U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Thoughts Toward A Politics of Interruption

Thinking Global: A Brief Preliminary Note

I am very happy to join the esteemed company of this site’s contributors. I am grateful to them for their help and encouragement, and for the opportunity to continue to interact with the wonderful readers and commenters here.

As in my last set of guest columns, I will try to continue to work the “capital-T Theory beat.” Speaking selfishly, I found it tremendously educational to experiment with the blending of intellectual-historical glosses of major debates in critical theory, and more speculative reporting on what seems today to be in the air—registering what is happening now and anticipating what might be coming next. So this is what I will be focusing upon, moving forward.

I will likely also be writing a great deal about music, which is, after all, an important form of thinking (about which one might say, after Lefty Frizzell: “look what thoughts will do”).

At this point, it might not be a bad idea to address the question of why I find “capital-T Theory” interesting (vital, even).

Q: Why do you find this stuff interesting?

A: A joke from my ancestors, set in Austria at a time of ever-worsening anti-Semitism.

A Jewish man of modest means walks into an immigration office in Vienna, seeking the advice of the clerk about where he might move. The clerk begins to spin a globe that is sitting on his desk, stopping at various countries and explaining why entry into each is beset with difficulties. In one country you need a certain amount of money, in another a labor permit or a certificate of employment. For another country the passport has no validity, a fourth land is not accepting any immigrants, etc. On and on, in this fashion, the clerk continues to whirl the globe. Finally, in desperation, the Jewish man explodes: “Haven’t you got another globe?”[1]

Casino Capitalism

Of Taxicab Confessions and One-Armed Bandits

What I would like to do in this brief essay is to think about—and to invite dialogue about––a theoretical term that is not, to my knowledge, yet available as a fully fleshed-out resource. This term is “interruption.” It seems to me that that understanding interruption as political might provide the key to better understanding a wide variety of popular culture practices.

It makes sense to write about this politics of interruption for an audience of intellectual historians, I hope, because careful reflection on interruption gets to the heart of a certain kind of thinking about which we would like to know more.

The prospect of theorizing a “politics of interruption” entered my thoughts when I came across a fascinating passage from Kenneth Burke’s The Philosophy of Literary Form:

I have read that there is an especially high incidence of stomach ulcers among taxi drivers–an occupational illness that would not seem to be accounted for merely by poor and irregular meals, since these are equally the lot of workers at other kinds of jobs. Do we not see, rather, a bodily response to the intensely arhythmic quality of the work itself, the irritation in the continual jagginess of traffic, all puzzle and no pace, and only the timing of the cylinders performing with regularity, as if all the ritual of the occupational act had been drained off, into the routine of the motor’s explosions and revolutions?[2]

Burke suggests here that something like exposure to or proneness vis-à-vis “interruption” might be both a politically and aesthetically salient social fact. In the gastric distress of the taxi driver there is evidence—paradoxically enough––of both of the resistance of the body and the psyche to “expecting the unexpected,” and a habituation to life under the aegis of alea, the rule of accident and chance.

In context, Burke is also advancing a stronger claim: that proletarian literature need not understand itself as wedded to documentary realism and the melodrama of everyday working life. Is not “jagginess”—“all puzzle and no pace”––the defining feature of modernist art? Burke is thus weighing in on a controversy that consumed Left theorists in the first half of the twentieth century (today we think of it as the Lukács/Bloch debate): the dispute regarding the preferability of “realism” versus “expressionism” as modes of revolutionary aesthetics. What Burke wants us to consider is that, from a strictly materialist perspective, the proletarian aesthetic is at least as “expressionistic” as it is “realistic,” and that at the level of form (the presentation of a narrative, the texture of a shift on the job, in duration) it may be palpably more so.

At about the time that I began to think seriously about this passage from Burke, I came across another provocative fragment on interruption, in a much more recent text: Natasha Dow Schüll fascinating study Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.[3]  Schüll begins with an ethnographic account of hardcore electronic gamblers in Las Vegas—those who avoid the flashier games and card tables in favor of digital slot machines.

Schüll introduces us to Mollie:

When I ask Mollie if she is hoping for a big win, she gives a short laugh and a dismissive wave of her hand. “In the beginning there was excitement about winning,” she says, “but the more I gambled, the wiser I got about my chances. Wiser, but also weaker, less able to stop. Today when I win— and I do win, from time to time— I just put it back in the machines. The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win.” Why, then, does she play? “To keep playing— to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters.” I ask Mollie to describe the machine zone. She looks out the window at the colorful movement of lights, her fingers playing on the tabletop between us. “It’s like being in the eye of a storm, is how I’d describe it. Your vision is clear on the machine in front of you but the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there— you’re with the machine and that’s all you’re with.”

