The Object of All Studies by Daniel Cullen

 “I feel dazed and dopey, my mind a blur of ideas and images”, writes Julia Bell at the outset of Radical Attention.She is describing a state of digital overwhelm, one which might be considered the inverse of the reading state,and which leaves her feeling that she has “lost [herself] somewhere, zombified by the machine.”Walking to a nearby park, she realises that rather than writing, as she had intended, her day had instead “been spent in a black hole, scrolling through webpages and social media accounts looking for – what?”As she pauses, and begins to observe her environment, she notices that all those in her vicinity appear to be similarly afflicted, entranced – “Scrolling, texting. Necks bent, shoulders hunched”– by their own virtual worlds.

This state, and its discontents, will be familiar to many readers. With the relentless acceleration of online life over the last decade arising from the ubiquity of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, anxieties of a ‘crisis of attention’ have become commonplace. These have been expressed in a number of forms, from the personal essay (Andrew Sullivan’s ‘My Distraction Sickness – and yours’6) to books from Silicon Valley insiders (Jaron Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now7), and even major documentaries (Netflix’s ‘The Social Dilemma’8). Regardless of form, sociologist Richard Seymour notes that “the complaints are almost always the same: users end up constantly distracted, unproductive, anxious, needy and depressed – yet also curiously susceptible to advertising.”9

Radical Attention weaves together various, overlapping facets of these phenomena into a long, meditative essay. Adopting a creative non-fiction approach, it draws on sources from a range of disciplines, including literature, psychology, education and philosophy. Roughly demarcated into seven sections, each opens with an epigraph, taken from the works of authors such as Virginia Woolf, Margaret Atwood, James Baldwin and bell hooks, with the text of the essay set out in short bursts of a handful of paragraphs at a time. Jumping breathlessly between topics, perspectives and temporalities, while maintaining an internal sense of narrative, the book intuitively accommodates the diminished attention spans of a distracted readership.

In setting out her defence of attention, Bell, who teaches creative writing, takes inspiration from the thought of another teacher, the French philosopher Simone Weil (1909-1943). Weil was unequivocal about the virtues of attention, writing that “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”10 She saw the process of paying attention as an end in itself, yet emphasised that this process required significant effort and great patience to undertake. For Weil, learning how to be attentive was “the object of all studies.”11 Amid the maelstrom of connectivity, Radical Attention seeks to convince the reader of the urgency of cultivating their own practice of attention.

* * *

Concerns over the fraying of attention spans are not solely a product of the digital age. In accounts of early Christian monasteries as far back as the fourth century, for example, the Latin term acedia was used to describe a spiritual state in which religious devotees suffered from an inability to pay attention. Translated from its original Greek, the term denoted a ‘lack of care’ about one’s life, involving a persistent boredom or listlessness which “left one yearning for distraction and continual novelty, exploiting one’s petty hates and hungers”12 – a description which aligns remarkably closely with present day accounts of the state of digital overwhelm.

But if the perils of inattention have long been observed, Bell sees a major shift resulting from the explosive uptake of social media platforms. “It is no accident of design that these platforms are leveraged to distract us,” she states, “rather it’s the logic of a system whose purpose is to capture our attention.”13 As such, Radical Attention is rooted in a critique of the forces of contemporary capitalism underpinning the social industry. In this view, aspects of everyday life are subject to a continual and expanding commodification, through which the platforms hijack and monetize users’ attention. “The collision of emergent technologies with the current form of deregulated, increasingly anarchic and rapacious capitalism has accelerated social change at a sometimes dizzying pace”,14 she writes.

That attention, in the form of data, can be transformed into an object of monetary value is demonstrated by the vast commercial success of many Silicon Valley companies, including the social media platforms. During 2020, Facebook alone collected revenues of $80 billion.15 But this success rests on the readiness of users to dispense of their attention – be it unthinkingly, reluctantly or happily welcoming distraction. The paradox of this shift is that attention is conceived of as an extractive resource for the benefit of the private companies which operate the platforms, yet for the user it is assumed to be entirely dispensable. The implication of this is that from the perspective of the individual, their attention is considered to have no intrinsic value.

