Giving attention

I’ve linked to Michael Sacasas’ newsletter, the Convivial Society, before. It’s a great read, and so it’s no surprise that this interview with him on the Grey Area is also full of insight.

Whilst he and the interviewer, Sean Illing, talk about attention in the context of technology, society and human relations, I think it is also useful to think about attention as an artist.

So I’m going to dig into it here, and try to pull out the themes that, ahem, caught my attention. Forgive the extended quotes (made possible by the transcripts they provide).

You can find the podcast here: The power of attention in a world of distraction.

Readiness to perceive

This idea of attention, as a readiness, is particularly important for the photographer – someone who has to be open to what the world offers, and not come to it with their own expectations:

Michael: I think of at least two ways of understanding what we mean when we say attention, right? 

So the most obvious way is what most of us immediately sort of intuit, right? That it’s focus, is this kind of idea of a search light that our mind focuses on some object, not entirely always outside of it, right? … I try to also think about attention as something like a kind of openness to experience where I’m – I’m not looking for anything, but I’m ready to receive something. It’s more of a contemplative stance towards my experience, and I think that’s also an interesting way of thinking about attention.

So both what goes out and seeks for something with a measure of focus, but also a readiness to perceive what is there, an openness to our experience to the world beyond our heads.

Sean: Yeah, that second sense, that’s, that’s the understanding of attention that is more interesting to me and less pondered over. You know, it’s almost attentiveness as an orientation toward the world and, and other people, you know, not just this innate capacity that we carry with us that we can deploy on a whim.

Being attentive is moving through the world in a constant state of openness, but even that, Almost sounds too passive, right? I mean, it’s not just about being open, it’s also about being willing, as you’ve put it, it’s about stretching yourself toward reaching out, tending to the things in front of you, not just being this kind of vessel willing to receive.

It’s this combination of being open, but also active.

Attending to somebody

I love the way that words carry, but also hide meaning. To pay attention sounds like a transaction. To attend to someone sounds like care. To give attention sounds like love.

Michael: I’ve come to prefer the language of attending to the language of attention because it does suggest a measure of care as well, right? That when I attend to somebody, it’s not just that I’m paying attention, which kind of drags in these economic metaphors, but rather that I, and I’m exhibiting care for them, and this is why I ought to cultivate my attention. … A lot of times the problem of attention or distraction in digital culture is connected to what advertisers want from us, or addiction, compulsive engagement. And I think that’s, that’s all fine. There’s a lot of truth to all of that. 

But I think sometimes we just crave attention, right? We desire to be attended to, we desire for someone to acknowledge us, to recognize us in our own particularity. And if we lack that in our communities and our households and whatever social milieu we happen to be a part of, it’s only natural that we’re gonna go searching for it.

And so I think certainly the social web famously promised connection. And I think it was pretty natural for us to seek that kind of affirmation, that kind of visibility, that sense of being seen in these platforms that connected us with long lost friends or thousands of strangers.

There’s an element in this of “love your neighbour as yourself“, but also of the reciprocal nature of attention (and love). We rely on others to attend to us, as they do too.

Love, and seeing each other truthfully

For me, these two things are linked. Just as life is both an ethical project and a creative one. I want to learn to live better, and to create better – but there is only one journey.

An artist must see the world truthfully (even if they choose to create fictions). I recognise in myself the tendency to pass judgement; to misapprehend another person because I have not given them enough attention. In this way not only do I not treat them ethically, but I also fail to see them as they really are.

Micheal: Murdoch, in her discussion of attention, she kind of equates attention with love. This kind of moral vision to see justly, to see truthfully, the way we connect with the world in order to see, in this way, she calls love, Iris Murdoch does. And she says, what gets in the way of that is what she and one essay calls are big, fat ego, right? So this kind of essential selfishness maybe that some of us might find ourselves struggling with. We’re naturally self-centered in the sense that every experience we have is through our lens, right? We are the center of our world, and it’s hard to overcome that.

It’s hard to get out of that. And, and for Weil, for Murdoch, this is sort of the point of training your attention. It is to get out of ourselves so that we can see the other, truthfully. We can see the world as it actually is, rather than imposing on it these webs of Murdoch calls fantasies at one point, self-centered fantasies.

So to go back to what is attention for it is simply to see the world truthfully, to see the world in a way that isn’t as warped by our natural self-centeredness. So – and I think we want this, I think we want this for ourselves. You know, I think all of us have had some experience of meeting somebody, passing some kind of judgment on them, but then for whatever reason, having to spend more time with them, get to know them, attend to them, maybe with a measure of openness that wasn’t there initially, and recognizing that our prejudgments were entirely off base. 

And so that kind of attention, patient attention over time, to a person help us see them for who they are, corrects our vision. And we would want the same for ourselves, right? We would want somebody to, to attend to us in that way. Also, if I’m unable, unwilling to do that either because of kind of a, a native self-centeredness or because I’ve been habituated to be inattentive, to be constantly distracted by devices, then I have the opportunity to come to see people as they are to perceive the truth of things.

I think if we get a taste of the fullness of somebody’s presence kind of open before us, there’s something very life giving and affirming and rewarding and satisfying about that, uh, creates the conditions, I think for a true and deeper friendship. 

You can find the podcast here:

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