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The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life

The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life
Author: Charles Derber
ISBN 13: 9780195135497
ISBN 10: 195135490
Edition: 2
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 2000-06-15
Format: Paperback
Pages: 160
List Price: $19.99

As the saying goes, "Enough about me, let's talk about you: what do you think of me?" Hence the pursuit of attention is alive and well. Even the OED reveals a modern coinage to reflect the chase in our technological age: "ego-surfing"—searching the internet for occurrences of your own name. What is the cause of this obsessive need for others' recognition? In The Pursuit of Attention, Derber contends that it is a general lack of social support in America that causes people to compete so hungrily, and he shows how individuals will often employ numerous techniques to turn the course of a conversation towards themselves. The book illustrates and explains this "conversational narcissism" in sample dialogues that will sound disturbingly familiar to everyone. Drawing from research on face-to-face interactions in households, restaurants, workplaces, classrooms, and therapy groups, Derber demonstrates that gender and class, as well as wealth, occupation and education, affect one's success in getting attention. The originality of his arguments lies in his ability to vivdly translate the social and economic forces of contemporary American capitalism into the ordinary experience of individuals, and, as C. Wright Mills put it, to connect private troubles with public issues.

First published twenty years ago, The Pursuit of Attention has been revised and updated for this edition and includes a new preface and afterword. The preface focuses on changes in the manifestations of attention-seeking and the hyperindividualistic changes in the economy and culture that are driving these transformations. In his view, individualism has actually accelerated in intense ways over the last twenty years. With the advent of the internet, greater and more immediate possibilities for attention are now available. Personal websites with images and information to attract anonymous viewers are common occurrences, and as people's attachments to marriage and work loosen, there exists a higher sense of being alone, and thus self-absorbed. Finally, the internalization of economic rules of self-interest breeds a psychological readiness to act egotistically even in the most intimate arenas in personal life. In response to this, the afterword focuses on solutions: how to restructure the economy and culture to humanize ourselves and increase the capacity for empathy and attention-giving.


This study investigates the question of why so many people have an obsessive need for others' recognition. It analyzes the pursuit of attention in conversation, including politics and celebrity culture, and shows how gender, class, race, and the new techno-culture fit into current rampant narcissism. Derber (sociology, Boston College) argues that in modern American culture there is little social support, which causes people to vie for attention. He offers solutions, such as how to restructure the economy and culture to increase the capacity for community, empathy, and attention-giving. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)