Nervous? We Should Be

Glitchiness proves how hard it is to communicate in real time, but also how hard we try

Gertrude Stein, in an essay on the theater from the 1930s, wrote that “nervousness consists in needing to go faster or go slower so as to get together. It is that that makes anybody nervous.” Nervousness, that is, is not an individualized experience but a social relation. To be nervous is to be trying — and failing — to get to a point of emotional cohesion, or at least understanding, with another in the midst of a performance.

I think we live in nervousness these days.

What Stein writes about the spectator-performer relationship resonates with the contemporary experience of social media. In the theater, we watch action unfold in real time without necessarily being in time with it. The players on stage and the audience each have a rhythm of emotional responsiveness that is not in sync as the action unfolds. Social media make out of our everyday performances the same nervousness that Stein found in the theater.

Performance relies on a sense of presence. It occurs in a shared location and creates a proximity that is disguised as togetherness. But the performers and the audience are still separated into their delineated spaces. They are close but not together. For Stein, this means that the actors’ and the audience’s emotions are “syncopated”: The actions conveyed by the actors and observed by the audience provoke an out-of-time empathy.

Stein’s nervousness is, I want to argue, the sensation of empathy alongside its impossibility, its incompleteness. Fellow feeling, feeling alongside, is an exercise in imagining our experiences as correlative, but togetherness alone does not guarantee such correlativity. Together is not at once, but rather in proximity. This, here, is the point and value of nervousness: It marks how empathy, how feeling together, inevitably includes a distance — in time, if not in space — that we wish we could overcome.

To be nervous is to be aware of time as disjunctive. We can’t avoid recognizing that we are all out of sync

To be nervous is to be aware of time as multiple, as disjunctive. Nervousness is always an aspect of mediation, and so has been on the rise since modernity. With social media, we are accumulating encounters that suppose a shared space and yet are inevitably executed from different places. We enact our relationships as a series of encounters in which we become aware of occupying different emotional times.

Each of our engagements with social media stages a small theater, and a proximity disguised as togetherness. Platform as stage — a device touched becomes proscenium, and we are made performer and audience. As both simultaneously, we are increasingly attuned to our syncopated interactions with one another. The particularities of our positions, all the ways that we are experiencing the world differently, are confirmed by the differences in our emotional time. Presents proliferate. We can’t avoid recognizing that we are all out of sync — in different emotional times in the same conceptual space.

This means much of our emotional labor is spent caring for relationships in a together that is also very much an apart. Though social media platforms tend to posit a kind of isolation, an ability to operate autonomously in a time of one’s one, they intensify our emotional investment in one another. Nervousness stems from this experience of living, feeling, and building emotional lives in digital ubiquity.

If social media promise a kind of unilateral access to sociality, nervousness belies that promise. Social media propose an ideal of sociality as something to be achieved, an end goal that can be completed. Nervousness reminds us that the work of being social is never complete. But at the same time, that nervousness is also the means by which we actually begin to do the work of being together across and through these media. It marks the work of entanglement.

To be tangled is to be close enough to become enmeshed with one another while still being different, discrete things. Nervousness is the affect of that weaving. It is the possibility of being together and not just in mere proximity of each other that makes us feel nervous. In being made nervous, we learn how to live in the feeling of being in different emotional times, to be together while apart.

Nervousness articulates the emotional labor of keeping time with a system that is out of time with you. It makes us realize that we are doing this work, and it is important, because this work is worth doing. Naming our emotional labor is essential, so that we do not erase the effort we make to care.

Nervousness is like a glitch. Like other kinds of glitching and friction, it makes it possible for us to perceive the systems that we work through. It makes the work of sustaining a syncopated relation with another legible as a kind of dissonance. In the context of relationships mediated online, what Stein calls “nervousness” is emotional noise, the affective friction in our interactions. This failure to communicate with perfect transparency — this noise in the signal — also confirms that there is in fact something being communicated.

In The Interface Effect, Alexander Galloway describes how interfaces tend toward becoming so intuitive that they become indiscernible and thus inoperable. When we no longer notice them, we can’t consciously determine how to use them. He quotes this passage from Michel Serres:

Systems work because they don’t work. Non-functionality remains essential for functionality. This can be formalized: pretend there are two stations exchanging messages through a channel. If the exchange succeeds — if it is perfect, optimal, immediate — then the relation erases itself. But if the relation remains there, if it exists, it’s because the exchange has failed. It is nothing but mediation. The relation is a non-relation.

Noise, glitching, nervousness are instances of system imperfection, essential non-functionality. They let us situate ourselves in relation to one another and the systems that mediate us. To the extent that social media interfaces generate glitches, they deepen rather than extinguish nervousness and thus deepen emotional connection.

Nervousness, like noise, indicates that we are not trapped as isolated nodes in a networked totality. Instead, it confirms the space between us. The failure to reach empathetic togetherness that it signals nevertheless confirms there is someone else (or many others) present and makes unmistakable their different standpoints.

Nervousness is like a glitch … and a clear signal is never a possibility

Having to think of our relationships in terms of the discomfort of not getting it right, of having to pay further attention, our mediated interactions gain rather than lose value. We usually think of people who are in the room with us as being present and capable of being connected with, but this is merely a bias. The people in the room with us can be inaccessible or as out of sync with us as those online. We may be totally indifferent to them in a way we can’t in the social media space, where their presence becomes a notification, a demand for reciprocity.

