The Swipe and the Shuffle

Two friends come up with a clever way of looking at an everyday phenomenon—traversing the mall.

Pall mall, a July game,  illustrated in  Old English Sports, Pastimes and Customs , published 1891

Pall mall, a July game, illustrated in Old English Sports, Pastimes and Customs, published 1891

You enter the field not looking for anything, and if you are open and receptive it emerges. Then the immediacy of it—something too public and communal to refer to as an idea—finds its way into your field work diary, where, in all likelihood, it will grow into something else entirely.

The word mall [1] comes from the game pall-mall. Pall-mall comes from the Italian, pallamaglio, literally “mallet ball”. From a strike to a shuffle, all we need is to turn the game alley into a sheltered promenade. In the 20th century, we created the French halles, which inspired the American shopping mall. The text that follows was inspired by a recent visit to Canada’s third largest mall, on a mundane errand (going to the cobbler) and the difficulties in navigating the crowds therein.

In this TMM, we try to make visible a certain kind of ritualized activity. Specifically, we are talking about a mode of embodiment; a way of moving, acting, and perceiving an environment. This ritual is not a cultural construct, something we as society have built, but is rather, an “inescapable condition of existence”; the result of being immersed “in a regular pattern of life activity”[2]. Thus, outside of describing the ritualistic behaviour itself we are describing a corresponding state of consciousness. An activity that we ourselves (the ethnologists) live through and dwell in.

We are talking about the mediation between two physical gestures: the swipe and the shuffle.

1.     Discovery

The swipe is usually performed on a touch-screen; and the shuffle, though having an ancient and illustrious history, is perhaps most visible in decorated halls of consumption. In fact, it was through moving and feeling our way through one such space --- Burnaby’s Metrotown mall --- that this ritual first became perceptible (and thus understandable) to us. Only through dwelling in the flows of people and symbols in such spaces did we observe that swiping-and-shuffling are not only intertwined gestures, but also forms of qualitative adaptation: not solely a response or reaction to, but more fundamentally, an embodied way of being in relation to the world.

In themselves, each movement is rather innocuous and unassuming. And it is precisely their ubiquity in modern social life that can make them difficult to see, or for that matter, conceptualize. Through the following occasional observations, we’ll attempt to sketch how these two bodily movements represent a framing of what is possible in collective space; a reduction of our bodies, our embodied-ness, our social interactions, that is a direct response to capitalist and consumerist frameworks. But also, something that can (and does) possess its own autonomy and movement within these frameworks.

We swipe with the unconscious assurance that we will find among the mass of choice something poetic, or something that creates poetry in our life; something to make it easier, or more fun, or less sad. In the mall, your smartphone is 4D. You scan your eyes across the floor, across a vast network of competing and variating messages; symbols charged through with the immediacy of the icon; the sign that resembles itself. Often the information seems to be pulled at random. Like a shuffled deck; your feet, too, start dragging among the plethora of brands, ads and storefronts. This is the sense in which these two bodily movements (the swipe and the shuffle) are deeply intertwined and co-dependent.

The swipe is a conceptual metaphor, or rather a metaform: “the form that is connected interpretively (semiotically) to a conceptual metaphor as a consequence of the metaphor being distributed throughout the cultural network of meaning”[3]. The meaning of this conceptual metaphor has been extended (and extracted) into the interpretative fabric of these physical objects and rituals. Such embodied metaphors (the result of bodies moving in a particular way through a particular type of space) literally frame the sphere of what is possible. Super Malls (as one institutional example) allow you to “swipe” through the abundance of data, because through the shuffling of choices and goods, we might land on the right option. The right option for that moment. The right option (or rather its promise) is, in fact, what recues the present moment. It is the possibility of an immediacy and presence that ruptures and breaks through the infinite scroll/stroll, like autoplay: “if you like that, you’ll like this...”.

The once intoxicating hermetic drift—that allowed you to slip from meaning to meaning, article to article, always finding that occult parenthood between signs—now becomes a ceaseless monotony. A routine consciousness that can only be broken by the promise of firstness: the singular—not yet related to anything or anyone, in time or space; the promise of the atemporal[4].

Like shuffling and swiping through your Facebook feed, your feet mimic the virtual within the physical space of the mall, unconsciously floating onward towards a ghostly memory of atemporal singularity.

Shoaling. These surgeonfish are swimming somewhat independently, but in such a way that they stay connected, forming a social group form. Caption from Wikipedia, photo taken by Uxbona

Concretely, the swipe is a directional quick-motion performed on a touchscreen: usually with the index and middle finger, or just the index, or just the thumb (rarely do you see people swiping with just their middle, pinky or ring fingers); upwards downwards, left, right. This type of ritualized action frames collective possibilities, in the sense that every form of ritual functions to control a community’s adaptive mechanisms, ensuring that each member’s cognized environment matches up, even asymptotically, to the group’s cognized environment. That is, engaging in these forms of ritualized behavior induces a specific mode of consciousness; ways of being and acting, and more directly; being together with one another. Swiping results in shuffling.

In the most literal sense, the shuffle is a walk wherein one drags one’s feet along or without lifting them fully from the ground—as if in a state of lethargy, or perhaps wearing shoes that are too large for one’s feet[5]. While the swipe in this article is considered as an action-pattern that activates certain perceptual and cognitive affordances, shuffling is not so much a specific action but an ontological state. It is induced by forms of collective ritualized behavior, like swiping.

