By Shane DensonMay 29, 2016


Infinite Distraction: Paying Attention to Social Media by Dominic Pettman

DOMINIC PETTMAN’S INFINITE DISTRACTION is, quite literally, a product of the processes it describes. The book is about social media, and particularly about the role that distraction plays in structuring these online spaces and our experiences of them. It is a product of these processes in the sense, first, that it “began its life as a humble Facebook update,” as the author tells us at the outset of the book’s preface. Fittingly, it is a short book, consisting of 138 small-format pages filled with large print (7.5 x 4.9-inch paper printed with 12.5 on 15-point Garamond Pro, to be exact). This and the light, accessible manner and often witty style of Pettman’s writing make the book the kind of thing one might read in between longer or more demanding academic texts: a diversion or distraction, that is, for scholars and students of media and culture.

And this is where the book’s origin on Facebook helps to define its function. Presumably, it played a similar role for its author as it does now for its readers, serving as a pleasant diversion from other projects, but also enacting what Pettman, near the end of his book, describes as a “meta-distraction” or a “distraction from distraction” itself — a distraction, that is, not only from more substantive work, but also from the social media space in which it was born and which so often distracts us from getting things done. It is thus a diversion from (or détournement of) the various diversions of social media; it is written not from a point of critical distance securely outside that space, but from a perspective that is situated squarely within it — a space from whence and within which it tries to discover the means of a “pharmacological” supplement that would help us to appreciate both the affordances and the pitfalls of our increasingly distracted modes of living.

Following these twists, turns, and transvaluations that take us from distraction to meta-distraction, we begin to understand the rationale for the book’s title — or the meaning, more precisely, of the “infinity” of Infinite Distraction, an attribute that is never explained directly. At the root of this infinity, I suggest, is a double movement of potentially endless proliferation: first, the way that one distraction leads to another when we fall down one of the various rabbit holes offered (as calculated though nondeterministic chains or pathways) by social media and similarly networked online spaces; but second, the way such spaces offer themselves as platforms for a more properly “dialectical” generative process. Accordingly, Pettman does not reject the distractions of social media (or try to get us “back on track”); instead, he accepts distraction as a central and inescapable regulating principle of our contemporary media environment, one that shapes our lives in many infelicitous ways, to be sure, but which might be made productive for interests of the commons rather than the corporate owners of the means of (re)production. The latter, the executives at Facebook, Google, and co., understand all too well the generative potential of distraction; they rely on it (which is to say, they rely on us) to generate not only their content but also, and more importantly, their revenue. But this generativity might equally be put to work for alternative purposes, or so the conceit of Pettman’s book. Spiraling out from within — both as a book that takes shape from a status update and the responses it generated from the author’s “friends,” and subsequently as a political project that installs itself in the space of social media itself — a distraction is enacted at the very heart of distraction.

Which, unfortunately, in no way immunizes either the author or the reader against further distraction of the less salutary sort. This is because the “‘meta’ element” is already baked into social media’s financial and propagandistic strategies:

[D]istraction itself has mutated, as a phenomenon, strategy, and geometric figure. Distraction is no longer a gesturing away from that which disturbs, or that which others do not want noticed. It is not to “create a distraction” so that something else may slip by or remain unconfronted. Rather, the decoy itself — the thing designed to distract — has merged with the distraction imperative, so that, for instance, news coverage of race riots now distracts from the potential reality and repercussions of race riots. […] This new form of distraction — which acknowledges as much as it disavows — is harder to mobilize against, for the simple reason that no one can accuse “the media” of trying to cover up “the truth.”

Similarly, using social media to reveal the dialectical potentials of social media, defined in contrast to the mechanisms of first-order, nondialectical, or plain-vanilla distraction, does not exempt the project from social media’s own all-too-dialectical abilities to anticipate and co-opt our every move. “Hence, the ouroboric aspect of online interactivity — a snake eating its own tail. We distract ourselves from the network’s incapacity to (fully) distract. And yet, one more click might just do the trick!”

