Natalie M Phillips, Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature

Natalie M Phillips, Distraction: Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press 2016) 304 pp. $50.00 EPUB, MOBI, PDF, $50.00 Hb. ISBN: 9781421420127

Natalie M. Phillips’s Distraction ventures with ease and lucidity into the fields of cognitive historicism and literary criticism, offering an intellectual history of distraction and novel perspectives into literary texts and forms of the eighteenth century.

Phillips begins by correcting the notion that distraction is a characteristically modern mental state.  Although we tend to associate it with the accelerating pace of a digitally enhanced world, falsely constructing ‘an idyllic past of easy attention’ (1), this study reveals the eighteenth century as steeped in distraction-inducing factors. The stock image of the completely – and, as was argued, dangerously – immersed novel reader becomes supplanted here by the image of a distinctly ‘unabsorbed’ reader struggling to maintain attention amidst multiple distractions. Phillips studies distraction and the history of reading, but she also argues, rather more excitingly and significantly, that by engaging with theories of cognition eighteenth-century literature shaped the very concept and experience of distraction itself. She traces a literary history of distracted characters that features wandering minds, rapid thought interchange, cognitive overload, and also obsessive fixity of attention. In turn, these manifestations of distraction rest on the conceptualization of attention and its redefinition in the period of study.

The book reveals the Enlightenment heritage of cognitive science in its language, the conceptualization of cognitive states, and in its models of focus. Phillips finds that the classical  model of sustained singular focus, originating in religious practice and the attentive contemplation of the divine, becomes progressively questioned by Enlightenment thinkers who present the mind in constant flux and attention as an ‘ongoing process of synchronizing and harmonizing many points of concentration in time’ (7). This is not a replacement, but a transition that incorporates both models and, thus, different connotations regarding distraction. Each chapter discusses a specific type of distraction, its implications, and its treatment in relevant eighteenth-century works.

‘Wandering Mind’ (Chapter One) looks to the essay, and more specifically to Samuel Johnson’s essay writing, to discuss eighteenth-century authorial concern with the distracted reader, the frequency of distraction, and the possibility of training attention. The eighteenth-century concern with reforming wandering focus posits attention as a limited resource within a context of ever-increasing distractions and introduces the need to ‘economize’ it. In the eighteenth century it was the essay with its elements of meta-awareness for author and reader alike that provided the tools for training focus and preserving attention. Today, we remain concerned with the concept of attention span and we still ‘economize’ attention by inventing methods, often digital, of streamlining information flow.

The second chapter explores lapses of concentration: ‘moments when attention turns to the wrong thing and as a result key information is being missed’. Focusing on the character of Betsy Thoughtless (1751), a perennially distracted heroine whose lapses of concentration expose her to sexual danger, Phillips unveils the origins and use of the military idiom in the language of attention, the gendering of the mind and proneness to distraction, and eighteenth-century constructions of situational awareness. Haywood’s novel takes the vision of a soft and pliable female mind and uses it to illustrate the cognitive blueprint of the coquettish character as essentially multifocal.  The tendency to distraction serves to safeguard Haywood’s heroine from accusations of immorality as ‘inadvertency’ becomes an explanation for otherwise inexcusable behaviour. Phillips moves beyond a hermeneutics of Haywood’s work and into a broader consideration of the effects of the environment upon cognition. Through grammatical, syntactical, and narratological means a ‘dizzyingly plural’ environment is created on the page that affects focus as it reinforces ‘habits of disorganization’. This chapter convincingly argues for viewing certain eighteenth-century works as primary examples of how literature addresses the issue of ‘partial awareness’ and, ultimately, our inability to fully cognize complicated and dynamic situations.

The following chapter embraces the unfocused mind in an analysis of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-67). The work features the paradigmatic scatter-brained hero and represents a turning point in the history of distraction in advertising inattentiveness.  Phillips refers to the way regular rhythms facilitate focus, a notion present in Enlightenment philosophy – expressed in the borrowing from the musical idiom to explain mind patterns in temporal terms – and also verified by modern cognitive science.  By contrast, Sterne achieves the experience of scattered attention on the page because he recreates the rhythm of cognitive overload. This ‘rhythm’ does not derive from the sequence of events in the novel but it is narrative rhythm; the evolving tempo of the narrative patterns and voices in the novel – an aspect of prose currently overlooked in literary analyses.  In Shandy this tempo is persistently irregular, so that distraction becomes the novel’s only constant feature. In this sense, distraction is not the disruptive event but a natural state owed to the limitations of attention itself.

From the singularly unfocused mind we move to the singularly focused. Chapter Four, ‘Fixated Attention’, concerns the intense focus on a single thing or subject to the exclusion of everything else. This was a pathologized state of attention linked to monomania, a common early nineteenth-century diagnosis of psychological disorder. This chapter substantially contributes to the scholarship on obsessive states of mind and their cultural resonance from the late 1700s. The Gothic novel, with its portrayal of monomaniacally focused minds and its ploy of suspense, becomes the vehicle for exploring immersion and the social implications of fixation. The dissolution of social bonds threatened by a narrowness and rigidity of mind that leaves the person unable to share in the emotions and cognitive states of others becomes alarming given the cultural significance of sympathy in the period. Moreover, a language of focus is revealed here that incorporates elements from the historical scientific register, mainly maths and chemistry. This retrospection alerts us to current attitudes to selective focus and the ways we revere (scientific inquiry) or pathologize it (compulsions, unhealthy fixations).

The fifth chapter is devoted to Jane Austen’s work and her portrayal of cognitive richness in the form of ‘divided attention’. Here the model of multifocal attention is almost aspirational and signifies fine-tuned cognitive ability. This kind of attention is connected to politeness and sociability in the ability to take into consideration all factors within one’s social environment and to engage in a loose state of general attentiveness or to purposefully direct attention to important, arising, objects and situations. Multitasking and multifocal attention rather than denoting failure, to sustain singular focus for instance, are associated with ‘liveliness of mind’ and help ponder the very question of lifelike fictional characters.

The final section discusses data from fMRI brain scanning when reading leisurely or closely analyzing a text. This part presents emerging possibilities for collaboration between humanities and neuroscience. It reads, as does the book overall, as a manifesto for the possibility of a kind of research in which disciplines are combined not in the sense of serving each other, or borrowing from each other, but in true synergy. From all the aspects of Phillips’s book that are commendable – and there are many from its originality and clarity of argumentation through to its powers of interpretation – this is the most significant. Literature and science are on an equal footing here and the fruits of their combination are remarkable.

Lina Minou, University of Loughborough