It has been decades now since one could snicker at someone caught out by the lack of loose connections. In the India in which I grew up, it was taken as a reasonable excuse for not being in touch to say you “couldn’t get through” on the phone. Telephones went periodically dead. Sometimes you could call out but didn’t receive calls, and at other times, you would get calls but couldn’t make them (prompting you to enlist the very first caller in making a complaint to the repair line); if you did get connected, it might be to an exasperated “wrong number,” and the very few pay phones that were around gave no guarantee of a voice in return for one’s rupee. In any case, most of the country’s residents had no phone at all. In the late eighties, PCOs—public call offices—completely revolutionized communication across the country, cropping up at every other corner, providing local and long-distance telephonic access to the ordinary person. However, there was still a chance that the connection would be fitful or poor.
When someone raised within this wheezy infrastructure was suddenly transplanted into the firm sonorities of first-world technologies, the results were often amusing. The scenario would go something like this: As an excuse for not having been in contact, the person would casually proffer, “I couldn’t get through.” This explanation would meet with a puzzled response: “What time did you call? Did you have the right number? Didn’t you get the machine?” As the questions bored in with great sincerity, the squirming addressee might weakly suggest, “It was engaged…?” meaning what Americans more often refer to as “busy” or “getting a busy signal.”
The disengagement facilitated by this temperamental telephony made comrades of procrastination, delay tactics, rebelliousness, oversights, the need to switch off, a brush-off, or deliberate withdrawal. It went hand in hand with other manifestations of discontinuous engagement that were part of the common vocabulary. There was “loose contact,” which meant, as elsewhere, unstable electrical connections and faulty wiring, although the consistency with which this looseness manifested itself strongly seemed to suggest either a faulty diagnosis or the perception of its value. The inaugural flicker of a fluorescent light tube lent itself to the epithet “tube light,” still used to refer to anyone who is either slow on the uptake or a bit behind the times. And who would want to be anything but with the times and well connected? So completely have connectivity and immediacy become fused with a sense of being au courant that few of us would advocate for anything otherwise. We want to be with it, not to have missed the moment, and mostly, we believe that being in touch keeps our fingers on the pulse of things in a way that enables both informed and timely civic participation. To be connected is to be part of a community, ideally one of choice, and not to be so embraced is often taken to imply that one has been politically forsaken—because of socioeconomic or cultural barriers and by extension, a lack of infrastructural provisions.
In India, the advent of mobile phone technology put paid to the kind of expansive disengagement that was once an option for some and mandated for the rest. Inaugurated about twenty years ago, it brought contact to the humblest fingertip, ensuring that so many who were otherwise denied access to private or independent communication—working classes, rural peasantry, women domestic workers—could conduct their own businesses and relationships both near and far. Insofar as “not getting through” had been what anthropologist James Scott elsewhere calls a weapon of the weak —the small act of resistance of the relatively powerless—that arsenal was now diminished. What is available now by way of excuses are protestations of “no charge,” meaning that the phone battery is running low, or if circumstances such as travel make it plausible, claims of being “out of range.”
To be physically here and mentally out of range is a familiar experience of the cell phone age. The experiential leap between a basic cell phone and the retronymous landline isn’t altogether unimaginable, even as the former has intensified and expanded people’s sense of connection across distance. However, smartphone technologies and the internet have catapulted people across spaces in ways that appear radically different from television, a medium that was always, as the term would suggest, conceived of as “far-seeing.” Television’s flickering images themselves brought other worlds into living rooms in substantially different ways from earlier modes of media representation such as newspapers. The sudden and surprising ways in which global media events on television could erupt into everyday experience created what McKenzie Wark, in an early analysis, called “virtual geographies”—connections not predicated on propinquity but encouraged by a peculiar “telesthesia” or perception at a distance. Even when places and people appeared in one’s living room, they were confidently asserting their reality elsewhere. Home on a wide range indeed.