From this encounter with Mollie, Schüll cuts to a different ethnographic scene, also in Las Vegas: a convention of gambling industry entrepreneurs and experts, gathered to consider the future of machine gambling. “Echoing Mollie’s wish to stay in the machine zone,” Schüll writes, “they spoke of gamblers’ desire for ‘time-on-device,’ or TOD.” The popular desire for longer and longer spells of freedom from interruption—smoother and more intense passages into the “machine zone”—serves as a spur to technological innovation. “On these newer products, they can really get into that zone,” says one industry insider to Schüll. The computerization of the slot machine, it seems, has facilitated the development of a new apparatus of freedom from interruption:

The gambling experience has evolved in step with technological innovation. Once a relatively straightforward operation in which players bet a set amount on the outcome of a single payline, today machine gambling begins with a choice among games whose permutations of odds, stakes size, and special effects are seemingly endless. Instead of inserting coins into a slot as in the past, players are more likely to insert paper money, bar-coded paper tickets, or plastic cards with credit stored on chips or magnetic stripes. To activate the game, they no longer pull a lever, but instead press a button or touch a screen. Denomination of play can vary from one cent to one hundred dollars, and players can choose to bet from one to as many as one thousand coin credits per game. On or above the play area, which typically features a video screen or three-dimensional reels behind glass, “pay tables” indicate the number of credits to be awarded in the event that certain symbols or cards appear together. To the right, a digital credit meter displays the number of credits remaining in the machine. Linked via telecommunications systems to a central server, the machines also perform data-gathering and marketing functions for the casino. Critical nodes in the larger networked system of the casino rather than stand-alone units, they have “become the central nervous system of the casino,” an industry representative remarked in 2007.

These passages from Burke and Schüll led me to review the theoretical literature that might be relevant to fleshing out a politics of interruption. The options are virtually endless, although I have come to think that feminist and queer theoretical works on time and temporality, from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own to José Esteban Muñoz Cruising Utopia and J. Jack Halberstam’s In a Queer Time and Place, would have to be central points of reference. Situationist International writings on the city also seem particularly germane, as does Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari’s distinction of “smooth” as opposed to “striated” space (and parallel notions of “nomadic” or “durational” vs. “segmented” or “segmentary” time).

Without question, however, the canonical text that seems to me to gesture most forcefully towards a potential politics of interruption is Walter Benjamin’s famous “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” [4] It is thus appropriate that we should conclude with a very brief consideration of that text.

Walter Benjamin, Shock Jock

Benjamin’s theorization of interruption in “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire.” —arrived at by way of meditation on the category of “shock”––takes the form of an extended commentary not so much on the author of Fleurs du Mal as on Sigmund Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920).  

Freud’s pivotal post-WWI text—wherein the notion of “death drive” is introduced––signifies a rejection of earlier theories of the function of “memory traces” as somehow embedded in the conscious mind. Consciousness is not at all concerned with remembering, as such, Freud now argues; rather it serves a different function––“protection against stimuli.”

For Benjamin, what Freud captures here is a central theme of modernity: our perceptual response to the interruptions occasioned by capitalist development (everything from pulsating advertisements to total war) is primarily oriented towards insulation and anticipation of shocks.

Memory, then—as represented by the puzzling clinical detail that motivates Freud to write Beyond the Pleasure Principle, the endless repetition of traumatic battlefield memories by recovering soldiers, “accident neuroses which reproduce the catastrophe in which the patient was involved,” which would seem to have no justification according to the Utilitarians’ “hedonic calculus”—is primarily a way of preparing for shocks. “The more readily consciousness registers these shocks,” Benjamin writes, “the less likely are they to have a traumatic effect.” Imaginative repetition of traumatic experiences “endeavor to master the stimulus retroactively, by developing the anxiety whose omission was the cause of the traumatic neurosis.”

This notion is anticipated in the writing of Paul Valéry, in passages such as: “The impressions and sense perceptions of man actually belong in the category of surprises, they are evidence of an insufficiency in man. … Recollection is… an elemental phenomenon which aims at giving us the time for organizing the reception of stimuli which we initially lacked.”

The question for Baudelaire and Valéry, as for Benjamin and Kenneth Burke is this: “how lyric poetry can have as its basis an experience for which the shock experience has become the norm.” And how that might make interruption a term with which we should further dwell.


[1] Theodore Reik, Jewish Wit (New York: Gamut Press, 1962), 48.

