Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Concentration as diversion

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Thursday, Sep 22, 2005

An economy driven by consumerism relies on a culture’s ability to associate human qualities and capabilities—elegance, ease, joy, perceptiveness, etc.—with goods and brands, and then to obfuscate that association, turn it upside down so that it appears to people in the culture that you can’t have the qualities without the goods, that the qualities rest ontologically with the goods themselves and are not produced through orchestrated relationships, the human manipulation of things. (Marx’s description of ideology as a mirror which inverts the world in reflecting it seems to apply.) I tend to focus on the way convenience is associated with goods, because convenience is an especially appropriate engine for consumer capitalism, sanctifying as the highest human values those qualities which do most to further more consumption: intellectual laziness, impulsiveness, passivity, rapidity, accessibility. These ideals crowd out pleasures to be found in slowness, thoroughness, redundant effort (such as solving math problems without a computer), privacy, concentration. Nevertheless the process of associating states of mind with goods doesn’t leave these qualities out. We have many goods that facilitate and embody concentration, pretenses to concentration like the suddenly ubitquitous su doku puzzles and crosswords and immersive novels and the complexly plotted TV shows so beloved by Steven Johnson. Concentration is becoming less an approach to the world, a way of processing information or investigating situations, and more like something akin to the suspension of disbelief, an entertaining state that we’re prodded into by cultural artifacts. Concentration is becoming just another form of diversion. Concentration required for work has been spun off and given a new name, “detail-oriented,” which less a deliberate approach to problems and more a fastidious rule-following. Drugs for attention deficit order—Adderal, Ritilin—may be the ultimate concentration products, a pill that forces you to become fixated whether you wanted to or not. The pill can then moderate the alternation between conentrating and not concentrating, making it seem as though humans should not really be expected to adjust their levels of thought on their own. Concetration may become a kind of euphoria, may be understood as an unnaturally elevated state, a kind of hysterical trance, and the mindlessness of the stereotypical TV watcher will settle in as the expected state of mind, the way one is normal.

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