Zoom in the past conditional
by Gary Kafer
Video teleconferencing makes us ever more present to each other: always-on, always peripherally addressable by the network. Every class, meeting, conference, and performance, no matter where they might take place physically, is a now virtual affair whose only point of entry is a hyperlink. At the forefront of this luxury is Zoom, the video teleconferencing platform now synonymous with the COVID-19 pandemic. Founded in 2011, Zoom has only more recently ascended into the upper echelon of Silicon Valley (known as the “Three Commas Club,” symbolizing a net worth of a billion dollars or more) after witnessing a 1,900% increase in its overall usage due to social distancing guidelines and the intensification of remote labor. In addition to its widespread adoption, what makes the platform so auspicious as an icon of our historical present is how it claims a certain brand of digital ubiquity. With real-time telecommunications, we have no excuse not to show up anymore; indeed, where else is there to go in the midst of a pandemic? As the company states on the landing page of its website: “In this together. Keeping you securely connected wherever you are.” Zoom lets you be present from anywhere, even during “this challenging time.”
This narrative is no doubt familiar. Communications media have long confounded the boundaries between the local and global, here and there, through what McKenzie Wark terms telesthesia or “perception at a distance.” The telegraph, telephone, and television all attest to the enduring desire to bridge the gulf between the near and the remote, to bring what is distant close as a site of action and sensemaking. Writing in the late 1980s, Manuel Castells observed how the material arrangements of information and telecommunications infrastructures gave rise to a new configuration of telesthesia, a global “space of flows,” which supports continuous and simultaneous social practices at a distance. This digital network is the precise terrain of video teleconferencing platforms—including Zoom, but also Skype (founded 2003), Big Blue Button (2009), FaceTime (2010), Talky (2013), Jitsi Videobridge (2013), Discord (2015), Google Duo (2016), and Microsoft Teams (2017). Such platforms have long been employed in courts, hospitals, businesses, and universities to allow multiple people to communicate in real-time, sharing files, audio recordings, documents, and spreadsheets.
But something remarkable has happened since the beginning of 2020. Framed by the pandemic, video teleconferencing—perhaps Zoom specifically—is no longer simply concerned with bringing the distant near through real-time communication. Instead, such platforms have entered into our historical present armed with a promise of social repair, to restore an experience of connectivity abruptly lost in times of crisis. Perhaps then the new-ness of Zoom as another configuration of telesthesia poses a far less relevant concern than the novel forms of experience guaranteed by video telephony amid ongoing social and political upheaval. Such crises of course include the COVID-19 pandemic, but also other concurrent calamities that have come to frame our experience of the common. These include global warming and ecological ruin, anti-Black violence and mass incarceration, the continuing rise of authoritarian fascism and white supremacy, and the metastasizing tumor of U.S. imperialism on the global stage. Throughout all this, we hang our hopes on platforms like Zoom to restore our horizons of expectation and convention, to help us recuperate a scene of belonging so thoroughly effaced so as not to be recognizable anymore as a scene from which we might depart together. And the funny thing is that we give ourselves over to this digital network despite how unrelentingly lonely it makes us feel.
There are perhaps many ways to narrate what I take to be Zoom’s promise of social repair, but for me this is a story about time. More specifically, it’s a story about the experience of time made possible by Zoom and how we endure that time—sometimes together, but very often not. In this essay, I argue that Zoom’s promise of social repair hinges on its perceived affinity to the present (or hyper-present) as the premiere temporal modality of networked culture. In this framework, technologies like video teleconferencing consolidate the many diverse temporalities of the world into the now of real-time, synchronous action. Importantly, this networked now articulates new forms of embodiment and sociality within the technics of electronic presence. Through Zoom’s publicity materials and the use of the platform in reality television, I track how this electronic presence promises to alleviate the pangs of disconnection felt most acutely in the midst of the pandemic.
And yet, as we have come to find, the temporality of electronic presence is at odds with the material conditions that shape our collective realities—conditions now more starkly lit by the temporalities of crisis that have dislocated whatever experience of the commons we might have had before. In the second half of this essay, I locate a different tense—the past conditional—to speculate on how video teleconferencing mediates the social not with a promise, but as a failed potentiality that only now in retrospect seems to contour our shared frameworks of crisis management. As opposed to the present, the past conditional dilates the modes of disconnection (be that technological, economic, racial, geographic, ecological, political, social, or otherwise) that underlie Zoom’s promise of social repair. And in doing so, the past conditional likewise opens up alternative temporal trajectories of electronic presence that gesture towards submerged forms of connection beyond the network itself. Ultimately, by considering the medial tense of Zoom through the past conditional, I argue that we might better account for our own orientation to the network, our capacity to be addressed by others, and our mode of arrival to a scene of belonging at a very time when who inhabits this “we” is made increasingly uncertain by crisis upon crisis upon crisis.
The time of networks is the time of the now, the present, the real-time, and the simultaneous. Networked media render the world as a modular, scalable, and flexible system of communication relays in which any and all information is accessible with a simple click. In this network, differences in time and place mean nothing. Where you dwell in the world is less important than your ability to become synchronized to the ever-present now of the network. Anyone who has ever missed a Zoom meeting on account of being in a different time zone than the host knows this all too well. Writing in the early 1990s, Vivian Sobchack took stock of this now of networked media as giving way to a new aesthetic mode of “electronic presence.” As she argues, digital technologies not only mediate our own sense of being-in-the world, but constitute it. To quote at length from her essay “The Scene of the Screen”:
“A function of technological (and televisual) pervasion and (World-Wide-Web) dispersion, this new electronic sense of presence is intimately bound up in a centerless, network-like structure of the present, of instant stimulation and impatient desire, rather than in photographic nostalgia for the past or cinematic anticipation of the future […] and this electronic world incorporates the spectator/user uniquely in a spatially decentered, weakly temporalized and quasi-disembodied (or diffusely embodied) state. “
If for Marshall McLuhan electronic media extend or augment the body and its capacities for information processing across time and space, for Sobchack “the electronic tends to marginalize or trivialize the human body.” Obliterated by digital rendition and experienced only as a form of temporal discontinuity, the body becomes homogenized in its re-appearance within the ever-expanding present. A data profile or a flicker on the screen, this new electronic body emerges everywhere and nowhere, eternally connected and interactive.
Sobchack’s essay is admittedly dated, and very few of us these days would be so naïve as to think that the body has simply evaporated in cyberspace or that “we are all in danger of soon becoming merely ghosts in the machine.” And yet, now in our pandemic present we might more fully appreciate the brunt of this electronically mediated presence as it comes to suffuse our ordinary lifeworlds. As universities, corporations, city councils, courts, and professional conferences move online to promote social distancing, Zoom contracts our experience of many shared temporalities within the flatness of a networked present, a flatness mirrored so effortlessly in the platform’s gridded interface. In this now, your body is no longer your own, but that of the network, legible only as an electronic presence. Who among us hasn’t simply stared at their own uncanny reflection in the grid, mesmerized by our digital apparition?
