Yves Citton, The Ecology of Attention

Yves Citton, The Ecology of Attention (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), Paperback, ISBN 978-1509503735, 220 pages.  

This excellent book by cultural theorist Yves Citton opens up new and valuable modes of thinking about the ways in which attention functions in an age of ecological crisis. Moving us from the communal to the individual, this wide-ranging study is helpfully divided into three thought-provoking and comprehensive sections: 1) Collective Attention, 2) Joint Attention, and 3) Individuating Attention. Before going into more detail, however, the sensitive translation of Citton’s work is, though often imperceptible and understated, worthy of attention in this review. Barnaby Norman is impressively attentive to subtleties and nuances that may be lost in translation from French to English, even pointing out, in a characteristically concise and helpful footnote, how two unconnected words in English, ‘attentive’ (attentif) and ‘considerate’ (attentionné), both clearly refer to attention in French (208). Whilst this review cannot sufficiently explore the subtleties and nuances of the text itself, I will attempt to offer a brief outline of the arguments and approaches of each section.

As the alert foreword outlines, this book sets out to ‘understand better how our various environments condition our individual and collective attention’, with the aim of building the ‘shared conditions of life […] which is more attentive to the quality of what surrounds it than the quantity of its finances’, hence the important semantic shift from ‘economy’ to ‘ecology’ that the introduction goes on to explain and justify (x). Ever self-reflexive and attentive to the implications of his language, as might be expected of a Professor of French Literature, Citton immediately begins to reframe his critical vocabulary: ‘Is the (collective, joint and individuating) functioning of our attention really beholden to an ‘economy’? We should doubt this as a matter of urgency’ (20). The book’s engaging style allows for ‘different reading rhythms’ using ‘KEY-EXPRESSIONS’, written in capitals, and accompanied by ‘a concise definition in italics’ to give readers a generous ‘initial idea’ of the concepts discussed in each chapter (ix). Directly addressing the reader, Citton reminds us that ‘it is your attention, which you are mobilizing right now as you follow this sentence, that is now the scarcest and most fervently desired resource’ (8).  

Situating himself in the burgeoning field of attention studies, Citton acknowledges the key works of Pierre Levy, Jonathan Crary, Bernard Stiegler, Jonathan Beller, Franco Berardi, Dominique Boullier and Matteo Pasquinelli, all of whom ‘seek to understand the attention economy as rooted in an anthropological mutation extending well beyond the framework of market exchanges’ (7). Section One begins with ‘an analysis of the status of our attention in today’s media systems’ (23). Restating a familiar concept, Citton suggests that the media creates an ‘ECHOSYSTEM’, which should be understood as ‘an infrastructure of resonances conditioning our attention to what circulates around, through and within us’ (29). Throughout the book, Citton encourages us to think that attention is ‘a matter of echoes’ (182). Methodologically, moreover, he openly admits that the book is a collection of quotations from ‘the most disparate authors’ that attempts to ‘bring them into a harmonising echo’ (182). The range of different fields and authors (political theorists, literary critics, economists, sociologists, scientists) is impressively diverse and Citton moves us fluidly and effectively between their various voices and registers to create an unlikely harmonising effect, introducing readers to works that may offer an insightful perspective on their own field. Chapter 2 moves on to an analysis of ‘attentional capitalism’, as, Citton claims, ‘attention is in the process of becoming the hegemonic form of capitalism’ (45). The third chapter is then devoted to the timely question: ‘Can we hope to see digital cultures overcome the impasses of an attention capitalism subjected to the financial logic of ratings?’ (62) Although new possibilities for action, such as the ‘magic of search engines’, have enriched our lives and ‘enabled us to make attention hyper-savings’, Citton consistently recognises that ‘new modes of exploitation’ have been simultaneously ‘brought about by the electrification of our attention’ (63-64).

With a change of perspective, Part Two, ‘Joint Attention’, seeks to ‘trade the interplanetary telescope for the noological microscope’, as Citton begins to home in on the ‘micro-politics of attention’, focusing on attention as a ‘connection between that which I am, that which surrounds me, and that which may result from the relation that unites these interested parties’ (79). Here, one of Citton’s central claims is that ‘we see better because we endeavour to see with’ (93). The section that follows on MOOCs (massive open online courses), though undoubtedly interesting in its own right, seems not to fit so neatly with the rest of the study. The next section on ‘free-floating attention’, a concept formalized by Freudian psychoanalysis, and literary interpretation is fascinating, bringing language and attention into focus: ‘Free-floating attention essentially consists in the suspension of the traditional constraints of reasoning so as to allow oneself to be carried by the effects of resonance’ (116-118). This forms an ‘emancipatory distraction’ that create useful, Deleuzian ‘steps to the side’, opening up new arguments ‘to overcome the dead end of situations where argument is caught up in a strictly binary alternative’ (120).

In Part Three, ‘Individuating Attention’, Citton begins to enter into ‘the functioning of attention as we experience it most immediately, in our innermost personality’ (122). The section opens with an allusion to William James’s definition of attention, which, according to Citton, appears ‘as a matter of course in the first pages of a large proportion of books on attention’, as ‘the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought’ (125). This section begins with a fascinating chapter on ‘attention in laboratories’, which suggests that the ‘historicizing of the laws of attention discovered in the laboratory is […] as important as the historicizing as economic laws’ (138). The following section on ‘reflexive attention’ tries to ‘articulate more subtly the very problematic reference to multi-task activities’ and endeavours to unpack the ‘multi-layered attentional structure’ sketched in the previous chapter (138-139). Over the course of another stimulating chapter, Citton discusses pluralist reading strategies in the humanities (148), The Order of the Third Bird and attentional activism (154), and Google’s projecting glasses in relation to ‘simulacral permeation’ (164), to name just three strands.

By way of a conclusion, Citton offers ‘twelve maxims of attentional ecosophy’, which are worth reading in isolation if the reader’s time or attention is limited. My own floating attention was particularly drawn towards number 10: ‘Learn to devote yourself at difference times, to hyper-focusing, open vigilance and free-floating attention’. This encouraging advice is accompanied by the liberating, almost Proustian suggestion that we allow our ‘free-floating attention to transgress the barriers of habit’ (180). This study will be of interest not only to media and communications students, or those already working in the field of attention studies, but to anyone interested in lived experience in the digital age. As Citton closes by thanking his readers for giving their attention to his book, I would like to end by suggesting that his superb book, which you are regrettably not reading now as you mobilize your attention reading this very sentence, is worthy of your attention.

Patrick Armstrong, University of Cambridge