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January 01, 2007

[iDC] How to overcome continuous partial attention


Margaret Morse Responds

Dear Trebor and iDCs,

Before commenting on the CPA thread, I should introduce myself to the list. I am a teacher/writer on media. I teach at the University of California Santa Cruz in Film and Digital Media and started chairing the MFA Program in Digital Arts/New Media this Fall. I have written Virtualities, a book on the passage from electronic to digital media culture, among other things.

Michel convincingly distinguishes information overload from continuous partial attention convincingly and Tom brings in "blanking' and provides more tips on how to control the "eleash." I too have experienced jitters from CPA and information load--but I can't give any tips on email management. (My inbox has stuff in it going back to 2004.) I also regard spending many hours at the keyboard a physical and mental health problem. In 2000 I wrote something about my experience on Jordan Crandall's eyebeam listserve and how it differed from my experience with email in general in an essay called "Alien Intercourse: The Erotics of a Listserve Conversation." I offered the listserve itself as a place where conversation as an art form is practiced as an antidote to overload/CPA. I won't copy the essay here-why -more overload--but I'll note some points and post an excerpt.

Some of what I had to say was all too obvious, such as the autotelic nature of conversation as an activity, a form of "social sculpting" that constructs community, drawing on Williams, Beuys, Foucault, Buber, Goffman, etc). I note that conversations in physical space are no less flawed by the enunciative fallacy (conflating the "I" in speech or writing with the speaker/writer) than virtual conversations. What matters is that conversation is crafted and taken seriously. In this excerpt, I describe the loss of the "float" and how conversation restores the interval:

"Imagine sitting in a lonely cubicle, writing letters that are exchanged so quickly, it is virtually now. (Posters have time to think, time to compose, but not much.) Some posts allow a glimpse of a computer in another place--a vista of tundra, carneval in Rio, an atelier in Paris. In daily intervals, group email from strangers in six continents accumulates rhythmically in my inbox. Attention to the quantity and pacing of posts restores the sense of an interval, rectifying one of the most onerous aspects of the virtual life--speed-up or loss of "the float" (a financial as well as oceanic metaphor). Something akin to a conversation begins to take place in many threads that build from reply to reply, accumulating meanings, revealing personalities. Writing like this seems to look inside the mind of the other, but in a very different way than novelistic fiction. We can read the thoughts of a fictional character without personally confronting them. However, the poster of email is both author and character speaking as "I" to "you," the reader. The reader sometimes thinks she understands the other, and, after she has posted and received an answer, sometimes she also feels understood. Such a heady, albeit ephemeral experience of mutuality has a lightness or joy to it. In "The Lady of the Camellias," Roland Barthes found the desire of Marguerite Gautier for recognition quite pathetic. Yet, who or what could be subject of a sentence without it? With it I am a subject and subjected, creator and created. I am an artist, and my material is invisible, links between subjects in the vast hiss of information that is not there for me and you. Such intersubjective recognition, be it a rare or ordinary occurrence, is part of the tacit dimension of life where core values reside.

It is not by chance that the participants in this virtual conversation are strangers. As Bakhtin put it:

'In order to understand, it is immensely important for the person who understands to be located outside the object of his or her creative understanding--in time, in space, in culture. For one cannot really see one's own exterior and comprehend it as a whole, and no mirrors or photographs can help; our real exterior can be seen and understood only by other people, because they are located outside us in space and because they are others.'"

Further on, I discuss responsiveness as "calling to account":

"Far from being anonymous, these virtual strangers in conversation have the power of names, countries, continents and experiences to challenge each other. There is an odd pleasure in gaining an unseen or disavowed bit of ourselves, when, in dialogue, we are called to account. (I am always surprised by my own or my students' gratefulness for a critical challenge to a statement, that is, provided that we sense there is good faith and feel that we have been understood.) I rely again on Bakhtin to explain the desire to be "called to account":

'Thus, all real and integral understanding is actively responsive, and constitutes nothing other than the initial preparatory stage of a response (in whatever form it may be actualized.) And the speaker himself is oriented precisely toward such an actively responsive understanding. He does not expect passive understanding that, so to speak only duplicates his own idea in someone else's mind. Rather, he expects response, agreement, sympathy, objection, execution, and so forth (various speech genres presuppose various integral orientations and speech plans on the part of the speakers or writers). ' "

My subsequent idea, that such a conversation requires a somehow contained space and time doesn't exactly fit an ongoing, open format like iDC. However, Trebor, in your capacity as moderator, you provide the possibility of recollection and reflection that also narrativizes and frames our posts. Your review of conversation in 2006 is one example.

So, what I am suggesting is that a listserve as conversation is itself a way of containing what would otherwise be a glut of input without shape or continuity. So, when I am engaged in a form of responsiveness, I am not managing my email as a consumer of information or trying to stay on top of trends.

This seems like a chicken/egg problem--how can one concentrate versus merely exist in a state of constant distraction (with its own pleasures as well as dangers). Personally, having a clean in-box doesn't get me there. I can concentrate when I am called to respond. If this amounts to Althusser's being "interpellated," at least it is more than being inserted, when it is "calling to account." I fear these remarks may be embarrassing and old fashioned; nonetheless, they draw on my own experiences in situations similar to this one-on listserves. -- Margaret Morse, [iDC]

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Posted by jo at January 1, 2007 12:24 PM