Attention spans

Having just plugged Michael Newman’s new co-authored book on television, I also wanted to say something about his 2010 essay on discourses relating to the notion of ‘attention spans’ (‘New media, young audiences and discourses of attention: from Sesame Street to “snack culture”‘, Media, Culture & Society 32, 4). This also fits very closely with work I’m currently doing on notions of ‘quality’ – and, importantly, the opposite against which it’s defined – in contemporary Hollywood. As Newman argues, notions of reduced attention span, often closely linked with particular media such as MTV, contemporary Hollywood blockbusters or online video culture, are based on ‘evidence’ that’s almost entirely anecdotal and unconvincing. But this discourse, the prevalence of which is traced to developments in the 1970s and 1980s, is dragged out time and again as one of the ways of characterising ‘lower’ status forms, in either explicit or implicit opposition to notions of more sustained attention required by more culturally valued forms such as the literary or its equivalent in other media.

One of the reasons, Newman suggests, is that such a discourse offers a way of reasserting ideological and hierarchical distinctions in the face of change: a reassertion of ‘adult’ culture over that associated primarily with youth and of a traditional establishment culture over the threat perceived to be posted by an emerging electronic visual culture. In this sense, the dynamic can be seen as a continuation of the kinds of historical discourses identified by Raymond Williams, on whose Culture and Society I posted briefly below, and other accounts of the genesis of notions of ‘art’ and ‘popular culture’ that remain very much with us today. Another recommended source on this longer context is Leo Lowenthal’s Literature and Mass Culture, which nicely complements Williams, tracing some such developments further back into the eighteenth century. Theatre and opera were accused of over-reliance on spectacle and stage effects in this period, at the expense of plot, in a manner that seems uncannily similar to more recent castigation of the Hollywood blockbuster.

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