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ARTHIST 123N: Thinking about Visual Attention : from Balzac to Facebook

Writing in 1829, the French author Honoré de Balzac celebrated the acute visual attention of the flâneur, a character he closely associates with modern life: "To flâne is to take pleasure, to collect flashes of wit, to admire sublime scenes of unhappiness, of love, of joy as well as graceful or grotesque portraits, to thrust one's attention into the depths of a thousand lives." In July 2012 the Huffington Report pointed to a fact of modern life: "On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, there is usually someone strolling while talking on a phone, texting with his head down, listening to music, or playing a video game. The problem isn't as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real." These two very different ways of circulating in urban space suggest that a major shift in how we humans relate to our environment has occurred over the course of nearly two centuries--especially in the densely populated spaces of modern cities. Where the great spectacle of urban life was a marvel of the nineteenth century, today's inhabitants want mainly to block it out by insulating themselves in a cocoon of favorite music or personal conversation, whether by voice or text, that they risk stepping into traffic, colliding with lightposts, or bumping into others similarly self-absorbed. This seminar proposes to think about the hows and whys of that important shift from the unique perspective of art history, a field of study especially attuned to the limits and exigencies of visual acuity. We will explore the topic across a range of media, from daguerreotypes to stereoscopes, from paintings to films, from television screen to the hand-held displays of our smartphones.
Terms: Aut | Units: 3 | UG Reqs: WAY-A-II | Grading: Letter (ABCD/NP)
Instructors: Marrinan, M. (PI)
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