Beyond the Attention Economy

Turning to face our burning world

Laura Dassow Walls
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

From "Distraction and Attention," a folio of responses to Caleb Smith's Thoreau's Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture. To read the entire folio, click here.

We in the United States have a habit of turning everything we touch into consumer objects with which to festoon our lives until we abandon them for the next new thing—one more bauble in what Caleb Smith calls our “attention economy,” one more turn in the endless cycle of production and consumption that feeds the growth on which capitalism depends. This cycle must keep expanding forever, for white settlers’ continuance as a people—a civilization that survives by consuming all the world’s other peoples—depends upon our devouring everything we touch. We know this cycle cannot continue forever, as the planet reminds us with every “climate emergency” and “supply chain disruption,” but, as the truism goes, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of industrial consumer capitalism. That is, we lack the imagination to envision, or even acknowledge the possibility of, another way of life, even as we repress the knowledge that our way of life is killing the entire living system on which our lives depend. (There are, of course, other ways of living, other imaginations in the world than ours. They are fighting not merely to survive but to survive us.)

In Thoreau’s Axe, Caleb Smith shows how “distraction and discipline” have both inspired our imagination and fed its failures. The book’s title image is fascinating: attention as the wedge of an axe that drives into alignment the two parts of the (Western) self, the will to complete a task and the wayward desires and impulses that distract from it. Attention, in this sense, becomes the “overseer,” forcing master and the enslaved to work in harness. Worse, in an economy in which everything can be commodified, attention itself, that limited good, has become a commodity. Hence we are constantly needled by competing profit centers whose algorithms promote clickbait. Yet producing that clickbait is itself a form of labor that consumes someone else’s attention—perhaps, dear reader, even yours. Where do we draw the line between will and impulse, work and leisure, the self and the economy that has colonized so intimately our very organ of attention—the one thing we have that we can freely give?

The nineteenth-century writers who populate Thoreau’s Axe remind us that, for at least the past century and a half, we have tended to imagine two different disciplinary regimes at work within us: the economic engine that drives us to produce profit and the self-culture that urges us to live for higher ends. As Michel Foucault taught us, modernity’s innovation was to bind these two into one system by which we would each internalize the discipline of labor, while also internalizing the policing of that labor. By surveilling ourselves and each other lest anyone step out of line, we extend to common social life the economic logic on which our society depends.

Amid this intensifying feedback loop of external and self-imposed discipline, Thoreau’s perverse gift was to “saunter.” Neither an exercise of will over oneself nor a moral remedy for the world’s hurt, sauntering is something else altogether: a response to a call from someone beloved, issued from beyond the horizon of the self. To saunter is not to engage the push-and-pull of a coercive economy versus compensatory spiritual practices but to step outside this dialectic altogether, to release its hold on us and entertain other possibilities. Those in the grip of the attention complex might dismiss Thoreau’s open-ended, nothing-in-particular truancy as self-centered “navel-gazing.” I have noticed that when Thoreau and his ilk use language to attend to a world outside of the consumer economy, their work is usually labeled, often unkindly, “nature writing.”

I have indulged in this truancy myself. Recently I moved to the edge of a marsh-estuary that has become a kind of Walden for me, a place whose nuances of mood, color, and light daily engage my “sauntering” attention, and often an actual saunter, as I step outside into the mud to see whatever’s to be seen on a random afternoon. As Smith says, to saunter allows objects to find their way to me, not vice versa. There was, for instance, the hermit thrush who appeared last fall like magic, feeding quietly on insects stilled by the first frost; or the long-billed dowitcher rounding a corner as I followed coyote tracks in winter’s first snow, who eyed me for a long moment as if she had never seen a human before and wondered what sort of creature I might be; or the beaver who astonished me last weekend, grooming himself placidly hard by the busy roadside, the first seen in these parts in generations.

Like Thoreau, I enjoy using language to compose my attention. Such writing feels not like a discipline but like a release, a delightful moment of free and unconstrained mental sauntering, a checking in with a world not dependent on the eruptions and steam valves of the human brain. And yet: though the marsh-estuary affords a moment’s release from the attention economy, trying to write about it leads me to all that economy hides from our view. This estuary, dappled and banded and vibrant as it is, is the little that survives of what once was, after being eaten away on one end by a shopping mall and smothered on the other by a Chevron oil refinery. Today the refinery parcel is a toxic EPA Superfund site, barricaded from entry. The taxpayer-funded labor of remediation is nearly done, and the property, valued at millions of dollars, is about to come onto the market. Competing interests will soon determine its fate: the city wants to purchase it toward restoration as a wildlife sanctuary and a buffer against rising seas. Other interests want to cap and fill it with high-density housing, to help relieve the homelessness crisis in the region. The marsh, too, struggles to survive us.

Thus to attend to the world outside—certainly here on the Salish Sea, north of Seattle, or, to be honest, anywhere you can point to in this world we have plundered so thoroughly—is not to escape our political economy nor engage in therapy against its intrusions but to precipitate oneself into the melee we’ve been creating since Thoreau’s day: the removal of Indigenous peoples, the takeover of America by fossil fuels, the clearcutting of forests and bulldozing of wetlands into shopping centers. Around these starving, beautiful tidal flats clusters a head-spinning collective—a divided city council, a mayor running for reelection, angry citizens, overworked public employees, bird photographers, eccentric naturalists, salmon recovery experts, school groups, real estate developers, advocates for the homeless—all arguing over the future of this land that appears so placid.

None of this is visible to the distracted legions breezing by on the highway, windows rolled up, radio on, watching GPS for the right turn. It only comes into view through an open-ended kind of attention: a saunter off the highway, a step away from the shopping mall, a response to a call of—what, curiosity? The voices of flocking waterfowl? Surprise that beyond the asphalt lies a pocket planet?

Attending to the world beyond the self is risky: it draws one out, forces one to let go of some old habits. That is why our attention is so often directed into safe and self-reproducing channels, lest we inquire too deeply into what Smith calls “the histories of labor and power.” What if we didn’t merely isolate the little we can salvage in sanctuaries, devising therapeutic compensations while the world outside burns and comes undone? What if we turned our attention to the burning world? This requires coming a bit undone oneself, stepping, as Thoreau did, off the asphalt and into the mud.

Laura Dassow Walls is Professor Emerita at the University of Notre Dame, where she taught American literature and the history and theory of ecological thought. Her books include Henry David Thoreau: A Life (2017) and The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009). She now lives in Edmonds, Washington, where she is working on a literary biography of the American writer Barry Lopez.
Originally published:
May 23, 2023

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