[iDC] How to overcome continuous partial attention.

Margaret Morse memorse at comcast.net
Sun Dec 31 00:35:24 EST 2006

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 

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