If attention was an experiment in living,—Adam Phillips
rather than a deal or a calculation.
I looked up from the breakfast table to the highest window in the apartment. There, silently, a plane made its way from the left jamb to the right and was gone. It was the first I’d seen flying in maybe four months — though time at this point was stretchy and contingent, so who could be sure. With no condensation trail left in its wake I tried to imagine the plane’s long line of flight over the roof, over the land and the sea. On the outside, in lockdown, there was very little movement. All the action was happening in the apartment; my friend A and my brother C worked out between the couch and the bookshelf most days. We cooked elaborate meals, and then basic meals. In the daytime we stared into our computers, typed, tried not to distract each other with statistics. In the evenings we watched films together, played Scopa and complained that there was no dessert. Many times over those months I sat and stared out the window or discussed with A and C how quiet the streets had become. Almost no sounds of passing cars or foot traffic, no rising warbles from the pub across the way, no rolling, late-night party bass in the surrounding apartments. There were, however, more magpie visitors to our little balcony and with them their glottal morning melodies. Through the window I heard more birds than I could see.
In my memory Clint Eastwood is lying face-down in the desert sands, a tight camera frame showing his head and next to it the threatening boot of a cowboy. Eastwood raises his head, opens his eyes in that familiar squint and considers what to do about the figure standing over him. Suddenly he lurches forward and grabs the boot at the ankle with both hands. In a split second the camera angle widens, revealing that the cowboy boot is just a boot without a cowboy. What trickery. Sergio Leone had me believing Eastwood’s field of vision was no wider than my own, that he too had nothing but a window frame to look through and imagine all the possibilities.1 This cinematic trick shot — a closed frame — visualises the mechanism of looking with attention: ‘like looking through a soda straw’.2 What does the beholder willingly forego in order to be attentive?
If you’re feeling a little lost or disinterested right now, it’s not because you haven’t paid attention. ‘Everything depends,’ psychoanalyst Adam Phillips contends, ‘on what, if anything, we find interesting — on what we are encouraged and educated to find interesting, and what we find ourselves being interested in despite ourselves. And when we are interested,’ he notes,
we pay attention: sometimes, at considerable cost. There is our official curiosity and our unofficial curiosity: our official curiosity is a form of obedience, and indebtedness to the authorities. In our unofficial curiosity we don’t know who we want to be judged by. It is the difference between knowing what we are doing, and following our eyes.3
This essay is an experiment in following the eyes. The descriptions that follow, the inclusions herein, are also, therefore, exposures of what my eyes or my perception or my attention excludes, occludes and ignores. I aim to attend to other forms of attention, perception, looking, tracking and surveilling in order, perhaps, to think with a question asked by Michael Richardson: ‘What strategies of resistance might be entailed at the level of perception itself?’4 And to consider, as Adam Phillips does in his analysis of the common collocation to ‘pay attention’, the ways is which ‘attention costs us something’.5 Phillips suggests that ‘we are likely and prone in a culture of money to liken attention to money ... investments and returns, profit and loss, gains and drawbacks’6 whilst we also wonder what it could be like if ‘attention was more like affection, or desire, or love’.7
Looking, witnessing, tracking, surveillance; these are all forms of attention that put a frame on things and, through this framing, are inevitably involved in and subject to the excesses and reductions of imagination. In the shot from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), for example, it is through the language of cinema, the restriction of the frame, that the viewer is moved to imagine what Eastwood’s character sees — an imaginative field in excess of the frame is formed. Imagination sparked by attention, when allowed to roam, is an experiment. It is, therefore, as the trick of the empty boot demonstrates, also a risk that may reveal more about the one who looks than the thing perceived. Eva Illouz, writing on the impact that new communications media have had on imagination, fantasy and love, argues that ‘the most obvious characteristic of modern imagination is to be found in the fact it has a high degree of resolution or vividness’.8 In a critique of Illouz, Byung-Chul Han makes the counter claim that in fact ‘[n]ew communications media do not give flight to fantasy. Their high information density, especially in visual terms, does precisely the opposite: it stifles fantasy.’ He adds: ‘Hypervisibility is not conducive to imagination.’9 Increasingly, new technologies of looking, watching and surveilling that produce overabundant data must have an impact on the possible formations of the imagining, witnessing and encountering of others. If ‘when in love, to a large extent we invent the object of our desires’, what kinds of sociability and love formed through looking and attention remain possible under the cultural seep of surveillance technologies?10
In Melbourne’s post-lockdown job market I have sucked up whatever tiny crumbs of work roll my way. This includes a brief and uneasy stint as an online invigilator for undergraduate exams at a university. On my first day I take a 1.5-hour train ride to the university. I am there for a three-hour shift. I walk into a brand new and spookily unpeopled building. I have been ‘trained’ for this job by watching a few videos provided in links by the university but have had no direct contact with an employer. Other invigilators file into the building. I have been given no instructions other than a room number. I notice people collecting headsets and I join the line to get mine. I stumble around until I find room 205, pick a desk with a computer, turn it on and try to see if what I’m supposed to do next will be intuitive. Once I figure all of it out, I sit looking at the faces of four strangers alone in their bedrooms, in their sharehouse lounge rooms, in a study.
