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Paul Dobryden, UC Berkeley, German/Film Studies

Attention in Crisis: German Responses to the Problem of Distraction, 1895-1930

In my dissertation, I argue that today's fascination with attention and distraction finds a striking precedent in early-twentieth century Germany. Attention has been a major concern since Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin first brought the notion of distraction into discussions of culture. In Germany, where national identity was strongly tied to literary and theatrical culture, intense anxiety over technological modernity sparked discussion about the effects of new visual media on perception. In many ways, the media transition experienced in Germany at this time resembles our own. A look at this historical moment offers a new context from which to view our own anxious present, helping us to understand our responses to new technologies and their effects on attention within a larger history of modern culture. I am particularly interested in pursuing what has become a key term in recent debates in German media studies: immersion, the feeling of entering into a space of illusion. Cinema will thus be a focus of my project. While immersive media (such as the panorama) have existed for centuries, with cinema immersion experiences become 1) industrialized and 2) ubiquitous. I wish to examine the ways in which German modernity reckoned with the ubiquity of (primarily visual) immersive entertainments. It is during this period, an age supposedly more distracted than ever, that immersion was most forcefully problematized in cinema, literature, and theater; in Weimar culture, one finds its most ambitious enthusiasts and its most eloquent and influential critics. Ultimately I argue that discourses on attention and distraction are as much spatial as perceptual; historically, they can be fruitfully linked with what Christoph Asendorf has recently termed the modern problem of distance. Anxieties about distraction are simultaneously anxieties about the perceived distance, or lack thereof, between people, things, images, and texts.