Tending Toward Attention
William James, in another time, wrote “Everyone knows what attention is.” For the longest time I have used this pithy phrase as a point of departure when discussing attention — adding, “let’s assume we don’t.” Whatever attention may be, it seems to be precisely what exceeds our ability to fully know. But there is another line of thought to be traced from this auspicious starting point. Rather than enunciating it as “Everyone knows what attention is,” what if we affirmed the collective, “Everyone knows what attention is?”
With this reading list, I have composed an itinerary that ranges far and wide along the topic of attention, and that with each step discovers what yet another person, another of the everyone, makes of attention. This course of reading moves through areas such as literary study, rhetorical theory, anthropology, psychology, sociology, dis/ability, race, gender, science and technology studies, and infrastructure studies. However, what resonates across these readings — some of which explicitly deal with attention, while others do not — is not their definitional stance but their creative commitment to exploring and exploiting the ambiguities of attention.
[Image: ‘Audience,’ by Nishir Rana.]
Hyper and Deep Attention
Hayles is valuable for her careful and compelling articulation of multiple modes of attention. Additionally, she historicizes these modes and links them to particular techniques and technologies. Writing from within the discipline of English, Hayles emphasizes literacy, textuality, and pedagogy and how each can and ought to respond to generational changes in attention. When asking what modes of attention are better, Hayles writes, “The riposte is obvious: Better for what?”
Attention, Economy and the Brain
The economics of attention, which is perhaps the primary way attention is currently organized (one pays attention), is thoroughly and inventively critiqued by Terranova, a theorist working in and around information technology. Economics as the conceptual horizon of our attending to attention has serious (and seriously troubling) consequences. If, as Hayles primes us, attention can be multiple, then, Terranova exhorts, it might need to be otherwise than economical. Terranova writes, “what we need is a further exploration of some other ways in which paying attention can become a practice that will be able to produce different forms of subjectivity and different models of what an economy of social cooperation could be like.”
Cloud and Field
Where Terranova tends to how the logic of the market cultivates particular attentions, Mattern unpacks the ideologies that frequently guide and shape our collective attending. Mattern examines the colonialist regimes at work in the production, distribution, and deployment of field guides. Colonial regimes become cognitive ones, and supposedly neutral field guides prime us to attend in troubling ways. Ways that, for instance, abstract us from the lived realities of the places we inhabit, or ways that absolve us of our responsibilities to the people with whom we are in relation. Against the cognitive regimes that demand the clarity of precise classification, Mattern suggests that we learn to “appreciate the prudence and power of fog and obfuscation — of seeing obliquely, sensing beyond the limits of sight, even remaining unseen.”
Weak Theory in an Unfinished World
Journal of Folklore Research
Working to articulate weak theory (which Stewart pulls from Eve Sedgwick) in the context of writing ethnography, Stewart is less interested in what organizing principle or sociological framework we might bring to the ordinary than she is in how the ordinary always, but never completely, composes itself—throws itself together. Stewart suggests that attention isn’t carried into and through experiences, but that attending throws itself together in the midst of the ordinary. She writes, “To inhabit a space of attending to things is to incite attention to co-existing forms of composition, habituation, performance, and event.” Stewart performs a mode of ethnographic attention that resists the temptation to have it all add up. In this way, Stewart inhabits the fog described by Mattern.
In Search of Distraction
Focused on the poetic imagination, Bevis unpacks the attention/distraction dynamic, which proves to be a productive conceptual move. Attempting to differentiate distraction from attention strains less than robust understandings of the latter. To distinguish them means to really think them both through. And the more with think of distraction and attention the more they bleed into one another. Bevis ponders, does distraction lead to attention? Does attention risk creating its opposite? Or is their relationship perhaps much more complex? Bevis builds to the supposition that “distraction is attention’s unconscious; it’s the static, or buzz, or background noise to which we’re so habituated when thinking that we’ve forgotten it’s there.”
