“Angels in New York” (Random Attention)


I spotted these pretentious little sh%ts on a walk past the ABC offices around W.66th Street between Central Park West and Columbus the other week. I can’t recall what it was that caught my eye from street level, why it was that I looked up at that precise and very ordinary moment. You pass by a place how many times and then you notice something big or small you never noticed before. This is an odd thing and completely random thing about attention.

I found this from William James on Wikipedia: Everyone knows what attention is. It is 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. Focalization, concentration, of consciousness are of its essence. It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others, and is a condition which has a real opposite in the confused, dazed, scatterbrained state which in French is called distraction, and Zerstreutheit in German.  

I’ll confess that here’s a case where my lack of science education shows itself. In this case, I need to know (at least) a little something about “attentional psychology,” and I’ll also confess that sometimes a little Wikipedia is a good thing. I’m thinking that the attention the other day was neither motivated by any exceptional, external stimulus or any goal-driven activity. It was completely random (?).  This is probably what the psychologists call “visual covert attention,” defined as “a mechanism for quickly scanning the field of view for interesting locations.” Is this also the same as or related to what they call “automatic” or “exogenous” attention, i.e. reaction to external stimuli without conscious intention? [[I found online (at Wikipedia and elsewhere) a lot of reference to Posner, M.I. (1980), “Orienting of attention” in Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 32: 3 – 25)]]

So this is how the mind works. But the psychologists won’t or can’t necessarily tell you about the sensed character or quality of attention. I don’t see why these aren’t complimentary forms of awareness, even if the psychologists and cognitive science people think they’ve got the whole thing sewn up while still unclear as to the relation between neural firing and states of phenomenal consciousness. William James got only half the story. At least in this passage, he does not do sufficient justice to the pleasure of random distraction. At the level of phenomenal consciousness, well, it “feels” great on a sunny day, the intentional act of walking through Manhattan, peering up all of a sudden into someone important’s office and spotting something unusual.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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