Very Smart: What if Interactivity is the New Passivity? Jonathan Sterne / McGill University | Flow

Posted by Jonathan Sterne McGill University on April 9th, 2012


“…The demand to participate can become coercive, exhausting the very collective faculties it officially celebrates. While interactivity can be imagined as the “like” or “retweet,” it also encompasses the “agree to terms” button. The supposedly democratic call to dialogue and participation can turn sour when people have good reasons and desires to retreat. In his discussion of Melville’s famous story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” John Durham Peters calls this the “cold righteousness of dialogism,” a “moral tyranny” of the call to the other to interact on a subject’s pregiven terms. “Dialogue’s supposed moral nobility can suffocate those who prefer not to play along” (Peters 1999, 159).

The issue here isn’t that we need a pure space from which to critique capitalism—for you as reader and I as writer are always already compromised. It is that we need some occasions for reflection that aren’t simply subsumed under the sign of participation. My colleague Darin Barney has written beautifully on this subject, arguing that any kind of meaningful political—and I would add cultural—judgment requires some assertion of distance, some strategic and temporary disengagement on people’s own terms. This is not to say all participation is bad, any more than it is to say that all consumption was bad in the golden age of mass culture criticism. Neither activity nor passivity are goods in themselves; both have roles to play in culture, politics and personal life….”

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