“those without agency have sentimentality and vice versa”

There is a vivid article in this month’s Technology Review by the unlikely contributor Jonathan Franzen, called “I just called to say I love you“. It starts out as a screed against the destruction of public life by mobile phone conversations, and is made readable only by his painful awareness of just how hard it is to conduct a screed against the destruction of public life without sounding like a nag, an old fogey or a conservative technophobe. It then veers into a description of the thing Franzen hates most about this destructive capacity—the repeated and thoughtlessly uttered “I love you” which it is now impossible not to hear constantly ejaculated by those near you, talking to their putatively loved ones in tones too shrill and hectoring to ignore. Then the article gets worse—or better, depending on your reading—by locating part of the transition in 9/11 and the ways in which televised images create a form of collective trauma that is somehow (i didn’t quite get this) related to the cell phone and the nature of public declarations of love. Finally, Franzen turns to his own father and mother and their differing declarations of love (in person by his mother, and in writing by his father), which connects in the end to the danger represented by the cell phone.

Since it’s Franzen, it’s fun to read, and since it’s in Technology Review, it’s interesting to think about what the people who get Technology Review (MIT alums and those who love them) will think of it. I personally found a couple of aspects of his analysis dead on: 1) the definition of “privacy” Franzen uses is the one I think actually helps us make sense of the nature of privacy, namely “[Privacy] is about sparing me the intrusions of other people’s personal lives.” Whereas privacy advocates (and most readers of TR, likely) would define privacy as the individual’s ability (and right) to control who sees what of their personal lives, Franzen inverts this definition, and puts in the forefront our inability (and lack of rights) we have of preventing others from talking to us about their private lives. This helps make sense of why privacy matters: because it is about respecting our vital need for a public life.

Implicitly, Franzen is using the definition that Hannah Arendt made popular in The Human Condition: that the private sphere is the location of privation and survival, the public sphere that of politics, decision making and collective responsibility. To elevate the concerns of the private sphere into the domain of the public is to make issues of housekeeping and mere survival into political issues, with ambivalent effects. On the one hand it renders the inherent inequality and injustice of the private sphere a matter of debate and potential correction; on the other hand it diminishes the space of collective constructive work on what our world will be like in the future—because we are all too busy constantly conducting our private lives in the ever-diminishing space that was our public life.

Franzen’s point is perhaps not so lofty, but it is related: by dominating public discussion with private concerns we have no space, or time, or in the parlance of the cell phone companies, no minutes, left to debate and make decisions about our collective life, rather than our merely immediate concerns of survival. Franzen recapitulates this by demonstrating how is own father “saw nothing wrong with consigning his wife to four decades of cooking and cleaning at home while he was out enjoying his agency in the world of men.” And yet, despite this seeming injustice, “my father loved privacy, which is to say: he respected the public sphere. He believed in restraint and protocol and reason because without them, he believed, it was impossible for a society to debate and make decisions in its best interest.” What Franzen is asking is whether it is possible to have a world where the inequality inherent in his father and mother’s life can be reduced without sacrificing respect for a public life.

But I part company with Franzen in his assumption that the cell phone can only lead to destruction of the public. What he does not hear in the conversations around him are those instances where people are organizing a public via the cell phone or via the internet. What his argument implies is that a public space can only be face to face and that technology can thereby only be parasitic on that space. This I think is a major mistake. It partakes of the same logic the NRA uses when they say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” The NRA is wrong because it is people with guns who kill people (or people with knives or people with powerful corporations), and Franzen is wrong because it is how people use their cell phones, how they gain control of them, and how they organize a social world through them that matters. Franzen is right about the millions of people who intrude on public life with their private concerns, but those people will do so with any technology, or with no technology at all–they are simply not entering the public world at all, whether because they don’t care, don’t have to or don’t want to. Others however, must compete with them to create new public spaces and to beat back the relentless encroachment of the “i love you” consumers.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

4 thoughts on ““those without agency have sentimentality and vice versa”

  1. There’s some real substance in the article, though in my opinion Franzen’s agent could do his client a favor by finding him a good editor.

