Affective Event Writing: An Entry Point for Collective Attunement
It is precisely this sense of Foucault’s notion of problematization that is centrally at stake in what follows: a form of experimentation which implicates ourselves in our present, requiring that one allows oneself to be touched by what the present presents in the form of a test, and allowing what touches us the power to modify the relation we entertain to our own reasons. (Stengers, 2019, p. 3)
We published the co-edited book “Affects, Interfaces, Events” with Imbricate! Press in June 2021.1 The book is the outcome of a collective research project in which we tried to grasp the crude details of affective interfacial events (Thomsen, Kofoed, & Fritsch, 2021).2 In the project we immersed ourselves in artwork, archives, interaction design, #metoo testimonies, media, urban design, digital assault, and more to explore how affects are interfacially embedded in events. We took up Isabelle Stenger’s (2019) invitation to experiment with “implicating ourselves,” and to allow “the touch of the present moment” to “modify the relation we entertain to our own reasons” (3). We did so through a variety of well-known research formats—seminars, talks, writing retreats—but also by exploring formats for collectively scrutinizing such affective interfacial events. This involved embodied and situated workshop formats, protyping new interfaces, urban interventions, and transdisciplinary forms of not only collective writing, but also reading aloud and listening. In our initial funding application, we had stated that the interfacial affordances of affective events would need new methodologies, as these “cannot be accounted for by traditional analytical methods and descriptions of communication in terms of meaning and representation” (Fritsch & Thomsen 2013, 2). These exploratory formats were ways to meet this claim for new methodologies.
In order to address these questions within this particular research we read our favorite thinkers and acquainted ourselves with those we did not yet know. We repeated the often-quoted Spinoza concept: affect is the ability to affect and be affected. We thought we knew what we were doing.
But something escaped us. Or rather; something fell out in the transition from a lived research project to a published volume. This something was an important force in our collective process of inquiry and experimentation. A scent of writing jointly, of reading aloud and listening, of finding vocabulary, and of walking alongside ineffable knowing. This is a story about the disappearance of a driving force in the project.
It is here we follow Katherine Stewart’s (2008) work on affect as something that “remains obscure and unspeakable but is nonetheless real” (1016). With a mode of experimentation that we have come to think of as affective event writing, we try to approach this disappearing something that was nonetheless tangibly real.
One of the recurring conundrums in affect philosophy and affect studies seems to be how to make ephemeral, emergent, autonomous affective dimensions of what we study come to life, and how to re-enact it in text (as is often the preferred output of the research, even though we see many other examples occurring). Affective event writings have provided us with a space and pace in which we seek to move beyond the self-indulgence of our own experiences and life events to, again taking inspiration from Stewart (2011), create “new spaces for thinking about and imagining what might be going on when we pay attention to the charged ephemeral atmospheres of events and allow them upfront entrance in to writing and thinking” (445).
While much of the terrain of affective methodologies has been carved out, methodologies for grasping ineffable affectivity are always needed (Coleman & Ringrose 2013; Knudsen, Krogh, & Stage 2022; Knudsen & Stage 2015; Lury & Wakeford 2012; MacLure 2020; Springgay & Truman 2018). In keeping with the experimentation noted by Stengers above we share Springgay & Truman’s (2018) call to collective thinking in the presence of others, and to catalogue such experimental enterprise as methodology. The experiment we have set in place is also in line with Knudsen et al’s (2022) interest in how “experiments produce, modulate and circulate experiential intensity, shifts in attention and movements between bodily states” (2). We add affective event writing to the list of possible methodologies that allow us to creatively engage in sensing an affective-material world through experimenting with ourselves in a sort of “plural dynamics of collective apprenticeship,” to borrow another sentence from Isabelle Stengers (2018, 42). To talk of collective apprenticeship allows us to underline both the experiential and experimental part of the enterprise and to highlight how what we engaged in, happened in and beyond individual bodies of flesh, text, and technologies.
