Professor Kate Stanley
Summer 2014, Full Course.
In an era of accelerating technological change, a contemporary culture of distraction is routinely decried. And yet, declarations of a “crisis of attention” are nothing new. In this course, we will trace a longer history of debate revolving around two defining poles of modern experience: the ideal of focused concentration and the lure of diversion. We will begin by surveying a range of commentators who attributed an ever-increasing dispersal of attention to the rapid speed of urban and industrial development at the turn of the twentieth century. At the same time, we will explore how the emergence of a new model of mind in the burgeoning field of psychology contradicted the discourse of crisis. William James, John Dewey, and others elaborated a structure of attention that is defined by its inherent distractibility, but also by its responsiveness to training. The class’s energies will be devoted to pursuing James and Dewey’s suggestion that new habits of attention can be cultivated in the process of reading literature. In our approach to variously elliptical, digressive, repetitive, telegraphic, and labyrinthine writings by André Breton, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, William Carlos Williams, and John Cage, among others, we will grapple with some of the following questions: What kind of correlations might be drawn between a reader’s capacity for absorbed concentration and the perceived difficulty of a literary work? To what extent can readerly attention be historicized? What factors shape reading responses like boredom and interest? How do critical approaches like “close” and “distant” reading inflect the relationship between attention and distraction? In these lines of inquiry we will be guided by critics and theorists including Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, William Empson, Franco Moretti, Joan Retallack, Jonathan Crary, and Adam Phillips.