We talk about how we are unwittingly used in experiments by social media platforms, how we know we are always being watched. And we also know that in our efforts to feel together, contemporary life requires we participate in platforms that make emotional demands of us, regardless of our ambivalence about the data we generate. Alongside our suspicions of how social media frame our exchanges, it is important to pay attention to how and why they stick or catch. The nervousness about digital communication technologies may simply be part of how being alive always already makes us nervous.

Thinking about the emotional labor of connectivity can too easily fall into end-of-world anxiety about our perpetual performances on social media.

I want to interrupt that anxiety with nervousness.

Though both affects begin in a sense of apprehension, in awareness of the emotional labor required to reach the future, nervousness is different from anxiety. Anxiety is a clinical condition. It suspends possibility: Anxiety attacks, and it becomes impossible to be anything except oneself. Anxiety, in the collapse of a panic attack, moves inward. It forces a self-absorption for survival.

Nervousness, as an attempt to go faster or slower so as to get together, holds onto the presence of others as that which is overwhelming, unsettling. This disturbs the smooth sociality promised by social media companies and preserves the inescapable friction of difference that is sociality.

I would rather be nervous than anxious. Anxiety is panic. When we insist that, because of technology, we are living in anxious times, we bring ourselves into our own catastrophe and paralysis. I do not want to name my social media condition — the contemporary condition — as something pervasively and unavoidably damaging to me. I do not want to participate in world building that totalizes technology’s harm. The times cannot be unlivable, because they are where we live.

When we regard nervousness as emotional glitching, it confirms that a clear signal is never a possibility: We cannot understand each other perfectly. We cannot feel together. We are living in muddles and tangles of our emotions as we strive to feel together. We live in the mess of misunderstanding. The unease that comes from being out of time with one another is necessary and not going away. And this is a good thing.

I do not want to participate in world building that totalizes technology’s harm. The times cannot be unlivable, because they are where we live

Nervousness is ultimately produced through the facts of our incommunicable differences that exist online and off. Utopian visions of social cohesion too often forget these real ways in which our experiences of the same world are different. As writer and futurist Madeline Ashby reminds us, one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

But to palpably experience nervousness, as social media force us to do, is to be able to track these differences and trace their patterns. It is crucial to be nervous — it confirms that we are not solipsistic, not ignorant of disparate experiences of the world and past and present inequities. The nervousness that technology now foregrounds stems not merely from mediation but from an old nervousness that is tied to those social inequities and the sense that popular imaginaries of feeling exclude or only conditionally acknowledge the experiences of so many people. The ability to feel one’s nervousness come and go is a sign of privilege. Most people are already nervous, already operating outside the frictionless experience that signals privilege.

The purveyors of today’s networked culture often try to efface nervousness with convenience and solipsism, preventing the understanding that eases exclusion. Social media platforms promise that difference can be erased, can be made irrelevant to an isolated user who does whatever whenever. But belief in that false promise simply reinforces selfishness and disconnection, and ultimately incites the anxiety and sense of doom of the despairing tech critic.

Culture and emotion are, as theorist Sara Ahmed writes, “sticky” with the accumulation of histories and practices. Sticky is what happens when our relations turn into affects that cling to objects, to people. This is how culture constructs emotions, how values and practices are built from our relations. To illustrate stickiness, Ahmed gives the example of the feminist killjoy who loudly disagrees with the conditions of inequity she sees. Her disagreement, her relation to the conditions she challenges, turn into a quality that sticks: She is disagreeable, disruptive. The reality of the conditions is dismissed, is made to stick to someone else.

This is how we build systems of inequity and re-enact them for each other: Nervousness shows us they are here. We do not like to be made nervous because nervousness is a desire to get to a different speed, to correct the discrepancies we feel between our experiences of the world. It reminds us that we are functioning in difference. It maintains relation despite discomfort and forces an acknowledgement that we are out of sync, operating in inequity. Nervousness tells us that there is always difference and always work necessary to address that difference, but it never erases it.

Writing about the difficulty of diversity work, Ahmed argues that what is hard to some does not exist for others. She forces us to ask why anyone would think they could escape the hard, the difficult. In nervousness, what is hard becomes also something that can be worked with and through. It is hard to know what to do in the world, hard to be aware of the impacts and implications of the systemic inequities manifest in all our relations. Ashby refers to this when she talks about the distribution of utopias and dystopias. Nervousness is not only recognizing emotional times out of sync but also that one person’s emotional time may be easier, is better, than another’s.

This is why we should be nervous: nervous about the difference we are living in and apprehensive about the futures that it anticipates. Nervousness reminds us of the affective costs and conditions of our relations as well as inequities in who performs emotional labor and who experiences affective distress. It makes us aware of the work required by relationships and the work we must undertake to acknowledge and accommodate differences (of location, of time, of gender, sexuality, race, ability, poverty, literacy) that inhere in all our relations, all our performances of self and of belonging.

Ideally, this awareness stops short of overwhelming us. We can then nervously prepare for different futures, contradictory and inconsistent ones. We can nervously try to bring ourselves together without ever assuming we’ve got there.

Jane Frances Dunlop is an artist and writer whose work addresses emotion and performances of relation on the internet. She lives and works in London, UK.