This commodification of attention is founded on a behaviourist model, which seeks to direct users’ actions along specific paths. Many of the features which have now become core parts of these platforms, such as the ‘Like’ button pioneered by Facebook, use methods of reinforcement inspired by research in behavioural psychology. Such features rely on users’ susceptibility to be influenced or ‘nudged’ towards certain behaviours – returning regularly, checking for updates, interacting in set ways – through the exploitation of psychological vulnerabilities. This background leads Bell to articulate what she sees as a core ethical questionfor those contemplating the possibility of resistance: “Are we to accept that we are simply manipulable brains at the mercy of our neurobiology, or are we individuals with free will?”16

* * *

As much as it is a book about technology, one of the principal concerns of Radical Attention is the future of subjectivity. In the platforms’ behaviourist model, Bell identifies the imposition of a new mode of being that leaves little scope for private selfhood. In this context, she fears the replacement of human freedom with increasingly automated behaviour. What arises among users, she writes, is “a semi-automated for- profit personality which is constantly being nudged and notified and prompted. … Maybe one day there will be a generation who won’t question the notion of automated human behaviour, but will accept, wholeheartedly, the idea of technology telling them what to do, where to go, monitoring and measuring every aspect of their lives.”17

The cost of this emergent automated selfhood, as she sees it, is the preservation of individual subjective experience. “Where now is the space for [the] private self? For the private reckonings, thoughts, musings, fleeting fantasies?”18 Bell asks. Other authors have recently expressed similar concerns about the implications of contemporary digital life. Philosopher Justin E.H. Smith writes of “the forces that would beat all human subjectivity down into an algorithm”, with the human subject “vanishingly small beneath the tsunami of likes, views, clicks, and other metrics that is currently transforming selves into financialised vectors of data.”19 Richard Seymour meanwhile states that social media platforms “have demonstrated that our everyday lives can be commodified, provided we consent to their darkest corners being flooded with light.”20

Rather than foregoing the exercise of freedom and deferring to the convenience of automation in such ways, Bell advocates the protection of individual subjectivity. She quotes an excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, in which one of the characters, adjusting to seclusion after spending extended time in the company of others, is described as returning “to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.”21 In The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark, psychoanalyst Josh Cohen describes this ‘wedgeshaped core’ in an individual’s interior as a ‘mute spot’ which constitutes “the very source of creative life.” Intrusion into this private space, he suggests, is “is the most profound violation a person can experience.”22

* * *

The wider implications of these transformations extend beyond the level of the individual. “As more and more aspects of our social and professional lives are conducted online”, she writes, “the [online/offline] distinction begins to lose meaning.”23 With the crumbling of this online/offline divide, she sees the increasing blurring of the barriers between private life and public life. What happens online becomes more closely entwined with public life, with “increasingly strange and dystopic” effects.24 “Our attention lies on a new frontier between the public and the private”, she claims, to such an extent that “it must almost be at the level of our consciousness that we decide whether we are in public or in private.”25

To understand the nature of the spillover from the platforms ‘IRL’,26 it is necessary to focus on the body – and it is this which becomes the true foundation of the analysis of digital life set out in Radical Attention. Bell describes users of social media platforms as often being overcome by “convulsions of outrage”27 – a visceral, physical feeling. The analogy of the convulsion is an apt one, evoking the vision of an extreme, yet apparently involuntary, takeover of the body. William Davies describes the dynamics of social media crowds in similar terms, as “amenable to waves of feeling, which seize its members in ways they don’t expect and can’t always easily explain.” Davies terms these waves ‘somatic’ phenomena, which, though mediated by technology, pass from body to body in sequence.28

The great irony of this, as Bell points out, is that online technologies initially promised increased communication and connection with others without the need for physical proximity – transcending the corporeal. Instead, however, she sees the body as being hacked, hooked, hijacked by the technologies. Consider, in this regard, the intensely physical nature of the descriptions of the state of digital overwhelm. And Bell emphasises the inadequacy of digital technologies in recreating human connection in the absence of the presence of others. She observes the flourishing of an ‘epidemic of loneliness’ – reported to now affect 20% of adults in the UK and the US – and comments that “Our bodies don’t just crave touch, we actually need it – the soothing effect of another body on our own.”29

* * *

At the heart of this book is the story of the troubled collision between technology, subjectivity and embodiment in the digital era. “The technology that is supposed to free us from the flesh has actually done exactly the opposite”, she argues“Rather than being liberated by technology, we have become weirdly trapped in the interplay between it and our biology.”30 These developments present a significant challenge to the historically dominant conception of the relationship between mind and body, drawn from the philosophy of René Descartes (1596-1650), which has influenced Western thought since the seventeenth century. Whereas in the Cartesian model, the rational thought of the mind was paramount, and feelings and sensations of the body regarded with suspicion, today these boundaries appear untenable.

