Cultures of Distraction

Cultures of Distraction, a graduate seminar designed and led by Jennifer Scappettone at the University of Chicago, Spring 2014

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This course will explore a condition of mind that is pervasive in modern culture—frequently lamented, and still little understood due to its apparent incompatibility with critical thinking: distraction. We will begin with sociological accounts of the perceived origins of the dispersal of attention in metropolitan contexts. We will then track the aesthetic lure of distraction as reverie or disruption, examining artworks that narrate or achieve a short-circuiting of production and consumption cycles in the modern city. We will attempt to understand the motives behind both aesthetic celebrations of the stimuli of modernity and their excoriation. Reading works that demand and dramatize protracted contemplation alongside telegraphic narratives, literary entertainments, and twitterature, we will also historicize and trouble our own reading practices, reckoning with the possible obsolescence of conditions that make reading genres such as the novel possible. We will conduct our own metanarrative experiments in “close” and “distant” reading. The course will end on the transformation of reading into the digital environment: we will reckon with panoramic digital feeds performing the illocality of consciousness, scattering linguistic flotsam over a spreading expanse. We will aim ultimately to identify the historiographical value of at-seaness in these works, tracking emergent forms of composition (and of reading) as the manipulation of distraction.

Readings and viewings will include works by Walter Benjamin, William Empson, Jonathan Crary, Franco Moretti, Paul North, Georg Simmel, Jürgen Habermas, Herman Melville, Henry James, Félix Fénéon, FT Marinetti, Gertrude Stein, Dziga Vertov, John Dos Passos, Eugen Gomringer, Décio Pignatari, Haraldo de Campos, Augusto de Campos, Aram Saroyan, Marshall McLuhan, Haskell Wexler, John Cage, Lydia Davis, John Ashbery, Joan Retallack, Lyn Hejinian, Doug Hall, Lisa Robertson, Kenneth Goldsmith, Tan Lin, Stephanie Strickland, Robert Coover, Roderick Coover & Scott Rettberg, Judd Morrissey, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Sarah Morris.