Thursday, April 23, 2009

Attention, Focus

I am starting to glimpse a constellation.

A recent Wall Street Journal article on Kindle e-book reading argues: infinite bookstore at your fingertips is great news for book sales, and may be great news for the dissemination of knowledge, but not necessarily so great for that most finite of 21st-century resources: attention.

Can 'attention' really be measured in terms of finitude or infinitude? It seems to me rather that the more attention one gives, the more one has. At least this is what appears to happen when slow reading a poem in a classroom: the more attention one pays, the more one gets 'out of' (or into?) the text, and the more attention one will have for future literary encounters.

This week the New Yorker reports on the use of neuroenhancers, specifically in college and work settings. The article quotes one psychologist, Martha Farah, as saying: "...I’m a little concerned that we could be raising a generation of very focussed accountants.”

An excerpt from David Foster Wallace's last novel-in-progress "The Pale King" accounts for the inner-subjective labyrinths and deep focus of I.R.S. agent Lane Dean, Jr.:
He did another return; again the math squared and there were no itemizations on 32 and the printout’s numbers for W-2 and 1099 and Forms 2440 and 2441 appeared to square, and he filled out his codes for the middle tray’s 402 and signed his name and I.D. number that some part of him still refused to quite get memorized so he had to unclip his badge and check it each time and then stapled the 402 to the return and put the file in the top tier’s rightmost tray for 402s Out and refused to let himself count the number in the trays yet, and then unbidden came the thought that “boring” also meant something that drilled in and made a hole.

DFW's Lane Dean, Jr., amid countless numbered forms and tangential thoughts, challenges any easy oppositions between accountant and philosopher, attention and distraction.

Concerning attention, is the point to increase deep focus, or to accept certain distractions as precisely the material to focus on? Are the holes of consciousness there to be filled, or left empty? Perhaps it is the concept of emptiness itself that is the most scarce and 'finite' resource of the 21st-century. In that case, though, could one argue that the Kindle creates more empty space to contemplate by reducing the need for stacks of books? What is the relationship between new media reading technologies and empty space? And to call up Keats, in a roundabout way, what are the (im)material thresholds of "slow time"? This post is unspooling, which my spell-check function wants me to replace with "supercooling." Believe it or not, there is a future contemporary literature class forming out of this nebula.

Monday, April 13, 2009

To Be or Not To Be Kindled

The email I received from this morning really tried to make me feel like I was missing out on something. As someone who "enjoys purchasing books from Amazon," they just thought I'd like to know that "there are now over 260,000 books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs"...this implied that said texts are available for the Amazon Kindle, which is always connected through 3G wireless so that one can download "anytime, anywhere." With objects like these, who needs imagination?

I am curious but hesitant about the Kindle. I have thought seriously about the potential advantages of these devices in the literature classroom. There would be almost no excuse for students not having their texts with them. Maybe reading would be fun for all. And look how easy it is to hold a Kindle:

Yet if you did not know what to look for, this image would be a cipher: is she gazing at a mystic tablet...or at her hands...or at a mirror (i.e. herself)? It is almost as if 'it' isn't there at all. Such minimalism certainly could uplift the spirits of college students who are used to schlepping around five-pound Norton anthologies. What would such a class feel like, in which everyone had the same slick little machine for reading? (Furthermore, could we get some of those couches and throw pillows for the classroom? Those unergonomic chairs are not helping the situation.)

The picture in my email was slightly more instructive, if also eerily vacant:

What bothers me about this image, though, is the white border around the device, not to mention the disembodied white hand; these make the Kindle look hermetically sealed in a world of its own, as if one can so easily achieve the uninterrupted time and empty space for reading that the cover page alone would evoke a sort of rapture. Amazon notes that the battery can last so long that one can "read for days without recharging." Could Kindles really guarantee a new era of learning, a promised land of literature students seduced into slow reading via fast connections? Practically speaking, does the energy required to build and power Kindles offset the energy required to produce (and transport) paper books? Is white the new (same old) green?

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Marley & Me: What is it?

When I went to Blockbuster yesterday afternoon, I had no intentions to write a post about Marley & Me. But this movie is such a curious oddity, in ways one might not expect from a film touted as "The Perfect Family Comedy!" (Mark Allen, CBS, DVD cover).

First of all, the movie is about writing and narrative form. Here are Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson in one scene, proofreading a piece of writing together:

I can (almost) imagine screening this moment in a classroom in order to model collaboration. Aniston and Wilson play married newspaper columnists. The film, intermittently narrated by Wilson in plucky voice-overs, follows their careers and the escapades of their dog Marley, who Wilson's character writes about in his columns. But as the movie unfolded, I was constantly uncertain whether I was watching a story about Wilson's character the writer, or whether I was watching what Wilson's character was watching in order to write stories. In other words, the film is so layered with embedded subplots and hovering meta-narratives that it begins to take shape as an intricate chiasmus. The movie jerks back and forth between narrative points-of-view, but it turns out that all these layers exist on the same plane, even as they appear to loop around continually, adding texture and turns. The movie, frankly, stretches and twists the brain by employing quite sophisticated plotting mechanisms. Toward the end, it turns out that we're back at the beginning; the movie has mostly been an elaborate analepsis, or flashback of sorts.

The movie also participates, albeit awkwardly, in the genre of the epic: Wilson and Aniston's characters are on a familiar journey toward that mythic place called The American Dream, yellow lab and Honda Odyssey minivan included. However, this is an epic landscape without gods or fate. In fact, Marley & Me forwards a radically secular sense of contemporary culture. Mentions of God and Christian theology are brief, sardonic, and during a vacation in Ireland (thus also exoticized). Near the end of the film, a young child speaks of Heaven, making this idea seem infantile. On the other hand, the film makes its audience intensely aware of the passing of time, and the passing of life—i.e., mortality. Marley & Me is about impermanence, enjoying things while they last, and writing about it all. And then making a movie about all these things. If this sounds like a tall order for an allegedly simple feel-good movie, it is. Furthermore, the movie is definitively not a comedy. It is a tragedy. But perhaps what makes the movie 'postmodern'—to use a potentially vapid term—is precisely its ability to conflate, confuse, and compact an incredible amount of narrative material in 115 minutes of something called entertainment.