Our duty in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in the best of spirits.Robert Louis Stevenson
It’s past midnight now (I’m in Atlanta this week speaking at, and staffing the WordPress.com/VIP/Longreads booth at the AAJA conference.) My colleagues and I stayed up late to enjoy a last, late snack and drinks before we fly off to our respective corners of the country tomorrow, but I’m still wide awake and mulling over the keynote speakers at tonight’s unforgettable gala.
First, Captain Sulu — er, George Takei — spoke. He was interviewed by Juju Chang, co-anchor of ABC News’ Nightline. They chatted more than I expected about his experiences on the original Star Trek series (how many times has Mr. Takei answered the question of what his favorite Star Trek moment was? Even a lot of non-Trekkies like myself know that it’s the episode where Sulu gets to fence and save Uhura’s life), but mostly they discussed his activism on behalf of the Asian-American and LGBTQ communities. He’s currently promoting his upcoming AMC anthology series, The Terror: Infamy, described as a show that “infuses historical drama with supernatural horror.” Set in World War II, season 2 of the series zeroes in on the story of the Japanese American internment camps and is notable for featuring a large Asian-American cast and senior crew, including showrunner Alexander Woo and director Lily Mariye.
While a lot of folks know Takei primarily as Star Trek’s Sulu, he’s especially famous in the Asian-American community for his fierce and tireless activism. He helped found the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles; starred in Allegiance, a Broadway musical loosely based on his own experiences at an internment camp; and has used his hugely popular Facebook page (currently at 10 million followers and growing) to share both hilarious memes and disturbing stories about racism, bigotry, homophobia, and hate. He recently published a graphic memoir, They Called Us Enemy, about that brutal period in early childhood when he and his family were imprisoned by the American government simply for looking like the people who had bombed Pearl Harbor.
Next was Congressman John Lewis, whom I’ve always known as a legendary civil rights leader, and frequent news show guest, but whom I’d never seen or heard speak in person. He radiated wisdom and gravity, and the entire, packed ballroom fell silent each time he spoke. He was interviewed by renowned broadcast journalist Elaine Quijano, and they spoke of his early work as a civil rights activist in the 1950s and 1960s as well as his thoughts on the current, distressing state of our fractured union. At some point he quietly said, “Silence is consent.”
The last keynote speaker was Maria Ressa, the founder and CEO of Rappler and one of TIME Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, and who is currently being charged by the Duterte administration in the Philippines of cyber libel and tax evasion. Ressa’s case gained considerable worldwide attention earlier last month when it was announced that Amal Clooney has joined Ressa’s defense team.
Ressa, never afraid to speak truth to power, is a tiny woman with a big smile and an even bigger well of courage and grace. It’s astounding that this charming, articulate, funny woman standing in the spotlight on stage in this fancy Atlanta hotel ballroom poses such an existential threat to the Duterte government that it will risk international condemnation in order to silence her. It’s also a clear sign that this clumsy, obnoxious, and brutal regional bully and strongman (oh, hell, let’s call him what he is: a dictator), who wields presidential power as if he’s engaged in a dick-sizing contest with fellow bullies and strongmen even within his own country, is making the same mistake as all other bullies and strongmen: underestimating the power of the press in general and this fearless journalist in particular.
And I keep going back to what Congressman Lewis said: “Silence is consent.” All three of these s/heroes have refused to be silent and have let their actions and words drive and inspire change. Is it possible to be silent — neutral, distant, removed, detached — and yet still be counted among those who support important humanitarian causes like freedom of speech, poverty elimination, education for women and girls, voting rights, reproductive rights, prison reform, criminal justice reform, and basic healthcare for all, to name just a few of the issues whose solutions remain elusive? What is enough? What is activism? Does contributing money but not time count? Does contributing time but not money count?
And what does it mean to be a liberal activist? If your particular brand of advocacy means outreach to disaffected and marginalized communities that also happened to have voted for Trump because they believed he was going to be their Messiah and deliver them to the Promised Land of well-paying manufacturing jobs with benefits and middle class comforts, does that count as activism? In an era when even some of the most empathetic liberal activists consider all Trump supporters — no exception — to be racist misogynists at heart, is it possible to imagine an activism that includes compassion and a desire for understanding beyond stereotypes and a simplistic view of a very complicated and human conflict?