Home was always a remote affair for members of immigrant communities engaged in “long-distance nationalism,” a phenomenon identified early on by Benedict Anderson, ever attentive to the work of media and technology in constructing imagined communities. Aided by communication technologies, immigrants and exiles actively follow the news and politics of their countries of origin and create cross-boundary ethno-cultural and political networks that often intervene with considerable impact in national affairs. Today’s complex media world facilitates more immediate and affective modes of transnational connection than the “email nationalism” of which Anderson wrote, and thereby, supports emergent forms of political alliance that expand well beyond national diasporas.
Smartphones and their various platforms and applications have made connection a relentlessly addictive and intimate affair. Few of us are unfamiliar with the percussive-thumb, head-down stance that is the first position of connectivity today. Flipping channels on television was done with a mixture of inertia and ennui, but the distraction produced by smartphone “multitasking” has quite a different charge. With dozens of discrete communications unfolding on a variety of platforms, the smartphone is far from a broadcast medium. Receiving an email or a text message with news is qualitatively different from picking up the morning paper or hearing someone speak on television. Direct, intimate, charged, the information that floods into the palms of our hands grabs us with the illusion of immediate, personal address, blurring any trace of its journey or the distance traveled.
What’s happening in this environment of multiple direct communications? With every new communication technology and platform, from email to smartphones and social media, we’re told that the world has grown smaller—and yet, it seems that in our effort to bring things up close to take a good look, we’ve overlooked the fact that some things always remain at a distance, or out of sight, even if they are just next door. Distance goes beyond simple geographies, and new cartographies of connection must be drawn. But couldn’t this mean that the old geographical imagination that gave us the dark continents, terrae incognitae, black holes, and the Orient, along with their variously savage, brutal, primitive, vulnerable, noble, or even absent inhabitants, can no longer work in the same way—that is, predicated on little direct observation but plentifully fueled by self-reinforcing imagery?
Some years ago, students in a class I taught on urban poetics surprised me with their old-fashioned bewilderment: “How can we say anything about places we haven’t been to?” The question seemed to hark back to a conception of local knowledge that flew in the face of contemporary notions of networked social connectivity. It shifted my attention from the analyses of images and other representations that tend to take priority in the study of media to the socio-technical systems and infrastructures that mediate the perception of a here and an elsewhere. How do we now understand the ways in which we’re tweeted at, poked, and pinged for attention from people, particularly from afar? Could the sense of intimate distance created by these technologies be said to change the “rules of engagement,” a term whose military antecedents we would do well to remember? Can this remote sensing, in fact, stand in for direct contact effectively enough to propel new forms of solidarity across distance and difference?
The immediacy of today’s tele-technologies tends to downplay the significance of translation in making conditions and demands originating elsewhere matter. The work of contextualization hasn’t vanished but its labor and effects are increasingly obscured. When cultural exchange was the currency of an internationalizing world, contextualization was the passport with which cultures traveled, even if it wasn’t always apparent that the passport itself—that is, the contextual framework—was responsible for creating the cultures that could step onto a global stage. Today, exchange, a term that implies an extractive, appropriative, pleasurable, and consumable form of contact, has given way to engagement, a term that conveys the fuzzy tactility of our present connections—immediate and intimate yet not close at all. The histories of exchange already demonstrated a preference for encountering foreign artifacts over strangers—think of the museum displays, lively circuits of sound and music, bodywork and food crazes, accompanied by wall texts, liner notes, and background articles, that have contributed to the circulation of avowedly cosmopolitan milieux. Traveling culture of this sort was frequently packaged for the palate such that it began to create the shorthand of cultural representation. Often functioning in parallel with political structures that strongly regulate the movement of associated bodies, they provide the reasons why explanatory notes often stand in for actual, perhaps difficult, translation that, in turn, tells us the story of how engagement is put in place—and in its place. Today, places, people, their practices and their politics present themselves no more directly to the world than they ever did, but the awareness of mediation has receded into the background.
The question posed by my students could be interpreted or extended another way—not as expressing reservations or confessing a lack of familiarity, but as asking in what way they might be able to speak on behalf of and in solidarity with people at a remove. Under what circumstances and in what ways should we engage in far-flung politics in which we are undoubtedly implicated but whose effects we may not feel? Taking our cue from activists, campaigners, and cultural workers on the ground is a first step, but the politics of our own context will still necessarily inflect our actions.
