What Comes After Nude Descending the Staircase?
What if I told you that our world has already been in the exact place we are right now — except on a smaller scale? And what if I also told you that I know what comes next? Would you want to know or would you rather live into the future not knowing? If you don’t want to know, and I thoroughly respect that choice, stop reading. If you do want to know … well then, by all means, read on.
It is, of course, conventional wisdom — sourced in none other than King Solomon — that there is nothing new under the sun. You’ll find it in Ecclesiastes 1:9. And perhaps the wise man was correct, but … some things are always new to some individuals which is one of the many reasons that humankind keeps on keeping on. Babies discover their toes every day.
Or, for instance, New York State just repealed a loitering law. I recognized the term loitering law, and I kind of know what it means, but I didn’t know this: that it had, in practice, come to mean “the ‘walking while trans’ law.” Law enforcement used the law to target transwomen for walking on the street or talking to someone in a car, often especially black transwomen.
So I’m glad they repealed the law. Bravo. But let’s not move on so fast this morning, Beloved. What happened for me to learn that a law had been repealed in New York? Well, I read The New York Times, as I do every morning, and the headline of that article caught my attention because I personally know transwomen so I chose to read it and learn.
I paid for that learning with my attention. Because I attended to that article, there was another or several others that I did not attend to. That’s why we have the idiom pay attention — attention has a cost to it. That cost is attending to other things.
I am making such a big deal about this because Opinion writer Charlie Warzel spoke to the unsung Cassandra of the internet, Michael Goldhaber, who he characterizes as “the internet prophet you never heard of.” He’s correct. I’d never heard of him, but once I read Mr. Warzel’s piece, I knew I had to end this 100-day cycle of essays with this thoroughly metaphysical truth.
Paying attention has a cost to it. Everyone can agree to this. It’s duh logical.
But not everyone will agree with this, and here is exactly my point.
We get to choose what we pay attention to.
I know, I know, you want to get all up in my business about oh, no, we don’t. What about school? What about work? What about kids? What about parents? What about spouses? We have to pay attention to all these things.
Gently hear me, Beloved. At a deeper level, you made commitments to those people, places, and things — which is why you feel like you have to attend to them, but earlier, way earlier in your life, you made a choice to commit to those things because you valued them and as a result your attention goes to them.
Mr. Warzel writes, “[Mr. Goldhaber’s] epiphany was this: One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention. To describe its scarcity, he latched onto what was then an obscure term, coined by a psychologist, Herbert A. Simon: ‘the attention economy.’” I’m sure it’s a phrase you’ve heard before. Let me pull out and highlight the salient phrase.
One of the most finite resources in the world is human attention.
I know you know what I mean. Just review the last hour in your life. What have you paid attention to? What have you consciously ignored? What have you, by paying attention to one thing, de facto ignored that you weren’t even aware of?
Mr. Goldhaber spoke to Mr. Warzel about the riot at The Capitol. “‘You could just see how there were so many disparate factions of believers there,’ he said, remarking on the glut of selfies and videos from QAnon supporters, militia members, Covid-19 deniers and others. ‘It felt like an expression of a world in which everyone is desperately seeking their own audience and fracturing reality in the process. I only see that accelerating.’”
Fracturing reality — that one phrase — is what tipped me off to the pattern of what’s happening to us. We’ve all become Cubists. Yeah, those Cubists. Pablo Picasso. Georges Braque. Juan Gris. The Cubists took reality apart by fracturing the picture plane.
We’re taking reality apart by fracturing reality — it’s the same thing, just in different venues.
This idea of an attention economy “changed the way [Mr. Goldhaber] saw the entire world, and it unsettled him deeply. ‘I kept thinking that attention is highly desirable and that those who want it tend to want as much as they can possibly get,’ Mr. Goldhaber, 78, told me over a Zoom call last month after I tracked him down in Berkeley, Calif. He couldn’t shake the idea that this would cause a deepening inequality. ‘When you have attention, you have power, and some people will try and succeed in getting huge amounts of attention, and they would not use it in equal or positive ways.’”
Consider the circus caused by Marjorie Taylor Greene. Representative Kevin McCarthy, House Minority Leader, rejected everything she stands for yesterday, but then wouldn’t do anything to take her committee assignments away from her. Talk about fractured reality.
Not only that, but Mr. McCarthy knew it at the time! He “stressed the importance of presenting a united front.” Fracturing reality and calling for a united front at the same time is spiritual whiplash. No. Can. Do.
A united front is exactly what we do not need. We need to notice, and name, fractured reality in order to heal from where we are right now.