I ask because I don’t know the answer. But I’m glad to have the question, and the lives and works of three unforgettable, inspiring and larger-than-life true s/heroes to reflect on as I pursue that answer.
SCHEDULER: Can you spell your last name, please?
ME: A like Alpha – S like Sierra – T like Tango – U – R – I – A like Alpha – S like Sierra.
SCHEDULER: [pause] I don’t have you in the system. Can you spell that again please?
ME: A like Alpha – S like Sierra – T like Tango – U – R – I – A like Alpha – S like Sierra.
SCHEDULER: [pause] No, sorry, I still can’t find you. One more time please?
ME: [stifling a sigh] A like Alpha – S like Sierra – T like Tango – U – R – I – A like Alpha – S like Sierra.
SCHEDULER: [exasperated] Are you spelling E like Elfa?
ME: [stifling a scream] No. A like Alpha. A – L – P – H- A.
SCHEDULER: Oh! Okay, sorry, got it. Can you spell that one more time please?
Kill me now.
A book should serve as the ax for the frozen sea within us.”
– Franz Kafka
I don’t know what I’m going to do with two typewriters, but I can’t remember the last time I had one. Maybe in 1991, which may have been the last time I wrote a paper using one, back when you could actually turn in handwritten essays in blue books or notebook paper. I remember struggling to learn how to print out a paper for my Research Methods class over a year later, using our shared family dot-matrix, and ripping out the hole-filled margins carefully so as to not tear the sheets.
I also remember sitting in bed during high school, my manual typewriter on my lap, surrounded by what I recall may have been a couple dozen crumpled paper. My senior thesis for AP English. It was 8:30 am on a weekday, and my paper would have been due at 8:15.
My fingers are clearly out of shape, as I’m struggling again now, but not with the text itself or the ideas, but with the mere physical act of punching the keys hard enough to make a decent impression on the page. I guess I had more muscular, fitter fingers in college? Still, it only took minutes for my fingers to remember the natural rhythm unique to typing on the original keyboard. My friend had just half the story: part of the adventure is the typing itself.
A colleague and dear friend in Iceland sent me chocolates for Christmas. This was my favorite, partly because I think I’ve found the perfect name for my next book. Or my punk band.
‘We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.’ Those were the words of the American biologist E O Wilson at the turn of the century. Fastforward to the smartphone era, and it’s easy to believe that our mental lives are now more fragmentary and scattered than ever. The ‘attention economy’ is a phrase that’s often used to make sense of what’s going on: it puts our attention as a limited resource at the centre of the informational ecosystem, with our various alerts and notifications locked in a constant battle to capture it.
That’s a helpful narrative in a world of information overload, and one in which our devices and apps are intentionally designed to get us hooked. Moreover, besides our own mental wellbeing, the attention economy offers a way of looking at some important social problems: from the worrying declines in measures of empathy through to the ‘weaponisation’ of social media.
The problem, though, is that this narrative assumes a certain kind of attention. An economy, after all, deals with how to allocate resources efficiently in the service of specific objectives (such as maximising profit). Talk of the attention economy relies on the notion of attention-as-resource: our attention is to be applied in the service of some goal, which social media and other ills are bent on diverting us from. Our attention, when we fail to put it to use for our own objectives, becomes a tool to be used and exploited by others.
However, conceiving of attention as a resource misses the fact that attention is not just useful. It’s more fundamental than that: attention is what joins us with the outside world. ‘Instrumentally’ attending is important, sure. But we also have the capacity to attend in a more ‘exploratory’ way: to be truly open to whatever we find before us, without any particular agenda.
During a recent trip to Japan, for example, I found myself with a few unplanned hours to spend in Tokyo. Stepping out into the busy district of Shibuya, I wandered aimlessly amid the neon signs and crowds of people. My senses met the wall of smoke and the cacophony of sound as I passed through a busy pachinko parlour. For the entire morning, my attention was in ‘exploratory’ mode. That stood in contrast to, say, when I had to focus on navigating the metro system later that day.
Treating attention as a resource, as implied by the attention-economy narrative, tells us only half of the overall story – specifically, the left half. According to the British psychiatrist and philosopher Iain McGilchrist, the brain’s left and right hemispheres ‘deliver’ the world to us in two fundamentally different ways. An instrumental mode of attention, McGilchrist contends, is the mainstay of the brain’s left hemisphere, which tends to divide up whatever it’s presented with into component parts: to analyse and categorise things so that it can utilise them towards some ends.
