001 Attendance Optional

Making space on the cluttered desktop

Screens beckon our attention while almost everything else obstructs our best efforts to nurture hope. So this is one small expression of that “best effort.”

A few years back I read a book by A.D. Sertillanges called The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods. That title has bounced around as a golden oldie recommendation for those pursuing the life of the mind. Sertillanges was a Catholic priest who wrote the book as a guide for fellow travelers who would devote themselves to the pursuit of truth and scholarship. The Intellectual Life gives practical suggestions as well as philosophical and religious arguments. The book contains many good insights and lines; here is one that resonated with me:

“It is a painful thing to say to say to oneself: by choosing one road I am turning my back on a thousand others. Everything is interesting; everything might be useful; everything attracts and charms a noble mind; but death is before us; mind and matter make their demands; willy-nilly we must submit and rest content as to things that time and wisdom deny us, with a glance of sympathy which is another act of our homage to the truth.”

We’ve got to choose a path, knowing that we won’t have time to explore all others. Speaking personally, that’s a difficult truth to accept.

I once read an observation (I think on Ran Prieur’s site) that there are people who are bored when they have nothing to do, and people who are bored when they are forced to devote their attention to things they don’t want to. I am absolutely in the latter category. For obvious reasons, the internet has proven to be a blessing and a curse in this respect.

Sertillanges warns his readers against a restless, omnivorous search for information. To him, an intellectual already had enough work lined up; no need to look for excessive novelty or to take in too much of what people (today) call “content.” He thought the maximalist approach instead dulled the mind and caused one to be “inwardly extroverted,” meaning that one substitutes others’ thoughts, experiences, and visions for one’s own. I can’t speak for anyone reading this, but there’s a little sting of recognition for me in that observation.

This doesn’t mean that we actually think alone though; our priestly friend admits as much. We “think in company, in a vast collaboration.” The reason that we shouldn’t lose ourselves in this inward extroversion of content is that we must play our part in being there too, and being ourselves, for other people. Otherwise it won’t work; it can’t be participatory or collaborative or democratic—our thought and our attention will just be eaten up by the monocultural extroversion that’s in us, as hosts.

Elsewhere, Simone Weil wrote:

“The wrong way of seeking. The attention fixed on a problem. Another phenomenon due to horror of the void. We do not want to have lost our labour. The heat of the chase. We must not want to find: as in the case of an excessive devotion, we become dependent on the object of our efforts.”

The paradigm of “content” beckons us to sail its vast seas. Maybe it lures us with the implicit advertisement of oceanic feeling. (Netflix asks if we want to continue watching? Yes. Streaming is the new Calgon: “take me away.”) It can be easy to become dependent on currency or relevant according to what is present there before us, that which we are convinced is the object of our efforts. It’s debatable whether all this content delivers on that immersive promise, or whether immersion would be a good thing, anyhow.

Even if we swim in the ocean regularly, even if it seems omnipresent, I do think it’s necessary for us to step out of it. What that looks like for me might not look the same for you. But if we can start to attend to things as they might actually suit our deepest and also our most practical journeys, without worrying about currency or FOMO, about imposed standards of relevance, about received wisdom of taste, about markets—if we can alter our posture into the most basic resistance here, we can aid the way we think about our stories, enjoyment, and information. We can try to make our experience “liberal” in that very old-fashioned sense of the word: FREE.

Attendance Optional is envisioned as an occasional and informal newsletter, sent a few times a month, with each installment focusing on some idea that interests me. I might write about media theory and history, or the attention economy, or cinephilia and taste cultures, or technology, or political philosophy, or education, or metaphysics, or a specific book or film or TV show, or something else. With each installment I’ll probably include a brief round-up of things to read or look at.