Topic 2 Ecologies of Ideas: From Emotions to Algorithms

The idea of ‘ecologies of ideas’ stems from a number of thinkers including Spinoza, Hasana Sharp and Félix Guattari. In his writings The Three Ecologies (2000), Guattari describes the ethico-political-existential framework of ecology of the psyche, ecology of nature, and ecology of the social. Drawing on this, let’s explore some of the tendencies that he notes. When there is a desire for homogeneity or static sameness and segregation, this corrupts social relations, or sociality. We could think about ‘filter bubbles’ here as well as, of course, the preoccupation with purity of extremist groups. We might then reflect on how ideas circulate and how some ‘stick together’ and dominate other ideas. Word Clusters can communicate this somewhat, but what interests us here is which ideas come together and which exclude one another, eg pluralism and white supremacy. Do they change in different contexts?

By moving from a more ‘personal’ approach of ‘my ideas’ to looking at ideas and how they move, which ones ’stick together’, which repel each other, which try to dominate and which are more open, which are more powerful and why, we can map ecologies of ideas. Which ideas are toxic or poisonous and which creative? This allows us to take up a different relation to ideas and to see how ’they have us’. Our own biographies, traditions, and histories will shape our responses and associations.

Exercise: Create maps of ecologies of ideas. You might start with your own life, in your social relations or explore this as a group., but more powerful can be using either line and colour or other creative methods, using images or collage.
Imagine: Imagine an idea that might transform the existing ‘clusters’ of ideas and our own existences.
Reference: Guattari, F. (2000) The Three Ecologies. London: Athlone Press.

Michalinos Zemblyas develops another way of thinking about cartography, geography, and mapping affects. He describes how emotions move and stick (to bodies). This language of ‘emotional geographies’ explores how how they move rather than personalising them. Emotions are public and bound up with discourses of power, including organisation of hate, disgust, etc. He notes that socialisation practices and discourses, including non-corporeal (non-bodily), spatial and discursive signs, and hierarchies of power and position, are critical to shaping the presence or absence as well as the intensity of any given emotion. He explores how bodies are drawn together or move apart on racial or ethnic terms, with discourses having bodily markers to separate people.

He writes “Hence movement is always embedded within certain socio-spatial contexts and connects bodies to other bodies; attachment to certain bodies (which are perceived to be similar) and distance from others (which are considered dissimilar) takes place through this movement, through being moved by the proximity or distance of others. To put this differently: emotions do not come from inside us as reaction, but are produced in and circulated between others and ourselves as actions and practices. This circulation happens precisely because individuals do not live in a social and political vacuum but move and thus emotions become attached to individuals united in their feelings for something. If emotions shape and are shaped by perceptions of race and ethnicity, for example, then it is interesting to investigate how certain emotions ‘stick’ to certain bodies or flow and traverse space”

Zembylas suggests that a systematic investigation of the movement of emotions and bodies in certain spaces/places would be very helpful. This could be in relation to the nation-state, the border, the boundary, proximity (to sit, to touch), departure and distance, segregation, separation, occupation..

Task: Building on the last theme of ecologies of ideas, explore with young people, practitioners and or community/family members, creative strategies to map the emotional geographies in your context.

Perhaps then map the emotional landscapes and journeys of the context: School, community, etc. Here you can use tracing paper to trace existing maps and intervene. See Tiffany Chung’s artwork’s for inspiration.

Zembylas, M. (2011) ‘Investigating the emotional geographies of exclusion at a multicultural school’, Emotion, Space and Society (4), pp.151-159


The last two themes explored ecologies of ideas and emotional geographies. Now we’d like to think about how these work in the online space. It’s important that young people understand how technologies work from the perspective of finance (eg click bait), sociality (eg. identity feeling formation and filter bubbles), and design.

The diagram to the left shows some of the ways in which algorithms operate. Algorithms are just instructions, rules or procedures to perform a task or solve a problem – a recipe is a kind of algorithm. They offer useful ways of sorting, ordering, classifying and categorising information. However, in online spaces they can serve to amplify bias and create ‘clusters’ whereby people already in agreement or who might be sympathetic are directed to information that reinforces this. This means that in the online space, people might not encounter different perspectives in their social media feeds. Also, the design of platforms also encourage certain kinds of user engagement – as much as possible! Developing digital literacy – reading the online world – means understanding how this works.

One simple exercise is to check in with your body and emotions when you read a headline, or something pops up on your feed. Sit with that emotion rather than letting it drive your responses.

Earlier we described some of the ways in which ideas feel, for example the idea of justice. Understanding feeling or affect is important because it is often what drives responses and brings people into particular kinds of formations. White supremacy, for instance, feeds off and cultivates particular structures of feeling including grievance, loss, anger, fear and so on. Digital platforms can bring together racial formations and structures of feeling, creating an intensive experiences as people try on different kinds of racism, for example, often masked as jokes. Online platforms can intensify emotions – for example, Reddit involves long scrolling which draws someone further and further in. Platforms promoting hate invite deep immersion and operate with a logic that is viral. Platforming hate attracts users and encourages users to engage, interact, share and spread ideas. This is also financialized. Any use is good use. Young people are also attracted by the aesthetics of platforms.

These create spaces of participatory community which encourage not only the circulation of certain kinds of ideas, but also of certain kinds of affects, like fear or quest for (perceived) justice exchange of grievances, or purity. Not all kinds of relationality are positive, in particular when they are motivated by fear, grievance or a ‘philosophy of loss’. But talking with young people about how technologies work, how algorithms work, how ideas and feelings circulate, and how statements are often knowingly are designed to provoke certain kinds of emotions is helpful. The experience of the global pandemic meant that some (young) people were attracted to conspiracy theories, sometimes because others dismissed their fears, ridiculed them, or thought arguments would work. Evidence and information is important, but so too is listening with compassion when someone is drawn into these online spaces.