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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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