Economics (and) the Politics of Attention – Néstor A. Braunstein

Mediating Tiziana Terranova’s ‘Attention Economy and the Brain’ and Bernard Stiegler’s ‘Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon‘, from vol. 13 (2012) Paying Attention

The very fact of perceiving, of attending, is of a selective nature: all attention, all fixation of consciousness entails a deliberate omission of the uninteresting. We see and hear through memories, fears and anticipations. In the corporeal domain, unconsciousness is a physical necessity. Our body knows how to articulate this difficult paragraph, how to deal with stairs, knots and underpasses, with cities, with river currents, with dogs; it knows how to cross the street without getting killed; it knows how to engender, breath, sleep, maybe kill: our body, not our intelligence. Our life is a series of adaptations, which is to say, an education of forgetfulness. (J. L. Borges, ‘The Postulation of Reality’, 1932)

It is taken for granted that we live immersed in some kind of ‘economy of attention’, a state belonging to a calculative paradigm which can be recognized as ‘cognitive capitalism’. The latter is understood as a branch of the science which devotes itself to the analysis of economic structures, processes of exchange and extraction of surplus value. The raw matter in these processes is knowledge produced and accumulated by means of archives that have been known from the beginnigs of human history. Yet these archives are seen as achieving today their ultimate perfection and omnipotence through the Internet, the global web. In this context attention, the interest of consumers in anything offered to them as a commodity, itself becomes a most precious commodity. Its increasing scarcity (due to the overabundance of services within cognitive capitalism) makes it imperative for companies to get and hire the services of attention traders such as Google, Netflix and Facebook.

Since the methodologies and the supposedly scientific theories of cognitive capitalism appear to be novel, it is thought to be a recent discovery that attention (the alert mental state of viewers) is itself a commodity whose production is essential for the functioning of the whole economic system. Since attention to the global scene is distributed over numerous channels (a fact that renders the interest of consumers highly voluble), the media require attention-stimulants in order to attract and preserve attention from its well-known antidotes, namely boredom and the impulse to ‘switch channels’. Competition for the attention market is brutal, and new recipes to produce and sustain attention are constantly rehearsed; the invention of new technological gadgets and new modalities of social networking is the big business of our times. The conclusion is thus reached that, because the demand is much superior to the supply, there is always an increasing scarcity of the most valued commodity of the ‘digital age’. Yet if there is an ‘attention economy’, then there must also be a politics of attention which looks into issues such as control of the raw matter as well as the ‘means of transformation’ of attention into the finished product, the intended commodity.

What and where are the instruments for the production and consumption of such a subtle commodity? The answer seems evident: they reside in the afferent information flux received through the sensory organs, the transmission of stimuli and information to be processed by the brain, that specific organ of attention wherein is installed the physico-chemical structure (made up by neurons, electrical currents and neurotransmitters) that generates rythms of sleep and wakefulness, pleasure and pain, stimulation and apathy. Therefore, unsurprisingly, an economy and a politics of cerebral activity are in progress. Research on cortical and sub-cortical operations is something that goes beyond biology and can lead to benefits reflected on the global stock market. This is why it is important to read and discuss Tiziana Terranova’s article ‘Attention, Economy and the Brain’. Who manufactures and sells the attention of people?

Despite all appearances, the palpable existence of an economy and a politics of attention is not just a contemporary feature or phenomenon. It is a common trait of all epochs and cultures. Hierarchies of power and domination have always required consensus around ideas, institutions and rituals governing the behavior and consciousness of their social ‘subjects’. The ‘new’ or ‘digital’ economy has merely highlighted the role of attention in the engineering of the perception of nature and culture according to hegemonic interests. Modern social movements have tried to counteract the symbolic violence underpinning societal consensus by espousing oppositional slogans such as ‘Workers of the world, unite!’ At any rate, the legendary ‘class struggle’ is also a struggle for the attention of class members. Revisionist denunciation of hegemony and domination creates a landscape of fields in competition, indeed in conflict, for the attention of those to whom it is addressed. All ideologies mobilize the most sophisticated among their available resources in order to take possession of minds, for either attention is awakened or the subject falls into somnolence. We need only recall how science books induced tedium to Dr. Faustus, whose attention was more attracted by the sensual promises of Mephisto. The latter’s reward of earth and moon is everywhere the theme of the confrontation of God and the devil: in the Garden of Eden, in Marlowe’s Urfaust and in Orwell’s dystopia.