Thus, the infinity of Infinite Distraction is one that never settles into a groove of an unproblematically progressive politics, one that never delivers us to a place of safety — but also one that never witnesses the complete unilateral domination of our attention by corporate interests. At least, not so long as we resist the complementary fantasies that social media is a neutral space for authentic expression, or that we could somehow disconnect or take up a position outside of infinite distraction.

But if this is a central theoretical assumption of Infinite Distraction, it should be noted that it has important implications for the book’s formal structure and mode of reception as well. In accordance with its claim that we can never simply transcend or escape the dynamics of distraction, the book indeed never feels like it believes itself separate from or superior to its “object” of social media — and I, for one, can confirm that my own reading of it was punctuated by many trips to Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and the like, thus consummating in the realm of practice that proximity and connection promised in theory. I’d like to think that I made more such excursions than I usually do in the course of reading a book, due perhaps to the subject matter and the range of references that Pettman makes to online events and phenomena, which a reader like myself is naturally enough tempted to look up online. But maybe the book simply made me more aware of the constant distractions that texts have to compete against more generally these days. In any case, this experienced closeness between the book and the space of social media made the book ring appropriately true to its roots on Facebook, and hence true to its readers’ (certainly this reader’s) situation within the contemporary mediasphere.

Yet such closeness is evidently also a challenge, as it calls into question many of the things we have been taught about scholarly books and the “proper” way to read them. Clearly, such books have long been filled with their own sorts of loose ends, intertextual openings, and jumping-off points that might be deemed a “distraction” from the matter at hand in the body of the text. And yet an elaborate apparatus has been designed to deal with such distractions: they are relegated to footnotes and bibliographies, for example, where they play a “supplementary” role that strangely enhances rather than undermines the illusion of a book’s completeness. They help to construct the book as an entity to be apprehended on its own terms, clearly delineated and separated from its objects. Such books, in our imagination of them and in accordance with the way we’ve been taught to engage them, present a totality into which the reader is invited to enter. Conventionally, this totality is termed “coherence.” And so a text like Pettman’s is likely to strike some readers as, precisely, incoherent.

For the reasons listed above, such incoherence seems to have been a calculated goal: part of the movement from distraction to meta-distraction. Calculated or not, however, the lack of closure or coherence in Pettman’s book is certainly not unproblematic. Indeed, amid the book’s many twists and turns of the dialectical screw, it sometimes feels as if the author is distracted momentarily from the big picture, diverted from his train of thought, suddenly off on a tangent or … hey look: cute cat pictures! This is no doubt the logic of social media, and so we can say that Infinite Distraction remains true to it not only thematically but also formally as well.


It has become fashionable of late to say that criticism has “run out of steam,” as Bruno Latour famously put it, but isn’t this giving up a bit too easily? Isn’t Pettman somewhat rash in abdicating critical distance, sacrificing it too willingly in the name of distraction? To answer this question, we need to look more closely at what exactly is meant here by distraction. Interestingly, this will bring the latter term closer to “criticism” or “the critical,” rather than confirm a simple wedge between them, because Pettman has recourse for his understanding of distraction to “critical theory” proper: that is, to thinkers associated with the kritische Theorie of the so-called Frankfurt School. It should not be surprising, however, that he draws inspiration more from Kracauer’s The Mass Ornament and Benjamin’s “Work of Art” than he does from Horkheimer and Adorno’s more pessimistic analysis of the “Culture Industry.” Given this genealogy linking “distraction theory” with critical theory, can Pettman’s “meta-distraction” be understood as a sort of critical distraction? Both terms in this compound — both “critical” and “distraction” — raise significant questions about translation in a cultural-theoretical as well as a more straightforwardly linguistic sense.

