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. 

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