Is the Distracted Life Worth Living?

Philosophy is something close to a national pastime in France, a fact reflected not just in the celebrity status of its big thinkers but also in the interest its media show in the subject.  So perhaps it’s not surprising that several French publications recently sent correspondents, interviewers, and even philosophers to the Richmond, Va. motorcycle repair shop of Matthew Crawford, mechanic, philosopher, and a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.

Matthew Crawford

Matthew Crawford

They  came not only to follow up on points raised in Crawford’s last and best-selling book, Shop Class As Soulcraft: An inquiry into the Value of Work, but also to draw him out on some of the themes of his forthcoming book on the subject of attention, and particularly the cultural dimensions of what might be called our universal Attention Deficit Disorders.  For Crawford,  the two books advance a common concern with mental ecology under the conditions of modernity, and how the challenges to that ecology might be countered by a restored regard for– and a renewed cultivation of– the discipines, practices, and rituals that once gave meaning to everyday life and work.

Jean-Baptiste Jacquin of Le Monde asked Crawford what he means when he says his next book will treat the political economy of attention.  Crawford’s reply (with apologies for my own translation):

Political economy concerns itself with the way certain resources are shared and distributed.   Now, attention is an extremely important resource, as important as the time we each have at our disposal.  Attention is a good, but it is rapidly depleted by a public space saturated with technologies that are dedicated to capturing it…The book I am writing is a warning against the massification of our spirit.  To have any intellectual originality, you must be able to extend a line of reasoning very far.  And to do that, you have to protect yourself against an array of external distractions.

Jacquin pressed Crawford on what specific things people might do to counter the endless demands being put on our attention.  Having a fuller cultural consciousness of the problem is one thing that may help, Crawford suggested.  And engaging in activities that structure our attention is another:

I think manual work, almost any form of manual work,  is a remedy.  Cooking, for example. To prepare a fine meal requires a high level of concentration.  Everything you do at each stage of preparation depends directly on the activity itself and on the objects, the ingredients.

In a dialogue between Crawford and French philosopher Cynthia Fleurry arranged by Madame Figaro , Crawford got into the question of autonomy and its connections with attention:

We have a vision of autonomy that is overly liberal,  almost a caricature of itself, in that we take it to imply a kind of self-enclosure.  Attention is precisely the faculty that pulls us out of our own head and joins us to the world.  Attention, perhaps, is the antidote to narcissism….

The ironic and toxic result of advertising and other information saturating the environment is, Crawford explained, to isolate the self, to flatter it with delusions of its autonomy and agency.  Children grow up pressing buttons and things happen, he elaborated, but they never acquire real mastery over the world of things.  They can only make things happen by clicking buttons. “And there you have it,”  said Crawford , “an autonomy that is autism. ”

An even more intensive discussion of manual work, contrasted with the abstract, symbol-manipulating work that employs more and more people,  appears in the November issue of Philosophie Magazine, with Crawford exchanging thoughts with philosopher Pascal Chabot, author of Global Burn-out (2013).   Crawford nicely summed up what might be lost to all those symbol-manipulators who think of themselves as master of the universe even as they lose a fundamental knowledge of their world:

What anthropology, neurobiology, and common sense teach us is that it’s difficult to penetrate to the sense of things without taking them in hand. …It is not through representations of things but by manipulating them that we know the world.  To say it another way, what is at the heart of human experience is our individual agency:  our capacity to act on the world and to judge the effects of our action….But the organization of work and our consumerist culture increasingly deprive us of this experience. American schools,  beginning in the 1990s, dismantled shop classes–which for me had been the most  intellectually stimulating classes—in favor of introductory computer classes, thus fostering the idea that the world had become a kind of scrim of information over which it was sufficient to glide. But in fact dealing with the world this way makes it opaque and mysterious, because the surface experience doesn’t require our intervention but instead cultivates our passivity and dependence.   That has political consequences.  If you don’t feel you can have a real effect on the world, then you don’t believe you have any real responsibility for it. I believe that the depoliticization we are witnessing in the modern world comes from this sense of a lack of agency. The financial crisis is another alarming symptom of the problem:  A trader makes a choice that will have an effect in three years and thousands of miles away.  The consequences of his action are a matter of indifference to him.  By contrast, repairing a motorcycle doesn’t allow you to have that kind of detachment.  If it doesn’t start, your failure jumps out at you and you know who is responsible.  In teaching you that it is not easy to ignore consequences, manual work provides a kind of moral education which also benefits intellectual activity.   

The Hedgehog Review will take up the subject of attention in its summer issue, and Crawford will be one of the featured contributors.

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