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Attention as a thing which leaps
> … chickens, twenty, a hundred apples, if you can find nice ones, a hundred or two hundred eggs, if they are for sale there at a fair price … 8 sextarii of fish-sauce … a modius of olives …
We tend to think of attention in terms of a resource, in terms of force of will. The idea is that we can have an attention deficit, but this is a contradiction in terms; it is not a deficit of attention but rather of its direction. The attention itself is fine, if it were not then we would be babbling. What we lack is the capacity to direct this attention as we will—and so really it is a problem of will, whatever that means for your self-concept.
The matter of attention must further be related to memory, here our purpose: take a shopping list. We inscribe upon paper a set of items, our shopping list, and then we take this to the supermarket. We have noted these down, we say, so that we might remember them. The list functions in this sense as an external form of memory—and what does this mean? My argument is that the list functions not as memory but rather to structure attention: it connects between items, and from items into the world.1
We look to the list, see an item: coffee—then look to the signs at the end of aisles, or walk along the row towards where we think this must be. This can be described alike in terms of memory and attention, either works. Truly these are intertwined: attention is the principle of structuring, while memory provides the content that fills this form.
Suppose that we had mistaken our list somehow for that of another, a person apparently of some Asian descent. We see that this alike is a list, unmistakably it follows that pattern, and yet the structure of this is entirely meaningless to us; it is probably a language, we assume, and based on some sort of pattern recognition we presume further that it must be an Asian language—Korean?
The impediment here is not properly in terms of memory, for it is not that we do not remember what these symbols mean; it is rather that they cannot function as attentional links. We retain access to the structure of the list, that this is what directs us between equally confusing shapes on the paper, and yet none of these symbols go anywhere; or rather, they do not take us anywhere.
Suppose that we are in Korea, that after scrutinising the list we recognise one of the symbols from an aisle in the supermarket. We walk to that aisle now, examine its contents; and take it as a further presumption that this list has some reasonable referent, that we are staying with an elderly Korean man who is kind-hearted and intends to cook for us, but who forgets that we are ignorant.
We look at the list, and we look at the items, and we try to determine which of the symbols on these many items matches that upon our list. Eventually we find the item, and we remember that we were out of coffee—now what has happened here, is this a matter of memory or attention? The answer is both, and that through this somewhat contrived example we have separated these elements in time.
Memory seems to function as an internalised link, that the above process with the signs could as well have been conducted—indeed, was as well conducted (if not better) in the earlier case—by way of the internalised sign-system we call language. The trouble was that in this second case we did not have access to this language, or that we could not move through it; yet we made our way.
We made our way because of a further system: the structure of supermarkets, the nature of lists, our knowledge of the household, etc. Supposing that we had the same object but no knowledge of lists, that we did not know what a supermarket was, what one was meant to do there, and so on. Then none of what we had would have been any use, these attentional links would not have existed.
The sign directs us within a space, our understanding—that this is a shopping list—directs us to search within the supermarket. This structures our attention, which in turn structures our behaviour; each item opens a loop which is closed by the next: list, sign, aisle, object, etc. The sign structures the movement, is structured by the space of meaning through which it moves.
attencioun, "a giving heed, active direction of the mind upon some object or topic," from Old French attencion and directly from Latin attentionem (nominative attentio) "attention, attentiveness," noun of action from past-participle stem of attendere "give heed to," literally "to stretch toward," from ad "to, toward" (see ad-) + tendere "stretch" (from PIE root *ten- "to stretch").