I will not go into the difficulties associated with criticism, critique, and Kritik — or, for that matter, with critical theory and kritische Theorie. Suffice it to say that there are important questions here that deserve revisiting in light of the current critique of criticism. More important, though, in the present context, is the operative notion of distraction. At stake here is the translation of a word handed down from Kracauer and Benjamin: Zerstreuung. Pettman quotes several times from Kracauer’s essay “Kult der Zerstreuung” (“Cult of Distraction”), a short piece included in The Mass Ornament that reflects on the political significance of popular cinema. There, Kracauer praises rather than chides “the masses” for their fascination with the flickering images and stars of the silver screen, going so far as to impute a “moral significance” to distraction, which stands in opposition to the more conventionally prized aesthetic attitude of contemplation. The reason for this reevaluation is that the audience’s “own reality is revealed in the fragmented sequence of splendid sense impressions” — which is to say that an important truth about the modern world and the masses’ place in it is revealed precisely in this noncontemplative way, in what Kracauer calls “disclosure in distraction.” The masses, it would seem, have an intuitive understanding of this fact, and of the political significance of the truth disclosed in this manner; indeed, according to Kracauer, they “so easily allow themselves to be stupefied only because they are so close to the truth” (Pettman’s emphasis).

This notion is absolutely crucial to understanding Pettman’s argument about distraction, meta-distraction, and infinite distraction in social media — as is confirmed by his return to precisely this quote to provide the book’s closing words:

Indeed, the task is to recover the promise in Kracauer’s critical and political insight concerning the media consumers of his own time, and the way this might resonate with those of our own. A people both gathered and dispersed, absorbed and distracted, “who so easily allow themselves to be stupefied only because they are so close to the truth.”

How, then, are we to make sense of Kracauer’s notion of distraction?

First of all, it is important to point out that the verb zerstreuen, from which the gerund form Zerstreuung derives, means literally to scatter, disperse, or diffuse; Zerstreuung therefore refers first to this scattering movement, while the type of “distraction” it subsequently denotes is the pleasant diversion that helps to take our mind off of more pressing or stressful matters. It refers, in other words, like the French divertissement to amusement or entertainment — and Kracauer’s Kult der Zerstreuung could just as easily have been rendered “amusement cult” or “cult of entertainment.” The reason it was not so translated is because these more colloquial English renderings fail to communicate the dialectical relationship that Kracauer is positing between an unfocused type of attention elicited by popular entertainment, on the one hand, and the more concentrated or contemplative type addressed by high art on the other.

It bears emphasizing, I think, that Zerstreuung can be translated with “distraction” because the scattering movement from which it derives (the root streuen is related etymologically with the English “to strew” as well as “straw,” such as one might spread out across the floor for a bed) comes to refer to the dispersal or diffusion of attention described above; this kind of distraction is distinguished, therefore, and especially in the relevant contexts of media and entertainment, from a more clearly negative kind of distraction: Ablenkung — literally, a “steering away” from something, as from an important matter, for example. Whereas Zerstreuung is a scattering of attention, Ablenkung is a misplacement of attention, an act of mistaking one thing for another, inadvertently getting off track and focusing on the wrong thing. Ablenkung is still a focused state of mind, simply misdirected, but Zerstreuung is literally a “scatterbrained” condition, a (sometimes deliberate and often pleasurable) defocusing of attention. Which is not to say that Zerstreuung is a form of inattention; on the contrary, and somewhat paradoxically, it might be seen as closer to what Katherine Hayles, in How We Think, calls “hyper attention”: a cognitive mode that corresponds to the demands of our contemporary media environment and the many windows, screens, and information channels that hail us from all sides. For Hayles, such hyper attention (expressed in skimming, scanning, and similar modes of reading) stands in opposition to “deep attention” (and close reading) much in the way that, for Kracauer, Zerstreuung stands in opposition to contemplation.

But why would such defocused (hyper)attention get us “closer to the truth”? For Benjamin, who likewise championed Zerstreuung against more focused modes of engagement, this was presumably because global changes were underway, radical changes in social and media structures that he saw reshaping the “medium” of sensation itself. Paying focused attention to any given thing, any punctual element or phenomenon in isolation, could therefore never illuminate the whole of which it was part. A defocused, perhaps even depersonalized, Erlebnis of the changing environment was needed: a diffuse form of experience more akin to what is today called “affect” than to subjective perception, a direct and embodied form of experience prior to its cognitive capture and processing (as a personalized Erfahrung). Modern amusements, and the cinema in particular, brought people closer to these global material transformations by dispersing their attentions across times and places, dividing them for example between the “here” of the cinema and the various “theres” of the screen space, and in this way confronting spectators optically and tactilely with the material conditions of technological mediation and reproducibility by which this experience of a disorienting, delocalizing proliferation of images was delivered to the senses.

