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Attending to the Other

Writer and technologist Jasmine Wang reflects on the art of attention under conditions of algorithmic life.

SO-FAR so good

Still image from Lawrence Lek video called Temple Lilly from 2021 showing purple lillies

Lawrence Lek, <em>Temple Lily</em> [still], 2021, video (color, sound), 3840 × 2160 pixels, 30 seconds.

I realised recently that some of the people closest to me are poets. Some of them have never authored anything resembling what's traditionally deemed a poem. They read as poets to me because they speak with the economy of poetry, concerned primarily with rhythm, timbre, and weight. They practice the special quality of attention that that economy requires.

They attend to their instrument language, playing out its particularities and peculiarities. Finding the right words requires both intellectual gymnastics and a careful attunement to the songful dimensions of speech. Ocean Vuong wrote[1] that a metaphor should have both a logical and sensory connection between the origin image and the transforming image. At their best, metaphors can reorient the mind completely and induce original sight.

They also attend to the object of their instrument. There’s the famous Daoist story of the butcher who never had to sharpen his axe[2] since he had studied the object of his instrument so closely that the blade slid cleanly through flesh, never encountering bone. One of my closest friends says his love language is deep attention. When I'm confused about a situation, he listens to what I have to say, directs me with careful questions, and then goes away for a few hours. Eventually, he comes back with a question or framing that slices through my fog. I treasure his speech deeply. The attention that undergirds it stands in sharp contrast to the hastily shared words and online takes generated against a backdrop of common knowledge that attention is both scarce and low quality.

Simone Weil, the great French mystic who fasted to death in solidarity with frontline soldiers, said that "attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity"[3]. A few years ago, I attended a workshop in Northern California. One evening, we were to try out social experiments to expand our comfort zones. I decided to sit apart from the party and be visibly alone. I began, without any verbal communication, to hold the gaze of someone I had met just a few days prior. I knew I was part of his eye-gazing experiment. The world fell away as I watched his eyes watch me. There was an internal shift when I realised I did not have to perform or act in order to be attended to. It was the first I could simply be and yet still be witnessed.

If you’ve been lucky enough to have had a deep relationship with another human being, you know what pure attention and witness feels like. The poet David Whyte said that "the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self. The ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone, and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them, and to have believed in them, and sometimes, just to have accompanied them, for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone"[4]. I can play all the iterated vulnerability games I want with someone, but I only truly feel well with them if we’ve reached the plateau state where both parties feel intrinsically worthy of the other’s attention. Weil said that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”. To attend to something properly is to resacralise it.

To attend to something properly is to resacralise it.

I'm partly fascinated by attention because my own is awful. I flit between thought to thought, a moth thirsty for light. Like many others, my attention has been challenged by the pandemic. Most of the discourse on attention is framed in terms of productivity. My friend confided in me nervously over dinner that she wasn't able to focus on her work like she used to be able to. I think attention is important for all sorts of other reasons. While I walked through the subway to meet her at this restaurant, I had felt the skin of my scalp tightening under the hum of the bright fluorescent lights and my shoulder muscles squeeze in response to an especially dirty stairwell. Now that I was at the restaurant, my body had loosened, and I was more porous in some ways. I take on the lilt of her speech. Trying to articulate a novel thought, I feel my way towards the right handle with the entirety of my body, imagine how words would taste on my tongue, how they fit the shape of this new uncharted luminosity. Sometimes, the precise phrase comes easily. Other times, I bumble, throw words around, see what sticks. If I'm comfortable with who I'm with, I simply hold my tongue.

Weil was part of a particular lineage of ethical psychology[5] that believed that the ethical agent is a witness; the primary responsibility is not to change the world but to understand , in contrast with the Humean moral psychology that believes that the ethical agent is an actor, whose primary responsibility is to change the world. It was nontrivial, however, to achieve the sort of clear perception she spoke of; among other things, it required an integrated character.

