On Attention Surplus Disorder



Writing requires huge amounts of solitude. What I’ve done to soften the harshness of that choice is that I don’t write all the time. I like to go out- which includes traveling; I can’t write when I travel. I like to talk. I like to listen. I like to look and to watch. Maybe I have an Attention Surplus Disorder. The easiest thing in the world for me is to pay attention.

Susan Sontag. p 17 in Krementz, Jill (1996) The writer’s desk. New York: Random House.

I love this from Susan Sontag. It so seems to fit my life too. I retreat to write. But then I also pay much too much attention to too many things at once.

I’m thinking of that attention-al aspect of me today as I work on and work up a set of workshop activities around building an academic profile. I re-looked at my own bio and publications, and saw how hard it might be to see them – from outside – as a coherent set of activities. On the inside it all seems perfectly sensible! I’m interested in several overlapping things and I keep them all on the go. I pay attention to multiple things at once.

And I was reminded about my own version of attention surplus disorder yesterday when someone asked me in a workshop what to do with a doctoral researcher who was always finding that the latest thing they’d read was just the very thing that they most wanted to do, one after another, on and on. The doctoral researcher couldn’t develop a consistent approach and this was jeopardizing their research as they kept chopping and changing what they wanted to do and never settling. I said, among other things, that I liked finding new things too. And I do. I really relish finding a new bit of text or hearing someone talk about a something that sparks off a new line of thinking, a new perspective, a new possibility. However I do think it’s important that this doesn’t get in the way of an agenda (or three). It must be possible to both pay attention and also be focused – although, as Sontag points out, not at the same time.

And just last week someone asked me why I was working with a particular research partner – a big name art museum – and why I didn’t partner with art schools in higher education. I had no answer to this question other than that this was what I’d fallen into. I had an opportunity and I took it. I hadn’t imagined I might do this particular kind of research, but when it turned up, I was interested, no I was excited by the possibility, and by the challenge of having to learn a lot of new things. I wanted to be out of my comfort zone and this was just the chance. I wanted to pay attention to even more than I already was.

And I thought about my attention economy and the question of planning a while ago when I read Athene Donald’s post on improvisation. She wrote that she understood her career as having strong elements of improvisation. She hadn’t worked her career in a pre-conceived straight line but via diversions. I feel much the same way. I didn’t plan my career in any long-term sense. I’ve always followed my interests, but also been aware of the possibilities and opportunities that might be around. I guess some people would call this entrepreneurial or opportunistic or flexible or fluid, or even disordered. I prefer Sontag’s notion of paying attention to what might be possible.

It does seem to me that all of these things – an academic profile, a new research topic, a research agenda, a career – could be connected to the ways in which we attend to things around us. While Attention Surplus Disorder might sound like a problem, a way of being distracted, it might also be highly (re)generative of the self and life. It might be a way of being able to be particularly focused at times, but not all the time. Too tiring, as Sontag notes in the lead up to the piece I’ve quoted.

Finding it easy to pay attention might indeed be a very positive life practice, as might dis-ordering things that are taken for granted. Im wondering now if this is especially so for academics? artists? writers? others whose life work is to interact with and understand the world?

What do you think? Do you have Attention Surplus Disorder too?