What Is Political About Political Attention? Report on the Workshop “The Politics of Attention” (University of Fribourg, June 30th – July 1st, 2021)

Guest article by Eraldo Souza dos Santos

Attention has been a subject of philosophical interest for a long time. In contrast to the ever-growing literature on the epistemology and the ethics of attention, much less has been said, however, about its political aspects. Can a political community or a political institution pay attention? Can attention be said to contribute to the exercise of political faculties such as judgment? Or would attention be a political faculty itself? What is, or should be, the role of attention in politics? The papers presented in the workshop “The Politics of Attention” at the University of Fribourg (30 June – 1 July 2021) helped shed light on these questions. Organized by two members of the Aesthetics and Ethics of Attention SNSF Research Project (University of Fribourg), Isabel Kaeslin and Maude Ouellette-Dubé, the workshop delved into the key role of attention in political life.

Scientific attention. Photo: National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, Credit: Daniel Soñé Photography, Source: Flickr.

Zeynep Pamuk (University of California, San Diego), for example, explored the politics of scientific attention by shedding light on the political dynamics that lead the scientific community to pay attention to specific problems and questions in detriment to others. Layla Raïd (University of Picardie Jules Verne), in her turn, discussed the role of attention in feminist politics and care ethics. Isabel Kaeslin (University of Fribourg) sought to show that collectives can pay attention in a virtuous way: by actively and vigilantly seeking out the “not-yet-recognized and not-yet-conceptualized” perspectives of the members of marginalized communities. For Kaeslin, “open-minded vigilance” is, in this regard, one of the key virtues of virtuous collectives.

Having as her starting point British philosopher Iris Murdoch’s and French philosopher Simone Weil’s reflections on ethical attention, Silvia Panizza (University College Dublin) offered a theoretical treatment of attention to the suffering of non-human animals. Drawing, too, on Murdoch’s work, Bridget Clarke (University of Montana) discussed, in her words, whether “just and loving attention forms the substrate of liberal democracy” and how this form of attention can potentially help to contain racism. Maude Ouellette-Dubé (University of Fribourg), in her turn, explored what Murdoch called the “challenge of the ego.” In Murdoch’s words, “much of human conduct is moved by mechanical energy of an egocentric kind.” By rearticulating Murdoch’s reflections in a critical key, Ouellette-Dubé showed that actively attending to others and their needs can counteract this tendency and help a political community move toward social justice.

Taken together, the papers offered insightful contributions to a still undertheorized set of philosophical questions. Students and teachers of attention would find in an edited volume on the topic an inspiring source for thought.

Nevertheless, the political features of attention tended to be presupposed rather than theoretically explored in the workshop’s papers. In view of the theme of the workshop, it would have been interesting to discuss more incisively what makes a collective a political collective. In other words, would every form of collective presuppose the specific kind of intersubjective relationships and institutional arrangements that politics seems to require? Is every kind of collective capable of exercising political attention? In what sense could we say, in this respect, that political institutions pay or can pay attention? What does it mean to say, for example, that the Supreme Court (and not one of its Justices) or Congress (and not one of its Congresswomen) are attentive?

United States Supreme Court Building, 12 March 2019, Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The use of the concept of political attention, which played a key role in many of the workshop’s papers, also raises similar questions. What is political about political attention? What is distinctive about political attention in contrast to ethical attention, as theorized, for example, by Murdoch and Weil? What about the difference between political attention and attention tout court? Would every form of attention be political? Perhaps, one might wonder, political attention is political not because of its subject(s), but because of its object(s): every form of attention paid to the constituent elements and characteristic dynamics of political life would be, from this point of view, a form of political attention. However, which objects could be said to be political objects in this regard? And, among these, which ones can properly be objects of attention?

These questions are not intended to obscure the important contributions and findings of the workshop’s papers. As the presenters compellingly showed, attention is fundamental to politics and, more specifically, to democratic life. As a form of vigilant posture toward others and what is happening in the world, it is one of the backbones of tolerance and social justice. It is behind key political principles such as democratic oversight. It is a faculty that we, as citizens, must cultivate; one that we expect law- and policymakers to actively exercise. Investigating what is exactly political about political attention and what kinds of attention democratic life presupposes and requires is, in this regard, timelier than ever.

Eraldo Souza dos Santos is a philosopher and historian of political thought. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Panthéon-Sorbonne University. During Summer 2021, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Collaborative Research Center 1369 “Cultures of Vigilance.”


Cover image from the “Politics of Attention” Conference Flyer, Source: Conference Website.

Politics of Attention (June 30th – July 1st, 2021) – Workshop Program

Wednesday June 30th, 2021

10:30 Welcome Word 

11:00 – 12:30
Zeynep Pamuk (University of California, San Diego)
The Politics of Scientific Attention

14:30-16:00
Isabel Kaeslin (University of Fribourg)
Which Kinds of Collectives can Pay Attention?

Thursday July 1st, 2021

10:30-12:00 
Silvia Panizza (University College Dublin)
Attention: from Contemplation to Activism 

14:00-15:30
Layla Raïd (University of Picardie Jules Verne)
Political Attention: a Dialogical Perspective

16:00-17:30
Bridget Clarke (University of Montana)
The Challenge of Political Attention

18:00-19:30
Maude Ouellette-Dubé (University of Fribourg)
Ethical Attention, Ordinary Blind Spots and Social Justice 


Cover image: UK Parliament, New Members learn about the workings of the House in the House of Commons Chamber, 12 May 2010, Source: Flickr.


Cite this article as: Eraldo Souza dos Santos, What Is Political About Political Attention? Report on the Workshop “The Politics of Attention” (University of Fribourg, June 30th – July 1st, 2021), in: Vigilanzkulturen, 09/12/2021, https://vigilanz.hypotheses.org/1954.


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