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Richard A. Lanham: The Economics of Attention:
style and substance in the age of information
(Chicago University Press: 2006)


“This book had its origins in a narrow question: What’s new about the digital expressive space, and what’s not?... This narrow question expanded, in spite of my best efforts to resist it, into a second and larger one: What’s new about the ‘new economy’, and what’s not? Seeing clearly what is happening to the word, as it moves from page to screen seems, to me at least, to depend on seeing clearly what is happening in the world that expressive field has to express. Both are battles for attention as the scarce resource.... [And,] the devices that regulate attention are stylistic devices. Attracting attention is what style is all about. If attention is now at the center of the economy, rather than stuff, then so is style. It moves from the periphery to the center. Style and substance trade places.”
(Lanham, pp.xi-ii)

There has been more nonsense, I suspect, talked (and written) about our “post” world than almost any other topic. Post-industrial, post-modern - post-whatever - such terminology is invariably both false and, in point of fact, uninformative. Take “post-industrial”, for example... Clearly, industry not only still exists, but remains important (if not quite so economically central). So, there’s the falsehood. And, just what has supposedly replaced it? Well, post- terms conveniently elide this awkward question, allowing them to serve as capacious grab-bags invariably full of the most dubious “theorizing” around.

Personally, I have much better things to do w/my time

However, there does exist - remarkably - at least one author who has written clearly and insightfully about the sort of things others make fools of themselves over. The reason for this, I suspect, is quite simple. The necessary background for understanding these changes - which have their roots in our communications - is rhetorical...and rhetoric remains a heavily marginalized area of study...not to mention a term of abuse in itself. So, to begin our re-education, let Lanham the Rhetorician speak to us re rhetoric:


“Rhetoric has, since Plato first calumniated the Sophists, been synonymous with the art of deception [and] in democracies, we always call the methods by which we come to common purposes ‘politics’ and scorn them, as if there were some other way to decide business in a democracy. Nowadays, we’ve come to call it ‘spin.’ [However,] the flipside of this definition is the art of cooperation.”
(Lanham, p.58)

“Because it is the basis of our legal system, we assume that...every argument has two sides. But we inherited this inevitability from Greek rhetoric, which devised a procedure for solving disputes, in a democracy based on attention structures. Two-sided argument allows for resolution...[and,] like delivery, two-sided argument is an essentially dramatic method of conflict resolution, and hence of governance. That is its enfranchising assumption: resolution comes with a price, and the price is dramatic persuasion.... [It] emerged as part of rhetoric, a theory of communication that was and remained profoundly social [for] it was always concerned with returning abstract thought to the three-dimensional world of behavior, where it had to work.... Formal rhetoric assumed that the scarce commodity was human attention, and that it had to be skilfully allocated.”
(Lanham, p.25)

“Such training in rhetoric as has survived into our time usually justifies itself by arguing that you need to learn the methods of argument to defend yourself against your opponents. But, more important, it allows you to defend yourself against yourself, to cultivate an interior countercheck. The more odious you might find that opposing opinion, the more you should seek to know what would make someone hold such an opinion. And, the more you should examine the grounds on which you hold your own. This self-examination is, and ought to be, a humbling experience...[which - eventually -] makes you comfortable with a bi-stable grasp of the world. Looking through experience and at it, first one and then the other, comes to seem a natural way of seeing, a habit of perception.”
(Lanham, p.26)

“It was not for nothing that Adam Smith taught rhetoric.”
(Lanham, p.36)

And the same could be said for Richard Lanham. Lanham is, to my mind, the most important rhetorical thinker since Eric Havelock, and he has - while remaining true to what might be termed the rhetorical worldview - done an enormous amount to broaden the tradition via fresh connections w/other areas of knowledge...in particular, various forms of science. Unfortunately, while this has garnered him a wide readership outside the academic Humanities, his increasingly evident disconnect from the verities of “Theory” has made for a shrinking readership on his home ground...where his ideas are most needed. And, the central idea of this, his latest (and most important) work, is that not only are the “post-” terms inadequate, but the main alternative - dominant in the world of business - is also seriously misleading...


