Sustaining Attention

To start, three short vignettes on attention:

  1. Like many of us, My Esteemed Partner and I were surprised when Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce was named the number one film of all time by Sight & Sound — not least because we had never heard of it! We quickly corrected the oversight and found ourselves absolutely spellbound. We felt we could watch her do chores all day long, becoming deeply invested in the small changes to her routine — setting us up for the director to thwart our curiosity. We are normally impatient with films over two hours, but we were strangely disappointed that this one was only three hours long — we could have easily gone for another hour. And it struck me that, aside from its intrinsic merits, this was precisely the film to elevate in this historical moment, because it showcases the habits of attention that only cinema can truly cultivate.
  2. Over winter break, I like to read a “big novel” whenever possible. The past few years, I have been working my way through Pynchon, but this year I decided to do something a little more traditional: Middlemarch, that behemoth of the Victorian era. I started off reading it in fits and starts, but as soon as my schedule cleared up for a few days, I realized it was now or never and spent whole days reading — for the first time in years, maybe even since grad school. It took me a day or so to hit my stride, but by the final day, I was reading hundreds of pages. And I was attentive! If I caught myself scanning or skipping, I went back. It was incredibly rewarding. And it strikes me that it’s a rare enough experience for someone of my age cohort, but that it may feel almost completely impossible to my students, who have trouble focusing on a reading of more than ten pages, regardless of difficulty. But then I can hardly blame them, because outside of this incredible feat, I rarely read for more than 20 minutes straight without looking at my phone.
  3. This weekend, we went to the symphony. It was a pretty accessible program: Prokofiev’s “Classical” Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s Paganini variations and Symphonic Dances. The couple behind us were obviously radical newbies — not just to the symphony but to classical music in general. This had happened to us before, when we happened to sit next to a young woman who asked where to find the “set list” in the program and then writhed in agony through a 70-minute Bruckner symphony. But even after 15 minutes of the Prokofiev, our new friends seemed impatient. The sheer virtuosity of the piano performance placated them for a time, but by the end of the third piece, they seemed unable to resist whispering to each other. I was annoyed — it was a piece I had purposefully planned to hear for the first time in live performance, and they were breaking my concentration — but I was also sympathetic. I remembered the struggle of My Esteemed Partner to figure out how to cope with the demands of classical music when we first started going regularly, and I had to admit that even I sometimes wondered whether those demands were exhorbitant — I was not suffering as much as the hapless newbie, but I became extremely impatient with the Bruckner myself.

These three stories seem to me to point in a similar direction — toward the collapse of a certain regime of attention. In all three cases, we are dealing with a classically modern genre that is conceived as a kind of paradoxical mass solitude. We all file into the concert hall or movie theater, we all buy the mass-produced novel everyone is talking about — and we enjoy it alone, together. Western classical music has made high claims for itself over the centuries, but one area where it is surely an outlier among world musical traditions is in its near-total prohibition of audience participation. It contributed its full range of techniques for emotional manipulation to Its bag of tricks for emotional manipulation was selectively looted by cinema, which is now the dominant venue for orchestral music, and its successor artform also inherited the expectation — though not always the reality — of a passive, endlessly attentive audience. The horror and disgust that some filmmakers have expressed about the idea of watching a film on a phone (a prospect I also find unappealing) surely is not solely about the diminished screen size, but also about the expectation of attention.

As an educator and simply as a human being, I mourn for the loss of a cultural expectation of this kind of sustained attention. Truly great artworks and monuments of thought are becoming inaccessible in a way that will become increasingly difficult to overcome. That is a loss to humanity, full stop. But the entire regime of attention — deployed in obviously positive ways by Eliot and Akerman, and in an enjoyably harmless way by Rachmaninoff — was much more ambivalent than contemporary jeremiads against social media and mass distraction want to admit. There is obviously an authoritarian element to the high modern demand for endless attention, and it’s not clear to me that an easily-distracted population is easier to control than one disciplined by habits of sustained attention — I would compare my virtually non-existent discipline problems in the college classroom with those of a grade-school teacher, for instance.

This is not to say that it’s subversive to constantly look down at your phone or whatever. Yet we might observe that contemporary media effectively demand just as much sustained attention as the classic modern genres — social media doomscrolling and especially video games are intensely immersive and often transfix their users for many hours at a time. Meme culture certainly has its own complexity, including a (self-)referentiality that could put T.S. Eliot to shame, and people make high claims for the storytelling power of video games. What the user is supposed to do with this sustained attention is obviously different from the classically modern demand to cultivate subjective inwardness, above all in the expectation of audience participation (in the form of contributing content, rating others’ content, and, well, playing the game). The greater interactivity and user control has also, paradoxically, meant that I could easily get my wish of a four-hour film — but instead of Jeanne Dielman, it would be The Batman.

My empathy for those trapped in the new regime — including, at least in part, myself — is not oriented toward surrender, much less celebration. I really do want to find a way to usher at least some of my students into the best experiences of the old regime. Surely part of that means finding points of contact between the two regimes, but that always risks feeling like the classic Steve Buscemi meme. More than that, I wonder if the key is to model enjoyment — which might mean cutting down or changing the “canon” of works we highlight, for instance, so that the hypnotizing Jeanne Dielman replaces the “I guess you had to be there” Citizen Kane. One benefit of the passing of the old regime is that we no longer have to pretend that it fulfilled its promises all the time — the waning hegemony of the genre undercuts a certain amount of “affirmative action” for its less distinguished practitioners.

Ultimately, the true greats are going to be fine. They will find their audience. As someone whose professional calling turns out to be the curation and transmission of the cultural heritage, though, I want to find as many ways as possible to welcome people into that audience — in a non-patronizing, non-judgmental way. And my God, no Bruckner! What is he even thinking? There is no musical reason for all that repetition! Agony, pure agony!

6 thoughts on “Sustaining Attention

  1. I realize this is just a passing hyperbole, but it’s really not true that classical music
    “contributed its full range of techniques for emotional manipulation to cinema”. This becomes obvious if you listen to a soundtrack without the movie — it’s very thin stuff, and doesn’t build rewarding forms. Our favorite larger structures and cumulative payoffs don’t exist in movie music. (Precisely because the heart of your attention is supposed to be elsewhere.)

    Also, of course, classical music is no more emotionally manipulative than any other kind of music. Nor any less.

  2. Bruckner may have written the same symphony nine times – but his Eighth stab at it will remain part of my canon anyway. It’s one of the handful of symphonic works that I hope to see in concert someday, along with Ives’ Fourth and Janacek’s Sinfonietta.

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