Søren Pold takes up the task to deconstruct the present cultural moment when the effects and ways of operating of social systems, as discussed by Johanna Drucker in her recent book, are becoming central interfaces to a broad range of lived reality. Pold’s offers a valuable effort at understanding the complex mechanisms of production of such systems via investigation of rhetorical and software aspects of networked media. With the focus on artistic research installation, The Oracle of Selphie by Jakob Fredslund and Malthe Stauning Erslev in collaboration with Pold and coupled with his own installation platform The Poetry Machine, Pold interrogates to what extent Drucker’s arguments allows for a critical approach to reading patterns in social media. Doing so, he simultaneously offers models of distracted reading grounded in the propositions by Michel de Certeau, Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Olga Goriunova, demonstrating that “lurking” and other forms of inattentive reading can be exploited and turned into profit in the age of the platform capitalism. Such an observation calls for further research that would better grasp the nature of networked reading practices enabled (and more often forced) by our contemporary social media platforms.
Since the beginning of the new millennium, views on social media and platforms have changed. Instead of being seen as progressive and favorable to public, democratic debate, they are now regarded as being complicit in a situation in which liberal democracy as well as privacy are challenged. The extent to which we can reasonably blame social platforms for all the things going wrong is clearly debatable. However, we are definitely beyond the period during which social platforms were seen as attractive alternatives to traditional media and the traditional culture industry. It has increasingly become common knowledge that social media platforms rely heavily on monitoring user behavior, at least since Shoshana Zuboff published her widely read and reported work on “surveillance capitalism” as the main business model of Google, Facebook and many other apps and platforms (Zuboff, 2015; Zuboff, 2019). Before and after Zuboff, several scholars have critically discussed the general effects of affective economies and their political consequences, for example how the USA-based Alt-Right movement (and the less successful European Identitarian movement) have taken over tactics from net culture and the avant-garde, including various forms of cover up (Ahmed, 2004; Cramer, 2017).
In her recent (2018) book, The General Theory of Social Relativity, Johanna Drucker discussed what she calls “social systems” in relation to language, poetics, and rhetorical figures (Drucker, 2018). Manuel Portela has characterized this book as “a manifesto for a new poetics of the social” and a combination of “philosophical treatise, social theory and literary nonfiction” (Portela, 2019). As Drucker presents it herself: “We are struggling to find the critical tools for engagement – not to analyze any one phenomena [sic], but to understand the processes of its production” (Drucker, 2018, 6). She argues that we need new forms of explanation, new forms of poetics and aesthetics, when “we are witnessing the rise of perverse nihilism and a grotesquely distorted appropriation of avant-gardism as political action.” However, she distinguises between political art and artistic tactics of disruption and distraction which are appropriated by the political world. Grounding her argument in her concept of “the phantasmatic”, she describes the current aesthetization of politics as an example of drawing on avant-garde techniques, created by a “collective mental theater” of “hypnotizing narratives of the meme-stream” and “affective alignments” (...) “forged through the systematic production of communication streams” (Drucker, 2018, 4-5).
Understanding the production processes of social systems, their ways of operating and effects, constitutes an important challenge at a time when such systems are increasingly becoming central interfaces to, and aggregators of, wide aspects of reality – from the spread of information and public debate during elections, to access to social and cultural life during and after the Covid-19 crisis (which at the time of writing seems to have led to a lasting change in the extent to which people rely on social systems). As Portela points out, Drucker’s deep entangling of the theoretical and the poetical is needed in order to describe our phantasmatic present (Portela, 2019). The current article will follow this track and explore rhetorical and software figures of current networked media through poetical practice in order to discuss our modes of reading social systems. The article will critically discuss theories through a focus on an artistic, electronic literature research installation, The Oracle of Selphie (Oraklet fra Selphie, hereafter shortened to The Oracle) (Woetmann et al., 2019, 2012-).13
Even though Drucker is convincing in her descriptions of the problems of social systems, the article will reflect on the extent to which her theories and theories based on affection fully grasp actual reading patterns on social media, and if there is still a space for critique, despite Drucker’s claim of the opposite.14 As an answer to this, in the second section I will develop and reflect on models of distracted reading inspired by Michel de Certeau, Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, and Olga Goriunova.
