In a crowd of people one can feel most alone. With the social field dominated as it is by modern technology, we feel the truth of this adage today more than ever. But what is the presumption here? It seems what is implied is that the fear of social contact amplifies the sense of isolation, and that if only one could overcome this phobia, the lonesomeness wouldn’t be so bad. Loneliness, and here I mean the kind poets and philosophers use as grist to the mill, according to psychologists, is underpinned by root causes that, if left unaddressed, are truly made worse by social contact . So where it seems that not being able to connect to others is the problem, it’s actually not being able to connect with one’s self.
Which brings me to this youtube video. The title, which serves as description, is, “Professor outbursts at ‘Overly Loud’ Yawn.” In it, a cellphone camera captures a university lecturer unceremoniously halted by a very loud, but not unauthentic, yawn. Here, the entertainment value of the two and half minute clip is established as we watch the professor try in vain to identify the offender, first by calling on him or her directly to self-identify, and then by appealing to the class to ‘rat’ the guilty party out. With this proving fruitless, the chafed lecturer launches into a pitiful rant where, among other things, he invites the perpetrator to question why he or she is the “one loser that has to do that” .
Here we experience schadenfreude at the sight of an authority figure flailing in his modern solitude. But putting humor aside, is this not the status of power relations today? No longer does authority stand for the old ideal of a domineering, dispassionate executor, glacially indifferent to the plight of the masses, while the masses themselves boil over with frustration and expressions of pent-up rage. Now it is authority which is more and more characterized by a distinct lack of emotional control and the masses who have mostly become yawningly indifferent.
What has caused this shift? I contend the cause is what we have suspected all along — electronic media. To illustrate my point I will rely on a somewhat poetic comparison to the way the events unfold in the video between the lone professor and his unsympathetic students, and the historical trajectory of electronic media and its consumers. Contrariwise, my connection is not a melodramatic one wherein we self-spoiled westerners are in the position of the professor, making vain attempts at a direct connection to our passive devices, managing only to reinforce our sense of isolation.
Strangely, it is the electronics which occupy the disconnected instructor’s symbolic position. Going back, broadcast radio emerges as a response to a collective yawn of a generation on the threshold of waking. Home audiences were roused and rapt by the voices emanating from their living room receivers. Every utterance held sway over their enchanted imaginations. Very similarly, the professor’s initial entreaty to his anonymous transgressor appears strikingly ominous and potent, even from the total safety of my computer desk. That is to say, the germinal prefigured tension moved the imagination to do the heavy lifting of ‘creating belief’. A well known illustration of this originary power over the collective fantasy is the notorious incident of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast where listeners, upon hearing a mock news report of aliens declaring war on earth, ran panicked into the streets.
Then however, with the advent of television, things begin to change. The medium gets the message, to misquote McLuhan, which is that the communication only goes one way. The sole response the lorn leisure device can expect to receive in return is the cold binary language of on’s and off’s, tuned-in or not. To achieve its worth and keep its audience’s attention, Spectacle becomes its method of appeal de rigueur. Intriguingly, what makes television seemingly so much greater (its exponential improvements over radio in sensual stimulation) also contributes to a marked loss of effectuality. Just in the way that the professor, once he makes a show of his anger, loses his grip of power over his students, audiences, now accustomed to the mechanism’s penchant for super-stimulus, incorporate its potential (to shock and scare) into their requirements from it. In the language of psychoanalysis, it has become the figure of the impotent master; all bark and no bite.
And now before we progress once more, let us go back, to the inciting incident, the video’s titular action — the yawn. Is not this instinctual release the sign of a liminal passage — a threshold between alternating universes? Once a yawn is enacted, a simple option presents itself: to awaken more or to fall back asleep. So one should question, with this strict metaphorical fidelity: What if the student’s yawn represents, for her and all of us, not an awakening to the manifold, panoplous articulation of electronic media, but a gradual dozing off in the face of it, indeed because of it?
It may seem intensely cliché to point out that the ubiquitous Apple logo, with the perfect bite taken out, represents the story of Adam and Eve. The orgy of mixed metaphors notwithstanding, perhaps though it is closer to say that this is the apple Snow White is presented with, the one that gives eternal sleep, not the one granting baleful earthly intelligence.
At the end of the video, the professor, worn down by ambivalent silence, musters one last appeal. In a soft I’m-on-your-side tone he somberly throws in, “If somebody wants to anonymously tell me who it was, please do”. Here in divergence with this tepid surrender, the electronic entertainment appliance (perhaps spurred on by a blissful ignorance of the emptiness of its cause) stages today its most sophisticated and enthusiastic appeal for a direct response. And finally now with clicks and queries, it can get that response — through the algorithm.
What we don’t seem to realize, even though it us who grants it, is that this response is totally below consciousness, below desire even, this response represents the object-voice of drive itself. In Mladen Dolar’s book, A Voice and Nothing More, he points out, “The subject always gets the message back in inverted form… We expect a response from the Other, we address it in the hope of a response, but all we get is the voice.”  This is the logic of the algorithm, our response to the call of the internet is only its own inverted voice elicited back to it, that it beat us into submission over years and years for. What were once fearful, furious masses, are placated, dreaming individuals. When I idly sit down at the computer (or pull out my phone while standing in a crowd) is it not like moving through through the logic of a dream? My actions are predicated on complete cognitive ease, will power amounts to almost nothing, it all seems like disembodied choices, choices that you make, but not a ‘you’ who has full control to make them.
This is to finally say, we are the dispassionate crowd only semi-consciously yawning at the traumatic authority figure onto whom we have displaced our panic and furor. Instead of having to confront him, which we instinctively know only furthers our cognitive disease, we simply slip away into our reverie. Instead of speaking back, and therefore becoming lonely like him, we endeavor to enjoy being alone. When, while I’m watching a video on youtube, guided by muscle memory, as the mouse leads me to the comment section below where I post a slack wisecrack, I’m doing so not to communicate in any mimetic way with another, but to rid myself of the final nagging vestige of the traumatic other which obliges me to respond, and finally enjoy being alone!
Nobu Massiah is a graduate of the Maurice Kanbar School for Film and Television at NYU with a BA in Film and Television.
1. Villarica, H. (2010, Oct. 11), http://healthland.time.com/2010/10/11/how-not-to-feel-lonely-in-a-crowd/
2. Youtube. (2010, Nov. 5), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QuLaQoQP9oo
3. A Voice: And Nothing More, page 160