Calling Attention

Net Repair
Net Repair
In the (relative) cool of the evening on Chennai/Madras beach, a fisherman attends to stitching his net

Attention! Our attention is gained, and not infrequently grabbed. This is a common first step in attending. And attending is central to being conscious. But what happens in that first step? Socially it is clear when we are called to attention. That is exactly what the officer is doing when the word is shouted, or when the teacher wakes a pupil from reverie; there is a call with an intention of eliciting a response, but the call is intransitive, a particular act is not specified, although as a call it seems quite unambiguous - a dog will 'attend' as much as a person.

So we have clear models of gaining attention in cases where it is stentorian. What of its gentler occurrences, such as the ordinary ways in which we come to attend to this sentence, rather than that sentence, the words do not bark at me. What happens when we direct our attention? When we are not pushed or pulled by allurements or discomforts. Maybe a garden, such as this in which I am writing on a warm Spring day, with gentle sun, and a soft breeze. Such a situation has few demands, although many potential diversions to which my attention could turn. The daffodils swaying, the sparrows sunbathing, the border needing weeded; a frog's eyes are protruding from the water of the pool. A frog! Do I turn my attention to the frog, or does the frog gain my attention? It feels as though something is being steered.

We might imagine we choose the objects of our attention. Just as we choose which book to take down to read, so we choose the matter with which we will engage. But is that how it feels? Do we not feel as though the frog attracts us, gently calls us to attend to it - certainly a much softer voice than that of the sergeant major - but a call which comes from outside ourselves. A call which emerges out of the background, stands out from it, makes itself conspicuous. Of the myriad possible objects in the garden, it is the frog that emerges. If the garden's possibilities were that sergeant major's line of guardsmen on drill, it does not seem that our eye moves along the perfect line and settles on one man, but rather as though one steps forward.

Neither choosing nor being called seem quite to fit the event. There seems to be a parallel here with the pattern of the middle voice. English normally asks us to decide between the active and passive voice: either 'I ate the frog' or 'The frog was eaten by me'. There is no natural modern middle form for that sentence, however, in other cases the middle voice is still possible in English as in "My clothes soaked in water overnight'. Is there a parallel construction here which places myself and the frog on the ends of the relationship of attending. We seem forced to select between my noticing the frog, and the frog calling me out of my reverie. But as with the middle voice, not all languages are so prescriptive. Just as we might not have to choose between the passive and active, so we might not have to attribute the action. In a Chinese language we might have 'Myself frog attention created', whereas in English (if we wish to stick to conventional grammar) we must find a circumlocution, and so lose the immediacy of the description.

This way that 'objects', like the frog or indeed one specific guardsman, emerge from their backgrounds is fundamental to consciousness. And emergence is a good word for the process. Heidegger seems to be thinking of the same concept when he brings together the way 'clearing' is used both for a forest glade and for the teasing away of irrelevant material 1. So an animal emerges from the jungle into the light of a clearing and we can see it for what it is, its camouflage cleared from it. In this way the objects of our consciousness emerge; come out of the unknowable, and stand under the light. These incarnations of the unknowable (the formation of phenomena from noumena) make our worlds: when we try to understand the way attention works we are probing creation.

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  • Heidigger, Martin (1926) Trans: Macquarrie, J. & Robinson, E. (1962) 'Being and Time' Basil Blackwell, Oxford. (H. 133)

  12th April 2015 ~ 10th June 2015