Distracted? Having problems focusing? Overwhelmed by emails, texts and tweets? Expected to do too many things at once? The attention crisis in America – some have called it a war – is the thematic focus of the summer issue of The Hedgehog Review, an interdisciplinary journal published by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.
In “Minding Our Minds,” the review’s editors and writers examine the state of our minds in the face of the information age’s relentless barrage of media and messages. More than simply a psychological or neurological manifestation, our ability – or inability – to pay attention is a symptom of a larger cultural phenomenon and increasingly perilous.
“The cultural challenge of minding our minds, of leading more reflective lives, is both a matter of reducing the overload and filling an absence – the cultivation of those loves that can order our attention and intensify our connection to the good beyond ourselves,” editor Joseph E. Davis, a research associate professor of sociology, writes in his introduction to the essays.
“Minding Our Minds” opens with philosopher Matthew B. Crawford’s consideration of attention and autonomy. Crawford, a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and author of “Shop Class as Soulcraft,” suggests that a historical and philosophical understanding of attention is needed in order to understand that it was “demoted,” most recently by cognitive scientists, to something analogous to a searchlight.
“In a more naturalistic setting, closer to the way we actually inhabit the world, the searchlight metaphor for attention seems not quite fitting,” he writes. “It would be more apt to say that a particular thing pulls us in, and the character of our regard is altered in accord with its object: a mischievous smile from an alluring stranger or a car wreck on the shoulder of the road.”
“If all you ask people to do is pay attention,” notes Mark Edmundson in his essay, “they will almost inevitably rebel.” Rather than simply compel attention, contends the U.Va. English professor and author, we should cultivate absorption in ourselves and others through the pursuit of honorable vocations or activities that “intensify one’s connection with what is real with the hope of reshaping it for the better.”
Thomas Pfau, a Duke University literary scholar and author of “Minding the Modern,” aims to establish an art and ethics of attention by considering it not only as the acquisitive mind taking in new perceptions, but as an elective act of engagement, one in which we cannot be indifferent. Lamenting the woeful neglect of arts education in contemporary American schools, Pfau contends that our encounters with art are essential to instilling “generous and engaged habits of visual attention.”
Who owns attention, and how do we exercise and protect our attention rights? asks Malcolm McCullough, a professor of architecture at the University of Michigan. “Much as a citizen has a right to be heard, and not to be silenced or drowned out by more powerful players, so also a citizen has a right to attend, and, just as importantly, to choose not to. This suggests an ownership of attention. A society has a duty to prevent thefts of that.”
In his bibliographic essay on “Minding Our Minds,” executive editor Jay Tolson casts a critical eye on books and articles addressing attention and its connections with wider changes in modern society. Ranging from canonical works by William James and Georg Simmel to modern titles by Neil Postman, Lawrence H. Diller, Evgeny Morozov and Nicholas Carr, Tolson finds that the greatest threats to the integrity of our minds include “ever-rising expectations of individual performance in a fast-moving, highly competitive commercial culture that both cultivates and caters to the citizen-consumer.”
The Notes and Comments section of this issue addresses the Piketty phenomenon, the new anti-intellectualism, the uniquely American epidemic of ADHD and the underappreciated intelligence of those who work with their hands.
The summer issue also takes on other aspects of modern culture. Published three times a year, the Hedgehog Review will look at the challenges of representing the poor in its fall issue (out Nov. 1).