The Demon of Distraction

Irina Dumitrescu and Caleb Smith

 

When we first heard talk of a quarantine, we thought about open spaces closing down: travel bans and militarized border enforcement on an international scale, isolation orders that would restrain movement closer to home. The collective endeavor to flatten the curve seemed to entail drawing smaller and smaller circles around ourselves.

Now, as we inhabit our narrower circuits, the partitioning of space plays out for us in time. Closures disrupt the ordinary rhythms of business and pleasure, work and play. Some days seem to last forever; others flit by. What day is it, anyway? Lately the clock and the calendar seem obsolete. They still count the time, but they are measuring it for the people of some bygone civilization, the modern but outmoded Empire of Business as Usual. Just when we have time to ourselves, time becomes a problem for us.

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What gives us the feeling of losing touch with the old time, we know, is not only the reorganization of space but also, especially, the interruption of work. Even for those among us who are still healthy and being paid, the drift feels nervous, scattering. In other words, the phenomenology of being off the clock, of slipping out of what E. P. Thompson calls industrial modernity’s “time discipline,” is something other than a feeling of freedom. We are not so anxious about losing time anymore, but we begin to worry that we are getting lost in it.

We have been trying to get a handle on our time, to give our days some structure. Heightened distraction provokes a revival of old-fashioned devotional exercises. Cloistered away like so many monks, we seek solace in regularity, rituals of community, and working with our hands. We set up daily schedules of activities, plan happy hours in virtual chat rooms, and plant seasonal gardens. We craft. The global crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, hypermodern in so many ways, brings with it swift regression to ancient metrics of ceremonial time and reversion to preindustrial styles of labor.

In the fifth century, John Cassian wrote a systematic description of Egyptian monastic life. Cassian knew how difficult it was for the monks to endure their solitude, to remain steadfast through the monotony. One of the greatest dangers was restlessness: the mind wandered, the eye roved, soon enough the monk abandoned his cell and his vow. The term Cassian used, acedia, is often translated as “sloth,” but in the monastic tradition it meant something more complex and more severe than simple laziness. Borrowed from the Greek ἀκηδία, lack of care, acedia was a roving, lonely, agitated sensation, a feeling of being unhappy in one’s place that could spiral into downright depression.

Evagrius Pontius, the fourth-century theologian, analyzed the “noonday demon” in his catalogue of sinful thoughts. “When he reads,” wrote Evagrius, “the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings.”

Acedia in the tradition of the monks began with a lack of care. But the Greek κῆδος (kedos) underlying it had specialized meanings too. It referred to the attachments that bound people to each other. Κῆδος also described burial rites and honors, just as we still speak of attending a funeral or tending to the dead. Acedia is a special kind of distraction that comes on when ties to other people, and then to God, are severed: a lonely wandering of the mind.

Cassian, who had read Evagrius, highlighted the importance of manual labor in mitigating distraction: “On the heart’s slippery movements and thought’s unstable undulations” the monks “fasten the weight of toil as a kind of steadying and immovable anchor.” Much of the Egyptian monks’ labor was practical, aiding subsistence in a tough environment. There was a special place for fruitless toil too, however, as an opportunity to exercise obedience and cultivate devotion. Cassian tells of Abba John, a monk who carried himself so humbly that his mentor began to doubt his sincerity. Was John really virtuous, or only acting the part? To test him, the teacher stuck an old, rotted branch in the ground and ordered him to water it twice a day until it came alive again. For a year John watered that stick, walking four miles to get the water. Neither winter, nor holidays, nor illness broke his fruitless routine. He never questioned or complained. Finally, the elder pulled the stick out of the ground and tossed it aside.

Is our elective labor, often as ritualized and empty as Abba John’s, a way of seeking solace in our powerlessness? To be sure, much of what we are doing now is the poorly remunerated but essential work that really is necessary to the world. We teach our children and cook our meals, or we perform similar acts of care for others. We clean, over and over again. We carry out the labor we knew was fundamental–if often despised or ignored, largely by way of its gendering–all along.

