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Maggie Nelson’s ‘Great To Watch’

Advancements in technology have produced a world in which one is constantly looking at images or watching a video. Whether for enjoyment or to fill a void caused by boredom many people scroll through their phones aimlessly viewing a multitude of images. Maggie Nelson discusses these notions of spectating in her narrative titled “Great to Watch,” where she presents two different views of what “spectating” really means. She first views it as an action that provides a false sense of empowerment where one passively views through constant scrolling. Later she claims that active spectating gives one a mechanism to become aware of both themselves and the environment. Malcolm Gladwell presents his idea of the environment in his narrative titled “The Power of Context.”

Gladwell claims that external factors in the environment have power over one’s behaviors. He claims that whoever has control over the environment has control over one’s character. In the narrative “Alone Together” by Sherry Turkle she examines how humans interact and connect with sociable robots, technology that has the ability to mimic life-like emotions. Turkle also presents how humans approach events in their life with pragmatic tendencies, in which one would focus more on what is sensible in one’s context. Spectating can be active or passive and how one spectates will determine what has power over one’s self. By using strategies such as pragmatism, one can give passive spectating an active component that gives an individual an extent of power over his or her context, allowing one to shape one’s own experience of the self.

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An individual’s natural use of pragmatism causes one to focus on what is sensible in the context of his or her environment. How humans approach factors within their environment is significant to how they view it. When discussing how a child interacts with sociable robots, she states that “His attitude is pragmatic. If something that seems to have a self is before him, he deals with the aspect … most relevant to the context” (Turkle 463). When presented with a physical or conceptual factor, especially one that may not be fully understood, it is natural to approach it with pragmatism. Whatever is sensible or “relevant” to the environment or “context” that one is in will be focused on. Although that factor may have many “aspects” to it, one would only deem those relevant to his or her specific context as worthy to examine.

Turkle’s notions of pragmatism can be applied to Nelson’s ideas on how we spectate. Humans live in a world where they are constantly and passively scrolling through images. Nelson describes this state as “Web surfing, which consists of rapid image flow, the distillation of long, complex stories and situations … that have an eerily leveling effect on content and context” (Nelson 304). “Image flow,” therefore, creates an environment in which users can passively view a multitude of images, clips, and condensed stories in a short amount of time. Her use of the word “eerily” gives “image flow” a negative connotation, implying it takes away the need to actively examine the content of a story. Turkle’s notions of pragmatism complicated Nelson’s views on image flow. Since we approach factors, such as image flow, with pragmatism this seemingly passive action requires an unconscious effort. Depending on our “context” when faced with image flow we will actively focus on what is relevant in our environment. One would passively scroll past a story because he or she would deem it not relevant or important to their current context. Pragmatism gives “image flow” an active component, allowing what is relevant in one’s context to reinforce one’s experience of the self.

In a world where spectating can lead to limiting boundaries, one can use a pluralistic mindset to coexist within them. Pragmatism is not the only mechanism humans have to break free of passive spectating. Nelson examines these boundaries and titles them as “an age of extremity, characterized by the continual threat of two … opposed destinies” (Nelson 306). Therefore, continuous passive spectating has led to a reality where everything has to be categorized. An individual is presumably bound by these limitations, unable to live in the gray area between the two destinies. Nelson’s use of the word “destinies” implies that the “age of extremities” is inevitable. However, Turkle offers a way of thinking that allows humans to break free from these extremities.

While comparing how a child interacts with a sociable robot with another robot titled Wilson she states that we are “Pluralistic in our attitudes toward the self … We approach them like Wilson: they can be machines, and they can be more” (Turkle 463). Her use of “Pluralism” dictates that one is able to take two dichotomous entities and coexist within them. By stating that robots “can be machines” and that “they can be more” suggests concepts are not rigid. Therefore, the boundaries that the “age of extremities” present can be broken through being “pluralistic.” An individual who uses a “pluralistic” mindset is able to coexist within the boundaries, directly challenging Nelson’s belief that the “age of extremities” is inevitable. An individual would therefore be able to unlock new perceptions by giving passive spectating an active component and discovering new possibilities for how one experiences the self.

By actively spectating one’s environment an individual unlocks the ability to form his or her own perception of character. One views character as the qualities and traits that make a person who they are. While discussing what makes up one’s character Gladwell states that “character is more like a bundle of habits and tendencies and interests, loosely bound together” (Gladwell 160). By stating that one’s character is “loosely bound” it implies that one’s character is malleable and can be shaped. These “habits and tendencies and interests” are free to develop, changing the experience of the self while being molded within the environment, altering the overall traits of an individual. Nelson complicates this through her notions of spectating. When presenting what happens when we truly spectate something, Nelson states that “the world presents us with a composition in which a multitude of meanings and realities are available, and you are able to swim … in that … sea of multiplicity” (Nelson 311).

Through spectating, an individual gains new perceptions of the world by revealing new “meanings and realities.” Nelson’s metaphor of being able to “swim” in a “sea of multiplicity” implies a sense of freedom. An individual has a choice in one’s newfound perceptions of his or her environment, and this choice is not binding. One could freely “swim” between perceptions, living within the boundaries an environment presents. Through one’s new perception of the world, an individual is able to live within his or her environment with the freedom to shape his or her own character. This in turn gives the individual a certain extent of control over how they experience the self.

Through the application of strategies to break the boundaries set by passive spectating humans continue to shape their own experiences. These strategies need to be implemented constantly or else context will regain power. Those who disagree would argue that individuals never have the ability to gain an extent of control over one’s context. However, the strategies presented by Turkle offer ways to gain power through active spectating. Without ways to overcome “the age of extremities” humanity will be sentenced to Nelson’s expectation that humans will be bound by two destinies of constant banality or terror. In the current state of modern technology image flow is inevitable, but how we approach image flow is what matters. By keeping pragmatic mindset humans can give the action of passive spectating an active component.

Active spectating is the key to gaining control over one’s own experience of the self. Therefore humans need to keep actively spectating the world around them and thinking abstractly to gain new perceptions of the world. This is the only way to overcome a world where everything is categorized. All in all, the use of strategies to live within the boundaries an environment presents is to actively spectate the world, unlocking new perceptions that will grant humans the ability to choose one’s own destiny.

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Maggie Nelson's 'Great To Watch'. (2021, Mar 25). Retrieved July 13, 2021, from https://essayscollector.com/essays/maggie-nelsons-great-to-watch/