Monthly Archives: June 2016

That’s from this post by Alan Jacobs, commenting on an essay from the NYRB by Edward Mendelson. It seems like a good question to me, though I am not sure that so many people would find these scenarios so different. But, assuming that’s accurate, an obvious difference comes to mind: screens watch you back and paper doesn’t. The screen reader seems more vulnerable, and reminds us of our own vulnerability to the unseen watchers who have inserted themselves between us and our correspondents. There is a sense of helplessness, an inability to protect ourselves from exposure in the midst of wanting to sustain a private yet social life.

The “zombies” enthralled with phones perhaps seem subjugated by a device and by the industry that made it; people reading letters don’t appear to be in the helpless thrall of paper manufacturers. 


Structuring distraction

Tania Modleski’s Loving With a Vengeance (1982) makes a good point about how “distraction” is structured through media consumption, describing how “daytime television plays a part in habituating women to interruption, distraction, and spasmodic toil.” Soap operas, especially, were produced with accommodating the broken rhythms of housework in mind:

The multiple plot lines of soap operas, for example, keep women interested in a number of characters and their various fates simultaneously. When one plot threatens to become too absorbing, it is interrupted, and another story line resumed, or a commercial is aired. Interruptions within the soap opera diegesis are both annoying and pleasurable: if we are torn away from one absorbing story, we at least have the relief of picking up the thread of an unfinished one. Commercials, of course, present the housewife with mini-problems and their resolutions, so after witnessing all the agonizingly hopeless dilemmas presented on soap operas, the spectator has the satisfaction of seeing something cleaned up, if only a stained shirt or a dirty floor. 

Ads are problems solved, in contrast to the problems prolonged in the show. The ads aren’t distractions in and of themselves — distraction is built into how the shows are designed — but a respite, a moment of permission to take up a new task, to focus attention elsewhere, to take stock of what one should be most anxious about at a given instant. Viewers are distractible because they care too much — they are adapt at figuring out what else to worry about. Their scattered focus becomes proof of their caring nature.

Structured distractibility, Modleski claimed, was fused with motherhood. The soap operas not only thematized caring at the level of plot; it organized viewers’ time so that a capacity to be distracted was made equivalent to the capability to provide nurture: 

Soap operas appear to be the one visual art which activates the gaze of he mother—but in order to provoke anxiety (an anxiety never allayed by narrative closure) about the welfare of others. Close-ups provide the spectator with training in “reading” other people, in being sensitive to their (unspoken) feelings at any given moment.

Distraction becomes the affective sign of an endless and inextinguishable concern for the other. Paying attention to the context of why someone needs care is less important than simply being able to recognize the need without having any details that explain it. Following the plot is subordinated to the show’s affective beats, the emotional moments that aren’t explained by the plot and often stand in excess of it.    

Social media seize upon this heritage of structured distraction. Only distraction is not just for the domestic sphere anymore. It’s not just mothers who are expected to read other people and feel an open-ended anxiety about them that can be continually stoked by serial updates about their lives. We are all presumed to be infinitely interruptible, because we want to believe about ourselves that we can make times for others, that our attention matters to others. Social media invite us all to feel perpetually distracted, to show we really care. 

This passage is from Sandy Flitterman, “The Real Soap Operas” (1983)

Advertisements shouldn’t be regarded as the opposite of “content.” More typically, they are “content” perfected, presenting the pleasures of narrative, repetition, and vicarious participation in the most efficient possible form. Failing at that, they establish the terms by which we can recognize “content” — that is emotionally manipulative material that is ambiguous rather than explicit in its aims. The ads, in their necessary narrative closure, help us see open narratives elsewhere. We get some doses of closure to make overwhelming interminability of “content” manageable and pleasurable.

As always, the “content” depends on ads just as much as ads depend on “content.” This point, obvious but sometimes overlooked, seems relevant to how ads change social streams. The ads change the way all the content around them is understood. Not only do the posts from those we choose to follow now function as bait to get us to see ads; they also tee up the ads and allow them to perform the functions Flitterman describes with respect to soap operas. The ads become reassuring “oases” of clarity and narrative closure that stand in contrast to the ongoing, open-ended drama of our friends’ posts. The kinds of closure inherent to ads are then structurally denied to non-ads — we read them as non-ads, as incomplete, as teases, regardless of what they depict.

From Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society

This claim that we are depressed because we are “tired of becoming ourselves” seems like a rebuke to the “never being, always becoming” school of liberation. But it’s more a rejection of the “self as brand equity” position. It suggests how the capitalist demand to always be productive, or, if you prefer, the neoliberal expectation that we will convert our lives into capital that must always be systematically grown, seizes upon the ideal of self-expression and strips it of its dignity.

The point, perhaps, is that self-expression is not inherently ennobling, it is not automatically a morally approvable end in itself. Self-expression requires contextualizing; under certain conditions it is able to become a rewarding aim. Under other conditions, it’s a crappy, endless job.

The idea that conformity (a “good tiredness” in which one no longer strives for distinction, for metrics) is more rewarding and more subversive than entrepreneurial self-fashioning continues to gain steam. It seems to promise the end of the self as capital, of identity as a perpetual spur to the expression of it in various legible, capturable ways. It seems to promise that you will be able to produce something other than yourself in the world. 

The above is from Hannah Black’s “The Identity Artist and the Identity Critic.” 

If art is inevitably the space of “permissible critique,” it will always domesticate artists’ direct attempts to make radical works of impermissible critique — that is, the sort of critical “interventions” that can trigger conflict, collectivity, and social change. 

When the political intent of a work is most explicit, its domestication becomes most egregious, glaring. If the political intent is obscure, the work may achieve a kind of impermissible, unrecuperated critique purely as a by-product, by way of misdirection or even misinterpretation among audiences. In this case, the artist will have difficulty taking credit for the effectual critique, if that happens to matter to them. Taking credit demystifies the intent and domesticates it again. The by-product of political efficacy is lost, reintegrated with the main product: the work of art trading on the various markets capable of giving it economic value. 

That is to say, as Black says of identity in the second paragraph above, that political works of art proceed through a “kind of nonidentity” with themselves; they become political by failing to be political, or their political potency emerges despite their opacity or inconsistency, in their layers and doublings.