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We literature scholars rarely have much formal training in the social science of institutions. Nonetheless, most of us have thought about the questions that were on Heller’s mind, as he discovered when he visited James Shapiro, a distinguished scholar of early modern literature, in Shapiro’s office at Columbia University. Shapiro reminded Heller that legislatures have been slashing higher-education budgets for decades, pushing colleges to behave more like businesses while driving students deeper into debt. But Shapiro also had another story to tell, emphasizing a different aspect of the crisis.
“Technology in the last 20 years has changed all of us,” Shapiro observed. As people became addicted to networked devices, as their work email and social-media notifications started lighting up their screens at all hours of the day and night, they were losing their ability to read literature in a sustained way. At this point, Shapiro was not talking about defunding. He was talking about distraction.
While the story of government’s divestment from public goods is a bleak ledger, dealing with money and political interests, the story of distraction often feels livelier, more like a moral drama, a tale of spiritual decay and lapsing self-control. Heller’s article features a melodramatic interlude in which Shapiro, a Shakespearean, “waggled” his own iPhone “disdainfully” while he described digital devices overwhelming the population’s willpower. Even “people who like to think of themselves as cultured,” Shapiro said — even people like him — “cannot! Stop! Themselves!” The monologue is part confession, part jeremiad.
It also follows a familiar script. Many instructors in the humanities have expressed the same concerns about attention spans. In a 2007 PMLA essay, the media theorist N. Katherine Hayles analyzed a “generational divide in cognitive modes” separating faculty from their students. The generations that came of age before the internet, Hayles proposed, had acquired habits of “deep attention.” This was the style of focus traditionally exercised in the humanities, especially in formalist approaches, where interpreters had to concentrate in a sustained way on a painting or a poem.
As the new millennium approached, however, habits of attention started changing fast. A generation raised on digital media became accustomed to what Hayles calls “hyper attention.” She saw students “switching rapidly among different tasks, preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom.” If academic humanists would open our eyes, Hayles tried to warn us, “we would expect a crisis.”
Worries about distraction are everywhere, not just in colleges. But teachers and scholars in the humanities tend to see young people’s distractedness in a special way, as a problem for our own work. In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations (2008), the philosopher Bernard Stiegler described “the destruction of attention” by commercial media as nothing less than “a destruction of the individual that education has constructed.” What teachers used to build up, technology is breaking down.
And education, in turn, tries to rebuild. I teach American literature in two settings. One is a wealthy private university in a liberal state, relatively insulated from the attacks of right-wing legislatures. The other is a high-security men’s prison, the kind of public institution now receiving much of the public funding that used to go to schools. As the distractions around my students multiply, they struggle to stay with their reading. At the same time, many of them also say that they like taking humanities classes for just this reason — because our disciplines invite them to devote a rare kind of sustained attention to the things we study.
In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, the columnist Ross Douthat advises academic humanists to adopt a “proudly reactionary” stance against today’s attention economy. If you are a humanities faculty, according to Douthat, you should be “banishing every token of the digital age from classrooms and libraries, shutting out the internet, offering your work much more as an initiation into mysteries, a plunge into the very depths.” Give up your embarrassing bids for relevance. You should be modeling yourselves on monks.
Meanwhile, what happens to Shapiro’s other, colder question, the one about public budgets? As we try to cultivate better habits of attention in our students and ourselves, where do politics come in? We humanists have some good intellectual resources for thinking about consciousness; we know how to talk about individual minds, with all of their complexities and contradictions. And so we are given to seeing the problem of distraction as a private matter, to be addressed by way of the psyche, rather than the economic structure. Thinking about the moral drama of distraction brings some aspects of the crisis into focus, but it also narrows our perspective. To understand what we gain and what we lose by framing the problem in this way, at this small scale, it is useful to take a longer historical view.
Their attention veers from point to point, under these influences, as the weathercock obeys the varying wind. Nor do they seem to feel any sense of degradation in being compelled to follow whatever thus most powerfully solicits them, as if they were led by a chain.
McIlvaine imagined the effects of distraction with lurid vividness. He believed that guarding the population against manipulation by his era’s mass media required a careful selection of reading materials. It also called for a strong exercise of personal will. McIlvaine titled his remarks “A Discourse Upon the Power of Voluntary Attention.”
