Will Fraser: Your work travels through the durational space of the earworm, the daydream, probing for what these distracted sites—where, as you write, we listen non-listeningly—might symptomatically reveal about contemporary cognition and its more useless modes of production. I’m curious if you could talk more about what these seemingly benign phenomena implicate?
Eldritch Priest: I started to work on distraction when I was writing Boring Formless Nonsense, and the work I’m doing now grew out of that. I feel that the role distraction plays in contemporary culture has entered the popular imaginary now. Especially through the work of writers like Nicholas Carr who addresses how our technology is changing the ways in which we’re able to exercise our powers of concentration and ability to focus attention. But Carr isn’t the first person to write about attention and its relationship to distraction. William James wrote about attention in the late 19th century. There’s a great article he published that includes a discussion about a dot on a wall. He interrogates this phenomenon of looking at the dot, of trying to keep one’s eye on it, and where one’s mind goes, and ultimately concludes that attention is entirely this pulse, this rhythm of bringing one’s mind back to a focused awareness rather than being a sustained event. Essentially, attention is not something that is fixed but is a repeated activity whose rhythm gives the impression of continuity.
Where I’m coming at this is with respect to the idea that not only is attention a rhythmic event, but an event whose rhythms are very much tied to the technicity that characterizes our relationship to highly mediated environments. Walter Benjamin was addressing something like this in the ’30s when he writes about perception “in the mode of distraction,” specifically with respect to architecture. But he also sees this mode of distraction applying to film. Because we can’t entirely follow what we see on a screen, he argues that the masses develop a certain kind of “apperceptive awareness” that gives individuals more of a critical purchase on their role in society as consumers. So for Benjamin distraction was a revolutionary power passively acquired by cinema’s technics. My contribution to this discussion about distraction is probably more ambivalent because for me distraction and attention are two sides of the same coin, much like buying and selling are two sides of the same transaction. This means that distraction and attention describe a relationship to perception or awareness rather than a singular phenomenon. My recent thinking about earworms builds on these ideas about distraction/attention and their rhythmical expression, but suggests that earworms draw attention to the way cognition transpires in two directions, that thinking can take place to the side of itself.
Could you say more about that, the idea that earworms draw attention to the way cognition happens to the side of itself?
I think of an earworm being like William James’s “dot,” but a dot that you don’t willfully return to. In a sense, an earworm is like a botched or broken focus that draws attention to how attention is pulsed, always in motion, always being pulled to whatever change in the perceptual field that your eyes or your ears can’t help but tag. Historically, we’ve considered that a change detected in a perceptual field provides an opportunity to contemplate it or build an awareness around it. But in the kind of environment that we’re now creating for ourselves, where there’s rapid and seemingly limitless change, there’s no occasion to linger on a change, to have a thought about it or even judge it.
Where maybe now judgment even precedes thought, or, in our economy of reaction, we’ve come to judge before we think?
I mean, I suppose some people would say we judge before we think. Psychologists often talk about priming or cognitive bias that precludes the experience of weighing pros and cons. In a sense, this means that our experience includes the experience of “pre-cognitive” assessments about what’s important to us. But what I think is really weird about this now is that what we’re pre-cognitively deciding is important is just the next thing, the next impulse, the next occasion for attention to be distracted. The next nextness is itself what matters.
In my essay “Earworms, Daydreams, and Cognitive Capitalism” I think about how this nextness manifests in the experience of songs getting stuck in our heads. Basically, I argue that earworms are not entirely a cognitive event but a technical affair. For me, music is itself a technology of abstraction, a technology through which we teach ourselves to sense in sound certain tonal and rhythmic relations that yield the perception of shapes and forms, tensions and releases that are not actually in these sounds but subsist in them virtually. In other words, music teaches us how to abstract from acoustical events the appearance of liveliness, or what I’d call, after Susanne Langer, “vital semblances.” Now, because in our culture music is always on—in the background, in the car, in coffeeshops, in our headphones—our ability to abstract these semblances is continually being exercised such that it becomes a habit, it becomes something we do involuntarily, it becomes an “earworm.” But it’s not only our musical powers of abstraction that are being continually tasked. I think the processes responsible for daydreaming are also being engaged in a similar way. But it’s a little more confusing to understand daydreaming this way because traditionally daydreaming is regarded as a condition of the mind being untasked. However, this might change as neuroscience is beginning to develop a picture of the brain that includes a neural network arising in occasions when individuals are in a state of disengagement. The “default-mode network” is what this brain state is being called and it’s largely regarded as corresponding to the psychological experience of mind-wandering. Yet, by identifying a neural network that correlates with daydreaming, scientists have assumed that the former’s coherence is indicative of the latter’s usefulness. That is, it’s understood that if brains always look this way when untasked, then daydreaming must be good for something. But I’m not so sure this is correct. I have more to say about this, but the point I want to make for now is that there may be something about the way our brains are being tasked by technologies that promote distraction and encourage daydreaming in much the way audio technologies encourage us to—how can I put it?—to earworm.