I. The Oracle of Selphie and social relativity
In order to explain how The Oracle works and can be interpreted in relation to dominant social systems, I will present it briefly. The Oracle is an artistic and literary research installation written by author Jakob Fredslund and designed by Malthe Stauning Erslev in collaboration with Søren Pold; it is coupled with an installation platform entitled The Poetry Machine (hereafter shortened to PM), which has been designed collaboratively since 2012 in a continual process with writers, librarians from Roskilde Libraries, designers, programmers, and researchers from CAVI and Aarhus University. Over time, PM has become an installation-based platform for a number of different works by Danish and international authors (Woetmann et al., 2019, 2012-). In terms of research, it has been described as a platform for performative literary interaction, interface criticism by design, translation as process and experience, and exploration of the stylistics of machine learning (Fritsch et al., 2014; Andersen and Pold, 2018; Mencia, Pold and Portela, 2018; Erslev and Pold, 2020).
In the interaction with PM, users select and control pre-written sentences via interaction with physical books that cannot be opened and read in traditional ways, but which contain sensor platforms allowing the user/reader to navigate the virtual books of stored sentences in the machine. The interaction is playful and game-like in the sense that learning to control the text takes some effort and involves an embodied performance.15 PM as an installation explores metonymic dimensions between different agents and materialities such as the social dimensions between present bodies (through its affective, embodied game-like interaction), between media (books, computer, print, network), between sentences in the composition process, and between modes of reading and writing by staging an ergodic de- and re-authoring process for both its authors and users (Fritsch et al., 2014).
The Oracle is designed to explore the ways in which social media present themselves as biographical platforms for users to write, present and read about their lives and the lives of their friends. For example, Facebook has its time-line and presents memories, while Instagram serves as the upload platform for photographic memories, which are presented as a digital photo album with added social interaction.16 More concretely, The Oracle is designed to reflect the contradictions between a physically present social group and the individualized, networked and algorithmically generated textuality of social media. By imitating a Facebook-like social media interface and allowing its users/readers to compose a horoscope, The Oracle is designed to question the current attention economy, its mediated and “surveillance capitalistic” versions of the social, and the ways in which it scripts its users’ biographies.
The writing is made to mimic the language of horoscopes and to invite the combinations that arise through the users’ interaction. Sentences are authored to create a metonymic flow between them, and they are kept in the specific suggestive language of horoscopes to create open possibilities for a coherent text, reading, and interpretation for the user. Here is an example of the horoscope “Happy Fate”, created June 3, 2019 (translated from http://www.inkafterprint.dk/?p=1587):
You are easy to please. There are mainly black and gray cars on the roads. A unique opportunity will arise within the next few days. Don’t let the weather be an excuse. Disappointment is not a constructive feeling.
It is also important to eat well. You worry a lot about your loved ones, and this sometimes overshadows other lighter emotions.
It’s probably worth considering one more time.
The example demonstrates that though not everything makes perfectly sense (which is also often the case when reading ‘real’ horoscopes), and some of the language also seems to be poking fun at the superstitious character of horoscopes (e.g. the third sentence), it is still close enough to make it possible to read and interpret this as a horoscope. As mentioned above, users of the installation are given one sentence at a time and have the opportunity to discard or choose it, to change variations in the sentence, while several users can also negotiate the sequence of sentences through game-like embodied interaction. Furthermore, horoscopes as a textual genre always require an open, interpretative reading in order to make sense for the individual. In fact, it might be precisely this faint, indefinite character that creates the possibility of a more or less fateful reading, which is also suggested here by the advice in the last sentence.
