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To Build a Human-Machine Territory:
 The Refrain and Mobile technologies


The term “ritornello” means a recurring passage in baroque music for orchestra and chorus. It is a part of the music that returns periodically, like the chorus or refrain during the course of a song. The French term, “ritournelle,” used by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987) in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, has a resonance of the ‘eternal refrain,’ but gives a sense of the everyday life, everyday activities. In general terms, a refrain is “any aggregate of matters of expression that draws a territory and develops into territorial motifs and landscapes” (p. 323). The refrain is a melody and rhythm that become expressive because they are territorialized, which in turn become territorialized because of their expressivity — it is a self-movement of expressive qualities. In other words, a refrain, in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense, is a territory that is originated when sonic and acoustic features overcome their original functional and acquire expressive qualities.

Deleuze and Guattari suggest that humans and animals produce refrain. It can be a child singing in the dark or the birds that establish their territory through song patterns. Both build an acoustic barrier that overcomes primordial functionalities and characteristics of a sonic wave to become expressive dimensions of the creator, and the instant and self-referenced created territory.

In a narrow sense, Deleuze and Guattari speak of a refrain using a sonic dimension, an assemblage dominated by sound. No doubt, the concept of the refrain is first attached to music production through repetition of passages, tunes, and sound vibrations to express some sort of quality. Indeed, repetitions, reiterations, and loopbacks (and feedback loops) are a form of code that is not exclusive to sound waves. The refrain born from any potentially expressive component in a milieu, taking different expressive dimensions (optical, gestural, motor, aural, etc.) to produce motifs and counterpoint that “‘express’ the relation of the territory they draw to the interior milieu of impulses and exterior milieu of circumstances” (p. 318). Milieus and rhythms arise from the various movements of people, from a myriad of activities, from natural elements and things in the environment, from artificial materials and technological machines. They overlap, define, interfere, compete, and shift in relation to one another, resulting in interactions that produce territories.

This essay attempts to contextualize the relationship that mobile media establish between digital technologies, human activities, and specific geographic locales in both social and theoretical terms. Mobile media is defined here as a collection of practices facilitate by technologies (e.g., cell phones) attached to the human body that allows decentralization of communication, bidirectional connection, and reconfiguration of institutions and cultural industry. It is a paradigm in which people are able to quickly and seamlessly interact with multiple ‘territories’ (physical, virtual, mediatic, etc..) consuming, changing, and generating new information to disseminate and communicate.

The idea of moving around with a piece of technology that mediates and facilitates (tele)communication is cultural rather than universal. For instance, for a long time now we have been searching for privacy in public spaces. The behaviours to avoid public eyes, human contact, or to escape from the ‘real’ is well illustrated in the Simmel’s (1903) concept of the blasé attitude. As such, Deleuze and Guattari note that “territory is first of all the critical distance between two beings of the same species” (p. 319). We use many different tactics to create personal territories, such as the case of reading a book, or listening to a music. Mobile media can be seen as a way to create hybrid territories from pieces of different milieus in the physical and virtual environment. Today, with the rapid development of digital technology and intense use of portable devices in our lives, there is a desire to make the city’s public spaces conform to our notion of the intimate on the other. As a result, public space becomes increasingly media-saturated, our urge to use technology to compensate also grows, which ironically increases the erosion of the remains of the meaning we still associate with public space.

Carrying an active mobile technology together with its conjunctions of different milieus (electronic elements, electromagnetic fields, digital data, interfaces, algorithms, and human activities) certainly produce some sort of territory. The orchestrated exchange of information between different milieus transcodes the functionality of each layer of this once disarray and cacophony concert into a polyrhythmic refrain. The repetitive nature of each milieu, some metered, some not so much, become expressions that territorialized its own qualities into a multilayered territory — physical, electronic, digital, virtual, social, cultural — which sometimes might act beyond human agency.

Of the Refrain The refrain has three aspects that look like a succession of moments in evolution, but are actually simultaneous and intertwined. The refrain is “sometimes, sometimes, sometimes.” At times, it is the challenge to fixate a center point, a source, that escape from the forces of destructive chaos. Other times it is about the organization of a stable pace around this center point “(rather than a form): the black hole has become a home” (p. 312). And sometimes the pace can be made strong enough to expand itself without breaking or surrendering to the forces of chaos.

As such, the refrain involves an attempt to consolidate and stabilize a centre by means of a protective enclosure. Not because the outside is harmful or evil in itself, but as a way to isolate, organize, and control the inside. A home does not pre-exist: “it was necessary to draw a circle around that uncertain and fragile center, to organize a limited space. Many, very diverse, components have a part in this, landmarks and marks of all kinds” (p. 311).

