TL;DR: This Attention Economy Needs Work...
I once tried to watch Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964) for as long as I could. I lasted maybe twenty minutes. The whole eight-hour film is a single shot of the Empire State Building. It got boring, but then a bird flew by and it was like being struck by lightning. One could think of the subject of all Warhol’s art as the act of paying attention.
I was thinking of Warhol while reading Yves Citton’s The Ecology of Attention (Polity, 2017). Warhol is not mentioned in it, but he does cover both ends of the attention problem. On the one hand, Warhol made work that is very demanding of attention; on the other, he got his own image to circulate and attract attention, which he understood as a thing that had value.
He was not the first, of course. Citton begins with Gabriel Tarde, who starts a line of thinking about an economy of visibility whose currency is fame. It became an economy in a double sense, in that fame can be measured, and the attention it garners can be scarce. As the economist Herbert Simon saw it, an increasing wealth of information means a scarcity of something else.
Economists treat attention as a commodity, to be hoarded or strategically acquired. Citton wants to put some critical pressure on that view, by paying attention to what it leaves out. Here he joins a critical tradition whose current exponents include Jonathan Beller, Jonanthan Crary, Franco Berardi, and Bernard Stiegler. Perhaps the design of the attention-gathering apparatus is suboptimal.
Attention is not a new concern. The ancient art of rhetoric was about taking and holding it. Among the moderns, attention to innovation in style has long been a way of renewing attention. One might connect this to the way Sianne Ngai thinks about the aesthetics of the zany, interesting, and cute, each of which draws attention to, and also away, from aspects of modern life, to production, circulation and the commodity, respectively.
Citton offers an attention ecology rather than an attention economy. The latter tends to start with individualized attention as if it always existed, whereas an attention ecology takes an interest also in how attention regimes produce individuals in the first place. This ecology can be rather noisy, more like the turbulent information soup studied by Tiziana Terranova than the simple sender -> receiver of the classic communication diagrams.
One cannot make causal statements about the media any more than one can about the weather. Neither works like a gun or a hypodermic. Media, like weather, may have material, agential, and formal causes, but not final causes. They don’t tend toward goal. And it may help to think more about formal causes a little more than agents or materials. This was McLuhan’s innovation, to think of media as not being about objects or subjects, but forms that shape both. The form of a given media shapes how things can appear to us and what kinds of subjects we can be in regarding them. It is not too far from what Karen Barad calls an agential realism, where the agents are produced retrospectively by an apparatus that assigns them their distinctive identities.
Hence one can think of media as a matter of attending together, where the attention is shaped in particular ways, carving out things to perceive and know, and individuating us into our selves through the act of attention. The feelings I have of a self are cut from the flow of trans-individual affect that may be the main thing media are actually for and about.
A view which sees an ecology — rather than a more restricted economy — of attention might wonder if its working quite as it should. Even assuming we are all the rational actors of economic folklore, one can wonder if we can really attend to what might matter and decide accordingly. Such an optimistic view would depend on us having access to useful information to attend to in the first place. “The rationality of our behavior is constantly jeopardized by the deficiency of the information we have about the environment. In other words: we never have the means to pay enough attention.” (5) Our behaviors are irrational because our actions are constrained by the surreal spectacle to which we are supposed to constantly attend.
An economy attending only to a metrics of attention has no way of measuring or even really knowing what is needed to reproduce the conditions of attentiveness themselves. Bernard Stiegler has a usefully counter-intuitive argument about this: the problem is not that we are narcissistic, but that we are not narcissistic enough. The media ecology is too impoverished to enable us to individuate ourselves from it. We don’t go through Freud’s stage of primary narcissism, from which one might return and get some perspective on the world. Instead, we remain within an undifferentiated and pre-individual state, a group narcissism. In which state we get a bit crazy, trying to both belong and be separate without a primary separation to secure either. For Stiegler (and in a slightly different vein for Berardi) things like mass shootings are symptoms of this failed media ecology. Citton’s diagnosis is a little different but not incompatible.
