Lauren B Wagner

Viscosity originates in Newtonian physics, as a means to describe the extent to which a fluid resists deformation or opposes the propensity to flow. In this usage, it is measurable as high or low, describing fluids whose molecules tend to stick together and flow slowly against those which are less sticky and faster flowing: oil compared to water, for example. Describing the 'viscosity' of a substance indexes the strength at which it maintains a form, movement and appearance as a single coherent entity, and that despite the fact that it is composed of many instances of its own molecules, which could potentially break away and become independent of one another or allow other molecular substances to intermingle with them.

At the time of writing this entry, viscosity has not been widely taken up in social sciences, but seems to be gathering momentum as a useful term within a new materialist paradigm for describing human embodiments and how they integrate with/as materialist worlds. To illustrate this, the current entry discusses two key usages of the notion of viscosity: one relating human embodiments and more-than-human environments, and another relating human embodiments and social, political and technological configurations of other humans. As emerging threads, neither of these are exclusive from the other. Treated individually they illustrate different potential directions and applications of the term viscosity.

Nancy Tuana's articulation of viscous porosity, illustrated by "seeing through the eyes of a Category Four hurricane" (Tuana, 2008, p. 189), is perhaps the most widely recognized contemporary example of how viscosity integrates human embodiments with environments. In arguing for an interactionist ontology and against the persistence of 'nature/culture' distinctions, Tuana illustrates the interweaving of material and semiotic components as the contiguous fabric of human-environment that became the Hurricane Katrina phenomenon. While different bodies might be perceived as coherent, singular and impenetrable entities (e.g., the politico-social body of the city of New Orleans, the PVC manufactures along the Mississippi river, the Hurricane herself) these can also be read, as Tuana suggests, through their molecular porosities by considering racial and social divisions, toxic elements released into air and water, the strength of the hurricane which was influenced by the warmth of the ocean whose temperature is connected to climate change, and how these porosities reconfigure materially and semiotically. She argues that viscous porosity "involves recognizing the interaction of nature-culture, genes-environment in all phenomena" (Tuana, 2008, p. 209), that is, not only phenomena that are predominantly read as human, such as gender or race for instance, but more-than-humans as well. This usage of viscosity, in social science, has expanded towards the consideration of other, more-than-human type scholarship that focus on human-environment contiguity as a mean of reconfiguring what can be problematically understood as single coherent entities, social or otherwise – for instance the notion of 'body' (see also body entry in the almanac).

Alternately and simultaneously, viscosity has also emerged as a term for recognizing the malleability and porosity of human grouping configurations. The key proponent of this notion is Arun Saldanha, who argues that viscosity might be used as a term to describe the inherently corporeal (as opposed to psychological) modes through which "many [human] bodies" group together as collectivities (Saldanha, 2008, p. 324). He contends that the making of distinctions between groups should not be thought of primarily in cerebral and cognitive terms, but also in sensuous, spatial, affective and practical terms, from body to body, that ultimately coalesce in the production of collectivities of bodies. This configuration invokes a materialist understanding of what might be perceived as social characteristics (e.g., gender, race), Saldanha writes: "[i]n the framework of viscosity, the formation of racial difference becomes a literal term, an extremely complex configuration of bodies moving on a range of scales with a range of speeds, with shapes that can only be approximated on maps" (Saldanha, 2008, p. 330). This materializing of human collectivity as viscously embodied can lead to new readings of how cities and public spaces become sticky to groupings of people, that is, attract them or are repeled from them (Wagner & Peters, 2014), and of how human collectivities move, along with technological and social pathways, between places (Wagner, 2017, 2018).

As with any borrowing of terminology, here from physics, the adoption of viscosity offers new openings as well as potential discontinuities. In one sense, viscosity opens new imaginaries related to more commonly used terms like 'fluidity' and 'assemblage' by defining and distinguishing attributes of 'flow': viscosity combines both ability to flow and alludes to speed variations and friction thereof. For both Saldanha and Tuana, the intermixing of elements and entities is not ad hoc and free -- that is, generically 'fluid' -- but rather sticky and porous through certain material interactions who have propensities and detractions. In concert, viscosity requires describing movement through exponential rates of change rather than describing it as linear unfolding: 'infusing', 'coagulating', 'dissipating', or demonstrating 'surface tension' instead of linearly 'flowing' or 'connecting'. All of these terms describe a propensity to aggregate or separate and integrate notions of 'contingency' and 'stickiness' that are otherwise folded into descriptions of assembled elements, and that on a secondary level. However, while these terms introduce a layer of friction into thinking about dynamic materialist embodiments, they may not yet be taking into account further dimensions of viscosity as conceptualized and investigated in physical sciences. In short, viscosity is a useful concept for describing both the formation of complex entities and the 'stickiness' of their respective constituents, yet it has unexplored conceptual dimensions worth exploring still.

Synonyms: stickiness, collectivity
Antonyms: fluidity, fixity
Hypernyms: emergence, dynamics, assemblage
Related terms: porosity, surface tension, coagulating, dissipating

Rogowska-Stangret, M. (2017). Corpor(e)al Cartographies of New Materialism Meeting the Elsewhere Halfway. The Minnesota Review, (88), pp.59–68.
Saldanha, A. (2008). The political geography of many bodies. In: K. R. Cox, M. Low, & J. Robinson (Eds.), The SAGE handbook of political geography. London: Sage, pp.323--333.
Tuana, N. (2008). Viscous porosity: Witnessing Katrina. In: S. Alaimo & S. J. Hekman, eds., Material feminisms. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, pp.323--333.
Wagner, L. B. (2017). Viscous automobilities: diasporic practices and vehicular assemblages of visiting 'home.' Mobilities, 12(6), pp.827--846.
Wagner, L. B. (2018). Viscosities and Meshwork: Assembling Dynamic Pathways of Mobilities. In: M. Freudendal-Pedersen, K. Hartmann-Petersen, & E. L. P. Fjalland, eds., Experiencing networked urban mobilities: practices, flows, methods. New York: Routledge.
Wagner, L. B., & Peters, K. (2014). Feeling at home in public: diasporic Moroccan women negotiating leisure in Morocco and the Netherlands. Gender, Place & Culture, 21(4), pp.415--430.

COST Action IS1307 New Materialism: Networking European Scholarship on 'How Matter Comes to Matter'.

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With the changing of societies on local, national and international scales owing to economic, ecological, political and technological developments and crises, a reorganized academic landscape can be observed to be emerging. Scholarship strives to become increasingly interdisciplinary in order to grasp and examine the unfolding complexity of ongoing ecological, socio-cultural and politico-economic changes. Additionally, academics forge... Read more or find out Who's Who

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