Posts tagged psychology

July 9th, 2012

Dani Lierow was so severely neglected for the first seven years of her life that some consider her a feral child; the original story of her rescue, recovery, and adoption was both shattering and arresting; it is impossible not to wonder at the silent interior world of an unsocialized mind, a mind both human and not:

She wouldn’t make eye contact. She didn’t react to heat or cold — or pain. The insertion of an IV needle elicited no reaction. She never cried. With a nurse holding her hands, she could stand and walk sideways on her toes, like a crab. She couldn’t talk, didn’t know how to nod yes or no. Once in a while she grunted …

[T]he scene at the house, along with Danielle’s almost comatose condition, led [doctors] to believe she had never been cared for beyond basic sustenance. Hard as it was to imagine, they doubted she had ever been taken out in the sun, sung to sleep, even hugged or held. She was fragile and beautiful, but whatever makes a person human seemed somehow missing…

The most extraordinary thing about Danielle… was her lack of engagement with people, with anything. “There was no light in her eye, no response or recognition… We saw a little girl who didn’t even respond to hugs or affection. Even a child with the most severe autism responds to those.”

A follow-up report by Melissa Lyttle, who took the photo above, details her progress with her extraordinary adoptive parents:

Three years later, Dani, now 12, has grown physically and emotionally. She’s a foot taller and clearly responsive to her dad’s affection. She hugs him back, kisses him and playfully bites his nose.

The photographs are quite moving; the Lierows seem like heroes.

March 28th, 2012
Don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial, and don’t be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death.

Frank O’Hara, from an interview in What’s With Modern Art? quoted by Buongiorno

Much of our technological and cultural labor is driven not by our interest in ending death or securing the safety of the species, but by our desire to take the attention of others —against their will and without their permission— and use it for our own ends: some high-minded, some commercial, some gently egocentric. There is innocence in our pursuit of one-another’s attentions, but there is also consequence: we may be ordinary hawking proles just trying to get by in the attention-economy, but when the “slightest loss of attention leads to death” the lolling, gesticulative banter of the advertising-sponsored Internet masks an undeclared, unfavorable exchange: our time, awareness, attention for diversion, small serotonin bumps, temporary highs; we are permitted the exhaustion of drives rather than their culmination.

This is why attention-seeking is not merely aesthetically unpleasant but is in fact immoral: to insist on taking the attention of another is a kind of theft, a destructive coercion. Rare moments and our works notwithstanding, our shared failure is that we are all bored, lazy, trivial, and proud; the lifelong struggle to be attentively engaged, hardworking, serious, and humble is both ennobling and quixotic, but part of that effort must be that we refrain from stealing one another’s attention for boring trivialities or the lazy pride we accrue like sediment. We shouldn’t impoverish each other.

The humblebrag isn’t harmless, and neither are products which game your attention, whittle away your life while you’re too distracted or addicted to notice, and return to you only the shaved splinters of software-interactions and an unmemorable occupancy.

February 29th, 2012
Most of us, by the time we leave childhood, have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation. We have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience. The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act. But nature has protected the lower animals by endowing them with instincts. It is very simple: Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to. They live in a tiny world, a sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their noses and shuts everything else out. But look at man, the impossible creature. Here nature seems to have thrown caution to the winds along with the programmed instincts. She created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience. Not only in front of his nose, in his ‘umwelt,’ but in many other ‘umweltsen.’ He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species. He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows. He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden than man bears. He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect. His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him but all the more strange. Each thing is a problem. Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the equanimity to live on this planet. And so the core of psychodynamics, the formation of human character, is a study in human self-limitation and in the terrifying costs of that limitation.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death. This idea of necessary partialization is enormously useful in thinking about mental illness, socialization and maturation, art, everything. Later, Becker puts it more plainly: 

When we say neurosis represents the truth of life we again mean that life is an overwhelming problem for an animal free of instinct. The individual has to protect himself against the world, and he can do this only as any other animal would: by narrowing down the world, shutting off experience, developing an obliviousness both to the terrors of the world and to his own anxieties… We cannot repeat too often the great lesson of Freudian psychology: that repression is normal self-protection and creative self-restriction —in a real sense, man’s natural substitute for instinct. Rank has a perfect, key term for this natural human talent: he calls it “partialization” and very rightly sees that life is impossible without it.