Attracting and distracting attention have always been triumphant strategies of every political, evangelical or advertising enterprise. Within the domain of classical psychology, the soul’s faculties were classified as intellectual, affective or volitional. The intellectual faculties were usually the first to be studied. Paramount among them was ‘the engraver of memory’, as a popular epithet of attention goes – which I learned as soon as I left childhood behind. The fact that today attention is enthusiastically explored through computational tomographies and visual images of the brain, or that neurones, synapses and neuroreceptors are today intently mapped, does not change qualitatively the conceptual field in which mainstream psychology still moves. The latter has moved from the classical but suspicious ‘psychic domain’ (the soul) to a supposedly more scientific ‘cognitive-behavioural’ domain. Yet in so doing the field of psychology has merely gone back to old clichés about consciousness and behaviour as privileged objects and has thereby purported to forget the veritable shake-up that Freud’s innovative work around the central idea of the unconscious, a structure which produces the aformentioned consciousness and behavior as epiphenomena.

To hide the unconscious is already an operation of attention-distracting from which very few seem to escape. The unconscious is already enough hidden behind ‘the defense mechanisms of the ego’ and by different layers of ‘resistances’ among which consciousness is the most difficult to de-activate. This Freudian unconscious is structured like a language (Lacan) and therefore cannot (and does not want to) show up in cerebral imagery. This is precisely the point at which the work of Bernard Stiegler seems to me so outstanding and valuable, as well as the work of everybody that, alongside Stiegler, pursue Derrida’s reading of the Freudian text. Before I conclude this brief essay, I shall return to the two fundamental instruments of the psychoanalyic method, namely: the rule of free-association by the analysand and its counterpart, the analyst’s ‘evenly suspended attention’ ( gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit).

It has always been known that the information input received by the living body through the sensory channels is infinite. Yet, since consciousness can only grasp and process a minimal portion of such a flux, the stimuli that the human body can actually convert into ‘waking consciousness’, by means of language, is proportionally speaking next to zero. Nevertheless, that zero, that ‘conscious perception’ which traverses all the layers of resistance, is the privileged object of contemporary science with all its neuronal and informatic models. The ‘science of mind’ has silently enforced a brutal and unaknowledged regression to the psychology of consciousness, which is now deceitfully lined with a naturalistic tapestry.

The brain ‘attends’ to everything from which it does not disengage… which is usually the essential bit. By the way: I am not speaking here about the heap of information which psychoanalysis has recognised and labelled as ‘preconscious’. The latter refers to that which one can notice without overcoming any repression. ‘Preconscious’ are the processes driving attention towards the margins of perception, the subliminal, and that which is discarded as superfluous in order to keep up an apparently coherent functioning within social life. Rather, I am speaking about that which stumbles upon resistances, that which cannot be attended to. It cannot be attended to because it is incompatible with the narcissism of a self who is always jealously protective of its privileges and therefore ‘rejects, resists, represses’ as Freud said.

The current ‘attention economy’ has an essential aim and it is to distract the subject’s attention from that which is constitutive of the subject (the repressed) and which is hidden from the subject not due to ill will but rather due to structural reasons. I refer to the processes of subjectivation that, through sensory prostheses constantly made available for consumption, divert the subject away from the very essential questions related to the concrete life conditions which the subject must actually endure. In late, postindustrial capitalism, the possibility of listening to oneself is devoured by a cacophonic anarchy of infinite messages targeting the subject’s attention.

