Pay Attention

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Reprinted from Jonathan’s eponymous newsletter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about attention. My semester of teaching first-year writing just ended, which means I’ve been mulling over what went wrong during the class. And the things I think most went wrong had to do with attention. (Things went right, too, but I tend to dwell on the negative.) I won’t go into detail, because I don’t want to encourage kids-these-days-and-their-danged-gizmos thoughts in anyone. Let’s just say that I’m concerned about how my students direct their attention in class and leave it at that.

Besides, the problem with attention right now isn’t confined to the young. We all struggle to pay attention to our work and to the people right in front of us. One big reason is that your attention is no longer valuable just to you. It’s valuable to gigantic tech corporations whose business model is to grab and hold your attention for seconds at a time. Their industry is essentially extractive; they’re trying to appropriate your inner life. And because they all have the same model, they all compete for the same commodity, and your attention is pulled in hundreds of directions at once.

Two resources have shaped my recent thinking about this condition: Jenny Odell’s book, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy and the podcast The Relentless Picnic. Odell is an artist living in the high-tech world of the San Francisco Bay Area, but her book is not just about the danger of social media. It’s about how we spend all our resources, from habitats to time. This sentence, from very early in the book, stuck with me throughout reading it:

A simple refusal motivates my argument: refusal to believe that the present time and place, and the people who are here with us, are somehow not enough.

That’s the thing with giving away your attention: most often, you give up on who and what is present with you for someone or something that isn’t. In a college classroom, this often means messaging people who aren’t in the class, when there are perfectly good people in class to listen and talk to.

I also thought Odell offered a helpful and updated critique of what Josef Pieper called “total work.” She writes:

In a situation where every waking moment has become the time in which we make our living … time becomes an economic resource that we can no longer justify spending on “nothing.” It provides no return on investment; it is simply too expensive.

For Odell, “doing nothing” doesn’t mean being inert. It mostly means doing things that don’t count as productive according to our everyday logic, from birdwatching to remediating our ruined structures and communities. Again: I couldn’t help thinking about How to Do Nothing in terms of education. If education is about getting a job — about being a more productive profit-maker — then classes that don’t obviously contribute to that end (including first-year writing, maybe) are a waste of time, hardly worth your attention.

The Relentless Picnic, and in particular its most recent episode, which is titled “Shallow Banquet,” is unlike any other podcast I’ve heard. (I am grateful to Phil Christman for recommending this podcast recently in his always-excellent Tinyletter. See also Nathan Goldman’s LARB article on Relentless Picnic.) It’s a wide-ranging conversation among three younger-than-me men who are, it quickly becomes apparent, unusually well-read and unusually close friends. (In this respect, it’s also relevant to another topic I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: male friendship. And it’s relevant to an unbelievably good show by the English band IDLES I saw last week. The singer introduced one typically hard-thrashing song by saying, “This song is about men sharing their feelings for a better world.”) Much of the discussion on the podcast, which runs about two hours, deals with the obstacles to attention, from phones to the political situation.

But more than that, the conversation is, for the listener, an exercise in attention. And so it might be a part of the solution to the problem it diagnoses. There is no context to the conversation. It always seems to begin in medias res, and there are no ads or introductions. Your first time in, you have to figure out who’s who and distinguish among the three voices. In other words, you have to listen more attentively to it than to your typical podcast — to say nothing of other media. Still, each episode is also self-contained. You don’t miss anything if you listen to them in random order. You don’t have to binge-listen, but you might. I’ve listened to “Shallow Banquet” twice all the way through, and I’ve replayed a couple of key sections even more times. I will probably listen to it again. I’m even considering having my students listen to it in the fall, to teach them — paradoxically, I suppose — that the people and conversation in the classroom are more than enough.

I’m a writer and a former professor and parking lot attendant. I cover work, religion, and education, and I’m currently writing a book about the spiritual costs of the American work ethic.This post is reprinted from my newsletter. Subscribe here!  Image: Jon Malesic.

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