On Attention

I'm sitting her right now on my couch, feet up on the coffee table, cocktail by said feet, the Warriors game on the TV, the inane but pleasant banter of Marv Albert filling the room.  All these sites of attention: computer, TV, cocktail. And this doesn't take into consideration all the other things — present and not — occupying some aspect of my attention: rice cooking in kitchen, friend in other room, possible social engagement in an hour, not to mention my entire life looming and stirring and making itself heard and felt directly and indirectly in nearly every fiber of my being.

Attention is an odd thing. On the one hand, there is a certain qualitative measure as my attention is divided between an ever changing calculus of a certain number of things to a certain degree — at this moment, this essay has 68% of my attention, the game 19%, what Reggie Miller and Marv Albert are saying 1%, what I'm eating for dinner 7%, the various and sundry aspect of my life the remaining 5%.

But attention is not a place, a set quantity. It is an act — an act of perceptive focus. When I focus on this or that, I am actively making sense of that thing, following its moves, its flow. And yet attention is not strictly speaking active for it is an act of making oneself a receptor of certain perceptions (and not others), letting them cohere as they will in my body and mind.

Attention, then, is an active form of submission to a force or event that is not just perception. Attention is discerning and involves something more than perception, another step in sense making. Or perhaps a greater intensity of perception, a greater sensitivity. Where we often parry perceptions — background noise, sirens, and such — attention lets all the nuance of a thing, a force, an event flourish.

When I'm writing this, I am focused on the words, on the flow of ideas, on what came before and what could come next while the game is a kind of ambient fog. Which is to say, the ideas, words, and act of writing impress upon me and, all the while, I am doing things with these perceptions.

Sometimes, however, I do too much with them at which point I am not really paying attention anymore, or not paying attention to the ideas but to the words or other ideas which attention reminds me of. The focal point of attention shifts relentlessly from the stir of ideas to how those ideas hit words to the shape of the essay as a whole to the absurd image of what an audience might be thinking (absurd as how could I know which is one reason I was long averse to publishing anything: it makes for another focal point — and one that's nebulous, at best).  For me, the best writing — or the writing I enoy the most — is when my attention focal point is it at the crux of ideas and words, that point where thinking hits language and the two entwine, working together to create this shape here.

Which, once again, leads us to a spatial understanding of attention: it has a focal point. But of course attention is spatial: as attention is a mode of perception, and perception is always worldly (even when tending to invisible bodies such as ideas, emotions, memories), attention must be turned this way or that. In fact, that's what attention is: a turning towards and with something.

Now, from time to time, I look up as this essay fades and I see Curry and Green and Durant negotiating space and time and each other, the basketball game and its elaborate sense making its way into me, through me, with me. At these times, when I'm not just watching the game but paying attention to the game, I am pervaded with its affective flow. I can anticipate shots, passes, drives to the basket. When I pay attention to the game, I am participating in its flows (which is different from when I'm just watching the game, acknowledging the score, who made what play, but the affective intensity is absent).

Attention is rarely, if ever, focused on just one thing. The different zones of attention form what the sophist/poet/philosopher Lohren Green calls a seam: between and amidst the attention of different events, things, and forces — between and amidst the different acts of attention — there is bleed, overlap, mutual or aparallel inflection.

Listening to music while writing is an obvious example. Certain music propels certain ideas, certain words, a certain flow. I, for one, can't listen to rock & roll or indie pop while I'm writing. The melodies are too demanding of my attention. Like most people,  I prefer less demanding music while writing. Right now, the game long over, I'm listening to Brian Eno's "Lux" which is not as drifting as his strictly ambient albums and not near as poppy as, say, "Another Green World."

But I'm not sure yet if it's the right music for this moment, for this essay, for this mode and intensity of attention I have right now. When it is right, the words are nudged from me, provoked, even given propulsion. The wrong music dizzies me or, worse, turns my prose dramatic or too subdued or too emphatic. For years, Erik Satie was the only music I could listen to while writing; I wanted my attention, my writing, to echo the Gymnopédies. Now, I don't want my words and ideas to be that precise, that distinct. Often, I listen to the Boredoms when I write as I try to inflect the intensity and pace of my attention.

I'm sitting in a café now and I just caught myself looking up and staring out the window. Only I wasn't staring at all. My vision was blurry; I wasn't focusing on the things in this space: my attention was elsewhere. I was looking for the focus of this essay, this paragraph, where it should go next. My attention, at that point, was less a perceptive processing as much as a search. It was looking for a focal point, like a photographer turning the whatchamacallit, deciding what to put into focus and what to blur.

Attention, then, can be intensely physical — as it is for athletes and surgeons and as it hopefully is during sex — but it can also zoom past all this stuff to find focus on an idea, a memory, a notion.

It's very odd to pay attention to attention. Funny enough, it's hard to pay attention to attention as the notion of attention keeps sending me astray, dissipating, diffusing, and deferring my attention.


davidtEDU said...

Do you remember that scene in "Stranger In A Strange Land" when the various "Fair Witness" the women that Jubal has at his compound become unglued after kissing Michael Valentine? When asked what is so intoxicating/unsettling about his kiss they say "it's like he's thinking of nothing else."

I was wondering. If there was a hierarchy of attention would it be:
1. Noticing
2. Attention
3. Focus/Meditation
4. Reflection/Critical thinking

Or is it controlling of me to assign such a hierarchy?

Daniel Coffeen said...

David! Good to see you here again! I don't know the film — it is a film, I assume — you're talking about. But I like the example: Is attention a thinking of "nothing else"?

I really wrote this piece as a way to think about attention; it's a very strange act to me — so real and palpable yet so ephemeral and elusive. I'm thinking about your hierarchy here and my first thought is: Must it be a hierarchy? Might it be better as a network of different kinds or modes of perception?

I like the movement you suggest from noticing to attention; something pops out from the perceptive field, we zoom in (so hard not to use spatial figures! which may be misleading).

But I'm not sure about meditation and reflection. Both seem like special kinds of attention that are not of perception per se. That is, I often meditate with my eyes closed; my attention becomes diffused. Or, perhaps, my attention is on the space in between thoughts, images, percepts. I definitely don't pay attention to any one thing or even zone of things.

And reflection/critical thinking seems like a whole other kind of attention — not a more but another. It takes a perception then follows it somewhere else, into other realms: an attention to the possible movements of a perception, perhaps.

Man, this is hard stuff to talk about! I need to keep thinking about it.

Thanks for your thoughts; they have me thinking.