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Attention

Yesterday was a lovely, quiet Saturday. I got up early, went through my morning routine, and then went for a walk in the park. I did laundry, I had lunch, I took a little nap. I spent part of the day with the book I’m currently reading (Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, if you’re curious), and then in the late afternoon started listening to a series of lectures from a Oxford U general philosophy course. The lecturer is really quite good, and the narrative he presents quite compelling. I’m listening to this course, in part, because one of the more woeful gaps in my education (of which there are many, alas) is labeled “philosophy”; as an undergrad, I let the introductory formal logic course — which you had to get through in order to be admitted to any further courses — deter me, and so I have embarrassingly little grounding in the history of many of the ideas I want to be working with. I’m hoping that this series of lectures might at least give me enough of an overview so that I know a bit more about what it is I ought to know, but of course I’m certain that I won’t really know much of anything without taking on a more systematic, thorough course of reading.

This seems obvious, and yet what’s painful about it is all bound up in what Tim Parks and Corey Robin have lately written about: an increasing difficulty with actually doing the reading I set myself to do. I find myself lacking both for time (of which I seem to have precious little) and attention (of which I have less and less). Whatever the reason, it feels increasingly difficult to sit still and read much at all of late. I can’t tell how much of that difficulty is the technology-assisted monkey mind described by Parks — constantly looking for the next bit of incoming information, the next thing to click — or how much of it might be the distractions provided by other parts of my life, or (what I most fear) how much of it might simply be an aging brain. Would my attention span be shrinking even without all my surrounding technologies, in other words, or are the technologies interfering in my attention in the ways that I sometimes fear?

I’m working on some practices (a little meditation; a little bit of writing time in the early mornings) that I hope will help me better develop and maintain the ability to focus my attention on what’s in front of me, rather than constantly grasping for the next thing. But as I started pondering this problem in a bit of journaling this morning, it occurred to me that there’s another side to the question of attention that I hadn’t really connected here before. And it may be that they’re only connected by a sort of linguistic coincidence, but it nonetheless seemed significant.

As I started writing about my concerns about reading and my seemingly diminishing attention span, it hit me that this is the kind of thing that in the not-too-distant past I’d have written as a blog post, that I’d have shared almost reflexively. I felt little to no inclination to do that today, and so I started wondering what has changed. Is there something else different in my relationship to attention — not just the attention I pay, but the attention I seek, or more generously to myself, the attention I want to bear? One can read throughout my posts here since spring 2011 a series of not entirely successful attempts to work through my sense that my new position required (or seemed to require, at least) a reconfiguration of my public presence, my sense that I was at times a little more visible, a little more exposed, than might in the new order of things be ideal. There have also been, across that same period of time, some changes in the climate that have made working ideas out in the open feel a good bit less easy than it once was. But whether the changes are predominantly internal or external, the result is that I’ve become reticent about thinking in public — and that’s a not just a shame but in fact a pretty painful irony, given that thinking-in-public is both the source of whatever impact my work has had and the thing that I was hired to support.

In that support role, though, I’ve retreated somewhat behind-the-scenes, and I find myself somewhat reluctant to share the things I’m working on, in part because I get so very little time to work on them that all my ideas feel desperately under-baked. But the combination of what feels like my shrinking attention span and my reluctance to be public with my thinking have me more than a little worried about how (in fact whether) my work might proceed from here. I am hoping to find some strategies this summer to get myself past both of these hurdles, to work my brain in ways that help to grow my attention span again, and to re-develop my bravery about drawing attention to my work as it happens.

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  1. For what it’s worth, you’re not alone. I’ve been worrying over some of the same issues (limited time, aging monkey mind, etc). Ten-years-ago me laughs mercilessly at the modest daily goals that present-day me is setting to get myself back into better habits: read two chapters? write a page?

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go spend the day doing what ten-years-ago me swears I could get done before breakfast. :)

  2. This resonates so much with me lately. Attention is an obligation, but also a luxury. I don’t know if it’s my lapsed Catholic upbringing, but no matter what I choose to pay attention to (even my own kids), I feel some degree of guilt for not paying attention to something else. The demands of social media exacerbate this even more, and that breeds resentment (which is one reason why I infrequently blog any more, as do you).

    Aging is probably part of it, or at least awareness that I’m sliding towards 50. Can’t let that become crippling anxiety, though. I’m finding myself more drawn towards both historical work (in media archaeology) that provides a longer, deeper picture of our personal and social relationships to information, and to contemporary critical work that refreshingly skewers some of the sacred cows of our “open,” “free,” “democratic” digital moment. I highly recommend Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform (2014), and, on a more philosophical level, Doug Rushkoff’s Present Sense (2013), along those lines.

    We’re all trying to figure it out as we go along, and things (and expectations) keep barreling along. I’m finding the key is to take a few deep breaths, get your bearings, and give deeply of your attention as much as you can. Meditation and journalling, as you suggest, certainly help, as does taking time off from screens and notifications. This is an ongoing experiment (as is life itself), so we all have to keep adjusting. Good luck!

  3. Ditto and re-ditto to everything Collin says above. I hadn’t thought about meditation as a way to develop attention, but I may give it a try.

    I also fret about what to do with my dormant blog. Revive it? Let it perish? Decisions, decisions — better see what’s going down on Twitter.