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Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: attention (page 1 of 1)

the attention cottage

In the last few days I have come across, or had sent to me, anguished cries from people who have recently been dragged on social media and cannot fathom the injustice of it, and I find myself thinking: You haven’t figured this out yet? You complain about your words being taken out of context when you post them in an environment whose entire structure — as we have all known for fifteen years now — demands context collapse? How many more times do you plan to smack your head against that unyielding wall? 

I wrote recently about some things that everyone knows, and here are two more things that everyone knows:

  1. Our attentional commons is borked, it’s FUBAR; it’s not stunned or pining for the fjords, it has ceased to be, it is bereft of life, it is an ex-commons.
  2. The death of the attentional commons has had dramatic and sometimes tragic consequences for every individual’s store of attentiveness.

What I want to argue today is that the attentional commons cannot be rebuilt unless and until we rebuild private and local/communal spaces of attentiveness. Consider this my response to this call for ideas about building from TNA.

What might this look like?

A handful of interesting examples come from this recent Ted Gioia post: There we see directors, actors, and other Hollywood figures buying and restoring old theaters to make shared attentional spaces that offer refuge from the ex-commons. Surely every community has something of this kind, and not necessarily theaters; old libraries, for instance, are ideal candidates for restoration as such spaces.

But maybe people won’t be willing to contribute to such restoration until they better see the value of it; and maybe they won’t see that value until they begin repairing their own personal attentional world. So maybe the place to start is not with the commons but with me — to go inside-out, as it were.

What I need, what I am trying to build, is — I coin this phrase by analogy to a memory palace — an attention cottage. This could be an actual place, like the boathouse in which E. B. White wrote:

photo by Jill Krementz
photo by Jill Krementz

But few of us will be so lucky. Most of us will have to build our cottage from scraps, and a good bit of it will need to be virtual. When I sit down in a chair with a book in my lap, a notebook at my side, and no screens within reach or sight, I am dwelling in my attention cottage. Sometimes even these resources can be hard to come by: In The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction I wrote about scholarly children from big noisy families who developed the skill of surrounding themselves with a “cone of silence.” You do what ya gotta do.

For the past few years my writerly attention has been focused on three artists: John Milton, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Terrence Malick. All three of them in one way or another have a lot to say about the social concerns of their own era — though while Milton wrote extravagantly confrontational political pamphlets and Sayers wrote (rather less polemically) about highly contentious social questions, Malick has approached our current common life wholly through filmmaking, and especially his three movies with contemporary settings: To the Wonder, Knight of Cups, and Song to Song. (There are contemporary scenes in The Tree of Life, but the movie ie effectively set in the past.) The key point, though, is this: Each of these artists regularly steps back from the immediate to consider permanent questions, the questions that arise from — here’s a phrase that we need to recover — the human condition.

In the Book of Common Prayer, the Collect for the fourth Sunday of Trinity runs thus:

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal. Grant this, O heavenly Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake our Lord. Amen.

To care only for things temporal is to lose the things eternal; but to attend rightly to things eternal is the royal road to constructive thought and action in the temporal realm. The great artists and thinkers cultivate a systolic/diastolic rhythm, tension and release, an increase and then decrease of pressure. In the latter phase they withdraw, by whatever means available to them, to their attentional cottage for refreshment and clarification — and then they can return to the pressures of the moment more effectively, and in ways non-destructive to them and to others.

But most of us, I think, get the rhythm wrong: we spend the great majority of our time in systolic mode — contracted, tensed — and only rarely enter the relaxed diastolic phase. Or, to change the metaphor: We think we should be living in the chaotic, cacophanous megalopolis and retreat to our cottage only in desperate circumstances. But the reverse is true: our attention cottage should be our home, our secure base, the place from which we set out on our adventures in contemporaneity and to which we always make our nostos.

