Attention and the Moral Life

I’ve continued to think about a question raised by Frank Furedi in an otherwise lackluster essay about distraction and digital devices. Furedi set out to debunk the claim that digital devices are undermining our attention and our memory. I don’t think he succeeded, but he left us with a question worth considering: “The question that is rarely posed by advocates of the distraction thesis is: what are people distracted from?”

In an earlier post, I suggested that this question can be usefully set alongside a mid-20th century observation by Hannah Arendt. Considering the advent of automation, Arendt feared “the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them.” “Surely, nothing could be worse,” she added.

The connection might not have been as clear as I imagined it, so let me explain. Arendt believed that labor is the “only activity left” to the laborer because the glorification of labor in modern society had eclipsed the older ends and goods to which labor had been subordinated and for the sake of which we might have sought freedom from labor.

To put it as directly as I can, Arendt believed that if we indeed found ourselves liberated from the need to labor, we would not know what to do with ourselves. We would not know what to do with ourselves because, in the modern world, laboring had become the ordering principle of our lives.

Recalling Arendt’s fear, I wondered whether we were not in a similar situation with regards to attention. If we were able to successfully challenge the regime of digital distraction, to what would we give the attention that we would have fought so hard to achieve? Would we be like the laborers in Arendt’s analysis, finally free but without anything to do with our freedom? I wondered, as well, if it were not harder to combat distraction, if we were inclined to do so, precisely because we had no telos for the sake of which we might undertake the struggle.

Interestingly, then, while the link between Arendt’s comments about labor and the question about the purpose of attention was initially only suggestive, I soon realized the two were more closely connected. They were connected by the idea of leisure.

We tend to think of leisure merely as an occasional break from work. That is not, however, how leisure was understood in either classical or medieval culture. Josef Pieper, a Catholic philosopher and theologian, was thinking about the cultural ascendency of labor or work and the eclipse of leisure around the same time that Arendt was articulating her fears of a society of laborers without labor. In many respects, their analysis overlaps. (I should note, though, that Arendt distinguishes between labor and work in way that Pieper does not. Work for Pieper is roughly analogous to labor in Arendt’s taxonomy.)

For her part, Arendt believed nothing could be worse than liberating laborers from labor at this stage in our cultural evolution, and this is why:

“The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society.  The fulfillment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfillment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew.”

To say that there is “no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature” is another way of saying that there is no leisured class in the older sense of the word. This older ideal of leisure did not entail freedom from labor for the sake of endless poolside lounging while sipping Coronas. It was freedom from labor for the sake of intellectual, political, moral, or spiritual aims, the achievement of which may very well require arduous discipline. We might say that it was freedom from the work of the body that made it possible for someone to take up the work of the soul or the mind. Thus Pieper can claim that leisure is “a condition of the soul.” But, we should also note, it was not necessarily a solitary endeavor, or, better, it was not an endeavor that had only the good of the individual in mind. It often involved service to the political or spiritual community.

Pieper further defines leisure as “a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear.” He makes clear, though, that the stillness he has in mind “is not mere soundlessness or a dead muteness; it means, rather, that the soul’s power, as real, of responding to the real – a co-respondence, eternally established in nature – has not yet descended into words.” Thus, leisure “is the disposition of receptive understanding, of contemplative beholding, and immersion – in the real.”

Pieper also claims that leisure “is only possible on the assumption that man is not only in harmony with himself, whereas idleness is rooted in the denial of this harmony, but also that he is in agreement with the world and its meaning. Leisure lives on affirmation.” The passing comment on idleness is especially useful to us.

In our view, leisure and idleness are nearly indistinguishable. But on the older view, idleness is not leisure; indeed, it is the enemy of leisure. Idleness, on the older view, may even take the shape of frenzied activity undertaken for the sake of, yes, distracting us from the absence of harmony or agreement with ourselves and the world.

We are now inevitably within the orbit of Blaise Pascal’s analysis of the restlessness of the human condition. Because we are not at peace with ourselves or our world, we crave distraction or what he called diversions. “What people want,” Pascal insists, “is not the easy peaceful life that allows us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the burdens of office, but the agitation that takes our mind off it and diverts us.” “Nothing could be more wretched,” Pascal added, “than to be intolerably depressed as soon as one is reduced to introspection with no means of diversion.”

The novelist Walker Percy, a younger contemporary of both Arendt and Pieper, described what we called the “diverted self” as follows: “In a free and affluent society, the self is free to divert itself endlessly from itself.  It works in order to enjoy the diversions that the fruit of one’s labor can purchase.”  For the diverted self, Percy concluded, “The pursuit of happiness becomes the pursuit of diversion.”

If leisure is a condition of the soul as Pieper would have it, then might we also say the same of distraction? Discreet instances of being distracted, of failing to meaningfully direct our attention, would then be symptoms of a deeper disorder. Our digital devices, in this framing of distraction, are both a material cause and an effect. The absence of digital devices would not cure us of the underlying distractedness or aimlessness, but their presence preys upon, exacerbates, and amplifies this inner distractedness.