Deleuze and Guattari (1987) offer two images to the refrain (ritournelle). The first is the refrain as a perceptual and behavioural habit, a way of creating order out of chaos — a contraction of habits so that one is able to introduce some sense of stability, constancy. It might be a religious canticle that allows one to be and move in the world, or a child’s song, that “rough sketch” that comfort and secures:

A child in the dark, gripped with fear, comforts himself by singing under his breath. He walks and halts to his song. Lost, he takes shelter, or orients himself with his little song as best he can. The song is like a rough sketch of a calming and stabilizing, calm and stable, center in the heart of chaos. (p. 311)

In this case, singing is an act of creation that delimits and anchors the space around its source. The song, as a repetition of sounds, not necessarily an orchestrated rhythmic yet, serves as a safe place to keep the forces of chaos outside as much as possible, while the interior protects the germinal force of this territory. In order to create this safe haven, elements of the landscape are selected, eliminated, and organized to maintain the state of order inside, avoiding its collapse by resisting external forces, or even to expand into the chaos taking something from beyond the edge of the filtering barrier and incorporating to the interior space.

The second image is given through the study of birds and their behaviour — avian ethology — in which the refrain is modeled as an assemblage of bodies, its physiology, and the elements of the environment. Birds often use distinctive song and ritualized behaviours to demarcate territory. They mix and transform components of milieus in which they live and their own physiology into expressive features on their home territories. Some birds sing claiming territory; others use leaves and sticks from trees to establish territory. The bird’s physiologic features and the components of the landscape constitute an expressive territory — mixed they become the refrain.

These expressive qualities are not merely functional; rather they represent an excess that been transformed from the essential life support requirement to expressive features. The becoming-expression is, in fact, a dimension composed of underlying functionalities of milieus that were put together in a sort of territory. The refrain is about the excess, this new dimension produced by the intersection of milieus and rhythms, created by experimental self-organizing life-forms that survive and thrive as long as they sufficiently adapt to the milieus they live within. In this abundance of life forms is music and art — that “art [does] not wait for human beings to begin” (p. 320).

Milieu The refrain is directed connected and made of everyday mundane activities: an uncommitted strolling on the streets, reading a book or a newspaper, preparing, eating and enjoying a meal, relaxing in a hammock during a warm afternoon. “One launches forth, hazards an improvisation, to improvise is to join with the world … One ventures from home on the thread of a tune” (p. 311). To act is both creating a home and leaving that home-territory.

At this level, the space Deleuze and Guattari talk about is not necessarily merely physical and concrete. They are, above all, a collection of physical spaces, physiologies, technologies, cultural activities, and natural and social phenomena: an island, a river, offices, university departments, professional associations, religious denominations, state nations, political parties, technologies, sports teams, and neighbourhoods that can serve as that tenuous sketch of a centre.

For Deleuze and Guattari the sound component of these milieus is very important: “a wall of sound … with some sonic bricks in it” (p. 311). For instance, a student hums to summon the strength of the schoolwork she has to finish; a construction worker whistles to himself as he marshals the anti-chaos forces of his work; the constant noise produced by auto-motors vehicles’ engines crossing a road at high speed; the background noise in a coffee shop; a soundtrack of a movie; a loud Walkman music silently playing in the listener’s head as he draws his way back home, and even noise-canceling devices, which creates a sonic barrier against the ambient sound. A constant repetition of sound waves that maintain the milieu stable, circumscribing itself with itself. These are sound walls around its source — a person, a house, an office, a piece of technology that marks territories. Any mistake in pace, speed, rhythm, or harmony can be disastrous (indeed, neighbour complains when it gets too loud or invade their private spaces): the forces of chaos will collapse to both the creation and creator. Doing it right, though, a creator can expand and open its circle from within to invite someone or take something from outside.

As radios and televisions sets are, for Deleuze and Guattari, like sound barriers around the household that demarcate territories, mobile phones are digital bubbles that follow and envelop individuals. Mobile media is first and foremost constituted by many different milieus within its own materiality — the device itself, including its electronic components (logic board, circuits, capacitors, resistors, etc.); electromagnetic fields of various kind generated by energy transmission, wireless communication, and radio-frequency waves; all kinds of sensors with different functions (light, sound, image, pressure, movement, etc.); digital data, from binary transactions flowing at the speed of light to complex array of stored files; and algorithms that intercept and fed from all the other layers to build more complex elements of this territory.