To trace the contours of this electronic presence, consider here two stock photographs found on Zoom’s website. In both, a man sits in a brightly lit office space, thoughtfully curling his finger around his chin as his elbow rests on a sparsely decorated white desk. He regards the monitor in front of him, upon which we find the recognizable Zoom grid in both gallery and speaker view. But while the Zoom layout changes between the images (as well as the brand of the desktop computer), the man does not. A phantom of Photoshop, he remains unaffected, seemingly a fixture of the mise-en-scène itself (before offices were sites for contagion). Here Zoom sells the fantasy of a digitally mediated presence in which real space and time are rendered obsolete. Endlessly iterative, the man is merely a proxy of a person intended to advertise Zoom’s technical operation and corporate appeal. I understand this visual repetition as an index of what Kris Cohen calls the “tonelessness” of networked media, insofar as Zoom intensifies an “affectively flat or ambiguous form of mediated intimacy.” In the monotonous diagram of the network, electronic presence evacuates the usual coordinates of subjectivity and agency from the scene of the social, held together now by the phatic exchange of data indexing our ideas, behaviors, and emotion. Such tonelessness I argue is felt most acutely in what we have come to call Zoom fatigue, that strange vertigo one experiences when suspended in the domain of the virtual, tediously shuttling back and forth between personal and networked modes of encounter.
No doubt, electronic presence poses a threat to bodily integrity by consolidating the multiplicity of temporalities that dwell in our common world to the flatness of the now. And yet, within the ever unfolding catastrophes of our contemporary, such presencing has come to feel more reassuring than foreboding. In this pandemic, we not only settle for electronic presence, we need it. If before the mode of electronic presence articulated by videotelephony climaxed in the crisis of the body, now it bespeaks the reconnection of the body into networks framed by crises of another kind—the pandemic and more—that index the unmooring of the social from our imagined horizons of historical movement. Disoriented and without stable footing, we engage (now more than ever!) in new forms of what Lauren Berlant terms “genre flailing” that might aid us in collectively grappling with the bewildering transformations of our world. For Berlant, the genre flail is a “social/aesthetic form in relation to the mass vulnerability lived by persons, populations, and nations.” It is an improvisatory mode of crisis management that attempts to recuperate the patterned set of expectations and frameworks of interpretation that enable one to emerge as a relational subject when one’s sense of the present begins to fall apart. Like protesting or starting a book club or even my own writing of this essay, the genre flail gives form to the impossible and messy project of being together, if only for a moment.
As I see it, Zoom is one such contemporary (plat)form for genre flailing, promising to repair the social and recuperate what is now otherwise lost among our contemporary catastrophes. Under the moniker of electronic presence, Zoom purportedly alleviates the anxieties of disconnection (both physical and temporal) brought on by the pandemic with feelings of liveness, interactivity, and simultaneity. Here then we discover a shift in our orientation to the object of videotelephony from the dystopic anxiety of a post-cinematic datascape to some embittered, intoxicating optimism that makes our experience of Zoom so cruel. In this sense, it’s no surprise why so many at the beginning of lockdown noticed the uncanny relation of our world with that in E.M. Forster’s 1909 “The Machine Stops.” In this short story, the inhospitability of the Earth’s surface forces humans to live underground in isolated rooms, only able to communicate through the Machine, a global computer system that supports instant messaging and video chat. Our very own Zoom Machine similarly alleviates the pangs of isolation in a world ravaged by disconnection (perhaps soon we too might face a planetary apocalypse of our own).
While Zoom is employed ubiquitously to synchronize all sorts of relations, I argue that it is in reality television where we can more fully appreciate its promise of social repair in times of crisis. Television has long advanced a form of liveness in broadcast systems. Indeed, Jane Feuer argues that what defines television is its ontology of liveness unavailable to previous cinematic forms of exhibition. As is the case with the real-time transmission of broadcast news reporting, we feel the world unfold simultaneous to our own sense of the present. And yet, even television couldn’t cope with the devastating effects of the pandemic, as lockdown and social distancing put a halt to filming across the world. This posed a problem in particular for the genre of reality television show, which often cashes in on a feeling of liveness produced through routine production schedules, the presence of a live audience, and the spontaneity from unscripted events that only comes with people being together in the same space.
Take, for example, the season finale of Legendary, a reality competition web series that features eight ballroom houses vying for a $100,000 top prize and “legendary status” in the vogue community. Premiering May 27, 2020 and airing through the course of June and July, the show’s first season was filmed in New York City in February and March just prior to the rapid spread of COVID-19 across the United States. While most of the season was filmed as planned, the finale’s taping was scheduled just prior to Phase 1 of lockdown as New York was reporting its first cases. In order to curb the spread of the virus, city officials banned gatherings of fifty or more. The producers were confronted with a tough decision: cancel the finale or film it without an audience. They chose the latter. Apparently Zoom was not yet an option. And indeed, what would a reality show filmed remotely even look like, and how would live performance translate to synchronous video teleconferencing? At the time, we had not yet experienced the ubiquitous necessity of Zoom in self-isolation to make this kind of spectatorship possible.
As the pandemic dragged on, however, reality television was quick to adopt video teleconferencing to continue production and restore the lost sense of simultaneity and spontaneity so needed by its audience. Key among such shows are the season twelve finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race, The Real Housewives of Atlanta and its “Zoom-union” episode, and Saturday Night Live’s “at home” editions shot from the casts’ tiny NYC apartments (one episode even features a Zoom parody skit). Other kinds of televisual programs followed suit, including the 2020 Emmys award show, as well as fictional dramas and sitcoms like All Rise, Connecting…, and Social Distance (not to mention numerous reunion events for the casts of The Office, Parks and Recreation, Community, Frasier, Fresh Prince of Bel-Air… and the list goes on). Calling in from their homes, the cast and crew of each show were able to go on with their work as usual, the only difference being the various spaces and times from which they arrived to the televised Zoom meeting.
Common among these examples is the conceit that Zoom’s capacity for electronic presence can enable television to maintain the aesthetics of liveness specific to the medium. Importantly, the feeling of liveness in electronic presence is not the same as in older forms of televisual broadcast media through which the viewer sees the event unfold in a real-time transmission. Instead, this is a form of liveness unique to the Internet mediated in relation to what Tara McPherson terms “a sense of causality […] a sense of a connected presence in time.” The real-time spontaneity of the broadcast signal is replaced with the interactivity of video teleconferencing. In this case, even if an episode of reality television was filmed prior to its airing, Zoom is able to reconsolidate a feeling of liveness contingent upon its capacity to bring people together from their disparate spacetimes into the now of the network. The forms of sociality lost because of the pandemic were suddenly preserved, even if mediated by the screen. With Zoom, we now can return to our regularly scheduled program.
