The Chronicle Review

A Crisis of Short Attention Spans, 250 Years Ago

Melinda Beck for The Chronicle Review

January 01, 2017

When most people think of distraction, they think of flooded inboxes, cellphone beeps, Twitter feeds. An ever-present and unavoidable consequence of our fast-paced contemporary world, distraction is cast as a — if not the — mental state of modernity. Whatever came before — childhood, our parents’ generation, the Enlightenment — must have been, it seems, a more attentive age.

Yet even a brief foray into distraction’s history discourages nostalgia about an idyllic past of easy attention, particularly when we consider the history of reading. Rather than a quiet environment in which audiences were always found absorbed, or "lost in a book," 18th-century poets and artists describe reading as occurring amid high cacophony: chamber pots sloshing and street hubbub. John Gay’s poem "Trivia" offers us this soundscape of London street life: "Now industry awakes her busy sons, / Full charg’d with news the breathless hawker runs: / Shops open, coaches roll, carts shake the ground, / And all the streets with passing cries resound." If we complain today of media, and social-media, oversaturation, writers then worried about industrial, vocal, and literary tumult.

Many people both presumed and complained of novels’ unusual ability to capture attention, but fiction competed with a flood of essays, poems, sermons, and histories. The expansion of the book trade inspired a further flourishing of reviews, anthologies, and summaries that were meant to manage this literary surplus but only added to it.

But if inattention was a worry for writers, it also became a literary theme. The diverted narrator of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy won unprecedentedly widespread acclaim with his comical inability to focus. By Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, in 1813, Lydia Bennet is described as having an attention span of no longer than "half a minute." What we see emerging here is an aesthetics of distraction that interweaves market pragmatism, Enlightenment theories of cognition, and literary experimentation.

Managing audience attention became the defining quality of modern authorship. Daniel Defoe’s best seller, Robinson Crusoe (1719), opens by describing its hero’s predisposition for physical and mental wandering, using Crusoe’s confession — "my Head began to be fill’d very early with rambling Thoughts" — as a prompt to narrate his adventures. Satirists such as Jonathan Swift turned the potential of a distracted readership into a springboard for comedy. His "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D." (1739) joked that print overload would render his works outdated before the year was out. Readers looking for his poems will find booksellers have just sent them "with a load of Books, / Last Monday to the pastry-cooks," their pages being ripped out and used to wrap baked goods. Some Enlightenment philosophers theorized that attention was unifocal, distraction merely a straying from the intended, or natural, object of focus. Others subscribed to a multifocal model, which held that attention was inherently multiple and distraction merely a part, or consequence, of the mind’s potentially infinite experiences as the brain processed a plethora of environmental stimuli. The first theory, grounded in an older tradition of religious meditation, emphasized the virtues of paying attention to one thing, and only one thing. It portrayed distraction as a sin, the mind literally wandering from the way of God.

Even a brief foray into distraction's history discourages nostalgia about an idyllic past of easy attention.
The second theory, only fully realized in the Enlightenment, evolved as philosophers from John Locke and Gottfried Leibniz to Eliza Haywood and William Godwin began to redefine attention as a continuing process of coordinating and cognitively orchestrating responses to multiple stimuli. No longer portrayed simply as a wandering from the ideal line of attention, distraction could also be imagined as an idiosyncratic offbeat in time — a potentially productive cognitive pause, or syncopated thought. In 1754, Denis Diderot made a radical claim about the unfocused mind: "Distraction arises from an excellent quality of the understanding, which allows the ideas to strike against, or reawaken one another. It is the opposite of that stupor of attention, which merely rests on, or recycles, the same idea." Rather than signifying a truant mind off path, adrift, or torn, distraction’s multiplicity was reimagined as a spur to creativity.

While Enlightenment philosophers theorized about attention and distraction in the abstract, fiction writers sought to portray these mental states in intricate everyday detail.

In responding to changing beliefs about readers’ focus, authors produced new literary forms — from the rambling, idling personae of Samuel Johnson’s essays to a distraction-conscious chapter title such as "Will Not Tire the Reader" in one of Haywood’s late novels. All were intended to hook and sustain the concentration of an audience believed to have waning attention spans.

Those choices, in turn, shaped audience’s habits of focus. As Clifford Geertz recognized long ago, "art forms generate and regenerate the very subjectivity they pretend only to display. Quartets, still lifes, and cockfights are not merely reflections of a pre-existing sensibility analogically represented; they are positive agents in the creation and maintenance of such a sensibility." Through fiction, the era’s ideas about distraction shaped the layperson’s experience of it.