In the 19th century, as in our own time, new economic forces and technologies provoked widespread anxieties about distraction. The earlier situation was not identical to ours, of course. Nineteenth-century Americans were not expected to be available to their bosses 24 hours a day via digital communications, and no social-media algorithms ensnared them into constant loops of virtual interaction. But the industrial market economy that was taking shape around them did make new, accelerating demands on their attention — new work schedules, an expanding commodity marketplace, speculative booms and crashes. Along with ministers like McIlvaine, who sensed a far-reaching crisis of faith, many other observers began to suspect that industrial machinery and market capitalism were re-engineering people’s minds.
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys,” as Henry David Thoreau put it in Walden, “which distract our attention from serious things.” And if we have been “desecrated” by allowing ourselves to become distracted, Thoreau explained in his essay “Life without Principle,” then “the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves.” The modern economy’s constant compulsion to produce and buy commodities for someone else’s profit made Thoreau uneasy; his famous retreat to Walden was, in part, an attempt to break those bad mental habits.
A society that was becoming more committed to making and spending money was also creating semi-private settings for deep attention.
Thoreau was working on himself, a fact for which he has been both admired and dismissed. Many of his contemporaries played more paternalistic roles, trying to retrain the frazzled minds of other vulnerable people, especially children. Nineteenth-century reformers developed a whole range of spiritual exercises and rehabilitation regimens to mitigate distraction. The writer and educator Elizabeth Palmer Peabody defined “the cultivation of attention as a moral duty” in New England’s classrooms. The schoolmaster William Watkins, who founded Watkins’s Academy for Negro Youth in Baltimore in the 1820s, insisted that intellectual education had to be supplemented by strong moral training, so that students could learn to screen out harmful distractions. While 19th-century reformers expanded the nation’s school systems, they also established its first juvenile reformatories, often choosing rustic sites that looked a lot like Thoreau’s patch of woods at Walden Pond.
The reformers hoping to develop such disciplines of attention drew from much older ways of thinking about distraction. Over thousands of years, philosophers and religious mystics had developed traditions of spiritual exercises, designed to detach their minds from ephemeral temptations so that they could pay attention to higher, more enduring things. The stoics and seekers of ancient times tended to see the lapsing of attention as an inherent weakness of human nature.
In the 19th century, however, people who cared about distraction started tracing its origins to new kinds of forces. They began to understand distraction in something like the way we do now, as an unnatural effect of their modernity. Rather than pointing the finger at the devil or their own fallen nature, they blamed the media, the marketplace, machines. In other words, they found the true sources of their distraction in their society’s economic imperatives and its technological infrastructure.
Still, even the 19th century’s most self-consciously modern reformers usually proposed to save attention in the old-fashioned way, with personal disciplines. Rattled by new systems of production and consumption, they drew from the cultural resources available to them, especially from religion, moral philosophy, and literature. Some writers who practiced and promoted disciplines of attention were fierce critics of industrial market capitalism; even so, they tended to recast large-scale economic and political problems as a moral one.
And so a society that was becoming more openly committed to making and spending money as fast as it could was also creating semi-private settings for deep attention. Its most influential thinkers could only really imagine treating distraction with pastoral regimens of self-culture and rehabilitation. They proposed a simplified life in the woods or, on the other side of power, a term in the state reformatory. This was how they hoped that their cultural work — the disciplines of reading, writing, and teaching — could make some difference in their era’s history. This is the predicament that we humanists inherit from them, unresolved.
In this spirit, some critics have reframed the problem of widespread distraction as an opportunity. Maybe, they suggest, distraction does not just pose a threat to old-fashioned fields of study. Maybe it also provides new ways of valuing the habits and skills that such disciplines have to offer. The art historian Jennifer Roberts, for instance, represents the classroom as a space providing “opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.” Roberts explains that “these are the kind of practices that now most need to be actively engineered by faculty, because they are no longer available ‘in nature,’ as it were.” Maybe our seminar rooms and libraries can become therapeutic settings for rehabilitating young people’s distracted minds, along with our own.
Today, as in the 19th century, the program for attentiveness sometimes goes beyond such therapeutic aspirations, into ethical and even spiritual ones. In a recent book called Devotion: Three Inquiries in Religion, Literature, and the Political Imagination, the scholars Constance M. Furey, Sarah Hammerschlag, and Amy Hollywood advocate reviving modes of attention that they find in spiritual traditions. “Reading is a form of interconnectedness that can itself be transformative,” they write. “It can amplify and sometimes alter our vision of reality, focus our attention on how we relate to one another, and, indeed, bring new modes of sociality into being.” The authors hope that practices of attention might come out of the cloister, back into the social world, though they remain nonspecific about what the “new modes” might look like in practice.
