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Current research

Modelling Distraction in European Literature

Abstract

This project frames distraction in literature as the reconfiguration of awareness by authors, readers and protagonists where objects or impulses divert them from norms of conceptualisation to focus on alternative connections. It historicises the literary development of processes of distraction and their outcomes. Culturally and technologically evolved manifestations of distraction have superseded precursory models that originated in philosophy, psychology and aesthetic criticism and have been applied within literary movements: these all now require the critical comparison that this project will deliver. I will assess the strategic uses of distraction by authors and its social applications, especially in defining personal identity. The project will identify and explain a distracted mode of writing to fit between autobiography and the novel, demonstrating how authors have magnified this area while theorists have neglected it, and it will provide a methodology for responding to writing that must now be situated in this mode in order to enhance its appeal.

Context

Deliberate distraction is widespread in contemporary European literature but insufficiently acknowledged, since only the English term is synonymous with four frequently coinciding concepts for which together no equivalent signifier of sensation and behaviour exists in the Romance languages or German. Distraction can refer to any combination of inattentiveness (French distraction, inattention / German Unaufmerksamkeit), diversion (divertissement / Zerstreuung, Ablenkung), restlessness (égarement / Unruhe), and mental disturbance (affolement / Verstörtheit). Furthermore, French and German philosophies of distraction diverge. Currents of distraction as an enhancement to perception by means of diversion from a troubling norm have been raised explicitly in French thought since the Pensées of Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), and in German since Immanuel Kant’s anthropological theory of the late eighteenth century. These currents were worked into literature through Romanticism and Symbolism to Louis Aragon and the French Surrealist movement of the 1920s, and had been further strengthened by the mid-20th century by German Modernist theories of Zerstreuung: Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, following earlier studies by Georg Simmel, each emphasised the diversions of mass culture, in particular the moving image, but they did not consider those modes and objects of distraction that relate to the individual rather than to the masses. Their theories tend to posit particular forms of distraction as a counterpart to particular forms of contemplation: yet, my project will also argue that distraction in certain dimensions also encourages contemplation. Distraction has proliferated in narrative forms and contents in post-1945 literature, but even postmodernism, which recognises distraction as catalysing narrative, concentrates little on motivations to foreground distraction instead of taking it for granted.

For readers, authors and protagonists, a recognition of distraction as a textually-generated phenomenon mirrors the social function of literature, which also engenders reflection and expression in a space between perception and experience. This project will survey how authors and readers in the multimedia age are more concerned with occupying this space between autobiographical experience and novelistic invention than with gravitating towards either mode. This space is characterised by distractions from any combination of three chief criteria, which the project will elucidate: from identity; present time; and activity. It will prove that while the text invariably thematises its author’s distraction, readers also configure both (auto)biographical truth and creativity.

Research Objectives

1. To posit a typology of distraction in a body of literature between novelistic and (auto)biographical classifications, and to construct a new theoretical model to legitimise distraction as a narrative strategy and a determining phenomenon of modern European literature.

2. To prove that distraction evades or exceeds specifications of existing theories, and that its textual manifestations promote a timeless cross-cultural message.

3. To increase the study value of literary texts which now require more discerning classification as media literacy evolves while distraction remains as widespread in literature (and, by implication, in society) as are the demonstrably connected conditions of the fragmented self and the decentred subject that contribute to postmodern personal identity.

4. To identify distraction as an underestimated criterion of reading, not least where it affects on the one hand the foreign reader, diverted by language and often by content from familiarity; and on the other hand, the reader of pluralities, who compares the cultures and traditions presented in literatures.

Methodology

A theory of distraction will be developed following the assessment of textual manifestations to which it will be applied. My examples will be drawn principally from literature of the last 40 years, in which the postmodern condition of distracting by questioning or deviating from a predominant norm prevails; but these texts will be positioned against responses, both philosophical and experimental, to individual forms of distraction in key movements in intellectual history including Modernism, Surrealism and Postmodernism. This historical trajectory of distraction will highlight connectivity between modes of perception and behaviour, which have been undermined by social-scientific assumptions that equate distraction with disconnection. My argumentation will contest existing narrative theories and critical responses that are limited in scope (cf. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’; Gérard Genette on intertextualities; Philippe Lejeune on autobiography). My comparative focus will address the need to prove theory in an intercultural context rather than against a single language tradition.

The project will incorporate in its coverage of distraction in contemporary literature an evaluation of practices of literary reviewing, highlighting contrasts between French, German and English approaches, in order to counter the tendency among reviewers to suggest unsustainable canonical positions for texts based on current trends, and to deliver insight where the phenomenon of distraction has been overlooked or overshadowed in influential reviews of new literature.

Research Outcomes / Structure of Study

The main outcome of this project will be a book publication, work on which is under way. Additionally, opportunities will be sought throughout its preparation for units to be disseminated by means such as conference papers and contributions to other media. My project offers scope for research collaboration, especially with other languages, social science and interdisciplinary research into concepts that cause, result from, or oppose distraction. The project contributes to a broader evaluation of language and character as social mediation and as markers of individuality in expression.

Working from the hypothesis and objectives abstracted above, I propose to undertake the project in three phases, following the preliminary work that I have already undertaken on the German side, to be reflected in the tripartite structure of the book. This arrangement will maximise the effectiveness of my coverage of individual theoretical and critical components, as well as enhancing the accessibility of the completed book to readers concerned with these discrete areas. The third part will be the most extensive, consisting of several chapters reflecting the combinations of distraction that will have been evaluated throughout the project as exemplified in a selection of contemporary literature. An extensive annotated bibliography will be included, which I also intend to develop as an online resource with an interactive component.

Part I will approach distraction historically and theoretically, defining key concepts and identifying where my objects of study interface with existing theories, and addressing the limitations of these theories. This work is currently well advanced, following the publication of 'Coming To Terms With Distraction In German'.

Part II will chart the development of paradigms of distraction in two extensive literary œuvres: the predominantly autobiographical French work of Michel Leiris and the German fiction and essays of Wilhelm Genazino. I will explore how distraction in their writing embraces a socially significant coexistence of intertextuality and intergenericity, resonating with the examples in Part III.

Part III will concentrate on modern and contemporary presentations and effects of distraction, ranging from fiction presenting intersecting biographies of more than one figure through to narrative with varying degrees of (auto)biographical motivation. One chapter will compare existing responses to these works, building the case for attention to be shifted to distraction as a primary linking point. The primary examples will be German, French and English. Authors will include, among others, Thomas Bernhard, Thomas Glavinic, Jean-Philippe Toussaint and Pierre Mérot, who have all foregrounded pluralities of distraction in more than one of their works.

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