Modernity and the
Problem of Attention
The constant continuity of the process,
the unobstructed and fluid transition of
value from one form into the other, or
from one phase of the process into the
next, appears as a fundamental condition
for production based on capital.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse
Almost all the problems of philosophy
once again pose the same form of question
as they did two thousand years
ago: how can something originate in
its opposite, for example rationality in
irrationality, the sentient in the dead,
logic in unlogic, disinterested contemplation
in covetous desire, living for
others in egoism, truth in error?
Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human
One of the most important nineteenth-century developments in the history of perception was the relatively sudden emergence of models of subjective vision in a wide range of disciplines during the period 1810-1840. Dominant discourses and practices of vision, within the space of a few decades, effectively broke with a classical regime of visuality and grounded the truth of vision in the density and materiality of the body. One of the consequences of this shift was that the functioning of vision became dependent on the complex and contingent physiological makeup of the observer, rendering vision faulty, unreliable, and, it was sometimes argued, arbitrary. Even before the middle of the century, an extensive amount of work in science, philosophy, psychology, and art involved a coming to terms in various ways with the understanding that vision, or any of the senses, could no longer claim an essential objectivity or certainty. By the 1860s, the scientific work of Hermann von Helmholtz, Gustav Fechner, and many others had defined the contours of a general epistemological uncertainty in which perceptual experience had lost the primal guarantees that once upheld its privileged relation to the foundation of knowledge. This book examines some of the components of a cultural environment in which these new truths and new uncertainties about perception were being contested and reconstructed, within both visual modernism and a modernizing mass visual culture, beginning in the late 1870s.
The idea of subjective visionthe notion that our perceptual and sensory experience depends less on the nature of an external stimulus than on the composition and functioning of our sensory apparatuswas one of the conditions for the historical emergence of notions of autonomous vision, that is, for a severing (or liberation) of perceptual experience from a necessary relation to an exterior world. Equally important, the rapid accumulation of knowledge about the workings of a fully embodied observer disclosed possible ways that vision was open-to procedures of normalization, of quantification, of discipline. Once the empirical truth of vision was determined to lie in the body, vision (and similarly the other senses) could be annexed and controlled by external techniques of manipulation and stimulation. This was the decisive achievement of the science of psychophysics in the mid-nineteenth century, which, by apparently rendering sensation measurable, embedded human perception in the domain of the quantifiable and the abstract. Vision, conceived in this way, became compatible with many other processes of modernization, even as it also opened up the possibility of visual experience that was intrinsically nonrationalizable, that exceeded any procedures of normalization. These developments are part of a critical historical turning point in the second half of the nineteenth century at which any significant qualitative difference between life and technics begins to evaporate. The disintegration of an indisputable distinction between interior and exterior becomes a condition for the emergence of spectacular modernizing culture and for a dramatic expansion of the possibilities of aesthetic experience. The relocation of perception (as well as processes and functions previously assumed to be "mental") in the thickness of the body was a precondition for the instrumentalizing of human vision as a component of machinic arrangements; but it also stands behind the astonishing burst of visual invention and experimentation in European art in the second half of the nineteenth century.
More specifically since the late nineteenth century, and increasingly during the last two decades, capitalist modernity has generated a constant re-creation of the conditions of sensory experience, in what could be called a revolutionizing of the means of perception. For the last 100 years perceptual modalities have been and continue to be in a state of perpetual transformation, or, some might claim, a state of crisis. If vision can be said to have any enduring characteristic within the twentieth century, it is that it has no enduring features. Rather it is embedded in a pattern of adaptability to new technological relations, social configurations, and economic imperatives. What we familiarly refer to, for example, as film, photography, and television are transient elements within an accelerating sequence of displacements and obsolescences, part of the delirious operations of modernization.
At the moment when the dynamic logic of capital began to dramatically undermine any stable or enduring structure of perception, this logic simultaneously attempted to impose a disciplinary regime of attentiveness. For it is in the late nineteenth century, within the human sciences and particularly the nascent field of scientific psychology, that the problem of attention becomes a fundamental issue. It was a problem whose centrality was directly related to the emergence of a social, urban, psychic, and industrial field increasingly saturated with sensory input. Inattention, especially within the context of new forms of large-scale industrialized production, began to be treated as a danger and a serious problem, even though it was often the very modernized arrangements of labor that produced inattention. It is possible to see one crucial aspect of modernity as an ongoing crisis of attentiveness, in which the changing configurations of capitalism continually push attention and distraction to new limits and thresholds, with an endless sequence of new products, sources of stimulation, and streams of information, and then respond with new methods of managing and regulating perception. Gianni Vattimo has noted that "the intensification of communicative phenomena and the increasingly prominent circulation of information ... are not merely aspects of modernization amongst others, but in some way the center and very sense of this process." But at the same time, attention, as a historical problem, is not reducible to the strategies of social discipline. As I shall argue, the articulation of a subject in terms of attentive capacities simultaneously disclosed a subject incapable of conforming to such disciplinary imperatives.
