under conditions of algorithmic life
I think of many of the people closest to me as poets, although most of them have never authored anything resembling what’s traditionally deemed a poem. They read as poets to me because they speak with the economy of poetry, concerned primarily with rhythm, timbre, and weight, and practice the special quality of attention that that economy requires.
They attend to their instrument, playing out language’s particularities and peculiarities. Finding the right words requires both intellectual gymnastics and a careful attunement to the songful dimensions of speech. Ocean Vuong wrote that a metaphor should have both a logical and sensory connection between the origin image and the transforming image. At their best, metaphors can reorient the mind completely, even induce original sight.
They also attend to the object of their instrument. There’s the famous Daoist story of the butcher who never had to sharpen his axe, since he had studied the object of his instrument so closely that the blade slid cleanly through flesh, never encountering bone. One of my closest friends says his love language is deep attention. When I’m confused about a situation, he listens to what I have to say, directs me with careful questions, and then goes away for a few hours. Eventually, he comes back with a question or framing that slices through my fog. I treasure his speech deeply. The attention that undergirds it stands in sharp contrast to the hastily shared words and online takes generated against a backdrop of common knowledge that attention is both scarce and low quality.
Simone Weil, the great French mystic who fasted to death in solidarity with frontline soldiers, said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. A few years ago I attended a workshop in Northern California. One evening, we were asked to try social experiments to expand our comfort zones. I decided to sit apart from the party and be visibly alone. After a few minutes, I began, without any verbal communication, to hold the gaze of someone I had met just a few days prior. I knew I was part of his eye-gazing experiment. The world fell away as I watched his eyes watch me. There was an internal shift when I realized I did not have to perform or act in order to be attended to. Marina Abramovic, the grand matriarch of durational performance art, created this feeling for hundreds of people with her work, The Artist is Present, and many were moved to tears. Watch this video and come back.
If you’ve been lucky enough to have had a deep relationship with another human being, you know what pure attention and witness feel like. The poet David Whyte said that "the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self. The ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone, and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them, and to have believed in them, and sometimes, just to have accompanied them, for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone". I can play all the iterated vulnerability games I want with someone, but I only truly feel well with them if we’ve reached the plateau state where both parties feel intrinsically worthy of the other’s attention. Weil said that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”. To attend to something properly is to resacralize it.
I’m partly fascinated by attention because my own is awful. I flit between thought to thought, a moth thirsty for light. Like many others, my attention has been challenged by the pandemic. Most of the discourse on attention is framed in terms of productivity. Someone told me anxiously over dinner last week that she isn’t able to focus on her work like she used to be able to. I reassure her, and think to myself that attention is important for all sorts of other reasons. When I walked through the subway to meet her at this restaurant, I felt the skin of my scalp tightening under the hum of the bright fluorescent lights, and my shoulder muscles squeeze in response to an especially dirty stairwell. Now that I am sitting here in a warmly lit space with a new friend, my body is looser, and more porous in some ways. I take on the lilt of her speech. Trying to articulate a novel thought, I feel my way towards the right handle with the entirety of my body, imagine how words would taste in my mouth, how they fit the shape of this new uncharted luminosity. Sometimes, the precise phrase comes easily. Other times, I bumble, throw words around, see what sticks. In these awkward moments when the right words do not arise, if I’m comfortable with who I’m with, I simply hold my tongue.
Weil was part of a particular lineage of ethical psychology that conceptualized the ethical agent as a witness; the primary responsibility is not to change the world but to understand, in contrast with the Humean lineage that describes the ethical agent as an actor, whose primary responsibility is to change the world. It was nontrivial, however, to achieve the sort of clear perception she spoke of; among other things, it required an integrated character.
Witnessing and attending sound passive, but it is far from easy to achieve clear perception, to truly and deeply see.
This practice feels urgent. Weil believed that simple attention was required for moral attention, which was required for empathy, which was required for ethical action. We are unable to act ethically towards that which we have not first attended to; this includes other humans, but also the non-human other. The art of attention requires, among other things, an openness to being moved and transformed, the development of language, and the resistance of algorithmic life.