Mobile media presupposes space, and movement through space. It is carried about by the user as a milieu that trespasses other milieus embedded in the foundations of a city and in the fabric our society: buildings, houses, streets, malls, cars, narrow corridors and great outdoors. Wherever the individual goes, this parasitic collection of milieus follows him, feeding on the signals sent by the environment, floating through, and occasionally bumping into, directional vibrations from a neighbour milieus.

Milieus are strange to one another. From within, other milieus are the constitution of chaos, though not at all without their internal organization: “chaos is not without its own directional components, which are its own ecstasies” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 313) That is, chaos, in this sense, is not disorganized materials and functions fluctuating without no direction. Rather, it is more like a collection of confused matter that cannot be understood from inside a milieu. As milieus drift in relation to one another, over one another, points of contacts might emerge as a form of an interface: a bridge between two worlds that are not just competing against each other, but also complementing, living a symbiotic life without even understand each other.

Rhythm Born from chaos, a refrain is assembled from milieus and rhythms. They combine the meaning of surrounding, medium, and middle. The milieu is composed of middles that are not units or territories, but directions in motion. They arise from the relationships between directional components take in relation to one another and the emission of their periodic repetitions, which represents their own identity — every milieu is coded. As such, milieus are vibratory and are constituted through the periodic repetition of their components in a block of space (p. 313). This periodic repetition, not necessarily regular and metered, defines its intrinsic and unique code. If such set of codes is unique to each milieu, how can possibly there be interactions between milieus?

As stated before, milieus are not in isolation; there are uncountable milieus bumping and overlapping each other. Indeed, this portion of space called the milieu is not a well-defined unity, with clear boundaries: “not only does the living thing continually pass from one milieu to another, but the milieus pass into one another, they are essentially communicating” (p. 313). Points of contact between milieus occur all the time and produce friction, not necessarily resistance, that might trigger sparkles in-between them, an excess produced by the combination of vibrating elements in these elements. Whenever these point of contacts arise, a zone of conflict and exchange is established — a bridge of communication where the living thing and milieus might start a dialogue by transcoding each other. Deleuze and Guattari point out that transcoding or transduction is the way in which one milieu serves as the basis for another, or even to compete, mix up, and established atop another milieu, dissipated in it or incorporated in it.

In fact, as Deleuze and Guattari describe, rhythm is never on the same plane as that which has rhythm. While actions pertain to the milieu, rhythm is located between two milieus, or between two intermilieus. Rhythms are precisely the exchange between a milieu and its exterior, it is a response to chaos. But chaos is not the opposite of rhythm, it is rather the milieu of milieus — a collection of many intertwined overlapped regions that have so many different elements competing against each other. The rhythm is located in the friction or the multiple points of contact between milieus, what we can also call a zone of conflict —on this thin layer, this in-betweenness, chaos becomes rhythm.

We may say that this rhythm defines a transducer interface that converts vibrations of one milieu to another. It emerges in and from the exchange of information between milieus, or what Deleuze and Guattari call as the transcoding of milieus, when the information is reinterpreted. There is a rhythm, a communication, every time one milieu meets another, like the sea waves that constantly hits the sand in the shoreline: “this is where the land ends and the sea begins,” as put by Luis de Camões.

It is important to remember that rhythm is not metre or cadence, or even irregular metre. To Deleuze and Guattari, rhythm is always an excess, a surplus, that goes beyond the regular and irregular oscillation between a fixed set of elements. As they say, a meter is dogmatic, almost oppressive homogenous; rhythm is critical — a critical moment of negotiation of passage from one milieu to another. “It does not operate in a homogeneous space-time, but by heterogeneous blocks. It changes direction … rhythm is never on the same plane as that which has rhythm” (p. 313). That is, an act of displacement is needed, an unexpected shift, a transcoding. The becoming-expressive of rhythm requires a heterogeneity of rhythmic patterns and a polyrhythm. Finally, the repetitive variation occurred within the milieu, and all the actions and components, only produce some effect when in contact with other milieus: “it is the difference that is rhythmic, not the repetition, which nevertheless produces it” (p. 314).

How might rhythms occur in mobile media? It is certain that the milieus that compose mobile media are overlapping and passing through each other. For instance, electromagnetic fields of all kinds pass through the device, but only a few are captured by its antenna. Like sound waves, a wireless transmission travels through the air (and concrete objects) in constant ripples without stopping, undoubtedly metered, obeying a certain frequency. Wi-Fi frequency is shorter than radio waves but longer than microwaves, having about three to five inches between crest, which a computer reads as ‘1’, and trough, which are read as ‘0’. The transmission is not inexorable, but its oscillation is a constant repetition of the same code over and over again. The antenna is the contact point, a zone of exchange, where the waves are decoded into electrical pulses to be passed to digital components. Even though the rhythm here could be seen as a physical manifestation such as heat, it is just a by-product; certainly an excess, but not a surplus, rather it is a loss. The rhythm is found in the transcoding of the electromagnetic wave; an excess that it is the information encoded in binary data in this transmission, in which might only possibly be meaningful when transcoded into another milieu: the device that receives it.