If the eclipse of distance means that the faraway can be brought into the palm of one’s hand, it does not mean a future without places; rather, this tactility can reveal the contours of sites linked through a topography, and open up possibilities for a “counter-topographic politics.” This is the tool Cindi Katz offers for conceptualizing engagement across space and scale in her eloquent discussion of feminist political strategies in a globalizing world. Topography accounts for how the specific histories and geographies of a given location shape its social relations of power and production. It is sensitive to the local while aware of its enlistment in global processes. A counter-topographic politics entails more than just connecting a here with an over there in a transnational alliance in which two place-based imaginaries are constructed. Rather, the politics itself must take on the global challenge even while its specific grounds are local. There are those for whom the so-called “elsewhere” is actually right here and for whom the stakes are high—they are personally connected to the issues, affected by its outcomes, vulnerable to oppositional authorities—and there are others for whom the issue may be a larger question of justice and solidarity. But the socio-technical mechanisms through which we are touched by political acts and global movements are as critical to the story of how we are called to political engagement (or disengagement) as is the ethical imperative to act.
Neither Here Nor There
There is little question in my mind of the validity of targeted forms of disobedience, withdrawal, and repudiation aimed at more just political ends. What I have been trying to explore is how today’s media technologies create connections across time and space in ways that obscure the circumstances of their creation.
These days, the engagement summoned forth by so-called global citizenship is typically twinned to connectivity. This implies that we can swiftly act or be called to action—and the relentless tumble of exhortations and appeals that appear in email inboxes testifies not only to how quickly political orientations are identified, sometimes by algorithm, but also to how solidarities are experienced and indeed engaged in these virtual landscapes. In fact, the “global village” makes persistent and steady claims upon us from which we can never rightfully profess to be “otherwise engaged.” The promise of immediate, worldwide action on shared concerns is out there, and that is thrilling—that is, if we contribute through swift, decisive responses rather than detachment, inaction, and passivity.
But what forms of contact are assumed in this conception of engagement? Is it predicated on the notion that in a networked world of continuous information flow, we are actually free of the burden of trying to understand how connection is manufactured and felt? If the rapid, simultaneous, stable, personalized communications that come through our glowing devices prompt us to believe that those far away are close enough to us to matter, we can surely be thankful for the work they do. And yet, the memory of loose contacts provides a salutary reminder of how distance might persist between the closest points—a distance whose topographies incorporate differences in beliefs, demands, practices, values, lived experiences, and material circumstances. Who among the “politically engaged” hasn’t at some point posted, tweeted, or digitally signed one’s name not because of the trustworthiness of the source so much as a sympathetic acceptance of its claims, or alternately, saved an online petition indefinitely, meaning to learn more about the issue? Learning more is indeed the heart of the matter. Every instance at which the possibility of acting in solidarity presents itself is a moment for research—a moment that does not drop the call but actually secures the connection.
To participate conscientiously in these transnational public spheres is difficult. It requires a particularly energetic attentiveness to keep oneself informed, not only of the issues but also of the effects of one’s actions; despite our notional immediacy, these often occur at a remove, brought into view only by prostheses. Why do such incommensurate and intransigent conceptions of places such as Kashmir, Baghdad, and Palestine-Israel persist despite new skeins of global connective tissue? We don’t actually stand shoulder to shoulder with those afar even when we see ourselves as their allies, and the mistranslations and tensions of our alliances and alignments demand continual critical reflexivity. Do we boycott the effort altogether? No! Disconnection is not the easy way out. Nor is this a cautionary tale. All those years of asynchronous connectivity remind me that disengaged lines were assiduously kept open, and losing touch only meant repair before reconnection. Yet, as we each practice our own forms of remote sensing, we would do well to be vigilant that the spurious security of tight connections does not foreclose the recognition of what ultimately “couldn’t get through.”
Radhika Subramaniam is a curator and writer interested in urban crises and surprises, particularly crowds, cultures of catastrophe, and human-animal relationships. She is Director/Chief Curator of the Sheila C. Johnson Design Center (SJDC) at Parsons School of Design/The New School where she teaches.
Excerpted from Assuming Boycott, and reprinted with permission from OR Books.