“The age of information has brought with it a strange paradox. Just when we are drowning in stuff, we seem to be abolishing it.... The more cruise ships we launch, the fewer real ports will be left for them to visit.... Products used to be designed to last a lifetime. Now, they have a shorter life than young love.... [Most significantly,] the hunger for stuff is paralleled by a hunger for style. Modern ‘materialism’ turns out to be an intellectual, spiritualized, affair.”
(Lanham, pp.1-3)

“We have always had information as a perspective on stuff, to be sure, and toggled back and forth between the stuff and the information that informs it...[although] such reverse engineering used to be uphill work. But now it is much easier. The information economy leaves the toggle switch in the information position...[as it] naturally assumes that pattern, design, comes first.... An information economy thus implies a fundamental figure/ground reversal in how we think about the world we live in. We always knew it had form, but the real reality was the stone you kicked with your foot. Now, we are back in the Middle Ages, trying to fathom the mind of God. That’s proving harder than kicking the stone. Such a reversal leads us to wonder whether ‘information economy’ is the right name for where we find ourselves...[for] the kitchen that cooks the raw data into useful ‘information’ is human attention. It is the attention economy which has created the paradox of stuff.”
(Lanham, pp.5-7)

“If attention is the commodity in short supply, then all the debates about ‘quality of life’ come to the fore. Ecclesiastes’ advice, ‘Better is a handful with quietness, than both the hands full with travail and vexation of spirit,’ is no longer fluffy proverbial wisdom. The argument between the arts and commerce begins just here. And the much older conflict between otium and negotium, between leisure and a life of ‘getting and spending.’  And the equally venerable ‘Achilles’ choice’ between a short, famous life and a long, prosperous obscurity. Or the conflict, fundamental to the argument, between substance and style. The conflict between these two kinds of economy, that is, returns us to a cluster of related, and perennial, topics in the history of Western thought. Each of these fundamental debates, I would argue, is about our two different kinds of economies.... [Moreover,] you can’t map the one sort of economic thinking directly onto the other.... [In particular,] the World Wide Web has created what we might call ‘the comedy of the commons’...[as] the more people graze on it for their own purposes, the bigger it becomes, and the greener its grass grows. It thus combines the power of a free market, where individual gain leads to collective benefit, with the cooperative ownership of the cultural conversation.”
(Lanham, pp.10-13)

Now...the “economics” Lanham is proposing here will hardly replace that which is demarcated in dollars, but...it is not supposed to. Rather, his aim is to encourage us to think economically about attention...in the belief that such an approach will illuminate much that has seemed confusing about the way our world is going, and provide a vital complement to “conventional” economics. And, while this approach may seem strange to readers unfamiliar with the study of rhetoric - and the scholarship surrounding the oral-literate divide - it clearly makes sense as a development and enrichment of said tradition...one of the most important (yet neglected) strands of the intellectual history of the last two and a half thousand years...


“The fault line between orality and literacy constitutes the fundamental plate tectonic in Western expression. On the literate side, the neutral theory of communication in which ‘noiseless concepts or “ideas”’ are exchanged in a ‘silent field of mental space.’ On the oral side, ideas exchanged in the emotionally charged field of attitude and design, of voice and gesture. From classical Greece onward, these two ways of communicating have existed in perpetually shifting combinations. [And] from the collision of these two tectonic plates - orality and literacy - the great earthquakes of Western creativity have erupted...because all of us continue to dwell in both oral and literate universes. We all possess both the central self generated  by literate expression, and the social self that exists only in company. We need company in order to feel real, yet we feel equally strongly that the most real part of us is the ‘sincere self’ generated in our private reading space. We want to hold together these two dichotomous ways of being in the world, because that uneasy combination makes for the deepest humanity. [For] when print triumphs, becomes ‘wholly literate,’ when it manages to become truly voiceless and without gestural animation, when human utterance ceases to try, in its infinitely various ways, to hold together both kinds of self, and both kinds of society, the life goes out of expression. Read any paragraph in the bureaucratic official style, and you’ll see what I mean.”
(Lanham, p.110)