The Temporality of Publishing
It has already been more than two years since we submitted the full manuscript ready for review, and more than a year since the book was launched. What was lost in the core products of five years of research was indeed the love, care, receiving and treatment of the mundane, and not-so-mundane life events alongside the world entrenching events that happened during the project. Indeed, those particular five years of research were not a smooth stretch of life for any of us. Much of this is difficult to fit into the research products and outcomes as we know them. The reasons are obvious; there is no need for confessions of personal life events such as navigating your family and yourself through severe illness, breakups, weddings, chemotherapy and other treatments as happened throughout the working years of this project. It happens to most of us. Yet, we found ourselves stretched between having no urge whatsoever to confess personal details of our own lives and knowing that these events merged with and altered our scholarly work, and deepened our understanding of the entanglements between affects, interfaces, and events. Following Haraway (2017), this essay can be seen as the result of staying with the trouble posed by the feeling of having abandoned a sensuous knowing of methodology, a feeling of not quite having arrived at articulating that something which escaped us. Now, it finally seems that we can tell the story of affective event writings as a methodology specifically aimed at collectively attuning to affective phenomena through intimate encounters with life and world events. Further, by actually sharing some of these writings, we also have an opportunity to show a glimpse of what was left out.
In the following, we do not suggest any naïve correspondence between the scrutiny of the personal phenomena we explore and the analysis of artwork, blogs, design etc we engaged in. We do not assume ready transposition or transparency between what we have ourselves felt or how we have felt it and the cases we explore. What we do assume: affective event writings provide an ‘entry point’ into how to feel-think affectivity in interfacial events.
To set the scene, we will give an example of a text emerging from one of our affective event-writings.3 We then present in more detail the inspiration for how the experiment was invented and how it works. Following this, we contextualize more broadly aspects of the methodology in relation to previous work in affect studies, academic writing, and text production. Concurrently, we give examples of event writings and how they move the research process. We conclude by reflecting on the experimentation and how it might open new entry points for affect studies.
Affective Event Writing #1
I had said yes to pizzas. A Tuesday evening in January, we have just come home from school and work. I was exhausted from having persuaded my youngest to attend school, exhausted from having taken in and slowly, slowly grasping that his dad is in fact about to receive electrochock-treatment, ECT. It was then I agreed to pizzas. A friend calls to see if we are okay. My voice shatters when I confirm that we are indeed all right. He says that he will be there shortly.
My eldest’s friend is there, too. It is the day after the night when I woke up with this weird sense of alert. Five messages from the closed psychiatric ward. Devastatingly broken-hearted messages. The despair no longer mine whirls into my body through these short messages. The friend who called is a mutual friend.
With this incomprehensible depth of despair now woven into my bones, I set the table while the youngest rushes down the stairs. Quite ordinary swift feet on the stairs, quite ordinary pizzas, quite ordinary giggly and teasing teenage girls—while the catastrophe tilts us in slow motion. My friend stumbles in the door, two bottles of wine under one arm, and more pizza. Everybody laughs, hugs, and plays a board game that reveals our tastes in liquorice, male actors, glasses, left side driving, and boob sizes. We breath in the relief of normality and everyday pleasures, while the catastrophe simultaneously breathes through us. In each of us.
The youngest signs out. The eldest and her friend do the opposite and demand yet another round of games. In hiccups of laughter, we ridicule my friend for his ignorance and salute the girls for how transparent they are to each other.
I breathe through the night before. And then hold my breath as I think of the coming night. In agreement we ask the ward to take his phone. We play. I breathe. The girls leave, giggling as they disappear into her room. A quite ordinary Tuesday with teenagers in each their room. An extraordinary Tuesday, the day after nightly messages and now knowing the inside of psychiatric treatment, locked doors, and closed wards. My friend looks at me and we know that now is so obviously dividing into the between of a before and an after. We each drink our wine. His red, mine white. We share the moment when the horror of it all surfaces for us both. We sense the children next door and agree to do ordinariness all the while.
Inspirations for Affective Event Writing
We offer a few examples here to showcase the traces of what was left out. The intention is not to dwell upon the contents or scrutinize the details of our own experiences. It is rather a way of implicating ourselves, as Stengers reminds us. We have tried to engage in this with caution so as to not get lost in our own visceral events by looking for all the contradictions and ambivalences, both in the very concrete figurations and in what we might believe we can learn from it. Actually, it has been a training in paying attention (Berlant 2017, 13).The above text is from our very first affective event writing session carried out as part of a research event in October 2018. At the time, we did not know exactly what we were doing, and how the experiment would mature over the years. We did know, however, that we were searching for a way to carve out a space in the research project that would allow us to engage with the core concepts in the project—affects, interfaces, events—through the optics of the sensuous, lived experience of the project participants. And we did know that writing was part of such an enterprise.