In the provoking of earworms and daydreams, I see certain domains of thought that have historically been considered useless or “inutile” becoming rehabilitated in a way that puts them to work, makes them, as I said, “good for something.” To me, this goes against my old-fashioned avant-garde sympathies that value there is value in inutility. The question I have about earworms and daydreams is whether certain thoughts can exist legitimately without having to serve some other function. But it seems that once the default-mode network was discovered daydreaming had to be treated as “necessary,” and a favorite theory is that it’s necessary for the development of a “self.” And insofar as the cultivation of the self is a major rallying cry of neoliberalism, I can’t help but be suspicious about this rehabilitation of daydreaming.
What’s the ancient Greek term Michel Foucault uses, epimeleia heautou, “care of the self”…this now being functionalized on hyperdrive…
Right, we’re each utterly responsible for cultivating our own sense of a self. My concern is that daydreaming, which almost certainly is a means for us to engage more creatively with the stuff of the world, is now being construed as a device or a technique to mobilize our powers to share, to think, to relate to one another, all in order to buy more shit.
Your mention of technics reminds me of Bernard Stiegler’s analysis of writing as a pharmakon, writing as a new technics about which Socrates was very afraid, or the phonograph and its technical relation to the new musical vocabulary of Charlie Parker, that new technical regimes, new pharmacological devices spark major revolutions… Do you think it’s helpful now to look at these critical moments for insight into what thought might mean, or what listening might mean? One concept you write about is “the unsound”, as a more contemporary technic which comes from nowhere, but like the earworm just appears, nearing something like thought.
A revolution, I don’t know…I think it’s more of a reorientation…
But the idea of “unsound” is something that Steve Goodman introduced in his book Sonic Warfare. Although I take it in a different direction than he does. My sense of “unsound” draws on the work of Susanne Langer, a once popular but now but largely overlooked philosopher who developed theories of art and mind. As a student of Alfred North Whitehead, Langer’s work is indebted to his philosophy of organism. And while I’d suggest her philosophical project is essentially a philosophy of life, she’s primarily known for her works Philosophy in a New Key and Feeling and Form. The former was a particularly influential work that argues human mentality differs from animal mentality by virtue of the way humans have a need to transform their experiences into symbols. Animals have consciousness and awareness. But they have a relationship to their experience that humans don’t. Namely, animals orient themselves towards the world according to how they can deal with it not as it’s imagined or conceived but as it’s given to them by the makeup of their species-specific perceptual apparatus. They respond to sense data as signals to be dealt with more or less immediately. Humans, however, by virtue of the kind of nervous system they’ve evolved, have an ability to relate to sense data symbolically, which is to say expressively and abstractly rather than just pragmatically and functionally. Humans, unlike animals, don’t have to deal with experience simply as it’s given to them by their senses and appetites. The transformation of experience into symbolic forms is a way of experiencing the world virtually. Langer also argues that the symbolic transformation of experience is not just a uniquely human ability or a mere attitude but a need, one that arises from the way the brain or central nervous system is always working to convert sensory experience into expressive forms. So to babble, to think ideas, to daydream is what our brains do, just like digestion is what a stomach does. What I find interesting about this is that Langer recognizes that animals have a legitimate inner life. But she doesn’t think animals have a “mind.” For her, “mind” describes this particular way of relating to and using the stuff of experience to fabricate symbolic forms or images that serve to express relations rather than function as things to be undergone or dealt with. And only humans, as far as we know, can do “mindly” things” in any sustained and integral way. Although Langer doesn’t put it this way, it seems to me that this creation of symbolic forms is also the creation of a technics or of forms that not only represent experience but individuate it.
Right, how do we code ourselves…
Stiegler might talk about this as grammatization, as a process of parcelizing the flow of experience through units that engage us before we even arrive at the level of language or even a full-blown concept. I don’t think I really addressed your question about unsound very well, but I see how it led me here. For me, unsound is not vibratory phenomena that fall outside of our range of hearing as Goodman understands it, but rather those cases where sound is felt as thought rather than heard. I’ve been thinking a lot about how we think we know what thinking is, which is what brought me to talk about Langer. In this vein, I find Katherine Hayles’ writing about non-conscious cognition insightful. And Gregory Bateson’s ecological approach, too. But probably my favorite thinker who tackles thinking is late-nineties Baudrillard, the Baudrillard who’s gone completely off the rails.
I love that, too—works like The Impossible Exchange…
Yes, there’s a great chapter in that book where he talks about how humans are terrified by the immeasurability of thought and so invent the idea that thought is reckoning and calculation. Ironically, by developing machines whose functioning not only looks like what we’ve decided thinking looks like but seem to do this thinking better than us, we’ve made ourselves redundant. Baudrillard doesn’t entirely lament our passing on thinking to machines but sees in it an opportunity for us to reacquaint ourselves with what he calls the radical uselessness of thought. “Go ahead,” he says, “give thinking over to machines so thought can get back to being utterly unnecessary, which it always has been.”
I’ve been considering exactly this with respect to daydreaming and earworms. These phenomena point to something about thought and its necessary inutility that I think draws a line between what kind of thinking a machine can get up to and what organic systems are not just capable of but prone to do. If machines lay claim to reckoning as a form of thought proper to their functioning, then their thinking can’t entail things like hesitation and wonder, which strike me as necessary conditions for thought to wander and stray from any type of utility. Earworms and daydreams seem much more symptomatic or expressive of thinking whose exchanges and goings on are excessive and inutile.
