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
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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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