My worst nightmare — it would seem I have become something adjacent to a cop. I surveil. I think of the shipping containers in Nevada where military pilot and operator crews surveil and coordinate weapon strikes via live video links to drones operating in the field. Invigilating does not, of course, have the same potential for devastating violence, but the experience of an asymmetric apparatus of watching, and watching for supposed ‘wrong doing’ sits, to me, on a spectrum of what Michael Richardson might describe as ‘everyday militarisms’.11 Richardson defines this as ‘the way in which military histories, logics, technologies, ideologies, iconographies and practices become presences within the texture of the quotidian’.12 I had not fully anticipated the effect this frame would have on me, having pictured invigilation as sitting in a chair in an exam hall — still there to watch and monitor of course. But something shifts significantly when the field of watching moves from a hall full of students to a single frame through which I peer into private worlds. One student asks me if it’s okay that their room is messy. Except at the beginning of each exam when I run the students through the rules or during the exam when they have a question to ask, the students can’t see or hear me. It is disturbing to be privy to how quickly and how ubiquitously people tend to forget they are being watched. I too am being surveilled in the job and continually forget. I know this because a room supervisor on a messaging service through which all invigilators communicate starts to tell people off for being on their mobile phones. But no one has seen a room supervisor. They are watching us watch the students through the cameras on our computers.
I work at this job for the short duration of the exam period. Students ask me if they can go to the bathroom, get up to close a window, leave the room to take some medicine. I never see a student cheat in the sense of giving themselves an advantage. I see students do things they are not allowed to do, like take a sip of tea instead of water or google translate the meaning of a single word, but I don’t flag them for it. In one of the training videos I watched prior to starting this job, invigilators are instructed to remain ‘vigilant’ to the possible use of virtual machines and to pay close attention if a student looks repeatedly at something off-screen. I don’t pretend to know how virtual machines work. I am told that a virtual machine allows a user to run a window that behaves and appears like an operating system. Students are required to share their desktop screen with me while they take the exam. If they wanted to use it, a virtual machine would allow them to share what appears to be their desktop while they work on the exam, and access other ‘unauthorised’ materials in the background. In the script that I am required to repeat to each student, I say: ‘virtual machines can be detected’. Can they?
The script makes it sound like there is a tool that can scan for this. In the vacuum of information I’ve been given, I can only assume I am the tool. The instructional video highlighted a particular incongruence that invigilators should look out for in detecting virtual machines: simultaneously, the sound of typing and the absence of text appearing on the screen. I can see and hear them. They can’t see or hear me. And I am the one who is suspicious?