Citton quotes Paul Valéry: attention is the struggle against entropy. It’s the effort to direct oneself to what matters. And in the process both preserve and adapt the forms of the world. Like Paolo Virno, Citton is interested in clichés, proverbs, habits of speech, or what he calls schemas. These are the collective reserve of accumulated and possible experience that we test and hopefully can modify when they come in contact with new perceptions of the world. I would connect this to what Bogdanov called tektology, which one could see as the organization of collective attention through a self-aware practice of filtering and modifying the schemes or worldviews that our collective labors have inherited from our predecessors.
Like Bogdanov, Citton is interested in something that is at once a politics and an aesthetics of attention. There are four different regimes of attention, of acquired schemas or habits, perhaps even genres. One could call the four regimes: alertness, loyalty, projection, and immersion. Alertness attends to warnings and threats, to what has to be excluded. Loyalty is the opposite pole, in being about trust, mutuality, solidarity, community, to what "binds" us through the long term. Projection is looking outward from the familiar, looking for what is mine or ours. Immersion is allowing the strange or the new to come in.
Immersion fascinates, projection bedazzles, loyalty hypnotizes, alertness excites. One might have need of all four, but the current attention economy privileges some other others. Certain kinds of games, for example, highlight alertness. As does Fox News. A certain kind of art and a certain kind of pedagogy, on the other hand, might try to counter-program with loyalty and immersion, with an acceptance of others and a joint project of new sensation, negotiated via what Ngai calls the interesting, in which the artist eases us towards the new sensation by securing our trust with format that hold and repeat the strange or overlooked elements of the work. Empire might be an example here: repeating the one thing, but gently.
But what’s more common, when it’s not the alert, is projection. Attention economies like us to feel at home, as if the world is no more than our living room with brighter colors. It’s a way of working with the constraint: that our attention is limited but information is abundant. We’re encouraged to see a handful of what in media industry parlance are called "properties" as an extension of home, a landscape onto which to project, populated by a handful of stars and characters.
In Guy Debord or Vilem Flusser there’s the beginnings of a critique of the political economy of stardom. As Debord said, stars model the acceptable range of desires to which one might look. As Flusser saw, the attention paid such objects increases their value. Here I might put more stress on how attention both adds value but may also exhaust it. Baudrillard thought seduction ran a fine line between exposure than concealment. Dominic Pettman thinks we may be over-exposed and have reach peak libido, falling into diminishing returns on visibility.
Citton: “from the moment we start living off visibility, everything that lifts us out of obscurity is worth having.” (50) Attracting attention even starts to appear as an ethical goal. One is supposed to "raise awareness" of worthy goals, and to oneself in the process. As Baudrillard already saw in the seventies, the logic of visibility has its evil side. Acts of terrorism and shooting sprees exploit this same logic of visibility. They are the hideous other side to Debord’s motto of the spectacle: “that which is good, appears; that which appears, is good.”
Citton usefully connects the logic of media as value to finance. The culture industries now work less like manufacturers and more like banks. Their market capitalization is an aggregate of the attention value of the "properties" they claim to own or claim to be able to keep finding and packaging. The culture industry is the finance industry whose financial instruments monetize the unconscious. Where I think we could extend this is by connecting Citton to the work of Randy Martin. Perhaps it is not just that media becomes finance, but finance becomes media.
Financialization might then be just one piece of a transformation of the commodity economy under the control of information. Matteo Pasquinelli draws our attention to prevalence of ternary structures, inserting themselves between information providers and receivers, parasites channeling off a surplus of the flow generated by attention. Which then shape attention in the interests of generating their surplus. This might give rise to whole new categories of political and cultural struggles about the geopolitics of what is visible and not visible, or about what Nick Mirzoeff calls the right to look.