Since Kant, part of the epistemological dilemma of modernity has been defining a human capacity for synthesis within the fragmentation and atomization of a cognitive field. That dilemma becomes especially acute in the second half of the nineteenth century alongside the development of various techniques for imposing specific kinds of perceptual synthesis, from the mass diffusion of the stereoscope in the 1850s to early forms of cinema in the 1890s. The nineteenth century saw the steady demolition of Kant's transcendental standpoint and its synthetic a priori categories, detailed in his first critique. Kant argued that all possible perception could occur only in terms of an original synthetic unification principle, a self-cause, that stood over and above any empirical sense experiences such as vision. "Unity of synthesis according to empirical concepts would be altogether accidental, if these latter were not based on a transcendental ground of unity. Otherwise it would be possible for appearances to crowd in upon the soul.... Since connection in accordance with universal and necessary laws would be lacking, all relation of knowledge to objects would fall away." Once the philosophical guarantees of any a priori cognitive unity collapsed (or once the possibility of the self imposing its unity onto the world, in post-Kantian idealism, became untenable), the problem of "reality maintenance" gradually became a function of a contingent and merely psychological capacity for synthesis or association. Schopenhauer's substitution of the will for Kant's transcendental unity of apperception is an event with many aftershocks, for it implied that the perceived wholeness of the world was no longer the apodictic product of Law but depended on a potentially variable relation of forces, including external forces outside the subject's control. It became imperative for thinkers of all kinds to discover what faculties, operations, or organs produced or allowed the complex coherence of conscious thought. The failure or malfunction of a capacity for synthesis, often described as dissociation, became linked in the late nineteenth century with psychosis and other mental pathologies. But what was often labeled as a regressive or pathological disintegration of perception was in fact evidence of a fundamental shift in the relation of the subject to a visual field. In Bergson's work, for example, new models of synthesis involved the binding of immediate sensory perceptions with the creative forces of memory. Wilhelm Dilthey discussed at length the creative forms of synthesis and fusion that are specific to the activity of the human imagination. For Nietzsche synthesis was no longer the constitution of truth but rather a shifting alignment of forces that was endlessly creative and metamorphic.
The American psychologist G. Stanley Hall, writing in 1883, pessimistically reflected on the repercussions of accepting this contingency as a condition of knowledge: "Does life cultivate the mind only in spots or nodes, and are these so imperfectly bound together by associative and apperceptive processes that special stress upon one of them causes it to isolate itself still more till the power of selfdirection is lost, and devolution and disintegration slowly supervene?" For institutional psychology in the 1880s and 1890s, part of psychic normality was the ability to synthetically bind perceptions into a functional whole, thereby warding off the threat of dissociation, or of what Kant saw as perceptions "crowding in upon the soul." The German psychologist Oswald Külpe insisted that without a capacity for attention, "consciousness would be at the mercy of external impressions ... thinking would be made impossible by the noisiness of our surroundings." The operation of vision itself, with all its physiological idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies, was not sufficiently lawlike to function reliably without the "juridical" intervention of attention to hold together sensory data.
The anti-modernist Max Nordau was one of the most widely read writers to link a failure of attentiveness with sociopathic behavior, but his diatribes were not far from the social determinations underpinning the work of more sober, scientific authorities like Ribot:
Untended and unrestrained by attention, the brain activity of the degenerate and hysterical is capricious and without aim or purpose. Through the unrestricted play of association representations are called into consciousness and are free to run riot there. They are aroused and extinguished automatically; and the will does not interfere to strengthen or to suppress them.... Weakness or want of attention, produces, then, in the first place false judgements respecting the objective universe, respecting the qualities of things and their relations to each other. Consciousness acquires a distorted and blurred view of the external world.... Culture and command over the powers of nature are solely the result of attention; all errors, all superstition, the consequence of defective attention.
Attention for Nordau, and in a less extreme way for many others, was a repressive and disciplinary defense against all potentially disruptive forms of free association. The words of British psychologist James Cappie in the 1880s are perhaps more typical: "It is unnecessary to enlarge on the psychological importance of this function. It may be said to underlie every other mental faculty. It is the bringing of the consciousness to a focus in some special direction ... without it meaningless reverie will take the place of coherent thought." Attention thus became an imprecise way of designating the relative capacity of a subject to selectively isolate certain contents of a sensory field at the expense of others in the interests of maintaining an orderly and productive world.
* * *
Obviously notions of attention and attentiveness exist in many different places long before the nineteenth century, going back to St. Augustine and earlier, and even a summary outline of their history would be enormous. My aim here is simply to indicate how, in the second half of the nineteenth century, attention becomes a fundamentally new object within the modernization of subjectivity. In most cases before the nineteenth century, it had a local importance in matters of education, self-fashioning, etiquette, pedagogical and mnemonic practices, or scientific inquiry. Even when attention was an object of philosophical reflection, it was a marginal, at best secondary problem within explanations of mind and consciousness that either did not constitutively depend on it or in which it was one of a constellation of equally significant and mutually dependent faculties. Attention figures in Condillac's epistemology, for example, but he situates it as simply one element of many contributing to the necessarily unified operation of mental life, whereas in the period I am examining attention was an essential but fragile imposition of coherence and clarity onto the dispersed contents of consciousness. At the same time, for Condillac, attention was a matter of the force of a sensation, an effect of an event external to the subject. In this sense he is not altogether distinct from eighteenth-century British philosophy with its models of a mind as passive receiver of sensation, models that had no need of an idea of attention (the word is of marginal significance in the work of Locke, Hume, and Berkeley if present at all). Attention, as it was conceived in the later nineteenth century, is radically alien to an eighteenth-century notion of mental activity as a stamp or a mold that will somehow fix or preserve the constancy of objects. In historical discussions of the problem of attention, one often encounters the claim that the modern psychological category of attention is continuous with notions of apperception that were important in different ways for Leibniz and Kant. But in fact what is crucial is the unmistakable historical discontinuity between the problem of attention in the second half of the nineteenth century and its place in European thought in previous centuries.
As I suggested earlier, there were two important conditions for the emergence of attention as a major problem in accounts of subjectivity. The first was the collapse of classical models of vision and of the stable, punctual subject those models presupposed. The second was the untenability of a priori solutions to epistemological problems. This entailed the loss of any permanent or unconditional guarantees of mental unity and synthesis. There are many places in the first decades of the nineteenth century where responses to these problems were attempted. The work of philosopher Pierre Maine de Biran, in the early nineteenth century, is particularly important for demonstrating how questions of subjectivity are inseparable from the instability and uncertainty of physiological realities. His attempts to derive some fait primitif of selfhood, of individual freedom, and finally of the possibility of soul from the enduring experience of active, willed effort in relation to the body established the terms for subsequent epistemological and even ethical debates. Jan Goldstein has detailed the importance of the problem of the unity of the self for Victor Cousin and others in the 1820s, who held to the general principle "Character is unity." Cousin's eclecticism combined a limited reliance on sensationalism with a priori belief in the self, or moi, a repository of self-initiated mental activity and free will known through introspection." Especially during the period from 1840 to the mid-1860s, there were a variety of systemic and often convoluted attempts to propose new principles from which to deduce an effective unity of mind or thought. Usually grouped under the category of "associationism." such workthat of J. S. Mill, Herbert Spencer, Hermann Lotze, and the early Alexander Bain, for examplesimply does not give attention a significant role. According to George Herbert Mead, "associational psychology never explained why one association rather than another was the dominant one." Not until the 1870s does one find attention consistently being attributed a central and formative role in accounts of how a practical or knowable world of objects comes into being for a perceiver. It would be difficult to find before 1850 an unconditional statement like Henry Maudsley's from the early 1880s: "Whatever its nature, [attention] is plainly the essential condition of the formation and development of mind." I do not want to belabor this point or insist on some precise historical dividing line, but one telling piece of evidence is in the work of the enormously important physiologist William B. Carpenter, which held authoritative status not only in England but also in Europe and North America from the 1840s until well into the 1880s. In the 1853 edition of his standard textbook, attention is covered in a single paragraph and as merely one of many mental faculties such as observation, reflection, and introspection; by the 1874 edition, he devotes over fifty pages to the topic of attention, and references to it are scattered throughout many other sections of the book. Attention in 1853 was noted almost in passing as "that state in which the consciousness is actively directed to a sensorial change"; by 1874 attention has an effect "on each principal form of Mental activity" and is indispensable "for the systematic acquirement of Knowledge, for the control of the Passions and Emotions, and for the regulation of the Conduct." Moreover, only by the 1870s does it become, in Europe and North America, a problem that traverses a broad social and cultural field, an interrelated social, economic, psychological, and philosophical issue central to the most powerful accounts of the nature of human subjectivity. Edward Bradford Titchener, the British-born student of Wundt and one of the leading importers of German experimental psychology into America, asserted in the 1890s that "the problem of attention is essentially a modern problem," although he was unable to grasp how the particular perceiving subject he was helping to delineate was to become a central component of institutional modernity.