In literary criticism, too, attention has become a keyword, central to our methodological debates. Some of the most strident calls for sustained readerly concentration come from critics working in the mode known as “postcritique.” These critics seek alternatives to critique — that is, to the Marxist, Nietzschean, and psychoanalytic approaches which, in their view, dominated the humanities during the 1980s and ‘90s. From a postcritical orientation, questions of power can look like distractions from the text itself. Rather than seeking to expose an artwork’s complicity in capitalist systems of exploitation, postcritique sees itself cultivating a more open, more ethical relation to its objects of study.
Describing its methods as particular styles of “reading” — reparative reading, surface reading, affirmative reading, and so on — postcritique often imagines the practice of literary criticism as a single, sustained encounter between an attentive mind and its chosen object. In their widely cited introduction to a 2009 special issue of Representations, for example, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus explicitly describe their preferred approach in these terms: “Many dismiss surface reading as obvious, but find themselves unable to sustain the slow pace, receptiveness, and fixed attention it requires.” Surface reading, like other disciplines of attention, requires the steady will to overcome distraction.
In his New Yorker article about the declining English major, Heller draws on another of postcritique’s most prominent champions, Rita Felski, to suggest that critical theorists’ attempts to “disenchant” readers have had the self-defeating consequence of deadening students’ interest in literature altogether. Why would anyone spend their precious time with a poem just to discover that its politics are rotten? Heller understands Felski to be calling for a return to “moving literary encounters.” Rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion, a revival of love.
In these new polemics, an old pattern repeats itself. Even when critics acknowledge that large-scale economic and technological changes are causing widespread distraction, they are also quick to treat distraction as a private, personal kind of damage to the individual mind. Seen this way, distraction becomes a problem that we academic humanists can picture ourselves redressing, if not solving, simply by continuing to do the work that we have trained for — that is, our specialist work of reading, writing, and teaching. These are the things that we’ve been doing all along.
In The Ruses of Repair: U.S. Neoliberal Empire and the Turn From Critique, Patricia Stuelke goes even further. Stuelke describes postcritical reading practices as nothing more than a set of “coping mechanisms” in a time of political catastrophe. Postcritique, she argues, is depoliticizing; it retreats from the arena of collective struggles into the sanctuary of private feeling. While the world burns all around them, readers give up thinking about the politics behind the budget. They settle for the soothing, therapeutic consolation of attentiveness.
What is the alternative, the way out of such politically neutralizing self-absorption? As Stuelke explains her own methods and norms, she ends up returning to one of postcritique’s favorite keywords. Analyzing the “ever-shifting violent structures whose nuances must be perpetually, collectively apprehended if they are ever to be destroyed,” Stuelke writes, calls for “a deliberate exercise of attention.” No scholarly book or article on its own, not even the most politically engaged, can intervene in politics except by way of readers’ sensibilities. And so critique, no less than postcritique, defines its own endeavor as attention work.
Over the course of a long history, disciplines of attention have been put to many different uses. Sometimes they become techniques of labor management, like workplace mindfulness, or just another market commodity, and so they get conscripted by the very economic forces that have caused so much distraction. Sometimes disciplines of attention reorient people away from the marketplace, toward political action from the radical to the reactionary. For the critical humanities, then, the real task is not to take a side either for or against attention as such. Instead, we need to distinguish between better and worse practices; to explore how attention might be brought to bear on the real sources of distraction; and to ask how discipline might be devoted to projects of economic and social, not just personal, transformation. Along these lines, the problem of distraction and the problem of defunding reconverge.
It is easy for instructors to blame students for not paying attention, or for critics to accuse each other of squandering attention on the wrong things. But the real sources of distractedness are in economic and technological conditions, not moral lapses. These conditions now include the gig economy, the privatization of care, exploitive markets in credit and debt, our 24-hour availability to advertisers and employers, and sophisticated digital algorithms that traffic in our interaction. The so-called casualization of labor and the expansion of consumer options mean that people have less, not more, control over their time. To restore better capacities of attention, we would have to change those conditions, redistributing resources on a large scale. Our critical practices — reading, writing, and teaching — cannot themselves enact such transformations. They can orient us toward the work.
Parts of this essay have been adapted from Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture (Princeton, 2023).