Getting by and passing time

Review by Luke Munn

Tung-Hui Hu, Digital Lethargy: Dispatches from an Age of Disconnection (2022 MIT Press)

In the last few years we’ve witnessed a surging interest in digital labor, from household names like Uber and Amazon Mechanical Turk to more shadowy players engaged in content-moderation, data cleaning, and other supposedly low-level “clickwork.”

“...content-moderation, data cleaning, and other supposedly low-level “clickwork”— diagram illustrating procedure for clickworker undertaking a human intelligence task.

Critics lament these conditions, but often in paternalistic terms that lament the lack of agency. Workers are exploited, oppressed, mere cogs in a machine. If only they could rise up and resist; if only they could overcome their conditions and overturn the powers-that-be. This is the necessary political project—indeed, the only activity that qualifies as sufficiently “political.” The goal then is to cultivate a political subject, someone who stands up and speaks out. Without this conviction and action, there is no political program to speak of.

Tung-Hui Hu is not so sure. His Digital Lethargy: Dispatches from an Age of Disconnection (2022 MIT Press) offers a meditation on the potentialities of passivity.

What is lethargy? Rather than nailing down the concept, Hu uses lethargy as a conceptual springboard, an alternative mode of framing and critiquing contemporary conditions. First, lethargy is about enduring rather than resisting, “a way of abiding, remaining intact, or tolerating the intolerable,” a “set of tactics to survive within a condition… rather than a way of overturning that condition” (xxvii). Lethargy may look like waiting instead of overtly protesting.

Second, lethargy is stuck in the here-and-now. Instead of fantasizing about fixing problems and fast-forwarding into the future, it is compelled to deal with the day-to-day reality. “Lethargy is a drag,” Hu (xxix) writes, “it weighs down our ability to rush to solutions and forces us to listen to the unresolved present.”

And finally, the lethargic individual acknowledges or even embraces their objecthood. In a neoliberal context, the strident subject who carries out “meaningful” work, takes every opportunity to express themselves, and actively optimizes their life is a desirable figure slotting into a role already anticipated and defused. In addition, this outspoken form of identity is racialized and gendered, a privilege that only some can embrace. For these reasons, lethargy seeks to “undo the privileged position of the agentive subject” (xxvii).

Of course, in many ways lethargy is an ancient phenomenon, analog far before it was digital. Hu recognizes this as well, sketching a history that moves from the “noonday demons” experienced by early Christian monks through to Hamlet’s inaction. Hu then moves into the industrial revolution with its pseudoscientific diagnosis of working-condition “diseases” that damaged the nervous system and other anxieties around fatigue in the workplace. Examples of such moments abound. And lethargy, broadly speaking, has been touched on by others throughout the centuries—from Marx’s notion of alienation in labor, to Krakauer’s attack on a commercial culture of boredom and distraction, Marcuse’s diagnoses of the closure of the political, and Thacker’s work on resignation and pessimism. Tedium, repetition, exhaustion, oppression, endurance—these are persistent features of labor, even as the forms and framing of these features have shifted over time.

“...memoir of working at an Amazon Fulfillment Center...” Photograph of a typical product fulfillment facility.

Yet if lethargy is longstanding, Hu identifies an inflection point in the mid 20th century as worries about fatigue shifted into concern over burnout. This concept did not merely indicate a straightforward matter of the human motor growing weary, but something more nebulous: a broader undermining of the self, a feeling of insufficiency, a failure of subjectivity (xii). Capital’s colonization of the inner-life over the last seventy years has only heightened these tendencies. So if lethargy is not novel, it can be argued that the digital represents an intensification and “extensification” of these pressures. Subjects are caught within a ubiquitous networked environment that dissolves boundaries between work and life. People are constantly prodded to produce, to consume, and to choose their own path—and yet for the young and precarious, such choices seem like no choice at all. For example, a recent New Yorker article by Ye-Ling Liu charts the rise of “involution” as a term adopted by China’s youth, a hamster-wheel-like image of turning inward and frantically expelling energy towards a meaningless goal. One response to this seemingly inescapable predicament is to adopt an attitude of sardonic apathy and nihilism. “I wanted to fight for socialism today,” posted one 27-year-old online, “but the weather is so freaking cold that I’m only able to lay on the bed to play on my mobile phone.”

