the sociology of ‘blotting out’ experience 

One of the most interesting aspects of Margaret Archer’s work on reflexivity is her interest in how people sometimes seek to ‘blot out’ their experience. Her overarching concern is with the variability of reflexivity, something which I think is hugely important against an intellectual background in which most   thinkers impute a uniform deliberative capacity to subjects, assuming they do recognise this capacity at all.

For instance while some people, at least some of the time, reason autonomously in a confident and detached way, addressing the question “what should I do?” quickly and effectively, others find that attempts to deliberate intensify affect rather than provide answers. These are perhaps the people most likely to seek to ‘blot out’ experience, to evade reflexivity through deliberate distraction. But I’ve argued elsewhere that the competitive busyness of the self-striving utility maximiser can represent a comparable form of ‘blotting out’, avoiding difficult questions of what really matters to them by throwing themselves into the events of the day.

Before we have a fully developed sociology of reflexivity, we need a sociology of ‘blotting out’ experience: a systematic understanding of the different ways in which people can seek to evade reflexivity and why they might pursue them. I was thinking about this today after encountering the description of the ‘machine zone’ at the start of the stunning book Addiction By Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll, pg 2:

Mollie recounts how her play began, and how it escalated. It started soon after she moved to Las Vegas with her third husband in the 1980s, when he taught her to play video poker on a miniature, handheld machine. “I became hooked on that amazing little machine. And then I graduated to the real thing.” Short stints at video poker on weekend visits to casinos turned into sessions of hours and then days. Her financial expenditure grew in step with her play, to a point where she was spending entire paychecks over two- day binges at machines. “I even cashed in my life insurance for more money to play,” she tells me. When I ask Mollie if she is hoping for a big win, she gives a short laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. “In the beginning there was excitement about winning,” she says, “but the more I gambled, the wiser I got about my chances. Wiser, but also weaker, less able to stop. Today when I win— and I do win, from time to time— I just put it back in the machines. The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win .” Why, then, does she play? “To keep playing— to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.” I ask Mollie to describe the machine zone. She looks out the window at the colorful movement of lights, her fingers playing on the tabletop between us. “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there— you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”

When placed in this context, we can see how a concern with the experience of ‘blotting out’ takes us beyond psychology by placing this evasion, in which people seek the embrace of a zone in ‘which nothing else matters’, within the broader development of digital capitalism and the declining capacity of non-elite collective agency to shape long-term political and economic trends.