The webcam frame is fixed for the duration of the exam. When I see students dart their eyes around their rooms, I can only imagine who or what they might be gazing at, where their attention has drifted. And mine drifts with it. This is a job in which I am paid to pay attention. ‘And yet, of course, no one can actually predict the consequences of the attention they pay and are paid. [P]eople’s attention can be exploited and manipulated and directed, but it can’t be ultimately controlled.’13 What I discovered through the daily reminders to invigilators to keep our eyes on the screen at all times, to remain vigilant, is that no amount of pay could prevent me, or it seemed any of my colleagues, from the frequent impulse to follow our eyes. The inquiry of attention could not be completely pacified (another, older meaning of ‘pay’) by the structuring regime of a workplace, its codes of conduct or its monetary incentives. As our eyes wandered off the screen, around the room ‘to find out what is possible,’ we sometimes found each other’s gaze.14 ‘[S]ociability,’ Phillips writes, ‘depends on attention-seeking.’15
Tennis or lawn tennis has a long, haughty and complicated history. It’s generally accepted that the modern sport is a breakaway version of a game once popular amongst French royalty. The original game was later described in the early twentieth century as ‘Real Tennis’ to contrast it with the newer, simplified game.16 The origins of modern tennis’ unusual scoring system and associated terminology are still contested.
Take ‘love,’ for example, used when a player’s score within a game or a set is zero. There are various folk etymologies theorising how love came to represent nothing in tennis. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one false theory is that the usage of ‘love’ evolved from an English mispronunciation of the French word l’œuf; ‘œuf means “egg”’.17 In American and British English a ‘goose egg’ or a ‘duck’s egg’ has been used to describe a score of zero, so the suggestion is that with the import of the French game into England there may have come this usage, given the egg’s resemblance to the shape of a zero. However the American and British phrases predate the use of ‘love’ in tennis and there is no evidence in the French language that l’œuf has been used to mean zero.18 Another more widely accepted theory is that love has come to mean nothing in tennis through the notion that when one has nothing, one is playing for ‘the love of the game’ or, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, ‘love’ may suggest a desire to play ‘without stakes being wagered … for pleasure rather than profit’.19
On Friday 12 February 2021 at 7:00pm, play starts in the tennis match between Dominic Thiem and Nick Kyrgios on John Cain Arena. I’m propped up in bed with J, the laptop sat between us, ready to yell, tense up, squirm, cheer and feel buoyed or crestfallen. Between each point the crowd roars and claps in wavering volumes. I pay little attention to the uneven sonic rhythms of the crowd, nor its effect on my enjoyment, until it is gone. That same night at 11:59pm Victoria’s five-day ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown comes into effect, banning the tennis crowds entirely bar a single coach in each of the players’ boxes. It seemed absurd that such a crowd could gather only hours before the lockdown would come into place. On the night of Saturday 13 I flick listlessly between two games: Fabio Fognini v Alex De Minaur and Cameron Norrie v Rafael Nadal. This is the first night without a crowd.
Though the TV cameras track beyond the bounds of the court less than usual, there are still regular shots showing row after row of vacant blue seats in a vast cone around the players. The squeaks of the players’ shoes are sharper than ever before. Between points there is the rather embarrassing sound of a single person — the coach — clapping. On top of this, the mocking interjections of very audible seagull squawks — the Australian Open equivalent of crickets after a joke that didn’t land. I close my laptop before either of the matches finish. Telecast tennis without cheering and clapping, it turns out, is terribly boring to watch.
I lose interest for a few days and try my luck again on 16 February at 7:00pm— crowd or no crowd — because I don’t like to miss a Williams game. Serena Williams is playing Simona Halep. During the first point of the match the camera has a tight frame on the court. Williams forces an error from Halep and I brace for the cringe inducing single-clap. Instead there is a steady, even toned applause. Many times throughout the match, the camera angle widens revealing or reminding me that there is, in fact, no crowd in the stadium. A boot without a cowboy. Channel 9 has added canned clapping for the viewers’ benefit and, presumably, for the sake of their own ratings. The first thing I notice about the canned clapping is that, perversely, it works. It doesn’t matter too much that I know the crowd is absent. I am willing my entertainment. However, not all agree upon the efficacy of the clap track.