That is, we use repression and partialization —the former a truncation of the self, the latter a truncation of the world— to achieve a stable, bearable relationship with overwhelming reality. We cut the universe down to an ergonomic size, stuff it in our carry-on with our business papers; we shrink ourselves, cram ourselves in there too; it is manageable for the duration of the flight, at least, although we might fear that a change in cabin pressure will cause us to burst, to spill our secret selves, to open up to the unmediated mysterium tremendum et fascinates.

If it were possible to modify your consciousness, would you rather (1) receive supplemental human instincts, instincts to guide you in social, professional, cultural situations through which you presently muddle self-consciously, laboriously; or (2) have your lifelong, unconscious efforts at partialization undone, largely or completely, such that you were restored to the childhood state of constant wonder, awe, and fear?

February 23rd, 2012
He lay in bed open-eyed in the dark. There were intestinal moans from his left side, where gas makes a hairpin turn at the splenic flexure. He felt a mass of phlegm wobbling in his throat but he didn’t want to get out of bed to expel it, so he swallowed the whole nasty business, a slick syrupy glop. This was the texture of his life. If someone ever writes his true biography, it will be a chronicle of gas pains and skipped heartbeats, grinding teeth and dizzy spells and smothered breath, with detailed descriptions of Bill leaving his desk to walk to the bathroom and spit up mucus, and we see photographs of ellipsoid clots of cells, water, organic slimes, mineral salts and spotty nicotine. Or descriptions just as long and detailed of Bill staying where he is and swallowing. These were his choices, his days and nights. In the solitary life there was a tendency to collect moments that might otherwise blur into the rough jostle, the swing of a body through busy streets and rooms. He lived deeply in these cosmic-odd pauses. They clung to him. He was a sitting industry of farts and belches. This is what he did for a living, sit and hawk, mucus and flatus. He saw himself staring at the hair buried in his typewriter. He leaned above his oval tablets, hearing the grainy cut of the blade. In his sleeplessness he went down the batting order of the 1938 Cleveland Indians. This was the true man, awake with phantoms. He saw them take the field in all the roomy optimism of those old uniforms, the sun-bleached dinky mitts. The names of those ballplayers were his night prayer, his reverent petition to God, with wording that remained eternally the same. He walked down the hall to piss or spit. He stood by the window dreaming. This was the man he saw as himself. The biographer who didn’t examine these things (not that there would ever be a biographer) couldn’t begin to know the catchments, the odd-corner deeps of Bill’s true life.
Don DeLillo, Mao II. Especially in my outrageously shameful early adolescence, such concerns dominated my mental life. Had I some reliable means of addressing the unwanted and ungovernable erections, the pangs of shooting gas pains, the sweat and the stench of my form, the revolting phlegm always massing in my throat and disgusting nearby peers with its wobbling and popping, and in sum all the corporeal messiness of my damp, chubby, teenage body, I wonder what I’d have thought about all day, how I’d have managed to despise myself.
January 6th, 2012
The key to the creative type is that he is separated out of the common pool of shared meanings. There is something in his life experience that makes him take the world as a problem; as a result he has to make personal sense out of it. This holds true for all creative people to a greater or lesser extent, but it is especially obvious with the artist. Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer; but when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, then you must fashion your own. The work of art is, then, the ideal answer of the creative type to the problem of existence as he takes it in —not only the existence of the external world, but especially his own: who he is as a painfully separate person with nothing shared to lean on. He has to answer to the burden of his extreme individuation, his so painful isolation… His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his “private religion,” as [Otto] Rank put it.

Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, the thesis of which can perhaps be summed thusly: humanity sublimates its fear of death through the causa sui project: the construction of meanings which are enduring and non-contingent despite our mortality and ludicrous, creaturely contingency. Society, culture, and the illusions on which we depend are the fruit of this “immortality project”:

The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system… It doesn’t matter whether the hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value…

Heroic roles might include “breadwinner,” “mother,” “shaman,” “scientist,” “hedonist,” or any other designation which indicates how a person justifies their exertions and sufferings, pleasures and triumphs. Even to claim total purposelessness is a kind of assertion of meaning: a modest refusal to participate in hero-systems is a kind of heroism, a sought-out exceptionalism to this organismic problem of individuation and death. Indeed, when we talk of meaning as such, perhaps we are merely describing those symbols which exceed the individual but do not disappear into the inhuman cosmos, those ideas which are not organismic, will not die with the matter or, if they do, will somehow still suffice to justify its existence.

Becker’s work fascinates with its elucidation of how death drives this search for meaning and how the accidentally-developed and arbitrary illusions which provide meaning can both support the transcendence we require and enslave us. Indeed, Becker devotes much of the book to neurosis, which he suggests occurs when illusions fail, when hero-systems malfunction, and when the creature cannot escape his mortality:

What we call the well-adjusted man has…the capacity to partialize the world for comfortable action… [T]he “normal” man bites off what he can chew and digest of life, and no more. In other words, men aren’t built to be gods, to take in the whole world; they are built like other creatures, to take in the piece of ground in front of their noses… [A]s soon as a man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death, the meaning of a rose or a star cluster, he is in trouble. Most men spare themselves this trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives just as their society maps out these problems for them. These are what Kierkegaard called the “immediate” men and the “Philistines.” They “tranquilize themselves with the trivial” —and so they can lead normal lives.

What we call neurosis enters at precisely this point: some people have more trouble with their lies than others. The world is too much with them, and the techniques they have developed for holding it at bay and cutting it down to size finally begin to choke the person himself. This is neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality.

Both the neurotic and the artist are people for whom society’s hero-system and culture’s roles and meanings have failed in some measure, but whereas the former responds with ineffectual or destructive compulsions —misguided efforts to control and organize the terrors of organismic life, or to imbue them with specious meanings— the latter attempts to ”justify his heroism objectively, in the concrete creation.” But the two are not so far apart, as everyone familiar with the association between neurosis and creativity knows:

The neurotic exhausts himself not only in self-preoccupations like hypochondriacal fears and all sorts of fantasies, but also in others: those around him become his…work; he takes out his subjective problems on them… The neurotic’s frustration as a failed artist can’t be remedied by anything but an objective creative work of his own. Another way of looking at it is to say that the more totally one takes in the world as a problem,  the more inferior or “bad” one is going to feel inside oneself. He can try to work out this “badness” by striving for perfection, and then the neurotic symptom becomes his “creative” work; or he can try to make himself perfect by means of his partner. But it is obvious to us that the only way to work on perfection is in the form of an objective work that is fully under your control and is perfectible in some real ways. Either you eat up yourself and others around you, trying for perfection, or you objectify that imperfection in a work on which you then unleash your creative powers. In this sense, some kind of objective creativity is the only answer man has to the problem of life… He takes in the world, makes a total problem out of it, and then gives out a fashioned, human answer to that problem. This, as Goethe saw in Faust, is the highest that man can achieve.

I am partial to that definition of art, incidentally: a fashioned, human answer to the problems of the interiorized world of a given artist. Becker continues with a cold, obvious, and sadly persuasive point:

From this point of view the difference between the neurotic and the artist seems to boil down to a question of talent… [The neurotic] can glorify himself only in fantasy, as he cannot fashion a creative work that speaks on his behalf… He is caught in a vicious circle because he experiences the unreality of fantasied self-glorification. There is really no conviction possible for man unless it comes from others or from outside himself in some way —at least, not for long. One simply cannot justify his own heroism in his own inner symbolic fantasy, which is what leads the neurotic to feel more unworthy and inferior.

