Thursday 24.06.2021 — Friday 25.06.2021
Max-Planck-Institut für empirische Ästhetik

Workshop, "Attention, Cognition, and the Auditory Self, 1770–1920"



Carmel Raz (MPIEA)

Francesca Brittan (Case Western Reserve University)



Michael Auer (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München)

Mark Evan Bonds (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Zeynep Bulut (Queen's University Belfast)

Nina Sun Eidsheim (University of California, Los Angeles)

Céline Frigau Manning (Université Paris 8)

Brian Kane (Yale University)

Allie Kieffer (Rice University)

Youn Kim (Hong Kong University)

Nicholas Mathew (University of California, Berkeley)

Brian O'Connor (University College Dublin)

Elaine Sisman (Columbia University)

Benjamin Steege (Columbia University)

Viktoria Tkacyk (Humboldt Universität)

David Trippett (Cambridge University)

Richard Williams (SOAS)



Over the past decade, attention and its perceived opposite, distraction, have become sites of sustained anxiety and debate. Questions around attentive economies, histories, and cognitive modes  have surfaced across a range of disciplines from cultural studies to computer science and medicine. What constitutes focus or unfocus? How are such states produced, leveraged, or dissipated? And what is at stake in the act of attending? 

Recently developed approaches in the history of science and in literary theory, including cognitive-historical frameworks, have begun to address some of these queries. Lorraine Daston has examined the importance of attentiveness in values assigned to objects of inquiry in the modern natural sciences, while Nicholas Dames, Lily Gurton-Wachter, and Nathalie Phillips have contemplated attentive and distracted states among eighteenth- and nineteenth-century readers. In the domain of art criticism, Jonathan Crary and Michael Fried have dealt with patterns of cognitive absorption, spotlighting, and dispersal among historical viewers. Media theorists and economists, including Thomas Davenport, John Beck, Tim Wu, and James Williams have also weighed in, proposing models for understanding attentive investment and drain. But the fields of music and sound-studies have dealt less thoroughly with histories of cognition, and consequently with issues around the attentive conditioning of listeners and composers. Foundational work by Matthew Riley, Thomas Tolley, and James Johnson (among others) has set the stage for a sustained engagement with attention’s musical histories and with the politics and economics of sonic focus. 

Focusing on the ‘long’ nineteenth century (roughly 1770-1920), this symposium aims to facilitate such a conversation, taking as foundational existing philosophies of listening and psychologies/physiologies of hearing, while also moving into less traveled territory: historical theories of auditory perception and cognition, intersections between the sonic and ‘neural’ sciences, and overlaps among scientific and aesthetic modes of attending. 

We are interested in basic questions (what constitutes auditory attentiveness or distraction at any given moment?) as well as more focused queries, including the following: 

  • What is the relationship among aural, visual, haptic, and other sensory attentions? 
  • How do theories of focus write themselves into music’s generic and structural semiotics? 
  • How do conceptions of medical, therapeutic, or pedagogical attention intersect with theories of auditory focus? 
  • What role do race, gender, and nationality play in the construction of the attentive/distracted subject? 
  • What processes of attentive conditioning police the music/sound barrier, enforcing modes of auditory selection or inclusion? 
  • Is there an ethics of auditory attention? 
  • How do attentive modalities construct and sustain sonic subjectivities?