Reading Outdoors — An Attention Experiment

On the floor to my right is a copy of The Mail on Sunday. ‘Free Double Duvet.’ ‘Now They’re Taxing Face Lifts.’ The table to my right is empty apart from a single baked bean in its sauce. To my left, a middle aged man smoking Marlboros whilst reading a gazette. Planes in the sky. One after the other. Battersea as Heathrow’s entry lane on a sunny day. A woman is running to catch the bus. Another woman is running. 12 pm. Better get going. The reading material in front of me on the table. It consists of: two sections from the current issue of Die ZEIT (Feuilleton and Reisen, 13th October 2011, N° 42), issue 9 of Granta magazine (John Berger: Boris, 1 September 1983) and a stapled photocopy of a chapter of Georges Perec’s Thoughts of Sorts (1985).

I pick up Perec. I pick up a pen. ‘… notes scrawled on pads or loose sheets, transcribed quotations, “ideas”, see cf. etc. — I accumulated little lists, small b, ROMAN I, thirdly, part two.’ The waitress is wiping the tables either side of me in a hectic fast-forward motion, making the tables wabble. Marlboro man and baked bean have disappeared. Inside the café the crockery is cluttering. Outside feels warm and pleasant. Familiar sounds. ‘I would never manage to organize them into a coherent language.’ The bus italicises as it lets off steam. And a bit more. A man walking past is coughing. ‘It’s just like a diner place.’ Laughter. ‘Shall we just do it?’ ‘It was rather as if the images and ideas I had had, and however potentially scintillating they may have first seemed in isolation or even in opposing pairs, had distributed themselves around the imaginary space of my as-yet-unwritten pages like the noughts (or crosses) that a third-rate player had dotted around a grid, unable to get three to line up in a row (or column).’

I am not paying attention to the meaning of the words I have just read. ‘The deficiency of language is not due only to my laziness (or low standard of noughts and crosses); it has more to do with what I have tried to target, if not to hit upon, in the subject I have been given for this essay. It is as if the questioning prompted by the title, “Thoughts of Sorts / Sorts of Thoughts”, questioned thinking and sorting in such a way as to make “thinking” unthinkable except in splinters, in dispersion, forever returning to the fragmentation it was supposed to try to put in order.’ A sleeve is put in order; it belongs to a chequered green and blue shirt. ‘What hove into my mind’s eye were things all fuzzy and wavering, fleeting and unfinished, and in the end I decided to retain the perplexed and uncertain character of these shapeless scraps, to stop short of pretending to organize them into anything that might have a claim to the appearance (and the charm) of an article with a beginning, a middle, and an end.’ ‘Maybe I have answered the question set before asking it.’ Two cars are making mating calls. ‘Maybe I have avoided asking it so as not to have to answer. Maybe I am using, and abusing’, trancy house dance hall music delivering a soundtrack from a car with open windows, ‘the old rhetorical figure called excuse, in which instead of tackling the problem to be solved you just answer questions with other questions and hide behind more or less feigned incompetence.’ tack, tack, tack, tack, tack. A pair of eager high heeled boots staccatoing past, ‘and-that-what’s-real-ly-filed-away-in-well-sor-ted-files-what-they-serve-to-mask…’

‘E) Vocabulary exercises’ ‘Sort the following verbs into the right order’ ‘These verbs cannot all be synonyms of each other: why would we need fourteen verbs to describe the same action?’ ‘Where do you want to sit?’ ‘Really warm.’ Rubbing eyes. ‘She never gives them any sweets or sugar.’ ‘Selection’ ‘Plants are divided into trees, flowers, and vegetables. Stephen Leacock’ Car fumes. Nausea. Heavy gruelling clouds across the sky. ‘Raw Sugar. Alan Sugar’ ‘Jealous’ ‘Relax’ ‘Relax. Yeah.’ ‘All utopias are depressing, because they leave no place for chance, for difference, for the miscellaneous. It’s all been sorted into an order, and order’, car horn beeps, ‘reigns’, just once, high pitched. ‘What is the relationship, in fact, between reason and thought (independently of the fact that the two words served as the titles of two philosophy journals?) Dictionaries’, the whistling sound of the bus brakes is pounding through my head, the sound of the engine tapping, tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap (andante),  a sharp squeak, the bus moves on. ‘No, that’s not a nice picture.’ ‘Eskimos, so I have been told, have no generic term for ice, but several words (I have forgotten the exact number, but I think it is large, something like a dozen) referring to various specific qualities of water between its entirely liquid state and the forms it takes when frozen more or less hard.’

Cold feet. ‘…whereas we have, in French, at least seven (rue, avenue, boulevard, place, cours, impasse, venelle)’ How many words for something in German? Skipping over the list, not reading word for word. Car horn beeps twice. Person walking past. ‘Wow.’ Where is the fresh air? Nature. Carsickness. ‘Similarly if we are talking to a pastry-cook about the cooking of sugar, he will reply most pertinently that he cannot grasp exactly what we mean unless we specify the amount of cooking required’ A middle aged man in a charcoal priest’s robe is walking past, muttering, reciting. Praying? ‘nonetheless, the concept of “cooking sugar” will be perfectly clear to him.’ The sunglasses come off. ‘”This is where man enters life.”’ Two motorcycles speed past, ‘for reasons I cannot divine, you find medicine and surgery’, I read ‘sugary’. Across the street a man with a white plastic bag is running around the corner into Parkgate Road, which leads to Battersea Park. I down my coffee, enter, pay, exit, cross. Parkgate Road. Head is hurting. On the bench by the sucked in Thames all words come to me in my native tongue. Vögel zwitschern. Fremde Stimmen. Dumpfe Fußtritte eines Joggers auf Asphalt. Kinder schreien. Hunde bellen. Flugzeuge rauschen (ununterbrochen). Schritte durch tiefes Laub. Wortbrocken auf Französisch. Augen zu. Tief durchatmen. Keine Zeit zum Lesen.

This piece was written to a brief set by the RCA’s Critical Writing in Art & Design tutor Brian Dillon, and should foreground and reflect, whether in content or form, on its own mode of attention to a particular topic.

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