Alice Bennett is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool Hope University. Her research investigates why contemporary culture is preoccupied by a cluster of states related to attention and alertness, including focus, vigilance and wakefulness. She is the author of Contemporary Fictions of Attention (Bloomsbury, 2018) and Alarm (forthcoming from Bloomsbury, 2023).
Alice began by explaining that her provocation would serve as a justification for using contemporary literature as a way of better understanding society’s current relationship with attention, and the perception that society is currently experiencing a ‘crisis of attention’.
She has been exploring ideas around attention and alertness for the last fifteen years. Her latest book, Alarm, provides a cultural history of alarms as attention-grabbing objects. The field she works in is broadly called Critical Attention Studies, and intersects with health, including things like critical sleep studies. Her particular interests, however, lie in how attention intersects with digital culture.
In cultural commentary, there has been a recent trend towards citing the internet as one of the main threats to our ability to pay attention. Alice referenced Nicolas Carr’s In the Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the way we Think, Read, and Remember to demonstrate. In this book, Carr expresses a deep anxiety over his now reduced capacity for reading, saying, “I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore.”
Essentially, Carr observes that his everyday use of the internet has tarnished his ability to pay attention, and that he can only remedy this by logging off and reading books, or doing some writing. Carr is not the first writer to claim that our current crisis of attention is a direct result of the digital age – and that reading is a way to counter this effect.
Alice remains unconvinced that reading should be valued primarily because it helps us with our capacity to pay attention. She identifies common attributes that characterise these types of popular think-pieces, where writers essentially argue in defence of reading. Those attributes are:
Self-examination: the writers reflect on new problems they seem to have with their attention, that they have identified in themselves
Anxiety about technology: they suggest that through rapid technological advancements, some valuable thing from the past has been lost
Degradation of the mind: there is recurrent imagery of a broken brain, and a lot of language around addiction and compulsion towards technology
Claims that this is unprecedented: the present is unique in its problem with attention and distraction
"...over the last few years, the news has been rife with stories about how reading is in decline because of competition from digital media."
Referring to the final point, Alice explains that there were times in the past where people have expressed the exact concerns with attention that we have now, so wouldn’t call this moment unique. It is certainly the case that over the last few years, the news has been rife with stories about how reading is in decline because of competition from digital media; or that the internet is fundamentally distracting and thus eroding our concentration.
Alice gave some examples of how writers have participated in these discussions by publishing newspaper articles declaring a crisis in reading and attention. However, this is not the case in the fiction produced by the same writers; in fictional works, they paint a much more nuanced picture than they do in their think-pieces. Literature seems to have greater capacity for exploring nuance. The way think-pieces are received in the attention economy may also play a part in this dynamic – they are often catchy and concise, and perhaps only explore one or two sides of an idea.
Over the last few years, Alice has gathered together many pieces of attention-based literature, spanning from the late 90s to now. This collection includes works from David Foster-Wallace and Zadie Smith, but for this provocation Alice focusses on Ali Smith’s How to be Both. This is a novel completely full of attention: there are a multitude of moments when attention is described in detail, such as with the main character, George (a teenage girl), who spends time looking at other people looking at paintings in a gallery, and wonders how one might construct a statistical study of how much attention is paid to art. There are also many references to surveillance, stalking, and voyeurism – and what it’s like to observe someone who has utterly consumed your thoughts.
What’s especially interesting about How to be Both is that only half of the book is spent on George, and the other half follows the life of a fresco painter from the 15th century. There were two editions of the book made and published at the same time. One version had the painter’s story first, and the other had George’s story first – and the analyses coming from book reviewers at the time were wildly different depending on which edition they happened to read.
"...There are also many references to surveillance, stalking, and voyeurism – and what it’s like to observe someone who has utterly consumed your thoughts."
The book takes a deep dive into ‘two things at once’ as a concept: a fresco painting is the flattening of a foreground and background; George’s mother produces ‘subverts’ as art – and these are essentially pop-up adverts which intrusively grab your attention. The book manages to celebrate having your attention split, or being distracted.
When discussing her writing, Smith was quoted as saying, “It isn’t either/or. It’s and/and/and. That’s what life is”. This defies convention; we assume that attention is a limited resource, and we have to choose what to pay attention to, rather than allowing ourselves to pay attention to multiple things. From Smith’s perspective, there is no deficit – attention is something that can be split and doubled. This helps us think about an alternative logic for attention: maybe it’s not ‘the attention economy’ but rather an ‘attention ecology’ (as the literature scholar Yves Citton puts it). What if attention could be something interpersonal, and not reduced to an interaction between an individual and an object?
How to be Both is structured in such a way that prompts the reader to engage with this alternative logic, and completely divide their attention: there are two stories, and two editions of the book; owners of one edition will read the book while potentially imagining what the other edition is like. Or, with the ebook, you are given the choice of which edition you would like to read. In the story itself, split attention is staged at key moments. For instance, George gives her attention to multiple things at once when she watches a TV programme about the flying Scotsman, while also watching the beginning of the same episode on her laptop, and looking at photobombs on her phone. Upon seeing this, her mum comments, “you are a migrant of your own existence” and asks if she wouldn’t rather simplify and read a book – to think of one thing at a time, instead of many things at once. But what George is doing here is exactly as complicated as what the reader is doing in reading this novel – it forces the reader to pay attention to everything at once.
Alice closes off the provocation by pointing to the psychologist William James, a prominent figure in the history of attention. He likened trying to study attention with “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks”. This sounds like a futile act, but it’s exactly where art and culture comes in. Visual artists, musicians, and writers allow us to glimpse at the unknown without looking directly; this is achieved through metaphor, allegory, and satire. Attention is not something we need to optimise in order to improve concentration or widen our capacity for reading; rather, it’s something we can be curious about, and use for many things at once.
"...Psychologist William James, a prominent figure in the history of attention. He likened trying to study attention with “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks”. This sounds like a futile act, but it’s exactly where art and culture comes in."
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