Richard Spiegel, *24

Department of History

Attention and Society



“Attention and Society” is the first social history of attention. Beginning from pressing anxieties about the harmful effects of the attention economy on personal and collective freedom, it asks: when and how did attention become a cogent way for understanding human autonomy and the risks of its annexation? Engaging with current debates in the neuroscience and philosophy of attention, I make the case that attention was not simply “discovered.” The psychology of attention accrued significance over the eighteenth century in tandem with the erosion of corporatist hierarchies. It allowed non-noble members of the educated elite to project their authority over others in society by claiming that the individual’s ability to control an instable mind was the
psychological basis that defined one’s quality and place in society. I argue that attention provided a vocabulary and conceptual framework for reorganizing power in the transition from a caste- to a class-based society in central Europe.

“Attention and Society” traces the idea of attention from the late Enlightenment to changes in educational and legal policy in the nineteenth century. Focusing on Leipzig—the heart of the central European book trade—I show how after the popular uprisings that seized the city in 1830, authorities blamed the distracting effects of information surfeit as the root cause driving student activism. They claimed political self-government would only succeed if students first learned to self-govern their personal economies of attention. Officials duly created programs of compulsory psychological education meant to inculcate student obedience by adapting earlier practices of spiritual submission to the psychology of attention. The dissertation ends by looking at the competition between racial and sociological theories of criminality in fin-de-siecle Vienna. It shows how influential jurists used the psychology of attention to structure social hierarchies ina legal system premised on equality before the law, with enduring consequences.

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