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<nettime> Interview with Petra Loeffler on Attention (posted again)
Geert Lovink on Tue, 24 Sep 2013 17:09:32 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Petra Loeffler on Attention (posted again)

Aesthetics of Dispersed Attention
Interview with German Media Theorist Petra Loeffler
By Geert Lovink

When I met Petra Loeffler in the summer of 2012 in Weimar I was amazed =
to find out about her habilitation topic. She had just finished a study =
on the history of distraction from a German media theory perspective. =
After I read the manuscript (in German) we decided to do an email =
interview in English so that more people could find out about her =
research. The study will appear late 2013 (in German) with Diaphanes =
Verlag under the title Verteilte Aufmerksamkeit. Eine Mediengeschichte =
der Zerstreuung (Distributed Attention, a Media History of Distraction). =
Since October 2011 Petra Loeffler has replaced Lorenz Engell as media =
philosophy professor at Bauhaus University in Weimar. Before this =
appointment she worked in Regensburg, Vienna and Siegen. Her main =
research areas are affect theory, media archaeology, early cinema, =
visual culture and digital archives.

With the hyper growth of internet, video, mobile phones, games, txt =
messaging, the new media debate gets narrowed down to this one question: =
 what do you think of attention? The supposed decline in concentration =
and today's inability to read longer, complicated texts is starting to =
affect the future of research as such. Social media only make things =
worse. Human kind is, once again, on the way down hill, this time busy =
multitasking on their smart phones. Like any issue this one must have a =
genealogy too, but if we look at the current literature, from Bernard =
Stiegler to Nicolas Carr and Frank Schirrmacher, from Sherry Turkle to =
Franco Berardi, and Andrew Keen to Jaron Lanier, including my own =
contribution, the long view is entirely missing. Bernard Stiegler digs =
into Greek philosophy, yes, but also leaves out the historical media =
theory angle. This also counts for those who stress solutions such as =
training and abstinence (a field ranging from Peter Sloterdijk to Howard =
Rheingold). But can a contemporary critique of attention really do =
without proper historical foundations?

While the education sector and the IT industry promote the use of =
tablets in classrooms (with MOOCs as the most current hype), there is =
only a hand full of experts that warn against the long-term =
consequences. The absence of a serious discussion and policy then gives =
way to a range of popular myths. Quickly the debate gets polarized and =
any unease is reduced to generational issues and technophobia. Deceases =
amongst millions of computer workers vary from damaged eyesight, ADHD =
and related medication problems (Retalin), Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, RSI =
and bad postures due to badly designed peripherals, leading to =
widespread spinal disk problems. There is talk of mutations in the brain =
(see for instance the work of the German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer). =
Within this worrying spread of postmodern deceases, who would talk about =
 the 'healing effects of daydreaming'? Petra Loeffler does, and she =
refers to Michel de Montaigne, who, already many centuries ago, =
recommended diversion as a comfort against suffering of the souls. Why =
can't we acknowledge the distribution of attention as an art form, a =
gift, in fact a high skill?

Geert Lovink: How did you come up with the idea to write the history of =
distraction? When you told me about your work and I read your =
habilitation (a major study in German speaking countries after your PhD =
if you want to become professor) it occurred to me how obvious this =
intellectual undertaken was from a media theory perspective97and yet I =
wondered why it wasn't done before. Would you call its history a classic =
black spot? You didn't go along the institutional knowledge road a la =
Foucault, nor do you use the hermeneutical method, the Latourian history =
of science approach or mentality history, for that matter. How did you =
come up with your angle?

Petra Loeffler: That's a long story. Around 2000, with my colleague =
Albert Kuemmel, I was working at an anthology about ephemeral discourses =
dealing with media dating back to the second half of the nineteenth =
century. We found a lot of interesting stuff in scientific journals from =
very different disciplines. Out of this rich material we developed a =
classification system consisting of discourse-relevant terms we found in =
the articles, and published a book representing our research results =
(Albert Kuemmel and Petra Loeffler, Medientheorie 1888-1933, Texte und =
Kommentare, 2002). One of the topics was Aufmerksamkeit' (attention). =
Later I reviewed the material, much of it was unpublished, and came =
across a collection of related texts, which focussed on 'Zerstreuung' =
(distraction). Like you now, I then was wondering why, in media theory, =
a conceptualization of distraction was missing up to date, although =
important early theoreticians such as Siegfried Kracauer and Walter =
Benjamin, in the 1930s have formulated powerful concepts of mass =
entertainment, cinema and the political role of distraction that were =
quoted regularly. That's why I wanted to know more about the 'roots', =
the background of their thinking of distraction in other discourses.