The first chapter introduces these ideas by drawing on Heike Geissler’s memoir of working at an Amazon Fulfillment Center. Geissler begins the job under financial pressures but still retains a form of hope in the face of adversity, hitting her targets and demonstrating her value to her superiors. But as the miles rack up and her body breaks down, Geissler’s optimism rapidly fades. Exhaustion takes over, rupturing her memory of the time period and fragmenting her narrative into Geissler-the-worker and Geissler-the-later-narrator. Hu (9) notes:

“Fatigue undoes both the physical boundaries of the ‘I’ and also the temporal training that constitutes the individual: the self that we construct so that we can tell others; the self sequenced on a resume or a timeline or a feed that consists of one image or accomplishment and then the next.”

Yet such tiredness contains potential, Hu argues, a strange form of attentiveness stuck in an ocean of time.

In the rest of the book, Hu examines lethargy through the lens of artworks ranging from film to installation and performance. Chapters draw on work by Katherine Behar, Cory Archangel, Yoshua Okón, nibia pastrana santiago, and Erica Scourti. These artists explore the fatigue and monotony that seem to characterize contemporary life (Behar and Archangel), the way in which labor and identity in the Global South is commodified (Okón), the potential of doing nothing together (santiago), and the diffusion of “the self” into infrastructures and algorithms within our digitally-mediated world (Scourti). All of these fascinating works probe digital capitalism in surprising ways, from keyboard-covered sculptures to a factory for canned laughter and lectures based on autocomplete algorithms. Hu should be commended, then, for his curatorial sensibilities, his deep engagement with these artists (several interviews over several years in some cases), and his ability to pick out key motifs that reoccur across their full body of work.

Hu’s decision to explore lethargy through artistic works is original but also committed. Investigations of digital labor broadly understood (shift work, platform work, social media, and so on) typically rely on a conventional ethnographic approach. Scholars may visit labor sites or interview workers. Empirical findings may be “thickened” through theory and others’ research but claims generally adhere closely to the original source material. Hu’s method opts instead for a more literary approach. While this kind of close reading—analyzing an artwork, drawing out aesthetic properties, and highlighting key themes—is certainly an established method, it is less seen in conjunction with digital labor. Hu’s innovation, then, is to use works which are speculative and imaginative to think through the question of the political within regimes of digital capitalism.

Hu’s own literary method is powerful in providing a flexible pathway into the subjectivity of the digital. Conventional ethnographic research can often get stuck at the level of description, giving us endless accounts of factory conditions or financial processes or technological operations. The artists whose work he describes are more interested in capturing the human condition within these contemporary regimes. They ask what it feels like to be stuck in a precarious present with no future, to be a semi-willing participant in your own exploitation. These rich prompts allow Hu to roam freely, raising critical questions about the status of memory, identity, racialization, and community in our postdigital environment. He discusses whether there is a possibility of sincerity without authenticity (125), suggests “slipping out of the straitjacket of subject and object” (133), poses lethargy as a deadlock or friction “between multiple modes of time” (162), and envisions a type of “collectivity through mere proximity” (167). These highly stimulating discussions echo work by Franco Berardi or Bernard Stiegler, yet in many respects are more attuned to contemporary digital cultures and their racialized and gendered dimensions. Hu’s provocations recognize the fatalism and ambivalence that characterizes digital capitalism—yet also suggest that there are faint outlines of possibility within this bleak landscape.

At a few points, Hu’s more lateral and literary approach seems to become free-floating. Claims become slightly speculative or unmoored. When the author translates insights from an artwork, it can be unclear where or how exactly they might apply. Who is the “we” in digital capitalism? Are Cupertino developers and Bangalore call-center operators trapped in the same ways? Are these conditions intensified in so-called advanced societies or is this a global condition—and if the latter, surely they are inflected in distinct ways in distinct contexts? Hu is clearly aware of the global division of labor and the ways in which digital capitalism is racialized and gendered. Yet in these moments, we can see the flipside of contemporary art’s ability to diagnose a general condition—the diagnosis may resonate affectively but also evade further articulation.

In some sense, this is the nature of the beast: lethargy seems nebulous and hard to pin down. “Lethargy isn’t a script for you, just a feeling,” writes Hu (178); for others, it is “a faint emptiness at the periphery of their bodies.” In resisting prescription, Hu echoes Byung-Chul Han, who is also more interested in highlighting modern conditions (alienation, precarity, and exhaustion) than laying out shovel-ready programs for emancipation. Instead, the book often blends the didactic with the poetic in beautiful ways. Hu ends on an unfinished note, suggesting a book cannot tell the whole story. And perhaps this is always the case: theorists can offer new questions and new provocations—but it is always up to particular communities to apply them in specific ways to their own particular life-world.