Curiously, in some cases, video teleconferencing was able to articulate a new experience of liveness in reality television otherwise unavailable to older formats of televisual production. For example, the lip sync battle in the season finale of RuPaul’s Drag Race was arguably truer to form that any other lip sync in the show’s history. While the usual lip syncs on the main stage are filmed multiple times in order to allow for the camera crew to get the best shots, this time the contestants were their own cinematographers, using digital video to live-stream a continuous performance in one take from their homes. Common complaints of over-editing suddenly dissipated as we get to see the queens’ talents unfiltered. Fans of The Real Housewives of Atlanta have similarly claimed that the latest season’s finale was made all the better because of Zoom, not in spite of it. Not only did the cast function as their own production crew, styling themselves and composing their own Zoom square from home to reflect their personality, the drama wasn’t drawn out or staged as is often the case in previous reunions shot in person. And in fact, the platform introduced new mechanics to the reunion format, including Nene Leakes “walking off set” by closing her laptop and the host Andy Cohen muting the cast when they were starting to argue. Perhaps it is only now with this pandemic that we are beginning to more fully appreciate what our digital tools might offer in making us present to each other.
However, Zoom’s promise of social repair doesn’t come without its consequences. As much as the platform makes us feel more connected, electronic presence also elaborates a new form of pandemic-era spectatorship vexed by feelings of loneliness. Such an affective disposition seems to be the very product of the strange knots of liveness entailed in the Zoom-cum-TV image. In a reaction video showing the three finalists of RuPaul’s Drag Race watching themselves in the finale in real-time to discover who was victorious, the newly crowned queen Jaida Essence Hall looks around her empty living room upon winning and exclaims, “Girl, I feel so weird... this is weird!” We understand that she refers at once to the surreal dream of being America’s Next Drag Superstar, as well as to the experience of being chillingly alone in her moment of triumph (the other two finalists, the only audience to her crowning, are electronically present over Zoom). There’s no escaping the strangeness of being simultaneously present to everyone and absolutely no one in our digital networks. Girl, it is weird.
The good crisis
In her account of the braided contours of crisis, neoliberalism, and networked media, Wendy Chun argues that crisis is that which drives our attachment to networked sociality, rather than that which jeopardizes it. Networks, she writes,
“embody neoliberalism’s visions of individuals and collectively dissolving society and foster analyses that integrate individual actions/tics into shareable trends/habits.”
Sedimented and reinforced through the repetition of connections, networked media make our patterns of actions and behaviors feel intentionally inclined towards change. And here it is in fact crisis—like our present pandemic and other concurrent catastrophes—that comes to “structure new media temporality.” Crises introduce disruption to our habits of connection, requiring real-time decisions that force us to double down on such habits and thus make our networks more resilient. In doing so, crisis magnetizes feelings of networked sociality by fostering the illusion of user empowerment and agency. Such crises then are not exceptional to neoliberalism, but its ordinary feature, a banal mode of temporality that sustains the network’s ability to (re)connect the social.
If crisis is a necessary condition for Zoom’s promise of social repair, then how might we account for the disparate experiences of video teleconferencing during this pandemic? Moreover, for whom does Zoom provide a platform for crisis management? And whose body is endangered by the never ending now of electronic presence? Consider again the aforementioned stock photographs on Zoom’s website. We are told in their brand guidelines [https://zoom.us/brandguidelines] that official stock photography for publicity and advertising should not only reflect Zoom’s brand (“We are modern and clean while being bold and beautiful.”), but also “be as natural as possible reflect [sic] our culture of diversity and happiness.” One understands diversity here as a neoliberal buzzword meant to insinuate something about the inclusive demographic makeup of the company’s workforce, as well as the broad applicability of the platform to consumers across axes of race, class, age, gender, religion, and more. The assortment of cheery faces in the Zoom grid suggests as much. However, if the iterability of the man from one image to the next indexes the flatness of the network and its consolidation of various spacetimes into the now, then here we see how this flatness is merely an illusion meant to elide the differential ways in which social becomes present to itself through video teleconferencing. In this case, the promise of social repair leveraged in this pandemic is not simply a solution to the crisis of disconnection, but also to the crisis of the social itself, always on the threshold of exceeding the form of the network.
Here we find an impasse between Zoom’s promise to repair the experience of disconnection as a form of crisis management and the sublimation of that crisis within systems of neoliberal governance to uphold the structure of networked sociality. Ultimately, this impasse effaces the very real material conditions of inequity exacerbated by the pandemic, including the vast disparities in health and wellbeing experienced by intersecting minority groups, particularly in health care, housing, education, criminal justice, and finance. This inequity extends as well to the very use of video teleconferencing. While many of us are able to self-isolate in our homes, many others cannot. So-called “essential” and “frontline” workers in healthcare, postal service, warehouse management, service industries, transit operation, building maintenance, child care, and more do not have the option of using Zoom. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as part of their ongoing Current Population Survey, 7% of those working in accommodation and food services and 6% of those in the agricultural sector teleworked, while more than half of workers in finance, insurance, and professional and technical services worked remotely. And the distribution of labor in essential positions is allotted along the usual lines of gender, race, class, education and citizenship status. The same study found that among those who had the opportunity to telework in May of this year, 59% percent had a Bachelor’s degree or higher while 5% only had a high school diploma. Another study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research concluded that frontline labor was disproportionately composed of women (nearly two-thirds), while people of color and immigrants were overrepresented across labor sectors, especially in building maintenance, cleaning services, child care, transit, grocery and warehouses, and postal services. To be sure, the incubation of COVID-19 within the national body has only exacerbated the corruption, greed, and atrophy of a political system that has long failed many minority groups at a time when white supremacy and ecological ruin have become prosaic tropes of existence. Some among us have long lived in crisis, which has appeared less as a singular event, than some diffuse atmospheric weight.
Now, one might argue that of course some jobs just simply can’t be accommodated with telework; how could one bartend or style hair over Zoom? But the issue arises not so much in terms of what forms of labor are amenable to telework, but rather how video teleconferencing has long accelerated unequal relations in national and global political economies. Indeed, for many, electronic presence is not a solution to disconnection, but its bedfellow. We would be wise to remember how the global North has at least since the 1970s subcontracted much of its telework (especially software development) to countries promising lower-waged labor in order to expedite the ascendency of the neoliberal market in the metropole. In our present moment, mandates around social distancing have spurred a longstanding interest in telepresence for creating new circuits of remote on-demand labor. Consider here the Model-T from the Japanese firm Telexistence—a system that allows laborers to don a VR headset and controllers to complete a selected task from an online marketplace. This technology has been in development since the mid-twentieth century but now billed as especially useful in the pandemic. Or consider how video teleconferencing platforms are being used to solve certain problems only when such solutions are understood to be morally obligated or at least lucrative. In Massachusetts, for example, medical providers have wanted to use Zoom to see patients remotely for many years, but state legislation did not require Medicaid to cover the costs of telemedicine visits, and so such visits were limited. Following the failure to approve telehealth parity legislation in 2018, it is only recently that the state’s Board of Registration in Medicine has approved its first permanent policy on telemedicine, finally allowing patients to get access to affordable remote healthcare under the most dire of circumstances.
And no doubt, this pandemic is but a testing ground for refining future technologies of electronic presence to continue outsourcing telework in ways that restrict some from gaining access to the material and symbolic benefits of citizenship. Filmmaker Alex Rivera offers one such speculative future in his 1997 experimental short Why Cybraceros? and subsequent narrative feature Sleep Dealer (2008). In these sci-fi worlds, certain labor contexts previously thought to be immune from telework (e.g. agriculture and construction) espouse real-time video streaming, augmented haptic interfaces, and biometrically integrated heads-up displays to enable American corporations to import labor from Mexico without physically bringing the laborer’s body across the border.
