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Circulation Revisited

A Forum on the Actuality of the Concept. Comment by Bhaskar Sarkar


The German version of this text has been published here.

The Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft no. 23 focuses on media and technologies of circulation in waste, computer simulation, festivals, migration, and data. In addition to the original articles in the issue, we have invited established scholars who have used, criticized or historicized the notion of circulation. We wanted to know how they think about the following questions:

  1. In which ways did your object of study prompt you to think about or use the concept of circulation?
  2. How do you address the prevalent implications in the notion of circulation regarding question of openness and closure, channelled flows and infrastructure, as well as the mediality of observation?
  3. What would you miss if you gave up the notion of circulation? What is the biggest challenge for further research on circulation?

Tracking circulation across contemporary media

Circulation emerged as a crucial problematic for me about two decades ago, when I started thinking seriously about Bollywood: not simply as a catchy portmanteau term designating the commercial cinema of Bombay, whose allegedly derivative fare consistently trump Hollywood at the South Asian box offices, but more as a culture industry with a rich portfolio of products and services, whose reach is now truly global. Arguably, Bombay cinema’s international purchase started several decades before globalization became a buzzword. Raj Kapoor’s 1951 classic Awara was released in the Soviet bloc countries in the 1950s and 1960s, and widely screened in post-Cultural Revolution China in the late 1970s; YouTube homages posted from Greece, Indonesia, and Turkey index a broader appeal beyond socialist polities. Other sporadic Bombay films – Mother India (1957), Sholay (1975) and Disco Dancer (1982) – also found impressive transnational audiences. However, contemporary Bollywood is a manifold phenomenon, its impact more extensive and intensive: some of its releases enter the weekly box office top ten in the U.S. and U.K.; filmmakers like Baz Lurhman and Danny Boyle draw inspiration from it; Oscar-winning composer A. R. Rahman’s music is sampled in popular hip hop numbers and remixes; Bollywood dance moves and film tunes «spice up» commercials and music videos; and superstar Shah Rukh Khan causes fan hysteria at film festivals in Berlin, Dubai, and Toronto.

Clearly, Bollywood is now part of the global-popular, a phenomenological realm that comprises elements such as the K-Pop boyband BTS and its fan army; a set of stylistic gestures that conjure the globally legible «Tarantino effect;» and the recent adoption of the Italian folk song «Bella Ciao» by anti-authoritarian protestors across the world. As a fundamental process that helps generate and sustain these disparate cultural forms/trends, circulation is a constitutive aspect of the global-popular. Diffusion, transmission, distribution, flow, exchange, influence, inspiration, contagion, reproduction, proliferation: any number of these or similar unfoldings may be invoked by the term.

A second research interest, media piracy, further convinced me of circulation’s  analytical appeal. Media piracy involves infringement of intellectual property rights, and entails acts such as filching, copying, and counterfeiting – acts whose definition, boundaries, and detection remain fuzzy. International IP laws, skewed in favor of oligopolistic interests, seem unjust and exploitative to populations of the global South. I designate practices that emerge in this gap between legality and legitimacy as piratical (the gap itself mirroring the littoral space between land and sea, where the jurisdiction of land-based laws begins to waver). As irrepressible expressions of social and cultural agency, these practices exceed the sanctioned circuits of legal entrepreneurship, helping to realize potentialities that would otherwise remain foreclosed. Generating value for local communities, such informal, paralicit activities comprise a massive share of global media – not in pecuniary value, but in terms of the sheer number of people that it engages (earning a living, being ingenious with limited resources, and accessing mediatized leisure). Thinking about piracy brought into sharper relief circulation’s key role in the domain of the global-popular. 

