Habits of Attention
We live, it is often asserted, in a uniquely distracted age. Several recent works have sought to contrast contemporary attention deficits to earlier historical moments where vigilance or unitary focus are taken to prevail. This talk will argue, by contrast, that from as early as the early modern period, attention always already was a problem. I trace the ways in which a series of philosophers, experimental scientists and experimental artists (Charles Le Brun, Johann Kaspar Lavatar, Duchenne de Boulogne) sought to ‘fix’ attention as both taxonomic category and practice of directed looking; and the manner in which common sense philosophy (particularly that of Thomas Reid) subsequently reacted against such schemas. By tracing a more subtle dialectic between absorption and dispersal, I claim, this tradition holds hitherto unexplored potential for our current situation.