But what of all the other tasks that the idle invent for themselves? No family will be saved from hunger by four baby lettuces growing in a hydroponic garden. We will not wear our hand-knitted clothes after the apocalypse. Even the homemade facemasks so lovingly crocheted or sewn out of colorful cloth scraps are only a symbol of protection–may, indeed, render anyone venturing outside in them less safe. By one measure, making these things is unproductive, a waste of time–and yet there is a difference between this evidently useless work and the soul-killing “bullshit jobs” David Graeber has taxonomized, those paper-pushing positions “so completely pointless, unnecessary, or pernicious that even the employee cannot justify [their] existence.” The work we turn to now is unproductive, but it finds another use as a steadying anchor. It serves a therapeutics of attention.

Modern political philosophy has regarded attention with a deep ambivalence. In Capital, Marx describes attention as the force that binds the worker to the task. “The less he is attracted by the nature of the work and the way in which it has to be accomplished, and the less, therefore, he enjoys it as the free play of his own physical and mental powers, the closer his attention is forced to be.” Here, paying attention does not mean freely exercising a natural human capacity. Instead, attention becomes an instrument of exploitation.

Following Marx, E. P. Thompson argues that religion gives early industrial discipline moral legitimacy; attention is little more than supervision, internalized as an overseer God. Bringing this analysis into a more thoroughly secularized modernity, Jonathan Crary shows how the menace of distraction on the factory floor leads capitalists into an alliance with academic psychology, seeking to maximize workers’ focus and efficiency at their machines.

All along, though, critical theory has also taken on the culture industry and the society of the spectacle, uncovering the pernicious ways mass entertainment holds multitudes in thrall. The spectacle, as Guy Debord imagines it, “concentrates all gazing and all consciousness.” If attention can be instrumentalized in labor discipline, then distraction can be cultivated for the purposes of political pacification, a consolation for the acquiescent.

After the rise of digital media and the internet, such an analysis seems almost inescapable. We are in the attention economy now; attention deficit is our mass predicament. It is not E. P. Thompson but the Simone Weil of Gravity and Grace who seems most lucidly to see into our souls: “We have to try to cure our faults by attention.”

In the current feeling of disorder — with its swarms of buzzing news updates, its time flowing recklessly out of form — we sense that while the pandemonium is intense, it is not exactly new. The stream of public chatter had already surged into a flood before the pandemic. The hours for play and rest and work shaded into each other long ago. The demons of distraction have been with us for a long time, though we hear them more clearly in the present quiet.

The monks of late antiquity practiced manual labor and focused meditation to protect themselves against their invisible adversaries: evil spirits, like the noonday demon of acedia, who whispered temptation in their ears. Is our turn to the same ancient practices a way to defend ourselves against our own unseen enemies? We are bombarded with commands, asked to hark to unfathomable calculations of danger. In response, we take up small daily tasks, and we find, in this temporary, half-willing submission, some chance to repair ourselves.

For now, at least, our disciplines of attention are decoupled from our jobs. What will be the consequences of this untethering? We can’t help viewing the situation with some suspicion. It is easy to anticipate what the acolytes of Max Weber might say: Our voluntary makework betrays our deep internalization of capitalism’s compulsions; when no one else will require us to work, we’ll require it of ourselves. It might be suggested, too, that our exercises in attention are really distractions of their own, detaching us from the real world of economic and political conflict.

But when we recognize that our distraction partakes of ancient afflictions and that our disciplines of attention are older than machines, these are not the only prospects that come into view. There is no reason why the care of the self should have to end in isolated withdrawal. If we work with our hands and focus our minds in the face of a modern incarnation of acedia, it may be that we seek something deeper and more connected than self-discipline. We might not just be biding our time and keeping ourselves fit for a return to a more familiar time. We might also be learning how to live in another kind of time altogether, learning to tend to the living and the dead.

22 April 2020


Irina Dumitrescu is a writer and Professor of English Medieval Studies at the University of Bonn. She is the author of The Experience of Education in Anglo-Saxon Literature (2018) and editor of Rumba Under Fire: The Arts of Survival from West Point to Delhi (2016), a collection of essays about the arts and humanities in times of crisis. Caleb Smith is professor of English and American studies at Yale University and the author of The Oracle and the Curse (2013) and The Prison and the American Imagination (2009). He is writing a book about disciplines of attention and the history of distraction.

5 Comments

Filed under 2020 Pandemic

5 responses to “The Demon of Distraction

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