“The standard model we use for human communication is one I have called the clarity-brevity-sincerity, or ‘C-B-S’, model. It is based on the exchange of goods, of physical stuff. Words are like things, and ideally should be things.... The word ‘table’ should look like a table. If you try to wrap words up in emotion, in design, you are only masking the naked truth with fallacious glosses.... These assumptions are so fundamental to how we think about communication that they inhere in the terminology we use to describe it: rhetoric versus reality; style versus substance.... We have a theory of communication that is based on a theory of economics that is based on a theory of morality that is based on a theory of self and society. It goes all the way down to the bedrock. How can you possibly argue with this perpetual dream of native innocence and simplicity? Argue for hypocrisy?”
(Lanham, pp.137-40)

“In the Western conversation about human expression, spoken or written, the great villain has always been self-consciousness.... [But,] the more we are deluged with information, the more we notice the different ways it comes to us, the more we have - in pure self-defense - to become...more self-conscious about it, about all the different packages it comes in, about the different ways we interpret it, and about how we should express our responses to it.... Stylistic self-consciousness should be the first line of defense for a child swimming in the information flood.”
(Lanham, pp.142-3)

While much here recapitulates things Lanham has argued before - specifically, in The Electronic Word - there are also significant advances present in the new work. One is his comparison of digital expression w/the pre-Gutenburg development of punctuation & spaces between words...a much more insightful parallel than the over-drawn one so often made w/printing:


“Discussions of digital expression usually take the invention of printing as their starting point.... We might enrich the discussion, though, if we looked back farther than Gutenberg, to a notational revolution in some ways more analogous to our present one, the development of space between words. From the first extant Greek texts until somewhere around the year A.D. 1000....alphabetic texts were written without space between words and, mostly, without punctuation either. At the beginning, too, all in capital letters.... Such texts were hard to read...[and] the increase in reading efficiency seems so plain that we wonder why it wasn’t adopted earlier. For an answer, we must look at the reading and writing practices represented by scriptio continua...[which was] much more like reading a musical score today than reading a text. The reader was familiar with the text. He (they were usually men) had prepared it as a conductor prepares a performance. He separated its parts in advance, and memorized the separations. He read it aloud. It was a dramatic performance, and considered as such. It took time, and the reader had plenty of time to take. Rapid ingestion of information was not possible in such a method, but neither was it required. Gradually, however, it became required.... Moreover, readers came from more diverse backgrounds, and needed more performance clues. A different literacy emerged from these changes. [And] surely, a similar process is occurring in our time...[for] we need, as never before, to bring abstract reasoning down to earth, because more people than ever before need to learn how to reason abstractly.... We need to develop a notation that allows us to move from stuff to what we think about stuff more easily than print permits. To develop it, we will have to embrace a traditional enemy, stylistic self-consciousness.”
(Lanham, pp.112-15)

And, to aid us in this endeavour, Lanham has expanded upon his arguments for a bi-stable approach to knowledge (alternating between looking “at” and “through” communications, rather than privileging one) - set out in his last book - to attempt a more exhaustive analysis of this difficult question. The result, I would argue, is a relatively simple (yet invaluable) typology which serves to clearly relate the aesthetic, ethical, and pragmatic dimensions of our lives in a highly useful way:


“Let me now try to define the style-substance pairing more richly, [for] if you are to understand how it does originate change, you must show it in action. I’ve chosen to do this in a series of spectra that I call a matrix. I use the term not in the mathematical or modern movie sense, but in a simple dictionary definition: ‘A place or enveloping element within which something originates, takes form, or develops.’ The ‘something’ here is the style/substance judgement we make every day. Let me put the matrix before you...

Signal         Through                A/T mixture             At

Perceiver   Through                                                At

Motive        Through                 Purpose                 Play

Life              Life as Information                Life as Drama

“Let’s start by considering the means of expression. I’m going to call it the signal, and use it to refer to text, image, or sound. We notice first that it is a variable. Some signals are naturally more artful, more self-conscious than others.... At one end, the through ideal. Minimal awareness of an expressive medium. At the other end, the at ideal. Maximal awareness of how we say what we do, or paint it, or sound it out. In the middle, all the daily mixtures. Please note: no point on the spectrum is intrinsically evil or virtuous: it seeks to describe rather than proscribe, to analyze rather than condemn. Our natural impulse is to condemn self-conscious form...[but] we condemn it at our peril. Can’t we bring to all these efforts a more capacious understanding? The human imagination wants to use the entire range of stylistic self-consciousness, not merely one point on it. And each point on it brings with it a characteristic mixture of powers.”
(Lanham, pp.158-9)

