learning attention

Here at Baylor’s Honors Program, we offer first year seminars that are meant to introduce our students to the challenges and benefits of honors-level work. I’m going to be teaching one of those next year, and here are some of the possibilities I’ve been considering:

(1) The Two Cultures: C.P. Snow wrote fifty years ago that the sciences and the humanities were drawing farther and farther apart, and that this severance socially dangerous. Was he right? Have things changed since then? If so, for the better or the worse? If there is a gap to be bridged, what can we do to bridge it?

(2) The Future of the Book: With the ever-increasing availability of e-books and other forms of digital reading, are we seeing the imminent demise of the bound-in-paper book, the codex? If so, what effects will the digitization of text have on the reading (and writing, and researching) experience? We’ll investigate these questions with some attention to the history of the codex and especially its role in the shaping of Christian culture.

(3) Attention: Are digital technologies destroying our capacity to pay attention — or are they just changing it, in some ways for the better? In this class we will try to understand what attention is, why it has been thought important in prayer, study, and personal relationships, and how it may best be nurtured as our technological environment changes.

(4) Poetry as Theology: Can poetry not just describe spiritual experience but actually be a way of doing Christian theology? Of seriously contributing to the work of theology? Poets studied will include Dante, John Milton, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, and Gjertrud Schnackenberg, among others.

I asked my current students which they would prefer, and the first option got the most votes. (They also convinced me that the last one would probably be better as an upper-level course.)

I would enjoy teaching any of these, but the one I think is most important is the third. I’m inclined to think that every college should offer a required first-year course on attention and attentiveness. Attention is costly — there’s a reason why we speak of paying attention — and as a resource it is easy to deplete though also renewable. Simply to make students aware of the costs and the renewability would be a major service to them, I think.

prosaics of the digital life

In the best book yet written on my favorite twentieth-century thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin: Creation of a Prosaics, Gary Saul Morson and Caryl Emerson describe the influence of Tolstoy on Bakhtin, especially Tolstoy’s emphasis on the cumulative effect of tiny decisions and thoughts on a person’s whole life. Here’s a key passage:

Levin in Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace have both been troubled by the impossibility of grounding an ethical theory, and therefore of knowing for sure what is right and wrong. On the one hand, absolutist approaches not only proved inadequate to particular situations but also contradicted each other. On the other hand, relativism absurdly denied the meaningfulness of the question and led to a paralyzing indifference. After oscillating between absolutes and absences, they eventually recognize that their mistake lay in presuming that morality is a matter of applying rules and that ethics is a field of systematic knowledge. Both discover that they can make correct moral decisions without a general philosophy. Instead of a system, they come to rely on a moral wisdom derived from living rightly moment to moment and attending carefully to the irreducible particularities of each case.

I think we could say that “attending carefully to the irreducible particularities of each case” more or less is, or at the very least is an absolute precondition of, “living rightly moment to moment.” Ethical action requires such mindfulness, a point that was also essential to the thought of Simone Weil, for whom attentiveness (as she called it) was the touchstone of ethical, intellectual, and spiritual action alike.

We might also connect such mindfulness with my recent reflections on the problem of adherence: the failure to adhere to one’s determinations is at least in part a failure to be fully mindful about what one is doing.

It seems to me that most of our debates about recent digital technologies — about living in a connected state, about being endlessly networked, about becoming functional cyborgs — are afflicted by the same tendency to false systematization that, as Levin and Pierre discover, afflict ethical theory. Perhaps if we really want to learn to think well, and in the end act well, in a hyper-connected environment, we need to stop trying to generalize and instead become more attentive to what we are actually doing, minute by minute, and to the immediate consequences of those acts. (Only after rightly noting the immediate ones can we begin to grasp the more distant and extended ones.)

That is, we need more detailed descriptive accounts of How We Live Now — novelistic accounts, or what Bakhtin would call prosaic accounts. We need a prosaics of the digital life.