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Lanham’s Economics of Attention, Part One

To start off this semester, we read the first four chapters of Dr. Richard Lanham’s The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information. Lanham is an expert rhetorician and professor emeritus in English at the University of California, with a focus on the art of rhetoric throughout history. He has also served as an expert witness in cases that concern creative copyright and plagiarism questions, and his article on the his work as an expert witness is a fascinating read.

Lanham’s central thesis in The Economics of Attention is that our economy is shifting away from a focus on what he calls “stuff”, or physical items that are produced, purchased, and sold. Instead, he believes that the today’s economy is concerned with attention, or “fluff” as he refers to it throughout his book. With an overabundance of information, fluff that can grab and hold attention (and therefore inspire some desirable action) has become vital to every aspect of the economy, including business, academia, pop culture, and art. He argues that this repositions those who study the humanities (and specifically, those that study rhetoric) as vital in the production cycle, and that “the arts and letters, which create attention structures to teach us how to attend to the world, must be central to acting in the world as well as contemplating it” (p. 14). In other words, stuff must be supplemented by and is often supplanted in importance by the fluff (brand names, controversies, ad campaigns, etc.) that surrounds it. He also charges that to be unaware of how the fluff is created is to be unprepared to be a member of the new attention economy.

In his second chapter, Lanham shows the shift from stuff to fluff by using examples of art movements in the last century, and begins (and ends) with a very useful overview of the Italian Futurists, the DaDa movement, and Pop Art. All three of these movements were more concerned with the attention paid to the art, as opposed to a focus on the artistic items themselves, like Duchamp’s Fountain, a piece that is vital to the art world because of the conversation and controversy surrounding it, not because of the piece itself. Lanham links these pieces of attention to a more modern example, Christo’s Running Fence, a beautiful piece that only existed for two weeks, but was important because of the extensive creation process, which required hundreds of moving parts, employees, and official permits for its creation. Lanham charges that art projects like these show the attention economy in sharp relief, because “once you get the point, learn the lesson, the experience evaporates” (p. 56).

I think that most of Lanham’s arguments hold up well, even a decade and change after publication, though I would love to see an updated edition that dives into social media websites and how these sites disrupt text with images and media clips. I would be particularly interested to hear what he thinks about social media videos that integrate text with soundless video, or the fact that the vast majority of eBooks still try to mimic the classic monograph. I’ll withhold judgement on if this book should continue to be on the T&T core text until next week when we read the second half, but so far I think it’s a very useful text on the history of rhetoric and the shifting academic landscape we find ourselves in today.

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