Attending to the Text (Lanham)

Lanham, R. A. (2006). The economics of attention: style and substance in the age of information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lanham on  materialism and the right relationship of arts and letters to the (supposedly crass) commercial:

“The arts and letters no longer must repudiate the ‘materialism’ from which the arts and letters have always grown. They can no longer despise the wealth that has made the arts and letters possible and preserved them. … They leaven and enrich, rather than repudiate, the commercial world and its values.” (260).

As always, Lanham is concerned with the “paradoxical relation of stuff to nonstuff” (3) and how we think about it in rhetoric and other ‘attention’ disciplines. Like much of Lanham’s, er, stuff, The Economics of Attention is heavy on idealism and suggestion but light on pragmatics. That’s pretty ironic, as part of his lengthy critique of the university system is that it has consistently and continually failed to include issues of practice as part of its demesne. The major rubber-hitting-the-road aspect of his argument comes at the very (very) end of the text, when Lanham says that if we wish to train for bi-stable oscillation in our culture (he also calls this revisionist thinking), we “might want to revive the rhetorical ingredient in our educational system”; an ingredient that he doesn’t so much give a program for or analysis of so much as be provides a rationale for why stable thinking is broken in our attention economy. Rhetoric (and poeisis) are answers, but answers that he doesn’t feel much need to systematize; such work has been done by others and elsewhere.

To put it briefly, I like Lanham. The Electronic Word and Analyzing Prose have heavy rotation on my desk, and I share with him an affinity for the early 20th century Euro-American avant-garde. Lanham is a rare sort of electric-rhetoric theorist in that he focuses fully (perhaps excessively) on text as image (rather than text and image), perhaps just a bit tooo text-centric for our multimedia visual/auditory age. His melding of poesis and rhetoric is intellectually exciting, if unsystematic. (Though I’ll be honest, much of the writing in Economics is similar to his other work. Be warned: if you’ve read a lot of Lanham, this book treads familiar terrain. Here are predictions about what’s next for text, the Q question, and the At/Through matrix.) The major new ground of the text involves his notion of the ‘attention economy’, which he contrasts to the popular idea of the ‘information economy’. According to Lanham, we live in information glut in an economy where attention is scarce and thus highly valuable. With this new sort of economy (rather than agricultural or industrial), “Economists are to be found in strange new places” — the rhetorician, the stylist, the aesthete becomes the economist (8).

“Assume that, in an information economy, the real scarce commodity will always be human attention and that attracting that attention will be the necessary precondition of social change” (47).

Thus the arts and letters, fluff and avant-gardeism, design education and attention to “kinetic text” (83)  become the most important elements of a sound and responsible (?) education system:

“The arts and letters, which create attention structures to teach us how to attend to the word, must be central to acting in the world as well as to contemplating it. The design of an object, in such a world, becomes as important as the engineering of the object. The ‘positioning in the market’ of an object, a version of applied drama, will be as important as either one. The launch of a movie will be as important as the movie itself. No “for its own sake” arguments are required. Such knowledge is immediately useful in the world. A liberal education matters in a world of fluff.” (14)

and later

“‘Design’ is our name for the interface where stuff meets fluff. The design of an artifact invites us to attend to it in a particular way, to pay a certain type of attention to it. Design tells us not about stuff per se but what we think about stuff.” (18)

At the center of all of this is Lanham’s favorite rhetorical figure coinage (I like it too): oscillatio, a kind of hyperactive negative capability; a multidirectional attention-tasking that moves between self-conscious and un-self-conscious attention to a rhetorical (aesthetic, ethic, or ludic) acttion.

An important section of EofA is the “Audit” chapter, where he contrasts the traditional university (especially but not exclusively ivy-league schools) with the ‘virtual university’; the chapter draws out a series of ten assumptions about education that “virtual education” audits by its very existence. (One thing nags in his analysis, however: What is this “virtual university’ he writes about as some lurking Lovecraftian behemoth? The only real example he gives is Phoenix University”, and I can see a lot of parallels to programs such as Rheingold U, but Lanham seems to be dwelling more in abstraction than particularity.) I won’t relay all of them here–you can read the book yourself, after all–but Lanham’s audit provides a nice framework for thinking about how the digital and the virtual change what ‘education’ means and can look like.

Oh. There’s also a really strange dialogue involving Barbie. Yeah.


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