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  • Unofficial Attention
  • David Bate (bio)
Adam Phillips, Attention Seeking, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 2019, 144pp, £6.99.

Covid-19 ‘lock-down’, as it was called in the UK seemed like a good time to read about ‘attention’. Why? Because a great number of people (including myself) found their attention wandering away from what they were supposed to be doing towards something else, even vaguely for instance wondering ‘is this what I wanted in life?’ This wondering and wandering away from what Phillips names as our ‘official attention’ to an ‘elsewhere’, which he calls our ‘unofficial curiosity’ shows that what we actually pay attention to, is not always within our control. This is not as simple as saying that we pay attention to the things we want, even or especially if we don’t even know we want them. Such issues are the focus of this little book.

Attention, and its apparent opposite distraction, have of course, already been a long-standing subject of concern to many fields of study as diverse as cultural theory and social management, and with as many different implications on various aspects of our social and institutional lives that they relate to. From questions about the attention of children in schools, to bored workers in factories, to issues of spectatorship in cinema, attentiveness to the textuality of literature, techniques in the theatre, and the perceived ‘instantaneity’ of popular culture, social media and entertainment values all involve critical problems of attention and distraction. In these and many other domains the question of what we pay attention to, how, where, when and why remains a fundamental human question, if not enigma. (If it remains an enigma it is because we do not always know what we want ourselves.) Attention is a crucial dimension of almost every aspect of life.

Adam Phillips addresses these social issues obliquely, as he often does in his books, informed by psychoanalysis, with a relentless focus not only on what ‘attention’ actually is, but also on what it isn’t. Written as three separate essays, with an appendix (an earlier essay on Stephen Greenblatt’s literary relation to distraction), this book works through the vicissitudes of attention and its supposed evil opposite of distraction.

However, for Phillips, distraction is not the opposite of attention, but rather shows the unsettled boundary of what we call attention. The argument is not a simple academic deconstruction of the often-moralised binary distinction between ‘attention/distraction’, nor is it an easy reversal of it (all attention is distraction). Instead, Phillips draws close attention to the human indeterminacy of these categories, their constant unsettled status and situation, and their mutual relationship to what we want and desire. [End Page 108]

If distraction counts as a different type of attention, observable in art and literature as much as in everyday life, as Phillips argues, then he also reminds us that psychoanalysis itself has drawn on this as a practical technique, since its very form of treatment is also based on ‘inattention’ as a positive condition. He cites the neglected work of 1930s psychoanalyst Marion Milner (from her 1934 book A Life of One’s Own) and draws on her handy categories of ‘wide-angled’ and ‘narrow’ attention to suggest how we might develop a more sophisticated – and therefore more useful – understanding of what we mean when we say we are ‘concentrating’ on something. What is called ‘inattention’, he argues, is also undervalued for its affinities to both categories of attention and distraction. Drawing on Lawrence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy (and other novels throughout the book), the virtues of ‘inattention’ become apparent as aspects of a character (Hamlet is a good example), but also separately as an analytical tool, as itself a critical mode of attention. Being distracted, he writes ‘is another form of attention, we may not always be able to tell which the distracted state of mind is. The authorities can tell us’ (120).

As a child psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips understands these problems and questions very well, and the arguments are clearly informed by his experience of its practice. Firstly, there is the practice of ‘free-floating attention’ already embedded in psychoanalysis (as introduced by Sigmund Freud). Secondly, what people...


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pp. 108-111
Launched on MUSE
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