NOVEMBER 15, 2018
AFTER THE FALL of an empire, the world becomes to the citizen of the defunct land a kind of hotel. Such was the case for Austrian novelist and journalist Joseph Roth (1894–1939), who spent the years following the Great War living out of a suitcase, a perpetual visitor to the ravaged Europe he covered for German-language newspapers. His prescient feuilletons, translated and edited by Michael Hofmann for a 2015 New Directions volume titled The Hotel Years, are marked by sobering maxims (Berlin, 1923: “That’s just what is missing in Germany: the regulating consciousness”) and the loosely journalistic goal to “[sketch] a portrait of an age.”
I thought of Roth’s project in picking up Joshua Cohen’s ATTENTION: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction, which harbors similar ambitions for a cultural moment defined by the internet. To go online is to visit, browse, and peruse, to cross the border into a realm where “the natives don’t have to be native and the foreigners don’t have to be foreign”; it is, in short, to check in to the perpetual hotel of contemporary life. ATTENTION aims to sketch a portrait of this uprootedness and the effect it has had on our art, literature, and politics. The result is alternatingly brilliant, frustrating, searching, and sad.
Raised in Atlantic City, Cohen got his start as a print news journalist covering post-Soviet beats in Eastern Europe. While ATTENTION is indebted to the author’s experience as a reporter, this isn’t journalism, per se; like Roth, he prizes anecdote, observation, and scene over linear argument and fact-checked reportage. The subject matter runs the gamut of his formidable erudition and searchable interests — Israel, music, literature, Azerbaijan, US politics — and many pieces read like brief, topical histories stuffed with but not strained by tangents, facts, anecdotes, and maxims. As in his novels (Witz, Book of Numbers, Moving Kings), Cohen’s prose is packed with high-octane witticisms (on paying an implied arm and a leg to fly to countries under dictatorship: “There’s no such thing as a midrange regime: Extremities charge extremities”), but even those readers put off by his prankster flair are likely to concede that its cumulative effect both elevates and elegizes the act of writing in the internet age.
ATTENTION dwells in a peculiar irony of online life: while we enjoy unprecedented access to information and the highest literacy rates in history, we seem to understand ourselves less thoroughly than ever. The opening essays are dedicated to the most recent crisis in American self-knowledge, the 2016 election. In “The Last Last Summer,” Cohen returns to Atlantic City in the final months of the presidential campaign convinced that his hometown — where Trump bankrupted five casinos, evaded millions in state taxes, and once tried to dredge a channel in order to accommodate his yacht — is a synecdoche for the United States’s greater infatuation with the “red-faced, overweight, whatcha-gonna-do-about-it New Jersey/New York male.” His flâneurism-as-journalism leads us through boozy chats with junkies, bitter casino staff, and jaded businessmen, and more often than not lands on insights that stick. He writes, “Here, presented in sane, rationalist fashion, was the insane truth behind this race: that if Trump just keeps on being Trump, and if Clinton keeps pivoting and responding to his every move, he wins.”
Cohen’s reasoning, which came at a time when few took a Trump victory seriously, borrows heavily not from political strategy but from theories of poker and the seduction of the casino: “It forces its victims to choose — quickly, and in a sensory-overloaded, blinking, chirping environment — between the logical brain and the lower instincts, between getting out and getting even.”
Most of us live in this blitzkrieg of stimuli, with scandals breaking on every available screen. In these early essays, Cohen succeeds in sketching a rich portrait of an American moment by combining our national fascination with the grotesque (casinos, circuses, the supersaturated blue of a 9/11 sky) and our national style of excess. There is no doubt as to which nation he believes currently occupies the role of “fallen empire.”
Many of the pieces in ATTENTION are structured like an ironic jaunt to the casino: a lark that starts off amusing and ends up sad, with a sense of loss. “Editing the I (On Gordon Lish),” for example, opens with an account of the author masturbating, morphs into a study of Lish’s literary masturbation, and ends with Cohen’s conclusion that the pleasures of first-person fiction have been nullified by a blogosphere supersaturated with our most private moments: “What once was literature — revelatory direct address — has become blogorrhea: the timestamped account of what happened this morning, of what our peeves and attractions are, of what we do to ourselves and one another by night.”
“Datasexual,” a Harper’s book review written in the style of the Harper’s Index, offers a beleaguered takedown of tech fanatics who would suggest algorithmic solutions to problems begotten by algorithms. What we’ve lost in spending so much of our time online, Cohen suggests, is the ability to greet books and people as vessels of consciousness rather than as packages of data.