Consequently, owing to its textual interface, The Oracle is designed to invite its users to play with, participate in, and reflect on the composition, rhetoric, and figures of the writing of horoscopes. Even though the text of The Oracle is not at all guaranteed to be either true or meaningful, the textual play is still performative and personal in its suggestive character. However, it does this in a social system interface. Like big data predictions operating in social systems, The Oracle presents performative futures and lets its users negotiate their meaning, however mockingly, in the form of horoscopes, an old form of everyday, common superstition. In this way, The Oracle playfully mirrors the fact that Facebook monitors and stores our data in profiles and uses this aggregation to generate predictions. In this sense, and with a touch of irony, The Oracle imitates the reasons why we use social media and the ways in which social media explore these same reasons. Naturally, users of The Oracle interpret the platform in various ways, but our experience as designers presenting it to audiences is that most users see it as a critical exploration of social media biography and the ways in which we are profiled by social systems, rather than reading it as a source of actual horoscopes. As mentioned above, The Oracle is designed as a mock-up and imitation of social systems such as Facebook. And this is also signaled by its title, The Oracle of Selphie, hinting at both the Oracle of Delphi in ancient Greece and the idea that users themselves feed the current oracles of social media with their biographical contributions and selfies. Consequently, The Oracle ultimately suggests, that social media can be seen as contemporary horrorscopes.
The hypertextual economy and the loss of critical alterity
Besides its textual dimensions, the screen interface of The Oracle is designed to mimic the stylistic and visual tropes of social media with its play on likes, comments, and profiled machine learning algorithms (Erslev and Pold, 2020). As presented above, Drucker develops a deeply critical analysis of the effects of social media which can also be read as an updated critique of the current hypertextual economy of social systems. She introduces several characterizations of the ways in which attributes of social systems undermine independent entities, such as “basic unboundedness” where “all entities exist in a condition of codependence with their circumstances” as “the momentarily (perceptibly) static configuration of an event that is unfolding” (Drucker, 2018, 72). Drucker describes the effects of social media as systems through which the “aggregate effects of affect and attention (...) create their own field of forces that can be described (...) as the fluid and quantum dynamics of the psycho-social atmosphere.” She mentions that events can generate a buzz that resembles an atmosphere or a mood that spreads across the social system via wave propagation, and concludes: “To be described adequately, the workings of the social medium must be approached from a theory specific to itself as a General Theory of Social Relativity (GTSR). In this theoretical formulation all relations are co-dependent, all entities are processes (not autonomous), and forces of affect constitute a field of active agents not controlled by reason or regular laws of predictable behaviours” (Drucker, 2018, 30, 32). She is pointing to a specific energy in the field of social relativity that we are at a loss to grasp rationally even though poisonous viral memes, extremist voices and politics now appear regularly on our social screens.
In social systems, all entities (messages, links, profiles, quantitative enticements, etc.) are produced and exchanged in a dynamic, affect-driven, algorithmically controlled, data monitoring, and commercially exploited hypertextual network economy. This leads to what Drucker characterizes as “within-ness,” an immanence that undermines the possibility of critical alterity that is dear to art and the humanities broadly: “Within-ness is positioned as a counterpoint to critique, a position of critical epistemology that presumes to be outside of what it addresses.” Instead of offering the potential for adopting a critical perspective, these hypertext entities are placed in an “among-ness” which is characterized by the “specificity of identity without alterity” (Drucker, 2018, 73).
Consequently, every actor and actant is woven into an interconnected web controlled by strong corporate social systems without any possibility of real independence or alterity. Drucker continues her critique of this contemporary capitalistic hypertextual economy by pointing out that its multilinearity undermines narration and fiction, which is hardly a new point, since it has been made several times during the debates about games versus narration (e.g. Juul, 2001). However, what was then seen as an interesting difference within new media is now seen as a problematic disruption with severe consequences, including consequences for art and literature: “Aesthetic activity and authorial identity has generally been constructed as oppositional ‘othering.’ Literary language is often conceived as ‘other’ than ordinary language, usually for some explicitly or implicitly ‘valuable’ purpose, and the authorial subject (like all subjects in language) has been understood as constituted by a binary opposition to an ‘other’ within an enunciative system” (Drucker, 2018, 73). The basic elements of literary language and artistic activity in general, that it is speaking in a different fictional register and is reflective rather than simply active, and that it can therefore be seen as a way of understanding and putting oneself in a different position, are undermined in Drucker’s understanding. Basically she describes a change from feeling and communicating empathy to pressing buttons indicating hearts or likes that are indeed designed to register and thus instrumentalize this emphatic communication for profiling and quantification.17 Social systems in this way take advantage of the fact, that our social communication has social consequences and that we cannot lie to the system without also deceiving our social contacts. As an alternative to alterity and fictional differentiation, Drucker mentions “cognitive resonance” as a characteristic, describing it as “the condition of communicative exchange through a system of any scale, density, complexity, or granularity that enables medial operations of the social” (Drucker, 2018, 74). Cognitive resonance is Drucker’s word for the strong viral energy that spreads through social systems, an atmospheric energy that diffuses until it later disappears like many hashtag revolts.
