Vagaries of attention

by Rob Horning

1 July 2011


There’s an important distinction between attention and recognition, though I think we easily confuse them in speech and in practice. We seek attention when we want recognition, some sense of our worth or integrity to others. Attention is a necessary prerequisite for recognition, but doesn’t always lead to a feeling of having been recognized. My main fear about social media is that is becoming harder to translate attention into recognition without their aid. Increasingly, attention that isn’t in some way mediated seems inert, if not unsettling and creepy.

I have this feeling that people are going to become more and more wary of direct face-to-face attention because it will seem like it’s wasted on them if it’s not mediated, not captured somehow in social networks where it has measurable value. I imagine this playing out as a kind of fear of intimacy as it was once experienced—private unsharable moments that will seem creepier and creepier because no one else can bear witness to their significance, translate them into social distinction. Recognition within private unmediated spaces will be unsought after, the “real you” won’t be there but elsewhere, in the networks.

I have an essay up at the New Inquiry about artist Laurel Nakadate, whose work is, I think, about this emerging condition—about becoming increasingly unavailable to attention in the moment, wholly ensconced by self-consciousness. Receiving attention in real time can’t confirm anything about how you want to feel about yourself; it becomes a portal to a deeper loneliness—the way out seems to be to mediate the experience, watch it later, transmute it into something else. In short, we are losing the ability to feel recognized in the moment, which strands us further and further away from fully inhabiting our bodies in the present. We are always elsewhere, in the cloud.


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