The impetus for thinking about such sessions was inspired by a number of writing practices; feminist writer Laurel Richardson (2005) and her foundational understanding of writing as a method of inquiry (Richardson 2005), the feminist tradition of auto-ethnography (Ellis, 2003; Ellis & Rawicki 2013), and not least of all, collective biography work (Davies & Gannon 2006), in which body and theory are assumed to not only entangle, but to “generate theory from memory” (Davies & Gannon 2006, 14). Moreover, the inspiration for our own sessions also drew on the intentions embedded in creative writing, particularly the ‘takes’ unfolded by Kim Lasky (2013) and Sissel Lie (2012). A particular statement in Laurel Richardson’s 2001 paper has been of importance in how we have allowed this form of experimentation to unfold. She says, “I have come to absolutely respect the power, mystery and complexity of writing […] its effects are surprisingly complex, rich, and rhizomatic, having unexpected consequences for the writer and the reader” (34).
This particular statement vested us with courage to investigate personal matters as an entry point to empirical analysis as she—and others—had carved the way to navigate the perils of writing about our own life (Richardson 2001, 37) but not to stay with the individual joys or crises. To us it became a matter of allowing the individual to enter the collective, so to speak.
The Format of Affective Event Writing
The format of the affective event writings is rather simple: each participant chooses an affective event happening within the timeframe of the project. It needs no qualifications in terms of affective color or tonality. We write in each other’s presence during a time span of 20 minutes. After this, we read our texts aloud one after the other, without any edits, carefully listening to each text. In the end there is room for comments. The reading aloud and the careful listening is as much a part of the affective event writing sessions as the actual writing itself. Here we draw on Les Back’s (2007) work on the art of listening, as well as Bronwyn Davies’ (2021) ideas of emergent listening as a reminder of an attentive manner of listening for the more than what we already know (21). Reading out loud and listening are manners of not leaving the written with the writer, to attune ourselves to attentively listen for what might be there, and to be touched even though we may not be living the ECT treatment, the tiny screens, or the pizzas ourselves. In manners of listening that cracked open rather than closed around taken-for-granted assumptions we found our thinking touched, too. Writing-reading aloud-listening became our experimental cocktail.
The event-writing technique differs from that of collective biography work as the exercise stops when the texts are read aloud, making room for only a few thoughts of response. No further writing, no reworking the texts across authors, as in the well-established tradition by Davies & Gannon (2006). The purpose is not to refine the texts themselves but to excavate the affectivity of the written interfacial event by moving beyond the limited event in favor of letting sensing and imagination nourish the writing, reading, and listening. This, of course, also entails enduring moments of confusion as stepping stones into the event.
What ensued from the initial writing session was a sequence of remarkable events in themselves; the writing, the sharing, the listening, and the entanglements between concepts, research and lived experience allowed otherwise dispersed aspects to merge. The produced texts were different in how the exact entanglement played out, but they all contributed to carving out a space for collective attunement, intensifying our shared understanding, not so much of each other, but the research project we were all immersed in. Event Writing #1 weaves together ECT treatment, tiny affective screens, hints of what will come, and ruptured temporality; a life changing event in all its ordinary and extraordinary complexity that opened tiny new insights into what we meant by affective events and affective interfaces. Just as we realized that these insights did not reside with the one who experienced it but rippled through the group.
The different texts all provided lived experience to the seeming ruptures and ripples from life-trajectories, allowing us to study within the group the thinking-feeling of affective events. This became in itself a small-scale exploration of events of “snapping us to attention together, and correlating our diversity to the affective charge that brings and that energizes the whole situation,” as Brian Massumi (2015) suggests when talking of how “we are all in on the event together, but we are in it together differently” (115). The affective charge of the event writings indeed energized the whole situation differently, offering another perspective onto the “analytic and methodological framework” as initially promised by the research project (Fritsch & Thomsen, 2013, 4). Based on the first experiment, we initiated recurrent event writing sessions to both online and offline meetings to excavate and possibly trace conjunctions and affinities between the project’s ‘take,’ the changes occurring in our individual lives, and global events.