Consequently, in The General Theory of Social Relativity, Drucker argues for a new and different understanding of the powers, effects, and affects of social systems that challenge traditional understandings of fiction, narrative, critique, and ultimately art, culture, and the social. As Portela also points out, Drucker’s theory is a wide-ranging, philosophical manifesto, and even though she does not waste much time on concrete examples, her characterizations are recognizable when looking at the general activity and style of social media and tropes of cognitive resonance, such as liking, tagging, commenting and friending. Why is it that users have to connect and be friends in order to read about and write to each other, why is liking a prerequisite for communicating, and why do users have to contribute to the link economy in order to present and demonstrate something they might be against? Social media serve to instrumentalize and capitalize on cognitive resonance, among-ness, and within-ness as ways to exploit social empathy in an affective economy (Ahmed, 2004). It is also recognizable that this infrastructure erodes the perceived alterity of fiction and art, which is of course something we have known in broad terms since postmodernism or the net-art pranks of The Yes Men and others, which aimed to critically explore the fact that the difference between art, fiction and reality was diminishing online.18 However, what was then still largely a theoretical argument or a critical provocation has now become instrumentalized and realized by social systems, and the strategies of The Yes Men are now used by bigger powers. Writers now write and readers read across all these textual systems without firm distinctions between the fictional and the factual, and it is impossible to distinguish the real from the fictional, even in the writing of contemporary writers like Karl Ove Knausgård (Ingraham et al.).
Social systems erode discursive structures such as enunciative ‘othering,’ as pointed out in the quote from Drucker above, and even the space of figurative or rhetorical eloquence is challenged. Figurative language has been understood as being contained in the “space of figure” or the “awareness of a possible hiatus between real language (that of the poet) and a virtual language (that which would have been used by ‘simple common expression’),” as described by Gerard Genette (Genette, 1982, 47). For Genette and later post-structuralists, figurative language requires a sense of alterity, which is currently challenged by social systems. Their infrastructure and economy make inroads into the discourse and language, where a friend simply becomes a “friend”, sharing, and expressing one’s views becomes instrumentalized by buttons and templates designed for profiling, and language ultimately becomes data without any necessity or space for interpretation, hermeneutics or critique.19 Ultimately the understanding that the semantics of language is based on an active differentiation, a différance, an understanding central to poststructuralism, is challenged by this unboundedness, within-ness, and among-ness of social systems.20 Like the ways in which George P. Landow in 1992 argued for a “convergence” between new critical theory and technology, Drucker calls for the use of quantum dynamics as a new theoretical basis to understand social systems. As can be argued in relation to Landow’s proposition, this convergence is not only a basis for using the right theory to understand a technology, but also points to how current technology accommodates, instrumentalizes or even misrepresents what is pointed out by the theories (Landow, 1992; Walker, 2005; Pold, 2007). Cognitive resonance would thus be something that social systems thrive on, but ultimately twist and exploit to their own advantage, while leaving their users deserted behind their screens.
