Caleb Smith, Disciplines of Attention in a Secular Age, Critical Inquiry 2019 45:4, 884-909
“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things,” Henry David Thoreau writes in Walden (1854).1 In the century and a half since Thoreau withdrew to the Massachusetts woods, his thinking about modernity and mental life has become our common sense. New machines of work and play, so the story goes, are destroying our capacity to pay attention. We are always in touch but never really intimate, always moving but never in a natural rhythm. “Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life?” (W, p. 90).
the distracted today turn to disciplines of attention, adapting the religious practices of older or distant societies to new situations that seem to have little to do with ritual or faith. Mindfulness training, transcendental meditation, regimens to sharpen our focus and extend our concentration—these are the spiritual exercises of our secular age.
In this essay I offer a genealogy of attentive reading as a secular spiritual exercise. Beginning with the transatlantic reform movements of the early nineteenth century, I take up a handful of sermons, lectures, and other texts that made the problem of attention their explicit topic. “The degree of attention we pay,” one minister preached in 1850, “depends upon our own disposition to attend. This shows us that the matter, after all, is very largely one of discipline.”14 I explore how reformers sought to capture and direct attention in the service of social control. I also dwell for a while with Thoreau, for whom a heightened attentiveness seemed to open a way out of the grips of power, toward a kind of redemption. As Theo Davis suggests, Thoreau’s work has become a touchstone for thinking about “reading as attending.”15 Our disciplines of attention were born, I argue, when reformers trained in an Anglo-Protestant tradition reconceived ancient religious practices for the purposes of secular pedagogy and self-culture, as a remedy to the psychic damage wrought by modernity.
The new spiritual exercises promised to repair the damage history does to the self—not by remaking historical conditions but by retraining will and perception. They are disciplines, but they are also therapeutic and ethical practices, in Michel Foucault’s sense.