Calling Attention
José Manuel dos Santos and António Soares

Whoever is reading the words and seeing the images of this Editorial knows that they have arrived at them because their attention has been drawn to Electra, either in the present or in the past. In a world-event saturated with signs (linguistic, acoustic, visual) and icons, signifiers and constant flows of information, seductions and requests, calls and invitations, technological dependencies and media compulsions, the reader has had their attention fought over between Electra and many other things that every day, every hour, every minute, ask for, claim and demand their attention. By deciding to give their attention to our magazine, the reader has made a choice which represents willingness, time, disposition, interest, investment. This is when attention becomes tension, temptation, intention.


Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Autoportrait aux bésicles [Self-Portrait with Spectacles], 1775 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Josse / Musée du Louvre, Paris


Whether we are aware of it or not, our attention is constantly lured, attracted, captivated, captured, confiscated, bought, bribed, frustrated, cheated, perverted, arrested, conquered by events, people, phenomena, apparitions, disappearances, movements, halts. When we choose to give our attention to something, we are eschewing and excluding the things to which we choose not to give our attention. This is why now we talk about an economy of attention and an ecology of attention. This is why is it said that nowadays attention is one of the rarest assets and most valuable commodities.

In a world-market full of subjects and objects, senders and recipients, producers and consumers – which moves and accelerates in a competitive vortex where everything can be bought and sold, under the rules of supply and demand, and where, thanks to communications, the distant has become near –, our attention is subjected to a constant auction.

From economy to politics, culture to society, individual to collective life, private to public space, there are devices everywhere – mobile and immobile, material and immaterial, apparent and hidden – to capture our attention. From advertising to propaganda, from traditional ads to digital ones, from social media to influencers, from communication channels to information media, we are constantly harassed in a ceaseless quest for what our attention may be worth, represent and add. Everywhere there are those who want to turn our attention into an asset that benefits them, giving us the illusion that it is an asset that benefits us.

Therefore, attention is a central question of our time and a key topic if we want to understand it. We can even talk about a phenomenology of attention. The current concept and practice of the faculty of attention, in its psychological and cognitive transformations, cultural and social changes, economic and commercial metamorphoses, offer us an expressive and symptomatic portrait of the world in which we live.

Likewise, for example, we have never talked about attention deficit so much, with its effects on education and culture. Or that the fact that many people are distancing themselves from politics, especially with the alienation of youngsters, ultimately amounts to a lack of attention and care for politics. Another example: all of those who create and disseminate culture and art know that, with the cult of the ephemeral, in a global scenario with an infinity of cultural and artistic events, they must above all draw people’s attention to what they do. Today the question of attention is mainly a question of reception-consumption.

Besides this analysis of the present, the history of attention, in its theological, philosophical, literary, artistic and scientific representations and resonances, composes a collection of vast complexity and wealth.

There are those who say that even without knowing its name, the economy of attention started in Classic Antiquity, when an orator would train his voice and perfect his rhetoric to gain the attention of his listeners. And this continued to be the case, from the attention of the great patrons that the Renaissance painters tried hard to gain to the attention of the inquisitors whom those suspected of heresy tried hard to evade…

But it was between 1870 and 1920 that the importance of attention became more noticeable and visible, foreshadowing and preparing its contemporary explosion. At the time, the sociologist Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904) understood perfectly well that industrialisation was causing an overproduction of commodities, where the question of attention (which advertising was starting to compete for) played a central, encouraging and mobilising role in economy and society. Since then, this importance has increased exponentially, reaching an apex in our time, as well as new features with unprecedented consequences.

By devoting the dossier of this issue to the topic of attention, Electra proposes an inquiry and reflection that are inseparable from a much-needed debate about who we are today and who we want to be tomorrow.

By reading the several essays that compose this dossier, you get an updated view of the great tree of attention: from its roots to its trunk, branches, leaves, flowers and fruit. We become more aware of what is at stake. We realise that, in recent decades, a new economy has surpassed the old and traditional ways of exchanging material and symbolic goods.

In this economy, attention constitutes the rarest thing and the most precious source of value. In our ‘Subject’, we reflect on what characterises this new economy, its active instruments and operating mechanisms, its dangers and potentialities.

From sociology to economy, from neuroscience to the new technologies, with a focus on digital technologies, from ethical philosophy to the theory of images, from architecture to performance arts, this dossier draws on the knowledge of several disciplines to establish the challenges of the new economy of attention, using various critical perspectives.

This analysis shows that today it is imperative to reflect on our economic, social and cultural life in terms of attention. And it also shows that it would be disastrous to let the productivist, consumerist, excessive and hypertelic (often anti-ecological) logic of the current financial and cognitive capitalism hegemonically reconfigure our individual and collective regimes of attention, with its transformations, demands, risks, subordinations and possibilities. The economy of attention is not just at the intersection of several contemporary disciplines and fields of knowledge and action. It places itself at the point where the paths that take us to the various choices concerning our unpredictable future meet.

In these days of tragic wars and terrible massacres, there are also other wars – those frantically vying for our attention. Representatives and supporters of both sides of each war use every means possible to make us give our full attention to their images and listen attentively to their arguments of accusation and defence. This is the time when, more than ever, the choices of our attention are moral, political and cultural choices.

Literature is an art of attention. In this issue of Electra, in the ‘Figure’ section we publish a portrait of the great Greek poet Konstantinos Cavafy and in ‘Passages’ we comment on a quote by Milan Kundera, the renowned Czech-born French novelist and essayist.