This young thinker Federico Campagna writes about this false equivalency as “absolute language,” where what’s reached is a sort of totalizing cybernetic feedback, not unlike Paul Virilio’s diagnosis of absolute war, total war. We can say that this absolute management misses the issue of “the useless”…
Right. I think cybernetics has been revived recently as a way to describe systems that account for what they, technically speaking, can’t account for. Niklas Luhmann describes this kind of system as one whose invariance entails continuous adjustments to what perturbs its order. Noise, in other words, belongs to the signal as its dynamic other. This idea is seductive for those interested in artificial intelligence as a system or mode of interaction that works because of rather than despite the perturbations to its way of carrying on. This relates to what I’ve been saying because it describes how noise or useless mental goings-on have been recuperated by the neurological discourses and economies of attention. Daydreaming is put to use in order to stabilize a system of knowledge that sees brain activity as always functional. But I think daydreaming isn’t just noise that gives relief to the signal of thought. I’ve been reading Gaston Bachelard’s work recently…
I meant to ask you about his book The Poetics of Reverie…
Yeah, that’s a great work. Like Langer, Bachelard isn’t fashionable these days. But I think his notion of reverie gives us a way to think about daydreaming and mind-wandering as activities that not are so easily incorporated into the functionalist paradigm that neuroscience is advancing. Although he wasn’t a psychoanalyst, he initially borrowed Freud’s terminology and rhetorical flourishes to frame his inquiry into the psychodynamics of thought. But Bachelard eventually moved away from Freud’s psychoanalytical model and embraced Jungian depth psychology as well as Husserl’s phenomenological method. Through the lens of these two approaches, he saw reverie as an active mode of thought that’s carried out in response to our encounters with the dynamical affordances of matter. He wrote several books about reverie and its intimate relationship with the figures of air, water, earth, and fire that have appeared in the history of humanity’s efforts to understand itself and the world. In The Poetics of Reverie, which you asked about, he interrogates the works of poets who write about encounters with the stuff of the world, specifically the ways in which a poet’s words can be understood to express what he called the “material imagination.” When we read poetic works that feature images of air, earth, water, or fire, Bachelard says that we become “word dreamers,” and directly (but also vicariously) engage the material imagination. Amusingly, he concludes that to daydream, to actively express a world through the images that flare up as we navigate its elemental composition, is to heed what he called the “irreality function”. Where Freud talks about the reality principle as what continually reminds us of the limits of our ability to imagine, Bachelard insists that the irreality function is what keeps us engaged with the world and what allows us to renew our being. Unlike the reality principle, which forces the psyche to adjust to what is given by the real, the irreality function is what lets the psyche forge images whose departure from the real nourishes it. So, the workings of the imagination don’t entail a mimetic response that effectively imitates the contours of the real. Instead, it actively deforms the real as it’s given. The imagination is our way of making the real speak or sing itself other than in its most immediate sense. The deforming work of the imagination is in this respect not a distortion or diminution of the real but its valorization. Bachelard has a wonderful line in his book Air and Dreams: “In the domain of imagination, a transcendence is joined to every immanence.” And another where he states that humans actualize “the immanence of the imaginative in the real, the continuous path from the real to the imaginative.” But this doesn’t make the imagination simply a tool for abstraction. It is that in some ways, but for Bachelard reverie is a technique of expression that realizes a force of existence. And this is not something that can be instrumentalized insofar as the expression of being is its own satisfaction. Using daydreaming to better one’s productivity or solve a problem so you can move on to the next project, is not what Bachelard was thinking. Ultimately what I take from Bachelard is that this process of bringing the immanence of material to transcendence means that humans effectively dream for matter. We are the conduits through which matter dreams its own interactions and its own dynamic powers. I liken this to what Marshall McLuhan said of machines: that we are the “sex organs of the machine world.”
The Baudrillard of The Impossible Exchange would say that there’s no outside anymore, that there is a lack of an imagining or intuiting the outside, of matter…
Absolutely, I understand him to be saying that the world is transparent to itself.
And he makes a great argument that reality will always affirm the questions one puts to it. So there is no reality that sits apart from its interrogation, from the things that purport to speak on its behalf. Reality will always confess.
You point out that we’re never not listening, that our ears are always on, and in tandem with Jonathan Crary’s hypothesis in 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep that sleep is the last holdout against 24/7 capitalism, I’m curious if there might be a companion hypothesis or an extension, that perhaps our ears are (also) a last holdout against this tendency towards total use. Can daydreams and earworms potentially be affirmative of other forms of life?
There’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while that the experience of an earworm may be a little bit like sleep in that they are a form of resistance. For example, as much as sonic branders can exploit our ability to involuntarily remember a jingle, associate that jingle with a product, and modulate our desire in anticipation of a commodity—because there’s no formula for precisely calculating in advance what will make a “hook” or a tune catchy, or for how long a song might stick—earworms are unruly. This makes me think that earworms might actually arrest the flow of desire. It doesn’t really seem that way on the surface, but in some respect earworms can be thought of as an anti-body fighting the infection of continuous partial attention. This speaks to the double-sided nature of attention and distraction that I earlier likened to the way in which buying and selling are two sides of the same transaction. In other words, an earworm might be a way we are trying to re-capture our own attention from the constant tug of outward distractions.
