Positive distraction


What is positive distraction? There are obviously the negative distractions of others that are good for you: Never interrupt your enemies when they’re distracted by the mistakes they’ve made, to adapt Napoleon. For many people, however, one’s distraction and one’s concentration are polar opposites, as when distraction diverts needed concentration. But what if it is all about distracting you from a dead-end concentration?

Jean Dubuffet, the painter, talked about distraction as an occasion for “attentive inattentiveness:” “[I]n this distracted state. . . it is a matter of paying great attention to inattention, of being very attentive to transcribing as skillfully and faithfully as possible what happens when an object is viewed without great attentiveness”. That is what I mean by positive distraction here. “Illumination,” novelist Nicholas Mosley put it another way, “comes not through analysis, but as a by-product of alertness.”

Positive distraction, as such an alertness, is when “going off-piste” is “being on track.” It is a way one traverses complexity we cannot transect. It’s recovering from a kind of stumbling and then proceeding better. Boris Pasternak, the poet, is reported to have said that life creates events to distract our attention away from it, so that we can get on with work that cannot be accomplished any other way.


A classic example of positive distractions are the unplanned blots and blurs of composition (see also the blog entry, “Blur, Gerhard Richter and failed states). Max Ernst, the painter, put it: “Leonardo observed that all such mysterious effects that we find in nature—such as the stains of humidity on an old wall—can suggest to us a landscape, a face or any other such subject…To two different artists, the same chance stain can suggest two entirely different works. . .” So too Rossini, the composer: “When I was writing the chorus in G Minor, I suddenly dipped my pen into the medicine bottle instead of the ink; I made a blot, and when I dried it…it took the form of a natural, which instantly gave me the idea of the effect which the change from G minor to G major would make, and to this blot all the effect—if any—is due”. (Someone who didn’t like this mode of composition was poet and engraver, William Blake, who dismissed one as “the tame high finisher of paltry Blots.”)

When walking around my neighborhood, I look for the stamp of different cement contractors set into the sidewalks they poured. One is dated 1927. But then, the Stolpersteine I stumble over on Freiburg sidewalks—those cobblestone memorials to Nazi victims—remind me that the past lasts into the present in quite different ways. It’s as if I read in both sidewalks news for today of sufficient importance as to break (into) my attention.


Much has been made of the distinction between Type I or System 1 thinking—it is nonconscious and all but automatic, rooted in fear and emotion—in comparison to Type II or System 2 thinking that is conscious, deliberative, and not rooted in emotion or instinct. I’m asking you to recast conscious deliberation and analysis as positive distractions, that is, diversions from acting otherwise stereotypically or worse, where we are more likely to revert to the latter when responding to unknown unknowns, inexperience and/or great difficulties.

I am arguing that we are positively distracted from ingrained preoccupations when distracted by hesitations, scruples, ambivalences and reflections on: what we know and do not know; what we experience as unavoidable inexperience; and what we come to know as the very different kinds of difficulty.

One thought on “Positive distraction

  1. INTERESTING! I feel both exonerated from my shame/guilt over chronic distractions, and encouraged to allow this distracted non-focused focus to lead me forward. Not easily done under the currently popular social ethos of DO DO DO, PERFORM PERFORM PERFORM, etc. So, thanks. Off I go to smell the flowers!!!


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