By contrast, the brain’s right hemisphere naturally adopts an exploratory mode of attending: a more embodied awareness, one that is open to whatever makes itself present before us, in all its fullness. This mode of attending comes into play, for instance, when we pay attention to other people, to the natural world and to works of art. None of those fare too well if we attend to them as a means to an end. And it is this mode of paying attention, McGilchrist argues, that offers us the broadest possible experience of the world.
So, as well as attention-as-resource, it’s important that we retain a clear sense of attention-as-experience. I believe that’s what the American philosopher William James had in mind in 1890 when he wrote that ‘what we attend to is reality’: the simple but profound idea that what we pay attention to, and how we pay attention, shapes our reality, moment to moment, day to day, and so on.
It is also the exploratory mode of attention that can connect us to our deepest sense of purpose. Just note how many noninstrumental forms of attention practice lie at the heart of many spiritual traditions. In Awareness Bound and Unbound (2009), the American Zen teacher David Loy characterises an unenlightened existence (samsara) as simply the state in which one’s attention becomes ‘trapped’ as it grasps from one thing to another, always looking for the next thing to latch on to. Nirvana, for Loy, is simply a free and open attention that is completely liberated from such fixations. Meanwhile, Simone Weil, the French Christian mystic, saw prayer as attention ‘in its pure form’; she wrote that the ‘authentic and pure’ values in the activity of a human being, such as truth, beauty and goodness, all result from a particular application of full attention.
The problem, then, is twofold. First, the deluge of stimuli competing to grab our attention almost certainly inclines us towards instant gratification. This crowds out space for the exploratory mode of attention. When I get to the bus stop now, I automatically reach for my phone, rather than stare into space; my fellow commuters (when I do raise my head) seem to be doing the same thing. Second, on top of this, an attention-economy narrative, for all its usefulness, reinforces a conception of attention-as-a-resource, rather than attention-as-experience.
At one extreme, we can imagine a scenario in which we gradually lose touch with attention-as-experience altogether. Attention becomes solely a thing to utilise, a means of getting things done, something from which value can be extracted. This scenario entails, perhaps, the sort of disembodied, inhuman dystopia that the American cultural critic Jonathan Beller talks about in his essay ‘Paying Attention’ (2006) when he describes a world in which ‘humanity has become its own ghost’.
While such an outcome is extreme, there are hints that modern psyches are moving in this direction. One study found, for instance, that most men chose to receive an electric shock rather than be left to their own devices: when, in other words, they had no entertainment on which to fix their attention. Or take the emergence of the ‘quantified self’ movement, in which ‘life loggers’ use smart devices to track thousands of daily movements and behaviours in order to (supposedly) amass self-knowledge. If one adopts such a mindset, data is the only valid input. One’s direct, felt experience of the world simply does not compute.
Thankfully, no society has reached this dystopia – yet. But faced with a stream of claims on our attention, and narratives that invite us to treat it as a resource to mine, we need to work to keep our instrumental and exploratory modes of attention in balance. How might we do this?
To begin with, when we talk about attention, we need to defend framing it as an experience, not a mere means or implement to some other end.
Next, we can reflect on how we spend our time. Besides expert advice on ‘digital hygiene’ (turning off notifications, keeping our phones out of the bedroom, and so on), we can be proactive in making a good amount of time each week for activities that nourish us in an open, receptive, undirected way: taking a stroll, visiting a gallery, listening to a record.
Perhaps most effective of all, though, is simply to return to an embodied, exploratory mode of attention, just for a moment or two, as often as we can throughout the day. Watching our breath, say, with no agenda. In an age of fast-paced technologies and instant hits, that might sound a little … underwhelming. But there can be beauty and wonder in the unadorned act of ‘experiencing’. This might be what Weil had in mind when she said that the corrections application of attention can lead us to ‘the gateway to eternity … The infinite in an instant.’
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
I’ve never seen so many people line up to vote, and in a mid-term election no less! I’m nervous for Beto but also heartened to see so many of my fellow citizens show up at the polls, especially on a dismal weekday morning like this.