Besides our day-jobs, if we have them, we have a whole other job these days, doing free labor (as Terranova calls it) for Google, Facebook, Snapchat and so on. The culture industries at least let us relax while they did the job of entertaining us. What I call the vulture industries of social media outsource that to us as well. The vulture industries might form a component, alongside finance and some other curiously information controlling businesses — of a distinctive kind of ruling class. Citton uses my term for it: the vectoralist class. A ruling class that concentrates power by controlling stocks, flows and protocols of information, and keeping an information-surplus for itself.
In Citton’s reading, the vectoralist class is more than a power over information. It is a power over attention and visibility — even knowability — as well. Its rise is premised on the digital as the latest wave of what Stiegler calls grammatization. For him, the invention of writing, the seriality of the production line, and digital tech are all part of the same, long, historical phenomenon of grammatization. It reduces the sensory continuum to digital bits, imposing a grammar on their order. It standardizes the world, now including everything from software (Manovich) to urban design (Easterling).
Grammatization leads to information abundance, channeled in vectors of control, but then subject also to ternary forms that interpose themselves between ceaseless information and limited attention spans. One example is Google, whose PageRank algorithm is modeled on academic citation ranking procedures. Another is Facebook, modeled initially on the look-books of elite American universities. They might between them crudely cover the two ternary procedures most common: ranking and rating. The former uses an algorithm to choose what humans want; the latter uses humans to choose what algorithms want. In both cases the attention of the humans is for sale to advertisers.
What results is a fairly novel kind of cultural inequality, not anticipated in Bourdieu’s Distinction. Citton: “What counts… is not whether something gets included (or not): it is being at the height of visibility, right at the top of the first page of search results. The new proletarians are not so much the ‘excluded’ as the ‘relegated.' The organization of our collective digital attention by google structures our field of visibility on the basis of a PRINCIPLE OF PRIORITIZATION: the power of the vectoralist class consists in the organization of priorities, rather than the inclusion or exclusion from the field of visibility…” (71)
Paul Valéry: “attention is vector and potential.” (77) Attention is a pressure, an effort, a conatus — a tendency toward endurance and enhancement. Attention comes from ad-tendere, to tend towards. Citton emphasizes an irreducible, qualitative aspect of attention. What the industries of the vectoral class do is turn the vector into the scalar. But in this media regime, the arrow always has to be measured. An attention ecology is reduced to an attention economy.
Citton: “The vectoralist class is not exploitative because of its ‘power to move anything and everything’ but because of its requirement that ‘value be realized’ in countable terms. Such is THE TRUE CHALLENGE OF THE DIGITAL CULTURES now emerging: how can you take advantage of the vectoral power of the digital without allowing yourself to be inprisoned in the scalar cage of digitalization? Only the art of interference, the elusive art of hackers, can rise to such a challenge – which is at the heart of the attention ecology in the age of its electrification.” (78)
I would take a slightly different view: the problem is not so much that the vector becomes the scalar, that attention has to be measured. The problem might be more what is attended to, and what is measured. Perhaps we could pay attention to what this commodity economy can’t include as something measured, but which is not some ineffable qualitative and vital force. It is rather some quite measurable things whose measure does not compute because it does not take the form of exchange value. That might be one aspect of ecology, for example. Earth science can measure climate change, but this economy can’t really pay attention to it.
So what’s to be done? Citton thinks we can start paying attention to attention itself as something that can be learned, cultivated, practiced, designed, in ways that produce forms of both collective and individuated becoming. To do so involves stepping down a scale, from attention ecologies to forms of joint attention and finally to individuated attention. It is helpful to fixate on neither the big picture or the individual, but to look at what could mediate in-between.
Joint attention could be like Sartre’s being-for-another: I know myself through imagining that others attend to me when I attend to something. I picture my observations as themselves observed. There might be quite a few varieties of this joint attention, particularly when people are in groups. There can be co-attention to the same event, at a concert, or reciprocal attention on the dance floor. We don’t all have to feel the same, but our feeling in joint attention are a continuum, and we usually do our best to harmonize with it. That shared feeling might be the hardest part to capture in a media form. As many have noted, conversations IRL can tamp down potential spirals of anger. Emojis don’t really do the trick.