“Signals of all sorts bring with them their own suggestions, then, about where they might be placed on a spectrum of formal self-consciousness. But we can choose, if we like, to ignore these indications and bring a different kind of attention to the experience..... Some people  endure difficult lives by learning to look at them, consider them as dramas to which they have a free ticket. Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennet, the father in Pride and Prejudice, learns to live this way as an alternative to strangling his wife and drowning one, or perhaps two, of his daughters.... At vision looks impossibly theoretical and arty to someone hardened into one shape by daily tasks. Yet, obviously, employees who can range across the spectrum are the most adroit, in a larger sense the most efficient, employees. [And] one might almost define managerial skill as the ability to understand and work at any point on the spectrum of perception....[which] provides the common ground on which to plot inevitable differences. It is thus the backbone, in the largest sense, of interdisciplinary effort of any sort. It provides a place to start useful conversations.”
(Lanham, pp.162-5)

As, indeed, does Lanham’s matrix. And while the first two spectra are clearly paired, their relation to the latter duo is much more difficult to summarise. However, it is in these that the economic aspect of Lanham’s argument comes to the fore - albeit, as you may have noticed by now, his economics are quite unique, and (by design) attempt to encompass all the things traditionally ignored in that discipline...such as the wellsprings of purpose, for example...


“Play and game are self-motivating. They spring up spontaneously in human behavior. Not so with calm good sense in the center. Fondness for the ordinary moderate pleasures of ordinary moderate life, what the Greeks called Sophrosyne, has not threatened to run out of control. Why not? Isn’t ordinary purpose where the generative force of human behavior originates? ...[In actuality,] practical purpose is driven and sustained, if not created, by the goadings of ambition on one side, and play on the other.... When we invert the common proverb by saying that ‘Invention is the mother of necessity’ we try to describe this galvanizing of central ordinary purpose by game and play.... [However,] necessity does mother invention too...[and] we should bear this fundamental [two-directional] dynamic flow in mind for the other spectra on the matrix. It provides a fundamental, rather than simply metaphorical, way to connect them. It shows how the style/substance pairing ‘originates, takes form, and develops.’ [Moreover,] considered in this way, the motivational spectrum might well be called the productivity spectrum.”
(Lanham, pp.172-3)

“In an industrial economy, the economy of ‘stuff’ that we are used to, and which our laws of property are based upon, flows from the center to the extremes... But in an economy of attention, the vital energy flows the other way, from the extremes inward. The polarities reverse.”
(Lanham, p.223)

“The simplification of stylistic judgements is like the simplification of motivational judgements. If you are to give a rich description of style and substance, you must link these two kinds of judgement, consider style and behavior in the same universe. Plotting motive in the same matrix as signal and perceiver does just this. But we need one more spectrum, to round off our periodic table...one that plots the reality to which all the others refer. Much of Western intellectual history has been concerned with making reality an invariable...[and] in such worlds, we have felt equally rocklike about ourselves. They were actually there inside us, whether immortal souls or a confident if disbelieving me. But from classical Greece onward, there has always been an alternative conception of human reality: O kosmos skene, the world as theater.”
(Lanham, pp.176-7)

“At the left, extreme unselfconsciousness, we might consider ‘life as information.’ Here information provides the stuff of life, not stuff... [and] the self has become an epiphenomenon.... [Interestingly,] both extremes have been focused and reinforced by digital technology. The left-hand extreme has been reinforced by the arguments of formal communication theory invented by Claude Shannon, and by the metamorphic powers of a polyvalent digital code...[while] the world as theater has been intensified by all the techniques of digital representation.... Both of these extremes, then, are flooding the troubled middle ground of commonsense stuff-based reality with a confusing and disorienting self-consciousness. If we have to treat self-consciousness as a sin, in the way we have been accustomed to, there won’t be much life left in which to be virtuous. Manifestly, our way of thinking about communication, and about how it works in human life, requires the expanded matrix we have constructed here.”
(Lanham, pp.177-8)