Correlating different modes of attention, hyper attention, focus, and distraction with different forms of media, these ideas would seem to resonate in many ways with Marshall McLuhan’s concepts of “hot” and “cold” media. According to McLuhan, “A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in ‘high definition.’ High definition is the state of being well filled with data.” By extension, this means that “hot media do not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience. Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience.” Another way to put this is that hot media are those that take command of perceptual attention, while cool media leave more room for the defocusing, “scattered” form of attention and/or distraction known as Zerstreuung. McLuhan himself wrote of cinema as a hot medium, which he contrasted with the participatory openness of television, but it is important to recall that the silent cinema of the Weimar era was much less determinate in its perceptual fixity (due both to a lack of controlled soundtrack as well as a turbulent political environment beyond the screen), and anyway the relative “temperature” of a medium will always be relative to a wide array of sociohistorical factors. And this, more generally, points to another sense of translation involved in Pettman’s use of “distraction” for Kracauer and Benjamin’s Zerstreuung: we have to be sensitive to the word’s overdetermined “situation” in conceptual, historical, and material spaces, as this will be decisive in terms of Pettman’s goal of “recover[ing] the promise in Kracauer’s critical and political insight” and discovering “the way this might resonate with [the media practices] of our own” time.

Certainly, things have changed drastically in the 90 years since Kracauer wrote his “Kult der Zerstreuung.” In comparison with today’s radically networked, interactive, and hyperlinked media forms, cinema in its more classical manifestations indeed seems “hot” with its linear narratives, its perception-focusing continuity editing, and its big-screen scale designed to dominate the viewer’s field of vision. To 21st-century eyes, that is, last century’s cinema seems far less conducive to Zerstreuung, far too fixated on dominating my perceptual attention.[1] Pettman recognizes this difference:

If we observe a city dweller in a coffee shop working on a laptop, we might deduce she has Zen powers of meditation: almost autistic in her unblinking state of attention. But were we to actually look at the same screen ourselves, we are likely to find several windows open, as the user chats, toggles, switches, tweets, cuts, pastes, and emojis her way between several other similarly entranced yet antsy people. The gaze is long but shallow, different in kind to the (now almost extinct) raptured spectator in the cinema.

These new forms of mediation are ultra-cool, and they channel a degree of zerstreute, “scatterbrained” attention unimaginable to even the coolest and dandiest residents of Weimar Berlin. If the silver screen scattered attention and offered “distraction,” today’s digital screens go further, erasing any distinction between Hayles’s hyper attention and what we might call “hyperdistraction.” As Pettman remarks: “The issue is not simply the dominant mode of distraction, but the dialectical way in which such distraction is composed of millions of tiny moments of engineered attention (or vice versa).”

And here is where we get to the crux of the matter for Pettman. Following philosopher Bernard Stiegler, Pettman refers to this “engineering” of attention as a “hypersynchronization” of experience. As Pettman glosses it,

Hypersynchronization is thus about the cynical, corporate-governmental control of attention, behavior, and thought, through physiological and phantasmatic mechanisms. It directly connects to what Jonathan Crary calls “the standardization of experience” […] that is, the deliberate staging and framing of life so that it is consumable and thus consumed. Or, in much simpler terms (and to quote Stiegler himself), hypersynchronization is “to become herd-like.”

But Pettman does not let things rest there. He goes on, dialectically, to ask:

What if the problem, however, is not that we are all synchronized to the same affective networks and moments, but the objects of a more exquisitely sinister modulation? What if the herd is being directed into different pastures, for quite different reasons? What if the raison d’être of so-called social media is to calibrate the interactive spectacle so that we never feel the same way as other potential allies and affines at the same moment?

It is this scenario that Pettman, with a nod toward Deleuze’s “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” calls “hypermodulation.”

