Sunday, October 9, 2011

infinite jester: communication

Once again, DFW comes to the rescue with a near-perfect articulation of the communication quagmire in which we presently find ourselves. I've written before about my troubles with technology and the modern world. Yes, we've heard it all before. With each day, each time I use Skype/Facebook/gChat, I am reminded of my conflicting complex relationship to technology, only complicated further by my past as a musician. As performers, we communicate directly, intimately. As instigators of sound, we "touch" our audiences--the sound we produce vibrates within the individual bodies of the attentive mass below us. Perhaps it is this idea of communication that causes so much strife for us in particular when communication becomes disembodied (the telephone, Skype, and the extreme case, instant messaging). Being so used to a forced and immediate intimacy, a surface communication--flat and superficial--creates unease and deep discomfort. Furthermore, as musicians, we are disconcerted by the distortion of power that disembodied communication creates. We are the instigator, the attacker, we initiate sound that penetrates a helpless vulnerable body. When communication becomes distant and disembodied, this power relationship is disrupted.

Surprise surprise, as I read Infinite Jest several mornings ago, I found David Foster Wallace articulating so perfectly my thoughts. Behold, the DFW "truth nugget":

It turned out that there was something terrible stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn't been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they'd been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice-only elephony. They'd never noticed it before, he delusion--it's like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenance only in the context of its loss. Food old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume hat the person on teh other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation...let you enter a kind of highway-hypnoyic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and-exaggerated-facial-expression type of conversation with people right there in teh room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet--and this was he retrospectively marvelous part--even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end's attention might be similarly divided. [...] This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infinitely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody's complete attention without having to return it. Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastic: it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time.

Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable.1

Indeed, David Foster Wallace was writing about what it was to be "a fucking human being."2

1. Wallace, David Foster. Infinite Jest: A Novel. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1996 (145-146)
2. Dreyfus, Hubert L., and Sean Kelly. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. New York: Free Press, 2011 (22)

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