attending to the other

under conditions of algorithmic life

Ocean Vuong wrote in an Instagram story about a year ago that a metaphor must have two things: a sensory (visual, textural, auditory) connection between the origin image and the transforming image, as well as a logical connector between both images. For each metaphor, we pay attention to its musicality (which is somewhat objective, but requires attunement), as well as its socially orchestrated overtones. 

I have some dear techie friends in San Francisco who systematically chart down different conversation openers and the conversation spaces that they lead to. There is a certain economy to this that I find admirable, one indexed primarily on informational content, novelty, and surprise. 

I’ve recently spent a lot of time with friends I view as poets, even if they do not write what is classically viewed as poetry. They speak with a bell-like clarity, the sort of truthiness that comes only with centering and attunement. They carefully attend to, and play, the language available to them, drawing out its particularities and peculiarities, but they also attend to and play their listener.

There’s the parable 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 and simply through each cow. This is the economy of the poet, concerned with feeling, texture, beauty, and weight, and it requires a particular quality of attention. 

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". 

There’s an apocryphal story of a man who cried moving through a major New York art gallery from piece to piece, who was asked to leave because his reaction to the art was disturbing other patrons. They preferred to nod sagely at various works and shake their heads slightly at others. Two years ago, my mind was gently then suddenly rubbed raw by various philosophical conundrums, and I spent a few days hypersensitive 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 that people have induced in millennia past, and that performance artists like the great Marina Abramovic have practiced to achieve incredible feats of endurance that transcended the needs of the body. 

Simone Weil, the great French mystic who fasted to death in solidarity with soldiers, said that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity”. I tend to agree more with Weil every year. One of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had was at a workshop in Northern California, where I began, without any verbal communication, to hold the gaze of someone I had just met a few days prior. The world fell away. About halfway through, I realized how freeing it was to know I did not have to perform or to act in order to be attended to, that I could simply be and yet still be witnessed. 

Weil believed that simple attention was required for moral attention, which was required for empathy, which was required for ethical action. It was nontrivial, however, to achieve the sort of clear perception she spoke of; it required an integrated character. Weil was part of a particular lineage of ethical psychology that believed that the ethical agent is a witness; the primary responsibility is not to change the world but to understand, in contrast with the Humean moral psychology that believes that the ethical agent is an actor, whose primary responsibility is to change the world.

Weil believed that “absolutely unmixed attention [was] prayer.” 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 light 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 wholeness. 

Wittgenstein said that “you cannot enter worlds for which you do not have the language.” There are so many worlds that we do not have language for, that perhaps humans will never develop language for, strain as we may. 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 x, 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 Esme Weijun Wang’s The Collected Schizophrenias, she recounts employing legible status labels - “bestselling author”, “Yale 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 often is towards 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, whereas grandiosity and being ‘overly’ ambitious are markers of narcissistic personality disorder.

One of my friends, who has 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. 

American environmentalist Paul Shepard said that ‘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 others, human and nonhuman, have perished because we did not attend to their presence properly, and reduced them only to illegible objects? How many have not perished, but are reduced in some way, smaller versions of the beings they might have been?

The philosopher Yuk Hui traces this tendency to reduce the other 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 a ‘revealing’ of the world as a resource; for Yuk Hui, this particular framing of technology created an oppositional relationship between man and world. Man employed technology to ‘make use’ of the world. Hui is interested in how an Eastern cosmology might change, or completely redefine, the ontology of the self-other relation, where the self and the other are interdependent. 

Even if we choose to retain the 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 this orientation means that “the tree remains ‘your’ object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition”. Instead, Buber calls for you to allow yourself to be drawn into a reciprocal relationship with the tree, where you 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 you bodily. 

The sociologist Rosa Hartman calls a similar mode of relating resonance. Instead of viewing oneself as a closed off, independent system bent on controlling the other, one leaves oneself open to being affected by the world, responsive to its call, and thereby allows oneself to transform and be transformed by it. Does this not sound precisely like the difference between a subjugating, exploitative relationship and a nourishing, healthy friendship? Similar to entering into a healthy human-human relationship, I think one must have sufficient self-knowledge to be able to approach the world with this orientation, in the same way that Weil believed that clear attention requires an integrated character. 

Perhaps you can break apart and analyze a poem, but I think you must ultimately encounter it as a totality if you hope to be transformed by it.

E.F. Schumacher wrote in A Guide for the Perplexed that “self-knowledge is not only the precondition of understanding other people; it is also the precondition of understanding, at least to some extent, the inner life of beings at lower levels: animals and even plants”. 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 who have reached what Maslow called the furthest reaches of human nature. There are some alternative treatment institutions, like Windhorse Integrative Mental Health, that orient to extreme states as teachers. I was struck by this language; I’ve always thought of teachers as persons who quickened a light in their students, and re-oriented them to the object of study with a sense of awe and curiosity. The very best of teachers focus and clarify attention. In this sense, pain has been a teacher for me, as it has been for many.

Perhaps attention requires individuals creating space for themselves, a pocket of breathing room amidst a blanket of interwoven algorithmic threads and drives. Hannah Arendt says that “thinking requires us to be present to the world as it exists for each of us”; thinking, which she defined as judgement, requires presence, and presence requires space. In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf recounts how it was only after several years of having a guaranteed income (in her case from a wealthy deceased relative), and having the spaciousness of knowing that that income was guaranteed for the rest of her life, that she began to develop taste. She realized for the first time that she was able to say no. No, I prefer this artwork. No, I would prefer not to do that work. Woolf created space via refusal.

A few shorter thought-gifts:

  1. Ultimately, individual choice and freedom are insufficient. Last week, 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 write 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, laden as it is with multiple meanings. The ethos of the text is reflected in the way it was created, as well as the underlying software implementation

  2. 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.

  3. 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,