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Distraction

Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature

Natalie M. Phillips

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Enlightenment writers fiercely debated the nature of distraction in literature.

Early novel reading typically conjures images of rapt readers in quiet rooms, but commentators at the time described reading as a fraught activity, one occurring amidst a distracting cacophony that included sloshing chamber pots and wailing street vendors. Auditory distractions were compounded by literary ones as falling paper costs led to an explosion of print material, forcing prose fiction to compete with a dizzying array of essays, poems, sermons, and histories. In Distraction, Natalie M. Phillips argues that…

Enlightenment writers fiercely debated the nature of distraction in literature.

Early novel reading typically conjures images of rapt readers in quiet rooms, but commentators at the time described reading as a fraught activity, one occurring amidst a distracting cacophony that included sloshing chamber pots and wailing street vendors. Auditory distractions were compounded by literary ones as falling paper costs led to an explosion of print material, forcing prose fiction to compete with a dizzying array of essays, poems, sermons, and histories. In Distraction, Natalie M. Phillips argues that prominent Enlightenment authors—from Jane Austen and William Godwin to Eliza Haywood and Samuel Johnson—were deeply engaged with debates about the wandering mind, even if they were not equally concerned about the problem of distractibility.

Phillips explains that some novelists in the 1700s—viewing distraction as a dangerous wandering from singular attention that could lead to sin or even madness—attempted to reform diverted readers. Johnson and Haywood, for example, worried that contemporary readers would only focus long enough to "look into the first pages" of essays and novels; Austen offered wry commentary on the issue through the creation of the daft Lydia Bennet, a character with an attention span so short she could listen only "half-a-minute." Other authors radically redefined distraction as an excellent quality of mind, aligning the multiplicity of divided focus with the spontaneous creation of new thought. Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, for example, won audiences with its comically distracted narrator and uniquely digressive form.

Using cognitive science as a framework to explore the intertwined history of mental states, philosophy, science, and literary forms, Phillips explains how arguments about the diverted mind made their way into the century’s most celebrated literature. She also draws a direct link between the disparate theories of focus articulated in eighteenth-century literature and modern experiments in neuroscience, revealing that contemporary questions surrounding short attention spans are grounded in long conversations over the nature and limits of focus.

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Distraction

Natalie M. Phillips

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Reviews

Thoroughly informed by engagement with 17th- and 18th-century philosophies of mind, the book is also impressive for its periodic forays into modern cognitive science... Distraction is an important addition to the literature on 18th-century fiction and cognition. Highly recommended.

Among its many strengths, Distraction’s greatest contribution is its elegant articulation of Phillips’s interdisciplinary methodology, which interlinks literary historicism and cognitive science to foster "productive dissonance between fi elds" (222).

A stellar contribution to cognitive historicist studies, Distraction is engagingly written, lucidly argued, and highly original. This book will be read, reviewed, and talked about.

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About

Book Details

Publication Date
Status
Available
Trim Size
6
x
9
Pages
304
ISBN
9781421420127
Illustration Description
2 color photos, 17 halftones
Table of Contents

Preface

Introduction. The Literary History of Distraction
The Unifocal and the Multifocal
The Rise of the Distracted Character
Attention, Distraction, and Enlightenment Philosophy of Mind
A Swiftly

Preface

Introduction. The Literary History of Distraction
The Unifocal and the Multifocal
The Rise of the Distracted Character
Attention, Distraction, and Enlightenment Philosophy of Mind
A Swiftly Tilting Madness
Categorizing Distraction

1. Mind Wandering: Forms of Distraction in the Eighteenth-Century Essay
Distraction and the Eighteenth-Century Essay
The Rhetoric of Attention: Appealing to Pathos and Brevitas
The Essay as a Tool of Focus
Training Attention to Attention
Strengthening Focus: Repetition and Dramatic Irony
Economies of Attention
The History of Attention Span

2. Lapses of Concentration: Distracted Vigilance and the Female Mind
Environment and Mind: Urban Diversion and the Distracted Brain
The Problem of a Soft Female Mind
Sex, Environment, and the Multifocal Coquette
The Challenges of Situational Awareness
Philosophizing Multiplicity: Cognitive Bottlenecks and Sorting Gloves
Strained Omniscience and the Distracted Heroine
The Crowded Syntax of Sexual Inattention
"Might as Well Be Passed Over as Read:" Indulging the Diverted Reader

3. Scattered Attention: Distraction and the Rhythm of Cognitive Overload
Rhythms of Narrative, Rhythms of Mind
The Scattered Rhythms of Cognitive Overload
Susannah and the Vexed Situation of Madam Reader
The Anatomy of Parallel Processing
The Sermon: Asynchronous Rhythms of Prose
Hobbyhorses and the Individual Beat of Interest
Irregular Distraction: The Tempo of Cognitive Overload
Rhythms of the Brain: Creativity and the Timing of Distraction

4. Fixated Attention: The Gothic Pathology of Single-Minded Focus
Microscope and Mind
Scientific Metaphors and the Madness of Attention
The Politics and Poetics of Fixation
Involuntary Attention: A Multifocal Selective Blindness
Sympathy and the Benefits of Distraction
Rewriting Suspense: Interruption and the Gothic Sublime
Fixation and the Science of Obsession

5. Divided Attention: Characterization and Cognitive Richness in Jane Austen
The Power of Multitasking in Pride and Prejudice
The Singular Importance of Inattentive Characters
Mr. Hurst: The Limited Capacity of the Undivided Mind
Mrs. Jenkinson: Narrow Bandwidth and the Creation of Depth
Lydia and Miss Bingley: Caricaturing Cognitive Vacancy
The Dangers of Too Much Attention
Distraction as Liveliness of Mind
Mary Bennet: Hyperfocus and Cognitive Immobility
Lady Catherine de Bourgh: The Problem of Excess Vigilance
Elizabeth Bennet: The Benefits of Diversion
Characterizing Reading: Maps of Distraction and Interest

Coda: History of Mind and Literary Neuroscience
Interdisciplinarity: From Theory to Practice
Literary Attention: An fMRI Study of Reading Jane Austen
The Value of Literary History

Notes
Bibliography
Index

Author Bio
Featured Contributor

Natalie M. Phillips

Natalie M. Phillips is an assistant professor of English at Michigan State University, where she is an affiliated faculty member of the cognitive science program and the cofounder of the Digital Humanities & Literary Cognition Lab.
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