This is a translation of a text by Amador Fernández-Savater, published originally in the Interferencias blog on eldiario.es, 12th April 2019.
Absenteeism: the crisis of attention in contemporary societies
Channel-hopping, multi-tasking, constant scrolling, an intolerance for silence, an inability to recollect or concentrate, chronic distraction and permanent indifference to our immediate surroundings…
These days, we are never just doing what we’re doing.
Is this widespread crisis of attention just one more manifestation of our era’s ‘crisis of presence’? This crisis of presence means a difficulty in accessing an experience of the present. Let’s break this down slowly.
The dominant model for being is that of the ‘achievement subject’: always on the move, available and connected, always managing and updating a ‘human capital’ that is no other than ourselves (our abilities, relationships, our personal brand), obliged to be autonomous, independent and self-sufficient, flexible and without ‘baggage’.
This achievement subject is never just doing what it is doing, but goes beyond that. Beyond oneself, beyond the bonds that tie one down, beyond the situations one inhabits: in constant self-improvement and competition with others, forcing the world to deliver more and more. The present in which one lives is just the means to something else: something better that awaits us afterwards, later on. We believe we are highly atheist, but we live religiously in deferral, bleeding the present dry in sacrifice in the name of a salvation tomorrow.
Today, this achievement subject encounters crisis everywhere, both inside and outside ourselves: social and ecological problems are multiplying, with fissures, breakdowns and malaise in the personal realm (anxiety and panic attacks, tiredness and depression). That is, we are unable to be in accordance with the dominant forms of being. What can be done with such crises?
We can simply seek out ‘prosthetics’ that allow us to paper over the cracks and continue the rhythm of incessant productivity: therapy, pills, mindfulness, narcotics, periods of rest and disconnection for those who can afford it, addictions, compensating affects, the consumption of identities, intensities, relations, and bursts of self-esteem (recognition, likes), etc.
We can turn our suffering against ourselves: self-harm, injury, reactive rage, resentment and the search for a scapegoat, for someone ‘guilty’ of what is happening to us.
We can also look for ways of wiping ourselves off the map. In response to the command of ‘more, always’ given to the achievement subject, we can attempt a radical withdrawal. “Life no longer interests me, it causes me so much harm, and yet I don’t want to die”. David Le Breton calls this state ‘blankness’ [in the original French, blancheur] and surveys the different ways that exist for keeping away from the world so as not to be affected by it: to be no-one, to relinquish all responsibility, to refrain from being exposed, to hibernate, to sleep and maybe dream, but in any case never to be there..
Faced with the self as the always mobilized productive unity: one can disappear. Disappear in a connected room of your own (hikikomori), disappear in an excess of alcohol and speed, disappear into a sect, into anorexia, to disconnect, disaffiliate, abdicate: to cease to be.
‘Blankness’, as a flight to a non-place and an identity strike, is ambivalent: it can become chronic, it can be merely a prosthetic (after a period of disappearance, we come back with our batteries recharged) or it can be perhaps the beginning of resistance and an existential fork in the road.
The crisis of presence is thus circular. There is absence in the hegemonic mode of being: the achievement subject running and running distracted towards something in the beyond. There is absence in the symptoms of how we fail to fit the model: the malaise expressed in attention disorders. There is absence in the answers we develop in response to the damage: the forms of radical anaesthesia and desensitization.
We are not where we are because the world is not where it is either. It is organized from abstract principles that force it from without: performance, capitalization, accumulation. The recovery of attention is inseparable from a broader process of social transformation. From creation -between being and not being, between the productive subject and blankness- of other ways of being in the world. Of being-there, of being present and in the present, of being attentive.
Attention as negative effort
To be present is to be attentive. But, what is attention? To think this through, we need first of all discard the exclusive model of reading: a single, linear activity, concentrated upon a single, solitary task. Reading is one form of attention, but not the exemplar for every kind of attention.
Attention is, first of all, a negative effort: emptying, removing things, de-saturating, suspending, opening up a breach, interrupting… Simone Weil, the thinker par excellence when it comes to attention, was best able to see and explain this.
In a marvelous text, which was intended as inspiration for the teachers and pupils of a Catholic school, Weill says that the development of attention is the true objective of study and not marks, exams, the accumulation of knowledge or results.
Weil distinguishes attention from concentration or willpower: gritting one’s teeth and enduring suffering guarantees nothing to anyone who studies, since learning can be moved by nothing save desire, pleasure and joy. Attention is rather a kind of ‘waiting’ and ’emptying’ which allows the unknown to be welcomed.
To attend is first of all to cease attending to what we supposedly must attend to: to radically halt attention that has been codified, programmed, automated and scripted towards the search for achievements, objectives or performance.
‘Attention consists of suspending thought, in leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding it in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.’
We must empty ourselves at the outset so as to become able to attend (to listen, to receive) to what a given situation proposes and holds in store for us. To empty oneself does not mean forgetting or erasing what has been learned, but rather setting it aside so as to grasp the newness and the singularity of what is on the way.
