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The Power of Immersion: Performance – Affect – Politics

International Spring School from the 9th to 13th of April 2018 at Freie Universität Berlin

With the participation of Dr. Adam Alston (University of Surrey, Guildford), Mathew Arthur (Vancouver), Dr. Eva Holling (Justus-Liebig-Universität Gießen), Dr. Robert Lepenies (Centre for Advanced Studies Justitia Amplificata, FU Berlin), and Dr. Gregory J. Seigworth (Millersville University of Pennsylvania). 

The promise (or phantasm) of “total immersion”, as a certain form of dense involvement in a local environment, is currently seeing a revival in various fields from art and media culture to consumer or corporate life worlds. In media and film studies, immersion describes a mode of reception given by full absorption of the individual into a virtual sphere, combined with the feeling of a blurred threshold between mediating device and mediated content. Recent developments in VR and augmented reality technology have been pushing towards a synchronization of intermodal interfaces and qualities of perception, blending reality and digital spaces into each other. Shopping mall environments, theme parks, escape room games and night clubs also try to capture their consumers by means of immersive synesthetic and visceral stimulations.

In everyday life settings such as corporate work places, a variety of techniques has also been emerging that might be called immersive: a full-blown discourse in Human Resource Management is shaping a new form of governing employees by absorbing their personal skills, emotions and psychic dispositions as productive forces (teamwork, real time “employee engagement”, designed “corporate cultures”).

Going beyond the current research on immersion in cultural and media studies, it is the idea of our Spring School to study different phenomena of immersion specifically as techniques of power and control. “Immersive power” modulates individuals by selective intensification of their affective potentials in social dynamics, nudging their actions and perceptions in certain directions. The architectural and atmospheric design of new work places in modern network capitalism, teamwork and the diversity paradigm in contemporary Human Resource Management, as well as contemporary immersive theatre productions may all be seen under this common aspect. They are immersive techniques of extricating human potentials within a neo-liberal framework. By shifting patterns of gendered and racialized exclusions from discourse to more ephemeral affective dynamics, new forms of domination and subordination emerge in immersive environments, masking power structures behind trends such as “co-working” culture, “experience industry” and “diversity management”.

On the other hand, immersive experiences in theatre and performance could also be seen as a strategy of criticizing the subtle patterns of modulation, subjectivation and structural violence in everyday interactive scenarios. To the involved subject, they make visible how one’s own behaviour and reactions to an intensive affective situation are co-shaped by myriad traces of embodied norms and exclusions, hierarchical interactions, traumata, resentments and cultural dispositions. Immersive theatre provides an immediately bodily sensation and awareness of one’s specific sensitivities resulting from affective subjectivation. Based on this, the artistic “real-world- simulations” of the Danish-Austrian performance duo SIGNA, for instance, can be seen as experimental social and political spaces where subjects can learn about their own triggers and traumata and about possible strategies to intervene in (staged) situations of structural discrimination, sexual harassment, gender inequality and practices of physical and psychological violence.

Organized by Rainer Mühlhoff (B05) and Theresa Schütz