Such real and speculative technologies—Zoom’s ancestry and heirs—make plain the striated circuits of power that animate telework within the American imaginary beyond its contemporary appeals to social repair. Electronic presence thus is not simply defined by the technics of liveness and simultaneity within in a networked temporality, but instead is bound up with the racialized and gendered arrangements of technological surrogacy that bracket the limits of human autonomy and freedom within a post-racial neoliberal order. Indeed, liveness is not a technical condition of the network itself, but is, as Tung-Hui Hu remarks, “something that can be, and increasingly is, purchased from lower-wage microworkers elsewhere.” Hu continues here even more forcefully, observing how electronic presence—and attendant concepts of liveness, spontaneity, and interactivity—draws its strength from what Sianne Ngai calls the “animatedness” of racial difference. As a relational difference embedded in networked form, racial-class dramas continually serve as boundary cases that demarcate the viability of electronic presence for the political and economic demands of remoteness in times of crisis. Whatever fantasies of cohesion we attribute to electronic presence can only be sustained insofar as the premiere subject of video telephony is decidedly unmarked by racial, gendered, and class-based differences. I argue thus that at stake in our reckoning with Zoom is an understanding of social difference as that unruly vector which sustains the technics of electronic presence and whatever fantasies of togetherness it imagines to be possible. Perhaps then all this talk of crisis eclipses how the very genres of connectivity that sustain feelings of networked belonging have long been broken—and perhaps for some, were never there.
We could have
If the temporality of the present fails to register how the promise of social repair is distributed along sociopolitical boundaries, in the remainder of this essay I seek to locate an alternative tense that brackets the differential ways in which video teleconferencing attenuates the social in our current historical juncture. To do so, let’s return to the beginning. In the very early phases of the pandemic in the United States, even prior to the federal declaration of COVID-19 as a national emergency or the installment of statewide stay-at-home orders, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan remarked on an earnings call that the novel coronavirus will no doubt “transform the landscape” of work to accommodate a fully remote (or at least hybrid) model. Not long after, both Square and Twitter announced in May 2020 that employees who can work from home may do so permanently even after offices reopen. Curiously, however, as much as he speculates on the future, Yuan also suggests in this call that video teleconferencing finds its relevance in the past. Identifying several peer companies like InVision, Zapier, and Gitlab which have all long functioned without an office space, he jests:
“If I started over with the company, I’m not going to have a single physical office. A lot of people asked me ‘are you crazy?’ They realize that’s reality now.”
While Yuan is specifically remarking on the organization of labor in his company, one can sense here that he is also talking about what Zoom makes possible as a corrective to previous configurations of the workplace. No doubt, platforms like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Teams have always had the potential to allow for remote configurations of work and leisure, but have only now become that “reality.”
Following this rhetorical lead, one wonders how much video teleconferencing could have impacted our daily lives before they were abruptly altered by the pandemic. To be sure, we could have always worked remotely, but we did not. We could have always connected with family and friends in other cities or countries, but we did not. We could have always attended fitness classes, community gatherings, therapy sessions, and concerts remotely prior to this pandemic, but we did not. We could have, and we didn’t, but with Zoom now we can!
Common to these refrains is the could have: a recognition of a lost past that arrives now too late. The particular tense of this verb phrase is known as the past conditional. Sometimes referred to as modals of missed opportunity, the past conditional is typically used to describe the possibility of something not having happened in the past at the time of speaking. To be sure, the past conditional does not signify a simple statement of fact, but instead it explores the boundaries of a hypothetical situation and one’s relation to it. In grammatical terms, the past conditional is subjunctive (as opposed to indicative) insofar as it expresses a subject’s attitude towards a particular object (like video teleconferencing)—be that in the form of a wish, doubt, opinion, or judgment. At the risk of stating the obvious, I don’t mean to suggest that Zoom enables some sort of time travel, allowing us to commune with the past or vice versa; the platform will always concern the intensification of simultaneity and liveness within the present. Rather, I propose that the past conditional contracts something central about the way Zoom enters into our contemporary crises armed with a promise of social repair. Conjugated in the past conditional, video teleconferencing appears now as a solution to a problem only perceived in retrospect, a failed potential fully realized in the midst of crisis.
Moreover, I argue that the past conditional enables us to better witness how the unruly vector of social difference props up attachments to electronic presence bracketed by the unhappy architectures of neoliberalism. Note here how the past conditional rhetorically implies the presence of a we as the subject of Zoom’s promise. Again: “We could have, but we did not.” By expressing a time of reference in relation to a moment of speaking, the past conditional shores up a subject—the we—that otherwise goes unmarked in the present (recall the stock photographs where there is apparently no subject, only the tiresome tonelessness of the network). Stated differently, the past conditional brings forth the relational difference of electronic presence: the could have demands a we for whom Zoom can recuperate the forms of intimacy otherwise lost due to the pandemic.
Key to the configuration of this we is the staging of a dialectic between potential and capacity. In speculating on a hypothetical prior, the past conditional opens up a chasm between what Zoom could do as a platform for video telephony and can do now within certain historical conditions. The potential for remote connection was always there, but its capacity for social repair was only fully realized within the crucible of COVID-19. Here we note that while the potential of electronic presence is amodal (and thus politically flexible), its capacity for social repair takes on the mode of crisis management when activated as a reflex of neoliberal governance. In this sense, the transformation of potential into capacity is not always felt to be necessitated by crisis, but instead as an artifact of individual agency. Borrowing again from McPherson, we might phrase such agency as a “volitional mobility” that yokes electronic presence to feelings of choice, access, and personalization. As the we who only realizes too late the power of electronic presence, the good neoliberal subject resolves the formerly failed potential of Zoom into a new use-value of unending connection.
But the past conditional seems to pose a deadlock. Is the potential of electronic presence always bound to the neoliberal syntax of crisis, forever affixed in its capacity to reconnect that which has been shattered? What other pasts and futures are effaced when we go on bemoaning the failure of not having used Zoom this way before? On the other hand, then, I maintain that even as the past conditional invokes a we that bears witness to a scene of loss, it also opens up a speculative encounter with otherwise submerged potentialities of electronic presence. Such is the operation of the subjunctive mood in the past conditional: to explore the unreality of the past and its bearing on the present. Following science fiction author Samuel Delany, I propose to consider how the past conditional refracts the subjunctivity of Zoom. As he writes, “subjunctivity is the tension on the thread of meaning” that informs the relational disposition of a given word series. Subjunctivity describes how the form of representation within a set of statements relates to a given reality.
Importantly, subjunctivity doesn’t simply point to the irrational or the imaginary, but instead operates upon what Sun-Ha Hong terms a “positional plasticity” that “transpos[es] subject positions across different space/time and alternative possibilities.” In doing so, subjunctivity dilates how objects (like video teleconferencing) move in and out of various orientations to the historical present in ways that interrogate what we take to be the shared temporality of networked form. Hong continues, pointing out the dual nature of subjunctivity:
“subjunctivity habituates subjects into the manifold connections between speculations about the explicitly uncertain and nonactual, on the one hand, and the operationalization of knowledge—that is, turning known and certainties into judgment and action—on the other.”
