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‘Zoom Fatigue’ and the Deleuzian Perspective

Text by Luise Erbentraut (Freie Universität Berlin)

Image by Pablo Dohms

During the past semesters under pandemic conditions, I had the feeling of losing control—or more precisely, being lost in control. The different qualities which came together in my so-called creative digital semester caused me to throw all my organisational strategies overboard. Teaching personnel were required to balance the demands of the pandemic themselves: home-schooling, hopping from meetings to conferences, attending panel discussions whilst still trying to meet us students’ halfway through experimenting with lesson formats. The past semesters affected all of us in different ways. Organisation, strategy, and management – at least all of these come with a similar feeling: recurrent patterning. Contrarily, one could say that these qualities themselves are predicated upon chaos, and emerge as qualities through separation. They put a spotlight on themselves by differentiation and elude neat categorisation and patterning. They are not something neatly countable, measured or sorted. At least, this is what I have learned so far and I paint here a picture of the abstract vagueness of the felt chaos. Losing control is what happened in the muddle of different sorts of lesson formats, contents, and localities, in the gradual re-opening of (post-)pandemic spaces: travelling between work, university, on- and offline, still mostly travelling at home.

In fact, as one of the pandemic’s effects, the term ‘Zoom fatigue’ designating the feeling of exhaustion with the use of video conferencing apps, has become a popular and widely discussed phenomena (Bailenson 2021, 1; Lee 2020; Tufvesson 2020; Wiederhold 2020, 437). While scientists have just started examining the phenomenon empirically, they mainly focussed on the cognitive capacities operative in the processing of the specific modalities of communication entailed in such applications (Fauville et al. 2021b, 2021a). In so doing, they envision a neoliberal tendency of centre-staging the individual, omitting power relations and the very role of relationality itself. Video conferencing apps like Zoom constitute forms of communication, configuring the way communication works within these apps and how relationalities are established between users. In other words: video communication apps configure the relations between such technologies and their users, and the interrelations between users as aided by these technologies. In this essay, I look at the relational aspects of video conferencing apps focusing on the aspect of (un)doing (self-)control. I ask: What does it mean to lose (self-) control in the context of video communication apps?

Social- and cultural anthropology taught me that the idea of the self is itself an unstable category (Eller 2018, 117–39), a quality which is influenced by culture and not necessarily dependent upon one single entity nor person nor personhood: at times ideas of the individual are as an inseparable unity, at times comprehended as a 'dividual', building and yielding relationalities between individuals (ibid., 138-9). The self thus represents a situational spotlight of and on relational dimensions with and within (in)dividuals: non-fixed, unstable, moving – yet always porous (Smith 2012). Selves and (in)dividuals are becoming, as Deleuze (2015) famously puts it. If they are becoming, what does it mean then to ask about being lost in control? In “Logic of Sense” Deleuze (2015) paints the relation between being and becoming by highlighting that being already is a form of becoming (ibid., 1). Separating the temporalities of the present (which is the 'pure event') and the relative present, both become necessary conditions for each other (ibid., 167-9); being in a moment needs the becoming in relation to pasts and futures, yet becoming needs the moment of being which is set into relation (ibid., 1, 167-9). One might then ask, how long does the moment of being last? When is it that the moment of being turns into becoming? Is it something that alternates? While considering being as becoming, and thus both becoming and being as mutually interdependent, they are only distinguishable according to the pasts and/or futures one considers in relation to being. Hence, it is a question of how close or far one zooms in or out. In a sense, they never alternate, but only change in the way they are perceived. As long as the experience of (lost) control does not change, it describes a specific sort of being which is only possible because it happened in relation to how it was before (or what might happen after).

In my case, this experience felt like slipping away from the practised knowledge of how I organised pre-pandemic studying, working, being and becoming, yet not having a clue about how I could do it in this new pandemic situation to get an idea of how I should do it later. Being lost in control felt like being stuck in the chaos of qualia, the mishmash of particular experiences, without being able to see any possibility of patterning. From this perspective, being lost in control eludes becoming in control as long as temporality slips away from establishing the needed relations.

From Becoming to Being Lost in Control: Disconnecting Power Relations

In “Postscript on the Societies of Control” Deleuze (1992) continues Foucault’s idea of the disciplinary society yet elaborates the thought as societies of control. While keeping the grasp of power relations as something which forms subjects, he slightly shifts the narrative to an idea of power as a relation of decomposing subjects as such (ibid., 4; Patton 2018). In this sense, the form of power as control is “a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other; or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point” (Deleuze 1992, 4). Through control, the disciplined, enclosed individual is alternated with the dividual who is always taken apart (ibid., 5). Or, in short: To be beside oneself, in the two-fold meaning of being parted, staying beside oneself yet being all at sea. Thus, subjectification within 'control' (which represents a form of power), emerges as a form of separation—that of becoming individually divided (Patton 2018, 195). While focusing on the aspect of separation, it might seem as if Deleuze uses the term “dividual” slightly in a different manner as it is used elsewhere in anthropology, where the relational facet between individuals is highlighted.