Where does this systemic erosion of semantics, figures, and enunciation leave electronic literature like The Oracle? Can the current aesthetization of politics by social systems, as described by Drucker, be countered by a new kind of political art? On what terms and platforms, if the aesthetic basic materials of language, images, and code are already subsumed by these social systems, by their hypertextual economy behind our writing and reading? The reading of any text on social systems could, it might be argued, easily end up being a ruse made to create even more data and train the AIs and machine learning – like a CAPTCHA, where you prove you are human by feeding and training the machine learning algorithm. How does the linguistic machine and its affective social systems control us, and to what extent? In the following section, I will address these questions by turning to Michel de Certeau’s discussion of Michel Foucault and Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin’s notion of distraction, and Olga Goriunova’s concept of the lurker. I will mainly discuss contemporary reading from theoretical perspectives, returning to The Oracle towards the end of the article.
II. Tactics, trompe l’oeil and distraction as contemporary modes of reading
Michel de Certeau has written a rather sympathetic critique of Foucault’s theory of the panopticon (Surveillir et punir), which is worth repeating here in order to continue our discussion of the effects of social systems. de Certeau claims that Foucault uses panopticism to show “how the place occupied by humanitarian and reformist projects at the end of the eighteenth century is then ‘colonized’ or ‘vampirized’ by those disciplinary procedures that have since increasingly organized the social realm itself.” According to de Certeau, Foucault basically points to a historical moment at which the revolutionary potentials of 1789 are co-opted and subsumed by the old powers through the new measures of panopticism: “It does not constitute the victory of anything new, but the victory of a past, the triumph of an old system over a new, liberal, and revolutionary utopia. A past model of organization is coming back and ‘colonizing’ the revolutionary projects of a new time” (de Certeau, 1986, 185-86).
What Drucker conceptualizes as the phantasmatic might well point to a similar colonization of a former liberal utopia: the original emancipatory ideas of hypertext (Nelson, 2003 (1974/1987); Landow, 1992) and the ways they were reinvested in – or ‘colonized’ and ‘vampirized’ by what was once seen as the more participatory and democratic Web 2.0 upgrade (O'Reilly, 2005) that has led, since the 2000s, to the current platform economy of social systems. It is noteworthy in relation to this, that de Certeau asks which apparatus is behind Foucault’s own analytical perspective on the relations between apparatuses and ideologies. de Certeau answers by turning Foucault’s method against himself and argues that panopticism might itself be panoptic in its practices: “Because of them, and in them, as in a mirror, Foucault sees everything and is able to elucidate everything. They allow his discourse itself to be theoretically panoptical in its turn” (de Certeau, 1986, 190). de Certeau does not argue in any sense that panopticism is not useful or valid, quite the contrary, but he also wants to look elsewhere to
procedures that lack the essential precondition indicated by Foucault, namely the possession of a locus or specific space of their own on which the panoptical machinery can function. Such techniques which are just as operative though without locus, are rhetorical ‘tactics.’ I suggest that these secretly reorganize Foucault’s discourse, colonize his ‘panoptical’ text, and transform it into a ‘trompe-l’oeil’ (de Certeau, 1986, 188).
Is it possible in a similar way to turn Drucker’s concept of the phantasmatic into a trompe-l’oeil without denying its relevance, and is de Certeau’s pointing to tactics relevant for this? Perhaps things are not always what they seem? Maybe the phantasmatic is also a kind of strategic trompe-l’oeil and should be seen in relation to the history of the phantasmagorical that Walter Benjamin studied, even though Drucker emphasizes its radicality by arguing that its potency “exceeds that of the spectacle by an exponential factor, because the producing machines of illusion/delusion have escalated and its transactional intensity has multiplied in both speed and force” (Drucker, 2018, 5). As she argues, if the phantasmagorical is related to the commodity economy, as argued by Karl Marx, the phantasmatic is related to the attention economy with its “hypnotizing narratives of the meme-stream explanation of events” (Drucker, 2018, 4). Even though Drucker does not seem to find a way out of the phantasmatic and ends her book on a melancholic post-human note, perhaps she is, like Foucault and according to de Certeau, permeated by her strategy.21
Like Benjamin, Drucker sees a connection between media development and politics (she mentions Trump as the most extreme example); but unlike Benjamin she does not see any possibility of redemption through media. Benjamin obviously saw 1930s fascism and Nazism as the dangers of the historical changes of perception caused by the changes in reproductive media, but his view on reproductive media is dialectic in the sense that he also sees their redemptive potential (Andersen and Pold, 2018, 77 ff; Hansen, 1987). Benjamin explores the way in which new forms of perception form in relation to new media and, contrary to many other (critical) theoretical approaches, (he) argues that these new forms of perception are relevant and necessary.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility”, Benjamin is focused on the historical changes of perception and the media in which they are accomplished (and this is also relevant in relation to changes in reading, as will be argued in the next section) (Benjamin, 2003, 255). Towards the end of the essay, he points to habit and tactile reception as necessary for the human apparatus of perception at historical turning points, and he points to architecture as important for the perception of the masses and relation to art: “Buildings are received in a twofold manner: by use and by perception. Or, better: tactilely and optically.” This leads Benjamin to film, which he sees as the “true training ground” for such a “reception in distraction (Zerstreuung) – the sort of reception which is increasingly noticeable in all areas of art and is a symptom of profound changes in apperception” (Benjamin, 2003, 268-69).