In many cases, the term continued to refer to madness; if attention, from the Latin ad tendere, "to stretch toward," connoted an active reach of thought, distraction — from dis trahere, "to pull or drag apart" — evoked a mind divided. Used throughout the early modern period to describe divisions of all kinds — warring governments, legally separable property, broken bones, ruptured vessels — it also came to suggest a mind ripped apart at the seams, a meaning that continued into the 18th century.

Yet Enlightenment writers increasingly used the trope of distraction to discuss moments of interrupted, diverted attention, or a characteristic predisposition toward absent-mindedness. The inattentive, scatterbrained characters of 18th-century literature thus present a crucial historical window into today’s ideas about short attention spans, information overload, and divided attention (or multitasking). Debates over focus that began more than 200 years ago — Was distraction a vice or a sign of creativity? Was attention to be defined as focusing on a single object or as successfully juggling many tasks simultaneously? — continue to shape conversations about everything from attention deficit to distracted driving, even influencing contemporary experiments on attention in modern neuroscience. If, as Sianne Ngai argues, modern aesthetic categories like zaniness "revolve around our experience of a zany character," a person "charged with the affective task of activating our sense of humor by being, as it were, ‘a character,’ " the inattentive coquettes and comically digressive narrators of the Enlightenment were also typified by a set of traits whose pseudocomic task was quite serious: to theorize and work through the cultural problems of focus.

As Paul North notes, this interest in "not-thinking" presented a crucial counterpoint to the Enlightenment emphasis on mankind’s value as conscious beings, the cliché of Descartes’ "Cogito, ergo sum." Distraction, as such, represents the tacit rejection of the things everyone was supposed to be paying attention to (the church, the state, the school, the husband). More, it begins to stand in for the many aspects of human behavior — our endlessly misplaced gloves, our half-forgotten sentences, our lost places in a book — that fall outside the parameters of rationality-driven consciousness.

Drawing on such predecessors — a tradition that included Montaigne and Cervantes — 18th-century writers translated the problem of not thinking into a productive literary conceit, drastically expanding the traits of a distracted figure far beyond absent-mindedness. A constellation of works from the second half of the 18th century — Samuel Johnson’s Rambler (1750-52), Eliza Haywood’s The History of Miss Betsy Thoughtless (1751), Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67), William Godwin’s Caleb Williams (1794), and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice illuminate how authors redefined the figure of distraction to include not only a wandering mind but also an addiction to urban novelty and cognitive overload, multitasking, and rapid, scattered flights of thought, even a focus on one thing to the exclusion of all else.

As Tobias Smollett’s curmudgeonly Mr. Bramble complains in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), people are "everywhere, rambling, riding, rolling, rushing, justling, mixing, bouncing, cracking, and crashing in one vile ferment … All is tumult and hurry." Supposedly the city and its inhabitants suffer from a collective "disorder of the brain, that will not suffer them to be at rest."

Such language not only bespeaks Enlightenment philosophy’s widespread belief that environment shaped cognition; it also reflects the broader sense of cultural crowding as well as the discordant blur of aristocratic boundaries in city space. What so bothers Smollett’s misanthropic Bramble is not merely the number or rush of people; it is that the "different departments of life are jumbled together"; the "hod-carrier, the low mechanic, the tapster, the publican, the shop-keeper, the pettifogger, the citizen, and courtier, all tread upon the kibes of one another." The 18th century saw the rise of what we now think of as noise pollution as well as its class-ridden architectural remedy, soundproofing.

In his Illuminations, Walter Benjamin famously claimed that modernity is defined by the reception of "art … in a state of distraction," taking cinema as his central example. Smollett suggests that this state of affairs predated film, and Benjamin, by almost two centuries.

Distraction, of course, is also a form of attention. Drawing the line between attention and distraction often hinged on the social object of focus: What was one attending to? Was it proper or improper, normative or non-normative? To read a sermon, a conduct book, or a famous — particularly a "morally improving" — literary work was, a priori, an act of attention. Reading novels, no matter how absorbing, was just as often codified as distraction. Distraction, in other words, is situational, determined by social and historical context as much as by a specific style of mind.

James Hurdis’s poem "The Village Curate" exemplifies how often attention and distraction were aligned with proper and improper reading. The poetic speaker claims that the muses nurtured his sister’s reading from "attentive childhood’s earliest hour," rendering her "Studious ever." Yet it is only because her concentration is directed toward study, not frivolities, that 18th-century readers could recognize her absorption as focus. Her eye "delighted ever on the page to dwell / Of sweet instruction," that is, not pornography. The "pestilent example[s]" of amatory fiction are diversions from virtue.