Reconnecting Power Relations: Is not relationality a form of (dis)connectedness purporting different sorts of qualia?

To say two (or even more) things are not one and the same, implicitly means to say they appear in a specific way in relation to the other. Disconnection constitutes connection via the relationality of separability. Under the regime of control, subjects thus emerge by relationalities of (dis)connections, reconfiguring themselves by losing in-dividuality: The self eludes the constraint of Foucault’s prison. (Self-)Control rather describes power relations that surface as internalised negotiations of decomposition, (re)positioning the self by separation. Being lost in control thus becomes the experience of the self when it is no longer empowered by being divided with and within (dis)connected relationalities; when it no longer is beside itself; when it loses the intrinsic relationality of separation, which empowers it to become.

While catching up and reconfiguring Foucault’s analysis of discipline society, Deleuze implicitly upholds Foucault’s notion of power as such. When asking Foucault and Deleuze for resistance it is worthwhile recognising that there is a difference between power as such and how it operates. As outlined above, Deleuze only recomposes the way power works, he thus stays with the idea that power is something operating without something beyond, which means that resistance is part of power as such. Or to put it in Foucault’s famous terms: “Where there is power, there is resistance, and yet, or rather consequently, this resistance is never in a position of exteriority in relation to power” (Foucault 1990, 95). This was also famously pointed out by Butler (2018) who conceptualises resistance within the form of power of discipline: resistance becomes possible by subversion within the (re)iterative process of subjectification. She motivates me to ask if this (re)iterative process at times might be neglected by video conferencing apps, dividing subjectification to its impossibilities?

Exhausting (Dis)Connections: ‘Zoom Fatigue’ and resistance’ surfacing

Might the phenomenon of ‘Zoom Fatigue’ shed light on how those apps mesh relational facets in a way, that the only exhaustion they provide is the exhaustion of the possibilities of conventional forms of communication in institutionalised contexts? Might exhaustion be an effect of resistance surfacing? These questions lead me to the need to resketching the idea of video conferencing apps per se. Regarding different disciplines, they might be described as foregrounding different aspects.

On the one hand, in terms of computer-mediated communication, video conferencing apps include a dynamic process of communication, where the ways of communication include audio as well as video interaction between two or more persons (Parasian and Yuliati 2020, 11–12). On the other hand, from a computer science perspective, there is a flow of information of different types of data which need to be processed via internet protocols (Firestone, Ramalingam, and Fry 2007, xix–6). As communication technologies, broadly speaking, video conferencing apps may count as applications to enable visually, audibly, and textually remote communication. They entangle multisensorial facets of relationality by their way of establishing the relation between those sitting, reading, moving, lying, speaking, listening, breathing, typing in front of them, or one might also describe it as multimodality, as the communication scientist Hall (2020, 7) did. In “Relating Through Technology” Hall defines multimodality as several modes of communication, drawing from mixed-media scholar Parks’ (2017) idea that those modes of communication are the forms in which a message can be encoded and – naming speech, written text, moving image, touch as examples – highlighting that communication itself is a multisensorial endeavour (Hall 2020, 5). According to Hall, multimodality is part of what one might call face-to-face-conversation and a core feature of interpersonal relations as such, out of which mediated communication is only an extension (ibid., 3). Looking back to video conferencing apps, while they enable communication via more than one, more than two or even more than three modes, they limit them at the same time, depending on the way they transfer information, depending on the camera, where it is placed, depending on the microphone, if it is shut on or off, depending on the keyboard, if it is an external one or within the touchscreen and depending on if the technical device is able to deal with the load of information processed. Just to name a few examples.

Such limitations are also implicitly examined within the discussion and research on ‘Zoom fatigue’. Géraldine Fauville, a researcher focusing immersive technologies and environmental education, and her team recently published a more systematic article on the phenomenon: Fauville et al. (2021a) attribute five mechanisms to ‘Zoom fatigue’ which all are facets of nonverbal communication. These include: mirror anxiety, the limitations of movement, hyper gaze from a grid of staring faces and the cognitive (over-)load of nonverbal interaction itself (ibid., 1). While covering these mechanisms as part of specific spatial dynamics, they also address video conferencing apps themself as a specific context of communication (ibid., 2).