It is hard, at this point, for me not to feel that I have been speaking in another language or at least another dialect, one whose cadences and lexical peculiarities are foreign to our own idiom and, consequently, to our way of making sense of our experience. Leisure, idleness, contemplative beholding, spiritual and political aristocracies–all of this recalls to mind Alasdair MacIntyre’s observation that we use such words in much the same way that a post-apocalyptic society, picking up the scattered pieces of the modern scientific enterprise would use “neutrino,” “mass,” and “specific gravity”: not entirely without meaning, perhaps, but certainly not as scientists. The language I’ve employed, likewise, is the language of an older moral vision, a moral vision that we have lost.

I’m not suggesting that we ought to seek to recover the fullness of the language or the world that gave it meaning. That would not be possible, of course. But what if we, nonetheless, desired to bring a measure of order to the condition of distraction that we might experience as an affliction? What if we sought some telos to direct and sustain our attention, to at least buffer us from the forces of distraction?

If such is the case, I commend to you Simone Weil’s reflections on attention and will. Believing that the skill of paying attention cultivated in one domain was transferable to another, Weil went so far as to claim that the cultivation of attention was the real goal of education: “Although people seem to be unaware of it today, the development of the faculty of attention forms the real object and almost the sole interest of studies.”

It was Weil who wrote, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” A beautiful sentiment grounded in a deeply moral understanding of attention. Attention, for Weil, was not merely an intellectual asset, what we require for the sake of reading long, dense novels. Rather, for Weil, attention appears to be something foundational to the moral life:

“There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is. That is why, every time we truly give our attention, we destroy some evil in ourselves.”

Ultimately, Weil understood attention to be a critical component of the religious life as well. “Attention, taken to its highest degree,” Weil wrote, “is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” “If we turn our mind toward the good,” she added, “it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself.” And this is because, in her view, “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.”

So here we have, if we wanted it, something to animate our desire to discipline the distracted self, something at which to direct our attention. Weil’s counsel was echoed closer to our own time by David Foster Wallace, who also located the goal of education in the cultivation of attention.

“Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” Wallace explained in his now famous commencement address at Kenyon College. “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

“The really important kind of freedom,” Wallace added, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think.” Each day the truth of this claim impresses itself more and more deeply upon my mind and heart.

Finally, and briefly, we should be wary of imagining the work of cultivating attention as merely a matter of learning how to consciously choose what we will attend to at any given moment. That is part of it to be sure, but Weil and Pieper both knew that attention also involved an openness to what is, a capacity to experience the world as gift. Cultivating our attention in this sense is not a matter of focusing upon an object of attention for our own reasons, however noble those may be. It is also a matter of setting to one side our projects and aspirations that we might be surprised by what is there. “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them,” Weil wrote, “but by waiting for them.” In this way, we prepare for “some dim dazzling trick of grace,” to borrow a felicitous phrase from Walker Percy, that may illumine our minds and enliven our hearts.

It is these considerations, then, that I would offer in response to Furedi’s question, What are we distracted from?

14 thoughts on “Attention and the Moral Life

  1. Thank you for the clarification. Distressed by your original essay, I even tried to explain it to my son who hadn’t read it. I agree with your second article. An unexamined life, as I believe Plato put it, isn’t a life worth living. Still I think television and air conditioning have perhaps been worse than our computers or smart phones in closing us off from meaningful contemplation on our world and our spiritual and philosophical attempts to understand our it and our place and the place of others in it. TV was and is for the most part designed to distract and does almost nothing to influence contemplation of our world, selves and others. It is a bird feeding its children already digested food. Air conditioning allowed for massive isolation in front of television’s diversion, and children have grown up without ever feeling the stickiness of a slug stepped on while playing with other neighborhood children as mother’s on porches watched on or the beauty of fireflies flickering in the night as they played and learned about sympathizing with themselves, other people, and nature as well. Although somewhat artificial, at least some of our technical devices allow us, in some measure, to search for ways of understanding the world that TV and air conditioning have stymied. Few people agree with me about air conditioning, perhaps Weil, Ardent and Piper wouldn’t see it as one of the strongest contributors to the depression of our souls as I do, but then everyone I have ever expressed this belief to has dismissed it immediately as absolutely ridiculous.

    1. What an excellent essay and this reply, as lovely.
      Language without the context of culture does make these ideas seem alien. If we managed to desire a sultry and humid warmth over conditioned air we’d begin to experience a sensation closer to reality. Instead of being distracted from our labor we’d have to seek shade and tell stories, play in water or ponder slugs.
      24-6, or a secular sabbath, was my attempt to rekindle this empowering potential – Plato’s examined life or Thoreau’s to live deliberately seem obvious as ways to fulfill our humanism. I am so glad to have stumbled on this post. Hope I have permission to link to it. With practice leisure, and even a little productive idleness, remind us how to love our world.