The result of the market discourse (which is currently displacing the previous discourses of the master and the capitalist) is a pervasive ‘attention deficit disorder’ (ADHD, to continue using the tongue of Shakespeare, Milton and Eliot, which is now the tongue of DSM-5) wherein the subject’s dispersion corresponds to the chaotic dispersion of messages in competition for the subject’s attention. As mentioned above, it is because of such a competition that attention becomes a ‘scarce’ resource. In her article, Terranova alludes to a certain ‘darwinism’ in the economic fight to take hold of the brain, which in turn is ‘strangely deprived of its capacity for creation and innovation’ (3). Above all, I would add that the brain is deprived of its capacity to plunge into the oceans of dialectics. Today the complexity of dialectical thought is regarded as superfluous. There is a silent opposition to every philosophical, (a)theological or scientific discourse that positions itself beyond positivism in order to attend to the ‘negative’ elements of difference and singularity across history, linguistics, political economy, anthropology and psychoanalysis. We might call such discourses ‘sciences of the negative’ or ‘sciences of the diacritical’, since they can only point towards differences with that which could be and is not, and this is how they oppose the hegemonic positivism of mainstream science. I am thinking of sciences whose ‘data’ cannot be processed by any predictive software and will not submit to any quantitative evaluation. It must be said right now: the attention economy cannot be integrated into a positive science with calculable results. The reason for this is the same reason that subtends the impossibility of a positive science of subjectivity. It is not by measuring clicks, shares, links, likes, prints and so forth that knowledge will be achieved about the subject who consents to being harassed by an informatic fodder that transforms the subject into fodder for information. The subject is precisely the ‘substance’ located beyond the options menu into which the subject is integrated in order to be calculated and profiled. The subject inhabits a space that does not coincide with the skull (wherein are found the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex studied by ‘natural’ science); rather, the subject inhabits the environment of a language shared by others equally subjected to it and which can only be studied by the ‘unnatural’ (‘negative’) sciences of social interaction.

The language of calculation that ‘positive science’ encourages for the study of this so-called attention economy is results in nothing but a poor metaphor. It amounts to a proxy function as those defined by Quine or, put in the terms of traditional poetics, an allegory of the actual state of affairs (namely, a fight for the economic control of attention). As Terranova acknowledges in her article, ‘such theories constitute a kind of ‘fringe’ discourse within the field of economics at large, and one that lacks the legitimacy that is usually granted to more academic work’ (3). Yet she also points out that the ‘fringe’ discourse, while being ‘somehow ephemeral’, also ‘in some way translates what are the more general preocupations of economic actors’ (3) involved in networked communications.

Catherine Malabou’s ‘brain plasticity’ provides a convenient trope of malleability to the market discourse; the latter requires subjects ready to function as consumers of the changing products of fast-paced technology. Subjects are indeed the servomechanisms anticipated by Lewis Mumford and Marshall McLuhan, as I argued extensively elsewhere (Braunstein, 2012).1 They are endpoints of a megamachine to which they are connected by force and in which they take a previously assigned place. Those straw-filled heads, so agile when it comes down to performing routine tasks such as text messaging, appear to be incapable of thinking about the place of the other, or simultaneously holding contradictory theses (as demanded by Scott Fitzgerald’s definition of intelligence). In this situation, I believe, attention to the requirements of the machine does not serve intelligence; rather, it appears as a mediated resistance against intelligence. The victim here is not the attention purloined by the servomechanism but rather it is intelligence itself, which is paralyzed by the fast calculations of a machine reaching a precise result without anyone understanding how. Dispersion, vagueness, attachment to chiefs, brands, drugs, ephemeral ideas, the erasure of limits between reason and unreason (‘borderline disorders’), are all part of the price we pay for the technical ‘usefulness’ we all benefit from to some degree, even if it is just in order to type these lines. Technical objects are the poisonous remedies of ‘Plato’s pharmacy’, according to Derrida’s famous dissertation on the pharmakon.