I often think how much easier, how much more naturally healthy, life was even just a couple of decades ago, when the internet was in one room of the house, when the whole family had one computer connected to a modem that was connected to a landline, and movies arrived in the mailbox in red envelopes.

netflix

I’m trying to build my way back to that balance, through how I organize the space in which I live and how I apportion my attention. Systolic, diastolic; inhale, exhale. Balance. Almost everything I write, including my newsletter, is meant to help people rebalance their attention — to give them another piece of furniture for their attention cottage.

attention please

Nathan Heller:

“Attention as a category isn’t that salient for younger folks,” Jac Mullen, a writer and a high-school teacher in New Haven, told me recently. “It takes a lot to show that how you pay attention affects the outcome — that if you focus your attention on one thing, rather than dispersing it across many things, the one thing you think is hard will become easier — but that’s a level of instruction I often find myself giving.” It’s not the students’ fault, he thinks; multitasking and its euphemism, “time management,” have become goals across the pedagogic field. The SAT was redesigned this spring to be forty-five minutes shorter, with many reading-comprehension passages trimmed to two or three sentences. Some Ivy League professors report being counselled to switch up what they’re doing every ten minutes or so to avoid falling behind their students’ churn. What appears at first to be a crisis of attention may be a narrowing of the way we interpret its value: an emergency about where — and with what goal — we look.

This is really badly written, and I had to spend a good deal of my own attention trying to figure out what it’s saying. The quotation from Jac Mullen is hard to parse — I think he’s saying, “I have to try to teach my students that multitasking doesn’t really work, but it’s hard to get them to accept that point.” And if I understand that point correctly, then doesn’t the next sentence contradict it? If “multitasking and its euphemism, ‘time management,’ have become goals across the pedagogic field,” then aren’t teachers trying to teach something (multitasking) that Mullen has just (and rightly) said is impossible? Maybe that’s the point, though. Maybe Heller needs to say that Mullen has problems convincing his students because all the other teachers are promoting multitasking. Also: since when is “time management a euphemism — “euphemism”? What does Heller think that word means? — for “multitasking”? I’ve never thought those words were synonymous. And then the following sentence, about the redesign of the SAT, has nothing to do with either multitasking or time management, so I believe some kind of transition was needed there. The most unclear sentence of all is the last one — I have no idea what it means. I don’t know what he means by “narrowing” or what the phrase “emergency about where we look” could possible denote.

What a mess!

What’s going on here? How did Heller, a professional writer, and his editors let a passage this inept make its way into print? My guess: They don’t want to say that our society is gripped by a “crisis of attention” because that’s the kind of thing that Moms and Dads and Boomers and Luddites and … well, conservatives say, so they disavow that language and try to replace it with something else, anything else. But if you look at the whole paragraph, the only conclusion you could reasonably draw is: Holy shit, we’re in the midst of a crisis of attention!

art for humanity’s sake

Daniel Walden:

Criticism of this kind is a misuse of learning to muddle discussion for the sake of scoring points rather than to clarify it for a curious public. There is plenty of intelligent and reasonable criticism of Wilson’s work to be had from people who know the poems well — the Bryn Mawr Classical Review was positive but not uncritical, and I myself think her choices at Odyssey 15.365 were the wrong ones — and there is no need to give credence to people who consider their own desire for attention an adequate substitute for the knowledge and consideration that must attend real critical judgment.

This is well said. To almost everyone writing about art today I want to say: Dragging every scholar, every critic, every translator, every artist, every artwork before the bar of your political tribunal might, just conceivably, not be the only or even the best thing you can do when confronted by a work of art. 

I don’t think we’ve ever needed genuine works of art — imaginative creations that press us to see the world in larger or at least different ways than our standard everyday media-navigation categories allow — more than we do now. But our current resources are few, because of the ways the major art-related organizations have lost any discernible sense of purpose. They are merely reactive to social-media pressure. Examples: 

In light of these developments I’ve come to believe that the most important thing I can do here on this blog is to write about art as art — which is not to say that art lacks political purposes and implications. Often it is powerfully political. But no artwork worthy of our attention approaches politics the way that journalists and people on X do, as a matter of checking the right boxes to avoid exclusion from the Inner Ring. One thing good art always does is to remind us that our experience is dramatically larger than our quotidian political categories suggest. We are unfinalizable; we sprawl. The failure to recognize that is a terrible disease of the intellect

I am finished — not altogether, but largely, I think — with political and cultural disputation. I want to write about works of art that transcend the box-checking, that thwart easy dismissals, that shake us up. And if the current art scene doesn’t offer any of that, then I can always continue to break bread with the dead