When Images Come to Us
Barry performs a compelling attention with her visual essay composed of intricate collages assembled from bits of printed text, images, augmented images and line drawings. Each page of the visual essay is focused on a particular term, set of terms, or even a question. “Is it in you?” one of the image asks; “Are you in it?” it also asks. Turned toward images, imagination and creative thinking, Barry implicitly suggests that attention is complexly composed: whatever attention is (or becomes), it emerges from an eclectic ambience that’s impossible to fully trace. Barry thus tacitly performs Bevis’s notion of distraction as “attention’s unconscious.’ And as with Stewart’s weak theory, Barry’s images capture something throwing itself together wherein things don’t necessarily add up.
“Randomness may govern the world around us, but does it guide us?” When the desire for/of patterns interrupts (or distracts us from) the necessities of daily life, the default valorization of attention appears misguided. Attending can be distracting if it pulls us apart or away from the people and places that sustain us. This podcast segment, which tells the story of one woman’s inexplicable gambling addiction, discloses how our attention is never simply and wholly our own: there is an evolutionary adaptation that primes our attention and a whole suite of contemporary industries that exploit these neurological structures. To attend is to turn toward something outside ourselves and to do so through a series of equally foreign bodies inside us.
I Attend, Therefore I Am
Whereas much of this reading list aims to crack open a static definition of attention, it frequently, if implicitly, confronts the thorny question of subjectivity. With each treatment of attention as somehow (and even radically) distributed beyond a cognitive capacity possessed and practiced by an autonomous subject—the I who attends—notions of the self are challenged. In this essay, Jennings pushes back, using attention itself to salvage a notion of the self that seems either under fire at worst or perhaps passé at best. For Jennings, the self “is only as strong as its powers of attention,” which are developed when the self purposefully negotiates its own competing desires.
Mediated Habits: Images, Networked Affect and Social Change
Pedwell’s engagement with the affect and effect of jarring images implicitly addresses the political consequentiality of particular modes of attending. Do evocative images spur us to act or do they ultimately encourage inaction? In an affective economy, has political participation become simply “feeling” the right things even when that feeling does not lead to any substantive, material change? Pedwell productively suggests, “[S]ocio-political transformation may emerge not (or not only) through ‘affective revolutions’, but rather (or also) through the accumulation and reverberation of seemingly minor affective responses, interactions, gestures and habits.”
Pervasive Citizenship through #SenseCommons
Rhetoric Society Quarterly
Boyle argues, “even in antiquity, civic organization depends not only on persuasive debate but also on the means for circulating information.” The rapid emergence of “sentient cities” means that information is abundant and ubiquitous, off-loading and shifting some of the cognitive work into larger systems of attention Thus, for Boyle, citizenship, once understood as a discrete practice discernible at particular times and in specific places, is now pervasive. There is a tension here that Boyle traces. The attentional resources needed to cultivate the traditional work of rhetoric (deliberation, for instance) are increasingly unavailable and yet we are nearly constantly, and frequently unwittingly, interacting in a variety of social, rhetorical contexts—the economics of attention articulated by Terranova. Boyle recommends ways we might yet act in smart cities. These strategies entail understanding rhetoric less as persuasion and more as in-forming, which Boyle articulates as far more consequential than simply staying up-to-date.
Driving in Circles
With this audio story, Powers attends to intersection of attention and infrastructure. The roundabout and the debates that circulate it frequently crash into attentional capacity. Roundabouts are thus a spot were we can witness models of attention meeting politics, and we can get a sense of how the rhetoric of road design, ala Boyle, informs our negations with others. And road design, as an inherently political activity, itself organizes a public attention, which Powers also traces. “So, the dilemma is this: Do we design intersections for our best selves, the selves who always follow the rules? Or do we design intersections expecting that we’ll make mistakes, and that we should be protected from the worst kind of consequences.” Powers gives voice both to our individual attention on the road and our joint attention in political activity.