Another motivation was that in the tradition of the Frankfurter Schule, =
which is very influential until now (not only in Germany), distraction =
has a bad reputation. So, I wanted to analyse the schools of knowledge =
that support that bad reputation and through this way reveal the 'other' =
side of distraction, its positive meaning and its necessity. For this =
project I had to go back to the early reflections on modernity in the =
18th century and to cross very different discourses from philosophy and =
pedagogy to psychiatry and physiology to optics and aesthetics. There =
was not a single constant discourse, but various discontinuous =
propositions that could not easy be summarized into a respectable object =
of knowledge. I owe Foucault's discourse analysis and archaeology of =
knowledge a lot, but for my research object stable systems of =
propositions didn't exist, and the gaps between discourses were evident. =
May be that's why, for a long time, distraction seems to be only an =
ephemeral side product of discourses on attention or better a bastard, =
that has to be hide.=20

GL: You don't seem to be bothered by distraction, is that true?

PL: It depends on my temper. I really hate to get up in the middle of =
the night by a terrible noise. I guess nobody wants that. But I have =
been living in big cities for decades and I accept a certain level of  =
noise as normal just because I also estimate the various leisure time =
distractions every metropolis has to offer. Following philosophers like =
Kant or psychologists like Ribot I belief that a certain level of =
distraction is not only necessary for a life balance, but also a common =
state of body and mind.

GL: You got a fascinating chapter in your habilitation about early =
cinema and the scattering of attention it would be responsible for. The =
figure of the nosy parker that gawks interests you and you contrast it =
to the street roaming flaneur.

PL: Yes, the gawker is a fascinating figure, because according to my =
research results it is the corporation of the modern spectator who is =
also a member of a mass audience the flaneur never was part of it. The =
gawker or gazer, like the flaneur, appeared at first in the modern =
metropolis with its multi-sensorial sensations and attractions. =
According to Walter Benjamin the flaneur disappeared at the moment, when =
the famous passages were broken down. They had to make room for greater =
boulevards that were able to steer the advanced traffic in the French =
metropolis. Always being part of the mass of passers-by the gawker looks =
at the same time for diversions, for accidents and incidents in the =
streets. This is to say his attention is always distracted between an =
awareness of what happens on the streets and navigating between people =
and vehicles. No wonder movie theatres were often opened at locations =
with a high level of traffic inviting passers-by to go inside and, for a =
certain period of time, becoming part of an audience. Furthermore many =
films of the period of Early Cinema were actualities showing the modern =
city-life. In these films the movie-camera was positioned at busy =
streets or corners in order to record movements of human and non-human =
agents. Gawkers often went into the view of the camera gesticulating or =
grimacing in front of it. That's why the gawker has become a very =
popular figure mirroring the modern mass audience on the screen.

Today to view one's own face on a screen is an everyday experience. Not =
only CCTV-cameras at public spaces record passers-by, often without =
their notice. Also popular TV-shows that require life-participation such =
as casting shows once more offer members of the audience the opportunity =
to see themselves on a screen. At the same time many people post their =
portraits on websites of social networks. They want to be seen by others =
because they want to be part of a greater audience the network =
community. This is what Jean Baudrillard has called connectivity. The =
alliance between the drive to see and to being seen establishes a new =
order of seeing which differs significantly from Foucault's panoptical =
vision: Today no more the few see the many (panopticon) or the many see =
the few (popular stars) today, because of the multiplication and =
connectivity of screens in public and private spaces, the many see the =
many. Insofar, one can conclude, the gawker or gazer is an =
overall-phenomenon, a non-specific subjectivity of a distributed =

GL: In your study you show that, like in so many other instances, the =
'birth' of attention as a modern problem, comes up during the late 18th =
century. I am joking, but Kant seems the first and the last philosopher =
who is praising distraction. What is it with this period around 1800? =
You studied at least two centuries of material. Which period did you =
think is the most interesting?