And what gives you your sense of meaning? Into what role do you pour yourself, and by what sort of creation are you satisfied? Do you, like me, sometimes notice with horror that your idle time is spent trafficking in the most pitiful and empty fantasies —shortly to be forgotten, a waste of daydreams— and your working hours pass with your nose to the ground before you? Have you a causa sui project, or have you found your meaning on a shelf, readymade for you? Are you quick to critique the hero-systems of others, or do you feel a kinship with all who seek meaning, who at least talk of purpose, love, death, as opposed to the goddamned news?

August 28th, 2011
There is much pride and suffering in every renunciation. Instead of retreating discreetly, without a big show of revolt and hatred, you denounce, emphatically and haughtily, others’ ignorance and illusions; you condemn their pleasures. … Suffering and the consciousness of its inescapability lead to renunciation; yet nothing would induce me, not even if I were to become a leper, to condemn another’s joy. There is much envy in every act of condemnation.
E. M. Cioran, On the Heights of Despair, translated by Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston and quoted by the wonderful Proustitute.
May 13th, 2011
With the tremendous acceleration of life, we grow accustomed to using our mind and eye for seeing and judging incompletely or incorrectly, and all men are like travelers who get to know a land and its people from a train.
Friedrich Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human, quoted by Irredenta.
Reblogged from irredenta
February 2nd, 2011
There could come a time when some information is so difficult to obtain on interactive systems that “truth” will be defined as that which is easily available, since selections are costly and must be made quickly. We may tend to assume that information which is not easily available does not need to be known.

Arthur J. Cordell, “Preparing For The Challenges of New Media,” in The Futurist, March-April 1991, quoted and cited by my old pal Melanyouth.

1. This proposed time -when “‘truth’ will be defined as that which is easily available”- has already arrived; it may have arrived long ago. There is an anthropological limit to the investigations of the individual, though perhaps not to those of the species, and a person can spend only so much time on any given question before he must accept what he has learned as sufficient or resign himself to ignorance.

For reasons having to do with the accidents of economic and technological development as well as our organismic anxieties, we further lower this limit with each passing year: there is now less time for reflection, more pressure for immediacy in our utterances and decisions, and a greater inclination to favor that which is "easily available" than ever before. It seems almost quixotic to insist that some truths be pursued for much longer than it takes to read an article online.

2. This is the principle problem with the Internet’s structurally-imposed laterality, its disruption of deep focus and substitution of rapid, tangential thought: a medium which discourages uninterrupted, lengthy consideration demands that “‘truth’ [become] that which is easily available.” The selecting process for “truth” has, on a social scale, rarely been epistemically valid, but it presently has more to do with what is viral, accessible, scannable than with anything else.

The “truth” about any question -no matter how complex- is in competition with reductive blog posts edited in accordance with corporate directives to minimize substance, email forwards which rival the the vituperative, callow sloganeering of any pamphlet, and status messages which are not expected to elaborate on or substantiate their claims. Discussions, arguments, debates: these fall away into the wake of the surging now anyway.

3. This is not a new problem: what is accessible will naturally prevail over what is not in the deliberations of typical, harried citizens; whether accessibility has to do with information navigation or physical proximity to learning centers or the distribution of literacy and leisure time, it must inform what we believe. That accessibility is intellectually dispositive is what justifies, say, the mission of Wikipedia: what information isn’t present, free, and easy to parse online is increasingly irrelevant.

Indeed, what cannot be conveyed in a few paragraphs or an infographic strikes many as pedantic, abstruse, excessive. (Previously, it was what could not be conveyed on television). And perhaps it is! Vote with your attention. And consider the possibility that the reason the Internet raged at the departed entrepreneur who demanded a synopsis of Chinese politics in three sentences is because we recognized ourselves in him.

4. There is an incredible isomorphism —the shape of which is our zeitgeist’s geometry— between the gaming of our primary search engine by content farms and the gaming of our minds by content providers, from old media to new, from advertising to discourse, from games to social networks. A comprehensive exploration of this isomorphism would produce a sociology of the democratic information age: when we understood enough about psychological plasticity to recognize the damage done by systems designed to capture, hold, and monetize attention, but were powerless to do anything about it as those systems grew to be beloved by, controlled by, the masses they most exploit.

