Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mysterious Attention

William James devotes fifty pages to the subject of attention in his two-volume Principles of Psychology. In my version of this 1890 work, published by Henry Holt and Company in 1923, the chapter begins on page 402 of Volume I. James calls attention an act of the mind. The mind concentrates on one of many objects—lifts it out from the undifferentiated flux of experience. He names attention’s opposite distraction or, citing the German word, Zerstreutheit, a word that literally means “state of scatter.” James continues to hew to this theme throughout the chapter. His focus is the act of bestowing attention. But the mystery of attention, for me, arises when I think about the object of attention, especially when that object is a human being. Why people pay attention is clear enough; why they seek attention is a little more fuzzy.

I notice, however, that once I frame the question, the answer begins to crystallize. The need to get attention appears to be the exact mirror of the need to pay attention. The agent who looks at something makes it more real—for him or for herself. The person noticed by the agent, similarly, becomes more real for being noticed. When I look at you, you become more real in your own subjective perception of yourself; when you respond by acknowledging my attention, I become more real in my perception of me.

Curious, in a way. We benefit from the confirmation of our own being by the attention of another. Merely to know that we are—as we surely do know, after all we are self-conscious—doesn’t seem to be enough. Arguably this has a practical grounding. If I want someone to act on my behalf, I have to draw his or her attention. Therefore babies cry. But experience teaches that attention has value in and of itself, yes, even when no practical pay-offs are present. People need attention in order to have psychic health. That’s why we must pay attention even to those who can’t repay the attention we bestow in practical coin. The lonely teen, the aging person, the single mother: they all need attention. When it is given, they come alive; when denied, they wither. Attention is a kind of sunlight.

Yet another aspect of attention supports the structure of our public communications. In order for me to influence you, I have to have your attention first. Therefore, in the project of having my own way, I must be sharply visible (not submerged in the flux), I must be noticed, my aim must be understood, and it must seduce you, in some way, to act along the pathways I suggests—rather than as my opponent does.

Serious journalism—let’s call it “beyond pamphleteering”—was based on the notion that unusual events, objectively reported, would draw the public’s attention and in turn result in reasonable actions as called for by the facts. Reporting on events was the foundation of this profession, “events” here defined as things that had actually happened, not merely things said. Journalism has drifted from that model for three reasons. Reporting on real events is costly. Genuinely newsworthy events are actually rare; it is therefore difficult to fill a daily paper, and never mind a 24/7 television cycle, with real news. Finally, the public has learned to feed the media with an alternative content which is sufficient for ordinary purposes, more or less: self-promotion. Thus the news, so-called, consist of seven parts fluff and three parts reported happenings. The fluff consists of commentaries by high-profile people on probabilities that may never be realized; we hear about intentions; we hear about possible future alliances or breakups; we are presented endless so-called analysis, not of events but of vague trends, pronouncements, and outcomes in the foggy future.

The payoff in all this is a little vague. But those in the news certainly feel that they’re more real than those who never get their ten-seconds of glory in the limelight. And some of those who do—as for instance ordinary people embroiled in some news event—become addicted to this radiance and make valiant attempts to stay in it by forming public action committees, associations, pressure and interest groups. This suggests to me that while attention is certainly a basic human need, the modest minimum we need is best obtained through friends and family. In its mechanized forms it is dangerous to our psychic health.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting take on attention and our need for it as humans. This is a subject we could discuss for an entire day and not exhaust.

    Just two things quickly. First, did you see the funny little piece in this past weekend's NYT Week In Review Section, titled The Mediocre Multitaker, and written by Ruth Pennebaker? If not, a fun little read that address the subject of attention.

    Second, remind me to tell you about my adventure on Tuesday night when I attended the West Bloomfield Townhall Meeting on healthcare reform. The teaser for my story is that I may be the only person in the U.S. to depart one of these townhall meeting in tears, feeling real dispare... For many, this was an attention seeking orgy.

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