My work on risk media also has to contend with circulation as a core analytic. Whether the focus is on microbial contamination, diffusion of radioactive matter, or the relay of wild conjectures, circulation is central to mediations of risk. Facing uncertainty, we seek a semblance of control by computing likelihoods of possible states from past experience. Calculated probability distributions are then used to predict outcomes and assess risks. However, this retrospective calculus cannot handle unanticipated eventualities. Whether unknown or partially known, possible future states remain virtual in the present: their not-yet-ness makes some form of mediation necessary for grasping risks. The graphs, pie charts, and maps of weather forecasts and epidemiological projections, or the graded «red» and «orange» alerts for dangers ranging from floodwater levels to terrorist attacks, are examples of risk media that render the coming harm legible, communicable. These official risk indices from experts are then taken up, interpreted, and elaborated upon in the public sphere, invested with additional affective charge, and frequently deployed in populist politics of hope or fear.

Even when we know the entire range of possibilities for the future, we are unable to ascertain which of those virtual states will be actualized. Depending on the stakes involved, such routine unpredictability can induce confusion and dread. When epistemological indeterminacy is compounded by ontological crisis – for instance, when hazardous radiation or a pandemic threatens existence – acute anxieties make risk perceptions more erratic. Popular confidence in state institutions, bureaucrats, and scientific experts (the infrastructures of crisis management) tends to dwindle, while rumors, spurious causalities, homespun precautions, and unproven remedies proliferate. As speculation and desperation take over, trying to fill the gaps in knowledge and agency, the specific conduits of risk assessment and transmission, as well as group dynamics, may interact to produce what scholars call the social amplification of risk. The COVID 19 crisis is an overwhelming instance of this circulatory dynamic of risk mediation.

Circulation qua infrastructure qua circulation

Without doubt, circulation is now routinely brought up as infrastructure’s binary opposite in order to counter the latter’s imputed primacy, fixity, and durability, not to mention its overwhelming determination of the social. In such invocations, circulation is to infrastructure as memory is to History, or lived spatial practices are to the blueprint of development: within each pair, the former overcomes the latter’s inertness, restitutes life to lifeworlds. Like all processual entities, circulation names energies that complicate consistency with swirls and ebbs, scuttle order with unruly irruptions, and trouble definitive narratives with competing accounts. Circulation, in short, is a Derridean supplement, secondary yet potentially dangerous because of its capacity to challenge the hegemonic system, to overturn the balance of power.

The editors’ provocation, to ask if and how discourses of circulation are introducing new doxa, is timely. Derrida’s point about the supplement was not to simply reverse the power equation, but to «deconstruct» the power hierarchies, so that more radical political horizons and social arrangements become possible. But radicality is not guaranteed, for when the fringe comes to occupy the center, it tends to come under power’s spell. And if the outcome happens to be radical, its desirability may be in question. As a concept, circulation has come to be burdened with too many preconceived ideological values and political aspirations; in their entanglement with existing social contradictions, these expectations can hinder, rather than facilitate, the work of the processual, the marginal, the irruptive.

Does circulation presuppose a closed system? In the context of the physiology of complex living organisms, the body does appear to be a closed circuitry for circulating blood, with the heart acting as a central pumping station. However, the orifices for ingestion and egestion, as well as the epidermal pores, challenge a closed model: we take in food and air from our surroundings, and get rid of waste materials. More nuanced understandings consider the ways in which each living organism interfaces with its milieu (Canguillhem), so that the body effectively extends beyond the skin, while the surroundings infiltrate internal organs. While the autonomy and cogency of the body, as well as the otherness of its surroundings, is profoundly qualified by such considerations, the individual does not cease to exist altogether: rather, it appears as a dividual (Deleuze).

A model of circulation attuned to exposure, permeation, and interaction cannot hold on to the fiction of a closed system: it has to address circulation’s interface with infrastructure as a constitutive event. The focus shifts to circulation-qua-mediation.

When it comes to social phenomena such as media, such a shift requires less of a conceptual leap. There is no point in talking about a closed circuit, for it would make sense only at the planetary level, where we have the sum total of all media circulations on earth. Even for this banal instance, the energy harvested from solar panels and used to run media equipment would put to question the insularity of the system. Within each level of nested social units – administrative (block, town, district…) or scalar (local, regional, global) –infrastructures and circulation interface with each other, but also with infrastructures and circulatory flows from other levels via networks that reach across multiple scales. Therefore, far more interesting than the preoccupation with closed systems (coming from antiquated paradigms of biological circulation and thermodynamics) is the question of how the actual interface of infrastructure and circulation gets worked out in specific research contexts.