Ideas of the absolute separation of mind and body had never entirely held up to scrutiny – not least when the role of the nervous system, mediating the junctures between the two, began to be better understood. But Davies argues that the dynamics of new digital technologies have further dissolved these conceptual boundaries, as evidenced in the notion of waves of somatic phenomena passing between platform users. As a result, he writes that “the categorical division between ‘reason’ and ‘feeling’ no longer functions, because Descartes’ idea of the disembodied rational mind is dead.”31 In turn, the implications for subjectivity are that “in place of Descartes’ strict separation of mind and body, there is instead an image of a human being possessed of instinct, emotion and calculation, all fused together.”32

Such transformations are of particular significance for liberal democratic political systems, which are founded on Cartesian ideals of the human subject. Davies notes that where marketing and technology companies have lead the way in engaging with the power of feeling and sensation, political systems have been slower to respond. This is a concern which Bell echoes, writing that “The terms of democratic engagement are radically altered by this new arrangement.”33 She references the spread of disinformation and propaganda through social media platforms, which has generated significant turbulence in political systems worldwide in recent years. It is clear, however, that these disruptions are only further symptoms of the changing dynamics of public life, driven by the underlying forces of technological change.

* * *

Faced with the challenges that these digital transformations pose to both private and public life, how might one respond? A popular recommendation, which Bell firmly rejects, is the adoption of mindfulness, such as through meditation. She describes mindfulness as a passive solution which seeks only to control digital distraction and its attendant anxieties – the kind of ‘life hack’ which might be advocated by Silicon Valley executives. Taking particular issue with this corporate enthusiasm for mindfulness, she presents the ap- proach as insufficient for the problems at hand. It cannot, she contends, “solve the ethical and intellectual questions posed by the unsettling reality of what technology, as it is currently utilised, is doing to the organisation of society and to ourselves. To the reasons why we might be anxious.”34

In place of mindfulness, the reader is advised to adopt another approach: the concept of ‘radical attention’. This is a “more radical, active kind of attention”,35 which is presented as an explicitly embodied practice. Returning attention to one’s body, she argues, “allows us to reconnect to the parts of ourselves that have been outsourced to the screen.”36 Rather than accepting metaphors of technological dualism (‘the software of the mind running on the hardware of the body’) she insists on the importance of understanding that human consciousness is inextricably rooted in the flesh. This can be understood as a call for readers to reclaim their bodies – in all their “mutable, strange, contingent and. mysterious”37 realities – from their hijacking and their manipulation in the interests of private companies.

The cultivation of radical attention is more urgent than ever, Bell insists, in the face of the overwhelming collective challenges of the present, from climate change to racial and gender injustice. She urges readers to “get off the net and into the streets and the classrooms, to offer up new, practical solutions to the common problems we all face. We are going to need to find new ways to come together, rather than succumbing to the fake pressures of our online identities.”38 That the actions she proposes – taking to the streets, debating in classrooms – involve physical proximity reflects the fact that this practice is not intended to be undertaken solely in isolation, but also in connection with others. Bell cites the wave of Black Lives Matter protests during 2020 as an example of the possibilities of in-person protest to counter abuses of power: “a loud reminder that bodies matter.”39

* * *
The reader is being encouraged, then, to join together with others, in person, to practice the art of attention. And at heart, Bell sees this act as the basis of her own pedagogy. In the classroom with her students, she is “trying to instil in them attentive practice, a capacity for concentration, so that they can make connections, think, and engage in the kind of deep reflection that good writing, but also good living, demands.”40 But it is striking to consider that if attention is indeed to so central to the mission of pedagogy, the proliferation of distraction generated by digital platforms may be said to constitute its own form of poisonous pedagogy. Within the chaos of vitriolic disagreements between social media users, writes Seymour, “No one is learning anything, except how to remain connected to the machine.”41