Katherine Rundell

The difficulty of Donne’s work had in it a stark moral imperative: pay attention. It was what Donne most demanded of his audience: attention. It was, he knew, the world’s most mercurial resource. The command is in a passage in Donne’s sermon: ‘Now was there ever any man seen to sleep in the cart, between Newgate and Tyburn? Between the prison, and the place of execution, does any man sleep? And we sleep all the way; from the womb to the grave we are never thoroughly awake.’ Awake, is Donne’s cry. Attention, for Donne, was everything: attention paid to our mortality, and to the precise ways in which beauty cuts through us, attention to the softness of skin and the majesty of hands and feet and mouths. Attention to attention itself, in order to fully appreciate its power: Our creatures are our thoughts, he wrote, ‘creatures that are born Giants: that reach from East to West, from earth to Heaven, that do not only bestride all the sea and land, but span the sun and firmament at once: my thoughts reach all, comprehend all.’ We exceed ourselves: it’s thus that a human is super-infinite. 

attention and reading

In response to my post on my readerly annotations, my friend Adam Roberts writes: 

I buy a lot of second-hand books, and previous owners’ annotations are almost always a mere irritation. But then I think of Coleridge. From before he settled at Highgate, but very much once he had settled there, his marginalia were specifically, particularly prized. People would lend him books, sometimes very rare and very valuable books, specifically in the hope that he would annotate them, which he did so far as I can see as automatically as a dog pees on a lamppost, simply because it was what he did. And then the people who had loaned him these books would retrieve them from the Gillmans’ house with glee. STC died 1834: the first publication of his marginalia was 1836, and magazines like Blackwoods continued to print examples of them throughout the century. By far the most expensive-to-produce element in the Princeton/Bollinger Collected Coleridge set are the five volumes of Marginalia, partly because each is 1000 pages long, but also because the marginalia are printed in a different colour font to the text being annotated, and the volumes come with lavish photos of representative STC pages.

The thing that strikes me about this (speaking as somehow who’s read a lot of it) is that the marginalia themselves are, probably, per proportion, something like 20:80, interesting/incisive:blather. So what was the appeal? Some must have been the same that inspired generations of autograph hunters … and I wonder if that’s a hobby that has died out in the digital age? But some of it must have been the way owning a book that Coleridge had annotated brought you closer to the idea of Coleridge himself reading a book. STC was a great writer (obviously you’d expect me to say so) but he’s perhaps an even greater reader, and there’s value, as you put it, in the sense that by reading STC’s marginalia you are as it were peering over STC’s shoulder as he reads. 

I think this is a fascinating comment, and, because I have work facing me that I want to put off, I shall now expand on it. 

I’ve just read David Marno’s fine book Death Be Not Proud: The Art of Holy Attention, which is largely about John Donne but also about what people in the seventeenth century thought attention is. Marno points out that philosophers like Descartes and Malebranche talk about attention a good deal, see it as essential to the task of philosophy, but also never define it. They don’t bother to do so, Marno claims, because everyone already understood attention through its religious contexts, its centrality to Christian prayer. Such philosophers thus secularized the act (or faculty) of attention; and as those religious contexts moved from the cultural center to its margins, attention eventually had to be defined, a project still ongoing today. 

Marno further argues — or rather, I guess, implies; I am somewhat overstating his case here — that when Donne’s poetry was rediscovered in the early twentieth century and became greatly celebrated (most famously by T. S. Eliot), the focus on “holy attention” in his sacred poems became matters of scholarly interest. Critics like I. A. Richards continued the work of secularizing attention by seeing the challenge of attentiveness that Donne describes as a challenge for 20th-century readers also. As Donne strove to attend to Christ on the Cross, so Richard’s students strive to attend to Donne’s poetry. Marno notes that Richards isn’t at all interested in the Christian context of Donne’s meditations, and so, rather than suggesting that his students learn something about either Catholic or Protestant devotional endeavors, he points them towards Confucian practices. 

