Aug 042006

“Gestalt” as I am using it simply means the whole complex to which you pay attention or have in mind when you pay attention to a person. For now, let us call this potential recipient of your attention the “target.”

(There is always a person or person behind everything except purely “natural” objects, and even natural objects we understand only because of interactions with persons, so that such interactions tend to be integrated even into our attention that is seemingly paid to natural objects. We can to some degree also count as a person anyone or anything we imbue with personhood, such as a pet or other animal, a natural force seen as some sort of god, saint, spirit, etc., a more abstract God, a doll to which ascribe the capacity to pay and get attention, a possibly non-existent ideal reader whom we assume is paying attention and to whom, as an author we may direct our attention, a diary we address as if had a mind, a character in a novel, play or movie, etc. )

When we pay attention to a person, it is always through one or more aspects. Any of these aspects if it occurs to us through recall, through some external prompt, such as mention by someone else, seeing a picture, or direct perception, can bring to mind all the others. That is any aspect or combination can prompt us again to align our minds to the target. In other words, that prompt causes us to be ready to pay further attention to her or him.

So what are some of these aspects? They begin with outward appearance: face, body, characteristic motions, and style of movement voice, smells, style and color of customary clothing, hairstyles and hair color. Another key outward appearance is the target’s name.

They extend to the emotional ambience characteristic of the target, specific emotional looks feelings and gestures, and characteristic desires and ambitions, including what might be called willpower and focus.

They go on to include style of talking or writing, and by extension of thinking, the thoughts themselves, the language used, specific words and phrases or more extensive quotes, thoughts. One special aspect is signature or characteristic mark. When relevant, they include the person’s visual or aural expressions, possibly through visual, decoration, or musical expression.

The gestalt also very much includes narrative, in terms of the target’s own story, her vicissitudes, conquests, and achievements, the paths through which her life has moved, including the simple geographic story, often in detail. The sources of this narrative include self-confessions, stray bits of one’s own personal experience of the target, along with gossip or news or biography one has somehow picked up.

Personal experience one has can be a whole complex history, and even bits of it can evoke the target. For instance, suppose the target is someone you know directly, and that previously she introduced you to someone else. Then some prompt of that third person can remind you of this attention target.

Another aspect of the personal narrative that deserves special mention is your sense of the target’s own audience. The larger this is, the larger the target is likely to loom for you, other things being equal, and thus the easier to align your mind to hers again. Contact with the audience can also remind you of this (target) person.

Once you are attuned again to the target, the Penumbra of Attention introduced in the prior post kicks in. Any way you are paying attention can slide into any of the others, whenever conditions and situation and your own limits and attitudes permit.

  One Response to “The Attention “Gestalt””

  1. Michael,

    I wonder if you have seen these two papers, concerning the historicity of the gaze – how the eye and our experience of it have changed over the centuries. How the trained eye and sensual I-Thou relationship have given way to image processing and systems interfaces.

    A great deal – perhaps even the bulk – of the “information” in the info economy and an equal portion of the attention that gets paid and traded and fought over in your attention economy is primarily visual, produced and consumed via TV and computer screens, photos, videos, books, magazines. Face-to-face encounters are exceedingly (and increasingly) rare and therefore, I suppose, exceedingly valuable, too. Me in the same room with Ms. Movie Star is unlikely to happen, but if it did, boy would I feel like I got a load of very special and rare attention.

    Hmmm, I once saw a T-shirt that read, “Whoever has the most toys when he dies, wins.” I wonder if the same holds for attention.

    Anyway, glad to see that you’re still working out this scheme, which I’m proud to say I first heard you articulate some 25 years ago.

    John (who isn’t quite sure what to type into the blank fields above as they have no labels).

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