PL: =46rom the perspective of a media archaeologist I would say, of =
course, the period around 1800 just because things look different from a =
distance. I was really surprised by regimes of distraction arising =
around 1800 in psychiatry, where people suffering from a mental =
breakdown were cured with the help of sensual shocks and spectacular =
performances. At the same time the need to distribute one's attention, =
to react on different stimuli almost simultaneously, was more and more =
regarded as necessary. This formulation of a distributed or distracted =
attention can be considered as an effect of the dynamics of modernity, =
its drive to economize every part of living, even the human body. What =
we used to declare as phenomena of our time such as multi-tasking can be =
already found in discussions about distraction two hundred years ago. So =
it seems that changes in our media environments regularly provoke =
discussions about regimes of attention and questions the role of =

Today, with the ubiquitous use of information technologies, discussions =
about distraction or distributed attention, the balance between stress =
and relaxation arises again, and philosophers like Richard Shusterman =
again consider the body's role for that purpose. For me, Kant's quest =
for distraction as an art of living is resonated much by such accounts.

GL: I can imagine that debates during the rise of mass education, the =
invention of film are different from ours. But is that the case? It is =
all pedagogy, so it seems. We never seem to leave the classroom.

PL: The question is, leaving where? Entering the other side (likewise =
amusement sites or absorbing fantasies)? Why not? Changing perspectives? =
Yes, that's what we have to do. But for that purpose we don't have to =
leave the classroom necessarily. Rather, we should rebuilt it as a room =
of testing modes of thinking in very concrete ways. I'm thinking of =
Jacques Ranciere's suggestions, in his essay Le partage du  sensible, =
about the power relation between teachers and pupils. Maybe today =
teachers can learn more (for instance soft skills) from their pupils =
than the other way around. We need other regimes of distribution of =
power, also in the classroom, a differentiation of tasks, of velocities =
and singularities97in short: we need micropolitics.

More seriously, your question indicates a strong relationship between =
pedagogy and media. There's a reason why media theorists like Friedrich =
Kittler had pointed to media's affinity to propaganda and institutions =
of power. I think of his important book Discourse Networks, where he has =
revealed the relevance of mediated writing techniques for the formation =
of educational institutions and for subjectivation. That's why the =
question is, what are the tasks we have to learn in order to exist in =
the world of electronic mass media? What means 'Bildung' for us =

GL: There is an 'attention war' going on, with debates across =
traditional print and broadcast media about the rise in distraction, in =
schools, at home. On the street we see people hooked on their smart =
phones, multitasking, everywhere they go. What do you make of this? This =
is just a heightened sensibility, a fashion, or is there really =
something at stake? Would you classify it as petit-bourgeois anxieties? =
Loss of attention as a metaphor for threatening poverty and status loss =
of the traditional middle class in the West? How do you read the use of =
brain research by Nicholas Carr, Frank Schirrmacher and more recently =
also the German psychiatrist Manfred Spitzer who came up with a few bold =
statement concerning the devastating consequences of computer use for =
the (young) human brain. Having read your study one could say: don't =
worry, nothing new under the sun. But is this the right answer?

PL: Your description addresses severe debates. Nothing less than the =
future of our Western culture seems to be at stake. Institutions like =
the educational systems are under permanent critique, concerning all =
levels from primary schools to universities. That's why the Pisa studies =
have revealed a lot of deficits and have provoked debates on what kind =
of education is necessary for our children. On the one hand it's a =
debate on cultural values, but on the other it's a struggle on power =
relations. We are living in a society of control, and how to become a =
subject and how this subject is related to other subjects in mediated =
environments are important questions.

A great uncertainty is emerged. That's why formulas that promise easy =
solutions are highly welcomed. Neurological concepts are often based on =
one-sided models concerning the relationship between body and mind, and =
they often leave out the role of social and environmental factors. =46rom =
historians of science such as Canguilhem and Foucault one can learn that =
psychiatrist models of brain defects and mental anomalies not only =
mirror social anxieties, but also produce knowledge about what is =
defined as normal. And it is up to us as observers of such discourses to =
name those anxieties today. Nonetheless, I would not signify distraction =
as a metaphor. It is in fact a concrete phase of the body, a state of =
the mind. It's real. You cannot deal with it when you call it a =
disability or a disease and just pop pills or switch off your electronic =

GL: Building on Simondon, Bernard Stiegler develops a theory of =
attention that might be different from the US-American mainstream =
polarity between dotcom utopians and social media pessimists. His =
'pharmacological' approach is different, less polemic, in search of new =
concepts in order to leave behind the known clichees and dichotomies. =
His book Taking Care of Youth and the Generations from 2008 contains =
pretty strong warnings about our loss of concentration to read  longer, =
complicated texts. What do you make of this?

