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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Are the Conservatives getting ready to learn to love the EEA?

You can see the shape of the deal that the right would accept. 

In an early morning address aimed half reassuring the markets and half at salvaging his own legacy, George Osborne set out the government’s stall.

The difficulty was that the two halves were hard to reconcile. Talk of “fixing the roof” and getting Britain’s finances in control, an established part of Treasury setpieces under Osborne, are usually merely wrong. With the prospect of further downgrades in Britain’s credit rating and thus its ability to borrow cheaply, the £1.6 trillion that Britain still owes and the country’s deficit in day-to-day spending, they acquired a fresh layer of black humour. It made for uneasy listening.

But more importantly, it offered further signs of what post-Brexit deal the Conservatives will attempt to strike. Boris Johnson, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership, set out the deal he wants in his Telegraph column: British access to the single market, free movement of British workers within the European Union but border control for workers from the EU within Britain.

There is no chance of that deal – in fact, reading Johnson’s Telegraph column called to mind the exasperated response that Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal and a supporter of a Remain vote, gave upon hearing that one of his players wanted to move to Real Madrid: “It's like you wanting to marry Miss World and she doesn't want you, what can I do about it? I can try to help you, but if she does not want to marry you what can I do?”

But Osborne, who has yet to rule out a bid for the top job and confirmed his intention to serve in the post-Cameron government, hinted at the deal that seems most likely – or, at least, the most optimistic: one that keeps Britain in the single market and therefore protects Britain’s financial services and manufacturing sectors.

For the Conservatives, you can see how such a deal might not prove electorally disastrous – it would allow them to maintain the idea with its own voters that they had voted for greater “sovereignty” while maintaining their easy continental holidays, au pairs and access to the Erasmus scheme.  They might be able to secure a few votes from relieved supporters of Remain who backed the Liberal Democrats or Labour at the last election – but, in any case, you can see how a deal of that kind would be sellable to their coalition of the vote. For Johnson, further disillusionment and anger among the voters of Sunderland, Hull and so on are a price that a Tory government can happily pay – and indeed, has, during both of the Conservatives’ recent long stays in government from 1951 to 1964 and from 1979 to 1997.

It feels unlikely that it will be a price that those Labour voters who backed a Leave vote – or the ethnic and social minorities that may take the blame – can happily pay.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.