What I want to suggest here is that Coleridge is a kind of bridge spanning the 17th-century and the 20th-century accounts of attentiveness. He is, for his contemporaries, a kind of icon of holy attention — but the holiness resides not in the objects of his attention (which are typically poetic, historical, and philosophical) but rather in the particular character of his own mental dispositions and practices. Yes, Coleridge had deep theological interests, and those intensified as he grew older, but those who saw him as the ideal reader and wanted to collect the sacred relics of his reading didn’t necessarily share his interests or his beliefs. For them, the holiness was not in the text but in the reader. 

speed revisited

Consider this a kind of follow-up to my post from some weeks ago on moving at the speed of God

I’ve been reading Lawrence Wechsler’s And How Are You, Dr. Sacks? — which is just fascinating. But for today I want to talk about something specific that comes up near the end of the book: the question of whether Sacks was a reliable narrator, whether his fantastic “clinical tales,” as he calls them, were just that, fantasies. Many of his fellow neurologists simply don’t trust him, and Wechsler gives over an entire chapter to their doubts. But Wechsler also provides the testimony of people who worked closely with Sacks, and among the most interesting of these is Margie Kohl (later Marjorie Kohl Inglis). 

Kohl’s view is that many of the neurologists who are skeptical of what Sacks discovered simply aren’t patient enough to investigate as he investigated. “Most neurologists are so stuck in their checklists and their Medicare-mill fifteen-minute drills that they miss everything; Oliver missed nothing.” 

Kohl worked with Sacks when he was treating the victims of encephalitis that he later described in his famous book Awakenings — perhaps also his most controversial book, because the changes he describes these people experiencing seem, to many neurologists, too dramatic to be true. So Wechsler asked Kohl whether Sacks had invented his patients’ spectacular response to the drug called L-DOPA, and she replied:  

I know the charge is not true, and I was there. Sure, he would occasionally attribute higher vocabulary to some of the patients — Maria, for instance, was uneducated and he made her language flow, but this was as much as anything out of respect for her, an honoring and cherishing of her — and in a wider sense he embellished nothing. And many of the patients did talk fluently and with great subtlety. 

But you had to be willing to sit at the bedside and listen. They didn’t just up and tell you these things. You had to establish rapport and a context. 

With Leonard, for instance, most people had never gotten to him because (and I am speaking here of the years before L-DOPA) they wouldn’t spend the time with him: He was very slow, each letter might take a minute for him to spell out on his board, and everyone else would limit themselves to yes or no questions. But Oliver sat it out. 

Leonard L. is one of the major characters in Awakenings — also one of its saddest stories. As you can tell from Kohl’s comment, for decades Leonard could not speak, but could only write his thoughts out with great labor on a chalkboard — which is why the neurologists who treated him would only ask him Yes/No questions: that way they only had to wait long enough to see that he was making a “Y” or an “N.” But Sacks asked him questions that required much longer answers — and then “sat it out” as Leonard wrote on his board. Can you even imagine what this meant to Leonard? — to have someone give him encouragement to say what he needed to say, no matter how long it took?  

Some years after the book’s publication, when he learned that Leonard had died, Sacks wrote a letter to his mother, which concludes with these moving paragraphs: 

Only the passage of years can give one perspective — and it comes to me that I have known Leonard — and you — for fifteen years; which is quite a long time in anyone’s life. What I felt in 1966 I felt more strongly every year — what a remarkable man Leonard was, what courage and humour he showed, in the face of an almost life-long heart-breaking disease. I tried to give form to this feeling when I wrote of him in Awakenings … but was conscious of how inadequate and partial this was: perhaps even more so to you, for you were such a life-giver to him … Perhaps this only became clear to me in the years afterwards…. 

I have never had a patient who taught me so much — not simply about Parkinsonism, etc., but about what it means to be a human being, who survives, and fully, in the face of such affliction and such terrible odds. There is something inspiring about such survival, and I will never forget (nor let others forget) the lesson Leonard taught me; and, equally, there has been something very remarkable about you, and the way in which you dedicated so much of your strength and life to him … he could never have survived — especially these last years — without your giving your own life-blood to him…. You too are one of the most gallant people I know.

Now Leonard has gone, there will be a great void and a great grief — there has to be where there has been a great love. But I hope and pray that there will be good years, and real life, ahead for you yet … you have a great vitality, and you should live to a hundred! I hope that God will be good to you, and bless you, at this time, give you comfort in your bereavement, and a kind and mellow evening in the years that lie ahead. 

With my deepest sympathy and heartfelt best wishes,

Oliver Sacks 

Sacks loved Leonard, and admired him, and he could love and admire him only because he knew him, and he could only know him by spending a great deal more time with him than anyone else would have — as in more time by a factor of fifty. Checklists are sometimes absolutely necessary; but at other times they and a daily schedule of “rounds” are the worst tools a doctor can have. Sacks was willing to move at the speed of Leonard — at what felt like no speed at all, what felt like stasis — and as a result “Oliver missed nothing.” Having missed nothing, he garnered a testimony that he could pass on to his readers. And in that way, sisters and brothers, he moved at the speed of God. 

