THOREAU'S AXE: DISTRACTION AND DISCIPLINE IN AMERICAN CULTURE by Caleb Smith, Reviewed by
 


THOREAU'S AXE: DISTRACTION AND DISCIPLINE IN AMERICAN CULTURE
By Caleb Smith
(Princeton, 2023) ix + 240 pp
Reviewed by on 2023-12-01.

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Inundated with an almost endless stream of new media, many of us may now feel almost overwhelmingly distracted by what we see on our various screens, from television to laptops and smartphones. As work moves further into virtual spaces, and as virtual spaces themselves become new modes of and for community (think Meta), technology is both celebrated and criticized as the unique innovation that continuously draws our attention away from embodied encounters, leading to what nineteenth century reformers called the "wandering mind" (18, 33-36, 75-76). It is this very connection--between technology and new economies--that propels Caleb Smith's original and impactful evocation of nineteenth century arguments for "disciplines of attention."

That is, rather than highlighting contemporary media's reliance on push notifications that continuously distract us from the present, from the here and now, Smith shows how various nineteenth century writers fought distraction. Through devotional-style meditations on passages about distraction and attention, he explains, reformers aimed to forge "disciplines of attention" to cure the personal and interpersonal ills of a distracted age. In his readings of Christian revivalists, social reformers, and Transcendental thinkers such as Henry David Thoreau, Smith not only links the distractions of our time to those of the 19th century, but also shows how 19th century responses to distraction anticipated our present turn to discourses on mindfulness and the rise of the spiritual but not religious (SBNR).

Yet besides celebrating spiritual and therapeutic alternatives to distraction, Smith demonstrates how "disciplines of attention" (7) often reify the very power dynamics that make distraction a contingent mode of being within capitalist society. He foregrounds three ways of regulating attention: reforming social institutions, participating in spiritual-therapeutic revivals, and encouraging private devotion. Provocatively enough, Smith links the voluntary exercise of self-discipline to such heavy-handed kinds of social reform as rehabilitative incarceration. "Thoreau's self-culture," Smith writes, "and the reformatory's punishment, his self-discipline and its compulsory rehabilitation, resemble each other in disquieting ways." "Rather than resisting modern economic forces, it appears, spiritual exercises can be used to reinforce them" (12-13).

Smith does not deny the power of social reform in Thoreau's time and ours, for Thoreau's now famous "Resistance to Civil Government" anticipated contemporary movements such as Black Lives Matter. But he importantly demonstrates how consumption capitalism can transform efforts at intentional, attentive living into practices of distracted acquiescence that ultimately serve the ends of capitalist structures. Today, this might be exemplified best by the incorporation and commercialization of mindfulness into the corporate world, a practice designed to enhance production by assuaging feelings of discontent and anxiety without actually attending to the economic mechanisms that reduce concern for individual and collective well-being. Such spiritual exercises are designed not to overcome these conditions, but rather to keep the capitalist juggernaut moving forward. In tracing this dynamic of reification, Smith captures the Janus-faced nature of disciplines of attention and mindful alternatives: "instead of striking against the true sources of distraction--the exploitations and manipulations of industrial capitalism--disciplines of attention were often used to keep the machinery running smoothly" (13).

Rather than a new phenomenon, this condition today mirrors the understandings and practices that emerged in the nineteenth century. Now as then, Smith writes, we fight the anxieties borne of distraction by "adjust[ing] our consumption habits, or we make efforts to ensure that our leisure time is quality time, spent mindfully" (6-7). Thus "even after we understand that distraction's real causes are in the large-scale economic systems and technologies that shape our world," Smith warns, "we keep trying to solve the problem with personal, moral remedies" (7). Such "moral remedies," however, become another type of and tool for distraction, a regimentation of attention that does not--nor cannot--produce sustained refuge. "At Walden," for example, Thoreau began "by trying to undistract himself, to reawaken his own powers of perception and refocus his attention on natural, uncommodified objects of contemplation. By so doing, he had hoped to free himself from the degrading cycle of labor and consumption that organized middle-class life under market capitalism. In the long run, though," as Smith emphasizes, "he found that this very effort exhausted his senses and trapped him in a 'habit of attention.' Thoreau did not quite say so, but he had begun to feel the similarities between his self-discipline and the other, more coercive disciplines that he had hoped to leave behind" (177-78).

