Tag Archives: Chad Wellmon

Technological innovation is the only shared story that makes sense anymore

“This fall, one of us spent a day touring three of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC: the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and the Air and Space Museum. Only the last seemed to make “sense.” That is, only the Air and Space Museum offered a relatively coherent narrative. Moving from room to room, the museum’s story was fairly straight forward. From early-modern seafaring, to the Wright brothers, to World War II aerial combat, to nuclear deterrence, to the age of unmanned aerial vehicles, the world has been caught up in an age of ineffable aeronautical adventures. And the United States is the late-modern vanguard. Emblazoned on the tails of fighter jets and the bellies of missiles was the national story of technological flight.

Walking through the National Museum of American History, on the other hand, made no such sense. There was no coherent overall narrative. It was strictly an episodic experience, like watching the History Channel for a day. (No surprise: The History Channel is a prominent museum sponsor.) The National Museum of Natural History—dedicated to the cultural keeping of “nature”—was even more fragmented. Offering no history, no narrative, it simply assembled a pastiche of stuffed mammals, winged butterflies, arctic photographs, and tropical fish around an acquisitive centerpiece, the Hope Diamond.

After leaving the Mall and its museums, this tourist left with a clear message: Technological innovation is the only shared story that makes sense anymore. Neither the “imagined community” of the nation-state nor the Earth, which for aeons has grounded humans narratively and otherwise, has the symbolic power to make history cohere, at least in the United States. Even natural scientists, as the Museum of Natural History made clear, are engineers taking flights into the statistical improbabilities of human evolution and considerably warmer futures. “History” is technological innovation, a story told best through the marvels hanging from the ceilings of the Air and Space Museum.”

–Ned O’Gorman and Chad Wellmon, “Media Are Elemental: Marvelous Clouds


Alan Jacobs’s 79 Theses on Technology

As Chad Wellmon explains, the 79 Theses on Technology submitted by Alan Jacobs for disputation are somewhat “tongue-in-cheek,” but they are also most certainly “provocative.” I won’t quote them all here (because you should simply follow the link to the original post), but there are a few that I found to be particularly amusing or stimulating.

1.) Everything begins with attention.

5.) To “pay” attention is not a metaphor: Attending to something is an economic exercise, an exchange with uncertain returns.

9.) An essential question is, “What form of attention does this phenomenon require? That of reading or seeing? That of writing also? Or silence?”

11.) “Mindfulness” seems to many a valid response to the perils of incessant connectivity because it confines its recommendation to the cultivation of a mental stance without objects.

13.) The only mindfulness worth cultivating will be teleological through and through.

14.) Such mindfulness, and all other healthy forms of attention—healthy for oneself and for others—can only happen with the creation of and care for an attentional commons.

15.) This will not be easy to do in a culture for which surveillance has become the normative form of care.

16.) Simone Weil wrote that ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’; if so, then surveillance is the opposite of attention.

20.) We cannot understand the internet without perceiving its true status: The Internet is a failed state.

25.) Building an alternative digital commons requires reimagining, which requires renarrating the past (and not just the digital past).

26.) Digital textuality offers us the chance to restore commentary to its pre-modern place as the central scholarly genre.

31.) Blessed are they who strive to practice commentary as a legitimate, serious genre of responsiveness to others’ thoughts.

32.) And blessed also are those who discover how to write so as to elicit genuine commentary.

38.) To work against the grain of a technology is painful to us and perhaps destructive to the technology, but occasionally necessary to our humanity.

42.) Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.

54.) The contemporary version of the pathetic fallacy is to attribute agency not to nature but to algorithms—as though humans don’t write algorithms. But they do.

62.) The chief purpose of technology under capitalism is to make commonplace actions one had long done painlessly seem intolerable.

63.) Embrace the now intolerable.

71.) The Dunning-Kruger effect grows more pronounced when online and offline life are functionally unrelated.

72.) A more useful term than “Dunning-Kruger effect” is “digitally-amplified anosognosia.”

77.) Consistent pseudonymity creates one degree of disembodiment; varying pseudonymity and anonymity create infinite disembodiment.

Wellmon opens the dialogue concerning the theses:

But this image of a sovereign self governing an internal economy of attention is a poor description of other experiences of the world and ourselves. In addition, it levies an impossible burden of self mastery. A distributive model of attention cuts us off, as Matt Crawford puts it, from the world “beyond [our] head.” It suggests that anything other than my own mind that lays claim to my attention impinges upon my own powers to willfully distribute that attention. My son’s repeated questions about the Turing test are a distraction, but it might also be an unexpected opportunity to engage the world beyond my own head.

If we conceive of attention as simply the activity of a willful agent managing her units of attention, we foreclose the possibility of being arrested or brought to attention by something fully outside ourselves. We foreclose, for example, the possibility of an ecstatic attention and the possibility that we can be brought to attention by a particular thing beyond our will, a source beyond our own purposeful, willful action.

–Chad Wellmon, opening the dialogue about the theses

 In my theses I am somewhat insistent on employing economic metaphors to describe the challenges and rewards of attentiveness, and in so doing I always had in mind the root of that word, oikonomos (οἰκονόμος), meaning the steward of a household. The steward does not own his household, any more than we own our lifeworld, but rather is accountable to it and answerable for the decisions he makes within it. The resources of the household are indeed limited, and the steward does indeed have to make decisions about how to distribute them, but such matters do not mark him as a “sovereign self” but rather the opposite: a person embedded in a social and familial context within which he has serious responsibilities. But he has to decide how and when (and whether) to meet those responsibilities. So, too, the person embedded in an “attention economy.”

–Alan Jacobs, engaging in the dialogue

Humanities without university

“In 1872, just three years after he landed his first, and only, professorship at the University of Basel without even having finished his dissertation, Nietzsche delivered a series of lectures, On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, in the city museum. Before crowds of more than 300 people, Nietzsche staged a dialogue on the future of German universities and culture between two young students and a cantankerous old philosopher and his slow-witted but earnest assistant.

The grousing philosopher lamented the decline of universities into state-sponsored factories that produced pliant citizens and mindless, “castrated” scholars who cared not a bit for life. By the end of the lectures, it’s difficult to say whether Nietzsche thought there was a future at all for German universities. Nietzsche lasted a few more years in his position, resigning only when ill health forced him to. But he left an oeuvre that looked to the university and saw little but ruin.

As Nietzsche was writing, parts of the German university might not have been in decay, but they were in decline, the humanities in particular. Between 1841 and 1881, enrollment in philosophy, philology, and history within “philosophy faculties,” which compromised the core liberal arts fields, declined from 86.4 percent to 62.9 percent, whereas in mathematics and the natural sciences enrollments increased from 13.6 to 37.1 percent of all students matriculating at German universities. The mood among humanists was often such that they sounded quite a bit like the embattled literature professors of today. In academia, crisis is generally a matter of perception, and even in what now seems like a “golden age” for humanists, there was, in fact, a seismic shift for the humanities.

More recent forms of Quit Lit tend to lack a key feature of Nietzsche’s model, however. Nietzsche never conflated the humanities or humanistic inquiry with the university. For him, humanistic inquiry—and Nietzsche was deeply humanistic as his lifelong commitment to philology attests—transcended the institutional and historically particular shape of universities, which he saw as little more than extensions of a Prussian bureaucratic machine.


I am not suggesting that we should give up on universities. Universities, especially modern research universities, have long helped sustain and cultivate the practices and virtues central to the humanities. But just as German universities were becoming international paradigms, emulated from Baltimore to Beijing, Nietzsche made a fateful diagnosis. Those practices and virtues could ossify and whither in the arcane and self-justifying bowels of the modern, bureaucratic university. “Human inquiry,” in contrast, would live on.

We may well benefit from an exercise in imagination. Could the humanities survive the collapse of the university? I think so.”

Chad Wellmon, “Quit Lit: Do the Humanities Need the University?”