Amongst a 41-comment discussion on Reddit, ‘Can we please agree that the fake applause in AO ABSOLUTLEY SUCKS’, the majority of commenters pile on the detractions.20 One user called ‘stopbuyingstupidshit’ writes: ‘Reminds me American [sic] sitcoms with the background laughs. Awful.’21 Writing on what is ‘unsettling about canned laughter’, Slavoj Žižek describes the TV phenomenon as having one’s ‘most intimate feelings radically externalized’ in effect, being able to ‘laugh and cry through another’.22 Though such an effect might indicate the television’s disturbing ability to turn viewers into passive, affectless drones, an idea exemplified in the familiar admonishments ‘you’ll get square eyes if you watch too much TV’ or ‘TV will rot your brain,’ Žižek registers ‘the real threat of new media’ and mechanisms like canned laughter as the deprivation ‘of our passivity, of our authentic [as opposed to canned] passive experience’, which, he suggests, ‘prepare[s] us for mindless frenetic activity—for endless work’.23
Tennis has yet another technology of radical externalisation and this year it took on a new level of control. It’s called Hawk-Eye. A notorious, badly umpired match back in 2004 is credited by many as having necessitated the widespread adoption of Hawk-Eye technology in professional tennis. Since then Hawk-Eye vision has become synonymous with Grand Slam tennis and the challenge system it hailed (where players can dispute line judge and umpire calls via a graphic replay review) constituting a new field of competition in the sport. At the 2021 Australian Open, in response to the demand for social distancing necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, for the first time both the line judges and the challenge system were eradicated.
‘What does a victorious or defeated black woman’s body in a historically white space look like?’24 Claudia Rankine asks in her lyric essay on Serena Williams from her 2014 book Citizen: An American Lyric. Rankine goes on:
Serena and her big sister Venus Williams brought to mind Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.’ ... Hurston’s statement has been played out on the big screen by Serena and Venus: they win sometimes, they lose sometimes, they’ve been injured, they’ve been happy, they’ve been sad, ignored, booed mightily ... they’ve been cheered, and through it all and evident to all were those people who are enraged they are there at all—graphite against a sharp white background.25
In her essay Rankine details innumerable occasions over Serena Williams’s career — focusing on games played at the US Open — in which she has been suddenly ‘thrown against a sharp white background’.26 There are the five astonishingly bad calls made against her by chair umpire Mariana Alves in the 2004 US Open quarter-final with Jennifer Capriati, the 2009 ‘foot fault’ called by a line judge (which no one else could see on the replays) in the crucial last moments of her semi-final match against Kim Clijsters, and the time when, as Rankine notes, ‘she brought home the only two gold medals the Americans would win in tennis’27 at the 2012 Olympics and her ‘three-second celebratory dance’ was described by the American media as ‘akin to cracking a tasteless, X-rated joke inside a church’ and ‘immature and classless’.28
As Rankine argues, it is not only the bad calls made against Williams that see ‘the rules everyone else gets to play by no longer apply[ing] to’ her,29 it’s also the commentators, the public and the press who treat her responses to these moments as ‘insane, crass, crazy. Bad sportsmanship’.30 It’s these responses, keeping her ‘trapped in a racial imaginary’,31 which continually trouble her efforts to simply play for the love of the game. It’s worth paying attention to the fact, as Rankine does, that in 2012 Williams had a stellar winning streak ‘between the US Open and the year-end 2012 championship tournament’ which she accomplished ‘without any reaction to a number of questionable calls’.32 One commentator suggested that this was now possible because ‘[s]he is a woman in love’.33 Was this a way of saying she had nothing left? As if what she had been playing with all along, her wins, her losses, her joy, her rage, her passion, was now nothing. Re-watching the 2004 Williams v Capriati game umpired by Alves is painful. It demonstrates, as Rankine writes, ‘the need for the speedy installation of Hawk-Eye’.34 Highly divisive in tennis when it was first introduced, many players and tennis officials have since publicly praised Hawk- Eye technology for the accuracy and fairness it has introduced to the sport. Rankine describes this ball tracking system as the ‘technology that took the seeing away from the beholder’.35 A radical externalisation. There’s no doubt the technology has a dramatically different kind of visual accuracy. An experiment in living gives way to a calculation.