2.     Automation

The swipe is a gesture that reduces complexity. It is a means of coordinating and navigating a modern reality where capital has fully divorced itself from labour. Dispossessed of their reference, commodities can spiral and proliferate endlessly without passing through bodies; at the “speed of thought” as Marx himself said. In semiotic terms, these are symbols that have been separated from their underlying iconicity and indexicality. The symbol—a sign which signifies its object based on a social convention, and not a relationship of similarity (like the icon) or contiguity (like the index)— dispossessed of its affective and sensory beginnings can now grow and transform at the speed of thought. We are talking here about

the production and privatization of need—i.e., the creation of cultural and psychic habits of dependence […] The production of meaning and of value takes the form of parthenogenesis: signs produce signs without any longer passing through the flesh[6].

Disembodiment is a natural consequence of signs falling under the domination of financial cycles. The modern consumer must leave their body in order to cope. To cope with the mass spiraling of information and commodity flows that financial capitalism has ushered in through the severing of the body in the sign. To deal with the persistent bombardment from your social media feed, and the mall itself —  an onslaught of information, a sensory overload that no one person or group can consciously sort through fully — we must allow our bodies to be automated. Automation is a form of habitualization. In automation, conscious thought has little place because the motions are regularized over space, over time. We have created the regular process consciously, so that later, we dispossess our consciousness through habit-making. Such a cognitive strategy, Taussig tells us, “requires a critical degree of consciousness, but not too much, as that would derange the finely calibrated autonomicity of the body[7]”. To an extent, automation is an agentive process; we are agents in the creation of habit. Of course, the habit, once taken up, can leave us thoughtless; a victim to our previous selves[8] in a new context.

swiping in metrotown

To move through Metrotown Mall and not succumb to sensory overload, we must regularize our motions and shut off (or, at the very least, redirect) our brain. This is not a process of machination but rather, a form of mimesis on the collective level—it is to engage in swarms.

Enter, the swipe and the shuffle. We do not want to insinuate that the swipe/shuffle are passive activities, a result of blindly falling into synchronic conformity with more powerful commodity cycles. Such a reductive dualism is neither necessary nor helpful. In fact, it may be possible to conceptualize the swipe/shuffle as representative of a collective bodily unconscious[9] coming to terms, adapting as animals do, to a hyper-complex infosphere, where due to the mass proliferation of information, words and gestures are gradually becoming meaningless. While the conventionalized nature of symbols has run away from us, the bodies in these swarms still preserve their sensory beginnings—their essential iconicity and indexicality.

3.     Re-embodiment

So, even though a crowded infosphere along with increased collective automation have resulted in our collective sign-systems being reduced of meaning, as signs fail to maintain their referentiality, the swarm (being nothing but a composite of bodily movements) will (and does) maintain its own purpose. How bodies come together in public space creates its own affective signification chain that can function to challenge, but more fundamentally, diverge from the accelerated flow of semio-capital, brought on by labour’s separation from work. Benjamin reminds us in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that the drive towards likeness, the love of mimetic excess, is strong in humans: “Every day the urge grows stronger to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction”. For Benjamin, we want to behave like another, become each other, get inside the other, and this “gift for perceiving resemblances”, this foundational iconicity, this love of mimicry, is deeply rooted in what it means to be human.

Humans are semiotic animals—in Deely’s words, the human is “the animal that not only uses signs, but knows that there are signs”. Humans will not simply choose a severed flow of symbols. There will come a point where the symbol will become overly abstract to comprehend; capital will become too disembodied and the worker will see no point in going to work at all. The shuffling and swiping swarm will create their own symbols, because this is what collective bodies do. This is the unifying bond of myth and ritual.

If Bifo is correct in diagnosing the reality and severity of this dis-embodiment brought on by increased finalization, then semio-capital should fail to directly determine the nexus of desires that forms the modern-subject. The collective body will determine a course of its own to the extent that semio-capital will be forced to adjust its flow/direction to the body if it wants to have retain any control over it. What makes for revolution, Taussig says referencing Benjamin[10], is not the image run away from the body—an image we can no longer see, or more accurately, feel—but rather “the interpenetration of body with image”. Thus, the collective body’s autonomy grows and separates. In this separation, new generations can find a space to re-imagine their possibilities.

So—if a fish out of water[11] could see our world, would it see a resemblance?


[1] see mall at etymonline

[2] Ingold, T. (2000). The perception of the environment: essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. Psychology Press. P. 153

[3] Danesi, M. (2013). On the metaphorical connectivity of cultural sign systems. Signs and Society1(1), 33-49.

[4] We are referring here to Charles Peirce’s three categories of being; firstness (the possible, the maybe), secondness (the actual, the is), and thirdness (the anticipatory and habit forming).

[5] It should be noted that the word shuffle originally carried the connotation of trickery/deception; “a wavering or undecided course of behaviour meant to deceive”. See shuffle at etymonline 

[6] Bifo, F. B. (2012). The uprising: on poetry and finance. Los Angeles: Semiotext (e) Intervention Series. P. 17

[7] Taussig, M. (2011). I swear I saw this: Drawings in fieldwork notebooks, namely my own. University of Chicago Press. P. 76

[8] the previous-me who created this habit, who is different but not dissimilar to current-me. For more, see Natsume Soseki’s The Miner.

[9] Taussig, ibidem.

[10] idem. P. 96

[11] out of school