This initial felt-thinking spurred the curious attunement across bodies of flesh, text, and technologies. It is here Massumi’s concept of differential attunement helps us grasp how we were in the writing together. This became a core to the affective event writing. About differential attunement, Massumi (2015) says:
We each come with a different set of tendencies, habits, and action potentials. That’s what I mean by differential attunement: a collective in-bracing in the immediacy of an affective event, but differently in each case. “Attunement” refers to the direct capture of attention and energies by the event. “Differential” refers to the fact that we each are taken into the event from a different angle, and move out of it following our own singular trajectories, riding the waves in our own inimitable way (115).
This goes for world events such a covid lockdown, the war in Ukraine, and for small scale events such as writing sessions addressing personal events. The event snaps us together. It attunes us collectively, differently. With affective event writings we make what we lived ourselves relevant for how analysis can be capacitated. What we experience in the making of our daily lives thus allows us to attune ourselves to the specificities of affective interfacial events.
So what are the details of how we did this?
Yielding: The Spacetime of Affective Event Writing
The ‘take’ of an affective event writing is, as mentioned, simple: find the event and enter it. Then, remain still and stay with it. These steps resemble the three tattvas of how a yin yoga practice can be described (Clark 2012). To settle and allow the sensations to be felt is of course a well known methodological practice. Do we need yogic instructions to refine a well-known ‘take,’ one could ask? Indeed, we do.
The spaciousness crafted in the event-writing is slow and holds the promise of staying with the intensity built up by softly staying slow. Here we not only draw on tattvas of yoga but also on Truman & Springgay’s (2018) timely reminder that slowness is not necessarily about variations in speed (15). It is about speed. But also about hesitation, to create openings and unsettling, and to allow this pace to happen in bodies and beyond the individual body. It is about how we are in it together, how we are together differently and how that energizes the situation. Contrary to other academic practices with a higher pace and rhythm we found a need to shift pace to be able to enter that particular kind of spaciousness. To forgo the well-known pace of much academic practice in favor of this particular slowness, we needed assistance, an elaborate language. So, Bernie Clark’s (2012) words worked to remind us how to “come into the pose to an appropriate depth” (33) and enabled a foundational trail for how to enter. In yin yoga this is often referred to as “playing our edges” (Clark 2012, 33).
We bring in the resemblance with yin yoga instructions to stress how bodily posture and attunement to intensity, and the pace of yielding, matters in how to event-write. We do indeed play with our edges by entering in this particularly slow manner. We find how the affectivity of edgy events has perhaps been what has cracked the subtleties of affects open to us, as we pursued them by remaining still and staying with the intensities crafted by this entrance. In bodies, and beyond individual bodies. Not as a wrestle, as Clark (2012) reminds us, but rather an attentively staying with the event and the exposure to intimacy, hesitation, and openings that were often found there. Wrestling with or attacking a case to enter it would be a different approach, but not the one that we pursued here. This particular approach of entering as embodied yielding to events opens a caring and ethically nurturing path that somehow asks us to walk also alongside the shadows of what we might access at a different pace. Pace is at stake in the next example.
Affective Event Writing #2
I have made up a shell of concentration. However porous it is. It receives intrusions and disruptions from both inside and outside. It is as if I am growing a flair, a new affective capacity. Or an incapacity: I cannot endure more electronic, digitally mediated sound. Be it intimate conversations with my sister, updates from friends, yoga-classes, vivas, doctoral assessments or lectures. Not even our Head of Department’s welcoming online ‘open door’ window each Friday afternoon speaks to me. They all enter my tired ear with the same electronic sound. The extra affective capacity does not want to cooperate. It longs for real life voices. Perhaps it is not even a real capacity being cultivated—perhaps it is more of a hyper-insensitivity. A capacity so detail-oriented to digital sound and the absence of real life voices that does not want to be overwhelmed. This new sense resists and is in dire opposition.
The rest of my in/capacitated body, however, does not resist the new added-on sense. It wants to rest, it desires the break, it dreams of a silence which does not tear and scratch in the transmission itself. It is at war with itself as it knows that this unbearable sound is the current connection to bodies, voices, skin, kisses, and shared thinking. So this sense which perhaps even does not want to grow itself needs to cultivate itself as it is now the only sense, the only channel that connects bodies these days.
