Attention! (a summary)

I obviously write about a good many things, but over the last decade my work has been largely devoted to a single overarching theme: what we attend to and what we fail to attend to. This started with the work on my old Text Patterns blog that fed into my 2011 book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, and since then I have pursued the various connected issues and problems down several paths. My set of Theses for Disputation, “Attending to Technology,” is my most explicit articulation of these concerns, but even when I didn’t seem to be thinking about these things I really was. Even my biography of the Book of Common Prayer was an attempt to understand the prayer book as an instrument for the focusing of the attention of wayward Christians on that to which they should primarily attend. As the BCP almost says, “We have attended to those things we should not have attended to, and we have not attended to those things which we should have attended to, and there is no health in us.” The relevance of these questions to How to Think will be obvious to anyone who has read it, but I could say the same about the two books that I published since then, The Year of Our Lord 1943 and Breaking Bread with the Dead. In each case I am concerned with the forces in our culture that inhibit enriching attentiveness, that enforce enervating distraction, that direct our minds always towards the frivolous or the malicious. (This is of course why I despise Twitter so intensely.) 

The Invitation and Repair project might be understood as circling within this orbit of thought, but it’s also an attempt to go beyond my earlier, more purely diagnostic, thinking and to begin to understand how to embed concrete practices of life in concrete institutional structures. My most recent essay in The New Atlantis is likewise an attempt to forge a new and more constructive direction for thinking about and addressing our culture-wide attentional dysfunction. I have been interested in Chinese thought — looking into each of the Three Ways but especially Taoism — because the Chinese intellectual/spiritual traditions have always striven to identify and defeat the enemies of proper attention. Even something like the I Ching, which is commonly thought of as a straightforward manual of divination, is always said by its most eloquent and insightful proponents to be — as I have said the Book of Common Prayer is — a device for directing the attention. The I Ching doesn’t tell you what to do so much as tell you what you should be thinking about as you try to decide what to do – what your primary coordinates for judgment should be.

I’ve been intrigued by Chinese thought about these matters not because I think the Christian tradition, which I hold as my own, is deficient, though in fact I do believe that the Western church hasn’t been, well, sufficiently attentive to attention. Rather, I’m just trying to surprise myself. China Achebe used to say that he could write well about the traditional ways of the Igbo people because, while he observed them closely, they weren’t his ways, not when he was growing up. His Christian-convert father forbade him to consort with pagans, which just made pagans more interesting to him. He watched them more closely, and learned a lot from them, precisely because they were a step or two away from his ordinary beliefs and practices. 

And that’s the goal, right? — not to think about attention, which is like thinking about your flashlight instead of using it to find your way in the dark, but rather to see more clearly — and, ultimately, direct your mind and heart and spirit towards what can nourish you. Indeed that is the goal; gut sometimes you might be forced to notice that your flashlight is running out of batteries, or isn’t very strong even at its best, so maybe you should try a different one, or see if you have any fresh batteries? 

Such meta-reflection is dangerous, though. I find myself recalling Carlyle’s famous comment about talking with Coleridge: “He began anywhere: you put some question to him, made some suggestive observation: instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, transcendental life-preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out.” People who talk and write about “productivity” and even “attention” are like that, in a more mundane way. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to achieve ever-more-precise diagnoses of our attentional disorders; I don’t want to continue looking at the light, I want to look along it to see what it illuminates. 

June 20, 2021

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