Anticipating Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer published the essay “Cult of Distraction: On Berlin’s Picture Palaces” in 1926, pointing towards cinematic perception, and he argues that picture palaces “raise distraction to the level of culture; they are aimed at the masses.” Kracauer, like Benjamin, argues for a form of perception that is relevant in relation to the aesthetics of media and politics as a mass perspective and a way for the modern masses to come to terms with themselves. He criticizes the “naive affirmation of cultural values that have become unreal,” while in the picture palaces “the audience encounters itself” in “pure externality.” In this way, the audience gradually understands its own mode of perception and reality: “its own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense impressions. Were this reality to remain hidden from the audience, they could neither attack nor change it; its disclosure in distraction is therefore of moral significance” (Kracauer, 1987, 92, 94).
Kracauer further develops this idea of mass perception a year later in “The Mass Ornament” (Kracauer, 1995). In both essays, he mainly aims for a positive and progressive understanding of distraction, though he is also conscious of “reactionary tendencies,” when for example leading movie theatres mask disintegration rather than exposing it, and are “once again longing to return” to the theatrical stage: “Distraction – which is meaningful only as improvisation, as a reflection of the uncontrolled anarchy of our world – is festooned with drapes and forced back into a unity that no longer exists.” (Kracauer, 1987, 95, 96). In this sense, he anticipates the belief that Benjamin later developed in the “Work of Art...” that the new media, like film, should be understood in new, contemporary ways, conceptualized through the ways they change the perception, and not through reactionary discussions of how/whether they are poorer versions of characteristics of older media.
Unlike Drucker, both Kracauer and Benjamin see progressive political potential in new media. For Kracauer it is fairly straightforward: he was writing during the Weimar Republic, years before the Nazi takeover in 1933; and even though they share Marxist perspectives on media, perception, and politics, the situation was obviously more complicated for Benjamin in the mid- and late-1930s, though he does not leave the concept of distraction as Kracauer does later (Duttlinger, 2007, 34). However, for Benjamin distraction remains a complex phenomenon that “must itself be understood dialectically” beyond a simple opposition of distraction and concentration as a way for attention to be absorbed by and in turn absorb the cinematic technological apparatus (Eiland, 2003, 57). The challenge was to understand new forms of perception in reproduction media, how they were misused by fascism, and how, in a dialectical reversal, they could instead be seen to be “completely useless for the purposes of fascism” (Benjamin, 2003, 102).
