Monday, February 13, 2017

CORE RESPONSE #1: Morse, distraction, nonspace (Week 6)

            In “An Ontology of Everyday Distraction: The Freeway, Mall, and Television,” Margaret Morse places television within the socio-historical context of postmodern and late capitalist life. As a central framework, Morse draws connections between the cultural forms of the freeway, the contemporary mall, and television as exemplars for the postmodern experience of “distraction” and “nonspace.” These two conditions typify, according to Morse, how subjects in capitalist life worlds interface with the everyday. Distraction, put simply, is a state of being unmoored from the here and now—of being radically touched by “two planes of language represented simultaneously or alternately” (194). Such a state of multiplicity is not simply the effect of electronic media like television but is also made palpable by the architecture of screen environments. The built structure of freeways and malls, for instance, include glass screens that create multiple levels of space and can interiorize or distance different terrains of signification. Distraction, then, is the process of orienting to these multiple planes that will always be incomplete. This concept of distraction is a productive way to describe the psychological and perhaps social experience of “nonspace”—a decentering of a singular “place” and a disengagement from a “paramount orientation to reality” (200). Together, these concepts help Morse poetically describe how “dreams become habit” (209) and how the most quotidian of moments (of driving, of mall shopping, and of watching television) are made by and actively make postmodern and late capitalist life.

            I read her piece with particular attention to the theoretical vocabulary that she uses to limn her central argument. I couldn’t help but notice how this language of “nonspace” that she uses to describe “an ontology of everyday distraction” resonates with the language within another of my fields of interest: the studies of diaspora, particularly queer diasporas. Diaspora scholars, particularly those doing work in literary or cultural studies, often depict the experience of fractured subjectivity and perception as one of disorientation. And further, central to the experience of diaspora is what Nadia Ellis (borrowing from Jose Esteban Munoz) would call “living within the territories of the soul—existing between “claims to land and imaginative flights unmoored from the earth” (Territories of the Soul, 1). Ellis here describes another type of diasporic “nonspace” that takes inspiration from queer utopic thinking. This nonspace is a result from the forced splitting from imperialism, colonialism, and coerced migration. I put these two theoretical genealogies alongside each other to begin to tease out the tensions between them. I wonder how much “distraction” and the “nonspace” of postmodernity is built on the forced “nonspace” of various diasporas that serve to build a Western nation like the United States as an apex of late capitalist life. These questions are stemming from my project on transpacific empire and electronic media, but nonetheless, I would love to pursue this line of thinking.

1 comment:

  1. Good to hear you found Morse’s essay promising and potentially useful to put into a dialogue with another field of interest of yours. To be honest, I found this text (in terms of its language, writing style, and arguments as well) quite hard to digest. As a consequence, I would only like to raise a couple of small issues, to which I could not help but relate in a skeptical fashion.

    As for one of the central concepts, "nonspace” as a site of "derealization”, as a "dreamlike displacement or separation from [one’s] surroundings” (197): first, I am not convinced it would be too specific (in its ubiquitousness] to the postmodern condition (let us just think, for example, of how the printed mass, before the digital revolution, was "consumed” excessively by the masses all over the streets and other public venues, including public transportation). Furthermore, I would even doubt that the incitement of this "nonspace” would be specific to the post-premodern condition, and to the advancement of the technologies and institutions of mass technology. I mean, every complex cognitive function (e.g., reflective thinking) presupposes and is based on the ability that one would not give their undivided or even primary attention to one’s "here and now” i.e. immediate surroundings but be, to a great extent, in their minds so to speak. At this point I am not able to make a particularly strong associative link between this "nonspace” and an apparently totalistically negatively framed "privatization”, "disengagement”, and "distraction”, entailing a loss (of political possibility/ political consciousness).

    As for one of Morse's main examples, i.e. the freeway and driving in private vehicles: people can drive in company, engaging in all sorts of conversations, very much in their there and then; on freeways, depending on traffic, people usually are attentive to and actually nonverbally communicate with others, as they necessarily need to make maneuvers in order to avoid accidents (which nevertheless happen for various reasons, including miscommunication, lack of communication and lack of vigilance, etc.); people may, in a way what Csíkszentmihályi would call "flow” (a different concept from the one Williams created for what he saw as the main operative mode of television), that is, being immersed in their activity, as opposed to the option highlighted by Morse i.e. relying mostly on automatized, habituated motoric schemas (which latter, by the way, is a wonderful potential of beings with relatively developd cognitive skills).

    Finally, I found some points made highly questionable: one of such points was the "zombie effect” diagnosed as the pathology (including a trajectory from overstimulation, through relaxation, to confusion and torpor) incited by the mall by Kowinski and referred to by Morse (203). The demonizing description sounded like a late 20th-century embodiment of a stereotypical late 19th-century psychiatric text moralizing and panicking over phenomena such as women’s hysteria. Maybe Morse did not paraphrase Kowinski adequately enough, and/or some sort of irony was lost in Morse's reference that might have been there in the original.

    In any case, I’m looking forward to hearing more on how others read this essay by Morse.