Hu’s praise of passivity may raise a red flag to some. Critics will no doubt suggest that his championing of these quieter currents of potential is fatalistic, too easily accepting the brutal conditions that pervade digital capitalism. In their minds, this argument only assists digital regimes in broadening and intensifying forms of extraction and dispossession. To some extent, Hu anticipates these critiques. Lethargy, he says, offers a “complementary mode to resistance” (92), an alternative set of potentialities that augment rather than replace more traditional political struggle. Lethargy offers a third choice that is neither “resistance nor refusal” (159).

Yet Hu’s ratcheting down of the political can be understood as perpetuation rather than a concession. Politics is exhausting, with many activists testifying to burn out and depression after a short stint. If lethargy is more nominal, it is also more sustainable (a point only implicit in the text). Lethargy highlights a loose grammar of responses that allow workers to carry on and even, in the odd moment, enjoy themselves in the midst of bleak conditions. Such conditions appear too entrenched to escape, at least for now. Given this reality, we urgently need to update our all-or-nothing definition of politics and develop immanent strategies for coping. As Hu (128) observes: “new forms of relationality are already flourishing within the space of digital capitalism, rather than outside it.”

Hu’s provocations can be productive, even when they seem to go too far. One chapter is based on Sleeping Beauty, a film where a woman is willingly drugged in order to carry out “sleep jobs” for cash. The film’s protagonist becomes an unconscious plaything for older men while showing few signs that it troubles her. The audience thus strains to find visible gestures of resistance but they never appear. Despite this, Hu suggests that the final scene—where the main character wakes up nude next to a man who has committed suicide—is a form of “lethargic or zero degree of politics,” “the heaviness of sleeping next to someone who can’t feel anything; where affect is received if not circulated” (113). I found this claim went too far, particularly given the context.

Indeed, the film gestures (albeit obliquely) to the dark side of Hu’s invitation at various points throughout the book to be more like a bot or an object.

“...more like a bot or an object...” Flowchart from patent illustrating how an agent might sense events, take observations, and respond to them with gestures or utterances.

Hu’s (xxvii) “self-forgetting” (a sidestepping of “the liberal-democratic narrative”) may tip into self-loathing, perpetuating exploitation and oppression by others. However, my tangible discomfort with such claims was also somehow invigorating. How many academic books claim to be radical while doing paint-by-numbers theory that reproduces the status quo? How much scholarship preaches to the choir, merely repeating virtues that already have widespread consensus? Hu’s book is refreshing in being truly provocative while at times drawing on vexing and uncomfortable material.

Hu’s contribution, then, is to not attempt to solder the political back together and return to some imagined halcyon age of struggle, but instead to take the strange fragments that remain—our ability to endure, to be bored together, to embed aspects of our identity in the surrounding digital world—and rearrange them into a new concept of the political, “something that remains diffuse, ambient, but that nevertheless charges its subjects with potential” (xxii).

Towards the end of the book, Hu describes a performance by nibia pastrana santiago. After five hours of “doing nothing,” her body was sunbaked and covered in sweat, registering the hostility of the immediate environment. And yet santiago’s loitering in this space and time allowed the audience to experience it differently. Her “idling was contagious,” Hu (153) recalls, alerting them to the flow of traffic, the shifts in weather, the security protocols of the gallery, and the broken infrastructure underneath them.

Like much art, santiago’s piece offers no clear solution, no five-point plan to break the systems of financial, environmental, and racial inequality that render life unlivable for so many. While this lack of activity may be frustrating to those desiring more overt resistance, it accurately reflects frustrated bodies and frustrated lives. “Lethargy describes a period before the question ‘What must be done?’ can be fully articulated,” Hu (xxii) explains. This is a moment before the moment of revolution or even struggle. It is a time of paying attention to the present, a time of collecting thoughts and assembling feelings, a time of being together in small ways with others. It is a time to endure. And perhaps for now that is enough.

Lethargy offers a “complementary mode to resistance.” Photograph of Hong Kong anti-extradition protestors exemplifying traditional notions of resistance.