Subject to Your Attention: Texting and the Movies

We’re closer now to the world first imagined in the movies, a world here the self is “decentered” and dislocated, in multiple places at once. Complaining about this new form of “subjectivity” is a waste of time. It’s neither better or worse: it’s a new paradigm.

The other day I taught a class on early 20th century film and the evolution of movie narrative. I wanted to start with a modern example of “classical” movie narrative and chose the D-Day landing scene from Saving Private Ryan, which students usually see as extremely “realistic.” After showing it once I replayed it, stopping at multiple places to ask “who are you and where are you now?” The point being that there’s nothing even close to realistic about the movie, because a single person can’t be in all those places: real life isn’t like that. I’ve blogged about this before.

Who are you, and where are you now?

Early film theorists–I mean really early, before 1920–used to argue that it’s true, real life isn’t like that, but real life wants to be like that. Movies might not depict reality as lived, but they depicted what we wanted reality to be: a space where we could move around freely in three dimensions, where we were close to omniscient and enjoyed a self which could be in and see from multiple perspectives. In that sense movies were “more true” than real life8.

As a historian, I’d always found this argument irritating. The movies create a form of “subjectivity” that didn’t exist in real life, so movies about, say, the Revolutionary war starring Mel Gibson were always already grossly inaccurate, regardless of costume details.

But you could easily argue that we live now the world the movies imagined, the world of the decentered self. A constant stream of text messages/tweets, video from multiple places at once: music stored in a “cloud” rather than on shelves, equals a decentered subjectivity that’s in multiple places at once, everywhere and nowhere. You can watch the clip from Saving Private Ryan while texting people in France and ignoring texts from your Mom and streaming sports results from ESPN. You can have a video feed of yourself doing these things and watch it while you send it out. And all the while you can track yourself from above via GPS. You’re like the magical moving camera in Saving Private Ryan.

the aerial shot

On any street, in any public place, people messages constantly—some for work, some for leisure, but the phone is always coming out. I’ve played gigs where the horn player is texting between solos. If I had a cell phone I’d be doing the same thing, because I’m the same way with my laptop. It’s a form of subjectivity made up of multiple “nows.”

Comment on this phenomenon generally takes the form of scolding, as in “people today have no attention span,” or lack focus and willpower, etc.

That kind of scolding commentary shows that a new kind of subjectivity has emerged, and it’s in tension with the old one. It is a problem, if your goals and methods grow from and depend on a different, earlier form of subjectivity. In the classroom, for example, I typically demand a different form of subjectivity and attention than the one presented daily life.

As much as I require students to stop texting and “pay attention,” I want to resist the curmudgeonly moralistic critique. The compulsion to expand subjectivity isn’t a sign of “declining virtue,” it’s something more like a paradigm shift. Moralizing lectures won’t stem it, any more than they stemmed the Copernican theory. It’s not a decline in brain power, or a loss in the ability to pay attention, it’s a new form of attention-paying. There’s no reason why, as in the case of movies, it can’t be knit into a compelling narrative.

Did the movies foster the desire for this kind of subjectivity? Or did we always have it? I think it’s the former—the movies as art encouraged us to see ourselves and the world in different ways. As is often the case, the technology to produce that effect followed.

Ironically, it’s gotten really easy for me to analyze movies in class at precisely the point where movies are losing their iconic power. Movies are less and less experienced on a huge screen, in a crowd sitting silently in a dark room, and more and more experienced at home, on computers or phones: less and less experienced in full, and more and more in clips. [1. It’s true the big screen blockbuster still exists, Avatar for example, but it’s more and more rare. 3-D movies, like Avatar, are an attempt to galvanize a flagging industry.] And at the same time, the form of subjectivity movies invented–the multiple, omniscient perspective shown in Saving Private Ryan– is now close to ubiquitous.

My ability to easily analyze movies parallels the rise of a new form of subjectivity the movies made possible. It’s not just a phenomenon of student distractibility, it’s a structural phenomenon of modern life

It’s probably happened before. For example, the profession of “English,” of literary critic, arose roughly at the same time as mass print, the 1860s-1870s. It’s the period when printed matter went from expensive to disposable, from mystified and exotic to common and unremarkable, and it’s at that point that a whole discipline arose to subject novels and essays to formal critique. Most of what the profession of English claimed to do, in its origins, was sort out the good from the bad: this is good literature, this is junk: this is art, this is trash. In other words, the profession’s questions and methods were appropriate to a sudden explosion in cheap print, and to a change in the technology’s meaning. It arose to make that world sensible.

The rise of “movie narrative” as a normative experience of daily life challenges people like me, steeped in a different form of attention, to reimagine how we work. I’m frankly not sure how to do it, or if I’m capable of doing it. Jeremiads are fun. But the life of the mind should be engaged in the real present, not pretending it’s twenty years ago.