“To the degree that style and substance change places in an attention economy, it is vital that we be able to relate judgments of the one sort to judgments of the other, to put style and substance into relationships that are as complex as human reality. Only thus can we define either one. We can no longer afford to trivialize the one and reify the other by the words we use to describe them. If, as I’ve been arguing here, both can be plotted on a common matrix of self-consciousness, we have an integral, and not simply a metaphorical, way of relating them. Any time we discriminate between style and substance, we have made a fixation on all four spectra on the matrix. That self-consciousness should turn out to be a vital, perhaps the vital, variable should not surprise us. Western culture has been confronting a crisis of self-consciousness ever since the Renaissance, doubly so since Darwin, and triply so since the invention of...the digital expressive field...[and] we have been sedulously dodging this audit since the Renaissance.”
(Lanham, p.180)

While here I can only touch upon the richness of the argument that has led the author to this point I can - at least - draw attention to his range of reference. As the bibliographical essays which accompany each chapter make clear, Richard Lanham has investigated an extraordinarily wide range of relevant disciplines in coming to his conclusions. Moreover, as we progress through the book, we continually alight upon unusual and insightful discussions of matters which might seem well outside his area of expertise. Here, for example are some observations upon the visual avant garde of the last century...a discussion which, by itself, I think would justify the book’s purchase price:


“In the twentieth century, the most obvious economists of attention have been the visual artists.... [And] when this art of attention became tedious, as it often did in percolating down, we could see it more clearly. It was didactic, not revolutionary, and its aim was to teach us how to toggle back and forth between seeing the art object, and hence the world, as stuff and seeing it as attention.”
(Lanham, p.15)

“It is instructive to compare these two...Andy Warhol and Christo Javacheff. Christo insists on living ‘the real life,’ as he puts it. His projects are built at real risk. Andy admired Judy Garland because ‘her real was so unreal’ and wanted (at least according to one anecdote told at his funeral) to be reincarnated as a ring on Elizabeth Taylor’s finger. Christo is a planner, a builder, a responsible bill payer; he knows what he wants to do, and why. Andy was a drifter, schemer, and opportunist who asked his friends to suggest subjects for his painting so he wouldn’t lose touch with current trends. Christo is deadly serious about his artistic entrepreneurship and what it intends to teach. Warhol kept insisting that he was not serious about anything except making money and being famous. They embodied two antithetical conceptions of self and society. Christo has a clear central self and lives, and wants to live, in ‘the real world.’ Andy said, and nothing in his life contradicts it, that he was entirely a creature of the social surface...and yet, both of them made their art from the same substance: attention.”
(Lanham, p.63)

“This is what beauty is for, in an economics of attention, not to be gazed upon for its own sake but to focus social purpose. (It may work the same way in other species too, but that is another story.) Such a focus does not mean that the beauty need be of the ‘Seven Brave Tractor Drivers’ socialist sort. Far from it. The more absolute it is, the less connected it is with social purpose, the better it works in leading social purpose.”
(Lanham, p.59)

And, finally, it would not do to review Lanham, and ignore his - almost overwhelming - concern with the shape and task of the educational mission. This, in fact, so permeates the book that almost any page will contain wisdom on the subject...a rarity in such a barrenly politicized war-zone, and one we should be grateful for. Here, following his selected keynote quotation from Alfred North Whitehead, are four insights into higher education, delivered via an audit prompted by online competition. We would do well to pay attention:


“Wisdom is how knowledge is held.”
(Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education)

“Early reports from the online front indicate that students often feel they learned more online than in the classroon, and felt more at ease.... Everyone who has taught online seems to agree that the role of instructor changes too, from Socratic wise person to magister ludi, a master of ceremonies. The burden of instruction, though not of arrangement, seems to move back onto the student.... [And] nothing, finally, misses the point and power of digital expression quite so dramatically as a classroom full of computers. ‘Why,’ anyone who understands the logic of digital expression must ask, ‘Why put computers there? That’s where the students just escaped from.’ Digital expression puts the classroom in the computer, not the computer in the classroom.”
(Lanham, p.235)

