This past weekend I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York not only to escape the 100-degree heat but also because I wanted to see “Death Is Everywhere,” a Ragnar Kjartansson installation where two sets of twins walk around in a circle singing an endless indie folk song. (It’s more interesting than that sounds.) But while I was trying to find it, I got lost and wound up in an exhibition called Epic Abstraction, which showcased large abstract-expressionist paintings by Rothko, Pollock, Twombly, and the like. The first sentence of the wall text introduction to the show stuck with me: “In the wake of unprecedented destruction and loss of life during World War II, many painters and sculptors working in the 1940s grew to believe that traditional easel painting and figurative sculpture no longer adequately conveyed the human condition.” I took that to mean that the mid-century rise of fascism and its aftermath revealed a world so horrific that artists found it aesthetically unrepresentable. Rather than depict a world that humans have remade to be inescapably violent, ugly, and evil, the artists apparently chose to retreat to abstraction instead and trace the movements of their artistic egos.
As that might suggest, I’m usually pretty quick to dismiss abstract expressionism as narcissism or solipsism (or the product of CIA boosterism). It never occurred to me that it could be viewed as a kind of ethical refusal, in a “no poetry after Auschwitz” sort of way, if not Oedipus blinding himself. I still didn’t get anything out of looking at the giant paintings in the show, but rather than blame myself for my philistinism, I attributed it to a historical dislocation; I didn’t appreciate them because I don’t need to have my gaze averted from whatever these works might have been depicting if they weren’t “exploring aesthetic elements of line, color, shape, and texture.” I don’t need to take shelter from representation that way. I still want to see things.
But maybe I shouldn’t want to. The human condition has not exactly improved since the 1950s — somehow Consciousness III hasn’t saved us — and the damage we have done to the planet has intensified dramatically. We have vastly expanded the means for reproducing “reality” and redistributing it, but this has seemed to make what’s “real” feel even more inaccessible, even as it has compounded the general sense of tragedy, misery, and malevolence in the world. With networked media, what we consume is more explicitly a form of production, which obliterates the illusion of being a detached observer, peering down from some disinterested, transcendent position. All the various feeds make seeing feel more like complicity than witness, especially knowing we are always being watched watching. The consequences of what we pay attention to seem more direct as it becomes more directly measured, processed as “engagement” and assessed as indicative of the demand for a particular kind of future.
In “Confronting the Unwatchable,” an essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Maggie Hennefeld and Nicholas Baer argue that “varying-sized screens and rapid-fire media platforms have made difficult images unavoidable across the globe — from cell phone videos of police brutality, to footage of mass shootings, to photographs of migrant detention centers and drowned refugee children surfacing ashore.” This has made “our current moment unwatchable,” they write. When I first started reading, I expected that they would define unwatchability in terms of incomprehensible totalities, or what Timothy Morton has called “hyperobjects.” (That’s probably because I had this essay by Elisa Gabbert about megadisasters in mind.) A hyperobject — the climate crisis for example — is unwatchable because it exceeds our grasp in space and time. For Hennefeld and Baer, unwatchability represents “the aesthetic condition of a political moment in which the future looks bleak, unavoidably catastrophic, and increasingly uninhabitable,” but not in a vast and imperceptible way. Rather it is omnipresent in the way “multiplying screens, viral videos, and relentless news updates bombard us with violent and appalling content at nearly every turn.” It’s not that people can’t watch; it’s that they have to watch atrocities that they feel they can do nothing to prevent. Rather than being unseeable, the “unwatchable” world is seen too much.
Hennefeld and Baer cite Alenka Zupančič, who defines unwatchability as when “something that ought not do so melts into visibility.” This is basically the opposite of a hyperobject, which at least resists being trivialized by becoming watchable, consumable. Hyperobjects retain their sublimity, negating our sense of agency by denying it any purchase, whereas Zupančič’s unwatchable negates our sense of agency by indulging it at the level of perception, so that we can only watch.
That would seem to set the idea of unwatchability apart from the more vernacular idea of unwatchable movies or shows, so bad that they literally go unwatched. But Hennefeld and Baer conflate the helplessness of consuming bad news with the perversity of watching what we profess to find intolerable, arguing that “we’re a culture of hate-watchers.” That is, people feel compelled to watch what they also find appalling; there is pleasure in wanting but failing to look away.
I had a hard time following that logical leap from oversaturation to hate watching. The authors attribute it to “cruel optimism,” citing Lauren Berlant’s theory about how people manage to endure precarity only by embracing illusions that ultimately reinforce it. In this case, if we can’t avoid disturbing content, we may as well find a way to embrace it. So if something feels “unwatchable” as we are watching it, it’s likely a sign that the “unwatchability” serves an ideological function — rationalizing feelings of apathy by miring us in contradiction.
This makes me think of the local news, and how it’s easy to feel as though I need to watch it to “know what is happening” even though the broadcast makes little pretense of offering anything representative or even local — it’s typical to see “zany” or “outrageous” footage of car chases or crashes or crimes captured on surveillance cameras or whatever from wherever and not just the local broadcast area. What is deemed newsworthy for these broadcasts has little to do with geography or utility; the segments instead speak to a certain conception of what makes for “human interest” — that is, what will animate and confirm viewers’ beliefs about the world, what will make our viewing people in terms of stereotypes, positive and negative, feel valid.
Hence the local news’s particular blend of paranoia and treacle. It presents a tableau of social stasis: Stereotypes appear as eternal truths; human nature, far from being unpresentable, is presented in broad strokes as alternately altruistic and irredeemably corrupt. The only thing that changes is the weather. The news conveys a world that’s not worth fighting for, which could make exhaustion and helplessness feel a little less worrisome.