Raw data (voltages, binaries, sequences of strings) are also coded. They are the fundamental components of milieus in digital media. Binary data do not ‘vibrate’ or oscillate. It is not even metered or regular, as a voltage is. Still, switchers and resistors that regulate the energy of electrical current of this milieu are transcoded into regular intervals of ‘1’s and ‘0’s (bits). In other words, binary is not fundamentally organized nor have an inherent order until they are transverse by electric voltages. Similarly, the continuous exchange of bits in a digital network is a directional communication milieu that puts in contact a server and a particular device. Pinging measures the round-trip time for messages sent from the originating host to a destination computer and echoed back to the source, like a sonar system found in whales. A repetitive signal is sent through the network — ping, ping, ping, ping. As soon as this sign arrives, it is transcoded and a transaction might occur. The rhythms of the digital network can start at any point, from anywhere, and soon disappear.

Territory According to Deleuze and Guattari, the refrain gives rise to, emerges into a territorial assemblage that assumes different functions: physiological, amorous, social, professional, cultural, cosmic. A bird sings to mark its territory — to claim the space; to invite a partner. A tribe plays the drums in honours of the gods. Athletes intone their national anthems before participating in a game. It always somehow connects to a territory, a portion of land, physical, but also spiritual and virtual.

However, it is important to make a distinction between a territory and a milieu. A territory does not emerge from the encounter of milieus, from the waves hitting the shoreline. Rather, a territory is a kind of framing, an enclosure of some aspects of these milieus: it borrows from, or bites into, milieus, seizing portions of them to construct its limits, its internal space, and energy. Though it has limits and barriers, it remains vulnerable to intrusions and attacks from the outside, as well as transformation and implosions from inside. In its essence, a territory resembles a milieu, wherein it is “marked by ‘indexes,’ which may be components taken from any of the milieus: materials, organic products, skin or membrane states, energy sources, action-perception condensates” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 314-315).

The territory is an act that affects milieus and rhythms — it territorializes them. It is the coming together of spatio-temporal coordinates and qualities — which would be the measurements, the location, what is virtual and indeterminate about this particular territory. In other words, “the territory is the product of a territorialization of milieus and rhythms” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 314). The process of territorialization has two major effects: a reorganization of functions and regroupment of forces. The activities that are territorialized go through adaptation and specialization, resulting in the creation of new functions. The forces group together in a centre of intensity that it is proper to each territory. Finally, the territory emerges from the relationship between place and performativity. That is, there is a territory when the milieu components extrapolate their functionalities to assume expressivity; “there is a territory when the rhythm has expressiveness” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 315), a sense of quality.

For instance, following Deleuze and Guattari’s fixation in birds, the manifestation of their feather’s colours (external milieu) is associated with the interior hormonal state (internal milieu). While it is connecting to some sort of actions, like flying, coupling, and attack or defense, it is just functional and transitory. When it acquires a temporal constancy and a spatial range, the colour becomes an expression, a mark, a signature. The function of the feather’s colour is reorganized, without losing its original functionality, to become a quality, an expression of the bird in which the meaning is to mark a territory — the bird’s territory.

The marking of a territory is dimensional instead of directional; rhythm but not a meter. As described by Deleuze and Guattari, territorialization is an act of milieu components that have become qualitative, or rhythm that has become expressive. The functions in a territory presupposes a territory-producing expressiveness, and this new dimension bring about by the territorialization of qualitative marks, triggers a new set of functionalities inherent to this type of territory, like building a place to live after conquer a new piece of land, or even become a sanctuary for living things to reproduce and thrive, as in an underwater volcano that warms the ocean’s cold water. The territorial factor, says Deleuze and Guattari, is located “in the becoming-expressive of rhythm or melody, in other words, in the emergence or proper qualities (color, odor, sound, silhouette…)” (p. 316). The refrain, also localized and performative, functions as an acoustic signature that defines a territory.