[2] Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974 [1941]), 11.

[3] Natasha Dow Schüll, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 4-7. I am grateful to Rob Horning for alerting me to the existence of this extraordinarily valuable book.

[4] Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Harry Zohn. Illuminations (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968.)

14 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I have no idea if this is a dot you think any of this connects to, but I was reminded of much of what David Foster Wallace seemed to be saying he was trying to do with his work. This is an impression cobbled together by some reading of his I have done (not extensive) and lots of interviews I read and watched almost 3 years ago now; so again, I’m not sure if the connection is warranted, but it does seem like he was very concerned with capturing this experience of constant interruption, constant stimuli.

    The interesting twist being then, of course — particularly in his work and from his perspective, I mean — is that one way of dealing with the constant interruption is almost to use the interruption flow itself to zone out; to block out the “other noise” competing for our attention at any given moment. Hence his descriptions of his friends feeling afraid to read — not enough distraction, here comes the existential dread — and I can’t but help think of that in connection to how Mollie has found, in what at first glance might seem like a very distracting machine itself built on interruptions, to concentrate on one thing and disappear into the machine zone. So the same processes that produced the experience of constant interruption also offer a way out of this jarring experience by offering interruption in a concentrated and, paradoxically, predictable format. Or, in other words, sometimes it feels like the only viable solution to irregular interruption is immersion in constant interruption?

    Anyway, all very rough thoughts here which may or may not be relevant; my solution for all of this is baseball, anyway.

  2. “Or, in other words, sometimes it feels like the only viable solution to irregular interruption is immersion in constant interruption?”

    Yes, thank you, exactly. This is what I think we need to think about more. It is the key to unlocking the capitalist nervous system.

    Thanks so much for this great, generative comment!

  3. Interesting stuff. Another source here would be Georg Simmel and other Freud-era stuff surrounding city stimulation–“The Metropolis and Mental Life” being the classic account. But also Siegfried Kracauer and some of the early sociologists.

    • Thanks so much for this comment. Yes, definitely Simmel and Kracauer, key sources on this. One of the reasons I prefer Benjamin and Bloch, for what it’s worth, is that their takes are more pragmatic when they are pragmatic, and more apocalyptic when they are apocalyptic. Benjamin, especially, when he works as a historian, is interested in openings, in his treatment of the new; Simmel and Kracauer (and Lukács and Adorno) so often seem interested in closings, endings, things that are irrevocably finished and lost.

      All that is neither here nor there, of course, in intellectual historical terms–in that light, of course, one needs to talk about Simmel and Kracauer! So I appreciate greatly this generous prompt.

      • Hmmm. Again, I haven’t spent any real time with this stuff in years, and almost none with Bloch, but in my mind Benjamin and Kracauer feel like allies on the terms you suggest. I’ve always liked the idea that Kracauer was writing these critiques of emerging popular amusements in the newspaper–as if they were just that, news, and bound to make some difference in the future, and so everyone should pay attention… But I forget all the intricate stakes in these debates–haven’t read most of that stuff–other than Benjamin and Simmel–since the 90s! Yikes.

  4. Muy interesante, Kurt. It would also be interesting to ask about when interruption speaks to counter-revolutionary and right-wing politics/aesthetics. Benjamin tried to link the “shock experience” of modernity, especially as represented by certain filmic practices, like cartoons and avant-garde movies, to a leftist revolution, but Adorno, in his famous retort to the Artwork essay, linked fascism to Mickey Mouse’s antics. Peter Osborne’s work on the avant-garde and temporality might be of help here, if I remember well.

    Also, I ask how we might differentiate interruption from shock, jagginness, or are these categories of interruption itself?

    • Kahlil, thanks so much. Wow–between Robin and Sandy and you, I am starting to feel guilty… I am getting so much more out of this than I am putting in.

      It’s funny you mention Adorno on Mickey Mouse–I initially had a paragraph on Bugs Bunny, which might find its way into next week’s essay. Bugs Bunny is such a great interrupter… but, of course, Adorno is right, Mickey Mouse is a fascist. Don’t get me started on Goofy.

      To push my exploitation of commenters from “regular” to “super”: my next installment of this essay will be specifically on Chicano/a popular culture and some of its theorists… It seems to me that that is an archive and a discourse in which interruption has been best operationalized as a politics.

