Scenes of Attention: Essays on Mind, Time, and the Senses

Columbia University Press
Other Editors
Justin E. H. Smith

Are we paying enough attention? At least since the nineteenth century, critics have alleged a widespread and profound failure of attentiveness—to others, to ourselves, to the world around us, to what is truly worthy of focus. Why is there such great anxiety over attention? What is at stake in understanding attention and the challenges it faces?

This book investigates attention from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including philosophy, history, anthropology, art history, and comparative literature. Each chapter begins with a concrete scene whose protagonists are trying—and often failing—to attend. Authors examine key moments in the history of the study of attention; pose attention as a philosophical problem; explore the links between attention, culture, and technology; and consider the significance of attention for conceptualizations of human subjectivity. Readers encounter nineteenth-century experiments in boredom, ornithologists conveying sound through field notations, wearable attention-enhancing prosthetics, students using online learning platforms, and inquiries into attention as a cognitive state and moral virtue.

Amid mounting concern about digital mediation of experience, the rise of “surveillance capitalism,” and the commodification of attention, Scenes of Attention deepens the thinking that is needed to protect the freedom of attention and the forms of life that make it possible.

About the Editors

D. Graham Burnett is a professor of history and the history of science at Princeton University, where he is affiliated with the IHUM interdisciplinary doctoral program. His scholarly books on cartography, empire, optics, and the oceans have examined the changing understanding of nature from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Burnett is associated with the research collective ESTAR(SER) and the activist coalition “The Friends of Attention,” with whom he coauthored Twelve Theses on Attention (2022).

Justin E. H. Smith is professor of the history and philosophy of science at the Université Paris Cité and a member of the SPHERE Laboratory for Research in the History of Science. He is the author of five books, most recently The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is: A History, a Philosophy, a Warning (2022), and a frequent contributor to a number of popular publications. In 2015 a main-belt asteroid, 4.5 kilometers in diameter, was named after him: 13585 Justinsmith (1993 TC20).

Area of Interest
Art History
Attention Studies
History of Marketing and Advertising
History of Technology
Intellectual History
Literary Studies
Science and Technology Studies
Visual Culture
17th & 18th Centuries
19th Century
20th Century
21st Century
United States