As Stiegler rightly pointed out, perception is not the result of cerebral action but rather of the history of the subject’s language and community (and which are also the basis of the subject’s ‘identity’, as Locke had put it earlier when he said that memory makes personal identity). Such a (desiring) subject is the subject of the unconscious, which is not the subject’s property. On the contrary, the subject is the effect and the property of the unconscious processes that regulate the subject’s intellect and that determine the contents of the subject’s consciousness. The unconscious is the agent of exchanges with technical commodities; it is the one that ‘perceives’ or synthesises sensory data in accordance with the available historical and physiological frameworks. One shall never tire of repeating (with Marx) that it is social life that determines consciousness and not the other way around. Whatever the subject perceives and retains is mediated by technologies that were invented in order to administer the subject’s ‘mental life’, his ‘psychology’. Who do such media technologies serve? According to Deleuze, ‘societies of control’ have been displacing the more traditional ‘disciplinary societies’ described by Foucault. The contemporary subject is not locked up; it is surveilled by means of unescapable recording and locating devices. The subject’s libidinal economy is governed by requirements of attention and action; all privacy has been abolished. The small gadget in the subject’s pocket has made her/him into a cyborg.

There is no doubt that the attention required by a Nintendo – by the way, do girls play it otherwise than by imitation? – is different from the attention required by dolls, a spinning top or marbles. The former is the attention required to operate a drone without ever thinking about ‘collateral damage’, or about the process whereby military personnel get to decide who shall be eliminated without any possibility of a trial or self-defense. This is not about the amount of attention required by past and present games; rather, is about qualitative differences in the modes of attention. Social life in clubs is different than in Facebook. The brain does what it can do in response to the demands it receives. Such is the brain’s ‘plasticity’; in other words, such is the brain’s complacent adaptability to history, its tendency to bend before convention without the need for any kind of ‘mirror neurons’ that would explain the subject’s social functioning.

Attention results from a libidinal compromise made by a subject who confronts information that sets her drives in motion. Yet, what kind of attention results? There are qualitative differences between the attention that the paranoid or jealous subject directs towards that which stimulates her mistrust and the hypochondriac’s attention to her body’s mysterious signals; between the musician’s attention to the tuning of her instrument and the erudite’s attention to her documents; between the wayfarer’s introspective attention and the greedy man’s attention to his bank account; between the chess player’s attention and the attention of someone who looks for imperfections in the mirror; between the attention of someone who reads newspaper articles that have nothing to do with her life and the attention of a dreamer who will remember but not understand her dreams and will expect her psychoanalyst to interpret the dreams for her. Information ellicits an attentive response in so far as it is connected with the goals and motivations of the subject, with the subject’s ghosts or more or less conscious fantasies, the imaginary stage wherein the subject’s desires and fears are realized. Such a clinical phenomenology of attention demonstrates that attention cannot be treated without attending to intention and intension, that is, the object upon which attention falls and the attitude of the subject in relation to that object of her interest or indifference.

New technologies do nothing but continue the project of old technologies, namely, to shape subjectivity into socially acceptable and structurally convenient forms. Terranova concludes her article with a cautiously optimistic note about the possibility of evading the economy of attention (which turns attention into a scarce resource) through new models of ‘social cooperation’ and ‘different forms of subjectivity’. Such a conclusion converges with the messianic hope cultivated by Hölderlin, Heidegger and Benjamin: but where danger is, grows the saving power also. Yet the hope sounds abstract: to make use of the pharmakon in order to extract from it something ‘positive’, the inventive capacity that will counteract the processes of mass control and de-subjectivation that are proper to market and control societies. Is there any other remedy at hand? It seems not, unless we do not forget that all along something was left out of consideration. That is another mode of attention that is not manipulable by technology. It does exist and it is not ‘new’: it is the dialectics that has always animated critical thinking. We must recognise the opposition and complementarity of these two modes of apprehending the real: one is computation and calculus; the other is the critical analysis of whatever gets to be known.