This second affective event-writing example was created during an online session in the research team during Covid-lockdown. The above testimony was written after the first few weeks of solitude with teenagers and online teaching. It addresses sensory temporality and how ripples of screens also serve as an entry point to take seriously the sensations. Not merely of the micro events of our own lives, but of the immense intensities of macro world-spanning events such as the pandemic, the ongoing climate crisis, Black Lives Matter, and #metoo, and take them into a closer view. And most importantly we found the courage to embrace these sensations as entwined with our thinking, not merely as testimonies to personal life event, not as something exterior to our research, but as intimately folded into it.
Tons of testimonies and special issues on all parts of living during lockdown have been published since 2020. We do not assume this short piece to lay out lockdown experiences any better than those. What we want to showcase here are the minute attentive attunements to bodies-screens-affect-world events that spurred new insights into how to grasp what might be at stake in interfacial events. The third example of an affective event writing starts with a different kind of event.
Affective Event Writing #3
On Tuesday the 29th of March 2022, the Danish soccer player, Christian Eriksen, made his first appearance with the Danish National team, 9 months after he fell to the ground with a heart attack on live television in the home field of Denmark, Parken, during the European Championships 2020, played in the Summer of 2021 due to corona. Finally, people had a break from the pandemic and were allowed to meet again in public—maybe a bit too soon, but it seems everybody was ready to take the risk.
The heart attack happened in Denmark’s first match and was broadcast to millions of people. For obvious ethical reasons, no footage now exists of the live event, which I was watching with two friends. But I remember the feeling of uneasiness slowly seeping from the screen into the room; why did he fall, when no one was around him? Why did he fall in this particular manner—without being able to use his hands to soften the fall? I remember the voice of the commentator, the look of the audience, and the faces in tears of his teammates when they formed a circle around him while the doctors were giving him heart massage and saving his life on the playing field. I remember staring at the screen, people finding their mobile phones to seek live updates, more news, and the unbearable thought that he might in fact not come back. The ambulance taking Eriksen to the hospital, rumours spreading that he had been sitting up when taken to the hospital, the picture of Eriksen in the hospital bed an hour later, and the fact that the match was played after the players had heard he was okay.
I remember the sound footage of the viral video of the Danish and Icelandic audience shouting in a call-response manner: Christian–Eriksen.
Later in the evening, we saw the lights of an ambulance passing by in the small villa road where we were watching the match. This was a weird doubling of the intensity on the screen, suddenly becoming very palpable almost right next to us. The urgency was spreading, proliferating. We later found out that a person in one of the neighboring houses had gone into shock after seeing the live event of Eriksen’s collapse and had to be taken to the hospital for observation.
In many ways, the third affective event writing example reenacts a lived affective interface event par excellence; the affective intensity of the heart attack being live-broadcast across the world, the uncertainty of not knowing, the entanglement of broadcast and internet-based media that allowed for the event to travel and for people to attune to the event; the feeling that you as a person are being folded into an event that is bigger than you, the very palpable consequences of this affective intensity as it enters a living body in a neighboring house. You are braced into the event, which proliferates and mutates freely through entangled screens and bodies. In the initial application, we had mentioned Felix Baumgartner and his free fall from outer space as an example par excellence of a real-time interface event. At the time that was the better example of a collective anxiety and excitement stemming from a human body in free fall in space, broadcast in real-time through the internet. However, the case of Christian Eriksen is an even stronger activation of the core concepts of affects, interfaces, and events and how they entangle. Multiple bodies, screens, temporalities, and affect were immediately lived and sensed by all imbricated into the event.
This latter affective event writing was written outside of the regular, collective writing sessions. It was not set up as a writing session, but almost as an event entering into the keyboard, the fingers tapping as a response to the felt experience of living this event. It showcases a different potential of the event writing practice; here, the text becomes a way of sharing the immediacy of the felt, lived experience with the research group at a later point in time.
The Promise of Entry Points
Throughout the latter part of our collective research process we worked with these affective event writings as quite a rigorous affective methodology, and as an experimental writing format producing a particular genre of texts. These are not literary text, nor therapeutic texts, nor academic texts. They are an affective means of grasping the ineffable, yet real, and they serve as entry points for how to feel-think affectivity in interfacial events. Therefore, the texts are not to be evaluated or assessed by any literary standards or qualities, but to be discussed as experiments and as methodologically relevant.
