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Absorbed with gadgets

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Monday, Jun 9, 2008

At PSFK, Dan Gould posts about Evan Baden, who photographs people entranced by their electronic gadgets. Baden writes, “More and more, we are bathed in a silent, soft, and heavenly blue glow. It is as if we carry divinity in our pockets and purses.”


Baden makes much of the technological innovation of gadgets and the “wealth of knowledge and communication” they allow, but it’s worth remembering that the 18th century had the same reaction to the technological innovation of the day, books. The site hosting Baden’s work poses this ominous question: “Their faces, made cadaverous by the artificial light, are expressionless, suggesting that, as we become more connected by our electronics, we become less connected to our immediate surroundings. This leaves us to wonder: do we own our electronics, or do they own us?” This echoes the society-wide fears of reading in the 18th century, primarily of women being preoccupied with books, which were seen as dangerous threats to their autonomy and education and their presumed role in the world. These fears supplied the substance of an array of plays, essays, and novels that fretted over women spending too much time reading and being emotionally altered by what they read. Like interactive gadgetry, books (novels especially) require the imaginative participation of the reader to make them come alive and work effectively. So perhaps any new media is destined to face this kind of criticism, that it is corrupting its users, removing them from contact with “reality” into some dangerously vulnerable trance state.


Compare this image


with this famous painting by Fragonard.


For more images, professor William Warner has collected a bunch for his essay on the subject here. Warner points out, “Like television watching in the mid 20th century, novel reading took France and England by storm; like television watching, reading novels engendered excitement and resistance in the societies where it first flourished.” He cites Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality, a study of 18th-century French painting’s representation of absorptive states (such as the ones Baden photographs) and the self-forgetting they suggest. Fried makes much of the way the figures in such paintings ignore the beholder, signifying a total self-absorption that constitutes at the same time a total self-forgetting, the loss of social self-consciousness. To achieve this effect, Fried argues, painters had to take pains to obliterate the point of view of the beholder. The “neutralization” that the paintings achieve enables the beholder to feel, Fried claims. The refusal to be acknowledged by the painting’s figures “seems to have given Greuze’s contemporaries a deep thrill of pleasure and in fact to have transfixed them before the canvas,” Fried writes. This may be because the beholder is made to feel outside the network of surveillance for a moment—this may be in fact what those staring into their iPods and BlackBerry’s paradoxically feel—that they are orchestrating the flow of communication around them, rather than being caught up in its web.


At the same time, onlookers are made to feel like voyeurs, as Fried claims beholders were when confronted with paintings full of absorbed figures. This heightens the reality-TV feeling of using gadgets in public, and I think it explains why some people feel the need to talk loudly on their phones in public spaces. Using the gadget renders the sense that we are eminently observable more powerful—because the gadget user is completely absorbed, they are more completely vulnerable to being watched, though the gadget using itself may be a theatrical behavior, seeking to attract the attention it seems to be oblivious to.


Fried posits that “a new kind of beholder” must be created—in other words, a new kind of vicariousness must be fomented in consumers of art that renders them paradoxically absent and present in the scene represented. They need to identify and judge and oscillate between those positions. Ien Ang identified this very motion in Watching Dallas, a study of how television series function. Ang points to “a constant to and fro movement between identification with and distance from the fictional world as constructed” in the work being consumed. Writes Fried, concluding his analysis of the new kind of art consumer: “The very condition of spectatordom, stands indicted as theatrical, a medium of estrangement rather than of absorption, sympathy and self-transcendence.” That seems to be the relationship we have with gadgets, and one another when we are using them.


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