One way to practice attention is to notice the non-logical aspects of communication. Attunement to the melodic quality of our language draws those we are in dialogue with to be more in tune with their own senses, and opens our own ears to the sonority of other creatures. Read a poem today, perhaps this one that describes the limits of the language, and feel it in your mouth. Speak out different beliefs (“I’m sitting on a bed in Brooklyn”, “I’m a woman”, “I’m rich”, “I’m poor”), and see how your body feels after each one. An ambitious Bay Area research group aimed at reinventing psychology called that practice belief reporting. It reminds me in some ways of a theatre exercise I used to do called “voicefinding”. The goal was to find your natural voice. If you’d like to try it, place your fingers right above where your jaw curves into your neck. Start humming with the highest part of your range, and move downwards, while moving your voice placement through your facial mask, throat, then chest. There should be a placement where your voice shifts and changes from something like a string harmonic to a fuller timbre. The first time I did this was remarkable. I suddenly noticed overtones in my voice that I didn’t realize were missing. Others noticed the difference too; I was only fourteen, but people thought I was already in university.
There’s an apocryphal story of a man who cried moving through a major New York art gallery from piece to piece. Patrons, who preferred to nod sagely at various works and shake their heads slightly at others, became increasingly disturbed as his reactions became gradually more intense. Eventually, the gallery management asked him to leave. I wonder at the depth of his feeling, and his lack of fear of expressing it in public. Two years ago, my mind was gently then suddenly rubbed raw by various philosophical conundrums, and I spent a few days extremely open to all stimuli: I cried listening to jazz, upon understanding a particularly difficult math equation, walking up a grand set of stairs. I was in an elevated state of receptiveness that people have induced for millennia, and that performance artists like Abramovic have practiced to achieve incredible feats of endurance that transcended the needs of the body.
I wonder what Weil’s final week might have been like, if her attention was turned to external forms, internally on her failing organs, or to another plane entirely. Her death reminds me of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a beautiful and violent meditation on the body, where a woman wishes for nothing but to become a tree, to feed herself by sunbeams alone. I suspect that if Weil’s attention was in fact directed inwards, that she would not have experienced a dark destruction of form but a sanctifying, warm light.
Wittgenstein said that “you cannot enter worlds for which you do not have the language.” Jenny Odell, in How to Do Nothing, discusses how learning the language of birders helped her distinguish better between different birds. One of the most pleasurable parts of learning a new domain for me is developing the language that accompanies the development of taste. This is this sort of chocolate, and I like that more because xyz, this sort of music. There is a delight in finally discovering the exact right label for one’s felt experience. Language facilitates higher levels of attention.
Conversely, we are not typically kind to the worlds we do not have language for, or objects that remain illegible to us. Over the last century or so we’ve improved somewhat in our treatment of various peoples. We practice standpoint theory selectively with some groups we are able to communicate with: women, queer folks, people of colour. But we are still unkind to the mentally ill. In Esmé Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, she recounts how she uses legible status labels - bestselling author, Yale honors graduate - to rehumanize herself to both clinical and professional audiences. The mentally ill are terrifying partially because they are illegible and unpredictable. Our conditioned impulse towards them, as it is towards all unknown terrain, is to master, conquer, and make useful. We are so anxious to normalize people to our own baseline. For mood disorders, a patient's mental ‘fitness’ is measured primarily by the degree to which she is able to hold down a 9-5 job. Grandiosity and being ‘overly’ ambitious are markers of narcissistic personality disorder. There are alternative treatment institutions for people experiencing extreme states that follow in the footsteps of psychiatrist R. D. Laing by orienting to these states as teachers. What would happen if we allowed and supported people to traverse the wild skies of joy and the keenest edges of grief and sorrow? What peaks and valleys of human experience would these voyagers be able to chart?
E. F. Schumacher believed that those genuinely interested in inner development would study the lives and works of people for whom “the striving for ‘power’ has entirely ceased and been replaced by a certain transcendental longing”, and who had “broken out of our ordinary confinement of time and space”. Maslow proposed a similar type of psychological research: instead of attempting to understand the inner states of first-year Harvard students, we should study those living at what Maslow called the furthest reaches of human nature.
One of my friends, who experiences cyclothymia, gave me a beautiful metaphor once about friendship. She thinks of her friends as a tether, not a weight. If she’s feeling hypomanic, she hopes that her friend’s first instinct is not to warn her not to fly too close to the sun. Let her be generative, expansive, magical. Don’t aim to pop the balloon, but hold its attached string carefully. Trust that she will come back to earth eventually, or even better, find ground on an entirely different planet.