Teaching situations are full of moments of joint attention going right or going wrong. Teaching can often be a matter of improvising ways of steering attention. Citton follows Cathy Davidson in thinking that if there’s a problem with attention in the classroom, it may not be as simple as blaming the kids or their phones. To isolate one material or agential cause is to miss how it’s a matter of a formal cause, an ecology in which school, teacher, students, and phone are all components. If kids are bored with school, maybe school as to engage them differently, and in more interesting things. Davidson calls this the new three Rs: rigor, relevance, and relationships. Which might be a way of saying that some key things to teach are things about attention itself as a difficult art.
It was sometimes imagined that making learning more "interactive" would make it work better. Citton thinks there’s reasons to retain the masterly as well as the interactive approaches to teaching. It’s a matter of whether its working to focus attention and at the same time convey the art of attention itself. Maybe even the notorious MOOCs might work for certain kinds of learning, if structured around something other than the education tech for the sake of it, saving money, or capitalizing on the prestige of a brand-name university. As Citton suggests, Ranciere’s famous ignorant schoolmaster might not have known the French he was teaching, but he knew how to sculpt attention to it.
There may also be more than one ecology as well. Ecology here seems to me a kind of impossible goal — like justice in Derrida or communicative action in Habermas or the world republic in Karatani — which might either be a regulative ideal or a sort of atemporal presence. Ecology, like God, does not exist. And is probably impossible. Yet it remains in the background. Only there might be more than one ecology. Our visions of it extend out from our actual labors and practices. It looks different depending on to what you attend.
Citton mentions two ecologies: the radical and the managerial. The radical ecology of attention comes out of things like Occupy or Black Lives Matter. It wants to rebuild the whole practice of what can be seen, heard, known, shared, from the ground up. The managerial ecology of attention comes out of things from institutional forms that try to hold the line against the complete subsumption of attention into the regime of exchange value. It operates on a slightly bigger scale but is perhaps less bracing in its ambitions. Citton wants us to attend to both rather than choose between them. After all, part of steering away from attention in the modes of the alertness and projection is to background the habit to digitize, to binarize, to make it all about us or them.
The space for a politics and an art of attention thus covers a range of sites, from the radical to the managerial, and might be about all four forms of attention, but perhaps with a different emphasis. Attention is a form of care, for the defense of the group, but also to maintaining its qualities, stabilizing its habits, and yet open to the new. To pay more attention to the reproduction of abilities is to include things feminism insists are undervalued as they are classified as women’s work. Here we could connect the theme of attention to that of emotional labor. As Hito Steyerl observes of the art world: why does it always fall to women to attend to how everyone feels about the show or the project? To pay more attention to openness to the new is to pay attention to what artists to when they pay attention, and to the things they are trying to show us might be interesting. Warhol, for example.
Where political groups are concerned, attention may be key to avoiding the opposite problems of endless splits and rigid groupthink. If one attends to the trans-individual feelings of a group, one may be able to tune it, without insisting that everyone think or feel the same way. As Anna Tsing has shown, political actions can be successful even with very divergent worldviews involved. This might be a matter of the trans-individual imaginal politics that Chiara Botticci extracts from the psychoanalysis of Castoriadis.
I think Citton rather runs together two other techniques to attention that I would separate: the psychoanalytic and the surrealist. Both are interested in bracketing off the rational content of communication. But I think the psychoanalytic ends up suspecting that there is an underlying form. It is a hermeneutics of suspicion. It attends to what is not said, not shown. What I would call the surrealist is a bit different. It takes place not under the sign of Hermes, always suspecting there is something lacking, as that of Iris, goddess of the iridescent, multi-colored, overflowing excess.