Taylor Dotson, “Unsustainable Alarmism”:

Consider alarmism in the climate debate. Presenting climate change in catastrophic terms has allowed activists to discredit anyone who doubts worst-case climate scenarios as “denialists.” While crusading against denialism might seem like a strategy for achieving a consensus about the problem’s seriousness, it often ends up undermining the very conditions that make public deliberation possible. As Matthew Nisbet has argued, the “denialist” label is a way of “controlling who has the authority to speak on the subject.” When expressions of personal alarm become a litmus test for who has a reasonable understanding of the problem, alarmists naturally have sole authority. The effect, as Nisbet writes, is a “culture where protecting one’s own identity, group, and preferred storyline takes priority over constructive consideration of knowledge and evidence.” 

I like the concept of alarm as a finite resource. There are a lot of people out there who seem to believe that what I have called “the absolutizing of fright” is sustainable forever. When everything is a world-ending disaster, then nothing is. It’s very difficult for us to weigh our problems accurately when all day every day we’re being told that something/everything is the WORST. 

(And by something/everything I don’t mean the Todd Rundgren album Something/Anything, which in fact is the BEST.) 

exhaustion, its causes and treatments

I thought of calling this post, “You’re Exhausted Because You Don’t Have Enough to Do” – which, yeah, I know: a trolling, clickbaity headline if there ever was one. But bear with me: I have a point. And it’s not accusatory.

Let’s begin with a few things we all know – for instance, that everyone is exhausted. We know this because people keep telling us so. So. Tired. The universal declaration.

As Anna Katharina Schaffner shows in her 2016 book Exhaustion: A History, people have always been exhausted, though they have explained that experience in a wide variety of ways. And the different explanations often arise from legitimately different causes. For instance, there are very good reasons to believe that a common exhaustion of our time and place – of the social environment of, say, people who read the news online – arises largely from the ways that alway-on connectivity allows us no boundaries: emails from work can arrive at any time, and while we might try to tell ourselves that they can wait until the next time we are officially on the clock, in practice we often find it less stressful to get it off (a) and (b) our plate by answering immediately. Which results in a ping on our co-worker’s phone, which may promot her to think that she needs to get it off her mind and off her plate … and so the cycle continues.

It continues in another way also: seeking refuge from the stress, we turn to social media or streaming videos – that is, to the very same devices that have made us anxious in the first place. Devices that can still ping us … and so the cycle continues. An endless sequence of stimulus and response, as we are gradually transformed into mere servers.

Thus also – we’re still talking about things we know – the proliferation of articles and books and YouTube videos and podcasts on the inestimable blessing of disconnection. Silence, or at least quiet; Off rather than On. And there’s no doubt that for those who are able to manage it, such disconnection is a Good Thing. But maybe not the best thing.

The problem with the imperative to disconnect is that it operates still within the world of stimulus and response. Its only real point is to remove the stimulus in hopes that after a while we’ll stop twitching. And maybe that’s how it works, for some of us anyway. But eventually we have to turn our phones back on, and … well, once more, the cycle resumes. The cycle of being frayed by a certain set of stimuli and responding to the fraying by taking refuge in a different set of stimuli. But this does not relieve our exhaustion or restore our good health because constant stimulation is exhausting in itself – even when the stimulation comes from things we like, or think we like.

What’s necessary, I think, is breaking the circuit that keeps the cycle going. And the key to how to do that may be found, I think, in a single claim made by Ivan Illich in his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality. Here it is: “institutions are functional when they promote a delicate balance between what people can do for themselves and what tools at the service of anonymous institutions can do for them.” Let’s unpack this:

  • Our “anonymous institutions” – especially the international and transnational media companies – are always telling us what they can do for us: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (Google, back in the day); “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Meta);
  • But what they do for us always comes packaged in the stimulus/response model;
  • And constant immersion in the stimulus/respons environment exhausts us;
  • So the “delicate balance” Illich speaks of has not been achieved – we are constantly being pressured to forget what we can do for ourselves;
  • Therefore our institutions are not functional, and neither are we.