But how similar were they? While clarifying the ways in which Thoreau understood the cultural pressures and expectations of his experiment, Smith's conclusion fails to distinguish between a decisively willed "habit of attention" and the instruments of capitalism that manipulate possibilities. To become trapped by his aim to live intentionally is not the same as falling victim to the very "coercive disciplines" Thoreau critiqued and sought to live beyond. Instead, it suggests that any effort at self-care--whether willed or coerced--contains the potential to become habitual and thus distracting; the distinction, however, that Thoreau helps us see is that capitalistic expectations of exchange and control do not exclusively dictate the means toward establishing a life more mindful, spiritual, and interconnected.

Indeed, for Smith, the situation is not entirely dire. Juxtaposing nineteenth and twenty-first century responses to distraction inform us about both the need for and limitations of self-care. Whether it is the strict moralizing of imprisonment or the heavy reliance on cultivating self-culture, the emphasis on discipline--whether enforced by institutions or initiated through one's own personhood--can become myopic, refocusing distraction as disciplined attention on self-reformation. Smith concedes that "you can say that therapeutic self-care distracts people from the true, structural causes of human misery, but when you talk this way, you are doing your own moralizing about attention. The real question is whether disciplines of attention can be linked up with programs for economic and social--not just personal--transformation" (22). In other words, the problem is not with self-discipline unto itself, but with its effect on society at large: when practices and exercises--both worldly and spiritual--prevent people from recognizing the connection between personal and collective well-being.

Smith captures this most powerfully when he shifts away from individual philosophizing about attention and distraction to consider those whose disciplines of attention are directed at liberating the conditions and experiences of others. Reflecting on the "confessions" of Nat Turner, Smith explains how devotional thinking--the roots of one's orientation--can ultimately bear fruits of action. For Turner, "devotion" and "revival" were the seeds for his "insurrection" to take shape. His rebellion against the unjust and violent mechanisms of slavery began with "the act of willful self-assertion" which "is also one of self-denial and submission" (142). Submission is a loaded word. As Smith shows in examining the experimental Temple School of Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (Chapter 9), disciplines of attention can easily coerce and control by internalizing as moral conditions both self-abnegation and fealty to an external authority. But these disciplines can also produce the very conditions necessary to challenge injustice. In the case of Turner, religious discipline trained him to speak for emancipation and independence. Turner's discipline thus broke the feedback loop of distraction-attention-complacency created by capitalism and technology--but it might also have been an exception to the rule Smith formulates.

One of the limitations of Smith's analysis comes from its very strength. Its short, devotional style readings of passages that exemplify the polarity of distraction and attention are sometimes vague. While its brief chapters reveal the price we pay for living through distraction, they also prompt us to imagine how disciplines of attention might lead us to a more equitable and just social world. Without greater analysis, or further examples resembling Turner's move into social justice, how can we know whether this move is illustrative or exceptional? Without more evidence and contextualization, specifically of efficacy and impact, the reader remains (potentially) distracted from the worldly possibilities and transformative impact of the very disciplines of attention Smith explores.

The paradox that nineteenth century reformers, revivalists, and Transcendentalists help us see today, then, is that practices of self-disciplined spirituality and moralizing can, in turn, distract us from imagining a more equitable, just, and empowering social world. Yet even though these practices lead to a sense of detachment, of "withdrawal from the world into a position of relative seclusion," Smith argues that within them, "each finds a way back to some kind of intimacy with other people and contact with the world beyond" (158). While cautious throughout, Smith shows the price we pay for remaining distracted, the challenge of cultivating responsible and impactful disciplines of attention amidst capitalistic structures, and the corresponding need to always remember to look beyond the self.

Morgan Shipley is Associate Professor of Religion at Michigan State University.


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