In his essay “Work of Art...”, Benjamin focuses on tactility and habitual knowledge, and futher develops the concept from his essays on photography of the optical unconscious that “seem to reside more in the object than in the perceiver” (Taussig, 1991, 149). He develops an understanding of a perception in motion that, instead of fixing objects with a contemplative distanced gaze, is constantly navigating, notices things in passing and on the periphery, and is informed by other senses and embodied proprioception, like a cyclist in busy traffic or a musician in an orchestra (Latham, 1999, 463; Eiland, 2003, 56).22 Benjamin is occupied with cinema, which he describes as a series of shocks for the contemplative gaze that is caught off guard by the continual movement of new images, as well as being a new way of perceiving, which he describes as the optical unconscious. It is both a loss of a distanced contemplation and a new quality of perception that Benjamin analyses also in the modern, the urban and technological perception, and that he often relates to characters like the flaneur, the collector and the gambler. As Eiland writes, these characters “are at home (...) in the world’s scatter” and are “touched and inspired by it. They spend themselves and expand themselves in being dispersed to the current of objects” (Eiland, 2003, 63). Ultimately, the optical unconscious can be understood as a way of describing a partly technological, material perception, how things look back at us through the camera, and as a secular magic that displaces the aura: “In rewiring seeing as tactility, and hence as habitual knowledge, a sort of technological or secular magic was brought into being and sustained. It displaced the earlier magic of the aura of religious and cult works in a pretechnological age” (Taussig, 1991, 150).
The question is how this kind of reception in distraction is relevant in what Drucker calls social systems. How does human reading react to and conform with technological textual systems? Are new forms of distracted reading developed, and do distracted reading modes become part of the machine generating the text and profiling the reader and reading?
Lurking as a contemporary reading mode
Latham points out that Benjamin, in his writings on Baudelaire, qualifies the distracted gaze as “the protective eye” with “no surrender to faraway things” (Benjamin quoted in Latham, 1999, 464). Latham compares this with Zygmunt Bauman’s descriptions of urban mismeeting and desocializing as ways of “preventing the physical space in which one moves from turning into a social one” (Bauman quoted in Latham, 1999, 464). The distracted look is “operated as a protection” and a “filter to the full complexities and subjectivities” of the social, urban space as a precursor to Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger”, who “sees things from under glass” and “looks through his window's eye” (Pop, 1977). The question is whether we can see a similar protective eye in contemporary, distracted perception and reading.
Even though much has happened since cinema was a new medium, it might still be relevant to use the experience and experiment of art to restore apperception, as argued by Susan Buck-Morss in her discussion of Benjamin: “not by avoiding the new technologies, but by passing through them” (Buck-Morss, 1992, 5). There have been several discussions of new forms of distracted reading, often with a dystopian critical perspective (cf Hayles, 2010), but few have ‘passed through’ technologies such as the current data-driven algorithmic profiling technologies and discussed them dialectically.23 However, Olga Goriunova’s concept of the ‘lurker’ is appealing, not least because of the way she defines it: “Lurking as something than can be performed by humans and algorithms alike suggests a form of knowledge and practice that is technocultural and art-scientific.” The lurker is a conceptual persona performing a reading practice found on mailing lists and social media, mutually enacted by humans and data algorithms, and Goriunova sees “lurking between users and algorithms” as constructing “a form of entry into discussions about data infrastructures and software that presents them as porous, seamful, conflictual, omnivorous, and ready to be recruited by a wide range of interests” (Goriunova, 2017, 3918).
Besides being a model for understanding data algorithms, the lurker might be seen as a conceptual figure for a contemporary distracted reader that mirrors and thus integrates the technological forms she or he is combined and formatted with. In continuation and as a contemporary development of Benjamin’s optical unconscious, which also included both the perception of the technology or camera and the human flaneur, the figure of the lurker describes how we read and are simultaneously read by data algorithms:
The power of a lurker’s mode of knowing, its poiesis, and ethics are effectively employed in a unique aesthetics of contemporary power in data regimes: scaling up and down, zooming in and distancing, abstaining from claims of an objective and general character, yet relying on good-enough local generalizations that readily obtain universal status. A lurker therefore ceases to be a marginal figure and becomes a major mode of knowing and power that maps out, mobilizes, and recruits formulas of contemporary techniques of governance (Goriunova, 2017, 3930).
