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58 5 Thresholds of Attention Attention is something so ordinary that it is rarely considered in connection with the problem of the alien. Consequently, we might be missing one of the most important ways in which the alien comes to meet us, because it is intrinsic for attention that the senses can be controlled only to a limited extent. If the controls were perfect, life would be determined only by habit without allowing for anything of the alien. What the phenomenology of attention brings to the fore is the same ambivalence that we find in the phenomenology of the alien. When something comes to a person’s attention, at first he does not know with what or whom he is dealing. Attending itself is the first response to the alien. Coming-to-attention and attending-to complement each other in the same manner as the previously discussed duet of pathos and response. 1. Attending Let us begin with attending-to, from which the word “attention” derives. Attending-to is an everyday occurrence which philosophy hesitates to tackle, just as it hesitates to tackle a number of other matters. Obviously, it does not suffice to say that there is a lamp standing in front of me on the table, or that the church bell rings every hour, or that a car suddenly screeches to a stop right in front of me, or that I bump into an old friend: I need to notice all this. Apparently, I need to add something else in order for objects, living beings, or fellow humans to become part of my experience, but what is it exactly that I add? The answer might be myself. How do I make this happen? Shall I use a searchlight or give myself a clue? Suggestions like these make us think of a stage director whom modernity calls the “subject.” Yet the subject’s history is far more colorful than any official history can possibly be. There is a certain awkwardness in the way that old European languages express the phenomenon of attention . In Greek, one speaks of prosevcein, holding-toward and directingtoward , like a ship sailing toward the shore; in the case of attention, however, it is not a ship which proceeds toward an object, but spirit: 59 T H R E S H O L D S O F A T T E N T I O N prosevcein to;n nou`n, as everyday usage has it (see Plato, Republic 376a9). It is not altogether different in German when we look at Zuwendung, or turning-toward. Attending-to is set in motion and continuously pulled under by the allure of what is seen and heard. Concerned with the education of the senses when discussing the education of the city guardians, Plato resists the idea that vision should be “injected” into the soul. The soul already possesses the capacity for knowledge: it is just not “turned the right way to look where it ought to look”; “a craft of turning around” is needed (Republic 518d). This turning around presupposes that we move in a field of vision where some things are visible, whereas others are not. From the Romance languages we know the Latin word attentio, which also involves the spirit or the soul, as in attendere animum. The Latin version, developed in a philosophical and theological context by Augustine , points to a certain tension (Lat. tensio) in the play of forces between the soul and the body. Attention arises from the focused tension which must prevail against numerous distractions and diversions. The tendency to control attention increases in the modern era, especially with Descartes. As an act of the will, attention is subjected to the cogito; yet, although Descartes counters attention with the shock of admiration , later on the passive component is assigned to blind mechanisms more and more. As a result, attention joins the counterplay of subject and object, of one’s own acts and of alien influences, of spiritualization and of naturalization, which continues to this day. At the same time, beginning with Henri Bergson, William James, Edmund Husserl, and Walter Benjamin, philosophy has assigned increased attention to its own role; recent research in neurology points in this direction as well. There are experiments which confirm that the orientation of attention influences elementary reactions of the sensory centers located in the brain and cannot be considered simply as an additional “subjective factor.” 2. With All Senses We begin by offering a few samples of attention...


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