“The medieval university was staffed by professors who were individual entrepreneurs. They lived by fees paid to them by the students for their lectures. Famous lecturer, many students, large income. Boring lecturer, few students, envy, bitterness, poverty. The university provided the hall, and a critical mass of students, but the professor owned the educational product and was free to, and sometimes did, take his (they were all he’s) show on the road. The virtual university re-creates this pattern.... [Moreover,] the management and employment pattern the virtual university implies - and what a reception such a suggestion will get in the present climate! - is that of an entertainment production company, that develops talent and markets it. Its real business, like a publishing company in the digital world, is the acquisition of rights. Can we be sure we have nothing to learn from such organizations?”
(Lanham, pp.238-40)

“The combination of lifetime employment and unchanging job description - you cannot be asked to teach ‘out of your field’ even if that field is now out in left field and no one wants to play in it - is so unworkable that it has already broken down.... [But] the usual criticism of the tenure system, that it preserves people in a profession they are now too lazy or decrepit to profess, misses the central point. The danger is not that they can no longer do the same job, but that the job will remain the same, whether they can do it or not. In the tenure debate, it is not the unchangeable faculty that is the problem, but the unchangeable job description...[which] assumes a rhythm and sequence the world no longer permits.”
(Lanham, pp.240-1)

“Teaching is an intensely purposive activity, and when it has been jammed together with research into one career...it has constituted an enormous generative engine. Hard to bear, maddeningly inconsistent at its heart, but rich in results. It is only when academic life lives up to its professions of motivational purity that the fire goes out. Purity of motive is a disastrous operating premise, whatever the motive. Pure ambition creates parodies of Achilles. That’s why the sixties had to happen. But pure play is a disaster, too, as the sixties proved.”
(Lanham, p.244)

Looking for rich summary quotations - to round off the review - in this case left me with an embarrassment of riches. Two I have reinserted elsewhere, to open out a chain upon a topic, but these last, I feel, demand to be here, to demonstrate exactly how the myriad strands of Lanham’s work weave together. And, be warned...as with the previous set, they challenge us all, in different ways...


“People in the fluff business mostly despise people in the stuff business. Why is this? As economist George Stigler has pointed out in a famous essay ‘The Intellectual and the Marketplace,’ four times out of five it is the marketplace that pays the salaries of the professional intellectuals who scorn it.... Even more puzzling, why do literary people despise the stylistic richness on which their fictions and enquiries depend, and which is also generated by the market? The dispute is a very old one, going back to Plato’s aristocratic disdain for the demos. At its center is a hatred of the profit motive, a hatred built, as Stigler points out, on the misapprehension that a market transaction is a zero-sum one, that what I gain is always taken from someone else. But market exchanges are willing exchanges, and each party leaves the marketplace having both given and gotten. This satisfaction goes deep.... [Moreover,] the profit taken by each party returns as an increase in the general welfare, as well as individual satisfaction.... In an attention economy, [however,] we do not need an invisible hand. I can keep my ideas and give them to you, at the same time. This generosity underwrites Plato’s Dialogues, and the Western intellectual conversation since then. The intellectual scorn of markets comes from assuming that this same kind of attention-economics generosity should be created in a stuff economy. It cannot, but the end result is the same if the argument is pursued to the end. This very seldom happens. The root misunderstanding, therefore, comes from a failure to align an economics of stuff with an economics of attention, to see their true relationship.”
(Lanham, p.251)