To draw on my work on media piracy in the global South, a large share of southern media practices is, in strict legal terms, in violation of global IPR regimes. Now global laws are meant to be globally binding; yet, local interests come to intervene during the legislative process of bringing local regimes in alignment with their global counterparts. In this tussle between two levels of sovereignty, the laws that get adopted within national contexts have conspicuous loopholes, and enforcement remains lax and sporadic. Here, the interface of structure and practice does not produce neat outcomes that can be readily parsed out and mapped. Instead, their mediation gives rise to intricate media assemblages of great valence to local communities, but questionable from a strictly legal standpoint. Thus the videocinema industry of Malegaon, West India, known for its spoofs of Bollywood and Hollywood films, works with characters and ideas lifted from hit films, pirated editing software, and desktop computers jerry-rigged from salvaged parts. Deploying a satirical mode to express the community’s concerns (from the lack of potable water to the vacuity of global aspirations), the Malegaon videomakers show great ingenuity forging, as Madhusree Dutta puts it, copies without originals.1

Sometimes IPR transgressions take on translocal significance not anticipated or easily acknowledged by the plaintiffs, as when cheap knock offs of antiretroviral drugs imported from Brazil and India became essential to saving the lives of HIV patients in many parts of the global South. Circulation in these instances crosses boundaries and mediates between territories, interests, stakeholders, aspirational horizons, aesthetic expressions, taste cultures, pharmaceutical publics, and ethical communities. But to cross and mediate is also to encounter and negotiate, and not to flow freely without direction or purpose. Hence a realistic conception of circulation can be beholden to neither an all-determining closed circuit, nor an unregulated and idealized latitude.


I remember reading a newspaper report in the early 1990s, expressing incredulity about a shift underway in the personal computer business, with innovators of software operating systems involving windows (Microsoft) taking over industry leadership from the CPU hardware manufacturers (specifically, IBM). Functionally, operating systems belong to the realm of infrastructures, yet as software they seem more like circulation in their plasticity, their ability to both mold shapes and be molded. Over time, technologies, hard and soft, embodied in digital machines have shown significant degrees of pliability. One index of this trait is the currency in popular parlance of seemingly specialized terms such as privilege escalation, jail breaking, and homebrew, all of which have to do with piratical practices that take advantage of certain loopholes in technical design to make gadgets do thing they were not supposed to. The interface of infrastructure and circulation in the digital domain enables unplanned user intervention through improvisation. However, the consequent DIY modes of agency are dependent on access to a certain level of resources and expertise.

For impoverished, labor-surplus communities of the global South, quotidian practices of recycling repairing, salvaging, and cobbling together are significant means of gaining access to digital technologies and content. While motivated by the pressing necessity of subsistence income, a desire for cheap entertainment, and sheer opportunism, such make-do practices have gained wide public approval for their salutary ecological impact. There is a sense of achievement in being able to figure out and play with hi-tech appliances: expertise gained through trial and error facilitates participation in the digital economy, if only through its trapdoor, and   fortifies ordinary people’s capacity to aspire. But media corporations see these plebeian resource-savvy customs as detrimental to their short term sales and their long-term interests. Unsanctioned extension of the life of electronic equipment derails planned obsolescence, threatening to exacerbate the problem of excess capacity. Meanwhile, entire media cultures have developed around repair shops, gas stations, bicycle pumping stations, and cigarette and cold drink stalls –infrastructures/circuits of the piratical hiding in the light. These localized, ground level proliferations add immense value – both use and exchange – that goes unaccounted for in standard official economic and social indicators. The proliferations also demonstrate that within the seemingly contained space of local informal economies, opportunistic and improvisational mediation opens up new channels of productivity. 

