On Attunement

Attunement.  A word I often deploy (e.g., my recent claim that writing instruction involves, at heart, the cultivation of an “ethics of attunement”).  Lately though, I’ve come to think that I’ve been using this term somewhat thoughtlessly.  In the following I’d like to map out attunement’s various meanings, and in the process, argue for a redefinition that foregrounds attunement as a conscious act.

At the most basic level, attunement implicates sound.  A group of individuals is “in tune” when the members of that group vibrate at the same resonance or pitch.  Attunement is the act of moving into alignment with the group’s shared frequency.  There’s an interesting mix of conscious and unconscious, mental and material elements at play in such a act (which perhaps explains attunement’s recent popularity as a means to describe writing and rhetoric).

Attunement, it seems to me, can be driven by an articulable desire—intent to attune, we might say—or it can be totally outside the realm of conscious control.  It can be a rational, step-by-step process of experimentation and adjustment (as when a singer flexes his throat muscles, trying to match a note on a scale) or it can be something that the body seems to do completely on its own (as when we find ourselves becoming nervous around a nervous person).  There’s always some bodily or material aspect at play.  Attunement can never take place completely in the mind or “on paper.”  We’d never say that one formal equation, for example, is in tune with another.  Relatedly, attunement implicates the emotional or affective.  Within psychology, I am told, attunement indicates how in touch one is with the moods or emotional states of another.  To be attuned is to register, and respond, to those states.

So attunement casts a wide net, indicating the ability, either conscious or unconscious, of one entity to adapt (by physically adapting) to another.  With its hint of emotional receptivity, and related ability to capture so much beyond the logical, the term has become commonplace in rhetoric and composition.  Like “care” or “hospitality,” attunement is almost always used in a positive sense.  If we dig a bit deeper though, we realize that attunement is in fact ambiguous, both morally and otherwise.  To be able to intuite that your friend is upset, and display sympathy, is attunement, sure.  But Hitler, for example, also showed a great degree of attunement in his ability to register the energy of German crowds and replicate that energy in his own bodily movements.  So attunement can be for good or ill.

As noted, I have recently written of composition’s ethics of attunement.  In that discussion I used attunement to capture composition’s commitment to teaching students how to know what needs to be done in a given rhetorical situation.  This process is never totally cerebral: we have to be able to “read” the emotional tenor of an audience, for example.  It’s never completely outwardly focused either: we have to constantly monitor both the situation and ourselves, wary of the ways in which our biases and predispositions shape what we see and feel.  My original argument was that via this dual focus we can help bring our thinking and action in line with what is demanded by a situation.  This ability to attune is ultimately what makes a good writer.

Integrally, attunement, as described above, always involves an act of judgement.  I obscured this fact in previous discussions and would like to make it clear now.  As commonly used, attunement—because it is so extra-rational—seems to imply that one has no choice in the matter.  If the crowd wants a speaker to stroke their anger, this thinking goes, the attuned rhetor is one who provides it.  To go against the crowd, to keep breathing regular and heartbeat steady when all around you breaths and beats are racing, represents a lack of attunement, yes?  As the term is conventionally used, this seems to be the case.

We don’t want to teach student-writers to be like Hitler (obviously).  So how can we understand attunement in a more sophisticated manner?  We need a force which checks attunement.  What force though?  To what is the process of adaptation responsible?  The answer, I’d like to suggest, is the ideal.  The ideal is the good, that towards which we strive and by which we measure our practice.  It is a verbalizable statement (not a feeling or “vibe”) and necessarily abstract.  It is actualized via stories which illustrate the application of the ideal in specific contexts.  For example, one might say that she is driven by a commitment to “Justice.”  She might know stories– specific, context-rich examples– of when justice prevailed and when it did not.  Given a situation, it is her responsibility to measure that situation, and compare it to her set of stories.  Though this process, she can know how to think and how to act.  Should she allow herself to become attuned to the fury of the crowd—to channel and embody that passion—or should she remained detached?

This analysis adds a third element to what I previously defined as the dual motion between self and world.  An “ethics of attunement,” we can now say, involves triangulation among self, world and ideal.  Unlike pure bodily or emotional attunement, this is by definition a conscious process. It involves thinking.  Of course, there are no guarantees here.  We must “read” ourselves, the situation and the various ideals implicated, and can never be sure that our reading is right.  In this regard, judgement in the face of actual choice imbues every element of an ethics of attunement.  As suggested, this articulation marks something of a break with previous definitions of attunement, which focused too heavily (in my opinion) on the unconscious and bodily.  It is necessary though, I believe, if we are to understand attunement as a moral act.

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