How might we empty ourselves? Simone Weil encourages us to recognize our own stupidity, to return once and again to our errors so as to lower our pride: pride is an obstacle to learning – it is only those who allow themselves to be ‘humbled’ by what they do not know who are able to learn.
‘The mind should be empty, awaiting, not seeking anything but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it…Thought that rushes ahead fills up prematurely and is no longer available to receive the truth. The cause is always the pretension to be active, the want to search.’
To attend is to learn to wait, a kind of passivity. This is entirely counter to the impulses that dominate us every day: impatience, the compulsive need to give an opinion, to display and defend an identity, a lack of generosity and openness to what someone else is saying, an intolerance towards doubt, the googling and coming up with automatic answers, cliche…
The current blunting of attention is related to these forms of saturation. A good teacher will thus begin by emptying: lowering defences, opening up hearts and spirits, helping to disentangle oneself from one’s own opinions, to develop a liking for exploring the unknown, without fear, or anxiety, and in trust. This attention cannot be ‘taught’, but is rather exercised. It is taught through example and practice.
Attending to what happens
Secondly, attention is the ability to understand what happens. But, what is what happens? At least two things.
On the one hand, what happens is not what we say is happening, what we declare, what we mean, the ideas that we have. We say one thing, and another thing is happening.
What happens is of the order of energies, vibrations, of desire. Desire is widely misunderstood these days as some kind of flighty whim or search for a lacking object, but we will understand it much better if we think of it as a force that sets us in movement, that makes us do, that gives rise. Desire is what happens. Attention, then, is the ability to listen to and follow desire: to attend to it, to invent forms for it so that it happens.
For example, the desire to think in a situation of learning. The desire to give and receive love in an amorous situation. The desire for transformation in a political setting.
To attend to what happens is to understand and light up desire, that by which each person is animated in a classroom, in a relationship, in a revolution. Denise Najmanovich, an Argentinian researcher, tells me that the etymology of attention has to do with tinder, the thing we need to light a flame (and to revive it over and over).
Attention to the rhythm and not only the sign: what happens is not what we say, that which is explicit, codified. Attention to the details: what happens is singular and not a case of a prior series. Attention to the process: what happens varies: it has high and low tides, it is not always the same.
On the other hand, what happens happens ‘between’ us. Attention is not (only) concentration and gathering in oneself, to be concentrated in oneself can be in fact the best way of not paying attention and leaving a situation behind.
In a classroom, in a relationship, in a revolution, attention is attention to the energy that is happening ‘between’ us. A transindividual sensibility.
A ‘convergent’ or ‘ecological’ attention is how Yves Citton describes it in a splendid book on the subject: the attention of one interferes with that of others, we look and we attend to what others look and attend to, each situation is a complex web of links and attention is the ability to perceive this relational web, this system of resonances. Even the most trivial of conversations requires the activation of this convergent attention, if we do not want it to be merely a succession of monologues.
We really are where we are when we are attentive. Close up and involved, vibrating with the energy of the situation – ‘in the groove’, as tennis commentators say about this or that player deeply involved in the match.
We are involved when we are affected by what happens: something touches us, something calls to us, something moves us. What involves us in a situation is of the order of affect. It is not for nothing that Plato said that the good teacher does not teach the object of knowledge, but before anything else a love for the object of knowledge. They are able to affect.
Attention is the necessary faculty for sustaining settings of not knowing, settings that are not organized by a model, a prior code or an algorithm: settings of learning, of love, or struggle. It is the sensitive ability that allows us to read signals that are not codified: energies, vibrations, desire. Without attention, that is, without negative effort and listening to what happens, the situation becomes quickly standardized and a prior image is repeated: a top-down classroom, a conventional couple, a classical politics.
There are no people more intelligent than others, according to philosopher Jacques Rancière, just attention and distraction. There are situations of attention and situations of distraction, situations that activate our attention and situations that extinguish it. Intelligence is attention, stupidity is distraction. We become intelligent when we are inside what we experience and stupid when we go outside of it.
Our world is composed largely of stupefying situations that remove us from the match: situations of representation where we delegate unto others (the media, politicians) our powers of attention, market situations ruled by abstract and homogeneous principles (achievement, profit logic), codified situations where unknown algorithms organize behaviors, choices and tastes.
It remains in our hands to open up singular situations for thought, struggle and creation where we can together become more intelligent by activating attention to what happens among us.
This text is the result of a thousand conversations in the heat of the project ‘Paying attention: the battle for getting into our heads’, with Oier, Rafa, Lilian, Helena, José Ramón y Marino, Diego, Marta and Mari Luz, Miriam, Agustín, Francis and Lucía, Juan, Frauke and friends from the Grupo de Atención de Tabakalera (Donosti)…
Thanks to Élise and John for help with aspects of the translation.