Like I said about William James and the dot, maybe we can see the earworm as a training device that teaches us how to come back to attention, to return to this thought about this sound. This would make earworms insubordinate to the imperative that we always connect and be moving from one novelty to another. I also think about the repetition of earworms being a sign of how our organism is desperately trying to find and stabilize a pattern where our chaotic media sphere has no patterns, or at least doesn’t have patterns that have been predigested by an algorithm. In a sense, the earworm’s dynamics counter that of daydreaming. Daydreams lend themselves to capture by capitalism because of their “streaminess”; by their nature they connect times and places that wouldn’t otherwise articulate with each other. A dream does this, too, but a daydream is a little different because, as Bachelard notes, a daydream retains a glimmer of consciousness that puts its time and space bending powers under our control. To bring seemingly incompatible realities together in novel ways and advance upon what this yields is a boon to what I would classify as cognitive capitalism.
Might that notion of the stream poetically resemble streaming platforms, as a technics which supports the always available, the infinitely malleable, etc.?
I think so. The technics of streaming is one in which music, or any information in fact, can endlessly hail you. There never has to be a pause between one song and another that might occasion the development of an interest other than that which grows around the act of consuming.
The loopiness of an earworm makes it a kind of weird non-event insofar as it doesn’t have a beginning or an end. I suppose daydreaming doesn’t either, but unlike an earworm a daydream’s non-event horizon is less evident, which is what lends it to being conceptualized as though it is purposeful.
But you know, what I find ironic about all the excitement over daydreaming is that it’s taking place at the same moment in time in which we have fewer opportunities to do it. That said, it’s also odd that a new malady has sprung up that researchers have named “maladaptive daydreaming.” Have you come across this?
No, I have not.
Basically, the term refers to people who are compulsive fantasizers. This condition is “maladaptive” to the extent that it interferes with one’s ability to live one’s life not in a daydream. Those who suffer from maladaptive daydreaming spend hours and hours a day distracted by their own minds. And it’s not just random mind-wandering. Many sufferers report that their daydreams are often like soap operas—there are characters they come to love and who they watch meet, have adventures, grow old, and die. The research on maladaptive daydreaming is still in its infancy, but it’s striking that at the same time daydreaming has become celebrated, it has developed a pathological profile.
Just as there is or was a production of the schizophrenic, or the hysteric, there’s now a production of the maladaptive daydreamer…
Right, I have this idea that we might see ADHD as the affliction of the late 20th century. But now it’s time to move on to consider that maladaptive daydreaming may be the 21st century’s affliction of choice.
Are those the people we should study?
I don’t know, and I do like the connection with the schizophrenic. Schizophrenia suggests the idea of thought continually splitting off from itself, and maladaptive daydreaming is a form of splitting from the demands of the here and now. But with MD, there remains a trace of attention, even if that attention is only directed inward. And think about this: mind-wandering is often referred to as being absent-minded; however, when your mind is wandering, you’re actually very present to yourself, to your interior, your activity of introspecting. This might be a way to understand how culture is reconceptualizing what counts as attention. Looking at your phone and thinking about dinner later that evening is usually called multi-tasking, but it might also be considered a form of split attention. By virtue of our technics and the way in which they afford a functional partitioning of attention between an external screen and a so-called internal screen, attention and, indeed, thinking is not so much compromised as just distributed.
I speculate that the famous Benjaminian thesis on distraction has now flipped, that contemplation or attending to your screen is now a new kind of distraction, that there’s been a sort of reversal, or that there’s a new investment in the contemplation of distraction…
Well put. I think the status of contemplation is undergoing a shift, right…Contemplation, introspection, distraction, attention, absentmindedness—these are all forms of awareness that characterize the relationship we have with our inner lives. I might actually call these “moods of awareness” because they describe a global orientation towards awareness without anything in particular being the object of one’s state of awareness. I’m actually just as interested in contemplation as distraction in this respect. Both contemplation and distraction express a sense of detached awareness to what passes through one’s perceptual or cognitive field. But where contemplation gathers and concentrates this sense, distraction scatters and distributes it. I feel old-fashioned sometimes because I’m of an age and disposition whereby contemplation is my default mood. My tolerance for the scattering—schizophrenic?—effects of awareness by things like Twitter or Facebook, is very low. I can’t connect with the practices those platforms encourage because I’ve been trained by more contemplative media like novels, cassettes, and even, I’d suggest, CD players, to develop the sense of awareness at much slower rhythms of change.
Take my listening habits, for example. These habits developed with respect to a medium whose mode of delivery is restricted in a way that newer audio technologies are not. To a not insignificant degree, the labor it takes to skip tracks on a cassette or vinyl record encouraged me to treat the playback event as something that actively gathers my awareness around its more or less fixed way of unfolding. And even though CDs reduced the labour of skipping tracks, if I wanted to hear another artist or album I had to physically change out the disc, making that activity a part of its event.