      The question of categorizing interruption–are “shock” and “jagginess” the same thing–is excellent. It seems to me that “shock” belongs in the category of the sacralization of time, which certain kinds of interruption (death, for example, and also miracles) bring about–that’s something for which humans have had language for a long time. “Jagginess” strikes me as formal, and as a spatial metaphor for a certain kind of temporality–after all, cities work as grids, the country is mostly open space, so where is the “jagginess” coming from, exactly? For Burke, in the example of the taxi drivers, it seems to be a quality set in motion by a certain kind of labor performed under the imperatives of a certain regime of competition and accumulation.

      What do you think?

      • I can only say you have something quite fascinating going on here, the possibility of building an archive of interruptions! Looking forward to read on the Chicano politics of interruption! Quick question: what is the broader context of Burke’s observations on taxis, beyond proletarian literature? A key text, thinking of the aesthetics of revolutionary interruption, would be Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution and the manifesto he co-wrote with Breton and Rivera. Keeping the aesthetics ball running, I wonder if the sublime, the uncanny, hell, terror itself, could be read all as categories of interruption.

  5. The question for Baudelaire and Valéry, as for Benjamin and Kenneth Burke is this: “how lyric poetry can have as its basis an experience for which the shock experience has become the norm.”

    Very nice, Kurt. Transgressiveness needs a gress to trans against, and thus is merely derivative and ultimately boring.

  6. Kahlil–Burke writes of the taxi drivers in his section on the “symbolic act,” which is a typically discursive and eclectic discussion of themes similar to John Dewey’s theory of the aesthetic act, JL Austin on the speech act, and later Raymond Williams on the semiotic as material. My hunch is that he is incorporating materials here that he developed in his writing on Odets’s Waiting for Lefty. That might be obvious or far-fetched… we need a real Burke scholar here. Why don’t more intellectual historians work on Burke? It’s kind of a mystery.

    And yes–all these manifestations of the sacred, sublime, etc. are, I think, interruptions. It’s probably no coincidence that the hyper-regimented Kant was the great theorist of the sublime… there’s a great article on the Lisbon earthquake and the source material from which Kant developed his aesthetic theory… that would be further grist for the mill!

    TVD–thanks very much. Mighty kind of you.

    • You mean Gene Ray’s essay on Lyotard? It’s excellent. Werner Hamacher also has a fabulous text along similar lines, on Kleist’s depiction of the Lisbon earthquake, it’s in Essays on Philosophy and Literature from Kant to Celan. I came back again to the comments section b/c I saw this in FB, thought it would interest you, the “Interrupting Society”!
      http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/01/the-interruptive-society/#.UupZvmRdXNB

      I also need to catch up on my Burke, as a lit scholar it’s a cardinal sin not to know these references…thanks again for the dialogue.

      • Awesome link, very interesting.

        Yes–the Gene Ray article. I think about it all the time! Is it still widely read in lit? It’s one of the pieces I would definitely want to assign if they ever let me teach a historiography class.

        Will check out the Hamacher, promptly.

        Burke, in lit studies, it seems, is often reduced to the “father of the pentad” thing… but he’s much more interesting than that. I definitely recommend starting with Attitudes Toward History (1937).

        All credit to resurrecting this extremely prophetic and contemporary text is due to James Livingston, of course.

  7. Kurt –

    You might consider Erving Goffman, who drew on Simmel as well as Kenneth Burke. For him, face-to-face interaction, centered in the creation of what he called “interaction order,” is a highly situational, fragile, ongoingly provisional, drama-like performance subject to “interruptions” and disruptions of all kinds. Social actors have an almost desperate existential dependence on the cooperative performance of interactional rituals [Goffman draws on Durkheim’s theory of the sacred, too] through which social order is constituted, maintained and repaired or restored when various kinds of disruptions occur, including actors’ failures of performance and consequent embarrassment, “alienations” from interaction, uncovery of stigmatizing or deviant characteristics, and the like. One of my favorites is “The Insanity of Place,” in his book Relations in Public, 1971.

    By the way, I’m glad you’ve joined the blog! Your work will raise and shift the bar around here, for sure. I’m still working to digest your recent series of post – and I was a little disappointed you didn’t ever tie it all together, or spell it out, at least so that I could understand. Thanks for it.

    • Thanks for your kind words!

      Goffman, definitely, I should integrate into my analysis. Schüll’s book on gambling has a very good discussion of Goffman (and Geertz) in relation to the “ludic studies” industry that seems to be growing every day, and the rediscovery of Huizinga and Caillois on play and games.

      I feel bad that my last few posts didn’t cohere into a legible whole for you… for the record, they weren’t intended as an extended argument so much as a set of mostly unrelated ambles down some one-way streets and side alleys… Not sure if that is helpful or more confusing!

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