Byung-Chul Han: In the swarm

Imagine that you are at a party. As parties go, it is nothing particularly out of the ordinary – there is music, there are beverages of various kinds, some of the attendees are known to you, others not, the usual processes of clustering  and semi-spontaneous interaction are in place. For most intents and purposes, this is a party, with all accompanying prospects and pitfalls.

Thing is. You have to write a paper, due tomorrow, with a respectable attention to detail and a healthy number of references. And you have to write it whilst also attending the party, chatting, interacting, possibly imbibing a non-trivial amount of the aforementioned beverages. It would not do to let your social responsibilities slip; it also would not do to turn in that paper any later than it already is.

Truly, this is quite a predicament.

Taken metaphorically, this predicament is akin to how Byung-Chul Han would describe contemporary society. We are all having to write a paper, but we also have to attend to our social duties. Only, writ large: we are always connected to the swarm chattering of social media, and always have to respond to it in this way or that. Something happens – we have to know what it is and how to relate to it. Someone says something to us – we have to respond, lest we are rude. Someone says something problematic – we are called upon to join in the chorus of those denouncing it. Albeit with varying degrees of intensity, there is always something going on, some aspect of the party requiring that we attend, paying our attention and social dues.

Of course, Byung-Chul Han would object to this specific metaphor, on the grounds that real life physical parties no longer happen in the way implied by the description given. Rather than being discrete, isolated events unto themselves, parties are increasingly mediated through the swarm connectivity. You are at a party, and you are at the same time live-reporting from said party, uploading images and sharing whatever impressions might be relevant to your peers. Something happens, and rather than being an event in the physical, it is an event mediated by the swarm; the vent becomes an opportunity for a great Instagram photo, our followers are going to love it. The metaphor of the party breaks down – parties themselves have been deconstructed by the very swarm propensity I endeavored to exemplify. The process has always-already taken place.

You still have to write that paper, though. And you are no less distracted for it.

Leaving the party metaphor aside, we are left with the constant distractions. There is indeed always something going on, some new story, some new controversy, something – and the constant attention we pay to these things amount to a whole lot of attention, with little to show for it in terms of tangible insights. The most brutal example would be those tuned into the constant news item that is Trump: there is always something going on (ever with an unreciprocated level of emotional intensity), yet the constant constancy gives scant reward in terms of received or accumulated wisdom. Despite the many names, facts and intricate turns of events to keep track of, the end result of being constantly attuned is a constant state of being tired and emotionally drained.

And that paper is no closer to being written.

The paper is also a metaphor. It might be a literal paper, but it might also be any project that demands a non-trivial amount of time sitting down paying close, undivided attention. Long-form writing is a prime example of this – nothing about writing happens by itself, and the only way to get it done is to power through it, alone, undisturbed. It is a common enough trope that authors engage in isolation to eventually emerge with a social artifact – paper, book, article, poem – but it is also a fact of writing as a practical activity. All tomorrow’s parties might already be here, but that does not make them a productive writing environment.

For Byung-Chul Han the concept of isolation is a very real. Isolation is, paradoxically, a side-effect of the swarm: by being in constant communication with the swarm, something is lost when it comes to communicating with those not in it. They are not in the loop, they do not know the news or the memes; the lack of shared frames of reference makes it hard to strike up a conversation. Yet, at the same time, the conversations with the swarm are not conversations at all – they consist almost exclusively of references to news and memes, a performance of being in the loop and knowing the current words. The connection is also an isolation. The others in the swarm only know you through your performance, just as you only know them through their. Should you meet them in an everyday random encounter, you would not know their faces or their stories.

Towards the end of the short book, a question is raised: who is the political subject in a situation where everyone is a personal brand? Who, in the age of constant representation of individuals, are we? To be sure, the performance of reacting to the latest news story or presidential mishap might feel like a communal effort. But what kind of community is that? What political capital can be leveraged from a mass of hyperconnected individuals whose attention constantly flitters from one disconnected story to the next? Would they stop for a moment to read your blog posts or poems about something as untimely as watching the clouds?

In the swarm, readers are discursive anomalies.

Byung-Chul Han: In the swarm

Jacobus: Romantic Things

What does it mean to look at clouds? To look at them and just look, letting the impression sink in and the thoughts amble as they please? To sit, stand or lie for a moment, not doing anything in particular, not thinking in any particular direction, just – in the broadest sense of the word – looking?

Similarly: what does it mean to spend time in the company of trees? What do they say with their rustlings and murmurations? What do they whisper as we walk past them, sit under them or touch them?

On that note: what stories do rocks tell us, about things on timescales human and geological? What secret histories can be gleaned from these inanimate – yet enduring – objects, were we just to pay attention?

Jacobus’ book is a very specific book about very unspecific things. To be sure, the subtitle a tree, a rock, a cloud mentions three specific things, but the book is not about these things. It is about the unspecific processes that takes place when we as human subjects behold and confront these things – looking at the sky, listening to the wind, prepondering a giant rock. The subtle sense of self on the one hand and the world at large on the other, and the sublime dialectic between the two.