Accordingly, there are territories being formed and destroyed at any moment in mobile media. The interactions between its multiple milieus and the rhythms produced by their interception not only organizes fundamental functions within milieus, but also define new dimensions to these functions. Perhaps, it would be more productive to think about mobile media as a complexity constituted by a relationship between a multilayered territory. Even though Deleuze and Guattari talk about a territory formed by humans or animals (the refrain), the territory produced by the machinery cannot be ignored. Individuals, of course, take advantage of the machinery territory to produce their own personal space — human mobile territory. Ultimately, given the mixed spatial attributes of mobile media, both physical and virtual, a new kind of territory can expand beyond the present tense of the user, giving birth to a hybrid digital territory.

The territorialization of machinery functions might emphasize its own rhythms. The device is in a continuous communication with its components, exchanging information between milieus in order to produce some sort of output. Transcoding is the nature of the device. An uninterrupted and constant vibration, back and forth, almost like a friction, converting waves, electrical pulses, binary data, and sequences of strings. The verge of this chain of production is information: expressive information. How else the rhythm of machines talking to each other could take but the expressiveness of its own language. They might not by visible or audible to human senses, but they certainly find an objective in the territory they draw, perhaps an auto-objective quality, such as the rhythm of a computer pinging being decoded, which soon becomes a recognition between two parts (“I am here, I am here, I am here”), or a computer virus that seized the device to control its functions (“Now you are mine, and I am yours”).

Human mobile territories are far more diverse and complex. At this level, a person uses the device to act in the physical space, either for its own psychological pleasure, or for any kind of social reason. The territory is constructed using different functions and components from the device and place where the person is located. For instance, the blasé attitude described by Simmel’s (1903) in the beginning of the twentieth century is definitely stronger today. Take the case of sound barriers produced by music players: when people put on their headphones and walk on the streets they create a sound bubble, enabling them to control the levels of social interactions as they move through the public space. They create a soundtrack of their lives, or cancel all the noise and social activities around: “The territory is first of all the critical distance between two beings of the same species … keeping at a distance the forces of chaos knocking at the door” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p. 319). Either way, acting as an “aestheticizing force,” they create territories in plain sight by reorganizing functions and shifting the physical landscape into an expressive space that pushes way the force of chaos: “this is mine.” The same might be said about the use of portable cameras. The simple fact that one points a camera to a crowd in a public space will definitely change the environment — the camera is a mark of a territory, the eyes of the beholder. It centralizes the actions and draws all the attention to it. Whoever posses a camera, territorializes the rhythm of everyday through the act of surveilling — a voyeur: “the rhythm … is caught up in a becoming that sweeps up the distances between characters, making them rhythmic characters that are themselves more or less distant, more or less combinable (intervals)” (p. 320).

Eventually, the device and the person become one. Or, as put by Deleuze and Guattari, “if need be, I’ll put my territory on my own body, I’ll territorialize my body” (p. 320). The combination of machinery and human, human-machine (cyborg), certainly produce territories that resonate qualities from both entities. Indeed, the territorialization of human beings might be augmented, expanded, and even multiplied through digital channels. Once the territory has been established, there it can create passages and lines of flight to some other assemblage: “one opens the circle a crack, opens it all the way, lets someone in, calls someone, or else goes out oneself, launches forth” (p. 311). As such, position and timing are crucial functions of a territory. But time and space gain plastic attribute in the hybrid digital territory: be anywhere, everywhere, anytime. For instance, the act to “check-in” in places in both physical and digital realm: ping is the machinery territory that can be transcoded into human territory — “I am both here and there”. The territory cracks open to new assemblages, ones that are not so much embodied or concrete, but mixed, like in the locational game Ingress. There are always two simultaneous aspects to the territories produced by these expressions: a regulatory one, which ensures that people can co-exist by channeling them in different directions, and a conciliatory one, which groups like-minded individuals together. As such, an invitation is sent, a swarm effect might be unleashed, and the territory expands. Rather than keeping the forces of chaos outside, these territories embrace and distort it, open windows to other dimensions. In the virtual, milieu components and rhythms are reappropriated into new forms of expressions that eventually falls back into the concreteness of our own senses.

The refrain is always a translatorial event that anticipates and threatens to flow back to a larger landscape: it is at the same time repetitive and dynamic. That is, it constructs and deconstructs territories, it is both a territorial assemblage and a deterritorializing vector since it can absorb and seize new territories. The dynamic nature of the refrain allows the formation of places of stability, but also trigger energies of chaos that counteract this tendency. Finally, the refrain is the moment through which qualities of specific habitat or territory resonates and contains or even delimitates a space, although always leaving an opening to chaos.

Work Cited

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). Of the Refrain. In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (pp. 310–350). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Simmel, G. (1903). The metropolis and mental life. The urban sociology reader, 23–31.

This essay was written as an assignment for the course Creativity and Decision Making, taught by Brian Masumi, as credited toward my PhD in Communication Studies.

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