The Experience of Living in Cities
Milgrim’s psychological investigation into how we experience cities resonates with Powers’s experiences within the roundabout. Milgrim’s is an account of how city dwellers experience (which is attentional) the urban everyday, and how that experience, as attention, is cultivated by the dynamics of the city itself. “Any observer in the streets of midtown Manhattan will see (i) large numbers of people, (ii) a high population density, and (iii) heterogeneity of population. These three factors […] condition all aspects of our experience in the metropolis.” Milgrim traces the spatial and social arrangements that structure urban attending, and how this mode of attending shapes how city dwellers relate to one another.
Walking While Black
Experiences of the city, as Milgrim himself acknowledges, are internally inconsistent (and even asymmetrical) across the vectors of, among many things, race. Cadogan’s powerfully personal essay marks how race is a powerful modifier of urban experience and attention. Race is something that draws attention — it is something to which we attend. But even more consequentially, attention is itself racialized. “Walking as a black man,” Cadogan writes, “has made me feel simultaneously more removed from the city, in my awareness that I am perceived as suspect, and more closely connected to it, in the full attentiveness demanded by my vigilance.” Race cultivates attention twice. Race isn’t simply a thing out there that grabs our attention (i.e., I do or don’t see race); our attention, historically, is already organized by the category of race. We don’t just color; we see with and through color.
How White Engineers Built Racist Code and Why it’s Dangerous for Black People
The organizational power of race on attention is at work in our digital environments as well. The economics of attention, which structures most online spaces, is built of code that attempts to harness and capitalize upon our attention. This code is frequently irresistible and almost always invisible. And it’s through code that race/racism is built into the very infrastructure of the internet and the emerging, so-called “internet of things.” “The code ‘learns,’” Breland writes, “by looking at more white people – which doesn’t help it improve with a diverse array of races.” Code thus parallels the logic of racism writ large. The impact of racist code means that our very attention is troubled by implicit racism. We don’t simply pay (or not pay) attention to race but pay attention through digitally-encoded racism.
Distracted by Digital Writing: Unruly Bodies and the Schooling of Literacy
Attention in the context of digital technologies and education is frequently a focal point for anxiety about cognition and social interaction. Pigg carefully historicizes and analyzes anxiety around attention and distraction in the classroom. The contemporary scene of worry about writing in particular resounds with historical concerns about educating and controlling student bodies (and the bodies of students). “Are we really concerned that students can’t pay attention well enough to write?” asks Pigg, “Or is it more frightening to think that they might stop paying attention to us and to our authority to impart both knowledge and operation of literacy?” Literacy, schooled, is the yoking of attention to authority and to specific, cultural ends and objects.
Paying Attention with Cache
Tending to digital rhetoric, I engage attention as a collective and contingent composition. Analyzing locative media through the recreational activity of geocaching, I argue that attention isn’t simply an a priori human possession, but is instead a contingent attunement tightly bound to material relations across bodies, environments, media, and other nonhumans: “Rather than simply fitting digital tools into existing paradigms of attention, we can speculate as to what else attention might become, or what else attention will have been.”
The White Cane as Technology
Hendren’s treatment of the white cane as technology refigures how the body plays a role in attending. and how different bodies (or embodiments) compose their own attentional modes. Thinking about visual impairment provides an invitation to think attention otherwise. Hendren’s interview with literature scholar and “daily user of both a smartphone and a white cane” Georgina Kleege does just that. Hendren, describing the white cane as “an elegant wayfinding device,” asks Kleege to talk about how the deployment of a cane cultivates “maximal sensitivity.” Kleege responds, “The cane’s tip sweeps the ground before my feet to alert me to obstacles and curbs, and to announce details about the texture of the surface underfoot […] To take advantage of all this information, I direct my attention outward in all directions, creating a sort of sphere of perception to surround me as I move.” Through their conversation, attention becomes a sensibility cultivated by an assemblage of bodies, technologies, and environments.