And it is exactly this scenario that prompts Pettman to undertake his “translation” of Kracauer and his notion of Zerstreuung into the 21st century. But there is an obvious unease here: we need to defocus to get “closer to the truth,” to catch a glimpse of the bigger picture in which we are involved (a glimpse gained more by intuition or affectively than perceptually or cognitively, it would seem); but we discover when we do so that defocusing is precisely one of the means by which, in that bigger (indeed global) picture, our subjectivities are manipulated, modulated. This is why distraction, which is subject to the most insidious forms of instrumentalization, has to blossom into meta-distraction. In the face of ultra-cool media, we have to learn to be ice cold. In the face of the always already “meta” relation of social media to our divided, distracted attentions, we have to learn to be infinitely more distracted. Hypersynchronization and hypermodulation call for nothing less than hyperdistraction.


But we can ask, finally, whether the dialectical tools that Pettman translates from the 20th century are adequate to the 21st, to an environment in which media have not only multiplied and accelerated but have also become pervasive and predictive, in which they envelop us and anticipate our every move. Let me state up front that I am sympathetic to Pettman’s intuition that defocusing is a better strategy today than “paying better attention” or trying to develop a sharper perceptual focus. This is because, as Mark Hansen has argued, media today have shed their “objectal” character, have become essentially “processual,” and, in the move toward ubiquitous media environments, have turned into what he calls “atmospheric media.” We may still regard a movie as a perceptual object or approach a laptop as a discrete apparatic entity, but this is to ignore the invisible networks of wi-fi broadcasting, packet-switching, algorithmic processing, and other computational events happening around us all the time and undergirding our every experience. Seen in this light, I therefore agree that a kind of Hyperzerstreuung is called for if our experience is to be commensurate to the media environment’s own diffuse or zerstreute quality. My question, then, is not whether distraction is a reasonable answer, but whether Pettman’s Infinite Distraction is distracted enough.

My reservations have to do with two closely interrelated tendencies that I see at work in Pettman’s book: namely, its basically humanistic vision, and what I’d like to call its communicational bias. The latter, Pettman’s communicational bias, according to which media are approached primarily in terms of their affordances and limitations with respect to facilitating interpersonal communication or symbolic exchange, in fact anchors the former tendency, the book’s humanistic vision, as it depicts media revolving around human subjects, whose agency retains a central position. Now, I suspect that Pettman might disagree with this characterization of his general outlook, and I recognize that his emphasis on distraction (or defocusing, as I have glossed it) is meant to counteract any such supposed centrality of the human subject in a media environment that modulates subjectivity itself, thereby unsettling any question of center and periphery. Yet I see this human-centric tendency asserting itself, seemingly against the author’s will, by way of his focus on communication. And it is this focus, I believe, that hinders distraction in the mode of defocusing.

The two tendencies might be seen fighting one another in Pettman’s description of the book’s goal: namely,

to isolate some key symptomatic points of convergence between rhetoric, technics, and praxis, in order to test the hypothesis that our appetite for distraction originates not simply in some timeless human flaw or metaphysical condition, but also, and especially, within the historically specific — and thus contingent — political determinations of (and limitations on) our communicational options.

The idea of a human essence is disavowed, but media are understood here in terms of us, as “our communicational options,” an understanding emphasized in the following, more or less foundational, statement: “‘[S]ocial media’ names the simultaneously limitless and circumscribed ways we interact via newly enmeshed communications and entertainment technologies.” Here, again, media in this understanding are all about us. Meanwhile, despite the disavowal of a “timeless human flaw or metaphysical condition” that would explain our “appetite for distraction,” Pettman goes on to explain our vulnerability to the engineering of attention in the following, basically essentialist, terms:

[N]o matter how conscious we are of this process — in being aware of [the engineers’] tricks at the same rate they can produce them — we are still vulnerable to their solicitations and seductions. Why? Because we are creatures who, above all, need to communicate (homo communis).