We all feel this to some extent, sometimes more than others. On particularly shitty days, when things just seem to keep on piling up, it is all we can do: just look at the clouds for a moment and process, until we have recovered enough momentum to carry on. On less stressful days, we might slip into a spell of introspective musings, looking upwards and inwards at the same time. Some days we might even – time permitting – set aside for just being under the sky, doing nothing in particular.

These shared experiences are very much nothing out of the ordinary. Though, these experiences are shared only in the sense that they occur to each and every one of us. They are seldom talked about; indeed, it would be met with mild incomprehension to openly say that the next thing on the agenda is to watch the clouds or listen to trees. For being shared experiences, they are notoriously difficult to share.

Not least in the light of the fact that there is always something else going on; the demands of capitalism and/or the immediate social situation impose themselves, prompting our attention and participation. There always tends to be something more immediate to concern. No time standing around doing nothing.

Jacobus manages to write about these things in very specific ways. Trees, rocks, clouds; these things stand in as representations of the process of subjectively experiencing. In relating to these things, we relate to ourselves. The process wherein we do so is not mechanical or neutral, but rather a subtle web of relating, relationships and associations which eventually find themselves reflected in who we (think we) are. Things never just are; there is always someone in relation.

Traditionally, these things have been the domain of poets, painters and philosophers, and thus it is no surprise that Jacobus draws upon these discourses in her discussions, primarily Wordsworth and Derrida. The gift Jacobus presents to us in the form of this book is a way to relate subjective experience with the thoughts found on paper or canvas. Looking at clouds becomes connected to the world of art and philosophy, like we always knew and suspected it was; and here, in this short book, we can see the connections made plain, available for further ponderance. And further discussion.

It is quite an accomplishment.

Jacobus: Romantic Things

Benson: Another shooting in cowtown

Another Shooting in Cowtown does not end up where you would think it would end up. Of course, where you think it would end up depends on where you encounter this strange text. If you, like me, encountered it in a reader (this strange word for a book of texts; who is the reader?) on rhetorical criticism, you might reasonably expect it has something to do with the pandemic of mass shootings that have plagued the US over the last decades.

The text does not cover mass shootings, however relevant such a title would be for contemporary discursive and rhetorical practices employed by media actors and politicians. It is tempting to say that there is another text bearing the same title, brutally implied but not yet realized.

The text at hand, though, is about media actors and politicians. Specifically, about how they intersect to create the messages average citizens are confronted with on a daily basis (more often in election times). Even more specifically, about that one time an academic scholar of political communication was invited to partake in the creation of the political communication of a particular political candidate in the late 70s. The titular cowtown is just that – a small burg in the middle of the vast American nowhere; the shooting refers to the creation of political television ads.

The driving question behind the text is this specific intersection: what happens when an academic confronts the thing he has spent so much time reading and writing about? Or, phrased another way: what happens when the process of making sausages is laid bare?

Of course, Benson, being a proper academic, questions whether it is ethical to join the production of political advertisement for a particular political candidate in an ongoing election. On the one hand, such participation might be construed as an endorsement – especially if he happens to be proficient at it. On the other hand, nothing is more informative than direct access to the empirical data, and gaining insight into the process of political communication is relevant to a scholar of political communication.

On the third hand, if he did not go, they would just hire someone else; it is the nature of modern division of labor that individuals are replaceable and interchangeable.

He joins.

What follows is a shooting. Surprisingly, it is not unlike a high school shooting, in that the film crew runs into unexpected difficulties and overcome them by means of deadline-inspired improvisation. The process is much more ad hoc than the finalized product would indicate, and at some point during the proceedings Benson realizes that this does not matter. Or, to phrase it in slightly more informative jargon: the detailed study of result is not as useful as an a priori understanding of process, through which a better study of the result might follow.

The production team is divided into three overlapping parts: the technical crew, the bureaucrats and the person who ostensibly runs the show. The technical crew are those who hold the cameras, adjusts the mics, and in every sense of the word gets things done. The bureaucrats hold the money, and the meetings, and the documents – everything that goes into getting the message (only the one message, mind) out. The person who ostensibly runs the show is also the least important character in the story: it is his face and voice that is to be broadcasted across the mediascape, and his input into the production process is optimally minimal.

Or, phrased from the point of view of the politician: people come, they record the thing, they leave.

This state of things has implications for rhetorical criticism. And, indeed, for our understanding of political communication in general. While the finished ads are designed to make it appear that the politician does and says things, these things are determined by persons who are not him. Some of these things are determined by what the party bureaucrats want: positions, catchphrases, concerns about image. Some are determined by production factors on the day of recording; if something goes wrong, the improvised solution is what gets included in the final version. And if the bureaucrats and the crew disagree on something, this has far more impact on the messaging than the candidate’s opinions.

What does it mean for political communication that the politician is only barely involved with the communicative process, outside the need to be the person caught on tape?


Benson: Another shooting in cowtown