The same solace is on offer with what Rani Molla of Recode calls “fear-based social networks”: Neighbors (the app associated with Amazon’s doorbell surveillance camera, Ring), Nextdoor, and Citizen, which offer location-based crime gossip and/or surveillance footage to prove your fears can come true, that the world around you is getting worse all the time. Presumably people start using these “neighborhood watch” apps to feel more secure and “informed,” but as Molla points out, they tend to reinforce a consciousness of rising crime and thus insecurity, making the apps seem even more necessary once you are locked in that negative feedback loop.
But why do people choose to enter into that spiral? It doesn’t seem any more subtle than the local news. It is out to terrorize you and make you feel vulnerable and vaguely dependent, ready to be exploited.
It may be that the compensation for being terrorized is the sense of having one’s prejudices confirmed. As Molla notes, “These apps foment fear around crime, which feeds into existing biases and racism and largely reinforces stereotypes around skin color, according to David Ewoldsen, professor of media and information at Michigan State University.” Also quoted is Steven Renderos, of the Center for Media Justice: “These apps are not the definitive guides to crime in a neighborhood — it is merely a reflection of people’s own bias, which criminalizes people of color, the unhoused, and other marginalized communities.” But the false impressions the apps give should not be understood as accidental by-products of an otherwise well-intended safety product. Feeding the biases is the point. The apps (like the local news) generate the fear that provides the affective underpinning that sustains the stereotypes: Fear makes them feel valid, as if the prejudices were instinctive. If that’s the case, then people need a steady supply of ever more “unwatchable” content to confirm the suspicions they may also simultaneously disavow. I don’t want to believe this prejudicial idea but apparently it’s true.
In Race After Technology, Ruha Benjamin quotes sociologist Osagie Obasogie: “Our seemingly objective engagements with the world around us are subordinate to a faith that orients our visual experience and, moreover, produces our ability to see certain things. Seeing is not believing. Rather, to believe, in a sense, is to see.” One ramification of that is that one’s faith requires a series of distorted “engagements” to sustain itself. There needs to be a consistent opportunity to misrecognize the world in the particular aspects that faith demands. For some enterprising users, that demand may presents an opportunity. Mike Caulfield, pointing out that “people see a local Ring video with either criminals or conflict in it as a hot commodity,” wondered, “What happens in communities where the demand for sharable crime exceeds the available crime in the community?” He speculates that fear-based social networks would incentivize people to stir up some crime to have something to post. “Facebook and others created a popular demand for a certain type of story traditional media (and reality) wasn’t providing,” he writes. “So people warped reality to meet the need.”
I was initially a bit skeptical about this possibility because I couldn’t fathom the demand for videos that make one’s own neighborhood seem more dangerous. Also, the incentives seemed off: It’s not the rampant narcissism of users who will do anything for attention that fuels irrational content creation but social media’s algorithms, metrics, and monetization. (The demented children’s content James Bridle wrote about is a case in point.) But in catering to prejudice, the popular demand for “a certain type of story” isn’t driven by social media affordances but by deeper currents of discrimination and entitlement.
Of course, it’s not like people can’t already get bias-confirming stories about crime from local news or social media, but the fear apps bring it closer, permitting people to themselves produce “unwatchable” content that literally hits home. Their belief produces something that the network can see. It also loops people in with law enforcement — Ring owners are encouraged to share their footage with police departments — promising them a gated community without walls. As Caroline Haskins reported, Amazon has directly partnered with police departments, giving them equipment and resources in exchange for police advertising the company’s surveillance cameras to constituents, enhancing the economic motives for the reproduction of bias and the existing distribution of opportunity and oppression.
Crime videos about your own street make it clear that that longstanding distribution is still in effect where you are, even if you are concerned that “social justice” is making strides elsewhere. And as Renderos told Molla, “the data generated from these interactions including 9-1-1 calls and arrests are parts of the historic crime data often used by predictive policing algorithms. So the biases baked in to the decisions around who is suspicious and who is arrested for a crime ends up informing future policing priorities and continuing the cycle of discrimination.” In this case, watching the unwatchable (and deploying surveillance cameras to produce the unwatchable) actively contributes to making racist ideas about crime appear substantiated. Rather than prevent crime, the Ring cameras thereby produce ideas about criminal types. Presumably, integration with facial recognition technology is not far off.
Hennefeld and Baer argue that we need to “confront the unwatchable” to “envision new forms of seeing, modes of thinking, and spaces for public collectivity to stake out that vanishing middle ground between personal responsibility and powerful political action.” That seems a bit abstract, the sort of vague gesture writers make toward a solution after they’ve spent all their energy on critique. You might say Ring cameras and facial recognition would be a “new form of seeing” and that neighborhood watch apps are “spaces for public collectivity” in that middle ground between the personal and the political. They seem on more solid ground when they quote Saidiya Hartman, who urges that we “consider those scenes in which terror can hardly be discerned […] to illuminate the terror of the mundane and quotidian rather than exploit the shocking spectacle.” The shocking spectacle may be shocking only because it reveals so plainly what people already believe and expect to be true, because it functions as an explosion of wish fulfillment at some forbidden level. Fear apps want to sensationalize the everyday, creating alibis for the dreary business of reproducing oppression at the level of the quotidian.
At the museum, when I finally found “Death Is Everywhere,” I wasn’t sure I had the stamina left to watch it. I tried to settle in, knowing that only after I adapted to the monotony would the repetitions and small variations begin to leap out as significant. In an interview on the museum’s site, Kjartansson mentions that the video was shot at Eldhuran, an enormous lava field created by an 18th century volcanic eruption that killed 20 percent of Iceland’s population. It was also filmed during the summer solstice, when the sun more or less never sets. I didn’t know that at the time. I just thought it was picturesque.