While Goriunova is not uncritical of lurking as a mode of reading, which she also relates to U.S. elections (like Drucker) and the Brexit referendum, and which “show that these technical infrastructures effect a new kind of polity,” she still believes that to “trace and undo such systems, we need new forms of lurking” (Goriunova, 2017, 3930). According to Goriunova, there is a need to understand, explore and develop new forms of reading of social systems that discuss the reading modes of both human and technological readers. As argued initially and throughout the article, this has been carried out through a focus on The Oracle, but how does The Oracle relate to distraction and lurking?24
As an installation set up in a social space, The Oracle allows up to three simultaneous users to negotiate their choices and readings, with other bystanders being able to observe the interaction. The interaction is designed as embodied and affective in the sense that users share their interaction and readings in a social space, and The Oracle consequently reverses the social setting of social media: Instead of individualized readers behind their private screen attempting to be social online through algorithmic schemes and templates designed for exploiting empathy and affect, readers are social together in front of a common screen, playfully exploring their (future) biography and reflecting on how the technology reads them. The Oracle and earlier versions of The Poetry Machine share similar ways of composing and configuring short texts or poems from pre-authored material through algorithmic rules and the post-digital composition of PM with its books, screen, printout, and online storage. In interviews and elsewhere, users have talked about how they gradually learn to read not only the poems and their composition, but also the interface, its material composition and algorithmic rules (Andersen and Pold, 2018, 173-76; Fritsch et al., 2014). The Oracle can, in this way, be considered as a dialectic social system that points to the values and fun of the social, while simultaneously demonstrating (some of) the ways the biographical and social are exploited in social systems. Furthermore, The Oracle can perhaps give a sense of why we are still taking part in social systems, despite all their problems, and give a glimpse of the “utopian traces” of a desire for a better social sphere while also showing this desire’s subversion in current social systems, to paraphrase how Latham describes Benjamin’s view on the urban objects (Latham, 1999, 456).
While Kracauer, Benjamin and Goriunova are critical of the new technological reading modes, they are simultaneously also dialectical in their ways of arguing that new ways of perception and reading are integrated with, and internalized from, technological media. Simultaneously with being read by machines and seen by surveillance capitalism, distracted reading modes, protective eyes and new forms of lurking are gradually developed by contemporary readers. The affective social systems are met with both conscious and embodied responses of what could easily be described as non-studious ways of reading that a scholarly perspective would easily disregard as simply ‘bad’ reading that risks undermining ‘good’ close reading (Hayles, 2010).
Besides, it has been argued that the affective turn partly misreads the digital. As Beatrice Fazi points out, the affective turn has to some degree misread computation in the sense that it bypasses the discrete character of the digital and reduces “the logico-quantitative character of computation to an affective plane” (Fazi, 2019, 21). After all, the “affective alignments” described by Drucker are created by discrete computational algorithms, and the “among-ness” and “cognitive resonance” can also be understood as utopian traces by a lurking conceptual persona with “a profoundly perceptual modality which involves a subtle and complex play between distance and closeness, empathy and boredom” (Latham, 1999, 456). Even though Latham describes Benjamin’s Baudelairian “ur-figure,” this could also be a description of the lurker as a distracted reader in the social system.
However, the spirit of capitalism is always stalking, as described by Benjamin in his reflections on the commodity-soul: “If there were such a thing as a commodity-soul (a notion that Marx occasionally mentions in jest), it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would be bound to see every individual as a buyer in whose hand and house it wants to nestle” (Benjamin, 1996, vol. 4, 31).
Even the distracted reader will obviously be exploited and turned into profit. In fact this is already happening, because distracted reading behavior also generates data, and this data is not invalid even if it is created with a protective eye: it still datafies reading behavior and modes. Understanding and being able to map and monitor the development of new mediated reading modes is after all a main cogwheel in the capitalistic surveillance machinery of social systems. How we read this machinery and how it impacts on our reading behavior should be the object of further studies, allowing for the understanding that less (than perfect) scholarly ways of reading might be ways of developing new patterns of reading with a protective eye. Still, I hope this article has demonstrated that reading is a complex, conscious activity, adjusting to its environment, its reading technologies and the ways these technologies read and model the reader. The data-driven cybertextual game is on, but readers might still be able to develop ways of reading it, even though computers are getting better at winning.
Thanks to Michael Wutz for a very thorough review with many useful suggestions and thanks to Nicholas Wrigley for English language revision.
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