I think you put your finger on what is so ambiguous about this situation when you say that a seemingly contemplative act—staring at a screen—is being counted as a form of distraction. In a sense these are contradictory moods, but the way perception is being steered these days makes it difficult to distinguish the gathering and scattering of awareness from one another. Think about how certain kinds of games like Candy Crush appear to hold our attention for long periods of time. I’m not sure I’d call what it nurtures contemplation, but there is a gathering of one’s self in the game play that makes me question if it’s a mutant form of contemplation or distraction masquerading as such. There’s clearly something like attention being paid to the game but I’m not certain that it’s in a contemplative mood. Natasha Schüll makes a link between this form of awareness and that which develops when playing slot machines. There’s a mindlessness to both activities and the sustained consideration that people give to completing these very unremarkable tasks is quite remarkable. She argues that this thin film of awareness persists because a continuous stream of micro-rewards—those random moments when you crush a line of candies rather than satisfying a plot line, or win a small bit of cash—keeps a player in a reward circuit, or what she calls a “ludic loop.” To me this ambiguity lends itself to being reconceptualized as a form of contemplation or attention because our world is being composed in a way that our daily activities are functioning more and more like Candy Crush—checking one’s Twitter or Facebook feed or replying to the flood of text messages received over the day is not unlike clearing a row of colorful candies.
What happens then to our capacity for Proustian involuntary memory, in this speculative regime of attentional administration? Are human processes of remembering involuntarily being captured and, similarly to attention/distraction, changing meaning?
That’s an interesting question. I’m trying to imagine how Proust’s abduction by the past when biting into a tea-soaked madeleine is being harnessed in some way…I suppose the received way in which we understand Charles Swann’s time-travel in À la recherche du temps perdu is that it’s not only something involuntary but something wonderful. But when I think about maladaptive daydreaming, I think about this capture as something that is not only involuntary but compulsive. It’s not a choice that these people get lost in their daydreams. And while many report that it’s not unpleasant, it also interferes with their ability to live a life apart from them. I’m curious what the science will say in a few years about the causes that bring this condition on. My guess is that there will definitely be some neurobiological component to it, but it may also indict our media-saturated environment because thinking isn’t just a brain state. Thinking is more of an ecological effect that arises from the way in which our bodies interact with environments to promote specific perceptual and cognitive habits. To the extent that we are now contracting habits from an environment that’s not just a precession of simulacra, as Baudrillard notes, but one whose flickers and flows keep accelerating, means that there are fewer opportunities to anchor our awareness in the present. The distraction this breeds frees us from actually having to pay any significant amount of attention to the here and now. As such, we become hyper-attentive to our self-awareness that, weirdly, draws us out of the constant need to be connected and seeking novelty. This resistance to participating in this labile here and now is being achieved by virtue of the very mechanisms that aim to capture and tether us to the here and now. It’s as though the acceleration of attention has given thought an escape velocity that, ironically, frees the mind from the gravity of the present that was constantly pulling on it. I sometimes speculate that maladaptive daydreaming is an unintended consequence of attention’s rapid propulsion. However, I’m cautious about this idea because those who suffer from MD don’t necessarily feel themselves “free” of the present but trapped in a precession of presents.
I’m thinking of what you were saying about the need for the next stimulus, and how it relates to the ontology we keep in time now, a constant crooning for the next nextness…The concept “hyperstition” comes to mind, from the CCRU [Cybernetic Culture Research Unit] gang, but I wonder what you think about how we keep time now—we can perhaps only speculate—relating perhaps to what you were saying about this botched focus being a subconscious attempt to actually be out of time? Or that the botched focus indicates a desire to be mindful and to be present?
I’ve said that attention and distraction are two sides of the same transaction. You can experience this immediately in mindfulness meditation when you bring your wandering mind back to the breath. In bringing attention back to your breath, you are at the same time distracting yourself from the daydreams or other thoughts that distracted you from your breath in the first place. Maybe there’s a way of treating this form of mediation as technology of the self, or a technology of the nervous system that trains us to treat time as a matter of attention. There’s clearly something present-making about meditation, but it’s very much an active and foregrounded affair. Yet when people talk about having an earworm, it’s usually something that transpires in the background. Peter Szendy wrote about earworms a few years ago—he just called them “hits”—and noted their radical fungibility. Any hit can substitute for another—that’s the “hit parade”—and to the extent that they are more or less indistinguishable—there’s little sense of change. So how do you keep time when there’s no index of its passing? Telling time through a repetition that doesn’t accumulate or express a duration is not impossible. It just puts an end to history. This makes me think of what Jameson said about a feeble historical sensibility that follows from the breaking down of any dominant signifying chain. He compared the equipollence of all signs or narratives to the schizophrenic’s experience of words as a sequence of unrelated material presences. In a more up-to-date media ecological sense, even the material technological indexes that used to mark our past—I’m thinking of phonographs, vinyl records, and typewriters—are failing to keep time because in our culture their very obsolescence gives them a kind of afterlife that makes them perpetually present. Re-purposing old technology brings out novel and unintentional expressive possibilities, but it obscures the temporal function they used to have. Typewriters now exist in homes alongside the new MacBook and they function not as the laptop does but as just another expressive tool. Perhaps this presentism is like attention and distraction in that it makes time cyclical?
