A Continuum of Human Entrainment: Expanding “Attention”

The paper I gave at CUNY’s recent and incredible conference, Mattering: Feminism, Science and Materialism, took up the biopolitics of ADHD and its treatment in children, making transversal connections through feminist theory, science and tech studies, philosophy, psychopharmacology, and neurobiology to diagram attention’s contemporary mutations from what N. Katherine Hayles has helpfully organized under the rubrics of “deep attention” versus “hyperattention.”  Taking drugs like Ritalin and Adderall as my technoscientific focus, I made an initial argument for diverging from the homeostatic conception of the body’s capacity for attention that reinforces the idea that deep attention is either natural, normal, or even preferable, or that it is always even distinct from hyperattention.  Rather, deep attention seems to me to be such a complicated and historically contingent expression of the post-Enlightenment West that to make normative statements as to its definition and value are always already premature.

Attention

In the generative Q&A that followed the panel on which I presented this paper, discussion shifted to reframing “attention” itself.  The contributions on the panel and in the audience, in particular, John Protevi, Karen Barad, and Claudia Castañeda, were thought-provoking.  Since then, I’ve been thinking about how to recontextualize “attention” in a continuum of human entrainment that is historically and technologically contingent, but that also continues the work of disrupting homeostatic models of the human that make techno-modulation of the body a fall from some imagined orignal, integral human body.

Preliminarily, I want to expand the concept “attention” beyond the cognitive.  Rachel Weitzenkorn’s paper on our panel, which took up neuroscientific research on the brain’s “resting state,” for instance, made the important point that attention is conceived of in that field as purely cognitive and action-oriented, something that scans of the brain “at rest” are only now confounding.  Cognition alone, in any case, is wildly insufficient to thinking attention, even in the case of ADHD in kids, where the amphetamine class of drugs used to treat this loosely defined behavioral disorder are explicitly lauded for their calming effects on embodiment, reducing hyperactivity.

I think attention should be enlarged to include embodied physical forms of action and inaction, as well as modulations of affectivity, in addition to cognition.  In fact, if the continuum I am going to propose in a moment runs from the physical to the affective to the cognitive in emphasis, there are clear transductive relations between all three in any administration of the human body’s capacity for attention, whether at the individual or population level.  This is part of the project of the entrainment of the body and mind together, not separately.

The continuum of entrainment through attention would run somewhat thusly:

Embodied Attention—————-Harnessing Affectivity—————-Cognitive Attention
(military training                           (the transmission of affect                 (education
organized sports                             political demos/protest                     ADHD/drugs)
athletic training)                            concerts and performances)

Entrainment can of course be traced back in the West to the Greek city states (Protevi’s work certainly does that in the case of the army).  It became associated with what we trade in, through Foucault, as “disciplinary” modes of subjectification in European modernity and through the colonial project from the 18th to 19th centuries.  In our present, the biocapitalization of the body’s embodied, affective, and cognitive capacities is laminating discipline with a set of less clearly subjective modes of attention capture.  It is only in this context that children can be prescribed Ritalin to improve their grades in an education system devastated by neoliberal disinvestment, or Facebook can generate profit off of you taking the time to like something.

I also want to emphasize that this conception of attention should dispense with a mind-body dualism by offering affect as the vector that directly connects the social with the somatic (since we are dealing with entrainment as a social technology).  The continuum is in no way linear, despite my graphic representation of it above.  Rather, affect as the capacity to affect and be affected concerns equally a drafted soldier learning how to march, a hockey player learning how to anticipate the movement of the puck and other players on the ice without having to think about it, the concert-goer who is able to dance in unison with thousands of faceless bodies, the occupier who feels a sense of collectivity through chanting, and the child taking Ritalin to help focus on what the teacher is writing on the blackboard.
             

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