In essence, Hawk-Eye is a system of surveillance tracking. It uses ‘ten high-speed cameras positioned around the court and a sophisticated algorithm to track the three-dimensional position of the ball along each rally, with an average error estimated at 3.6 mm’.36 ‘[D]rone culture,’ Michael Richardson argues, ‘can be seen in the manifestation in everyday life of modes of perception distinct to the remote sensing apparatus of the militarized drone.’37 To articulate the relation between the perception of a sport surveillance technology and drone technology, it is tempting to draw attention to the similarity that the now household name ‘Hawk-Eye’ has to the US Military drone ‘Global Hawk’. Hawk-Eye is named after its inventor, Paul Hawkins; nevertheless, the weaponised surveillance drone and the sports surveillance system are each nominally likened to the far-seeing predator bird of the skies. These forms of perception are not only nominally linked. Real-time tracking of a moving person or an object is a fundamental feature of drone perception. Discussing the release of the ‘Spark’, a non- weaponised, civic ‘selfie-drone’, Richardson highlights the ‘militarised logics of tracking and targeting’ embedded in the advertising language of a two-minute promotional video on the device, pointing to the subtle ‘seeping of militarized relations between object and body into consumer technology’ and ‘visual culture’.38 Like drone vision, Hawk-Eye tracks ‘a mobile target to predict its future position and schedule an encounter’ not with ‘a lethal projectile’ as a military drone does, but with the strings of a racquet, the ground, a painted white line.39 Hawk- Eye offers such features as ‘Electronic Line Calling,’ ‘SMART Replay’ and ‘Broadcast Enhancement’. On this latter feature the company website states:
Hawk-Eye generates huge volumes of data from our ball & player tracking cameras and from this data we are able to deliver analysis and insights that truly enhances the fan experience across broadcast and online channels.40
Popular in tennis now are the 3D infographics showing patterns of play, such as the ball-path trajectories of every serve made by a player across a match, or where players place their feet in relation to the baseline on every return of serve. Similarly, the Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System (ARGUS-IS), a US military surveillance system, uses loitering drones mounted with cameras at resolutions capable of capturing ‘pattern of life’ data or, for example, an individual pedestrian’s path of movement within a city. Baseline / centre line / sidewalk / median strip.
Hawk-Eye allows post-game analysis like never before and this is precisely why so many players, coaches and officials now embrace the technology. It also seems to protect players from ‘bad calls’. It would have likely protected Serena Williams in 2004. Like canned clapping, ‘everyday militarisms’ extend ‘the capacity for perception’ which, as Richardson argues, ‘remov[es] or reduc[es] human engagement with perception itself’.41 No line judges, no player challenges, no telecast commentators decrying a ‘bad call’. At what cost does this outsourcing of attention come? Consider the fact that Hawk-Eye’s primary mode of self- promotion and public embrace hinges on the construction of its perception as ‘fairer’.42 This ‘fairness’ is located in a calculation, it is an officially sanctioned form of attention. To actually follow the eyes, to be curious about what takes place on the court, to witness Williams in motion, would be an experiment and, if Phillips’s attention to attention can be followed, ‘morality not born of experimentation can only be dogma.’43
In another essay, Richardson comments on the nature of witnessing. ‘To bear witness to events,’ he writes, ‘is to become responsible for communicating what happened; to be placed under an injunction to act.’44 This is what is troubling about the externalisation of perception in the adoption of Hawk-Eye; as Rankine notes, it removes the seeing from the beholder. But it doesn’t remove the history nor the culture in which tennis and all its players, officiators and audiences are steeped. It also risks the avoidance of a necessary reckoning with the reaches of whiteness, by treating technology, and in this case a technology of surveillance, as miraculously disentangled from the cultural logics of colonisation and the asymmetries of drone warfare. All of which is to say that while Hawk-Eye may make line calls more precise, it won’t make tennis culture less white.
At the 2018 US Open final, Williams had an altercation with umpire Carlos Ramos after he suggested she was receiving coaching and she called him a ‘thief’ for stealing a point from her. The ‘thief’ remark moved Ramos to give her a game penalty, leaving Naomi Osaka to serve out for the championship. All the telecast commentators agreed that Ramos had overstepped and that neither the word ‘thief ’ nor her clear upset at this high-stakes point in the US Open final should have earned Williams a game penalty. With all of Hawk-Eye’s precision accuracy, its excess of data, Williams is no less exposed to the sharp white background of Grand Slam tennis.