Here we locate the Janus-faced nature of electronic presence as a subjunctive construction in the past conditional. While the past conditional articulates how electronic presence is incorporated into the neoliberal demands of crisis management to reaffirm our experience of the present, at the same time it gestures towards speculative trajectories of pasts that very well could have happened and the futures that they inspire. In what follows, I turn to another scene of the screen that allows us to glimpse Zoom in the past conditional and the polarity of the platform’s subjunctive construction.
An inside that is also outside
On April 28, 2020, MoMA PS1 hosted a virtual book launch [https://www.moma.org/calendar/events/6664] for Nicole Fleetwood’s monographMarking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration, published by Harvard University Press. The book launch, which was conducted through Zoom and now archived online [https://vimeo.com/416021133], was coordinated in tandem with the opening of the eponymously titled exhibition curated by Fleetwood at PS1. The event itself featured Fleetwood in conversation with scholar Fred Moten as well as several artists, activists, and community organizers, including Jesse Krimes and Mary Enoch Elizabeth Baxter. Fleetwood, from her tiny Zoom square, first describes the book project and then invites her fellow panelists to reflect on the ways in which artists transform what she calls “penal matter” into “art that often violates written and unwritten prison codes and regulations.” The conversation further tracks how art participates within movements for prison abolition and how community organizing offers space to resist the violences of the carceral state.
In many ways, this book launch exemplifies how Zoom’s capacity for connection emerges quite powerfully as a solution to a problem only now exposed in retrospect. While the exhibit itself was closed due to the onset of the pandemic (it has since reopened through April 4, 2021), the book launch, which might have been held physically at the museum, migrated to Zoom. As is the case with so many events over the past year, Zoom provides a pretense of normalcy, allowing the world to go on as it had before. But perhaps what’s at stake here is less how to reconnect people during the pandemic than how to reconcile with the failure of not doing so before. Phrased in the past conditional, this event could have always been open to a virtual public, but with Zoom now it is. In fact, with all the benefits of hosting the event online, one is left to wonder why we never used video conferencing like this before. From the perspective of PS1, the museum saved funds that would have otherwise been allocated to travel, accommodations, refreshments, and building maintenance. And for those who participated in the event as panelists or audience members, Zoom enabled simultaneous communication from varying global times zones. Here we see plainly how presencing make its ascendance as the premiere temporality of networked experience in moments of crisis. By swiftly resolving the potential of electronic presence into the mode of social repair, Zoom conjures a we that sees in this book launch a future for how to go on being together in time.
But at one point, things go out of sync. During the Q&A portion, we see the moderator unmuting audience members one by one to speak to the panelists. At 1:16:00, the moderator announces that there is time for only one more question and unmutes someone who Fleetwood introduces as Pastor Isaac Scott, founder of The Confined Arts. After describing his organization and where to find Fleetwood’s description of it in her book, Scott explains that he in fact doesn’t have a question for the panel, but instead wants to turn over his time to artist Kenny Reams “because he’s inside.” Currently incarcerated in Arkansas, Reams attends the book launch through a private call with Scott set on speaker phone. At first we only hear his voice coming off frame, but eventually he comes into view in the webcam as Scott raises his cellphone to the studio microphone that is hooked up to his computer. This is quite the complicated set-up for a platform that professes to streamline communication into a single channel for live video teleconferencing.
What I find so compelling about this particular moment from the book launch is that we might glimpse in Ream’s attempt to be present the refrain of the past conditional. Because Zoom supports audio conferencing in those events when participants don’t have a laptop or smartphone (imagine that!), Reams technically could have called in to connect directly to the networked meeting taking place, but he did not; and there are perhaps many reasons he did not. We can only speculate as to what systems of power might have prevented him from getting access a device that supports Zoom, what forms of institutional exclusion (both from the prison and the museum) might have prevented those who are currently incarcerated from being included on the panel, and how the pandemic (which assaulted prisons and detention centers across the nation in an extraordinary way) might have impacted his ability to attend the event in full. Thus, unlike Scott, Fleetwood, or any of the other panelists or audience members, Reams seemingly arrives to this event from another time and place, beyond the network, from an inside that it also outside. There is no video feed, no way to chat with him, include him in breakout rooms, send files or flash a thumbs up emoji. His voice is muted, glitchy, and canned: a result of room echo and sonic feedback, and perhaps too of Zoom’s automated background noise reduction feature. He tells us that he wasn’t aware he was going to have the opportunity to speak; perhaps he was in attendance the whole time, listening in over speaker phone, the sound of Fleetwood’s voice arriving as muted, glitchy, and canned on the other end.
When I first encountered this moment from Fleetwood’s book launch, I was reminded of the opening scene from Audre Lorde’s famous essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” In it, Lorde recounts her experience presenting at a conference in 1979 held by New York University’s Institute for the Humanities where she was invited to deliver a paper on the treatment of race, sexuality, class and age within feminist politics. However, to her chagrin (but perhaps not to her surprise), she notices upon her arrival that her presence there is only token as best. Not only is she restricted to talking on the only panel devoted to race, but she’s only one of two black women in attendance, both of whom are invited on the supposition of their discussing race in feminist politics. Taking stock of these failures, Lorde bemoans the utter lack of representation from “poor women, Black and Third world women, and lesbians” in feminist politics, as well as the institutional barriers that have prevented access to these conversations.
The reason I’m reminded of Lorde’s essay when watching back this scene from PS1’s book launch is that I hear in her complaint the past conditional at work: we could have always included a diverse coalition of women in conferences to speak about feminist discourse, but we did not. For Lorde, the past conditional calls attention to the forms of institutional power that continually exclude marginalized women from conversations about racism, classism, sexism, and homophobia, as well as continually erect barriers that prevent such voices from being heard. Reading this again now among our manifold crises, one is left to wonder if Zoom would make this any different. Perhaps the PS1 book launch is case in point—or for that matter, any of the plethora of panels, fora, conferences, lectures, symposia, workshops, and institutes that migrated online since the onset of the pandemic. Just as we always could have conducted events like this virtually before, we very well could have included marginalized persons—the incarcerated, the poor, the sick, the queer, the homeless, the exiled, and the immigrant—into our conversations, especially now that everything is online. But given how little seems to have changed, perhaps the promise of electronic presence won’t change any of that. The Master has a Zoom account.
Indeed, when considered in the context of policing and prisons, videotelephony’s promise of social repair becomes wedded to what Stephen Dillon calls the “temporality of violence” maneuvered by the neoliberal carceral state in which
“the racial violence of law and order and the governance of the market [are] naturalized through their attachment to the temporality of progress.”