The etymology and past usages of the word «circulation» link it up with alchemy, the conversion of one element into another; as well as with chemistry, where the term was used in relation to the multi-stage process of vaporization-condensation- distillation. In both instances, the take away impression is of process and change. However, that process begins with a stable entity, and ends with another stable congealment – a precipitate or a purified liquid.  Both structure and process are constitutive of circulation. The archaic view that infrastructure = stability, whereas circulation = change, does not hold up to experience, although the paired distinction remains authoritative in the popular imagination and persists as a trace in intellectual discourse. As urban practices of squatting and occupying – popular claims to space whose mediations between legality and legitimacy mark them as piratical – demonstrate, even land settlements and concrete constructions are not impervious to change. Circulation often compels infrastructural transformation; or, more to the point, the two mediate each other to such an extent that one cannot be distinguished from the other. For instance, the realization that diasporic markets can be more lucrative than domestic markets for Bollywood revenue streams, has changed the way the Bombay industry does business. The shifts can be tracked at the levels of: character types (the transformation of the Non-resident Indian or NRI characters from villains or clueless fools to sympathetic protagonists); lengths of narratives (typical running time reduced from over three hours to under two hours); financing (venture companies with stock market shares, co-productions with Hollywood, use of institutional loans); exhibition (multiplex screenings, splashy releases for diasporic  audiences on their holiday weekends); or publicity (staging an annual awards show for Bollywood in different global cities, from Amsterdam to Singapore, to attract new markets). In this scenario, structures of various kinds – from the ownership of production companies to the industrial specifications of the script – are mutating in accordance with a fast paced global scene; while certain circulatory flows – character types and gestures of style – are congealing into new structures


In thinking about the animated domain of the global-popular, where myriad forms of cultural and political energies are continually emerging and disappearing, I realized that it is necessary to identify and privilege certain nodes. It is at these nodes that we can track the multiple forces whose interactions produce the phenomena – structural and processual – that is of interest to us. At each node, we can look for the contingencies that shaped it as a singular articulation the global and the popular (which always entails much more than a basic additive relation). For me, such nodes would include the actor Shah Rukh Khan, the TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement) Agreement of 1995, Bollywood musical numbers used in global beer commercials, and COVID 19 porn videos. These nodes are my entry points into a forcefield of institutions and agencies, energies and propensities, patterns and serendipities. 

In other words, while being attentive to process and flow, intellectual analysis needs to stabilize phenomena, as if in a snapshot. It is a mode of analytical mediation: the dynamic world of experience has to be cut up, rendered static, parsed down to its constituent elements, functions, and mechanisms, and then put back together as a dynamic model. Without these vantage points, without the preliminary mediation necessary to subject phenomena to analysis, theoretical discourse would be confined to a series of speculative conjectures, largely disengaged from the complexities and nuances of historical becoming, either deducing knowledge of the social from certain axiomatic presumptions, or projecting the social as the partial fulfillment of some idealized teleology. Of course, mere positivism is never enough: there is always a role, even need, for interpretation, speculation, and dreaming, especially when erasures and elisions mark the archive, when there are gaps in knowledge, or when the future cannot be predicted with certitude.   

It is important is that we remain reflexive about such choices, and always interrogate our own positionality: not as mere performance, but as a serious enterprise that refuses all pretense of remote, disinterested mastery and seeks to engage the immanent nature of intellectual labor. To ask, then, how is my research (am I) being mediated by the phenomenon that it (I) seeks to mediate analytically, but with which it is (I am) entangled in one way or another.

  • 1Madhusree Dutta: The Travels of a Project, in: dies: Project Cinema City, New Delhi 2013, 18.

Bevorzugte Zitationsweise

Sarkar, Bhaskar: Circulation Revisited. A Forum on the Actuality of the Concept. Comment by Bhaskar Sarkar . In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Web-Extra, 21. September 2020, https://zfmedienwissenschaft.de/online/circulation-revisited-sarkar.

Die Open-Access-Veröffentlichung erfolgt unter der Creative Commons-Lizenz CC BY-SA 4.0 DE.