Tung-Hui Hu

Digital Lethargy: Dispatches from an Age of Disconnection

The MIT Press, 2022

256 pages

US $24.95

Reviewed by Yuge Ma

‘Digital lethargy,’ argues Tung-Hui Hu, being the affective state of being passive and disconnected that is shared by many of us living in an increasingly digital age, holds its potential for social change in enduring the very conditions that continue to breed it. Divided into six chapters, with each chapter exploring the feeling of digital lethargy alongside relevant contemporary artworks and performances, Tung-Hui Hu’s Digital Lethargy: Dispatches from an Age of Disconnection offers a powerful narrative of how our identities and our relations to time, others, and society are reshaped under digital capitalism.

Hu’s historiographical approach to justifying an affective state of being that is peculiar to the digital age begins with him coining this feeling as ‘digital lethargy.’ By juxtaposing ‘digital’ and ‘lethargy’ in a coined term, Hu simultaneously lays down two premises that provide him with a range of theoretical, aesthetic, and practical starting points to investigate what is beneath the feeling. First, in addition to functioning as a feeling, lethargy is understood as “a set of tactics to survive within a condition.” With the spell of ‘being yourself’ long being the foundation of the dominant narrative of digital capitalism which coincides with and enhances the liberal democracy and individualism embedded in the Western political atmosphere, digital capitalism has further disciplined humanity into an ‘us’ and an Other alongside racialization. Second, lethargy is concerned with self-forgetting. Unlike the Dionysiac dissolution of subjectivity in which one loses everything about the ‘individual self’ such as social roles, sexuality, the control over their own actions, and the traditionally demarcated line between humans and nature, digital lethargy is more about self-objectification in which people free themselves from the burden of ‘being yourself’ carried by agentive subjects. This book structures itself by branching from the two basic premises, “weav[ing] ideas . . . to make a network” that resonates with the workings of digitalization. As a result, this book interprets lethargy within the framework of the digital age and, in turn, understands digital capitalism through lethargic bodies. 

While looking at the artworks and performances that exhibit the traits of ‘lethargic art’ to create a different narrative of what constitutes liveliness, humanness, collectivity, and political action, Digital Lethargy is not an archive of ‘lethargic art’ but primarily uses artistic expression as a means to underscore “the affective (and thus collective) forms that the state of digital lethargy produces.” The works of art (and literature) discussed in this book thus not only allow us to engage with and reexamine ourselves through the idea of digital lethargy but, in effect, help Hu to flesh out what digital lethargy encompasses and promises. In this way, these source materials are utilized as both critical frameworks in which Hu situates his analysis and evidence for Hu to build the vocabulary and narrative of digital lethargy. Artists from the field of literature, performance, and film, including Heike Geissler, Cory Arcangel, Katherine Behar, Tega Brain, Surya Mattu, Yoshua Okón, Julia Leigh, Erica Scourti, and nibia pastrana santiago, explore what happens when all we are left with is enduring and waiting as well as the political possibilities in such an act of “inaction.”

Hu’s analysis is interspersed with remarks and perspectives from performance studies, cinema studies, media studies, political economy, anthropology, race, gender, and digital studies, game studies, feminist studies, ethnic studies, sociology, cultural theory, ethnography, and so on. Occasionally, Hu needs to read the artworks as opposed to or divergent from the general reading of critics. One example is Yoshua Okón’s Canned Laughter (2009), a video installation that features a group of performers—former maquiladora workers—who once again adopt the roles of Mexican workers to perform producing canner laughter in a fictitious factory for US sitcoms. While critics have been “adopting and applying a model of oppression” to view this artwork and microwork in general that are closely tied to racialized bodies and exploitation, Hu argues for the essential technicalness of the body in both physical and cultural sense, pointing out “a more ambivalent relationship between the microworker and their [digital] work,” suggesting that the seeming “lack of agency and authenticity” is rather a strategy to defer “the burden of expressing oneself ‘authentically’” and one step closer to decolonize the notion of aliveness and humanness. Within Hu’s framework of digital lethargy, such reading seems valid as well as thought-provoking, as it redirects the reader’s attention to what one can do otherwise if not to resolve, resist, or respond to a solution or a situation. In the instance of Canned Laughter (2009), once lethargy is identified within the microwork that the artwork represents/critiques, it can be argued that lethargy functions as a ‘deferral’ by which the relationship between the (lethargic) subject and the (digital) environment is made more evident. The artwork as such also pushes us to ask: what happens when one is unsure about how to feel or react, or unwilling to think about that? Who is the subject? What’s their role in digital work?

Digital Lethargy poses significant questions for artists who share concerns about an increasingly digitalized world; by inquiring into the political dimension of being lethargic or “doing nothing,” the book sheds light on the assumptions that have been so central to our self-definitions. In addition, discussion of the book adds a layer of meaning for scholars across different disciplines, as Hu has already undertaken an interdisciplinary approach in building the blocks of digital lethargy. Most importantly, while Hu’s remark rings true that “racialized subjects inhabit alternate temporalities in relation to technology,” this book welcomes a wide range of readership and levels of existing knowledge and provides friendly access for us to simply reexamine the relations we develop within a digital environment.

No previous experience with either digital technology or art is presumed in this book. For those who have been “disengaged, lethargic user[s]” who would spend most of our days scrolling and clicking through a bunch of websites, it is a validation for the feelings generated by the world we are pulling through each day. More importantly, this book offers a way of reconceiving what makes us human and alive. For those who have been digital workers earning their livings by customer service or website maintenance or even more micro-works such as “digitalizing scanned books,” “converting images to text,” or posting fake comments on social media, this book allows us an opportunity to recognize the “ordinary weight of each forced interaction…that we have nonetheless become accustomed to enduring.” Subconsciously, we are already making gestures of endurance at moments of waiting, receiving, and “emotional hesitation.” But what is the way out for those of us? Or is there any way out? 

In fact, the lack of practical solutions is precisely an effect of lethargy, according to Hu. However, as data continues to regulate our bodies and algorithms continue to turn us into robots—an unequal process in which power and privilege will always come into play—the very definition of practicality might as well be reconceived in the foreseeable future.