Under this banner of progress, videotelephony too easily becomes a tool for the exercise of state power. In a meeting with investors in June 2020, Eric Yuan remarked that while end-to-end encryption will be made available for corporate clients, free calls from the public will not be protected so as to allow law enforcement the ability to identify those who “use Zoom for a bad purpose.” Before that, we find the carceral logics of electronic presence in the form of video visitation technologies, introduced in the mid-1990s and ultimately reaching a “critical mass” in 2014. During this time, private companies like Securus and JPay—two of the leading corrections-focused tech companies—sold video visitation to prisons, government officials, and the public as a cheap and safe alternative to in-person visits that can help keep families together despite the distance introduced by incarceration, which might ultimately reduce sentencing times and the possibility of recidivism. A commercial from Securus shows incarcerated persons calling their families to celebrate birthdays and holidays, emphasizing how video visitation technologies are “connecting what matters.”
And yet, as Patrice Fulcher argues, this promise of social repair is a “double-edged sword.” Unlike Zoom, Skype, or Facetime which are free, video visitation can often cost over one dollar per minute (with some companies like TelMate and TurnKey Corrections requiring additional fees), thus gouging income from families of incarcerated persons. Families too have continually complained that video visitation services are rife with connection issues, grainy images, and poor audio quality. Moreover, the use of video telephony has only exacerbated the surveillance of incarcerated persons as nearly all prisons in the U.S. record the phone and video calls of inmates. This process reflects a broader pattern of “prison media work” in which inmates are tracked to produce data (for example, voice recordings) that is subsequently collected and used to train machine learning and AI systems, like predictive policing programs. Some companies like Securus are even integrating facial recognition systems into their video sessions to analyze and identify participants. What this history of video visitation reveals is not only that electronic presence has always failed those marginal to institutionalized networks of communication, but also how it continually reifies in our current pandemic certain sociopolitical barriers that keep some in the network and others outside of it.
However, as a subjunctive construction, might the past conditional allow for a reading of video teleconferencing that moves beyond the recuperative drive of social repair to some other submerged potential of electronic presence? Such is the case for Lorde who doesn’t resign herself to bemoaning a missed opportunity at the conference, but instead draws on her experience to offer a clarion call for change:
“Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies the security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being.”
Following Lorde, we might consider how the past conditional offers a mode of speculative insurgency that mobilizes the past to imagine beyond the stultifying effects of the present towards some other configuration of our world. To be sure, black feminist writers have long employed the past conditional to posit what Regis Mann refers to as a “vestibular site” for alternative readings of temporality, one that aims to transform the what might have been into the might still be. Similarly, Lisa Lowe considers how “the past conditional temporality symbolizes aptly the space of a different kind of thinking, a space of productive attention to the scene of loss.” Such a framework might aid in addressing the forms of historical amnesia that have sedimented within sites of institutional power, as well as steward neglected epistemologies for constructing decolonial futures of equity and justice.
We see such insurgent force of the past conditional in a sign like this one, photographed on June 1 in a Black Lives Matter protest near the White House over the murder of George Floyd, as well as Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Nina Pop, and countless others. “It could have been my son,” and it could still be another person’s son, the sign seems to warn, if the conditions of this present don’t change. In the crisis of anti-Black violence, the past conditional is mobilized as a call to action to abolish carceral forms of governance, as well as to imagine Black life in the tense of what Tina Campt refers to as the “future real conditional” or “the performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.” Importantly, for Campt, futurity is not a hymn for hope; there is no false promise of repair. Rather, this tense reflects “an attachment to a belief in what should be true, which impels us to realize that aspiration.” In much the same way, we see in this protest sign how the past conditional is a means to insist on a time otherwise, one that doesn’t ossify the lost past into some promised future framed by crisis, but stays with that scene of loss as a speculative ethics for past and future freedoms.
By recalling Lorde’s essay here and other writers on the past conditional, my aim is to resist a certain kind of reading of the scene I have excerpted from the PS1 book launch. It might seem enticing, for example, to consider how the could have that frames Reams’ failure to be included in Zoom’s network somehow articulates a political refusal of the platform’s neoliberal agenda or an indictment of the forms of absence that electronic presence inflicts upon those targeted by carceral forms of governance. However, in constituting this fairly quotidian moment as an object for close-reading, I recognize the danger that such frameworks pose for racialized subjects who are continually “bound to appear” within dominant visual systems as a structural invisibility or oppositional presence to a stated norm. To be sure, Reams is decidedly not resisting anything; he’s simply showing up to congratulate his friend and colleague, share his story of incarceration, and engage in conversation about the value of art in abolition movements. I keep thinking here that what we see Isaac Scott and Kenny Reams doing (calling on speaker phone and holding that phone up to the computer, rather than using Zoom) limns the elusive and opaque systems of connection that have long been in place for those constrained within systems of domination. To be sure, those most neglected by the state—the poor, the incarcerated, the immigrant, as well as racial, ethnic, and gendered minorities—have always improvised systems of contact to make the feeling of remoteness more bearable, a feeling sensed long before the pandemic made it painfully quotidian for those seeking new tools for crisis management. Such opaque systems of connection are less attempts to recuperate something lost in exceptional times of crisis, but instead quiet efforts to be together when being together is made all but impossible.
Thus, rather than speak on behalf of those outside the network, I conclude by addressing the we assembled by the past conditional—including me and many of you reading this, maybe between Zoom meetings—and how this framework might better tend to those relations of sociopolitical difference that frame our experience of electronic presence. In opposition to other temporal forms like the present or presencing, the past conditional mode, especially as received from black feminist thought, helps us glimpse how our fantasies of togetherness, of inhabiting a shared temporality, are sustained by the unruliness of a time otherwise that arrives in its precise dislocation from networked forms. Put differently, those outside the network continually serve as limit cases for what we take to be the failure of electronic presence and how it might function now in times of crisis with a promise of social repair. Whatever failure we might attribute to electronic presence is only felt in the wake of such crises by those for whom the demands of labor, intimacy, and capital were always but inconveniences at best. Here then we might understand Zoom fatigue less as a symptom of the technical form of networked media, than as the mood of a white liberal public and its compensatory attachment to electronic presence in self-isolation. What this means for that we invoked by the past conditional is a recognition that presencing is less a promise of repair than an opportunity to slow down our habits of connection, to conjugate a different tense that better dilates the very systems of power and historical amnesia that have made our networks possible.
1. According to an article [https://www.businessinsider.com/meet-zoom-billionaire-eric-yuan-career-net-worth-life] published by Business Insider, Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom Technologies Inc., grossed over $12 billion since the start of lockdown in March and now ranks among the 400 richest people in the United States.
2. Ubiquity is a contested term for many reasons, notwithstanding the apparent universalism embedded in our perception of Zoom’s success during the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this essay, when I speak of “ubiquity,” I do so as it relates to the aesthetic configuration of always-on computing and digital networked media. However, I also recognize the need to provincialize Zoom as a uniquely American software company that finds most of its clientele in American business, universities, hospitals, courts, and homes.
3. McKenzie Wark, Telesthesia: Communication, Culture, and Class (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012), 30. Wark provides a more robust definition of telesthesia: “Perception at a distance, as in the telescope, telegraph, telephone, television, or telecommunications in general. Its key quality is to bring what is distant near, or make what is distant a site of action. It is a property of a class of vectors that have the quality of making information move faster than people or things, thus opening up the terrain of third nature as a terrain of command and control, and eventually of a game space” (205). Importantly, while telesthesia has been around since at least the invention of the telegraph, Wark argues that it culminated in the late 1970s as a key component of postmodern culture and its “temporal symptoms,” in particular the abstracting vectoral effects of cyberspace (340).
