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

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The polls appear positive for Remain but below the surface the picture is less rosy

If you take out the effect of the drift towards phone polling, the last month has seen an improvement in the Remain vote of just 1 per cent. 

The last couple of weeks have looked very good for the Remain campaign – the polls have moved in their direction, the media focus has been on their home-ground issue of the economy, and Leave have had to concede the trade argument and move on to something else.

But, beneath the surface, the picture is less bright. Each of those strengths is somewhat illusory.

While the polls appear to have become more positive, most of the change is a result of shifts in what pollsters are doing, not what the people they poll are thinking.

Analysis by Professor John Curtice shows that early in the campaign just 1 in 7 polls was conducted by phone. Now it is up to 1 in 3.

This makes a big difference to how the race appears because phone polls consistently show much bigger Remain leads. If you take out the effect of this drift towards phone polling, the last month has seen an improvement in the Remain vote of just 1 per cent.  Internet polls are still showing a tied race, compared to a 10 point lead for Remain back in February 2015. All the advantages of incumbency and cross-party support are not shifting the numbers.

Remain’s dominance of the media agenda is also more a function of circumstance that it may appear.

Part of it comes through the use of the civil service machine to generate stories, something every incumbent has the right to do. That advantage ends today as election rules kick in which legally prohibit the government from producing pro-Remain news. The civil servants who did everything from crank out Treasury analysis to plug in Barack Obama’s microphone will have to twiddle their thumbs till the end of June.

The other reason Remain was able to keep the focus on the economy was that Leave wanted the spotlight there too. The defining feature of the official leave campaign was its desire to neutralize Remain’s lead on the economy so that people can afford to vote on issues like immigration and sovereignty.

Leave have clearly failed in that aim. Their pro-trade arguments ran aground when President Obama said a post-Brexit Britain would be ‘at the back of the queue’ for such deals, and they have not found a way back. Remain have restored their dominance of the economy, which for a time looked shaky. Just as importantly, the proportion who say the economy is key to their decision is up 17 points since February, and it now outranks immigration in Comres’ data.

The question is whether that increased salience of the economy will persist or not.

The next few weeks will not see the same convergence of agenda. Leave were always going to focus on immigration at the end of the campaign. They hoped to do that from a position of strength but they will be doing it out of weakness - either way, the effect is the same.

The palate of issues is about to broaden. Broadcasters will no longer be able to run a single story saying “today Remain said leaving was bad for the economy, while Leave said it wasn’t”. Instead the news will have to balance a range of issues including immigration – and so the terrain will shift to help Leave.

Remain have done nothing to try and close down Leave’s strongest issues, and now it is too late. Their plan from here on in has to be to try and make risk, and in particular economic risk, the only thing at the front of voters’ minds.

The next few weeks will be the real test for both campaigns. If Remain can keep the focus on the economy, they should glide home comfortably, and their media team will deserve enormous praise. But if Leave can shift the agenda, perhaps aided by incidents that inflame the tabloids and force broadcasters to pay attention to the issue in the same way voters do, then things could still move towards Brexit.

James Morris is a partner at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner and worked as a pollster for Ed Miliband during his time as Labour leader.