PL: Bernard Stiegler's approach combines different arguments, the clash =
of generations, the rise of marketing and entertainment industries. I'm =
always wondering how easy philosophers like Stiegler or Christoph =
Tuercke in Germany jump from ancient cultures (the Greeks, the Romans or =
to name another popular example Stone Age populations) to modern =
cultures of the 21st century. I take this as suspicious. Reading as well =
as writing were, of course, important cultural techniques over a long =
period of time but both are techniques that have undertaken several =
heavy changes in their long taking history, long before media such as =
cinema or television have entered the scene. Think only of the invention =
of printing, the development of the mass press in the 18th century or =
the invention of the typewriter one century later. It's hard to imagine =
that these epochal events should not have had any influence on how to =
learn reading and writing. You read the columns of a newspaper or a =
picture book in a different way than the pages of a printed book filled =
with characters only. This was common knowledge even then.

Techniques such as a quickly scan and scroll through a text =
('Querlesen') had become widespread, and newspaper layouts support this =
kind of reading. The actual hype of a deep-attention-reading is, seen =
from a media-archaeological perspective, not simply nostalgic. It =
forgets its 91dark side' as it was seen in the civil cultures of the =
18th and 19th century, when especially bored middle-class women were =
accused of being addicted reading novels and were condemned because of =
escaping in exciting dream worlds. Deep concentration was then regarded =
as dangerous, because it leads to absent-mindedness and even mental =
confusion making individuals unusable especially for a capitalist =
economy. Civil cultures have an interest to control their populations, =
their bodies and desires, for the sake of normalization. In this =
perspective, a 'too much', of what quality ever that can destabilise the =
public order has to be refused.

My sneaking suspicion is that Stiegler or Tuercke are focussing only to =
small cuttings of media history, because their interest is to construct =
almost apocalyptic scenarios of a great divide. Not surprisingly =
Tuercke,in his actual book on hyperactivity, criticizes newspapers for =
having reduced the length of articles and at the same time having =
advanced number and size of pictures. But other changes are more =
important unnoticed by these philosophers. With the rise of personal =
computers and multi-media devices using touch-screens tactility has =
become again a major human faculty. Media based on haptic operations =
change the interplay of the senses and create new habits97and insofar =
writing and reading have to amplify their dimensions.

GL: There is (the New Age cult of) mindfulness. And there is Peter =
Sloterdijk. What do you make of such calls to exercise, to save =
attention through training? It all boils down to dosage. Do you believe =
there is a 'will to entropy'? Altered states that invite us to enter =
unknown spaces? Would it make sense to study another side of the =
so-called loss of attention in the drug experiences as described from =
Baudelaire and Benjamin to Huxley and Juenger?

PL: I guess, the training of our senses and the experiments of losing =
self-control belong to the same regime of taking care of oneself. It =
occurs to me that one major difference between the self-experiments you =
name and what I've analyzed is the isolation of the persons =
experimenting with drugs to enter altered states of body and mind. One =
reason why I've studied not only discourses, but also practices of =
distraction was the fact that most of the diversions of urban culture =
were built on (and for) a mass audience. To be with unfamiliar others at =
the same place and at the same time was an experience, a thrill people =
were addicted to. Today other mass entertainments have emerged such as =
multiplex-cinemas, public viewings or big sports events, which are, of =
course, unthinkable without the rise of mass communication and mass =
media like television. That's why I'm not sure if the description made =
for instance by Nicholas Carr and Frank Schirrmacher we are living =
nowadays under a brutal regime of a cannibalistic monster-machine =
nourished by our attention witch is known as personal computer is =
telling the whole story.

GL: How would you situate your own work inside what is known as German =
media theory? History of ideas meets archaeology of knowledge? You have =
a strong interest in the medical discourse (which is, again, very strong =
these days). Would you say that media steer our perception?