Both might have their uses as ways of practicing an art of attention. Or even of inattention. Perhaps (as Walter Benjamin suggested) there can be an emancipatory distraction, a freedom from what one is supposed to see and where one is supposed to go. The urban arts of the flâneur (and flâneuse) or of the dérive or urban drift come into play here. There are ways of perceiving the city contrary to the habits work and leisure impose upon us, from which to dream of another city for another life.
Citton ends rather than starts with individual attention, as he is interested in asking not how it can be instrumentalized by an attention economy but how it is produced in the first place by an attention ecology. William James: “my experience is what I agree to attend to.” (125) But where did this William James come from and with whom does it think it is agreeing? Philosophies of individual attention have gone through phases, from John Locke and the sensualists who saw psychic attention as passive to romantics for whom it is more active, to the moderns saw it more as physiological and the contemporaries for whom it’s about neuroscience.
Here one could connect this to the history of attention in science, as science studies has examined it. Science used to be a thing a gentleman did, in which he was a modest witness to an observable phenomenon. As the division of labor in science developed, and mere lab technicans read the dials and recorded the results, it was less about a special quality of a gentleman’s perceptions and more about things that could be attended to in standardized ways. But as Donna Haraway and others have noted, attention in science has roots in certain models of male comportment.
The gentleman-scientist was modest in his claims about the world, the gentlewoman was modest in her bodily behavior. One could add here a little about what the well-bred lady was supposed to attend. Religion and family, for example. It’s ironic that while the good novel became a replacement for the Good Book in more recent models of the attentive world for women of a certain class, it was once the bad object. Here one has to enter a skeptical note about how it’s the loss of novel-reading that has destroyed attention. Such claims rarely square with any actual knowledge of media history or the history of the book.
Here Citton is with Katherine Hayles in emphasizing the range of modes of attention book culture afforded. One can concentrate on the novel, or one can skim dictionaries or encyclopedias, or use the index to find related passages in different books. Close reading is not the only attentional skill that has value. The fetish for it as a singular attentive skill might be more about an impoverishment of the arts of attention that goes way back. Like Flusser and Félix Guattari, Citton is not nostalgic, but nor is he an enthusiast for technical solutions to the problem of attention whose main function is to enrich their makers.
What we need then are arts of attention in the plural, ones that counter-program in and against those controlled by the vectoralist class. Citton has a taste for more high art forms, but free jazz is not for everybody. One also needs samplers, selections and compilations for attentional forms that are less specialized. An example of which may be Jill Soloway’s TV version of the novel I Love Dick, which samples attentive forms of the female gaze from video art. It may be no bad thing that popular media includes samples of them. Good popular artists are djs of other people’s attentive inventions.
Returning to the four modes of attention, Citton comes up with a useful shorthand, which to conserve attention I’ll give like this: Projection + loyalty = classical art. Alertness + projection = culture industry. Immersion + alertness = modern art. Loyalty + immersion = arts of interpretation. He suggests we concentrate our efforts in the fourth quarter. One might pursue with some interest how it maps onto how Alex Galloway conceives of the art of the intraface.
There might actually be ways of intervening in all four quadants. Citton mentions two already: the radical and the managerial. Both aim at a certain kind of visibility. A third might be what in The Spectacle of Disintegration I called the art of discretion, which I drew the later work of Guy Debord and Alice Becker-Ho. It’s about ways of being and being concealed at the same time, and legible to those in the know as more than one seems but otherwise incognito. A fourth might be a kind of imaginative and counter-intuitive meme-making, something like Baudrillard’s fatal strategy. It is an inverse and compliment to discretion, a form of seduction. Not a measured concealing but a measured revealing, a revealing precisely of what is hidden. A calling of attention to the place where there’s nothing to which to attend.
If one is to make good art, good politics, or good media, it might help to start with the current attention economy, and a knowledge of its limits. One can make good work in it, but what it will consider good work is what it can measure. One might want to think of the good as another kind of value, or at least another kind of measure.
If one want’s a takeaway, a TL;DR: Attend to the in-between spaces. Avoid the binaries. Observe the connections. And act on them.