    2. I certainly see your point about A/C. It’s often older, taken-for-granted technologies that are most influential. We stop thinking about how they change/changed our lives and they thus become the new natural. I’m certain most people do not think twice about A/C unless it breaks, and they certainly wouldn’t consider what costs attended its emergence.

  2. I enjoyed the essay. Your reference to both Pascal and DFW as well as the topic of distraction reminded me of a potent section of The Pale King – Forgive me for the length:

    “Maybe it’s not metaphysics. Maybe it’s existential. I’m talking about the individual US citizen’s deep fear, the same basic fear that you and I have and that everybody has except nobody ever talks about it except existentialists in convoluted French prose. Or Pascal. Our smallness, our insignificance and mortality, yours and mine, the thing that we all spend all our time not thinking about directly, that we are tiny and at the mercy of large forces and that time is always passing and that every day we’ve lost one more day that will never come back and our childhoods are over and our adolescence and the vigor of youth and soon our adulthood, that everything we see around us all the time is decaying and passing, it’s all passing away, and so are we, so am I, and given how fast the first forty-two years have shot by it’s not going to be long before I too pass away, whoever imagined that there was a more truthful way to put it than “die,” “pass away,” the very sound of it makes me feel the way I feel at dusk on a wintry Sunday—’

    ‘And not only that, but everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on, and the gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make sure we’re remembered, these’ll last what—a hundred years? two hundred?—and they’ll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I’m cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here, and people in 2104 or whatever will no more think of Stuart A. Nichols Jr. than you or I think of John T. Smith, 1790 to 1864, of Livingston, Virginia, or some such. That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine, in fact, probably that’s why the manic US obsession with production, produce, produce, impact the world, contribute, shape things, to help distract us from how little and totally insignificant and temporary we are.”

  3. “There is something in our soul that loathes true attention much more violently than flesh loathes fatigue. That something is much closer to evil than flesh is. That is why, every time we truly give our attention, we destroy some evil in ourselves.”

    Weil’s quote brought to mind the book being read in my small group at St. Elmo Pres. It is by Christine Pohl, “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition.” The power of recognition ties in to this full-fledged attention that hospitality demands, which we rebel against, but what will actually play a part in “destroying some evil in ourselves.”

    On p. 62 Pohl states: “When people are socially invisible, their needs and concerns are not acknowledged and no one even notices the injustices they suffer. Hospitality can begin a journey toward visibility and respect.”

  4. If you query a typical college student about their concerns with digital distraction, the most common lament is that digital distraction impacts their productivity and their study time. Likewise, query someone like Werner Herzog in his movie From One Second To The Next and the message is that the digital distracts us from paying attention to vital data inputs that keep us safe while driving. Neither of these ways of framing distraction place much emphasis on the idea of distraction from the vita contemplativa. In the popular discourse the pundit who most likely approximates your Arendtian/Aristotelian framing (that the digital distracts us from the vita contemplativa) might be Turkle although hers is a shallower moral framing since her message is more that it distracts us from each other.

    The fact that your Arendtian conception is relatively lacking in contemporary discourse about digital distraction is probably because we live under the aegis of Liberalism (with a capital L). In Liberal societies we ascribe to a thin rather than thick conception of the good. We presume that people should be free to develop their own ideas of the good life and that the good life doesn’t necessarily have to be defined around the vita contemplativa – for some of us it might in fact be best realized around the pool drinking martinis. Ergo, for Liberals the answer to “Distraction From What?” isn’t distraction from the vita contemplativa; it’s distraction from whatever end you freely choose to pursue in a free society. Arguably however, most often the end we choose is work rather than leisure. In the wake of the Protestant reformation we no longer view work the way Arendt and Aristotle saw it: it isn’t an instrumental means for achieving leisure which then allows us (or at least some of us) to practice the vita contemplative. Instead, work and productivity has become a virtue in its own right. That is why the answer to the question “Distraction from what?” is still very often framed as distraction from productivity.

    In an interesting wrinkle however, and following Joshua Rothman in A New Theory of Distraction ( ), it’s possible that Liberals don’t actually worry too much about the question: “Distraction From What?” That’s because distraction actually is a way of realizing our own (Liberal) autonomy. Distraction is a sign that we’re following our own thoughts rather than those that might be imposed on us by others.

    1. Luke, Excellent observations. In the post before this one, I’d speculated about the Liberal/autonomous self and distractedness along similar lines, but you’ve articulated the connection more thoroughly. Here’s how I put the thought that was really just a question: “Or, to put it another way, is distractedness the natural state of the liberated will that refuses to be captured by goods external to itself? If so, then it appears that distractedness may be understood as the natural state of the aimless soul, free to attend to whatever it will but with no compelling reason to attend for very long to anything in particular.”

      Thanks for the link, I’ll take a look at that essay.

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