PL: Maybe I'm not the right person answering that question, but I would =
like to describe my work as a combination of archaeology of knowledge =
and media archaeology. In German media studies the epistemology and =
history of media has played a crucial role. Friedrich Kittler, in the =
1980s, has inaugurated a discourse analysis of media that highlights the =
importance of the materiality of media, the a priori of technique and =
the power of institutions. The main question thereby is how media =
constitute what can be known and how media influence the ways we =
consider the world. Scholars like Siegfried Zielinski or Wolfgang Ernst =
have developed the field of media archaeology further. Recently =
interdependencies between media techniques and infrastructures at the =
one hand and cultural or body techniques at the other are an important =
topic of research, namely by scholars such as Bernhard Siegert (Weimar) =
or Erhard Schuettpelz (Siegen). At the same time media philosophers not =
only in Germany rethink mediation in terms of triangular relations. In =
recent debates questions of media ecology and ontology respectively =
mediated modes of existence have gained much attention.20

My strong interest in the medical discourse derives from the role it =
plays for formulations of normality. This is, of course, a Foucaultian =
perspective. The distinction between what is regarded as normal or =
abnormal behaviour or sane or insane is always a result of cultural =
negotiations. I'm interested in the role mass media play in these =
negotiations. Perception, in my point of view, is a relay, and media can =
intensify the permeability of it. No more, no less.

GL: Seen from other countries and continents Germany is still the =
country of Schiller and Goethe, high literature and philosophy. Students =
still read tons of thick and complex books, so it seems. You teach in =
Weimar and that must certainly be a strange one-off museum experience. =
Is there something we can learn from the German education system or are =
you as pessimistic as everyone else when it comes to the lack of books =
that young people read these days, the decline of the shared canon and =
the long-term implications this has for the intellectual life and the =
level of thinking and critical reflection? Do you see already see =
long-term impacts of the computer and Internet on German theory =

PL: Weimar is not only the city of Goethe and Schiller. Nietzsche lived =
here, and the Bauhaus had its first residence here. And there is =
Buchenwald, a concentration camp of the Nazi regime, too. Before I came =
to Weimar I was teaching in Vienna. =46rom your point of view it seems =
I'm collecting strange one-off museum experiences. But, one mayor =
difference between these university cities (and, by the way, to many =
other universities in Germany) is the fact that the Bauhaus-University =
of Weimar is a very young university, founded shortly after Germany's =
reunification. It's not a classical alma mater: there is no faculty of =
humanities, but faculties of engineering, architecture, design, and =
media. The idea is, that theoretical and practical education goes hand =
in hand. The curriculum offers students courses where they can train =
their skills in photography, film, design or programming. The ability to =
develop own solutions is regarded as very important. At the same time =
Weimar is a place where a lot of research is going on, where scientists =
meet and theoretical debates are initiated. That's the intellectual =
climate around here.

German theory production has an affinity to media archaeology and the =
history and philosophy of cultural practices. Friedrich Kittler was =
among the first media theorists who thought about the role of the =
computer as a super-medium, which is able to incorporate all other =
media. Claus Pias and Martin Warnke have just lanced a research group =
locating in Lueneburg investigating the media cultures of computer =
simulations and their input for knowledge production. I think the =
faculties of reading and writing will be important skills also in the =
future, but they have to be advanced by others such as working with data =
and their different representations for instance as pictures or =
circulating information of any format in order to manage the interplay =
of senses in computer-based environments.

GL: I want to come back to the Frankfurt School. Did you say that Adorno =
is moralistic in his rejection of the media as a light form of dispersed =
entertainment? If he would still be alive, do you think he would say the =
same of the Internet? I always wondered if there would be more sarcastic =
forms of critique, in the tradition of Adorno and others that is less =
elitist, less traditional?

PL: For Adorno's thinking of negativity and the Frankfurt School art is =
an autonomous and alternative sphere of society. And it's art's alterity =
and autonomy that is the condition for its power to undermine the =
capitalistic order. That's why, for these thinkers, it's not a question =
of morality to reject popular mass media of entertainment, it's, I would =
say an 82ontological' question, because these media give not room for =
reflecting the mode of existence in capitalist society. But Adorno's =
position is not so much definite as it seems at first sight. I was =
surprised reading in Dialectics of Enlightment that, according to Adorno =
and Horkheimer, a total excess of distraction comes, in its extremity, =
close to art. This thought, it occurs to me, resonates Siegfried =
Kracauer's utopia of distraction of the 1'0s dealing with modern mass =
media, especially cinema. In tis passage of their book, Adorno and =
Horkheimer are saying, and that is revolutionary for me, nothing less =
than that an accumulation and intensification of distraction is able to =
fulfil the task of negation that was originally dedicated to art, =
because it alters the state of the subject in the world completely. With =
this thought in mind it would be really funny and, at the end much less =
elitist, to speculate about what Adorno would say of the Internet.

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