Dialectics does not allow for empirical knowledge of reality; no linguistic artifice will ever locate the activities of the brain that are responsible for attention or measure intergalactic distances in light years. Thinking cannot emulate calculus nor predict the future; it is likewise useless for data collection: for thinking the world of data is inaccessible. Yet there is something beyond computation and beyond ‘objective’ data. That surplus or supplement is the ability to apprehend the senses and limitations of facts, discuss objections, re-orientate research and refine the language in which the so-called ‘results’ are expressed. The ‘optimistic’ conclusion of Terranova’s article amounts to a confession of the forgetfulness into which alternatives to technology often fall. I read in it the hope of confronting the world of calculus with the same instruments that give it the power to ‘degrade’ attention. In other words, by leaving out the resources for the survival of thinking in this brave new world and for not taking into account the unthought and make a better use of the flood of digital information, the conclusion is covertly pessimistic.

As a matter of fact, there are other roads for ‘optimism’ and they do not reside in a hypothetical scientific, cybernetic or neurophysiological future. Instead, they reside in a return to the sources: Zeno, Socrates and Plato, mayeutics, Eastern and Western philosophical traditions clearing the road towards subjectivity. From them derives the imperative of responsibility for the subject’s place in this world, and particularly against the bribery of technological consumption. The subject will not have, for that reason, to give up the charms of nanotechnology, sensory prostheses and sophisticated visualization devices – in spite of the biblical command that forbid the manufacturing of images. Along that road she or he will find the philosophy of language and the language games dissecated by Wittgenstein at the heights of the ‘linguistic turn’ inaugurated by Mauthner and Saussure. Above all, the subject will discover that attention can go well beyond the retention of ‘data’. Attention can be directed towards the word as an event that exceeds calculus because it is not orientated towards accuracy but rather to the response it can ellicit in the other. It was Freud who, more than a century ago, discovered that ‘transference’ is the incalculable engine of dialogue, and on the basis of this discovery he recommended to abstain from sharpening attention in order to instead let it ‘float’ within the demand to listen without privileging anything that comes up in the discursive flux.

…to attend? Yes of course but, what to attend to? What to tender? The animal attends to the movements and noises of its prey. The child attends to the look and smile of the mother, or to those of a potentially dangerous stranger. The organism attends as if in a state of alert, and thereby is ready to develop adaptive reactions. Such is an initial mode of attention. In the second place, there is the attention of she who ‘reads’ signs by means of a deciphering code, the user of the network, a fly subjected to the ‘spider’s strategy’. This is a solitary and potentially productive attention. Finally, we attend with interest to those who speak to us, who commit to us, who send us a message and wait for a response within the dialectics of intersubjective encounter. We attend to their speaking and to our response. Such an attention is the one mentioned earlier; it is the transference that brings into play the unconscious, the phantasies, our existential position and our enjoyment (jouissance). All of these may very well be ‘anti-economic’. By attending to data and metadata, do we not run the risk of becoming alienated from such an intersubjective and transsubjective dimension that involves a third party, the Other, linguistic and relational structures? What if the ‘attention economy’ is being pursued at the expense of transference, consideration for third parties, gestural and intonation modalities, and privacy? What do the evaluators of the ‘attention economy’ have to say about that? Who is the one speaking and to whom? Who warrants the truth or falsity of that speaking? Are we allowed to become indifferent to the question of truth whenever we comment on the flood of information? Finally: is it in ‘the brain’ where we will be able to search and find answers for these urgent and unattended questions? We know very well it is not.

That which is non-informatic is the privileged object of the unconscious, which is necessarily Freudian and is structured like a language as a consequence of the function of the word that commits the living body. The unconscious is, in other words, that which escapes calculus and information. It is an anti-economic excess; not a lack. It is the ground of a subject that resorts to thinking because it cannot be reduced to calculus, since the subject is a singular, historical, unpredictable, non-probabilistic and yet non-random speaking entity.

For thinking can think calculus and yet calculus cannot calculate thinking.


Braunstein, N. A. (2012) El inconsciente, la técnica y el discurso capitalista. Mexico: Siglo XXI.

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