The repeated disruption of nocturnal dreaming, which became possible with the discovery of the most dream-heavy sleep stages, is known to lead to serious mental disturbance in the short term.

This shows that the meaningful deviations apparent in dreams are not only enigmas open to interpretation, but play a regulatory role as well.

Released from the aims and strains of intention, thought begins to wander, and in this wandering, replenishes its forces. The state of wakefulness offers a wealth of moments related to this function—not constantly, but during what could be called paradoxical stages of wakefulness, when attention fades and thought drifts down paths of its own making.

Reverie, escapism and pensiveness are among the words used to designate these states. They may be fleeting or persistent depending on the day, circumstances and temperament, but all relate to a general attitude of distraction.

Being distracted means withdrawing from the form of attention required by social behavior. From the conversation or conference that we’ve stopped hearing to the sight that bores us or the one eliciting contemplation, on a train trip for example, there are countless cases of this theoretically infinite drifting, in fact composed of sequences ranging from a momentary spell to an extended lapse.

But while as a general rule, the faculty of dreaming at night is not prohibited or systematically interrupted (this was only for the sake of scientific experiments), distraction is regularly assailed, at least when it comes to the norms and criteria of the working world, which as we know, have become utterly dominant.

This drive to eliminate these moments of withdrawal has a history dating back at least to the emergence of otium, which in the Roman world designated the time removed from social utility, although it is possible to go back much further to encounter the question of time devoted to work; it is moreover symptomatic that modes of life predating mechanisms of accumulation, as retraced by critical anthropology, are now at the forefront of debate on civilizational issues.

It is no accident that the idea of an entirely different world, one not shaped by work and the demands of a set calendar, has arisen at a time when the ongoing acceleration of recent centuries, heightened further in recent decades, has sparked agitation.

As the control strategies that have been introduced seem to veer out of control themselves, burnout has become the sign of an era whose reserves of distracted time have been entirely depleted. Given what is provoked by this combustion, we have indeed gone beyond a mere war against idleness as upheld by Taylorism and the ergonomic investigations commissioned by capitalism. The challenge is no longer only to the possibility of lifting our heads for a moment: it is the whole of the living process that has been reduced to the demands of productivity. Within this merciless universe, distraction is not only forbidden, but made impossible.

Here we need to distinguish diversion from distraction. Diversion is the according use of periods of time granted by production-oriented society; distraction is exiting, even momentarily, the constant regulation of behavioral frameworks. The former encompasses leisure, and its economy; the latter, escape or departure.

One political program for the coming time could be defined as distracting the distraction of leisure to fully appropriate its liberating potential—coming in the wake, it should be emphasized, of all that has been dreamed up against alienated labor since its definition, with great precision, by Marx.

This liberating potential must be pinpointed and retrieved in its countless and at time infinitesimal openings. Discreet, elusive and solitary, these openings are not actions in and of themselves, much less militant actions. But on the edges of active and productive existence, they nevertheless act, in the manner of a reserve of time that simultaneously dissipates and stands ready, and if their energy could be harnessed, its spectacularity would quickly grow apparent.

In all likelihood, artistic practices are able to appropriate this force. In how it springs forth, distraction inevitably appears in the process of seeking out. But it must remain free and flowing, and while there is no doubt that through it, a different attention comes about—sharp, emancipated—nothing would be more unfortunate than to transform this into a sort of assistant willing to shoulder the undertakings of art or thought. It must be a vagabond, or else it will perish.

In terms of film, montage, we can imagine a long sequence suddenly interrupted by a shot—a shot coming from elsewhere or that looks elsewhere, a shot that in relation to the sustainment and continuity of a story is an escape, a dispatch. Films that are devoid of such shots are films in which cinema fails to break open. These shots are allegories of distraction. A panoramic shot could also be imagined that would be this alone—a distracted gaze on the world, with the sudden realization that it vibrates with all of the tension of life.

Jean-Christophe Bailly
Paris, January 11, 2021