  • There is a brilliant claim here: that the “successive nows” enabled by phone use bring us closer to . I think that claim really deserves some theory-building as well as some experimental research to back it up. Please, please keep talking about this, especially in parallel with the change in movie narrative (e.g. “The movies cre­ate a form of “sub­jec­tiv­ity” that didn’t exist in real life”). You’re really on to something in this!

  • Thank you! I wrote about this a little in my first book, on time. An interesting way to visualize the difference in subjectivity os to look at Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 film “life of an American fireman,” especially the rescue at the house scenes. They pointedly refuse to use modern movei narrative techniques, and in that sense they show a different kind of subjectivity being imagined.


    starting at around 3:00

  • Meredith wrote:

    I read this twice (I’m old, but I have a 21st-century inability to focus), and I’m having trouble with the concept of the decentered self. I think you’re absolutely onto something in the way media, especially social media, is driving a new way of being in the world, and you’re probably right that fogies like me should stop demanding student attention in the classroom and start thinking creatively about engaging students on their own terms. (I also appreciated the implicit critique of “Saving Private Ryan,” a film I can’t stand on many levels.) But I can’t escape the term “decentered.” It doesn’t seem like the right word, when all of the media *is* focused on the self. Yes, the vantage points from which the individual can view himself are many–the GPS, the text message, the tweet, the hand-held camera phone–but all of them are focused on the self, unless there’s a tornado or a fight in a McDonald’s. That hardly seems decentered; it seems self-centered. Maybe this is just me moralizing, but the self-directed nature of American culture seems, in the new technology, to have reached full flower, blooming into outright narcissism. Maybe a comparative approach would help? I read an essay recently about the Japanese response to the tsunami and ensuing nuclear crisis. It reported a tremendous amount of trust among the Japanese for one another in responding to the crisis, a trust that perhaps reflects the Buddhist and Confucianist orientation of Asian cultures. They have all the same media toys we have, and probably some we don’t, and yet some part of their attention is still focused outward, on the family, the village, the community, the state. How do we reconcile that? Thanks for giving me something besides student essays to think about this morning!

  • Yes, the whole post let me put off grading.

    You might be right that “decentered” is the wrong word. Maybe “displaced” is better: moved out of a specific physical space and into multiple places? The key is point of view–the film presents multiple points of view all belonging to some sort of omniscient viewer who is everywhere and nowhere

  • Just for the sake of being contrarian, is this really about narcissism? Is it an infatuation with self or a fear of it? In a way, the constant consumption of media is a way of avoiding the self, a way of warding off any possibility of being alone with one’s thoughts. The constant stimulation yields an identity constructed entirely through reference and relation, an identity with no core. It won’t do to simply suggest that this is the nature of identity or self–that’s only partly true and leaving it there is an invitation to nihilism.

    I’m really wondering: is this a new construction of self or the negation of it?

  • My question to this question is: what was the core before? We are social creatures and have always lived based on relation and reference. Before all of the electronics, it was just more localized. You learn through watching others, imitate what they wear… when you’re a kid that’s how you learn all the “bad words.” In the same way I can wear certain clothes and pretend to be someone I’m not, I can also pretend to be someone I’m not on twitter or facebook. Is there ever a “real” self?

  • see below

  • I always argue that the thing which ended slavery, and made capitalism possible, was the development of a divided sense of self–the self which stocked shelves at WalMart, and the self which signed the contract to stock the shelves. The forst self can be asked to do all sorts of onerous things and be heavily oppressed, but not owned. The second self exists in some magical space where it’s literally priceless, out of the market. That’s the “modern” sense of self.

    So is the “postmodern” sense of self I’m describing here different? I think it is, because it’s less concerned with privacy, and even as it’s more and more subject to surviellance–by friends, by strangers by ATM machines and traffic cams and it’s more and more dispersed. It’s everywhere and nowhere. I can’t call that narcissism, because it’s such an interpenetrated self it hardly exists. Alison Landsberg would argue that the form of subjectivity brought about by movies is a positive good, because it gets people out of themselves and into empathizing with others.

    I think the core “before” was class or race or ethnicity. Worker or “servant” were core identities that trumped individual differences. I don;t think the King of France looked at peasants and saw individuals at all: he saw the category “peasant.”

    But as you say that was a socially constructed identity. I would be totally happy to say there is not real self, only a self constructed in constant reaction to changing social situations. LIbertarians, who I’m always beating up on in this blog, would argue there IS a real self and exchange reveals it.

  • I certainly see what you are saying about the divided self and it makes sense – it gives me a lot more to think about. I think race, class, and ethnicity are still cores of self, but more has been added with technology and, as you say, capitalism. And of course all of these things are relative, individualistic, and unstable.

    The privacy issue is more murky to me – I see being overly concerned with it in the age we are in as more narcissistic. We are under surveillance not necessarily because of who we are, but because of who we could be – speeders, thieves, customers, etc. Am I worried that someone is tracking me all over the internet (as an individual, not as a source of revenue)? My answer has to be no because why would anyone care?! I’d have to have a strong sense of self-importance to think otherwise. I’m certainly still working through all of these ideas.

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