This is what my title means: We’re exhausted because we don’t have enough to do. Instead of meaningful action, we have only responses to stimuli.

The first step in making ourselves and our institutions more functional is simply this: To try doing for ourselves what the anonymous media companies are always telling us they can do for us.

Think, then, of a social ill you want to see remedied; now, with that ill fixed firmly in your mind, imagine that there are no social media – no internet even. What do you do? Throw up your hands in despair? That wouldn’t be necessary. You write letters; you see if a local organization devoted to that cause needs volunteers; you attend city council or school board meetings; you change your own behavior in whatever ways might make a small difference. You have more time to do these things because you are no longer trapped in the stimulus/response cycle that is the only thing our media institutions have to offer us. You may well discover that while in one sense you’re doing more – you’re taking action rather than responding digitally to digital stimuli – you’re not as tired. In many circumstances – not all, to be sure, but many, especially in our part of the world – the world of atoms is less wearisome to us than the world of bits.

So, paradoxically but truly, the way out of our current exhaustion is not to do less but do other – or rather, genuinely to do rather than merely to react. And then when you do return to the media world, you’ll do so as someone who has helped to re-establish that “delicate balance” Illich speaks of. You’ll have taken a step towards healing yourself, and taken a step towards healing our institutions. What do you have to lose except your Pavlovian chains?

smooth things and rough ground

There are many links in what follows. I would encourage you to read this through without noticing the links, and then go back to them later if you’re so inclined. 


Around a year ago I wrote a post in which I said this: 

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. 

I then went on to say that I am shifting towards a new general project, which at that time wasn’t perfectly clear in my mind. And I was fine with that, because as far back as 2014 I understood that it is important for me, as I transition to the final stage of my career, not to know where I am going. “Old men ought to be explorers.”

But matters are coming into a focus a bit. It has recently occurred to me that much of what I am writing these days circles around an imperative that Wittgenstein famously articulated in the Philosophical Investigations: “We have got on to slippery ice where there is no friction and so in a certain sense the conditions are ideal, but also, just because of that, we are unable to walk. We want to walk: so we need friction. Back to the rough ground!” 

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The goal of the attention merchants is to keep us on the ice, to keep us sliding in the direction they choose, to keep us believing that the frictionlessness of the sliding is a sign that “the conditions are ideal.” But I want to walk — I need to walk, so I can learn to move at the speed of our three-mile-an-hour God

Repair is harder, rougher, than discarding the replacement; invitation of others to collaborate in repair is rougher than going it alone. 

So the quest for a constructive friction is what my work keeps circling around these days. It’s why I seek to practice handmind; it’s why I am interested in anarchism, because anarchism is a determination to achieve through the patient work of negotiation and voluntary association what all the forces of metaphysical capitalism would prefer to sell us. It’s why I want to distinguish between “productivity” and good work. It’s why I seek the messiness of the unfinalizable human world rather than allowing myself to be transformed into a server. To resist mechanization and its monoculture; to practice a cosmopolitanism of difference; to recover piety towards flawed and even broken institutions — these are all ways of finding and exploring the rough ground. Strategies and practices of roughness. Because the rough ground is where walking — a human life on a human scale — is possible. 

The Essenes, those fearsome ascetics of the profound desert, denounced their spiritual enemies — probably the Pharisees specifically, certainly all the Jewish leaders who lived and taught others to live in frictionless comfort with the Ruling Powers — as seekers of smooth things. The phrase comes from Isaiah 30: 

For they are a rebellious people, 
lying children, 
children unwilling to hear 
the instruction of the Lord; 
who say to the seers, “Do not see,” 
and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; 
speak to us smooth things, 
prophesy illusions, 
leave the way, turn aside from the path, 
let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”   

But if you invite your leaders to speak to you only smooth things, you will dwell in illusion; and in a state of illusion you will be vulnerable to powers far greater than yourself; and, as Isaiah goes on to say, all the vessels will be broken, and you will be unable to carry fire from your hearth or draw water from your cistern.

I’m not an Essene; I lack the requisite fierceness. I prefer to walk on that rough ground with what I have called the “peaceable irony” of the Taoist sage (or the Franciscan friar, a similar figure). Or maybe like Les Murray’s apostle of sprawl:

Sprawl leans on things. It is loose-limbed in its mind. 
Reprimanded and dismissed 
it listens with a grin and one boot up on the rail 
of possibility. It may have to leave the Earth. 
Being roughly Christian, it scratches the other cheek 
and thinks it unlikely. Though people have been shot for sprawl. 

