Blog Post

Attention, Poetics, Media, Collaboration

I am not a super-user of social media or such. While I have done my share of posting and tweeting, unlike most of my colleagues until last month I had never done a conference video call, or anything involving “live” interaction with multiple interlocutors.

In these past few months it so happened that I did my first Skype videoconference with a new “colleague” in Aberdeen, and soon after, was involved in a live chat with Cathy Davidson, Anne Balsamo, and Howard Rheingold.The latter was especially intimidating—a live chat with not only these three people but also with anyone who wanted to log on to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website.People who are in the know know that Cathy, Anne, and Howard are real heavyweights in the field of social media, digital humanities, collaborative education. Howard, after all, invented the term “virtual community.”Not only was I unsure what I could possibly add, but, to my horror, only late in the game did I discover that the “chat” was going to be texted.Coming fresh from a rather seamless and entirely pleasant Skype—I was expecting something of that nature, audio, at least.I immediately emailed the producer and explained that I in fact do not know how to type.Well, that was the least of my troubles.

In what follows, I am offering some initial reflections on these two experiences, as “experiencing” a virtual community, but I want to link it to the keyword that both shared—“attention.”

First, the CHE thing.

We had read Cathy’s wonderful book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.She had provided the CHE with a very nice, elegant essay that distilled her main points:

We opened the lines, and what followed was, well, mixed.Not in terms of the ideas, which were mostly pertinent, provocative, thoughtful, but in terms of process:

The experience was sluggish, disconnected, frustrating.The software (which shall remain nameless) was so slow that even I, and hunt-and-peck kind of guy, was impatient for it to catch up to me.By the time a post was finally up, its neighbors in the stream very often were partnering with a post someplace way backstream.

I don’t intend to spend time pointing out the irony of the fact that the conversation was centered on the positives of agile, quick, attention-shifting, multitasking, fluent collaboration, when the technology that was to enable that connectedness and new social relation had, in this form, utterly failed.No, more interesting to me was how this failure pointed out, positively, just how right Davidson is when she says our assumptions about how we connect have shifted, are varied, multiformal, each with its own rhythm, syntax, rhetoric.We had gone into the live chat and settled comfortably into our seats with those expectations in mind. Were we able to switch out to improvise under a totally different set of circumstances?I suppose that the answer to that question would hinge on how readers (who were also caught up in a somewhat confusing stream of connectedness, disconnectedness) feel.In any case, it showed us how our expectations, assumptions, and attention has already been habituated to a new set of environments, and the fact that when the media fails, there is no resort to a “traditional” form of interacting at that moment—we are caught in a loop.

My other experience was quite different.A PhD student in comparative literature here at Stanford had completed her first doctorate in Modern Thought at the University of Aberdeen, and had to take her viva exam.Aberdeen requires that one of the two examiners be “external,” and by that they mean not just external to the degree-granting department, but external to Aberdeen.However, I am not sure they meant extra-national.Nonetheless, bright one early morning, I was seated in the tech room in Pigott Hall with Lucy Alford, Skyping with Prof. Nadia Kiwan in Scotland. The ambiance of the room itself is probably not atypical of most computer labs at American universities—gloriously shining and “blazingly fast” (for the moment) Mac equipment, glossy screens, devices I have never seen, interspersed with Cheetos wrappers and spill-over, empty Coke cans, a stray bit of wire or cable, empty gutted out aluminum shells their innards harvested for other machines and uses, perhaps.

This was a dissertation defense, the thesis was entitled, “Problems in Post-Foundational Ethics: Contingency, Responsibility, Attention.”It is an altogether brilliant work--Alford notes how the phenomenon of mass-mediated witnessing is complemented by the rhetoric of urgency: people are asked not only to witness images of suffering, they also are asked to act immediately on such information and images. This, for Alford, bypasses and obscures the need for a more patient and, indeed, ethical tarrying with the basic questions of value and the actions required to acknowledge value and worth. The closing chapters of the dissertation are devoted to a radically-reimagined notion of “attention.” This, for her, is a way to draw out the most important implications of Heidegger's thought with regard to both ontology, and art. Here she turns to Simone Weil and Maurice Blanchot, as well as the works of Sven Arvidson, to flesh out and sustain a notion of attention that is particularly linked to lyric poetry. She makes a strong case that the language and structure of poetry comes closest to arresting the human subject and refocusing it on a truly attentive apprehension of the world.

In one of the finest passages of the dissertation, Alford writes:

“In the relational (and very much of-this-world) space of attention, others, systems of others, patterns of exchange and repetition, etc., are singled out, while at the same time observed as integrated within environments of change and interrelation. In intensive observation, in close reading, in attention, the singling out and parsing of information from the chaos of presence, a recognition of patterns, structures of occurrence, ecological processes and subtle marginal points (the nuanced hues across the throat of a bird, the seasonal changes in particulate matter in a region’s air currents, fine lines webbing the surface of a woman’s face, the spreading effect of a single event or product in a market or community) can be seen as a process of setting apart—the root meaning of making ‘sacred.’…In attention we set apart the object or objects of our attention as worthy of close reading, worthy of deep observation and concern.”

Put this side by side with what Davidson says about attention as something that can be collaborative: “I want to suggest a different way of seeing, one that's based on multitasking our attention—not by seeing it all alone but by distributing various parts of the task among others dedicated to the same end. For most of us, this is a new pattern of attention. Multitasking is the ideal mode of the 21st century, not just because of information overload but also because our digital age was structured without anything like a central node broadcasting one stream of information that we pay attention to at a given moment. On the Internet, everything links to everything, and all of it is available all the time.”

Once this juxtaposition is in place I sense two contradictory outcomes. The first, and obvious one, is to think that Alford and Davidson are talking about two diametrically opposed notions of attention—one taken in solitude, non-purposeful, attending rather than fashioning, poetic in an inward arc; the other dynamic, intentional, goal-oriented, engaged deeply and essentially with others, many others.I wonder, however, whether one might not imagine some other possibility that, while not adhering closely to either, might not be a third possibility.I am suggesting a powerful combination of social attention, one in which one’s attention leans on an Other’s, and one attends together, apprehending multiple facets, but not with a specific goal or outcome in mind—not even a synthesis.The collaborative dimension would involve, as Alford foregrounds, an ethical dimension, in which one’s attention neither attempts to dominate the object of the poetically-attending act, nor the attending to that object by an other.Like Davidson’s model, this would bring in dialog, comparison of perspectives, degrees of attention placed at different angles onto the object.

Maybe that would not work.But the motive behind my tentative gesture comes from this—I am in solidarity with much of what Alford proposes, and her motives for doing so.But, to go back to the opening of this blog, I am firmly cognizant of the fact that Davidson puts forward so cogently—we are brought together now in much different ways, and “attention” now exists in multiple ways.If we persist in seeing only one dimension, one approach to attending, we will necessarily miss a lot.The kinds of creative collaboration Davidson proposes may in fact work together with the ethical poetics Alford argues for in her work.

David Palumbo-Liu's picture
David Palumbo-Liu is professor of comparative literature at Stanford.  His most recent publications include a volume on world-systems analysis co-edited with Bruce Robbins and Nirvana Tanoukhi entitled Immanuel Wallerstein and the Problem of the World" System, Scale, Culture (Duke University Press, 2011), and The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (also from Duke).  He is the founding editor of Occasion: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities, which is housed here on Arcade.