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.


The Way of Things

Philosophy, as Bergson and then Wittgenstein argued, has a tendency to ask funny questions which make certain assumptions that, in turn, leave us thinking in unnecessarily convoluted terms. Is a thing a thing-in-itself and for-another? Is a thing a being or a becoming? And, if it's a becoming, how can we say it's that thing at all? We can cast these equally false question in terms of human being: Am I a self unto myself or is my identity only forged through and with another?

This are silly questions because they begin with a certain set of inane assumptions, namely, that being and becoming are distinct terms. Now, perhaps this is just a a series of straw men I've created. But it's unnecessary anyway in that I'm not interested in arguing against a certain belief in as much as I am interested in proffering a certain way of things. Here, then, is how I imagine the way of things.

A thing is not static. On the contrary, it is always already moving and morphing. As Bergson argues, time is not something added to matter but is constitutive of it; things are four-dimensional (at least) from the git go (the fourth dimension is temporal extension, if you will). There is no moment of pure being which is then followed by becoming. No, time never stops. Change never stops. A thing is becoming all the way through, moving and changing at every level of its constitution — molecular, intelligent, perceptive, atomic, affective.

A thing, then, is not per se. It isn't anything, technically speaking. It does things. It takes in the world, takes up the world, gathers this and that together in a particular way — with particular propensities, desires, speeds, intensities. Think of it this way: I am, if I can use that word, this way of taking up skin, blood, air, liver, thought, books, scents, love, gin, images, relationships. What I am is a process that is itself always changing what it is, what it desires, and what it takes in.

Which is to say, I am not a fixed thing that takes in different things. I am run all the way through with a way of taking up different things and these different things and different ways forge a constantly different me. For instance, when I run or move very quickly, the speed and intensity of how I take in air changes. I pant like a sick dog. Or as I age — as I change — my very metabolism changes as do my desires and intensities. I eat less pasta and tomato sauce. I don't take on life with the same umph that I did when I was, say, 27. I don't drink so much bourbon anymore. My how and my what have changed.

But if everything is always changing, what makes me me? What makes a thing a thing? Well, this is perspectival and hence is itself always morphing.

A thing hangs together in particular ways. There is what we might call an internal logic only it's not internal per se or absolutely; it is internal to that thing. A thing is as much a how as a what. What makes a thing that thing is how it hangs together from a particular perspective.

When you try to touch the being of a thing, you discover a localized process — a how, a desiring and distributive factory: a metabolism. A way of taking in other things, including desire, and processing them, distributing them just so. A thing is its way of becoming.

A thing is a thing in as much as it is delimited by a perspective. A toe may be a thing or it may be a part of me or it may be both — it depends on the perspective. A doctor, a foot fetishist, a pedicurist, an alien, me: we all draw different limits of you and your toe and have different ways of taking it up, making sense of it, putting it in play within the metabolic engines we claim as ours.

Another way to think about this is to consider yourself with different people. I know, for one, that when I'm with one person, certain whats and hows of me are amplified; when I'm with someone else, I take on certain things in certain ways. I drink gin with Brian but not with my son; whiskey with Marc but not with, say, Tommy. This makes for a different me, a different way of going. My comportment, desires, speeds, and intensities all shift when I'm with different people, with different things.

Things do not have an essence; they have a way. Or, better, they have ways depending on circumstances.



As far as I can tell, everything is multiple — which shifts the demands of life. For if everything is in fact multiple, how do we articulate it? How do we seek it? Amplify it? The will to multiplicity is different than the will to the definitive; this will can be found in irony, in humor, in Monty Python, Louis CK, Clarice Lispector, Derrida, Deleuze & Guattari.

Discussed here: the new SFMoMA, Beyonce, ambivalent feelings about cops, Deleuze and Guattari, Louis CK, how to speak multiplicity, Monty Python, and more!


The Technology of Sense (a verbal essay)

(trying SoundCloud)

Before we're even born, we are taught how to process the world. After all, we are prefigured in the womb as a baby soon to arrive as a child, as male or female, as having a name and parents. Which is to say, we come to this world already enmeshed in elaborate cultural institutions, discourses, and ways of operating. There is no such thing as a clean slate, no immaculate birth. We are born somewhere, as something, a cog within a m

This mode of processing is institutionalized in school as well as in the media. But this mode is not neutral or natural. It entails a a certain architecture of relations between people, concepts, and knowledge.

Mentioned here: Geometry, Foucault, Bergson, viewing art, being creative, new ways of making sense, and more!