Attention! by Joshua Cohen: "Since using the computer, since using the internet, it’s as if my mind itself has evanesced"

In our hypermediated world, where we choose to bestow our attention has become a matter of commercial interest. Joshua Cohen, an American novelist and critic, has drawn up a history of attention in short, attention-grabbing episodes, from the dawn of writ

Attention! A (Short) History
Joshua Cohen
Notting Hill Editions, 239pp, £12

“For some reason, you’re here,” writes Joshua Cohen in Attention! A (Short) History. “In some way, regardless of the way, if you’ve gotten this far, your attention has been apprehended.” To attend to one thing is to deny your attention to other things. In our hypermediated world, where we choose to bestow our attention has become a matter of commercial interest: internet pop-ups clamour on our desktops for our eyes; advertisements punctuate our television viewing. Books in particular have a hard time securing our attention. To read a book is now seen as an investment rather than an escape. To pay attention is to expect something in return.

Cohen, an American novelist and critic, has always been interested in the economies of attentiveness. His previous three novels and four short-story collections are, in various ways, all meditations on our ability to attend. A sprawling yet compelling novel, Witz, about a millennial rapture and the last Jew in the world, demanded close and sustained reading. Four New Messages, a collection of stories that Cohen has called “a series of fables, but not necessarily in a fabular style, about life online”, explored how the internet has affected our attention spans.

In Attention! Cohen starts at the beginning – with the mythical prehistory of attention, emerging from the invention of writing technologies and alphabets (stone tablets, reeds and parchment) – and takes us through the classical, Hebraic and Egyptian traditions to the Renaissance. By the Enlightenment, Cohen argues, you were free to focus your attention wherever you chose, allowing people to attend to themselves for the first time as individuals. “The defining feature of democracy is not the poetry of its liberties,” argues Cohen, “rather it’s that such liberties encourage people to live as though [they were] the heroes of novels, the novels of their lives.”

The most instantly engaging chapters are about the technologies of attention. He’s good on print culture and the way the camera provided new ways of seeing the outsides of people, recording faces so they could be analysed in detail. In the modern era, psychologists reinvented the question of attention, measuring reaction times and comprehension speeds in an attempt to discern whether attention was a function or a state, turning persons into machines in the process. The book ends with a discussion of what Cohen terms “neuroacademia”, drugs and the deleterious affects of the internet: “Since using the computer, since using the internet, it’s as if my mind itself has evanesced,” he writes, “with my mental ligatures, my tropes and types, now not leading my own words so much as following the sentences of others; now not linked to what I mean so much as to what others have meant, and so to what I could or should mean also.”

It is written in short, punchy chapters (the better to apprehend our attention), in a richly layered, machine-gun prose. Cohen is fond of slashes (“With the typewriter, handedness was outsourced/downsized to the fingers . . .”) and nestled parentheses. Structures of thought remain buried until you attend to them and connect the dots. There are plenty of self-conscious flourishes and meta-textual nods-to-camera. “If you’re averse to religion/ myth,” a note under the title of one chapter reads, “skip directly to chapter 4.” Later, Cohen directs us to “the Delphi of the internet” and recommends “a search by author, with the keywords ‘Hyginus’ and ‘Pseudo-Apollodorus.’”

If this all sounds too clever by half, it is – but that’s sort of the point. Cohen’s schoolmasterly mannerisms (asserting dates in brackets; laboriously tracing etymologies) could be annoying in other hands but in Attention! they serve as allies of his argument. You need to concentrate to read this book, Cohen reminds us (there’s even a test at the end), and it demands your attention. Yet it also rewards it fully.

“Since using the computer, since using the internet, it’s as if my mind itself has evanesced.” Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 10 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, G0

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

I’m in the kitchen with my children, finally learning how to sharpen a knife

For some reason, they have often given me sharp things as presents.

The children have been with me quite a bit lately: they are all going to be, by the time you read this, on their travels, and the Hovel is a useful staging-post for the start of their journeys. Staying here means an extra hour in bed when you have to take a coach from Victoria, or a plane from Stansted or, worse, Luton.

Their company never fails to delight, which is not how I imagined things would turn out. I was a surly clock-watcher at my own parents’ home, counting the days until I could cast off the oppressive yoke of having my meals cooked for me and my laundry done. That was how it was back then. Nowadays, parents try to close the gap between themselves and their children or, even if they don’t try, the gap seems to be closing anyway.

I suppose not being in situ for ten years, on the ground doing the daily heavy lifting, helps. I am not the monstrous, Freudian oppressor-figure: I am the messy layabout with a certain weird kind of authority but not one who assumes the moral high ground. But here they are, or were, and as they get older they get increasingly interesting, more pleasing to be with. And the interesting thing is that they now have skills that I can learn. The traffic of instruction is not one-way.

My daughter worked, for a while, in the kitchen of a restaurant in Berlin. She already knew how to cook, and how to get along with people, but there she also learned how to sharpen knives. I thought I could, but I can’t, not at all.

When you see a father – invariably a father – zinging a honing steel along the blade of a knife prior to carving the Sunday roast, he is not doing anything useful apart from establishing a sense of theatre, which is of debatable utility anyway. He might think he’s a cross between Zorro and Anthony Bourdain, the rather cool New York chef – there’s always a certain flourish in the wrist action – but the trained chef will raise an eyebrow.

For some reason my children have often given me sharp things as presents. For my first Christmas in the Hovel they gave me a Swiss Army Knife, which I still use, especially the corkscrew; one birthday they gave me a pizza-cutter in the shape of the original Starship Enterprise – which I still use. And last birthday, the boys clubbed together to get me a proper kitchen knife.

I had hitherto resisted the notion of getting one, despite the fact that I like cooking and also know how important a good knife is. Here is Bourdain himself, writing in his Les Halles Cookbook (the only one I ever use these days): “Your knife, more than any other piece of equipment in the kitchen, is an extension of the self, an expression of your skills, ability, experience, dreams and desires.”

I suppose this was why I put up with rubbish knives for so long: my dreams and desires were second-rate. I was cooking on an electric hob, mostly for myself; besides, I wasn’t going to be here forever. What the hell was I going to do with a decent knife? Also, I have a healthy respect for sharpness, and whenever I cut meat up with a good blade, I imagine that blade cutting into my own weak flesh, and see vividly, the wound it makes.

But a good knife needs to be looked after, and my daughter, who was given a Japanese chef’s knife as a parting gift from her fellow kitchen workers, learned how to use a water stone, and last weekend taught me.

It is fascinating, and soothing, sharpening a knife. You have to gauge the correct angle at which to place the blade against the stone. You have to feel, with the pads of your fingers, the sharpness of the knife itself, and the burr that results on one side of it after a few dozen passes over the stone. One is aware that sharpening is about shaving steel, almost by molecules at a time, a process that has no theoretical end, except when, one day, the knife itself is sharpened to invisibility.

I am reminded of the fabled measure of eternity: the bird who sharpens his beak against the rock of a mile-high mountain once every hundred years. When the mountain is worn down, a mere day of eternity will have passed.

Meanwhile, the daughter passes the knife across the stone, dips her fingers in a bowl of water, sprinkles it over the stone, and repeats the passing. The father sits there, absorbed in her skill, wondering at this inversion of the traditional learning process. “Here,” she says, handing over knife and stone. “You have a go.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder