

“focus falls on how life takes shape and gains expression in shared experiences, everyday routines, fleeting encounters, embodied movements, precognitive triggers, practical skills, affective intensities, enduring urges, unexceptional interactions and sensuous dispositions…which escape from the established academic habit of striving to uncover meanings and values that apparently await our discovery, interpretation, judgment and ultimate representation”.

It is important to note though that non-representational theory is not in fact an actual theory, but something more like a style of thinking which values practice (Thrift 2000). It is therefore also best thought in the plural as non-representational theories (Anderson in Lorimer 2008). In this plurality, theories of post-structuralists, phenomenologists, pragmatists, feminists, and a collection of social theorists, mix in varying concentrations. To provide a more specific and detailed account of this plural disposition, I will now draw on the various outlinings by Thrift and others mentioned above to articulate the main thematics of non-representational theory.

Firstly, non-representational theory tries to attend to the ‘onflow’ of everyday life (Thrift 2007). Drawing influence from vitalist philosophy and philosophies of becoming, this approach recognises the “processual register of experience” and that the world is “more excessive that we can theorise” (Dewsbury, et al. 2002: 437). From this, and the related recognition that consciousness is in fact a narrow window of perception, and so positing the precognitive as “something more than an addendum to the cognitive” (Thrift 2007: 6), it is argued that “it is vain that we say what we see; what we see never resides in what we say” (Foucault 2002: 10). Non-representational theory thus acts against “a curious vampirism, in which events are drained for the sake of the ‘orders, mechanisms, structures and processes’ posited by the analyst” (Dewsbury et al 2002: p437). Instead, more attention is given to the pre-cognitive aspects of embodied life, these “rolling mass[es] of nerve volleys [which] prepare the body for action in such a way that intentions or decisions are made before the conscious self is even aware of them” (Thrift 2007: 7).

Secondly, non-representational theory is “resolutely…pre-individual. It trades in modes of perception which are not subject-based” (Thrift 2007: 7). Instead, non-representational theory is concerned with ‘practices of subjectification’, not with subjects. This subjectification arises out of the world being “made up of all kinds of things brought into relation with one another by many and various spaces through a continuous and largely involuntary process of encounter” (Thrift 2007: 7). Given non-representational theory strictly goes against the “classical human subject which is transparent, rational and continuous” (Thrift 2007: 14), this has significant ethical implications (see Thrift 2003b); traditional ethical questions become more complicated. Asking ‘what have I done?’ or ‘what should I do?’ become infinitely more complex when the status of this ‘I’ asking the questions has been significantly undermined. From this, questions of ethics now mean “becoming critical of norms under which we are asked to act but which we cannot fully choose and taking responsibility…for the dilemmas that subsequently arise” (Thrift 2007: 14). This leave us with something like an ‘ethics of joy’ such as that to be found in the works of Spinoza (1996) and Deleuze (1988) whereby an ethical action is that which expands capacities to act, or in Thrift’s words, serves to “build new forms of life” by “boosting aliveness” (Thrift 2007: 14).

Third, non-representational theory is interested in the human body and its co-evolution with things (Thrift 2007). The work of Merleau-Ponty has proved a key influence here (see Thrift 1996; Wylie 2002; 2006). Here the body is not counted as separate from the world, but rather it is argued that the human body is as it is because of its “unparalleled ability to co-evolve with things, taking them in and adding them to different parts of the biological body to produce something which…resemble[s] a constantly evolving distribution of different hybrids with different reaches” (Thrift 2007: 10). Given that “bodies and things are not easily separated terms” (Thrift 1996: 13), non-representational theory aims to attend to the material relatedness of the body and world and its constantly emergent capacities to act and interact.

In this interest in the body’s co-evolution with non-human things, non-representational theory gives “equal weight” to both rather than viewing the non-human as “mere cladding” (Thrift 2007: 9). This means non-representational theory is concerned with ‘technologies of being’: “‘hybrid assemblages of knowledges, instruments, persons, systems of judgement, buildings and spaces, underpinned at the programmatic level by certain presuppositions about, and objectives for, human beings’” (Rose cited in Thrift 1997: 130). This views the world as a multiplicity of heterogeneous networks and connections needing to be maintained, decentring the Cartesian notion of agency as belonging solely to the human and putting agency into matter (Thrift 1996; 2000). In addition to the strong influence of the work of ANT on non-representational theory here (see Latour 2005), key for me is the recent emergence of Speculative Realist philosophy which seeks to pay attention to the existence and interaction of objects (or ‘things’) outside of the necessary presence of a human subject or access to this, and on the condition that any access would be incomplete (Harman 2005; also see Meillassoux 2008).

This emphasis on the material relatedness of the body is also closely connected to non-representational theory’s desire to “get in touch with the full range of registers of thought by stressing affect and sensation” (Thrift 2007: 12). Work on this topic has proliferated both in geography and in the social sciences recently (see Anderson 2006; Anderson and Harrison 2006; Bissell 2008; Clough 2007; Dewsbury 2000; Gumbrecht 2004; Massumi 2002; McCormack 2003; Stewart 2007; Thrift 2004). Affect does not refer to a personal feeling, but rather to a “pre-personal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another and implies an augmentation or diminution in that body’s capacity to act” (Massumi 2004: xvii). The subject, or what we used to understand by subject, is ‘affective’, and engages in and emerges from “affective dialogical practices…born in and out of joint action” (Thrift 1997: 128). Key here is that this is between; “[a]ffects are not about you or it, subject or object. They are relations that inspire the world” (Dewsbury, et al. 2002: 439 [my emphasis]).

Fourthly, and following on closely from this point, non-representational theory concentrates on practices, “mundane practices, that shape the conduct of human beings towards others and themselves in particular sites” (Thrift 1997: 127). Practices are understood as “material bodies of work or styles that have gained enough stability over time, through, for example, the establishment of corporeal routines and specialized devices, to reproduce themselves” (Thrift 2007: 8). Practices are then “productive concatenations that have been constructed out of all manner or resources and which provide the basic intelligibility of the world” (Thrift 2007: 8).

This interest in practices highlights an important point about non-representational theory. Non-representational theory IS interested in representations, even if Thrift did appear to suggest otherwise in certain early moments of over-exuberance (see Thrift 1997). It is important to make clear that although the prefix ‘non’ may imply moving “away from a concern with representations and especially text” (Nash 2000: 655), “[n]on-representational theory takes representations seriously; representations not as a code to be broken or as an illusion to be dispelled rather representations are apprehended as performative in themselves; as doings” (Dewsbury, et al. 2002: 438). Therefore, it is ‘representationalism’, or representative ‘fixing and framing’ that non-representational theory finds problematic (Lorimer 2005).

Finally, non-representational theory aligns itself with a sort of experimentalism which does not shy away from providing an open-ended account of the world. Taking inspiration from the performing arts (Thrift 2003a), non-representational theory seeks to escape the “reading techniques on which the social sciences are founded” to “inject a note of wonder back into a social science which, too often, assumes that it must explain everything” (Thrift 2007: 12). In a somewhat Deleuzo-Nietzschean vein, non-representational theory is motivated by the sentiment: “Let us try it!” (Nietzsche 1974: 115) rather than ‘let us judge it’ (Deleuze 1997).


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About Paul Simpson

I am currently a lecturer in Human Geography in the School of Physical and Geographical Sciences at Keele University. I've previously lectured at Plymouth University, and again at Keele before that. I completed my PhD (titled 'Ecologies of Street Performance: Bodies, Affects, Politics') at the University of Bristol in 2009.
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