Witnessing and attending sound passive, but it is far from easy to achieve clear perception, to truly and deeply see. It requires, among other things, an openness to being moved and transformed, the development of language, and the resistance of algorithmic life. Weil believed that simple attention was required for moral attention, which was required for empathy, which was required for ethical action. We are unable to act ethically towards that which we have not first attended to. It is thus urgent to understand how we might better attend to other humans but also to the nonhuman other.

Witnessing and attending sound passive, but it is far from easy to achieve clear perception, to truly and deeply see .

One way is to attend to the non-logical aspects of communication. Attunement to the melodic quality of our language draws those we are in dialogue with to be more in tune with their own senses and opens our own ears to the sonority of other creatures. Read a poem today, perhaps this one that describes the limits of the language, and feel it in your mouth. Speak out different beliefs ("I'm sitting on a bed in Brooklyn", " I'm a woman", "I'm rich", "I'm poor"), and see how your body feels after each one. I am reminded of a theatre exercise I used to do that my teacher called "voicefinding" to find where your voice liked to sit. You place your fingers right above where your jaw curves into your neck, start humming with the highest part of your range and move downwards. I still remember how it felt when I found my pitch for the first time. The vibrations of my jawbone were markedly stronger. My voice was suddenly mellifluous and resonant; there were overtones present I hadn't noticed were missing before.

Two years ago, my mind was gently then suddenly rubbed raw by various philosophical conundrums, and I spent a few days extremely open to all stimuli: I cried listening to jazz, upon understanding a particularly difficult math equation, walking up a grand set of stairs. I was in an elevated state of receptiveness that people have induced for millennia and that performance artists like the great Marina Abramovic have practised achieving incredible feats of endurance that transcended the needs of the body.

I wonder what Weil's final week might have been like if her attention was turned to external forms, internally on her failing organs, or to another plane entirely. Her death reminds me of Han Kang's The Vegetarian [6], a beautiful and violent meditation on the body, where a woman wishes for nothing but to become a tree, to feed herself by sunbeams alone. I suspect that if Weil's attention was, in fact, directed inwards, she would not have experienced a dark destruction of form but a sanctifying, warm light.

Wittgenstein claimed that you cannot enter worlds for which you do not have the language.[7] Jenny Odell, in How to Do Nothing , discusses how learning the language of birders helped her distinguish better between different birds.[8] One of the most pleasurable parts of learning a new domain for me is developing the language that accompanies the development of taste. This is this sort of chocolate, and I like that more because xyz, this sort of music. There is a delight in finally discovering the exact right label for one’s felt experience. Language facilitates higher levels of attention.

What would happen if we allowed and supported people in traversing the wild skies of joy as well as the keenest edges of grief and sorrow? What peaks and valleys of human experience would these voyagers be able to chart?

Conversely, we are not typically kind to the worlds we do not have language for or objects that remain illegible to us. Over the last century or so, we've improved somewhat in our treatment of various peoples. We practice standpoint theory selectively with some groups we are able to communicate with: women, queer folks, people of colour. But we are still unkind to the mentally ill. In Esme Weijun Wang's The Collected Schizophrenias , she recounts how she uses legible status labels — bestselling author Yale honours graduate — to rehumanise herself to both clinical and professional audiences.[9] The mentally ill are terrifying partially because they are illegible and unpredictable. Our conditioned impulse towards them, as it is towards all unknown terrain, is to master, conquer, and make useful. We are so anxious to normalise people to our own baseline. For mood disorders, a patient's mental 'fitness' is measured primarily by the degree to which she is able to hold down a 9-5 job. Grandiosity and being 'overly' ambitious are markers of narcissistic personality disorder. There are alternative treatment institutions for people experiencing extreme states that follow in the footsteps of psychiatrist R. D. Laing by orienting to these states as teachers. What would happen if we allowed and supported people in traversing the wild skies of joy as well as the keenest edges of grief and sorrow? What peaks and valleys of human experience would these voyagers be able to chart?

