The Material Culture of Temperature: Geosemiotics, Thermocapitalist Quantification

Scott Schwartz (US)

Talk and Live Q&A event Monday 26 October 13:00-14:00 EDT (New York); 17:00-18:00 GMT (London)

The temperature in New York today has been predicted and calculated 26 billion times. This prodigious number-crunching is the work of just one entity—IBM’s artificial intelligence program Deep Thunder. A fraction of these and other temperatures animate global cityscapes as electrified numbers framing fashion ads and dotting skylines. Here I present four years of documentary work on the material culture of temperatures in New York.

Temperature was invented just over three centuries ago. While cosmologists assure us that fluctuations in heat are as old as the universe, a quantified scale for observing these fluctuations is relatively recent. As a culturally produced system of observing heat, temperature exemplifies a dominant approach to producing knowledge that developed alongside colonial capitalist forms of social organization in Western Europe. This multi-media Zoom presentation critiques the epistemology of capitalism through an in-depth analysis of five specific temperature artifacts. I excavate the semiotic stratigraphy of each temperature, demonstrating the material interactions from which the number is extracted (be it the contractions of mercury, the electric resistivity of manganese oxide, or the laser- induced stasis of Rubidium). This effort builds on Karen Barad’s argument that meaning, matter, and measurement are fundamentally inseparable. Temperature demonstrates well that the discursive and the material cannot be parsed—all matter signals discursively and all discursive signals have material strata.

In excavating the semiotic events these five temperatures produce, I reveal how temperatures (and to some extent all urban quantification) reify the hypothetical worlds necessary for the performance of capitalism. That is, the ubiquitous banality of temperature naturalizes a reality into which wealth (capital) must grow, marketing a dehumanized future. Public temperatures occupy incredibly expensive urban space—they are not helpful public services, but guideposts weaving together the time of capitalism. Tomorrow already has a temperature. My work rematerializes colonial extraction, much how earlier work has attempted to denaturalize oppression and discrimination. Just as archaeology has theorized perceptions of time, this work problematizes the thermodynamics of social organization: capitalism requires tremendous heat.