Michael Posner compares attention to an organ system. It functions, he says, like breathing or blood flow. Hrrmmm. I like construing attention embodiedly. But does that metaphor set us up for despair, especially when our habits of attention today look, from some angles, like organ failure?
This semester I’m reading books on attention with my upper-level communication arts students. Maggie Jackson’s Disrupted. Winifred Gallagher’s Rapt. Susan Cain’s Quiet. There are other worried authors out there, as you’ve probably noticed if you’ve gone into a Barnes & Noble lately.
If, that is, all the Barnes & Nobles haven’t closed down, due to the rise of video games, the digital ticker-tape on all sides of the CNN screen, the degrading sloppiness of texting, the decline of the newspaper, and all the other dark forces destroying late-modern concentration.
Maggie Jackson may be the most anxious of the attentional gurus. She argues that we, in all our massive distractedness, are entering another Dark Age. Despite the technological innovativeness of our time, despite the upbeat sense that scientific understanding can keep just ahead of our sundry predicaments, we are losing the capacity for concentration. As a result, she says, “we are nurturing a culture of social diffusion, intellectual fragmentation, sensory detachment” (13).
That’s an odd phrase, “nurturing a culture”—as if we were tenderly and deliberately sprinkling fertilized water on our own distractedness.
But it’s hard to disagree that we feel alienated from each other, that we have a hard time keeping up with the torrent of data, and that we don’t have a feel for the vitally physical in everyday life. We don’t talk any more. We aren’t wise. We don’t spend enough time outside. We’re distracted.
But sometimes when I’m reading Jackson, I get this uncomfortable sense that it’s too easy to shake my head and furrow my brow at what she’s saying. There’s a peculiar ease to her earnestness. It feels good to agree with her that we are all in a bad way.
She tells a story about a meeting with some forty Philadelphia lawyers, in which she mentioned “the erosion of focus.” The meeting went off the rails and took the woods of a thick discussion about distractedness. Two hours later, “the leader of the group tentatively asked, ‘Is it just me, or is it true that we don’t seem to go deeply into anything anymore?’ Around the table, heads nodded, ‘Is all of this really progress?’ she wondered.” (18).
Does anyone else read this as a bit stagey? A bit cloying? Doesn’t it feel like something Walker Percy could parody?
Jackson’s partially right. We can’t stay with one task without interrupting it to start another. We always have too many media streams going. But her rationalist (We just need to bore down on one focus!), nostalgic (We used to be so much more centered!), and progressivist (Watch out—Dark Ages ahead!) may not be sufficient unto the day. It’s easy to issue dour exhortations. And it’s even easier to agree with them. What’s harder is to answer the question of how we, in a time of cultural transition, learn to practice a new sort of attention, one that is more lateral, more peripheral, more capable of taking “distractions” and turning them into occasions for the sideways-creativity of indirect concentration .