|dc.description.abstract||It is now a common assumption that we live in an age of distraction. Indeed, “distraction” has become a catchword for the condition of modernity and postmodernity writ large as well as an important category in literary criticism. Yet, the premodern fascination with inattention has been underexplored, obscuring the nature of literary and devotional life in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages and thus the long history of the subject. Despite much excellent work on the history of emotions, medieval theories of the mind, contemplative practices, and memory arts, medievalists need to direct greater attention to distraction. Formal Orders addresses this gap. In doing so, I demonstrate that it was the management of distraction that helped to create and sustain textual and religious communities. In particular, I look to the Benedictine renovation movement, which reshaped monastic life across Europe and, I argue, developed an aesthetics of attention for tenth- and eleventh-century religious life, centered on the self-consciously difficult style of English and Latin writing that is usually deemed “hermeneutic.” This style was designed to re-enliven familiar texts such as the Psalms, which monks encountered every day, week, and year in repeated cycles. The project thus reorients medieval reading and teaching around attention and distraction rather than memory and forgetting.
In order to foster concentration and contemplation, monasteries were themselves frequently conceived of as “machines for thinking,” as Mary Carruthers has demonstrated, and as the ninth-century Plan of St. Gall, which I discuss in the introduction, vividly illustrates. This conceit provides the organizing structure for the project, with each chapter examining the genres and reading practices exemplified by overlapping, idealized monastic spaces: “The Library,” “The Scriptorium,” “The Cell,” and “The Classroom.” Across each of these chapters, Formal Orders identifies a new movement in tenth-century literary theory and hermeneutics, while contributing to emerging debates about books and readers in late Anglo-Saxon England and about the long history of attention and distraction as affective modes.||