D. Graham Burnett and Justin E. H. Smith (eds), Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time, and the Senses

D. Graham Burnett and Justin E. H. Smith (eds), Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time, and the Senses (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023), 376 pp. £109.00 Hb. £28.00 Pb. £28 ebook. ISBN: 9780231211185

In Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time, and the Senses, editors D. Graham Burnett and Justin E. H. Smith have created an interdisciplinary collection of ruminations on the kaleidoscopic and controversial place of attention in the twenty-first century. Each chapter functions as a scene, a situation where attention plays a pivotal role. With chapters by philosophers, historians, anthropologists, and comparatists, the collection is divided into four sections: Histories of Attention, Philosophies of Attention, Attention, Technology, and Culture, and Endgame(s). Though organized mostly chronologically, technology is a central concern of all the fourteen contributors. This interdisciplinarity makes the collection jump between seemingly disparate subjects like Freud to ornithology, online Buddhist meditations, Pavlovian focus-enhancing electrical head patches, and the precarity of an Intensive Care Unit. However, its effect is a refreshing and uniquely relevant read. Attention has become a corporate buzzword and general catch-all term, but Burnett and Smith successfully bring nuance and clarity to its academic and public-facing discourse through diverse contributors and a wide scope.

The editors introduce the book with an elementary school experiment in telepathy. The entire class puts their heads down and attempts to send the word ‘Square’ to a classmate in the hall. Despite the obvious failure of the experiment, the act of communal, attentive work on a subject inspired the scenes and acts in Scenes of Attention. In this collection, the editors aimed to recreate that scene with a classroom full of scholars instead of fourth-graders, each attempting to send their unique telepathic message about attention to the reader.

 Histories of Attention

In the first chapter, Richard Spiegel challenges the faux-discovery of attention in 1908 by Edward Titchener in a lecture series at Columbia University by highlighting eighteenth-century European philosophy’s wrestling with attention. Not only a historical critique, Spiegel uses the dramatics of Titchener as a lens to understand current technological leaders claiming the same novelty. The second chapter by Henry Cowles illustrates early obsessions in psychological circles with reaction time as an independent variable, a measurable and malleable metric of attention. It was not until John Dewey and others inverted the chain and argued that quality of attention changed reaction time that psychology moved away from what Cowles calls ‘boring methods’. The third chapter in the Histories of Attention section turns to the ecological in attentive listening to birds. Alexandra Hui's term 'field notebook listening' refers to the process of attention, notation, and reflection on bird sounds as a world-making feedback loop that reinforces and changes what one hears. The final chapter of the section investigates a different intermediary between subject and attender, known as art therapy. The document between analyst and patient is not the musical notation of a bird but the visual expression of the unconscious through the patient's free association or attention to drawing.

Each of these histories or scenes illustrates the changing relationship with attention to set the scene for more contemporary discussions (most often gripes) about attention.

Philosophies of Attention

Carlos Montemayor opens the second section with a much more contemporary understanding of attention as a valuable resource with normative goals that can be derailed by manipulative commodification. Attention can be further divided computationally into top-down and bottom-up attention, with the former defined as internally guided attention and the latter defined as external stimuli that command one’s attention. These distinctions are key to bridging the collection from historical to contemporary discourse. The second chapter in Philosophies of Attention by Carolyn Dicey Jennings and Shadab Tabatabaeian carefully ties attention to creativity through discussions of intermittent variable rewards, exploration bias, and artificial salience. Examples of these ideas are that intermittent variable rewards include email notifications that come at varying times and with varying degrees of importance. Exploration bias is the tendency for technology to have us roam or scroll for indefinite periods by encouraging us to center bottom-up attention, and artificial salience is the pathological addiction to technology that comes from the overvaluation of engagement with the technology. The authors conclude that technology is thus ‘generally detrimental’ to creativity and attention, but there are a select few who may experience more creativity if they exist more strongly on the top-down side of the top-down/bottom-up spectrum. The third chapter by Jonardon Ganeri explores the intricate phenomenology of absence not as perception but as cognition. When one looks for a book that has been lost, one cannot perceive the book due to its absence and instead must strive with ‘conscious nonperception’ for the lost object. The closing chapter of the section views attention as a practice in Buddhism. John Tresch, while attempting to focus on his breath during an online Buddhist course during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, investigates the Buddhist doctrinal ‘wars’ between sects as varying understandings of what attention is and how to control it. These debates are then moved to the attention-deficit-inducing computer screen during a pandemic, and Tresch argues for Buddhist meditation practice as an antidote to the distractions of more recent digitized life.

Attention, Technology, and Culture

The penultimate section unabashedly covers the current landscape and surrounding discourse of corrective attention devices, online education, the often apolitical niche of attention discourse, and how one orients oneself or how one pays attention to art. Natasha Dow Schüll in the first chapter skewers new wearable attention-guiding devices like AttentivU, the Muse headband, and FeelZing electrical patches for their fundamental outsourcing of attentive sovereignty to technology as a solution to modern distractions. Brian Yuan provides a well-balanced critique of technological classrooms as a silence-inducing and prone to distraction-environment, but he qualifies that the technology can create a ‘safe zone’ for students whose traditional experience of school could be imbued with trauma and pain. Nick Seaver’s chapter entitled ‘Attention Is All You Need’ argues for viewing attention as a symbol rather than a process, a ‘catch-all concept’ instead of just a psychological entity. this anthropological analysis finds attention to be wielded differently by varying actors across society, and the discussions are often apolitical in that civil unrest and social movements are chalked up to only attentional manipulation by tech companies and not legitimate grievances. Joanna Fiduccia closes the section with ‘Medium Attention’, a dual-pronged phrase that means focus on the materiality of art (its medium) at a medium level (not fully engrossed) in an attempt to reunderstand or reorient ourselves to the artwork.


The short and final section of Scenes of Attention opens with Yael Geller placing two travelers on a train, one with ADD and one with OCD. Geller highlights the lack of discussion around OCD as it relates to attention, and posits the two conditions as opposite ends of a spectrum. In a world that is both speeding up and attention-obsessed, the midpoint between the two ends of the spectrum is what Geller proposes we find. The final chapter or scene of the collection is in an ICU room, where Lucy Alford visits her mother who is in a coma. This unique and personal scene has Alford consider the precarity of attention for both her mother and herself, the vigilance one finds, and how poetry at its most basic level is linguistic attention. The objectives in this section are not death or inelastic societal definitions, but rather the application of the collection’s abstractions and arguments to the experience of life in the early twenty-first century and the contradictions they engender.

The collection is a play of disparate but interlocking scenes, and Burnett and Smith invite us to sit in our seats and silence our cell phones so that our full attention can be given to the increasingly relevant work on what attention is, how it has changed, and how society, business, and more are grasping the shifting landscape.

Alex Tischer, Independent scholar, Association for the Study of Literature and Environment