Clearly, in this passage Pettman is setting up his argument against the efficacy of attentional vigilance — of being “conscious” or “aware” — as a safeguard against manipulation, hence laying the ground for a turn toward distraction as a political strategy (ultimately, a strategy of and for “the commons”). But it is telling that this turn is predicated upon a definition of the human as a communicative being, while media themselves are defined as “communicational options.”

To be clear, my point is not that Pettman is wrong with respect to these definitional matters; we can argue about the essence of the human, the definition of media, and of the nature of their interrelation — there is nothing obvious about any of these matters. Rather, my point is that the perspectives outlined here stand in the way of Pettman’s own project by focusing our attention in a particular way, one that is essentially at odds with the imperative to defocus and see “around” our own narrowly subjective investments in social media and the broader contemporary mediasphere.

Pettman’s own focus on temporality illustrates the difficulties involved. Stiegler’s concept of hypersynchronization, based for Stiegler on a phenomenological analysis of “industrial temporal objects,” already shifts the focus toward time and its modulation, but it does so in terms of the relation between subjects and the objects of their intentionalities. Media, in other words, are still conceived in this picture as “objectal,” not processual and atmospherically subphenomenal, as they have become in our contemporary environment. Pettman’s addition of hypermodulation admirably complicates Stiegler’s temporal focus, shifting it away from a homogenization of time toward a politics of temporal heterogeneity — toward a perspective that goes beyond epistemic and aesthetic questions to think about the larger political space within which people come to occupy very different temporalities, the rhythms of which are coordinated at a higher-order level of mediation. Against synchronization, hypermodulation is about “deliberate dissonance. Productive delay. Staggered distraction.” This foregrounding of systemic temporal calibration gets us closer to an understanding of media as an overarching network or an environment, not bound to punctual subjects or objects. Yet in other ways Pettman’s focus remains at the level of subjective experience and expression: “We find ourselves obliged to communicate within a new kind of space-time discontinuum.” Yes, this seems a fair statement of our phenomenological reality, but the important focus that Pettman brings to the “temporal stutters, delays, and drop-outs” that characterize our communication via cellphone, text, Skype, and the like needs to be accompanied by a parallel focus on the microtemporal processes at their root: such glitches are a site where the protocols and processes by which the macro-level coordinations of hypermodulation become (partially and only imperfectly) visible to us. In other words, the microtemporal realm, the space of algorithmic processing taking place at speeds that far outstrip our cognitive capacities, is the hinge upon which the global, systemic modulation of attention depends: not only our communications but also virtually all of our perceptual, affective, and volitional lives pass through it. Because such microtemporality falls below the threshold of our perceptual subjectivity, mediation can no longer be conceived in terms of communicational capacities, as media now modulate the very subjects who would, by means of them, communicate. Microtemporal mediation subverts any humanistic vision, suggesting that defocusing must start by letting go of communicational subjectivity in order to catch a glimpse of the sub- and supra-subjective processes by which subjectivation itself is effected today.

There are indications that Pettman himself recognizes the necessity of such a reorientation. Averring that “our very souls are forged in techniques of all kinds” today, he claims,

[W]e need to account for the ways in which infrastructure and ideology mutually reinforce each other, so that we may create strategies to counter their powerful complicity, and so that we may live in something other than what Crary calls “the aftermath of a common life made into the object of technics.”

This emphasis on infrastructure suggests the need for a politics of protocol, such as Alexander Galloway has undertaken in his book Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization. Attention to infrastructure, as I have been suggesting, forces us to acknowledge a microtemporal operationalization (as foregrounded by German media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst) that today modulates any attention we might pay to it (hence initiating what Mark Hansen calls the “feed-forward” structures of 21st-century media). It is through such recursive loops that attention is modulated both at the micro- and the macro-level, through which the sub- and the supra-personal are imbricated in a way that must of necessity elude the subject of communication. Pettman gestures toward such a perspective when he suggests that “the rather monolithic notion of ‘the attention economy’ divides and evolves into different attention ecologies, each with its own ecosystem and microclimate.” In this context, he goes on to quote Jason Read, who writes: “Though there are ways to hold attention, trending topics and memes have broken the old 15 minutes of fame down to the microsecond. Attention must be constantly reconstituted in the present.” Thus, according to Pettman, attention is not “something which lives and dies in the individual” but something that “emerges within a specific (media) ecology: an insight that allows the discussion to avoid being reduced to an essentially moral critique of the psychological subject (i.e., someone who, for whatever reason, can never pay enough attention to what really matters).”