They address the meaning of context regarding video conferencing apps in a slightly different way to Hall and his relational approach to technology. When he states that communication via media is an extension of pre-existing relationships (ibid., 3), he implicitly also points to something that is well known from an anthropological perspective: context matters. And context matters beyond technology. Even when I personally would not go so far to predetermine relationships as such in a static way, I would agree to the point that at least power relations can reach beyond technical boundaries in a way. Thus, regarding video conferencing apps, context matters at least in a two-fold manner: First, the contexts in which video conferencing apps are used and the entanglements within power relations, and second, the context they provide themselves.

Power Relations Crossing Boundaries of Matter: Questioning Contexts of Video Conferencing Apps and Beyond

In “The Zoom Gaze” Autumm Caines (2021), who settles her research interests within the intersection of education and technology, sharply stresses how the mingling of and within power relations and Zoom might lead to an institutionalised form of seeing and watching. She calls attention to critically reflect whose subjectivity it centres, who is staying invisible or might even be erased, and how it reproduces hierarchical environments (ibid., 1). Hence, she examines how power relations traverse the contexts where they are operative, yet are maintained and lead to a form of reproduction within the context of video conferencing apps. Even though she uses the term 'control' herself, especially when she points to how the complexities of the self and power relations within Zoom work, she uses it in a rather conventional form. To complement this, I want to argue that using the term 'control' in the way Deleuze reformulated power dynamics would offer the possibility to have a closer look at the coherence between ‘Zoom Gaze’ and ‘Zoom Fatigue’.

In what she describes as self-surveillance, when we constantly see ourselves, being “self-aware and self-correcting in real-time” (ibid.), we also find ourselves divided within and as part of power relations. It is as if we would look in the mirror, facing our divided subjectivity, the dividual looking back. This, too, mirrors in a way the findings that marginalised persons experience a higher level of fatigue (Fauville et al. 2021a, 11–12). We are constantly confronted with aspects of ourselves which might fit into the grid and to which not. We constantly face the resistance to power, and this might be ultimately exhaustive.

Power Relations and Exhaustion: Exhausted (In)Dividuals or Exhausted Contexts?

Searching for the exhausted, one too might find it in the work of Deleuze, or sometimes even in one’s mailbox. In “The Exhausted” however, one might find Deleuze (1995) painting the possibilisation of the impossible: exhausting the exhausted. According to Deleuze, exhaustion is when the possible becomes exhausted, or more precisely, when the possible becomes exhausted by its subject and the subject exhausted by its possibilities (ibid., 3, 12). The possible is exhausted by everything and nothing at the same time because it hasn't happen yet: “There is only possible existence” (ibid., 4). Conclusively, exhaustion is the process of the possibilisation of an exhausted subject exhausting its (im)possibilities (ibid., 5). Thus, within this combined process the imperative is what Deleuze calls inclusive disjunction – the possible existence, in which “everything is divided, but within itself” (ibid., 4). With this idea of (possible) entities as parted multiplicities, he ties in with what he conceptualised as the way power relations operate under the regime of control, three years before: A mechanism which constantly divides entities, subjects (Deleuze 1992, 5). Hence, these inclusive disjunctions describe this very specific sort of relationality as a kind of (dis)connectedness – two things are not one and the same, yet both are needed according to the other. Within the power relations of control, exhaustion then is when the dividual exhausts its (im)possibilities of separation, (dis)connectedness. When we are gazing into Zoom with our multiple senses, we exhaust the possibilities of (dis)connections within a specific context and of a specific context. Similar argue Parasian and Yuliati (2020), communication scholars, who work in telecommunication industry, when they highlight Video Conferences as a Mode of Communication, which needs to be utilizable. Additionally, I propose, we exhausted the possibilities of a form of communication we had known, learned in a specific institutionalised setting, facing its impossibilities. Thus, the ‘Zoom Gaze’ exhausts an institutionalised form of communication and at the same time, it is a gaze in the (im)possibilities of a shared view. The (im)possibilities of divided subjectivity, continuously exhausting (in)dividuality.

Taking all those questions and possible answers together, lately I am wondering if ‘Zoom fatigue’ might be a structural form of resistance embedded in power relations? Structural resistance surfacing as the exhaustion of the (in)dividual and to acknowledge this momentum of resisting to give an answer, I will stop writing now, allowing myself the needed spare time from and of becoming, resisting, and falling in line.


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——————— 1995. “The Exhausted.” Translated by Anthony Uhlmann. SubStance 24, 3 (78): 3–28.

——————— 2015. Logic of Sense. London, New York, Oxford, New Delhi, Sydney: Bloomsbury Academic.

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—————— 2021b. “Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale.” SSRN Electronic Journal.

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