So distant in the times and places in which they lived and died, so different in the works that they wrote, so remote in their life experiences, so diverse in their cultural conceptions, so distinct in their sensitivities and interests, there is however a bond uniting them: the attention given to the link between the past and the present, the presence of History in their individual experiences and in the books that they wrote. For them, History and the past are like background cosmic noise. They shape the world of each present, and condition individual freedom and the possibilities of living, thinking, suffering, creating, deciding, and loving freely. This feeling of a past that is present is experienced by Cavafy with melancholic fervour and by Kundera with enraged passion.

Jan Vermeer

Jan Vermeer, De astronoom [The Astronomer], 1668 (detail) © Photo: Scala, Florence / Musée du Louvre, Paris


Without attention, the world becomes dispersed, unsustainable and even absent – and we dispersed, unsustainable and absent in it.

Culture, literature, art and science are created with attention and the quality and duration of that attention determine the results. Marguerite Yourcenar stated:

The first duty of the writer, it seems to me, before anything else, is attention. A great attention to what he feels and experiences. An attention that could be described as almost medical, scientific, so he does not make mistakes or confuse himself, and a great attention to the universe around him. In the writings of the Taoist philosophers, who seemed to have gone farther than others in reaching the meaning of reality, there is a kind of proverb that says: ‘Governing a large empire is like frying a small fish.’ This means that both things demand full attention, the attentive care of those who perform them. Writing a great book is like frying fish or cooking a vegetable stew, it is to place all the attention, all the talent, all the good will that one is capable of into one single action. In the matter of literature and art, I believe this is the basis of everything. Attention is a very rare quality. In the works of oriental psychology, which went very far in the study of the relations of man with himself, the first virtue recommended is vydia, attention. Paying attention to what we do, to the movement of our muscles, to our gaze, seeing exactly what happens in us and outside of us.

On this topic, Yourcenar quoted a Kashmiri Tantric text: ‘may the spirit occupied with one thing not leave it too fast to go towards another.’

For Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen attention is also one of the foundations of her poetic art and moral. In a poem, she says: ‘my inside is an attention turned outward / My living listens.’

In ‘Poetic Art IV’, she writes: ‘to write verses is to pay attention and the poet is a listener. My effort is to try to listen to the “whole poem” and not just a fragment. In order to listen to the “whole poem”, attention cannot break down or lessen, nor can I intervene.’

In ‘Poetic Art III’ she states the following.

For me, poetry has always been a pursuit of the real. A poem has always been a circle traced around something, a circle where the bird of reality is trapped. And my poetry, stemming from the air, the sea and the light, has always evolved inside that attentive search. Whoever looks for a fair relationship with the stone, the tree, or the river, is necessarily led, by the spirit of truth that animates them, to search for a fair relationship with man. Whoever sees the amazing splendour of the world is logically forced to see the amazing suffering of the world. Whoever sees the phenomenon wants to see the entire phenomenon. It is only a question of attention, sequence and rigour. This is why poetry is a moral.


Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Portrait du peintre Joseph Aved (1702-1766), ami de l’artiste [Portrait of the Painter Joseph Aved (1702-1766), friend of the artist], 1734 © Photo: Scala, Florence / Josse / Musée du Louvre, Paris


Le Philosophe lisant [The Philosopher Reading] or Portait du peintre Joseph Aved, ami de l’artiste [Portrait of the painter Joseph Aved, the artist’s friend] are titles of a work by the admirable 18th century French painter Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, which can be seen in the Louvre.

This work by Chardin prompted a well-known essay by George Steiner entitled ‘The Uncommon Reader’, later included in the book No Passion Spent. In this essay, Steiner draws from the painting that can be admired in the Louvre an eloquent and thorough lesson on reading, its habits and transformations in our massified, specialised and technological societies. Among these changes is the scant importance placed on memory and attention today.

Interestingly, almost forty years after he wrote this essay, when he was already quite old and approaching the end of his life, Steiner revealed that his most troubling fear and deepest terror was the loss or depreciation of his intellectual abilities. To avoid this, he performed regular and challenging exercises of memory and attention.

In the portrait of Joseph Aved painted by Chardin, we see an expensively dressed man, his head covered, reading a book with peaceful and indestructible attention. Steiner compares this scene and the pose of the man depicted in it to a liturgy or ritual. ‘In the beginning was the Word.’

The focused attention that is revealed in the body, face and eyes of the reader puts that man in touch with other spaces and times, other human beings and worlds. It reconnects him to the many universes of the Universe and envelops that scene in a holy veil.

Holy books turn attention into the place where human beings and divine beings manifest themselves and encounter each other. Neither can ignore, disconnect, or lose each other from sight. This is where – with the irreplaceable tool of attention – they appear and identify, recognise and experience, surveil and assess themselves. But this is also the place where they gain consciousness, knowledge and wisdom about each other and the Universe.

In the New Testament of the Bible, there is a passage from the Gospel of Luke that tells the following story.

As they travelled along, Jesus entered a village; and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.’

There is in this narrative an eloquent economy of attention, turned into an ecology of attention, which demands choosing between two distinct and distant ways of looking at life and what truly matters in it.

With the pages of Electra under their eyes, the reader generously gives the treasure of their precious and disputed attention to the words and images that compose it. We hope that, like in the text of the evangelist-painter Saint Luke, they have chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from them.