The fundamental distinction between these two pedagogies might be understood in terms of their different attitudes to learning. In her book Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, the philosopher Zena Hitz draws on two concepts from the writing of Saint Augustine, the vice of curiositas and the virtue of studiositas, which assist in elucidating thisRather than ‘curiosity’, curiositas is translated as the ‘love of spectacle’, which Augustine saw as a disordered drive for knowledge. Hitz refers to the internet as often “a cesspool for the love of spectacle”,42 a source of experience simply for the sake of experience, rather than with the object of any deeper purpose. Hitz characterises curiositas as contentment with the surface of things, and refers to the compulsive use of social media as “a screwed-up longing for communion. We want to stay at the surface with others.”43

The concept of studiositas, meanwhile, is translated as ‘seriousness’. This is not intended to imply dullness or severity, but a more meaningful love of learning which goes beyond experience. Hitz explains this as “a desire to seek out what is most important, to get to the bottom of things, to stay focused on what matters.” To practice this virtue involves self-examination: “to ponder one’s dissatisfactions, to discern better from worse, the possible from the impossible.”44 In this juxtaposition of spectacle and seriousness, the significance of a practice of attention in response to the problems of digital distraction becomes clear. Where the teaching of the art of attention in the classroom seeks to nurture students towards being studiosus, the reinforcement of distraction taught by the platforms actively encourages users to be merely curiosus.

Beyond the urgencies of the present political and environmental context, consideration of these philosophical distinctions clarifies the importance of a practice of attention for the life of the individual. To be continually trapped at the surface of things by the dynamics of the social media platforms has serious personal implications – as reflected in the sheer frustration in so many contemporary accounts of digital overwhelm. But the reader of Radical Attention is neither advised to delete their accounts, nor provided with solutions for the reprogramming of their attention. Instead, they are left with something more valuable: a sense of their own agency as an embodied subject, a perspective from which to assess the competing pressures making demands on their attention, and a call to turn this back towards a deeper love of learning.

Daniel Cullen (https://www.clippings.me/dcullen) is an Oxford-based writer and researcher. He is currently studying Creative Writing at Cambridge University, with a focus on creative non-fiction, and is a former Birkbeck postgraduate student.

Julia Bell, Radical Attention (London: Peninsula Press, 2020), 12.
Mairead Small Staid, “Reading in the age of constant distraction,” The Paris Review, February 8, 2019, https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/02/08/reading-in-the-age-of-constant-distraction/
Bell, Radical Attention, 13.
ibid, 12.
ibid, 13.
Andrew Sullivan, “My distraction sickness – and yours,” New York Magazine, September 16, 2019,https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/09/andrew-sullivan-my-distraction-sickness-and-yours.html
Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (London: Vintage, 2018).
“The Social Dilemma,” Netflix, accessed 5 January, 2021, https://www.netflix.com/title/81254224
Richard Seymour, The Twittering Machine (London: The Indigo Press, 2019), 72.
10 Bell, Radical Attention, 30.
11 ibid, 110.

12 Seymour, The Twittering Machine, 200.
13 Bell, Radical Attention, 43.
14 ibid, 78.

15 John Naughton, “All I want for 2021 is to see Mark Zuckerberg up in court,” The Guardian, January 2, 2021,https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jan/02/all-i-want-for-2021-is-to-see-mark-zuckerberg- up-in-court
16 Bell, Radical Attention, 45.
17 ibid, 76.
18 ibid, 46.
19 Justin E.H. Smith, “It’s All Over,” The Point Magazine, January 3, 2019, https://thepointmag.com/examined- life/its-all-over/

20 Seymour, The Twittering Machine, 104.
21 Bell, Radical Attention, 46.
22 Josh Cohen, The Private Life: Why We Remain in the Dark (London: Granta, 2013), 9. 

23 Bell, Radical Attention, 71.
24 ibid, 71.
25 ibid, 103.
26 ‘In real life’.
27 ibid, 68.
28 William Davies, “The funny side of politics,” OpenDemocracy, April 9, 2019, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/opendemocracyuk/funny-side-politics/

29 Bell, Radical Attention, 27.
30 ibid, 75.
31 William Davies, Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World (London: Jonathan Cape, 2018), 223. 
32 ibid, 131.
33 Bell, Radical Attention, 70.

34 ibid, 106.
35 ibid.
36 ibid, 119. 
37 ibid, 115.
38 ibid, 120. 
39 ibid, 121

40 ibid, 113.
41 Seymour, The Twittering Machine, 74.
42 Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2020), 135.
43 ibid, 143.
44 ibid, 144.
 

 

 

 

 

4 June 2021