4. Manuel Castells, The Informational City: Information Technology, Economic Restructuring, and the Urban-Regional Process (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).
5. Video teleconferencing is a subgenre of video telephony. Video telephony here refers to the transmission and reception of audio-visual signals in real-time, giving rise to what we call telepresence. The history of video telephony is expansive, including close-circuit television, video telephone booths, videophones, camera enabled mobile phones, and more. Among such devices, we also find video teleconferencing, which implies the use of video telephony for groups or organizational contexts, rather than individual communication. In this case, video teleconferencing can be considered a specific configuration of telepresence, rather than emerging from a particular technology or platform (like Zoom).
6. Here I refer to Lisa Gitelman’s crucial observation that the “new”-ness of media says less about the media in question than about “the ways that people experience meaning, how they perceive the world and communicate with each other, and how they distinguish the past and identify culture.” Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 1. See also Geoffrey B. Pingree and Lisa Gitelman, “What’s New About New Media?” in New Media, 1740-1915, ed. Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey Pingree (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), xi-xxii.
7. Vivian Sobchack, “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Photographic, Cinematic, and Electronic ‘Presence,’” in Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, ed. Shane Denson and Julia Leyda (Falmer: REFRAME Books, 2016), http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/post-cinema/2-1-sobchack. This essay was originally published as “The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Cinematic and Electronic ‘Presence’” in Materialities of Communication, ed. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), 83-106. It was subsequently republished in Sobchack’s monograph Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
8. Sobchack, “The Scene of the Screen,” http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/post-cinema/2-1-sobchack. For Sobchack, digital technologies transforms our experience of time, which is now less an objective configuration within the photographic image than it is “constituted and lived paradoxically as a homogeneous experience of discontinuity” within networked media. She continues, particularly attuned to how this experience of time produces a new form of embodiment: “Indeed, the electronic is phenomenologically experienced not as a discrete, intentional, body-centered mediation and projection in space but rather as a simultaneous, dispersed, and insubstantial transmission across a network or web that is constituted spatially more as a materially flimsy latticework of nodal points than as the stable ground of embodied experience.”
9. Sobchack, “The Scene of the Screen,” http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/post-cinema/2-1-sobchack.
10. Kris Cohen, Never Alone, Except for Now: Art, Networks, Populations (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 99. Cohen elaborates upon the tonelessness of networked spaces as emerging from “their parallelistic relation to intentionality, to sovereign forms of subjectivity, self-development, and world building” (102). Cohen catalogues this tonelessness in the profusion of emojis and acronyms like LOL that mark the ordinary sphere of communication in networked life, diacritics that attempt to insert an affective inflection into the otherwise neutral or flat tone of networked space.
11. As Geert Lovink writes, “Zoom fatigue arises because it is so directly related to the ‘bullshit job’ reality of our office existences. What is supposed to be personal, turns out to be social. What is supposed to be social, turns out to be formal, boring and (most likely) unnecessary. This is only felt on those rare occasions when we experience flashes of exceptional intellectual insight and when existential vitality bursts through established technological boundaries.” Geert Lovink, “The anatomy of Zoom fatigue,” Eurozine, Nov. 2, 2020. https://www.eurozine.com/the-anatomy-of-zoom-fatigue.
12. Lauren Berlant, “Genre Flailing,” Capacious 1.2 (2018): 156-162. http://capaciousjournal.com/article/genre-flailing.
13. I riff here again off Berlant and her famous formulation of “cruel optimism” as the “relation of attachment to compromised conditions of possibility” (24). Importantly, for Berlant, cruel optimism is a structure of feeling common to postwar neoliberal governance that describes one’s attachment to particular objects when seeking the fantasy of the good life even when such objects prove injurious or debilitating.
14. Jane Feuer, “The Concept of Live Television: Ontology as Ideology,” in Regarding Television: Critical Approaches, An Anthology, ed. E. Ann Kaplan (Los Angeles: AFI, 1983), 12-21.
15. Tara McPherson, “Liveness, Mobility, and the Web,” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2006), 202.
16. In many ways, the move towards livestreaming has also reflected a broader development in drag performance since the start of lockdown. As bars and clubs began to shut their doors, drag performers took to online venues (like Instagram, TikTok, Twitch, YouTube, and more) to present their work. Interestingly, if before drag was primarily a mode of live performance for an audience, now many of these digital drag shows resemble the music video genre, in which drag performers lip sync and dance to a song with various kind of staging, costume, make up, and choreography, all of which is shot and edited before the airing of the performance itself online. While digital drag performance indeed loses out on much of the spontaneity and improvisatory nature of live drag performance in the club, it benefits in many other ways, including: handing over complete control to the drag performer as to how their image will circulate, enabling drag performers to have greater selection of the kind of material they might choose to perform, gaining access to a national and international audience, and integrating cinematography into their performance. If the pandemic posed a threat to art forms like drag, then such a threat was only perceived in the loss of previous way of doing things; electronic presence could make so much more possible. Of course, the benefits of electronic presence are exceedingly experienced only by a select number of drag performers, particularly those successful on RuPaul’s Drag Race, who enjoy the kind of celebrity and platform to practice more entrepreneurial styles of online engagement.
17. Chun, Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 39.
18. Chun, Updating to Remain the Same, 73.
19. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Supplemental data measuring the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the labor market,” Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Study, updated Nov. 6, 2020. https://www.bls.gov/cps/effects-of-the-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic.htm.
20. Hye Jin Rho, Hayley Brown, Shawn Fremstad, “A Basic Demographic Profile of Workers in Frontline Industries,” Center for Economic Policy and Research, April 2020. https://cepr.net/a-basic-demographic-profile-of-workers-in-frontline-industries.
21. For a detailed history of the Telexistence technology, see the website [https://tachilab.org/en/about/telexistence.html] for Tachi Labs at the University of Tokyo.
22. Erin Horan, “Virtual visits: How telemedicine can improve health care,” Boston Children’s Hospital’s Clinial Health Blog, Aug 11, 2015. https://notes.childrenshospital.org/virtual-visits-how-telemedicine-can-improve-health-care. Nathanial Lacktman, “Massachusetts Telehealth Legislation Paves Way for Sweeping Changes,” Foley & Lardner LLP, July 24, 2018. https://mhealthintelligence.com/news/after-past-failures-2-states-push-ahead-with-new-telehealth-rules.
23. Eric Wicklund, “After Past Failures, 2 States Push Ahead With New Telehealth Rules,” mHealth Intelligence, July 2, 2020. https://mhealthintelligence.com/news/after-past-failures-2-states-push-ahead-with-new-telehealth-rules.
24. For an historical account of technological surrogacy and its relation to colonial diagrams of power, see Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora, Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures (Durham: Duke, 2019).
25. Tung-Hui Hu, “Laugh Out Loud,” in Assembly Codes: The Logistics of Media, ed. Matthew Hockenberry, Nicole Starosielski, and Susan Zieger (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, forthcoming).
26. Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: University of Harvard Press), 91.
27. I draw here from Kris Cohen who argues that endemic to networked form is the “broken genre,” a new norm of sociality marked by “intimacy without reciprocity.” Similarly in the vein of Berlant’s writing on the genre as a form of social contract—a loose affective exchange that informs an aesthetic transaction—Cohen conceives of networks as social platforms built on the uneven distribution of intimacies “governed by the algorithmic logic of competition.” In networks, speech, action, and agency are mediated as data, capital, and vectors of movement, never meant to be reciprocated in kind. For Cohen, the broken genre of networked form is thus evidence that the internet’s democratic ideal of communication is but a fantasy compensating for the very absence of the network’s technical potential for reciprocal exchange. Cohen, Never Alone, Except for Now, 42-44.
28. Nat Levy, “Zoom CEO: Coronavirus outbreak will ‘change the landscape’ of work and communication,” GeekWire, March 7, 2020, https://www.geekwire.com/2020/zoom-ceo-coronavirus-outbreak-will-change-landscape-work-communication.
30. The past conditional is typically considered to imply that a prior condition has yet been unfulfilled, but can very well be so in the present given certain circumstances. However, philosopher M.R. Ayers has argued that such is not always the case. In most cases in ordinary language, the “could have” of the past conditional rather gestures towards the hypothetical potential of such event and its actualization in the present. As he writes, “The force of the subjunctive is not to assert that the antecedent is unfilled, although the mood does in effect hint that this is so. […] It is rather simply to imply that the power, ability, possibility, capacity or potentiality in question is not, or was not, or will not be exercised or actualized” (118-119). Moreover, it is counter-productive to assess the subjunctive conditional simply in terms of it being actualized or not, when its rhetorical force lies in the speculative intonation. Perhaps here is where we might locate the error of crisis management, insofar as it forces the subjunctive to actualize a potential implication when the past conditional (in a case like “We could have always used Zoom…”) was never intended to do so. M. R. Ayers, “Austin on ‘Could’ and ‘Could Have,’” The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-) 16.63 (1966): 113-120.
31. McPherson, “Liveness, Mobility, and the Web,” 202.
32. Samuel Delany, “About 5,750 Words,” in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009 ), 10. Delany tracks subjunctivity through various genres of writing, including naturalistic fiction, reportage, fantasy, and science fiction. In this schema, the “could have” is unique to naturalistic fiction insofar as the events described are in the realm of possibility in this world, but did not occur in the past tense. Relatedly, science fiction narratives describe “events which have not happened,” including events that might happen, will not happen, have not happened yet, and have not happened in the past.
33. Sun-Ha Hong, Technologies of Speculation: The Limits of Knowledge in a Data-Driven Society (New York: NYU Press, 2020), 117. As Hong notes, subjunctivity is also a prime technical component of contemporary big data programs insofar as predictive analytics operationalize the gap between the unknown and a calculated judgment. And yet, despite the potential for use in surveillance systems “subjunctivity often produces gray areas for bestowing speculative and hypothetical reasoning with a disavowed form of veridical authority” (118).
34. Hong, Technologies of Speculation, 118-119.
35. Nicole Fleetwood, Marking Time: Art in the Age of Mass Incarceration (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020), 58.
36. For more information on the Confined Arts, see their website: http://www.theconfinedarts.org. And if you are interested in learning more about Kenny Reams and his story, visit https://freekennethreams.org.
37. The Marshall Project, “A State-by-State Look at Coronavirus in Prisons,” updated Nov 6, 2020. https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/05/01/a-state-by-state-look-at-coronavirus-in-prisons.
38. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider (Berkeley: Crossing Press 2007 ), 110.
39. Stephen Dillon, Fugitive Life: The Queer Politics of the Prison State (Duke, 2018), 29, 35. As Stephen Dillion observes, carceral governance is a key component of the neoliberal order: “I am arguing that the prison did not become central to neoliberalism after deregulation, privatization, and deindustrialization left wastelands where neighborhoods and cities once stood; instead the prison was imagines as central to the future of the ‘neoliberal utopia’ before the legal liberation of the market and the rise of the carceral state in the late 1970s and early 1980s […] in short, neoliberalism is itself a carceral project” (38). As beholden to the temporality of progress, the violences of the market and the state became justifiable as necessary and even inescapable because the future, just like the present, was unimaginable with them.
40. Adi Robertson, “Zoom says free users won’t get end-to-end encryption so FBI and police can access calls,” The Verge, 3 June 2020, https://www.theverge.com/2020/6/3/21279355/zoom-end-encryption-calls-fbi-police-free-users.
41. Bernadette Rubay and Peter Wagner, “Screening Out Family Time: The for-profit video visitation industry in prisons and jails,” Prison Policy Initiative, January 2015. https://www.prisonpolicy.org/visitation/report.html.
42. Patrice A. Fulcher, “The Double-Edged Sword of Prison Video Visitation: Claiming to Keep Families Together While Furthering the Aims of the Prison Industrial Complex,” Florida A & M University Law Review 9.1 (2013): 83-112.
43. Nicole Lewis and Beatrix Lockwood, “Prisons tout video visitation’s convenience, but families say they’re overpaying for bad service,” ABA Journal, Feb 5, 2020. https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/prisons-tout-video-visitations-convenience-but-families-say-theyre-overpaying-for-bad-service.
44 Anne Kaun and Fredrik Stiernstedt, “Prison media work: from manual labor to the work of being tracked,” Media, Culture & Society 42.7-8 (2020): 1277-1292.
45. Bobby L. Shipman, Jr. and Laura Shipman, “Videoconference and video visitation security,” US9106789B1, United States Patent and Trademark Office, Aug 11, 2015. https://patents.google.com/patent/US9106789.
46. Lorde, Sister Outsider, 111-12.
47. Regis Mann, “Theorizing ‘What Could Have Been’: Black Feminism, Historical Memory, and the Politics of Reclamation,” Women’s Studies 40.5 (2011): 576. Key among such black feminist writers are Saidiya Hartman, Dionne Brand, Daphne Brooks, Ann Ducille, Deborah McDowell, Dianne Bartlow, and many others. For Hartman, the what could have been is importantly refracted through her concept of “waywardness” as “an ongoing exploration of what might be; it is an improvisation with the terms of social existence, when the terms have already been dictated, when there is little room to breathe, when you have been sentenced to a life of servitude, when the house of bondage looms in whatever direction you move.” Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2019), 228. On the radical black feminist temporality of the ‘could have been,’ see also Tanya Ann Kennedy, “From Combahee resistance to the Confederate: Black feminist temporalities and white supremacy,” Time & Society 29.2 (2020): 518-535.
48. Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press, 2015). As Lowe writes, “the past conditional temporality symbolizes aptly the space of a different kind of thinking, a space of productive attention to the scene of loss, a thinking with twofold attention that seeks to encompass at once the positive objects and methods of history and social science, and also the matters absent, entangled, and left unavailable by its methods” (40-41).
49. Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), 17.
50. Campt, Listening to Images, 17.
51. Huey Copeland, Bound to Appear: Art, Slavery, and the Site of Blackness in Multicultural America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013).