E. F. Schumacher believed that those genuinely interested in inner development would study the lives and works of people for whom “the striving for ‘power’ has entirely ceased and been replaced by a certain transcendental longing”[10], and who had “broken out of our ordinary confinement of time and space”. Maslow proposed[11] a similar type of psychological research: instead of attempting to understand the inner states of first-year Harvard students, we should study those living at what Maslow called the furthest reaches of human nature.

One of my friends, who experiences cyclothymia, gave me a beautiful metaphor once about friendship. She thinks of her friends as a tether, not a weight. If she’s feeling hypomanic, she hopes that her friend’s first instinct is not to warn her not to fly too close to the sun. Let her be generative, expansive, magical. Don’t aim to pop the balloon, but hold its attached string carefully. Trust that she will come back to earth eventually, or even better, find ground on an entirely different planet.

Philosophers like Yuk Hui[12] trace this tendency to reduce the illegible other to a 'resource' to something deeply ingrained in Western cosmology itself, where man conceptualises himself as apart from and independent of the world. The world is an 'other', a blank slate upon which his will is executed. Heidegger's definition of technology was a 'revealing' of the world as a resource[13]. This definition of technology, where humanity employs technology to 'make use of' the world, is predicated on an oppositional relationship between man and world. Hui is interested in how an Eastern cosmology might change, or completely redefine, the ontology of the self-other relation so that the self and the other are interdependent.

To encounter the other, we can develop language, yes, but we should also learn to open our hearts and bodies. We must sensitise ourselves to the poetics of everything.

Even if we choose to retain a clean self-other distinction, Buber offers a challenge to the instrumentalising worldview[14] — he calls the way we typically relate to the other an I-It relation. We try to collapse the other into an easily legible measure or set of measures — how tall is the tree? How does it look? What species is it? — and by doing so, "the tree remains 'your' object and has its place and its time span, its kind and condition". Instead, he calls for you to allow yourself to be drawn into a reciprocal relationship with the tree, where you see the tree in its entirety. "Whatever belongs to the tree is included: its form and its mechanics, its colours and its chemistry, its conversation with the elements and its conversation with the stars"[15], all of the tree, confronting you bodily.

The sociologist Hartmut Rosa calls a similar mode of relating resonance [16]. Instead of viewing oneself as a closed-off, independent system bent on controlling the other, one leaves oneself open to being affected by the world, responsive to its call, and thereby allows oneself to transform and be transformed by it. The former sounds like a subjugated, exploitative relationship, the latter a nourishing, healthy friendship. How can we achieve resonance with the other? Approach the unknown as a friend?

This development of language is important, but it is also limited. There are so many worlds that we do not have language for that perhaps humans will never develop language for, strain as we may. So many beings — animals, trees, mountains, and rivers — have no place in any sign system we might design, no expressive agency in any human semiotic. To encounter the other, we can develop language, yes, but we should also learn to open our hearts and bodies. We must sensitise ourselves to the poetics of everything.

The American environmentalist Paul Shepard is known to have said, “the grief and sense of loss, that we often interpret as a failure in our personality, is actually a feeling of emptiness where a beautiful and strange otherness should have been encountered.”[17] How many others, human and nonhuman, have perished because we did not attend to them properly? Think of the terrifying rates of species extinction, as well as the disproportionate death rates of queer, racialised, and otherwise marginalised bodies. How many have not perished, but are reduced in some way, smaller versions of the beings they might have been? Think of those who downregulate their life force in an effort to be employable. How much beauty and strangeness are we on track still yet to lose? I think the stakes here are both enormous and invisible. If we do not nurture and practice attention, we will lose everything, and we will not even be aware of what it is that we have lost. We will lose any sense of sacredness. We will ignore real atrocities[18]. We’ll feel an ongoing vague sense of disconnection and loss as our senses, tastes, and judgement are dulled by a blanket of algorithmic threads. Attention is not sufficient, but it is a prerequisite for all that is good and worthy and valuable.

