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.