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.

Object-Oriented Ontology: Radical, Autistic or Both?

Like many academics, I’m using the summer holiday to work through my reading list.  As such, I just finished Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.  Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech, is at the forefront of the “object-oriented” philosophic movement.  Simply put, this mode of thought seeks to displace humans from the center of the philosophic universe.  It’s interested in things—radishes, VCRs and arrowheads, for example– rather than human interpretations of things.

Now, I don’t seek to present myself as an expert on Bogost’s work.  My only exposure to this thinker is through Alien Phenomenology and his online presence (I follow his Twitter feed).  That said, from what I’ve seen, it seems that Bogost presents a rather radical, even frightening, vision of what we should be doing as teachers and scholars.  Let me explain.

According to Bogost, at the core of the object-oriented vision is the idea that “everything exists equally” (6).  Within this “flat ontology… the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top” (17).  Put into practice, such a view urges philosophers to engage in deep metaphorical description of object-being, to speculate, as the book’s title indicates, on “what it’s like to be a thing.”

Admittedly, Bogost’s methodology makes for fun reading.  His descriptions of the inner lives of peppers and engine parts are indeed poetic.  It’s important to remember though that every philosophic position makes an implicit moral claim.  To do philosophy (or theory or criticism) is to venture that the world is a certain way and to suggest that others see it similarly.  Bogost seems to agree.  “Flat ontology,” he writes, “is an ideal” (19).

So what sort of action does Bogost’s ideal portend?  How does it suggest we relate to one another and the world at large?  The best metaphor to describe his position, it seems to me, is that of the autistic.  The object-oriented thinker is he or she who is able to tune out the messy, noisy world of human affairs and focus solely, engaged in rapt wonder, on the garbage truck or video game.  Bogost indicates as much, writing that “being is unconcerned with… human politics” (99).

Philosophy is just verbal gymnastics, right?  It doesn’t impact our daily lives.  No, not necessarily.  Bogost, like most philosophers, lives his creed.  Exhibit A.  The past few weeks have been trying times in the U.S.  On July 5 the ongoing genocide of black men at the hands of the state was made sickeningly apparent in a pair of internet videos.  A few days later, police were targeted for assassination on the streets of Dallas.  Twitter, understandably, was abuzz with pain and confusion as people tried to make sense of these events.  Not Bogost.  During this time, when nearly every post on my Twitter feed referenced our shared trauma, he kept tweeting about the design of the Amazon website and oddly shaped cucumbers.  He’s interested in things, remember.

As for me, I like things, but I’m first and foremost interested in attunement.  As an ideal, attunement demands openness to the subjective experience of others.  This openness is achieved though attention to the affective, the embodied.  So what ontology underlies such a vision?  Well, it’s definitely not flat.  Instead, as I see it, the field of being pulses with energy– human energy— with objects growing or shrinking in size as that energy flows through them.  Over the past few weeks objects such as “systemic racism” and “state-sanctioned violence” have come to the forefront of my existence.  They loom large, while things like video games and capsaicin peppers recede into the background.

Under the ontology I propose, being is relative— it’s based on context and positioning.  It’s determined not by things-in-themselves, but things-in-relation.  These means that to be ontologically aware, thinkers must always be looking outward and upward, at the world of objects and subjects, at things and the web of conceptualizations which bind them together.  This dual vision inevitably entails (unfortunately, perhaps) a deep concern for “human politics.”

At one point, Bogost describes his philosophy as a “new radicalism.”  I agree.  If we take his thought to its logical extent it demands an equivalence between the blood soaking through Phil Castile’s shirt and the system of human relations which drew that blood.  That’s a truly radical idea.  And one as an embodied, affectively attuned human being, I can’t agree with.

Asking For It: US Warrior-Cops & Public Affect

As both a teacher and someone interested in public affairs, I’m continually looking for ways in which the classroom can inform society at large.  One idea central to my teaching philosophy—attunement– is particularly useful.

As I use the term, attunement simply means that much of what we learn, we don’t learn directly.  Instead, subtle cues from those around us give us direction on how to think, feel and be.  If you’ve ever noticed yourself mimicking the body language of a conversation partner, or caught the “vibe” of a room, you have an idea how powerful our attunement to each other can be.

Unfortunately, it seems that US law enforcement doesn’t take into account this very basic psychological principle.  The recent spate of police shootings, and the police response to the subsequent protests, both demonstrate this point.

Regarding the latter, all over the country we see waves of police, dressed all in black, with helmets and riot shields, facing off against crowds of protestors.  Think for a moment about the message such posturing carries.  It is certainly not one of respect and dialogue.  Instead, it signals to the protestors that the situation is volatile, dangerous, war-like.  Facing off against these squads of anonymous Stormtroopers, it’s surprising that more Black Lives Matter protests haven’t turned violent.  The police set the scene.  And the scene they set is one of confrontation.

The everyday posturing of the police is equally troubling.  Consider the amount of gear a cop hauls around: firearm, Taser, body armor, various gadgets.  Police departments likely think that such a display “projects power” and helps “protect their officers.”  I’d argue that this is completely wrong.  When police dress like Robocop, it sets the stage for confrontation.  Subconsciously, it tells members of the public that when they encounter a cop, they need to be ready to fight.  This makes for bad decision making.  Consider Phil Castillo reaching into his pocket while speaking of a gun….

I write this from China.  In years spent here I’ve seen many, many interactions between Chinese police officers and the public.  Compared to America, the difference couldn’t be more striking.  Chinese beat cops are typically older men.  They wear loose blue uniforms, not unlike US postal workers, and carry sticks instead of guns.  In tense situations—confronting illegal street vendors, for example—they act utterly passive.  They stand hands behind their backs, heads bowed, faces blank.  If anything, they give off an air of being sleepy, even as the street vendor, say, yells and stomps about in anger. The end result is to diffuse tension, to “deescalate” in police jargon.

Of course, China and the US are very different places.  The presence of guns in the latter does inevitably change the dynamic.  My argument is though that through aggressive posturing, American cops increase their own level of risk.  Through unconscious cues they make members of the public more likely to act in a violent manner.  In short, no matter what they say, their very physical presence—the “militarization” so many have spoken of lately—directs the public how to be.  And this way of being is one that no society should want to encourage.