Right, we’re in a post-historical epoch. In your essay, you quote Vilém Flusser writing that we are “channels for eternal repetition”; perhaps in cyclic time we’re now in a sort of hyperdrive for eternal repetition…I mean, are we so (contemplatively) distracted that we are not able to—or we’ve forgotten to—listen for or let through the qualitatively differentiating Nietzschean eternal return?
The way I remember Flusser talking about these channels for the eternal return is not necessarily Nietzsche’s way of thinking of the eternal return; I think I was talking about it in terms of Flusser’s understanding of an entertainment apparatus that can’t digest the sensations it consumes. I suggested that sensation doesn’t have time to slow down and become an idea because the society that produces this apparatus is a culture of channels rather than a digestive system. He writes that sensations pass through society because there are only mouths and anuses. I suppose this could be an eternal return—the sheer swallowing and shitting of attentional sensations that become just a current, or a short-circuit by which we’re able to pass immediately on to the next sensation, without slowing down, without having a thought…
I also think that this indigestive system says something about how the speed of time has changed. I know that my experience of time has shifted and I can’t tell whether it’s because I’m older and have more memories or that I’m just busier with things. The way I relate to my life 10 years ago compared to how 10 years ago I related to my life 10 years before that is not the same. For example, I’m struck when I realize that it’s 2019, and when I recall something that happened in 2014, I can’t discern if it feels like a long time ago or a short time ago. Again, I’m not sure if this is something to do with aging or if it’s something about how time works in the technoculture we live in. I used to be able to have a sense of time through the obsolescence of technologies or through the cancellations of television shows. But I don’t know how we tell time when all the cancelled shows are still playing and reel-to-reel tape recorders are being used as instruments.
Even my memory of having watched a television show in the past has been replayed again and again. I don’t know if that speeds up time, or changes its velocity, or if it collapses time. The earworm has a strange temporality because you rarely really experience the entire song. The earworm is usually just a fragment of a tune. But curiously, in that one fragment the entirety of the song is virtually present. This virtual entirety of song has been well-studied, and it was the premise of the game show “Name That Tune.” That most people are able to identify a song within a couple seconds—or maybe not even a couple seconds—of hearing it is really weird. Think of how fundamentally music seems to be based on the playing out and recognition of a form or structure. Yet if we’re able to identify a song by two notes into, say, John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” then what does that say about the nature of music as actually being an occurrent art?
This makes me think of Brian Massumi and his conceptualization of the event. For example, when you hear a dog bark, you know before you can put it into language, from your memories of experiencing the phenomenon before, the virtuality of the event before it’s actually happening, or as it’s happening…
Right. And this makes me think again of Susanne Langer who talked about what she called a work of art’s “commanding form” whose virtuality permeates an artwork in a way that makes something of the significance of its event immediately sensible.
You know the name of the book that I’m writing now? The working title is Earworm and Event. It’s only half a joke because I think an earworm is the expression of a sound event precisely in its
Is it the case that we need to reclaim this virtuality or potentiality that the earworm indicates?
Brian (Massumi) writes about the “force-to-own-time” in terms of a new military strategy to target the pre-decision-making process of perception, where know-ability and action-ability haven’t yet been differentiated. As he understands it, at this level of perception there is a window of opportunity to modulate the capacitance of how a body can act or what it can know. He calls the effort to capture this interval “ontopower” because it’s directed at the body’s lived economy, its potential to act effectively in a milieu. To claim this moment is, then, to claim the ways in which one’s potential can be expressed. And capitalist enterprises, of course, get in on this, too. Capitalism doesn’t limit itself to a one-to-one relationship between desire and satisfaction. Capitalism is now much more invested in risk management. The mere expression of risk—say, “based on opinion polls and past sales figures, it can be speculated that ‘x’ number of people may or may not like such and such a thing”—is valuable in itself and can be bought and sold. So, to reclaim this virtuality? I think we’d have to fight over it.
Control functioning now on how populations live it out…Tiqqun in Introduction to Civil War write that the war of potentialities cuts right through the middle of each person…
You could say that there’s a war or a contest for potentiality, a contest to own the virtual. Cognition is an active front in this war and, like a body, I think we don’t know what it is, only what it can do, and what it can do is increasingly coming under scrutiny. Frighteningly, entrepreneurs are leading the way in probing what thinking can do and are developing techniques for hijacking our conjectural abilities or capacity to speculate as well as the body’s ability to act and react.
It makes me think of how Kafka wrote that he was very afraid of writing and receiving letters overseas because he feared all of the ghosts that would be produced; one could say that control now functionalizes these ghosts, while continuing to produce them, and entertains the possibilities of how they’re going to play themselves out…
Ghosts being potential actors or potential lines of agency…
Yeah, or just memory, virtual memories…
I think that that’s probably true. If we think about how we organize, let’s say, our photographs, we can say that we’re organizing our memories. They’ve not only been captured, but they’ve been managed and ordered, not by a multinational conglomerate, but by ourselves. However, the means by which we carry out this control—the digital camera that permits us to take three thousand photos of a trip to Paris, the software that sorts these files, and the hardware that stores them—is also the apparatus that produces the very desire (need?) to do so.