Nicholas Kristof calls our attention to another fractured reality, Beloved. That of the devastation of child poverty. His essay was titled “We Are A Nation of Child Abusers.” Believe me, that got my attention. Mr. Biden’s new disaster relief plan would lift half the American children in poverty out of poverty. “Representative Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat who has long pushed for these anti-poverty measures, told [Mr. Kristof]. “How do you leave behind millions of children and their families living in poverty?”
We don’t. We can’t. Not if we’re paying attention. But, but, but, I can hear you squawk, my children aren’t in poverty. How’m I supposed to fix childhood poverty across the United States when I’m just barely keeping up with my own busy, I’d add fractured reality, life?
By following Mr. Goldhaber’s sage advice. Listen.
Mr. Warzel writes, “His biggest worry, though, is that we still mostly fail to acknowledge that we live in a roaring attention economy. In other words, we tend to ignore his favorite maxim, from the writer Howard Rheingold: ‘Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.’”
Pay attention to where you pay attention. That’s all. Here’s how.
“Where do we start? ‘It’s not a question of sitting by yourself and doing nothing,’ Mr. Goldhaber told me. ‘But instead asking, “How do you allocate the attention you have in more focused, intentional ways?” Some of that is personal — thinking critically about who we amplify and re-evaluating our habits and hobbies. Another part is to think about attention societally. He argued that pressing problems like income and racial inequality are, in some part, issues of where we direct our attention and resources and what we value.”
And there’s the key: what we value. Life almost always boils down to that, Beloved. What do you value? What’s important to you? What can’t you live without? What do you want? Really want?
“Pay attention!” are words that ordinarily come from outside us, often from authority figures. Parents. Teachers. Coaches. It’s a command really. A demand. Pay attention!
What if we were to introject that mandate, Beloved, and demand it from ourselves instead?
What if it were a command from within to pay attention to what is grabbing our attention? And, furthermore, for us to take a split second to make a choice about whether we want to give our attention to whatever that thing is?
What might happen?
Well, I know for sure that I’d much rather give my attention to Randy Rainbow’s version of the story of Marjorie Taylor Greene than Kevin McCarthy’s spiritual whiplash version.
I’d attend to the always heartachingly poignant Jennifer Finney Boylan. As she wrote this morning, “Countries invent stories and myth in order to make sense of trauma, too. One reason the scars of the Civil War have never fully healed is that we’ve never, as a nation, agreed on a single narrative about what it was all for.” She’s trying to make sense of feeling erased as a transwoman in our country.
I’d attend even more deeply to Mr. Goldhaber. This totally stopped me in my tracks this morning. “Attention has always been currency, but as we’ve begun to live our lives increasingly online, it’s now the currency. Any discussion of power is now, ultimately, a conversation about attention and how we extract it, wield it, waste it, abuse it, sell it, lose it and profit from it.”
This stopped me because I realized at a deep level that where I place my attention gives me power. It also gives you power, Beloved.
Were she alive first wave feminist Betty Friedan would be 100 years old today. She was “complicated,” as many of her biographers default. But she also drew our attention to the vapid, sentimental fulfillment that middle class women were supposed to feel in keeping house and raising children. My attention always goes to feminism, whatever wave, because it’s something I value, Beloved.
And so we come full circle. The impact of Cubism — that fracturing of the picture plane in the world of painting — was far-reaching and wide-ranging. In France and other countries Futurism, Suprematism, Dada, Constructivism, Vorticism, De Stijl and Art Deco developed in response to Cubism.
The wikis say, “The Art Deco style, which originated in France just before World War I, had an important impact on architecture and design in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s. The most famous examples were the skyscrapers of New York, including the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and Rockefeller Center in New York City. It combined modern aesthetics, fine craftsmanship and expensive materials, and became the symbol of luxury and modernity.”
What did Art Deco do in the art world? It restored the picture plane — admittedly, not to realism, but to a stylized, decorative form. This is where, at the end of these hundred essays, I think our world is going. As always, Beloved, I finish with what you can do. Just you. On your own. Because it is the individual who receives the creative idea and acts upon it who changes our world for the better.
Here’s your assignment: Pay attention to where you pay attention, and make deliberate, thoughtful, considered choices about whether you want your personal attention to increase what you’re paying attention to or decrease what you’re paying attention to.
If it’s decrease, look away, change the subject, choose anew where your attention, and thereby, your power goes. We the People have all the power we need to restore the picture plane, Beloved, one thought, one idea, one value, one action at a time.
Until the next hundred essays … please, pay attention.
Dr. Susan Corso is a spiritual teacher, the founder of iAmpersand, and the author of The Mex Mysteries, the Boots & Boas Books, and spiritual nonfiction. Her essays address the intersection between spirituality and culture. Find out more at www.susancorso.com