The Listening Post

Attention is an art form. Perception is a skill. Thought is a craft. But how?

Thinking, conceiving, and perceiving share a few similarities in word origin that are worth exploring. The roots of thought and thinking tend to be a little circular. Thought is “the process of thinking” or the “carrying out of a mental operation,” but it’s also related to turning something over (in the mind), to exercising the understanding, and to letting a series of interconnected ideas form and gather. Conceiving on most accounts is one of the things thinking does. It’s a kind of holding or grasping or taking into the mind. Like the Latin conceptus, it also refers to acts of collecting and gathering. (The prefix con- is close to our modern co- and signifies togetherness or being-with.) Our word concept is also nearby, and while the noun form refers to an abstract idea or universal, the etymology brings us back again to grasping or holding or taking. Using a concept, then, means having some skillful perceptual means for picking up or grasping attributes and qualities within your environment. Indeed, having a concept is one way of illuminating those attributes in the first place.

Turning, forming, exercising, gathering, collecting, grasping, and holding are words that stand in for and describe processes of thinking and conceiving. And so it is with perceiving. That word means apprehension, or becoming aware of something through the senses, but it is likewise connected to gathering or collecting. (The related French term percevoir means to receive or collect.) The per- connotes “through,” as in “by means of,” but also suggests “thoroughly”; it’s a thorough or full taking into awareness of an element of experience, usually distinguished from conceiving by appeal to the immediacy of the apprehension. (In distinction, conceiving can include imaginative or speculative forms of gathering or collecting ideas in the mind.) I’m tracing these roots and connections between etymologies not to be pedantic about terms and definitions, but to engage in my own act of gathering, which in turn may result in some insight into how these processes work as we make our way around the world. Moreover, shedding light on thinking, conceiving, and perceiving is what opens us up to my proposition that each one can and should be treated like an art, a skill, or a craft.

To be concerned with the art, skill, or craft of perception is to be concerned with the how of these gathering processes. It is, in effect, to become an apprentice in the wood working of your own thinking. Readers of Heidegger will know that this line of thought (about thinking) isn’t unique to me, but I do believe it deserves greater attention than we currently give it. To focus on the craft of perception is to learn how to attend to it with a level of care and concern not just for the content of one’s experience but to the living processes of thinking and conceiving that give rise to it. And this attending to thinking requires practice, or askēsis. In my recent conversation with Andrew McLuhan, Andrew shared with me a few exercises he uses with his students to key them into the relations between our thinking and acting, and how both are influenced by the techniques and technologies we use to further develop what we express. The exercises are straight forward. Try to write a poem, Andrew says, first in your mind, using only memory. Then, write a poem using pen and ink, on a piece of paper, then type one out on a computer, and finally, write a poem using a voice recorder. Andrew’s point is that speech, writing, typing, and memory all operate with different speeds of thought, tied to the action and the medium in use, and each medium will give you quite a different style of poetry, issuing from a different style of consciousness, shaped in part by the media used by the larger society.

That’s why Marshall and Eric McLuhan coined the phrase media ecology. It reflects our immersion in our own technologies and the way they shape our senses and the way we organize space and time. We shape our tools and then our tools go on to shape us, as the famous saying goes. And this is important for social and psychological reasons. Already in the early 1960s, Marshall saw that we were growing dependent on mass forms of electronic media, to the extent that the lines between our own nervous systems and the larger media ecosystem were beginning to blur. In effect, we began to outsource our own sensemaking to large, distant governments, or to private corporations and their commercial interests, and if that was true already in the 1960s, then it’s certainly true now in the age of algorithms and social media. To his credit, Marshall also saw that to counter this kind of large-scale centralization, we need to create many small and resilient centers of alternative sensemaking, and I believe The McLuhan Institute is one of these smaller centers. The Institute is itself something like a listening post for McLuhan-style thinking; it’s full of their books, notes, annotations, and papers, which Andrew is making available through his efforts.

To bring these ideas full circle, then, we are describing two types of gathering and collecting. The first is the gathering associated with thought, perception, and conception. The second is the gathering of traditions, techniques, and artifacts that are involved in our task of making sense. As Joe Norman noted recently, the larger conversation around sensemaking is at risk of under emphasizing the making aspect of the equation. In order to make sense, we must first look at and skillfully gather together our thinking, but this action need not be understood in the terms of isolated individual introspection, though this can be part of the process. Instead, we ought to visualize this task in its actual concrete form and acknowledge the many ways we think and perceive with our environments, and that, in much the same way that our own perception is shapeable through practice and experiment, so too can we leverage our ability to shape environments to aid us in the task of understanding. Aiding thought, perception, and action is exactly what institutions are supposed to do—accumulating the best of our prior experience so that each generation can benefit from the last. But when the institutions fail, we need to regroup and reorganize; and we need to build new listening posts to sense the world around us as well.

So if it’s true that attention is an art form, perception is a skill, and thought is a craft, then it’s because of the way each one is formed through a type of skilled gathering in consciousness, internally and externally, individually and collectively. And when we pay attention to these activities, we can effectively become the wood of our own perceptual activity, using our practices as a kind of woodworking that transforms our being in the world, and so our whole mode of encounter with it.