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Literature and Attention

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Organizer: Anne Marie Thompson

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Is there a crisis of attention? Much of our contemporary experience seems to suggest so, and myriad popular books—like Jenny O’Dell’s How to Do Nothing or Tim Wu’s The Attention Merchants—speak to the topic. On the other hand, perhaps it’s possible to understand the crisis of attention like the crisis of the humanities: always at a decisive point, always being formed and shaped by cultural-historical forces.

Literary scholarship has seen a recent spate of fascinating approaches to attention. There are period monographs, such as Lily Gurton-Wachter’s Watchwords: Romanticism and the Poetics of Attention (2016), Margaret Koehler’s Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century (2012), and Andrew Epstein’s Attention Equals Life: The Pursuit of the Everyday in Contemporary Poetry and Culture (2016). Lucy Alford takes a formal/phenomenological tack in her Forms of Poetic Attention (2020). Caleb Smith traces a cultural genealogy of American attention in Thoreau’s Axe: Distraction and Discipline in American Culture (2023). Cognitive poetics contributes a scientific understanding, and contemplative pedagogy relates attentive reading to practices of contemplation and mindfulness.

Starting from such an embarrassment of riches, this seminar seeks to tackle the questions: how does literature relate to attention? How does a poetics shape (and how is it shaped by) attention? Does literature contribute to an ethics of attention? Might literature play a role in mitigating the harmful effects of the attention economy?

Papers that engage with these questions are welcome from any angle, discipline, theoretical framework, or methodology.

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