The writings, readings aloud, and listening to ECT treatments, growing new sensory in/capacities and Christian Eriksen’s collapse did not make their way into the edited book, but the effects of these and other writings are nonetheless traceable. We think of the affective event writings as experiments with sensing the lived quality of the concepts and affective insights that spur new thinking, writings, and shared becomings that none of us had hitherto managed to incorporate into academic text. They became the entry-points for how to feel-think the affectivity in interfacial events. The words often arrived through not-knowing, but spurred by an urge to know. As Richardson (2001) reminds us, “I write because I want to find something out. I write in order to learn something that I did not know before I wrote it” (35). An affective methodology of reading aloud, and carefully listening became the means through which to enter.
We did not know before we started event-writing. We came to know, but not necessarily what we might have wanted to know. What emerged across the different affective event writings was the potentiality of getting to know our data differently, of getting to know concepts differently. Through that entry point we moved kind of sideways as we entered and re-entered cases, concepts, design, artwork, and with the attunements of affective interfacial events that were our own. Perhaps re-addressing the events now allows us to extend the responsibilities of such unfinished business?
Closing with Assistance from Berlant
In this essay, we have presented affective event writings as an experiment and as a methodology. When we organized out first writing session, it felt risky. Things could have simply not taken off, the sharing and listening to both what we already knew and did not know yet could have led to a non-event, could have folded in on itself. Instead, we found an untapped resource through the entry points that did more than care for individual bodies that have lived through break ups, treatments, or witnessed the collapse of other bodies. Basically, we follow Lauren Berlant’s approach to attention which Seigworth (2012) characterizes as calling “a body into new modes of attention: to hums, to incoherence and ambivalence, to history’s coming-into-and-falling-away-from forms and genres” (346) and found ourselves noticing interfacial events differently. We found ourselves having entered not just the specificity of Christian Eriksen’s collapse, of lockdown, or of witnessing ECT treatment differently but having opened the possibility of entering all manner of affective interfacial events. The promise of entry points enlarged beyond specificity.
So what, then, is the promise? We could suggest that a particular attunement to screens is what emerged as a specific attentive analytical focus. Just like we could suggest that the testimony to ECT treatment allowed us to grasp ineffable sorrow in interview transcripts, or attuned us to the multiple forms that temporality might have as we felt its puncture as well as how it rippled over us. This is true. But it would, however, also be quite a cruel simplification of what was at stake, a poor translation of how and why there is rich attunement and lived quality of concepts to be found and cultivated in affective event writings. Rather than something specific, the affective event writings became an energizing facility. We cannot be any more specific about this. But we found we have navigated something that we would otherwise have pushed aside. We paused with the tenderness of having had entry points, instead of letting the same tenderness derail us.
In this manner, the affective event writings held a generative creative tension which perhaps allowed Spinoza’s ‘to be affected’ dimension more openly into the academic process of thinking, writing, reading, and listening, but nonetheless without the ability to point directly at how an event-writing leads us to specific analysis. It has a this-ness to it, yet also an ineffable capability that can ripple away. Rather than specific analytical strategies carved out for us, we find the accumulated texts to be generative spaces for cultivating an analytical sensitivity and a bodily acuteness through the events of writing, reading aloud, and listening. A need for spaciousness requires much more than space to flourish; a need for slowness affords much more than tempo.
There was no immediate analytic genre available. So, we looked for an essay to embrace care, yogic entrance-practices, memory work-inspiration and the like to sop up what we thought was missing. Throughout these pages we have addressed it as if something ‘was left out’ (of what has been published). This way of phrasing it possibly implies that we made a deliberate decision to not include this something, in the anthology. In hindsight, perhaps it is more accurate to say that maybe things have been left in the text as imperceptible traces that color the framing of the chapters, anyway.
1. We are grateful to Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, Dorthe Staunæs, and the editors of Capacious who all read previous versions of this essay and so helped it find its shape.
2. Apart from ourselves, the ‘we’ includes Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen, Søren Rasmussen, Kristine Samson, Camilla Møhring Reestorff, and Thomas Markussen. The project was funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark (IRFD), 2015-2021.
3. Originally all event writings were written in Danish. The texts presented here are translated into English and slightly reworked for the purpose of this essay.
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