I saw a wonderful exhibition this weekend, collecting work by Alex Prager combining photography and film in intricately staged hyper-real scenes. The collection that has been playing on mind since seeing it is Face In The Crowd. If you click on the screenshot below, it will take you to the website where you can see the work:
The accompanying notes described how these are “dynamic tableaus where individual characters are presented in equally sharp focus, seemingly lost in their own internal conversations”. It reminds me of Hannah Starkey’s work in its fascination with how interiority plays out in social scenes, showing how private experience nonetheless has a public existence.
However I found the staging of the scenes troubling, as much as I recognise the intention behind them. It feels like the relationality is washed out, as if collectivity is exhausted by the artefact of the social situation. There’s a strange emptiness between inner and outer, with interaction reduced to staging such that the bonds of social life appear as little more than fragile constraints.
Each of these scenes is a collage of individuals rather than a collective, creating images which are sociological in their intention but not in their enactment. Individuals are either lost in the reality of their own lives or looking forlornly through the artifice of shared reality, as is the case with the red-haired woman in the image above. It foregrounds that artifice but also inflates it, losing track of how it functions as a collective tissue which knits together individual lives in the mundane interactions throughout the day.
It is scaffolding which often fades into the background, facilitating the relationality which is lost in these scenes. It is a deliberately stilted vision of the social, hugely succesful in its staging and producing an aesthetic which I find immensely unsettling.
I just returned from a Remembrance Day service, pondering the relationship between acceleration and the profane after finding the array of people walking past and through the service deeply irritating. It occurred to me that what marks out such a space as sacred, distinguished from the normal flow on everyday life, rests as much on deceleration as it does on silence. In fact the former could be seen as the precondition for the latter, in so far as that it’s hard to avoid making a noise unless you’re standing still.
There was a constant stream of activity around the service: people walking past, the noise of bikes and cameras clicking as photographers roamed. People were silent during the formal silence but the movement didn’t cease. What happens to our aspiration to the sacred under such circumstances? It becomes harder to sustain but its achievement is all the more powerful for this reason. To actually have a crowd of people stop moving, stand still and focus upon a shared object of attention becomes a moving experience in its own right because there is little even approximating it in everyday life.
This might seem like a niche concern, a peculiarly long-winded way of complaining about the fact of people’s behaviour at a remembrance service. I nonetheless believe it highlights a more diffuse phenomenon, in which the harmonisation of attention is becoming decreasingly possible. This isn’t just a matter of movement or its absence, a proliferation of noise or a respectful silence. Take myself as an example: I’m complaining about the lack of attentiveness shown by others but I found myself writing this blog post in my head during the service. There are so many reasons to turn away from shared experiences, as the decreasing synchronisation of our work and lives (as well as the digital machinery of distraction through which this desynchronisation comes to characterise every facet of our existence) means the traditional pool of collective objects of attention seems to be in terminal decline.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the end of collectivity or even of collective attention. The role of mediation here is interesting e.g. television and Twitter combining to produce intense forms of mediated collective attention. If we accept that collective attention can be powerful even if synchronised then binge-watched television shows which reach the status of ‘cultural phenomenon’ represent an interesting case study. Nonetheless, we see an important and challenging transformation when collective attention comes to depend upon technologies of mediation for its very possibility. I suspect we begin to lose something quite profound, as collective affectivity dependent on real co-ordination of psycho-physical attention in time and space begins to fade away into an (imagined) past. The extent to which this is happening can certainly be overstated: the examples that have proved most transformative in my own experience illustrate this (e.g. key games in live football, the best live music, some protests). But even these are partial experiences, collective crescendos against a backdrop of individualisation, rather than defining features of the experience. The most moving examples also occurred when I was younger, long before any gig was filled with people constantly focused on filming the event using their phone. The only recent example I can think of was the memorial after the Manchester attacks this year, the effect of which upon me had been opaque until I found myself bursting into tears after a few minutes of standing with others in St Andrew’s Square.
I’m worried that forms of collectivity like this, deeply precious but subtle parts of our lives, increasingly find themselves imperilled by social acceleration and that individualised enforcement of ‘proper’ comportment is liable to make the problem worse rather than better.
From Inventing the Future, by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, loc 3468:
Generic demands to experiment, create and prefigure are commonplace, but concrete proposals are all too often met with a wave of criticism outlining every possible point at which things might go wrong. In light of this dual tendency –for novelty, but against the risks inherent in social transformation –the allure of political ideas celebrating spontaneous ‘events’ becomes clearer. The event (as revolutionary rupture) becomes an expression of the desire for novelty without responsibility. The messianic event promises to shatter our stagnant world and bring us to a new stage of history, conveniently voided of the difficult work that is politics.
From Spam, by Finn Brunton, pg 6-7:
Two qualities unite these disparate uses of “community.” First, deep uncertainties about properties and edges: is community about location and face-to-face proximity, or does it consist of affective bonds that can be established by a text message as they are by an embrace? Does it encompass huge swathes of human experience, or is it at best a way to outline a formal arrangement of shared interests? Where is the lower bound—that is, when does a group of atomized individuals, a scattered and manifold accumulation of people and groups, transform into a community? Where is the upper bound—when does a sufficiently large or sufficiently self-reflective community become a “society,” a “public,” a citizenry, or another communal apotheosis? (And when does a community become a crowd, a mob?) The second quality that binds all these diverse applications of “community” lies in how very nearly impossible it is to use the word negatively, with its many connotations of affection, solidarity, interdependence, mutual aid, consensus, and so on. As Lori Kendall succinctly says, it “carries significant emotional baggage.” Raymond Williams summarizes the baggage as its “warmly persuasive” tone—“ it seems never to be used unfavourably.”
From InfoGlut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 1384:
One start- up sentiment mining application, for example, claims to “understand how the web feels ” via a “vibology meter.” 56 This version of prosopopoeia – attributing an imagined and unified voice to a dispersed and invisible aggregate that cannot speak for itself – enacts the fetishistic disavowal of contemporary capitalism, according to Slavoj Zizek: the simultaneous dismissal of the ability to comprehend or represent a totality and its reassertion as an autonomous, anonymous imaginary entity. For example, when “the people speak” through aggregate voting results that allegedly provide a candidate with a “strong mandate,” this combined sentiment may not reflect that of any particular individual or group (since widespread weak support combined with significant strong opposition might result in the apparent mandate). As Zizek puts it, “no one is personally responsible for it, all just feel the need to accommodate themselves to it. And the same goes for capitalism as such.” 57 The logic of aggregation is distinct from that of collectivity – the former seeks to create an imagined consensus out of an overview that makes up for what it lacks in depth, comprehension, and meaning with breadth, speed, and predictive power.
This is a really important point I’d like to incorporate into my analysis of fragile movements. As durable collectives, capable of articulating collective concerns and formulating collective projects to pursue them, become more difficult to generate and sustain, do we see a corresponding increase in prosopopoeia: a fetishistic faux-collectively that stands in as a purely affective substitute for meaningful collectivity?