In the first and the last poems — ‘Look’ and ‘Drone’ — of her collection Look (2016), Solmaz Sharif explores the extreme asymmetries of the profit-loss scale of drone warfare and its associated language by contrasting the intimacies of lovers and the love between family members with the externalised attentions of a drone’s field of vision.45 Another kind of calculated ‘everyday militarism’, in a lecture on political poetry Sharif states that she was interested in the development of military specific dictionaries which redefine common English language words with military code meanings.46 By examining this martial recoding, she wanted to ‘make the language of the state reckon with the language of the lyric and the language of the self’.47
The first poem, ‘Look,’ establishes the tone with its opening line: ‘[i]t matters what you call a thing.’48 Sharif asks the reader to be attentive to how words are deployed in the poem, especially those used by the US military. The title of her book and the opening poem is taken from the US Department of Defence’s Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, which defines ‘look’ ‘[i]n mine warfare,’ as ‘the period during which a mine circuit is receptive of an influence’.49 The obfuscation of the term ‘look’ combined with the abstract noun ‘influence’ to refer, most likely — and according to the weapon’s design — to a human footstep or vehicle tyre upon it, demonstrates a calculated deployment of language which moves human victims of military violence down the ‘animacy hierarchy’ toward total objectification and objecthood.50 Despite the animate quality required to ‘influence’ and to be an ‘influence,’ the syntax of this definition centres the mine’s animacy, being itself ‘receptive,’ while the ‘influence’ in noun form — preceded by the indefinite article ‘an’ — does not have its action represented, as if to remove from the cognitive equation the image of a person walking, or people driving, which are, nonetheless, the very conditions for which this weapon’s lethality is designed.
‘It matters what you call a thing: Exquisite a lover called me./ Exquisite.’51 To heighten the incongruence of such ordinary language applied as coded jargon for violent events, Sharif blends imagery of drone perception with an intimate erotic encounter. By placing the intimacy of lovers into proximity with the violence of a military drone, the poem’s form and content invokes a morbid play with the idea of the ‘exquisite corpse’.
Whereas it could take as long as
16 seconds between
the trigger pulled in Las Vegas and
the Hellfire missile
landing in Mazar-e-Sharif, after which
they will ask
Did we hit a child? No. A dog.
they will answer themselves;
Whereas the lover made my heat rise,
rise so that if heat
sensors were trained on me,
they could read
my THERMAL SHADOW through
the roof and through
The drone operators in Sharif’s poem answer themselves: ‘No. A dog.’ An intimate moment is flattened into the most basic reading of a life sign, which is further obscured by language that makes life seem distant and unreal: ‘thermal shadow’. Writing on the sonic asymmetries of military drones, Nasser Hussain notes that in video feeds watched by drone operators there is a ‘lack of synchronic sound’, which ‘renders [what is in view] a ghostly world in which the figures seem unalive, even before they are killed’.53 The view through a drone camera, as Richardson highlights, is ‘often described as looking through a soda straw’.54 This is despite technology like the ARGUS-IS, which ‘combines 368 overlapping lenses into the equivalent of a 1.8-billion-pixel camera’.55 The expansive visual capabilities of drones make them no less able to see, unofficially.
In the final poem, ‘Drone’, Sharif demonstrates, with a subtle use of punctuation, how fundamentally the power dynamics of drone warfare have been habituated into everyday life. Every single line of the poem is preceded by a colon. With each of the colons of the poem following the title ‘Drone,’ it is implied that this word continues as the preceding side of the colon, where the lines that follow it fulfil the grammatical position of explanation, enumeration, aftermath to what has come before. Keeping ‘Drone’ as the title and not inserting it directly before each colon holds the colon’s presence before each line as an absent marker of expectation for the drone hovering above in the title.
Along with its grammatical function of introducing, explaining and particularising that which precedes it, a colon is also used, for example, as a ratio marker. By implying the presence of the drone through its absence before the colon, Sharif’s poem also deploys the colon as a ratio marker and asks the reader to consider the consequences of a one-sided ratio which is heavily weighted in the aftermath by lines like ‘: it was my job to dig graves into the soccer field’56 and ‘: from my son’s wedding mattress I know this mound’s / his room.’57 Returning the drone’s gaze, with its excess of information, its rapid and violent response capabilities, Sharif finishes the poem ‘Look’ with a slow request: ‘Let me look at you in a light that takes years to get here.’58