Steamy novels — particularly tales of adultery — "inflame" the female mind, risking the overthrow of reason by passion:

The passions heated, reason strives in vain;
Her empire’s lost, and the distracted soul
Becomes the sport of devils, wholly bent

Wound in error, reason falls. No matter how avidly one reads Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, that is, the book is still a distraction.

The definition of attention also intersected with and reinforced social hierarchies: Who was paying attention to whom, and in what context? A lady reading a didactic work for the improvement of her mind might be seen as attentive (though this, of course, depended on one’s view of women and learning). A servant girl sitting on the stairs lost in a novel was more likely to be seen as "distracted" from her work. This power dynamic extended to the term itself: "To attend," like its derivative "attendant," often referred to servants or other subordinates, who were "attending" to, or focusing on, the needs of the upper class.

If hierarchy permeated historical definitions of attention, the advantages of rank and money also privileged the rich in terms of who could "afford" the luxury of admitting to distraction. The peerage and those of the upper echelon were granted more liberty to discuss — or even revel in — their minds’ freedom to wander. In an 1817 letter, Lord Byron glories in his inattention: "I have read [the poem you sent], but not with sufficient attention yet, for I ride about, and lounge, and ponder and — two or three other things; so that my reading is very desultory, and not so attentive as it used to be."

By contrast, when workers spoke of their reading in journals and diaries, they asserted the traditional virtues of unifocal attention, emphasizing the strength and endurance of their focus. One weaver and warehouseman, Samuel Bamford, claimed to "read" Homer’s Iliad "with an absorbed attention which soon enabled me to commit nearly every line to memory."

Distraction and social rank intersected in particularly complex ways around slavery and race. While the trope of the grateful, ever-attentive slave remained powerful, other pro-slavery works, such as Edward Long’s History of Jamaica, increasingly racialized distraction. To justify European colonization, Long suggested that "a want of due industry and attention" prevented the Jamaicans from managing their own land. Carl Linnaeus’s four subcategories of race — Homo sapiens Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus — link not only varying complexions but also cognitive predispositions to each group. Native Americans were "red, ill-tempered," and "obstinate," while Asians were sallow, avaricious, and melancholic (the last often linked to being easily distracted by introversion). At this historical moment, one frequently identified as the origin of modern racism, Linnaeus characterized Africans as "black, relaxed, and negligent" as well as "ruled by caprice," or an all too fickle attention.

These cognitive hierarchies of rank and race in attention theory become still further complicated when linked to systems of gender. Women, in general, were believed to be unusually distraction-prone. Though Eliza Haywood would later turn this stereotype on its head, in The Female Spectator she suggests that women, "by the Texture of the Brain, … are less capable of deep Meditations," because they have a "Multiplicity of volatile Ideas, which, continually wandering, naturally prevent our fixing on any one Thing."

Many early feminists fought this stereotype of the female mind. Much of the rhetorical force behind Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman relies on the idea that cognitive habits of inferiority — particularly habits of focus — were taught:

"Men have various employments and pursuits which engage their attention …, but women, confined to one, and having their thoughts constantly directed to the most insignificant part of themselves, seldom extend their views." Freed from those constraints, their minds, and their powers of concentration, would expand.

Not until George Eliot do we find a woman writer in open acceptance — much less Byronesque celebration — of a scattered mind. In an 1839 letter to her mentor, Maria Lewis, she describes the distractions of her "unsettled … life," despite its chaos, as producing a kaleidoscopic mixture of materials for her to draw on for her writing:

My mind, never of the most highly organized genus … is like a stratum of conglomerated fragments that shews here a jaw and rib of some ponderous quadruped, there a delicate alto-relievo of some fernlike plant, tiny shells, and mysterious nondescripts, encrusted and united with some unvaried and uninteresting but useful stone. [It] presents … an assemblage of disjointed specimens of history, ancient and modern, scraps of poetry picked up from Shakespeare, Cowper, Wordsworth, and Milton, newspaper topics, morsels of Addison and Bacon, Latin verbs, geometry entomology and chemistry, reviews and metaphysics, all [captured] … by the fast thickening every day accession of actual events.

Eliot’s description of her mind as a collection of "disjointed specimens" provides an apt metaphor for distraction’s intricate, seemingly disjointed history. Eighteenth-century definitions reflect a patchwork history, a rich assemblage — "a stratum of conglomerated fragments" — drawn from literature and history, chemistry and math, intermixed in turn with philosophical treatises, journals and diaries, and everyday discussions of distraction’s role in the life of the mind.

That rich assemblage is our literary and scientific heirloom, to be considered, studied, and enjoyed — if we can find the sustained attention to do so.

Natalie M. Phillips is an assistant professor of English and a founder of the Digital Humanities and Literary Cognition Lab at Michigan State University. This essay is adapted from her recent book, Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press).