Cohen’s epigrammatic bite rivals Oscar Wilde’s (opening to a random page: “In an age of excess, the more excessive the artist, the more important he seems”), but where Wilde was interested in the critic as artist, Cohen performs the critic’s role as “browser, as curator […] a relentlessly curious collector of kitsch.” Interspersed throughout ATTENTION are sections titled “From the Diaries,” excerpted material that arrives like a series of found documents. Here’s an entry titled “Memoir” quoted in its entirety: “The genre of an age that’s lost all hope of a biographer.” These aphoristic commercial breaks are welcome after denser essays in which Cohen is more prone to maximalist riffs. His description of Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal’s work perhaps articulates his own approach to the essay best: “This is talk, or talky writing, that begins somewhere, goes elsewhere unrelated, only to return to its origins: its original subject and also, regardless of the intellectual flights taken, an earthy humor.”
Cohen’s sense of humor can be divisive. Consider an anecdote from the essay “The Death of Culture, and Other Hypocrisies” about the editor who revised an attribution in a Cohen piece from “Eliot” to “the English poet T. S. Eliot,” prompting Cohen to turn in the counter-revision “the American-born, British-citizen, English-language poet, essayist, dramatist, teacher, publisher, and bank teller Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888–1965).” To some, this is just obnoxious (indeed, the editor promptly canceled the assignment). To a particular type of reader, however, it’s a comment on a culture that has lost its common points of reference, a joke born of a sense of exhaustion. If we’re starting arguments over how best to cite T. S. Eliot, Cohen suggests, we’re probably not reading for the right things. Or if we are going to have that debate, we may as well go all in.
There are times when I felt like pushing back against this embattled attitude. The argument that the internet has fundamentally changed how we read and interact, in many ways for the worse, is one I tend to agree with, but Cohen’s delivery makes the reader the object of his critique. His admonishing style — he leans toward the declarative, eschews counterarguments — had me feeling defensive in the face of his more elegiac claims. Are cultural production and literature really in such a bad state? Haven’t humans always been a little distracted, a little lazy, a little tuned-out — all too susceptible to the convenient, the new, the low? In mourning the loss of a hardcover world that still reads books, what is it the commentariat believes we’ve sacrificed that wasn’t already endangered?
This last question drives at one of the more original and moving ideas in ATTENTION. Cohen’s answer is that the defense of literature and the defense of the human capacity to pay attention are inextricably linked. The titular essay, “Attention!: A (Short) History,” a book-length treatise previously published by Notting Hill Editions in 2013, presents the history of writing as the history of attention itself: to write down a word is to arrest a concept, and to string many words together requires memory and concentration. Historicizing this relationship from the stone tablet to the typewriter to the word processor, Cohen correlates each new development in the mechanics of writing with a “new attention,” or the species of mindfulness of that age. As our written mediums have become ever speedier, ever more clickable, ever less like literature or journalism, it seems entirely possible, and a little tragic, that our very ability to pay attention has atrophied.
Readers taken in by Cohen’s hints at solutions and palliatives (“almost uniquely among the mental maladies, distraction can be reversed”) may feel frustrated, at the end, to wind up with a collection of bitter truths such as this: “To change the world: Half a century before this became the sanctimonious mantra of Silicon Valley, it was the violent imperative of Soviet Russia.”
I’d suggest, however, that this style of sentence retains, for all its resignation, a corrective power. When our nation sits “slack-jawed at a helpless recline,” when the sheer proliferation of data resists most human efforts at deduction and distillation, perhaps the most radical mode of meaning-making is to embark in pursuit of analogy rather than synthesis — it’s the suggested relationships (e.g., Silicon Valley and Soviet Russia have something in common) that shake us awake. This will toward juxtaposition strikes me as a fundamentally literary, narrative technique; the impulse to yoke the national election to a decrepit casino and American decline to the closing of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s circus, or, in the case of Joseph Roth, to extrapolate the fate of Europe from a comment made by a pair of German schoolboys in 1923, stems not from the desire to report but from the desire to tell, or suggest, a story. If there is an overarching assertion in Attention, it’s that argumentation through this choreography of content — the search for similarity in seemingly disparate things, set conveniently side by side — may be the most effective mode of insight for our times.
“Fiction,” Cohen writes, “has long been described in the terms of a coeval technology.” In his novels, and here in his first collection of nonfiction, he seems to be trying to turn the tables, to insist, with embattled conviction, that the best way to understand a society that exists and discourses in the cloud is through the lens of the hardcover tradition of trying to read, or write, a book. It’s a moving argument, one worth readers’ attention, which is about the highest praise a reviewer can give in a world that lacks just that.