Those with ears to hear, let them hear. 

Wall e 12

Are you still there?

Nick Carr:

Late Tuesday night, just as the Red Sox were beginning a top-of-the-eleventh rally against the Rays, my smart TV decided to ask me a question of deep ontological import:

Are you still there?

To establish my thereness (and thus be permitted to continue watching the game), I would need to “interact with the remote,” my TV informed me. I would need to respond to its signal with a signal of my own. At first, as I spent a harried few seconds finding the remote and interacting with it, I was annoyed by the interruption. But I quickly came to see it as endearing. Not because of the TV’s solicitude — the solicitude of a machine is just a gentle form of extortion — but because of the TV’s cluelessness. Though I was sitting just ten feet away from the set, peering intently into its screen, my smart TV couldn’t tell that I was watching it. It didn’t know where I was or what I was doing or even if I existed at all. That’s so cute.

I had found a gap in the surveillance system, but I knew it would soon be plugged.

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. 

the right not to be addressed

To engage in inventive thinking during those idle hours spent at an airport requires silence. But other people’s minds, over in the peon section, can be treated as a resource — a standing reserve of purchasing power to be steered according to the innovative marketing schemes hatched by those enjoying silence in the business lounge. When some people treat the minds of others as a resource, this is not “creating wealth” — it is a transfer.

There are many causes for the increasing concentration of wealth in a shrinking elite, but let us throw one more into the mix: the ever more aggressive appropriations of the attentional commons that we have allowed to take place.

I think we need to sharpen the conceptually murky right to privacy by supplementing it with a right not to be addressed. This would apply not, of course, to those who address me face to face as individuals, but to those who never show their faces, and treat my mind as a resource to be harvested.

Matt Crawford

contemplation

Contemplation is not simply one possible form among others of the act of knowing. Its special character does not flow from its being a particular aspect of the process of knowing. What distinguishes — in both senses of that word — contemplation is rather this: it is a knowing which is inspired by love. “Without love there would be no contemplation.”

Contemplation is a loving attainment of awareness. It is intuition of the beloved object.

— Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation

notify me — NOT

Farhad Manjoo:

Another idea is to let you impose more fine-grained controls over notifications. Today, when you let an app send you mobile alerts, it’s usually an all-or-nothing proposition — you say yes to letting it buzz you, and suddenly it’s buzzing you all the time.

Mr. Harris suggested that Apple could require apps to assign a kind of priority level to their notifications. “Let’s say you had three notification levels — heavy users, regular users and lite, or Zen,” Mr. Harris said.

My question is: Why let any app issue you notifications ever? Here are the notifications I get on my phone: Text messages from my family. That’s it. Everyone and everything else has to wait until I’m ready.

The Attentive Reader

Recently I gave a talk at Vassar College for a meeting of LACOL, the Liberal Arts Consortium for Online Learning. Rather than writing out a lecture, I talked my way through the slides below. I’ve added some commentary so you can get a sense of what I talked about. This isn’t exact, but it’s the general picture.

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I want to begin by talking about…

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The person who has done the most to help us think about these matters is Katherine Hayles:

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— who wrote in 2007 about two fundamentally different modes of attention.

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This kind of attention has often been represented in art, and interestingly enough, more often than not women are the ones manifesting this attentiveness. This may be related to the association of deep attention and women alike with private spaces, as opposed to the public realm traditionally governed by men.

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Our great documentarian of this kind of attention is the photographer André Kertész, whom we’ll return to soon.

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But perfectly private spaces are not always available, and this requires the cultivation of certain sophisticated cognitive strategies for enabling deep attention. Dennis Marsden, an English sociologist who grew up in a rather impoverished home in the north of that country, tells the story:

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Here’s a photograph by Kertész that seems to be visualizing for us Marsden’s cone of silence: note the hat pulled down over the reader’s forehead, the book pulled close to the face, and rest of the world apparently excluded from whatever is going on in that circle with a radius of about a foot.

