Nothing's gonna stop the flow

Alan Jacobs, responding to Peggy Nelson's celebration of the flow, asks:

In the Flow, are “listening” and “consuming” distinguishable activities?

That's an interesting distinction: Listening, if I'm reading Jacobs right, is way of appropriating knowledge that is not simultaneously productive or at once situated in an exchange process, as the word "consuming" implies. The digitally mediated flow seeks to make any noneconomic responsiveness to art or culture or anything else in life more or less impossible -- or at least ideologically undesirable. Why just attend a lecture when you can liveblog it and "add value" with your coverage?

The implied imperative in Web 2.0 is to make all consumption productive and allows us to avoid the ignominious fate of becoming a passive consumer -- the straw-man figure of our era who represents the inauthentic conformist couch potato who has surrendered all agency. Perhaps no subject position has been more demonized than that one in late-capitalist consumerism, as various investigations of the rebel consumer illustrate.

The flow basically eliminates the lag time that listening presupposes, the space in which a more considered response can germinate (if warranted). You might call it the space that makes a deliberate aesthetic possible. (Ross Douthat suggests this space for contemplative reading is becoming a luxury, a class-based privilege contingent on being to afford a distraction-free retreat. I would add that it's also a matter of class whether one feels impelled to be relevant through accelerated productive consumption or whether one will be confident of one's relevance as a matter of habitus.) If the immediate aesthetic response is simply a coded form of obedience to existing relations of power, the social order inscribing itself on our hearts as Eagleton argues, then obviating the space of rumination reinforces the aesthetic's ideological function. We can't dispense with the aesthetic, which allows for real experiential pleasure, a pleasure that seems to resound deep within us and call forth a certain holistic sense of ourselves that is wedded to enduring ideals of the good. But when we make our aesthetic response more deliberate, there is a chance to align our pleasure with our identity with consciously affirmed social ideals.

The real-time revolution, the rise of the flow, basically requires all responses be even more spontaneous than aesthetic approval or else be forgotten and ignored as everyone moves on with the tide of events. From the perspective of real-time hegemony, listening is an arrogant effort to arrest the flow of events rather than swim with them and contribute to the flow's momentum. Trying to stand still amid the flow, to stop and listen, to focus longer than the flow's pace permits, is to ask to be drowned as the flood washes over you.

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