Henry James on Twitter

Is the crisis in attention producing new kinds of interiority? Or are we still left "in the cage" of distraction?

Contributed by Gabriel Hankins University of Virginia Scholars' Lab and Department of English
April 20, 2011
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In the midst of the recent uproar over “distracted minds” and Twitterized attention-spans, it might be worthwhile to remember the last moment when 140-character communications became all the rage—and the response of one of our famously voluble novelists to the new technologies of distraction. 

At the opening of Henry James’s short story “In the Cage,” written in 1898 and revised ten years later, our heroine is in the midst of a strangely familiar scene:

It had occurred to her early that in her position— that of a young person spending, in framed and wired confinement, the life of a guinea-pig or a magpie— she should know a great many persons without their recognising the acquaintance. … Her function was to sit there with two young men—the other telegraphist and the counter-clerk; to mind the "sounder," which was always going, to dole out stamps and postal-orders, weigh letters, answer stupid questions, give difficult change and, more than anything else, count words as numberless as the sands of the sea, the words of the telegrams thrust, from morning to night, through the gap left in the high lattice, across the encumbered shelf that her forearm ached with rubbing. …

What James finds interesting in this scene, the source of one of his best short tales, is precisely the new varieties of attention that arise in the context of a new media technology: a technology paid for by the word, with a span not much longer than a tweet.  James was fascinated by the position of the unnamed young telegraphist, who resides at the margin of the public and the private, able to covertly partake in the private dramas of telegraphs through her very public role as a part of the communication machine.  Like the author himself, and like many bloggers and tweeters today, she is an intensely private figure given over to an immensely public occupation. Ostensibly condemned to merely count, transcribe, and monetize “words as numberless as the sands of the sea,” she instead acts as a covert reader, interpreter, and then actor within the private scenes limned by the terse telegraphic communications which roll across her desk: “Everard, Hotel Brighton, Paris. Only understand and believe. 22d to 26th, and certainly 8th and 9th. Perhaps others. Come. Mary.” 

Innumerable jeremiads on the dangers of distraction in the age of iReading warn us of danger to human attention, as well as the values prized by the humanities, in the move to ever more novel forms of media and mediated attention.  James’s more than century-old treatment of the young telegraphist of “In the Cage,” and her resourcefulness in the face of constant and interminable distraction, should remind today’s teachers and writers of the lingering forms of attentiveness that (still) matter during moments of changing technologies of attention and distraction, calling us to reconsider our own attitudes towards “disruptive” social technology.

1. First, disruptive stimuli can paradoxically cultivate the ability to select and to sympathize.  What James Gleick recently called the “Information Flood” has its most important predecessors in the experience of the great metropoles, particularly what Georg Simmel analyzed as the effect of constant stimuli on metropolitan mental life.  In Simmel’s description, the individual’s experience of the metropolitan world becomes dampened and “habituated” to constant change—blasé, to use his key term—while the inner life and its expression becomes paradoxically heightened: “…in order that this most personal element be saved, extremities and peculiarities and individualizations must be produced and they must be over-exaggerated merely to be brought into the awareness even of the individual himself.”[1] James describes the effect of the information flood on his young heroine in terms remarkably similar to Simmel’s essay of 1903: “The girl was blasée; nothing could belong more, as she perfectly knew, to the intense publicity of her profession; but she had a whimsical mind and wonderful nerves; she was subject, in short, to sudden flickers of antipathy and sympathy, red gleams in the grey, fitful needs to notice and to ‘care,’ odd caprices of curiosity” (“New York Edition,” 1908, vol.11: 371).  Despite research showing a decline in empathy among some heavy users of social media, and despite worries over our blasé students, we should be reminded here of the selectivity of attention that most users of such media exhibit: constant stimuli can make one paradoxically more attentive to the “signals” that actually matter.

2. But what matters to the protagonist of James’s story?  Social standing, romance, and class, as it turns out in the course of the narrative, perhaps not quite in that order.  The telegrams give her, in careless splashes of “shillings and pence” that would have fed her family for a week, a vision of the “high reality” of the gentleman and ladies of a London society closed to her—except, however, for the crucial fact of her own imaginative capacity.  With that and the aid of her ha’penny novels, she can recreate all the romances, the happinesses, and the tragedies of the upper classes—and forget the mundane fact of her own encroaching marriage to “Mr. Mudge,” the grocer.  We can clearly see here an antecedent to such media as the Twitter celebrity feed or the tabloid weekly; we should note, however, that the relationship of the young girl to the imagined “high reality” she imagines for “Mary” and Captain Everard remains ambivalent—at times disgusted and at times enthralled—delighting in their tragedies as well as their romances.  Her relationship to what she takes as a “high reality” is considerably more complex than that of simple ideological delusion.   As the Charlie Sheen #Winning affair shows, this mix of fascination, Schadenfreude, and strategic aversion lies close at hand in our contemporary obsessions with “society life” and its perils.

3. Finally and crucially, the young telegraphist becomes an agent in the story she tracks.  Through careful reading, small clues, and a quick intervention, she comes to play a role in the romance between “Mary” and Captain Everard, one where she feels herself to be briefly the equal of her “customers,” even perhaps holding their fate in her hands.  The movement between an imagined vision of their “society life” elsewhere and the narrative of her own inner life coincide, at least for a moment.  As with our own disruptive social technologies, the telegraph finally becomes an instrument for self-invention, opening entirely new areas of action and expression.  As James also shows us, the intervention is only for a moment.  In the end the telegraphist returns to her class location, and her planned marriage to a grocer, entirely of her own will: economic determinations remain determinative.  The difference to her inner life, however, as James uses his most painstaking techniques to show us, is incalculable.

As a conclusion to this cluster on the “Distraction Span” in the new everyday, James’s analog fable offers us a still point of rest, from which we might take the measure of our students’ and our own digital distraction.  Are we imaginatively and pedagogically enabled by new technological distractions, given the tools to connect across continents and class lines (in both senses), enabled to form new imagined communities and perhaps renewed inner lives, as @Asher Danziger and @Lauren Berliner seem to suggest? Indeed, as @Gina Lamb demonstrates, social media tools could save the inner lives and physical lives of those subsisting on the fringes of the “everyday,” like the dangerously exposed LGBT youth she describes.  Meanwhile, @Elizabeth Losh’s fascinating entries on an experiment with Twitter in the lecture classroom, along with @Quinlan Adley’s bleak view of Facebook pathology, remind us of the dangers as well as the possibilities of social media in educational contexts, and raise some disturbing questions about the potential for new media to obscure communicative context and empathetic response.  @Sara Harris, along with Losh and @Tara Zepel, address what seems to us the crucial question of the teacher’s role in modeling and focusing attention in any context, analog or digital, as does their students’ central question: “what is the assignment?”  Given that our cluster’s assignment was to measure our own distraction spans in our time, but also for future readers (this too will soon become a point of rest), at blog’s end, we still must ask: are we all fated to return from our dalliances with the virtual, like the young telegraphist of James’s story, to Mr. Mudge the grocer, to economic necessity, and to the “framed and wired confinement” of a digital life “in the cage,” attenuated and numbed by constant distraction? 

[1]Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) in Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds. The Blackwell City Reader. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002: 19