Saturday, August 14, 2010

Nicholas Dames on Attention and the Future of the Book

Rather than picking a single paragraph (or even a few) from Dames's excellent (and very terse) essay in n+1, I'll just offer the link. It should be read in its entirety. I would phrase a few things differently in terms of tone, perhaps, but his points about how we measure this "decline" we're supposedly in are absolutely what I would have liked to have said when I was talking about Gary Shteyngart and distraction a few weeks ago.

Oh well, I'll grab a specific chunk for highlighting anyway:
[E]ven if one grants that cultural standards of concentration or attention have declined, one has to ask what conditions of life for most individuals (industrialized labor, for a start) make it hard to “attend” to text. The answer is not simply that technologies of text, or literary standards, changed. It is a more complicated and possibly more discouraging picture of the needs and capacities of those outside the boundary of high-literate schooling. As Williams put it: the question isn’t whether ephemeral, fragmented consumption of text or images is a drug of choice for many; it’s what social conditions make such a drug necessary—ways of life that produce no satisfactions, only a momentarily appeasable itch for sensation.
I most certainly agree, although I would probably change the language of narcotics to something that emphasizes the actual social usefulness of this form of consumption, particularly for the class which has undergone "high-literate schooling." "[E]phemeral, fragmented consumption of text or images" are frequently not merely enjoyed in solitude, but are often part of a process of "sharing" in various forms. These forms of communication (Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader/Buzz, etc.) are among the primary means of maintaining a network of friends who may be widely dispersed geographically or even just temporally (i.e., all your friends work crazy hours). And even if they are not, social media memes or items quite often serve as conversation topics "in real life" in much the same way that sports or politics or film do. In fact, I think the analogy is pretty good between those realms and watching YouTube clips or whatever. One watches a sporting event or checks up on the news in part for private enjoyment, but these experiences also are constitutively social, even when they are being enjoyed alone. One expects to talk about sports or about politics or film with one's friends, even if that is not the conscious reason one consumes them.

Assuming that the main purpose of social media is private, individual enjoyment seems like an odd premise, but I find it is often the underlying concern for many attacks on the degradations of our digital life. But the emphasis that Dames (via Williams) makes about the necessity of examining the social conditions which make a given form of consumption necessary or at the very least useful is extremely important to remember.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

Wow, I hadn't thought about what social conditions operate to make short-and-shallow more attractive or even imperative?

Sigh, this from someone who writes long and deep. I'm doomed....