While I applaud these gestures, which would refocus the discussion of attention and distraction at simultaneously infrastructural and systemic levels, it would seem that the emphasis on communicational subjectivities and media as their instruments prevents Pettman from going all the way with this new, essentially posthumanistic perspective. Near the end of the book, in the context of considering what our options might be for implementing or achieving the appropriate type of “distraction from distraction,” Pettman makes a brief detour through the notion of “excommunication” — Alexander Galloway’s, Eugene Thacker’s, and McKenzie Wark’s word for “modes of mediation that refuse bi-directionality, that obviate determinacy, and that dissolve devices entirely.” Pettman writes:

If we grant the argument that “for every communication there is a correlative excommunication,” then we might well ponder the possibility that even our most profound exchanges turn out, in the long view, to be essentially phatic. The medium is the message, and the message is “there are no more messages,” just signals without meaning. Which is not to advocate for a worldwide Bartleby strategy (although that surely couldn’t hurt), but to think with this trio, in terms of approaching mediation as something more complicated — and ultimately more dysfunctional, and ontologically unsettling — than a technique of communication. The distraction afforded by the incessant twittering of our social media is thus not simply a matter of digital decoys, pointing us away from more enfranchised, empowered sociopolitical models, but a new global experiment in amplifying the nihilistic ex-communication of modern life. (To paraphrase Derrida: “There is nothing outside the texting.”)

But here Pettman’s digression stops abruptly. And as quickly as he put it out there, he takes it all back: “But this would take a different book to unpack properly.” The reason, of course, is that this other perspective on media is essentially at odds with the communicational bias that has structured Pettman’s meditation throughout Infinite Distraction. If I have been critical here of that bias, and hence of the book, it is because I think it needs to be supplemented by that other book that flashes briefly before Pettman’s eyes and is in many ways implicit in this book’s digressions, detours, and diversions: a shadow book that distracts, appropriately, from the author’s message and that points the way, if we squint just a bit, toward a truly defocused view of our thoroughly mediated world.

In this sense, then, Infinite Distraction — like social media itself — has a “‘meta’ element” baked into it as well, which makes it an important contribution to the political theory of social media and, despite its limitations, infinitely more generative than its diminutive size might lead one to suspect. Its formal and structural “incoherences,” its lack of totality and closure, seem primed to catapult us, if we let them, into a realm of productive “hyperdistraction.”


[1] But, of course, cinema is not what it used to be. Twenty-first-century movies are very much a part of digital and social media spaces. They are made to be viewed on small screens and even anticipate the presence of second screens. Formally, as well, they have been transformed: continuity principles have been “intensified” (according to David Bordwell) or given way to radically “post-continuity” forms (as Steven Shaviro has argued). The “suture” that, according to a certain Marxist-psychoanalytical strand of film theory, served to bond the spectator to the image in classical cinema, and that might be seen as articulating the means of its domination of perceptual attention as a “hot” medium, has given way to “scanning” forms of regard, “cooler” defocused and dispersed forms of subjective engagement in genres ranging from blockbuster action (e.g., the films of Michael Bay) to found-footage horror (e.g., the Paranormal Activity franchise or Unfriended). Such processes mirror the proliferation of windows, screens, and devices around us. On these topics, see the open-access collection Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, eds. Shane Denson and Julia Leyda.


Shane Denson is a DAAD Postdoctoral Fellow at Duke University. In September 2016, he will be taking up a position in the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University. He is the author of Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface and co-editor of several collections, most recently Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film.

LARB Contributor

Shane Denson is a DAAD Postdoctoral Fellow at Duke University. In September 2016, he will be taking up a position in the Department of Art & Art History at Stanford University. He is the author of Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface and co-editor of several collections, most recently Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film.


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