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To this mode of attention Hayles contrasts its opposite:

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Hearing this description, we might think of something like this:

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Which reminds me of something … what could it be? … Ah yes:

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The resemblance is indeed quite close:

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This masterful reader sitting at the center of his informational web certainly cuts a very different figure that the reader “lost in a book”):

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So here are Katherine Hayles’s two master modes of attention:

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To which she attaches (especially in her recent book How We Think, shown earlier, that develops the key ideas from her 2007 article) two corresponding ways of reading:

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She then adds, in light of the work of Franco Moretti and others, a third category:

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But we’re going to set machine reading aside today, having paused to note its existence — it’s important, but not germane to the topic of the day.

Having outlined Hayles’s basic distinctions, I now want to adapt and extend them. I think there’s a problem with the binarity of Hayles’s typology, and I want to suggest a more complex one in which we create not an opposition but a continuum:

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If we look at things this way, we can see that hyper attention and deep attention have something interesting in common: they enable what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi famously calls flow, a total absorption of the whole person in a task.

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And if truly deep attention and truly hyper attention are characterized by flow, then maybe this —

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— isn’t a form of hyper attention at all, but was named more accurately some years ago by Linda Stone:

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True hyper attention might look something more like this:

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The addictive nature of early (largely pre-instrumental) flight, with the wide range of cognitive and physical demands it made — arms and legs moving in rhythm, eyes scanning the horizon, even the sense of smell engaged to note the changes in humidity that can betoken changes in air turbulence — is an ongoing theme of the romantic literature of pilots:

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And if we want a contemporary equivalent of hyper-attentive flow, well, it might look something like this — yet another enterprise that calls for the aptly-named “joystick”:

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Okay, so much for modes of attention. Now on to…

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When we talk about these environments, there’s a word that turns up regularly.

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I don’t think it’s a very good word. Too vague, comprising too many highly varied types of environment.

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Let’s once more try a continuum instead of a binary:

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So: private attention. A good thing and a rare, typically accessible only to those with a highly evolved consciousness.

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But reading is never private. It is always, at minimum, intimate:

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And when shared with others can be convivial (a term I am borrowing from Ivan Illich’s great text Tools for Conviviality):

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Is this a convivial environment?

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We teachers certainly want it to be. But all too often it devolves into a kind of anonymous publicness.

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Now, these distinctions are not easy to make. What, for instance, do we make of this kind of experience?

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To hear Dickens read his work, in the company of hundreds of others, is clearly not the same as to read him in your “cone of silence” with a codex held up before your face — but is it necessarily a public experience. Or might the presence of other Dickens aficionados make it somehow convivial? Might it even be private, as though Dickens is speaking to you and only you, as the other members of the audience fade from your consciousness?

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We can ask the same questions of the online world:

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Can an encounter of fellow Goodreads users be a genuinely convivial experience, especially when you are agreeing about the merits of a particularly excellent book? Or must it be merely public?

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But surely there can be no conviviality when there are no names, no identities, just numbers of highlights divorced from any particular highlighters.

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Of course, one may desire a merely public environment, in which case: no problem. But often we may find that the modes of attention we prefer —

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— are in tension with the environments of attention in which we find ourselves.

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And as if this isn’t all complicated enough, there is a third factor to consider.

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Here too, as the philosopher Bernard Williams used to say, “We suffer from a poverty of concepts.” We operate too often with a simplistic distinction between book (or codex) and screen. This is a codex:

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But then so is this:

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These are screens, and rather different kinds of screens, with different conformations and affordances:

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And so are these:

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So it turns out that if we want to think seriously about how we read and the conditions under which we read, we require at the very least three-dimensional Cartesian coordinates:

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As someone who was never very good with higher geometry, I am at this point tempted to retreat into a private realm:

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But perhaps in that case I will not have earned my money. I shall therefore offer, by way of conclusion, …

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For disputation.

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(Precisely because it is task-specific, whereas the liberal-arts environment is devoted to the cultivation of more general intellectual habits, practices, and virtues.)

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I want to talk for a few minutes about reading spaces at colleges and universities, some of which can be quite magnificent:

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But magnificence is expensive — and may not be what we most need. There’s something to be said for other kinds of spaces, not grand enough to be public and too small to be especially convivial, that encourage intimate reading. (They should probably be Faraday cages, also.)

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Along the same lines, we might think not just about books versus screens but about times to emphasize certain kinds of screens in preference to others:

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Though we should never forget that not all connectivity derives from the internet:titletitle

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