Home Bookend - Where reading meets review Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World – Christian Madsbjerg

Look: How to Pay Attention in a Distracted World – Christian Madsbjerg

by Venky

(Image Credit: Penguin Random House)

In 1967, J.A. Baker, an unpretentious individual from Essex, who left school at the age of sixteen to work, first with the Automobile Association, and subsequently, with the soft drink manufacturer, Britvic, wrote a slim volume titled The Peregrine. Subsequently attaining renown as one of the best books written on the art of observation, The Peregrine regales its readers about Baker’s predilection with a peregrine falcon. Over a prolonged period of following the bird, the observer becomes the observed. ‘Once you have started to observe a phenomenon, you must find yourself obsessed by it, or the observations will be of little value.’

Christian Madsbjerg exhorts his readers to cultivate the art of ‘hyper reflection’, a practice of seeing the unseen, listening to the lessons imparted by silence, and absorbing the essence that lays unexploited and unexplored in the background as against the noise and cacophony in the foreground. Usually, our observations are restricted to the loudest voice in the room, the most vitriolic placard or the social media that generates the maximum degree of clamour.

Madsbjerg strives to divert the attention of his readers from the foreground to the background by employing three fundamental building blocks of a philosophy known as phenomenology. The three building blocks reduced to their most simplistic structure assert that:

  1. observation is a study of experiences.
  2. it’s not what people think but how; and
  3. observation should not be substituted by opinion.

Phenomenology when explained in its most reductionist context, means describing the human experience of things directly without any judgment or preconceived notion. As the famous French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty exclaimed, “to the things themselves”. Merleau-Ponty often reminisced about the wonder of looking through a keyhole. Human perception at first permits us to see inside the hidden world and comprehending the same in a spatial manner as a vast place despite the limitations of the keyhole. Fascinatingly, the observer can seamlessly shift back into her experience of life in a full-size body. This experiment highlights in a searing manner the experience of observing the world.  

The German physicist Franz Boas upended the conventional norms in founding the subject of cultural anthropology during his field research in the Baffin Islands. His theory rends asunder the commonly accepted notions of superior Western values that relegated a non-Western existence to the realms of the inferior and inconsequential. Boas patiently listened to and looked at the people who were the subject of his research. He neither formed judgments nor crafted opinions. He just watched. And continued watching. He observed that human beings had the capability to endlessly adapt – in terms of both their individual bodies and in the communities created by them. This technique was adopted to astounding success by Boas’ protégé, Margaret Mead on her own anthropological expedition in the Samoan Islands.  

It therefore comes as no surprise to read that some of the most skilled anthropologists argue that observation is never sufficient until you can see the ghosts of others. The ghost of the observed subsumes into the ghost of the observer. As Madsbjerg writes, ‘When you have given yourself over fully to the act of observation, you must allow for self-transformation.’  

Robert Caro the biographer who produced the magisterial five-volume tome on Lyndon Johnson spent long hours in the vast, sparse, and desolate setting of rural Texas in preparation for completely understanding his protagonist. Madsbjerg provides some innovative tools and techniques for honing our observation skills and to be more aware of what French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu terms “doxa”. Operating at a sub-conscious level, doxa is a bouquet of implicit beliefs that limits and even impairs our ability to see beyond the most influential and trending cultural frameworks that have a bearing on our thinking. The muted and almost unnoticed presence of a group of gruff and unappealing farmers in a village ball where all the attention was captured by sprightly bachelors who had migrated to more urban settings, led Bourdieu to write his most powerful book, The Bachelor’s Ball: The Crisis of Peasant Society in Bearn. 

The next time you observe any bird soaring across the vast expanse of the sky, please remember J. A. Baker and his inspiring words, “the hunter must become the hunted. What is, is now, must have the quivering intensity of an arrow thudding into a tree. Yesterday is dim and monochrome. A week ago, you were not born. Persist, endure, follow, watch.”

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