Listen to writer Jasmine Wang narrate excerpts of this essay in the video above, paired with Lawrence Lek’s atmospheric Temple Lily video NFT from FeralFile , of a rare flower that blooms in darkness. This article was first published on Jasmine Wang’s Substack and edited for clarity.

  • 1.

    Ocean Vuong, “Metaphors Highlight.” Instagram, 2021,

  • 2.

    “The Story of Butcher Ding” from the Zhuangzi, retold in Edward Slingerland, Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (New York: Crown, 2014). Brian Lehrer and Edward Slingerland, “May Wu-Wei Be With You,” March 28, 2014, in The Brian Lehrer Show, produced by WNYC Studios,

  • 3.

    Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, 1947 (New York: Routledge, 2002).

  • 4.

    David Whyte, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Words (Langley: 2014).

  • 5.

    Warren Heiti, Attending: An Ethical Art (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2021). Heiti traces the tradition of psychology that follows Weil’s recovery of Platonism in the 20th century. Drawing from Weil’s understanding that “virtue is knowledge…and the knower is nested in an ecosystem of relationships,” he traces the work of Iris Murdoch, John McDowell and few others to bring insight to an alternative genealogy of ethics.

  • 6.

    Han Kang, The Vegetarian, trans. Deborah Smith (London: Hogarth Press, 2016). In Kang’s novel, a young woman goes against both her family and society’s expectations when she stops eating meat following vivid and bloody dreams. Eventually, she stops eating altogether. As a result, the woman is admitted to a psychiatric ward.

  • 7.

    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. C.K. Ogden (Oxford: Routledge, 1994). “That the world is my world, shows itself in the fact that the limits of the language (the language which I understand) mean the limits of my world.”

  • 8.

    Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2019).

  • 9.

    Esme Weijun Wang, The Collected Schizophrenias: Essays (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2019).

  • 10.

    Ernst F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper Perennial, 1978).

  • 11.

    Abraham Maslow, The Farthest Reaches of Human Nature (New York: Penguin, 1971).

  • 12.

    Yuk Hui, “Cosmotechnics as Cosmopolitics,” e-flux Journal, e-flux, November 2017, The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016). Cosmotechnics: For A Renewed Concept of Technology in the Anthropocene (Oxfordshire: Routledge, 2021). Yuk Hui develops a notion of cosmotechnics — “the unification of the cosmos and the moral through technical activities” — as an alternative model for being and thinking following the demise of unilateral globalisation.

  • 13.

    Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, trans. William Lovitt (New York: Harper & Row, 1977).

  • 14.

    Martin Buber, I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970).

  • 15.

    I and Thou, trans. Walter Kaufman (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970).

  • 16.

    Harmut Rosa, Resonance: A Sociology of Our Relationship to the World, trans. James Wagner (Oxford: Polity Press, 2018). Hartmut Rosa, The Uncontrollability of the World, trans. James Wagner (Oxford: Polity Press, 2020). For Rosa, resonance is a state of being that opposes the contemporary state of acceleration. In his conception,a practice of resonance can influence all domains of human life, not just an individual’s own perception of themselves and their immediate view.

  • 17.

    “A Beautiful and Strange Otherness,” WisdomBridge, accessed November 15, 2021, Original source unknown.

  • 18.

    Arthur Koestler, “The Nightmare That Is a Reality,” New York Times, (New York, NY), Jan. 9, 1944. Writing in the midst of the Second World War, former political prisoner and author, Arthur Koestler expressed concern regarding the apathy of many British and American citizens towards the atrocities of the Nazi party. Koestler identifies the cause of such apathy to the “split-consciousness” of unaffected citizens who are not able to reconcile another’s reality – mass genocide and torture of three million plus Jews – with their own reality.