That’s the irony, right…
It’s not a top-down thing but a horizontal modulation of our potential. My more cynical thinking about this is that the imagination is now being exploited as a power to dream up new (im)possibilities for controlling ourselves.
I was interested in what you thought about the idea that there’s radical care in radical uselessness…I recently found something that philosopher Alphonso Lingis said about the gesture of consolation, that in consoling someone, in holding someone’s shoulder, say, there’s a uselessness in the gesture, but all the same a sort of tremendous power in that same uselessness, a kind of magic in it, and I wonder if that triggers any ideas for you, or maybe what I’m getting at has to do with the gift…
This makes me think of what Bataille had to say about rational knowledge enslaving us. Basically, his argument is that reason is always slave to useful means to the extent that it anticipates something outside of immediate experience. This is also connected to his economic theory that accounts for the surplus of energy of biological existence as the primary force driving economic activity. He contrasts a “general economy” of ineluctable expenditure and waste with a “restricted economy” of manufactured scarcity and necessity. The excess is there in either case, but where a restricted economy channels it into the future through a process of labor and consumption, a general economy affirms the immediacy of existence. For Bataille, the logic of a restricted economy makes one’s activities, whether these are physical, affective, or cognitive, a means to an imagined self-sufficiency that lies forever in the future. As such, anything we do in a restricted economy is servile. But a general economy is always already self-sufficient and, in that case, sovereign.
To get back to what you were saying, it’s also the case that any thinking in a general economy would have to be useless. As expressive of the sheer surplus that comes with being a living creature, thought doesn’t mean anything, it doesn’t know or even understand. But what do we call this kind of thinking? Can we call it knowledge? Or what do we call those types of gestures of consolation? Can we really equate it with care? I think traditionally we’d just call it some species of art—literature, poetry, or, in a less discursively enacted way, dance, music, sculpture, et cetera. However, not all artists would agree that their work is a thinking as a form of excess. But it’s a lovely idea.
Thought becomes art.
I remember reading Lingis years ago. I know he was a big influence on Graham Harman. But I think Lingis is so much more interesting than the way Harman portrays him. His books are gorgeous. He’s a fantastic writer, and he brings a vision to thought that, to me, is the most compelling thing about philosophy. Whether an argument is right or valid or sound is so much less important than whether the idea conveyed or expressed is visionary, maybe even “beautiful.” This kind of thinking is one that doesn’t force you to accept its premises and conclusions but instead invites you to see the world differently in just…this…peculiar…way…
It sounds like I’m saying that thinking might share the priorities of art: Show the world differently! In some sense, I think art is absolutely a way of thinking the world otherwise. People like Lingis, then, don’t produce rationalizations but instead, to use a Deleuzian expression, they produce an image of thought or vision of thinking that’s not right or wrong but more or less compelling. I wonder if that’s a way to think about the useless and care?
Is that sort of the call to arms for the future, needing visionaries of new uselessness?
Ha, sure. Maybe we need an avant-garde of inutility? The war they would be fighting would be a war over biopower, or maybe we should say, neuropower or noopower. An avant-garde of inutility would be mounting an attack, then, on the absolute functionalization of existence.
Maybe it’s because of my predilection for the experimental practices of the 20th century and the countercultures of the ’60s and ’70s that I see value in the useless. There’s something “meaningful” but not useful, about purposelessness. I suppose this goes back to Kant, too, but I don’t think I mean the same thing that he meant. Although…maybe it’s time to reconsider what Kant said about the imagination and its role as a faculty for engaging with the seeming excess of intelligibility of the world. Or maybe we just need to honor what Bachelard said about life, that it’s healthier if one gives it the holiday of unreality that it’s due. We should acknowledge what he called the “irreality function” of the imagination, which is a faculty for deforming perception that gives us a world that isn’t immediately given to us by our senses. The function of the unreal is to produce lived abstractions whether those be scientific laws or poetic expression. For Bachelard, this is crucial to the renewal of being and the renewal of life. Our encounters with the stuff of the world and the oneiric responses they provoke are healthy responses. In other words, impractical concerns are salubrious. Maybe that’s a way to tie the idea of care to the imagination—a way of caring for being, not necessarily for our individual being but the condition of being.
Are there any artists or writers who you particularly admire right now, who you think are kind of paving the way with new visionary imaginaries?
I haven’t been reading much contemporary work, lately. I reached a point after having chased new ideas for so long—keeping up with speculative realism, media ecology, a lot of sound studies—that I just became a little disillusioned with its necessity. There’s a certain market mentality about writing and publishing that treats thinking as a product rather than something that is done. I also don’t want to belong to a club that would have me. That’s why I’ve been reading what’s out of fashion.
But you know whose work I still can’t get enough of—David Markson! He wrote very few books, but his book Wittgenstein’s Mistress from the late ’80s is an absolute wonder. Now that is a visionary work! This book is a stream-of-consciousness type of work, but it’s distinguished by virtue of the way it makes constant revisions to this stream. The story, as it were, which is largely a series of statements of fact, is told from the perspective of a person who may or may not be the last person on Earth and who may or may not be mad. An endless doubt drives the novel because if the narrator is really the last person on Earth, and facts are only facts to the extent that they can be either empirically verified or inter-subjectively corroborated, then nothing the narrator says can be taken with certainty.