Philosophers like Yuk Hui trace this tendency to reduce the illegible other to a ‘resource’ to something deeply ingrained in Western cosmology itself, where man conceptualizes himself as apart from and independent of the world. The world is an ‘other’, a blank slate upon which his will is executed. Heidegger’s definition of technology was that it ‘revealed’ the world as a resource. This definition of technology, where humanity employs technology to ‘make use of’ the world, is predicated on an oppositional relationship between man and world. Hui is interested in how an Eastern cosmology might change, or completely redefine, the ontology of the self-other relation, so that the self and the other are interdependent.
Even if we choose to retain a clean self-other distinction, Buber offers a challenge to the instrumentalizing worldview. He calls the way we typically relate to the other an I-It relation. We try to collapse the other into an easily legible measure, or set of measures - how tall is the tree? How does it look? What species is it? - and by doing so “the tree remains ‘your’ object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition”. Instead, he calls for us to allow ourselves to be drawn into a reciprocal relationship with the tree, where we see the tree in its entirety. “Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colors and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars”, all of the tree, confronting us bodily.
The sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls a similar mode of relating resonance. Instead of viewing ourselves as closed off, independent systems bent on controlling the other, we should leave ourselves open to being affected by the world, responsive to its call, and thereby allow ourselves to transform and be transformed by it. This orientation reminds me of how one must approach a poem if one hopes to be moved by it; you can analyze it and justify the artifact rationally, but in the end you must encounter the poem bodily, as a totality.
We must learn to attend without language for what it is we are experiencing. There are so many worlds that we do not have language for, that perhaps humans will never develop language for, strain as we may. So many beings -- animals, trees, mountains, and rivers -- have no place in any sign system we might design, no expressive agency in any human semiotic. To encounter the other, we can develop language, yes, but we should also learn to open our hearts and bodies to the speech of breath, beak, and branch. We must sensitize ourselves to the poetics of everything.
The American environmentalist Paul Shepard said ‘the grief and sense of loss, that we often interpret as a failure in our personality, is actually a feeling of emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered.’ How many illegible others, human and nonhuman, have perished because we did not attend to them properly? I think of the terrifying rates of species extinction, as well as the disproportionate death rates of queer, racialized, and otherwise marginalized bodies. How many have not perished, but are reduced in some way, smaller versions of the beings they might have been? A polymathic economist who I consider a mentor tells me he is especially intrigued when he meets someone who is clearly bright and sensitive but inarticulate, and I think of my friends who have downregulated their life force in an effort to be legible instead of remaining moths. How many beautiful and strange possible worlds are we on track still yet to lose?
I think the stakes here are both enormous and invisible. If we do not nurture and practice attention, we will lose everything, and we will not even be aware of what it is that we have lost. We will lose any sense of sacredness. We will ignore real atrocities. We’ll feel an ongoing vague sense of disconnection, loss, and grief as our senses, tastes, and judgment are dulled by a blanket of algorithmic threads. Attention is not sufficient, but I think it is a prerequisite for all that is good and valuable and worth living for.
A few shorter thought-gifts:
Ultimately, individual choice and freedom are insufficient. Last month, a new arts/research collective I’m part of helped fork A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a foundational cyberpunk text that emphasized freedom of speech, individual mobility, and exit, and wrote A Declaration for the Interdependence of Cyberspace. In it, we advocate for interdependence in multiple senses. In many ways, this piece feels to me like a poem. It is laden with multiple meanings. The ethos of the text is reflected in the way it was created, as well as the underlying software implementation.
I’ve been thinking about the limits of critique. Critique is constructive if it is conceptually extensible - if others can build upon it, respond to it, engage with it. In considering rhetorical software and its limits, one could make a similar analogy - a truly extensible, interoperable artifact can resonate across several pace layers, especially if it is built on decentralized, long-lasting infrastructure.
I’m excited about the idea of ‘punctuated artifacts’ - e.g. hosting a week-long or month-long retreat around certain themes, then generating a set of related artifacts, be it a series of letters or a magazine or a gallery. This tradition existed in 90s zine culture but I’d love to learn about communities that are practicing this now.
I wish you attention,