Monday, November 28, 2011

Paul North's "The Problem of Distraction"

Paul North is Assistant Professor of German at Yale University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Problem of Distraction, and reported the following:
A pause in one flight of thoughts, beginning of another, a transition, a good example because a bad example, signs pointing in many directions—Kafka’s critique of Max Brod’s fledgling aesthetic theory; Kafka’s theorization of “small literature”; one intellectual context of early twentieth-century Prague: Brentano’s students and their brand of “descriptive psychology”—through these relays back, and forward, to the thesis of the book, the proposal that there is another sort of distraction, all but ignored today in the furor to control a phenomenon whose concept by rights should be disambiguated and called “diversion.” All this is not present on page ninety-nine. A book is not an aleph, of course, in Borges’s sense; it is not a pleroma equally full in all directions or a monad in any drop of which one sees the whole perfectly reflected. Fullness is sporadic, contents asymmetric. And what you find depends on what you are looking for. Looking back, I found that this page, unlike some other pages perhaps, does not summarize, abbreviate, exemplify, reduce, formulate, or any of the other acts that are supposed to “represent” complex conceptual projects.

It so happens that this exact problem, the problem of abbreviations and their relationship to the abbreviated, is just what the pages leading up to this non-page circle around. Thought, which abbreviates, holds no actual authority over experience, which must be gone all the way through. Art, for Kafka in a very early and uncharacteristically theoretical fragment, is aligned with experience, not consciousness. So, I wrote, “those interested in art’s effects will not be able to simply think about art, since they will not be able to dispense with the next reading, the next work, the next experience” (99). And then a remark on the peculiarity of this position: “art certainly makes objects, for the young Kafka, but it makes them in an odd way; it makes objects available for release from consciousness” (99). Binding an artwork to a concept, understanding it, betrays it. The reverse is also true, and more important. Real artworks are unintelligible, unconceptualizable, unconscious even. They are received in a mode that should be called, according to a clandestine tradition running from Aristotle to Walter Benjamin, distraction.

The distraction—in German Zerstreuung—that Kafka is interested in here is the kind in which cognition is set out of work. Thought is suspended, such that the world becomes unrecognizable—i.e. it has to be experienced anew—and thought has to scramble to reorganize itself or else do something we would not yet call thinking. This sort of distraction, if it afflicts “peoples,” as Hobbes feared it would, initiates historical transformations. It is the mental correlate of epochal world-change. Ontological rather than psychological, it is a disposition or capacity for letting go of the world as now conceived, preparing for an alien experience, as it would appear to a being alien to the self that consciousness and self-consciousness have preserved. Experience without a subject, you might call it. Aristotle had a vision of it. In 17th-century France the moraliste Jean de la Bruyère described “le distrait,” the distracted one, stumbling around Le Grand Siècle without recognizing its beings, social classes, norms, and conventions. In the early 20th century primal, ontological distraction was theorized by three students of phenomenology—Kafka, Heidegger, and Benjamin—who thought that by means of it they could save the art, thought, and culture of the West from their worst tendencies.

The book is a plea to those involved in the current battles to recapture attention to think more broadly, and specifically more historically, about the nature of human thought and its capacity to transform.
Learn more about The Problem of Distraction at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue