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Distraction as a Philosophical Concept and a Stylistic Device in France and Italy. 17th-19th Centuries

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - distraction (Distraction as a Philosophical Concept and a Stylistic Device in France and Italy.17th-19th Centuries)

Reporting period: 2015-09-07 to 2017-09-06

The project proposed to challenge and reassess the historical development of ‘distraction’ in its philosophical and literary implications. The dominant Augustinian-Pascalian strain of Western thought has traditionally viewed distraction as an expression of human imperfection, which must be corrected in favor of concentration and logical thinking. This project reconstructed how the 17th and 18th centuries witnessed a different understanding of distraction in both the ethical and the aesthetic-cognitive spheres, paving the way to its revaluation as a productive resource, in literary and stylistic terms, between the 18th and 19th centuries.

By focusing on the French and Italian linguistic and cultural domains, the project showed how distraction intersected and mirrored the cultural tensions from the Old Regime to the post-revolutionary decades, thereby providing a different viewpoint for reassessing long-established critical, philosophical, and historiographic concepts. In particular, the research addressed the ways in which distraction tackles such binary oppositions as truth/falsehood, objectivity/subjectivity, fact/fiction, thereby blurring the borders between philosophical-theoretical and literary-fictional forms of writing.

The project reconstructed a fluid moment in Western cultural history, witnessing a profound reconfiguration of philosophical and rhetorical praxes, whose outcome may be identified in literature in its modern (i.e. post-Romantic) understanding. The project also challenged the dominating Anglo- and German-centric narratives about pre-Romanticism and Romanticism, by rooting the difference of specific, hybrid intellectual experiences occurring in the French- and Italian-speaking domains of the 18th and 19th centuries in this alternative strain of thought. 

The project had two main objectives:

a) investigating the historical-genealogical roots of the re-evaluation of distraction in the ethical and the aesthetic-cognitive spheres.

b) analyzing the implications of this shift in artistic, literary, and stylistic terms.
"In addressing the first objective, the project started with the examination of the ethical-moral dimension of distraction.
Focusing on the one hand, on the new attention paid to inner life through the Counter-Reformation, and, on the other, on the problem of happiness in the ‘philosophy of divertissement’, the fellow investigated the ways in distraction intersects the Libertine emphasis on sensualistic understanding of subjectivity, thereby undermining the precept of nosce te ipsum and the traditional equalization of happiness and knowledge.
Secondly, with respect to the first objective, the project took into account the aesthetic-cognitive sphere, by studying the long-lasting influence of Locke’s ""Essay Concerning Human Understanding"" between France and Italy, with special reference to Condillac and Francesco Soave. This phase allowed the fellow to highlight the increasing epistemological centrality of distraction through the 18th century and its impact on later authors, such as Leopardi and Maine de Biran.

Finally, in addressing the second objective, which aimed at showing the ways in which philosophical and psychological theories of distraction reverberate in the literary sphere, some case studies have been selected (including Diderot, Rousseau, Maine de Biran, Leopardi, Stendhal). This phase revealed distraction as a conceptual device blurring the borders between theoretical and creative writing, foreshadowing new artistic and writing praxes, as well as a new understanding of subjectivity and memory.

"Compared to previous studies (including one that came out during the project lifetime: ""Distraction; Problems of Attention in Eighteenth-Century Literature"", by N.M. Phillips, John Hopkins University Press, 2016), this research engaged in a more comprehensive and systematic inquiry, with two specific elements of newness.

On the one hand, distraction was considered in all its manifold aspects (ethical-moral, aesthetic-cognitive and stylistic-literary): that is why the research intentionally covered a plurality of concepts – including divertissement, rêverie, diversion, and digression, which, albeit originating in different fields, form nonetheless a homogeneous semantic constellation.

On the other hand, the research adopted a historical perspective, in order to tackle theoretical questions, and vice versa. Its methodology was essentially multidisciplinary, and it combined knowledge and tools from History of Philosophy, History of Ideas, Literary studies, Aesthetics, and Comparative Literature, together with a systematic dialogue with contemporary theory. 

This project represented a substantial contribution in the field also for its broad chronological and geographic borders, allowing to better stress phenomena of continuity/fracture in the long run.

By adopting a transnational viewpoint and by focusing on the French and Italian linguistic and cultural domains, this research challenged the dominating Anglo- and German-centric narratives about pre-Romanticism and Romanticism, which is implicitly assumed by some of the previous studies.

Finally, contrary to contemporary views of distraction, often reiterating its traditionally-constructed negative character (e.g. by viewing it as a consequence of crisis and moral disintegration, or as the effect of post-capitalist manipulations of consciousness), this research explored distraction as a vector of emancipation and transformation, that is to say, as the condition for a form of experience that can play a subversive role, enable a deepening of ordinary experience, and operate as a vector of knowledge. This this the major potential impact of the project to a wider audience outside academia, where it can help challenging crucial issues of contemporary society.