But the writing, too, is striking because of the way Markson shows thought as a process that takes place out of order. David Foster Wallace loved that book. He loved how the fragmented nature of the storytelling reflected the fragmented nature of the postmodern period; that, from a certain perspective, makes it a very “realist” novel. Vanishing Point is another of Markson’s books, but it’s even more fragmented…Actually, I wonder if the fragmentary quality of Wittgenstein’s Mistress that Wallace suggested is a reflection of postmodernism’s discontinuities was more embryonic than fully realized. We live discontinuity more completely today than Wallace did at the beginning of the 1990s. Even more radically, I think we live in a pulverized world. And now that I think about it, the unmooring of facts that comes from being cut off from others also defines this contemporary moment more than Wallace’s. Despite the rhetoric of connectivity, we could argue that we’re actually like monads—separate units whose activities harmonize with one another because of some organizing algorithm. Such a condition makes us each the last person on earth, which makes each of us inveterate thought-revisors, which makes for a work of “alternative facts.”
Perhaps the smartphone is the correlative technic for this cognitive phenomenon. That book almost calls into the future how the smartphone will play a role to capture this streaminess of reality, as this always already available device, capable of capturing any sort of daydream that you have at any time, in any spacetime locality, that reminds you of something or someone or sometime, wherein you can send a message at anytime…Perhaps that book is an example of a proto-smartphone-age work?
Interesting, I’ve just been thinking about the smartphone recently. At the end of Langer’s book, Feeling and Form, is a very short chapter titled “A Note on the Film.” In that chapter, which was actually an appendix, Langer makes a preliminary attempt to elaborate the illusion of cinema. Very simply, the theory of art that she develops in Feeling and Form is one that takes artworks as symbols of feeling. The significance of these symbols is, notably, felt as a quality rather than understood according to any preexisting grammatical form. Another way to say this is that art symbols are illusions—her preferred term is “semblance”—of felt life.
Now, Langer contends that every aesthetic practice that humans have invented can be characterized by the expression of a basic illusion, or perceivable abstraction that we experience as a semblance of vital activity. The basic abstraction of music, she argues, is time, a virtual time. For sculpture, it’s the abstraction of a virtual volume. And for dance, it is the presentation of centers of vital force or “virtual powers.” And film, too, has a characteristic semblance that she says we experience as a virtual present. The illusion that cinema produces, she says, takes place in the “dream mode.” Because of the way film’s compositional techniques, like jump cutting and the mobile camera, compose events in which the camera and viewer are always at the center of a space that has no relation to a final or absolute orientation, it can be likened to the way we experience in dreams an ongoing “virtual present.” Film, however, doesn’t reproduce a dream so much as it produces a likeness of the way a dream makes everything, every space and every time, immediately available to us. Additionally, for Langer, the illusion of film swallows all types of other elements and even other artistic illusions in the creation of its own semblance. Film not only assimilates visual elements like color, shape, and pictures in general, but non-visual components like speech, gesture, sound effects, and, of course, music.
This gathering of a diversity of things to create this primary illusion of a virtual present is something that historically defines filmic art. But think about what smartphones do…They assimilate all types of perceivable elements to them, but they also gather a host of gestural habits and social behaviors into their experience. The illusion of a virtual present has left the theater and roams our streets, our hallways, motor vehicles, and, most tragically of all, our classrooms. Facts, people’s names, and other information as well as photographs, albums, and even entire films can articulate a virtual present by a smartphone. This is just wild speculation, of course, but there’s something about the way smartphones arrange our conduct and perceptions as well as the host of things that make up our lived environment that strikes me as similar to the way film assimilates things to its illusion. I’m not suggesting that using smartphones is a way of making art, but I do wonder if it’s a way of making us live in the “dream-mode”.
Where do you hope for thought to go, or where do you think listening should go? If thought and listening are being captured, is there a kind of counter-praxis or an ethico-aesthetics that we might practice?
That’s a very good question…I said earlier that I feel old-fashioned, and I think that’s partly because I feel there’s something meaningful about reacquainting ourselves with more contemplative media. Ironically, I think the market also has a sense of this, too. Look at the proliferation of yoga studios and other mindfulness practices over the past thirty years. And then there’s the very recent and rapid development of technologies aimed at harnessing mindfulness. That said, a re-engagement with a thinking that takes time, or even with simple hesitation, might be an ethical response to the infinite speed of a mind that is constantly alert. I actually think that hesitation or slowing is maybe what makes humans distinct from animals. Again, drawing on Langer’s work, especially her later work, she makes a point that our nervous system and brain trades off the speed of response for the slowness of contemplation and conceptualization. And if, as Langer argues, our brain is an organ whose functioning is what gives us a symbolic need, the need to transform experience into symbols, and this transformation at its most expressive takes time, then it behooves us to satisfy that need by giving slowness back to thinking, letting it linger…
Would it be something like a refrain, like the refrain, or a refraining?
That’s great; I like that. Maybe the earworm is a refrain, a refrain of thought’s withdrawal from the tempos and rhythms of a world composed of so many flickering digital hails. I think that sounds optimistic but I think we might stop asking what thought’s good for and instead ask what’s good for thought.
A radical uselessness…