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Franklin Foer on Devoted Attention

Photo by JR P.

Last month, Franklin Foer, one of my favorite techno-philosophers, wrote an essay for The Atlantic that caught my attention.

He revealed that he started a daily poetry reading habit to “sharpen the faculties that stare at the world,” with the aim to “bulwark my attention against the assault waged by my phone.”

He soon rediscovered the work of Mary Oliver, who died earlier this year. In reading her final poetry collection, Upstream, Foer was surprised to discover that Oliver helped him confront the very forces that had driven him to his bulwark-building poetry habit in the first place.

“The costs of allowing our attention to be commandeered remain drastically understated,” Foer writes, and though this might not have been her specific intention, Oliver’s “poetry captures its spiritual costs.”

Foer is drawn in particular to the title poem of the collection, which tells the story of a girl separated from her parents in the woods, who finds herself, perhaps for the first time, really noticing the world around her.

As Foer explains:

“The piece concludes with a sentence that implants itself in the brain, because it is, in fact, so far upstream from the way we live: ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion.’ And, of course, this is so. The unnoticed can’t possibly be loved.”

 I stumbled across a related sentiment when researching Deep Work. In the chapter where I mull the existential significance of focus, I found myself, to my initial surprise, drawing on the philosophers Hurbert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s secularized counterstrike against nihilism, All Things Shining.

In this book, Dreyfus and Kelly locate grounded meaning in craft. When you confront the physical world and struggle to manifest your intentions, you encounter attributes and properties — some good, some bad, some occasionally sublime — that exist distinct from your subjective, narcissistic episteme.

They point to the example of the wheelwright subordinated to the properties of wood that enable successful wheel shaping. In learning these truths, they argue, the wheelwright is encountering the sacred.

Both the poetry of Oliver and the philosophizing of Dreyfus and Kelly point toward a common truth: life cannot blossom into its true potential until you embrace the challenge of paying attention to what is in front of you right now.

The algorithmically-mediated alternatives presented through glowing screens will never spark the same devotion.

25 thoughts on “Franklin Foer on Devoted Attention”

  1. A colleague of mine recently opined that ‘philosophy is crud’. Such is the arrogance of many scientists I’ve encountered, who have no appreciation for the intersection between the brilliance, and beauty found in philosophy.

    A fascinating insight too. The unnoticed can’t possibly be loved.

    Great stuff Cal.

    • That’s so wrong I don’t know where to begin.

      By stating that philosophy is less valuable than science, you’re making a philosophical argument. By stating that astrophysical cosmology can replace metaphysical cosmology, you’re making a philosophical argument. By stating that neuroscience can replace ethics, you’re making a philosophical argument.

    • Some of the greatest discoveries in science were not just informed by rational, analytical-thinking. It was the intersection with art and philosophy that I believe enables those leaps.

  2. Always love St. Thomas’ way of going to the heart of the matter: “Every being, as being, is good. For all being, as being, has actuality and is in some way perfect; since every act implies some sort of perfection; and perfection implies desirability and goodness, as is clear from 1. Hence it follows that every being as such is good.”

  3. The philosopher, and indeed anyone with a bit of mystic or contemplative in them are caught up in rapt wonder that things “are”. Great post, Cal!

  4. Love this! Oliver wrote a lot about attention, often even using that word. (“October” is one of my personal favorites.)

    You wrote about meditation here a little while back… this post today (6/5) is, for me, an excellent (if accidental) anthem to meditative practice. Ultimately meditation is about “… paying attention to what is in front of you right now,” and thereby “… encountering the sacred.”

    Thanks for sharing Foer’s essay.

    • Yes, this piece seems to go out of its way to avoid the words “mindfulness” and “meditation”. Perhaps those words have been wrung dry of meaning by popular culture.

      • Oh, that’s an interesting take. I don’t get the sense that Cal’s ~avoiding~ saying anything. Still, you might be right about those words having been wrung dry of meaning. Fortunately, I don’t imagine “encountering the sacred” could share that fate. (Pardon me while I knock on wood….)

  5. Last half of Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day
    I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
    I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
    into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
    how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
    which is what I have been doing all day.
    Tell me, what else should I have done?
    Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
    Tell me, what is it you plan to do
    with your one wild and precious life?

  6. I am confused by the conclusion at the end of this line of thinking.

    “…life cannot blossom into its true potential until you embrace the challenge of paying attention to what is in front of you right now.

    The algorithmically-mediated alternatives presented through glowing screens will never spark the same devotion.”

    Is not the algorithm, in this example, what is in front of the person if they’re staring at a screen? Doesn’t it then follow that the medium of the algorithmic marketplace has unique properties, the same as wood?

    Maybe it isn’t a medium worth investing craft and attention into, but to frame it as an alternative – a thing without qualities that can be given deep attention – is a mistake in thinking.

  7. This thought really speaks to me. I’m trying to turn my attention into devotion with a different creative process – nature journaling.
    I’m practicing my observation of nature by drawing in my sketchbook what I can see when I’m outside – it both helps me to look closer (much more than simply taking a photo), so it deepens my connection to nature and makes me appreciate it while I’m drawing. It’s incredibly calming, flow-inducing and I’m building my drawing and painting skills. I’m also teaching this process to other people, in the hope of fostering their love, appreciation and curiosity for nature.

  8. A bit of an old topic, but now that you have explored this route are you thinking about going back to the topic graduate school if you have some more to say about it? I know it will be too narrow so perhaps a series of blog posts fit but I am sure you still got many readers who would like to know about that.

  9. Week 3 of the digital fast for me. Spent 45 minutes the other night out on my balcony watching a lightning storm. Have been doing a little yoga and meditating every morning & evening. I find myself thinking more deeply about projects that I’m working on, without any real effort, and doing things that have been on my list for months. What does require constant vigilance is being 100% with whoever I am with, moment-to-moment. My old habit would be for my attention to wander. Now I ask, “how can I deeply connect with and serve this person right now?” It makes my interactions so much more satisfying.

    • See “Say What You Mean” by Oren J Sofer for answers to your questions about being “present” for every conversation …

  10. Cal – I just read the chapter on David Foster Wallace in “All things shining.”
    Now I understand why you mentioned this book. Wow.

  11. Hey Cal,

    Thanks for the precise and meaningful content.

    Just wanted to ask why haven’t you made the site secure with an SSL certificate. I mean I know you are a great computer science professor, but still.

    Thanks & Regards

  12. “life cannot blossom into its true potential until you embrace the challenge of paying attention to what is in front of you right now.”

    I love your stuff, Cal. It’s been cool watching your thoughts grow and become more detailed as you add to it. I’m glad you aren’t on social media as well. I don’t know if you think so, but statements like these are more powerful and now are unfortunately even more antagonistic to many in my generation and younger. That probably sounds crazy to you, but when you challenge anyone to do anything outside of their own autonomy these days you remind them the burden of responsibility in their daily lives that they rather forfeit. A lot of people can’t handle that these days. I hope not, but I predict you are going to spur a backlash one of these days for all the right reasons.

    Keep up the good fight.

  13. Hi Cal,
    Would you recommend some sources on how to manage your PhD studies? I couldn’t find much on your blog but would love to hear your thoughts on it.


  14. I’d love to hear what you think of the rise of ‘instapoetry’….the popularity of short nippet-y poems posted on instagram.


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