English 9110

Modernist Forms of Attention

Professor K. Stanley
Full course, Summer 2017.

NB: This course is tentatively set to run on Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 am - 2:30 pm, with a half hour lunch break, from Wednesday 24 May - Wednesday 5 July. Held in Stevenson Hall room 3166.

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. We will then explore how the emergence of a new model of mind in the emerging field of psychology contradicted the discourse of crisis. William James and others elaborated a structure of attention that is defined by its inherent distractibility, but also by its responsiveness to training. In particular, we will pursue his claim that new habits of attention can be cultivated in the process of reading literature. In our approach to elliptical, digressive, elusive, and labyrinthine writings by Henry James, Gertrude Stein, and John Cage we will grapple with some of the following questions: What kind of correlation 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, attention and distraction?

Dr Stanley's tentative syllabus for this course: English 9110. PDF download