“In our common conversation, style and substance are contending opposites. The more of one, the less of the other. The pairing has many names, and we build many proverbs on them: all sizzle and no steak, all hat and no cattle and, worst of all, rhetoric instead of reality. We use the pairing as our most common putdown.... The contending-opposites way of thinking does have its uses. In our journey through the perilous wood of life, no shield is more serviceable than a good crap detector. But crap detectors cannot create.... Creativity, innovation, comes when style and substance collaborate in a common purpose, [for] only when style and substance come together does originality emerge....[Moreover,] we usually think of analytic thinking as the enemy of creativity. But this is just another consequence of conceiving style and substance as antithetical enemies. To think of them as collaborators, ask yourself, ‘Which comes first?’ Well, you do have to start with a blank sheet of paper (sorry, a blank screen), and write or draw or calculate on it, before you have something to revise. But what you write in that moment comes from all you have read and thought and revised into your own thought...[and so,] they are both part of a process, an alternation, and it is the process that comes first.... Creation and revision are the oldest at/through sequence...[and] any technology that makes this oscillation easier, that sharpens this tool, lubricates human invention and expression. Here lies the central importance of digital technology. It has sharpened the revision tool...[and] revisionist thinking has been built into the center of creativity. The old pattern, however often we iterated it, was a three-stage process: creation, revision, final version. The new pattern approximates more closely continual revision.... [Moreover,] in the digital writing space, words no longer have it all their own way.... If you have something to communicate, and you ponder whether this should be done with words, images, or sounds, and try out various combinations, you become self-conscious about expressive medium.... This is revisionist thinking, but of a new sort. And, again, one energized by digital expression.”
(Lanham, p.254-8)

Of the vast - innumerable? - number of books which purport to address the nature of society and its communications in the modern West most are, quite simply, negligible.... Of the scant number which do have some real contribution to make, most are fundamentally flawed by the fact that their authors simply do not know enough history in order to draw the relevant comparisons. And that the best, by far, is by a distinguished student and teacher of rhetoric - professionally opposed to disciplinary narrowness, and a marvellous prose stylist to boot - is, I would argue, no accident...

Nor is it an accident that Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention also delivers a typology which allows us to much better integrate aesthetic experience with ethical and pragmatic concerns...without (as per usual) sacrificing all else upon the altar of the one. As Lanham convincingly argues - backed by two and half millennia of cogent (if neglected) argument - we can do much better than that.

Also, as I’ve yet to discuss here, his approach makes even more sense in conjunction with the work of others to be encountered on this site. As Peter J. Wilson might have argued, for example, it is the brief over-dominance of “stuff” since the Renaissance which is the exception in the long view. And, on a very different front, I’m also very impressed by the richness of perspective which comes from juxtaposing Lanham’s matrix w/Mary Douglas’ grid-group theory, as they provide usefully complementary perspectives upon our cultural choices & commitments - emerging as they do, from the very different backgrounds of rhetoric and anthropology.

Lanham’s work, moreover, is in the great tradition of Eric Havelock...which, as regular readers of this site will remember, is aligned via Kieran Egan w/the developmental/evolutionary psychology of Katherine Nelson & Merlin Donald. As such, it forms a key part of the pluralistic web which is the New Humanities. But, what most readers will not know is that Richard Lanham - despite his belated appearance here - has been one of the crucial formative theorists whose work I have most relied upon...albeit mainly via his earlier book, The Electronic Word (1993), which first outlined many of the arguments further developed herein. For this, and many other reasons, I have no hesitation in recommending to you The Economics of Attention. Beautifully written, clearly argued, and drawing upon vast cross-disciplinary reading, it is - once again - essential reading for all who would try to understand our present...


“We may say, and not simply in a manner of speaking, that we live in revisionist times. Physical substance and what we think about it, stuff and fluff, have changed places. Our locus of reality has shifted. We have not left the physical world behind and become creatures of pure attention. Neither has wealth become totally disembodied. Our view is now bi-stable. We must always be ready to move from one view of the world to another. They are always competing with one another. We are learning to live in two worlds at once.... [However,] the temptation to shut down the oscillation, to stifle the creative breath of the Western world, has been strong from the beginning. Surely, in all these contrasts, top-down versus bottom-up control, the social self versus the central self, the philosopher versus the rhetorician, substance versus style - or, as I have styled it, stuff and fluff - one has to be right, and the other wrong. The history of thought is composed of such antithetical arguments. Yet the way through the perils has always lain not in compromising or mixing the opposites, but holding them both in mind, in delicate alternation. Revisionist thinking is not relativist thinking. It provides an opposite method, a way to hold absolute truths in your mind without compromising them or imposing them on other people. Revisionist thinking, then, is the price we pay for absolute values in a free and peaceful society. [And] there is nothing complicated in explaining this bistable oscillation, but much in the doing.”
(Lanham, pp.258-64)



John Henry Calvinist