    —by locating part of the transition in 9/11 and the ways in which televised images create a form of collective trauma that is somehow (i didn’t quite get this) related to the cell phone and the nature of public declarations of love.—

    Does he mean to say that the trauma is collective or is he implying something about how digital technology has fed the tendency to individuate and emotionalize (I can’t think of better terms for what I’m trying to say, unfortunately) even the most public of experiences? This seems somehow related to Mel Gibson’s cinematic treatment of Jesus’s crucifiction—an inherently public act, engineered for the public to warn about the cost of threatening public order, is portrayed in such a way that the majority of the audience is silently (and perhaps unconsciously) emoting, “It’s me suffering up there on that screen!”

    I don’t quite know how but this all somehow seems to relate to McCain’s speech last night. There was something uncomfortable for me in seeing and hearing him talk about being tortured as a POW. It also struck me that there are some sorts of traumas that can be unproblematically exploited as political capital while there are other traumas that one uses at the risk of being considered unseemly or whiny.

  2. I don’t really know how to think about collective trauma these days. Ten years ago we would have had (in academia) a rich Freudian and Lacanian vocabulary… but that seems unlikely to explain anything about 9.11 or McCain and his torture. I think Franzen is trying to suggest that with the 9.11 thing, the fact that people who were not there watched it happen over and over again means simply that they have had something close to the experience of being there. Whereas he and others who listened to the radio or read news reports of it did not connect affectively in quite the same immediate way. The connection to the public/private thing is still mysterious to me, but I like the comparison with Mel Gibson. There is clearly a nationalist version of christianity (or a christian version of nationalism, whatever it is we have in the US) played out in the repeated political use of 9.11 as if it happened to “all of us” instead of 3000 people in New York.

  3. Hmm. I don’t really think Franzen is saying the cell phone can only lead to a destruction of the public at all. i think he is making an argument that 9/11 reframed the collective template for connection, with the cell phone becoming a potent symbol of affection and connection (he points to the stories about people using their cell phones at the 11th hour to make emotional phone calls to loved ones or relatives). Maybe he is just arguing that the cell phone, in recent times, is one marker by which we can measure or see the ‘sentimentalization’ of the public. His piece prompted me to think about the way the cell phone or other technologies might be a tool that ‘disciplines’ people. In fact, cell phone use and overuse very much creates ‘publics’ through the repeated circulation of overheard ‘i love yous’ that become scripted performances within certain contexts (like airports). Airports, then, are one site where such utterances can become normative and compulsory almost by virtue of the presence of an assumed audience with shared values and orientations to such ‘i love yous,’ or to filial connection, e.g. I think he would say there is something to be learned about public life, about our shared moral imaginary, about affect and connection… in closing conversations with ‘i love you’ (something he argues was less common ten years ago).

    He most takes issue with the cell phone’s imagery (post 9-11) as a “conduit of intimacy for the desperate” within a country he describes as in the midst of an ‘orgy of connectedness’ (I agree with this observation, or, I did when i was last there one year ago). I think his piece encourages us to look beneath the surface of all this humanist discourse(?), and to be unafraid of challenging what (along with things like human rights) might be one of the most innocuous-seeming, lovely discourses out there: sentimentality (?) i think he urges us to ask what kinds of utterances are possible or not possible in what might be termed a newly contoured public sphere. I think maybe he would also say that cell phones and Blackberries and whatever else allowed for a massive response to 9-11 and an unprecedented flurry of communication between individuals, but he would also like to consider how having so many connecting devices at our disposal coerces us to connect, and to connect normatively (if that makes sense). Furthermore, what does all this talk of connection and connection through talk DO? he writes:
    “On the plus side, Americans in 2001 were a lot better at saying “I love you” to their children than their fathers or grandfathers had been. But competing economically? Pulling together as a nation? Defeating our enemies? Forming strong international alliances? Perhaps a bit of a minus side there.”

    I read it quickly, but my thoughts.

  4. I think I agree, though my sense is that Franzen is in fact arguing that cell phones are harmful— in the sense that even if they don’t destroy the public sphere, the sentimentilization of it is a bad thing because it displaces the kind of agency we associate with politics proper. So yes, there are new forms of talk and new forms of being in the public being formed by the imperative to connect, but what’s a issue is whether those forms are good or bad for collective political construction of the world. I think cell phones can be used for good or for evil in this sense, but i think i agree with Franzen that they mostly are not, by most of the people who use them in these newly configured places.

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