If “truth” has always been whatever is easily available, it is nevertheless the case that what is easily available has never before been, in technological form and gamed content, so subversive of deep, directed thought. And to combat these forms and this content is to be not only a raving, irrelevant luddite; it is to be anti-democratic, a curio arguing for attentive silence and editorial curation in the era of social chatter and audience-driven, audience-invoking, audience-involving culture.

Reblogged from heaven spent
January 13th, 2011
You yourself have always objected to the opinion I give of myself. But even if it were not just it would still be necessary, as you would understand if you were subjected to as much scaling down and leveling by dozens of [critical] means, from historical comparison to personal attack. [My novel] has its share of faults but so do many other universally and deservedly admired books. This egalitarianism of men who do not care for themselves and therefore cannot allow others to give great value to human personality is extremely dangerous to writers who are after all devoted to a belief in the importance of human actions. The Gods, the saints, the heroes, these are human pictures of human qualities; the citizen, the man in the street, the man of the mass have become their antithesis. I am against the triumph of this antithesis….
Saul Bellow, in a letter to Melvin Tumin, April 21, 1948.
January 8th, 2011

Internet Stupidity

Technologies which are vectors for the transmission of information -narratives or datasets or social communication- inform human thought as surely as does language itself. The structures of one’s grammar and the content of one’s vocabulary -both dictional and conceptual- delimit one’s cognition, although perhaps not one’s range of emotion. Similarly, the structures of a given technology -which, as practical techniques for the application of theoretical scientific ideas, may be quite haphazardly determined by laboratory exigencies- can come to shape the minds of those who submit to it. This is because communicative technologies are, for us, extensions of language. And as is true of language, they can as easily enable stupidity as catalyze intelligence.

The sort of stupidity engendered by the Internet is thoughtlessness, not ignorance. While the latter is hardly vanquished, and indeed seems to be incomprehensibly, triumphantly persistent despite the avalanche of information beneath which we’re all subsumed, it is only the case that the Internet has brought to the fore what has always been true: most of us know very little; even the best know far less than they don’t know; and in a democracy, it is the right of anyone to participate passionately in debates about which s/he is totally uninformed.

But it is a fact, in its unnecessary defense, that the Internet combats ignorance and illiteracy; that it seems to be a sea of precisely those phenomena is proof only of how much combat was needed. For all its flaws, it is amusing to recall that the Internet is almost entirely textual, and never before have so many read and written so much.

There has been, however, an exchange, well-described by hundreds of cultural critics, most of whom, like the rest of us, are unable to avoid it: the Internet requires that we trade depth for breadth, knowledgeability of one rather facile sort for flickering, inattentive, unfocused, anxious, compulsively social mental tics. It doesn’t matter whether we want to make this exchange: unless we are prepared for ludditism we must accept what Nicholas Carr famously described in "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

Carr very ably describes some of the processes at play, the science behind them, their consequences, and he even contextualizes his concerns by noting that every generation seems disturbed by developments in media technologies:

In Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates bemoaned the development of writing. He feared that, as people came to rely on the written word as a substitute for the knowledge they used to carry inside their heads, they would, in the words of one of the dialogue’s characters, “cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful.” And because they would be able to “receive a quantity of information without proper instruction,” they would “be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.” They would be “filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom.” Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).

Indeed, as the succession of technologies has accelerated, it has become a generational banality that parents and teachers bemoan the baleful effects of each new phenomenon on their children and students. It is repetitive, and through repetition seems to have become comic, unpersuasive. Even though it is evident to all that, for example, the Internet decimates our capacity to pay meaningful attention to anything but ourselves -selves which are thereby reduced to clotted, neurotic urges, preening narcissistic anxiety, and fantasy-fueled envy- it would be the absolute pit of cliche to complain about it as many once did about television.

Television, Before It

Television, the last platform before the Internet to commandeer for profit the distribution of culture, fantasy, distraction, and connection, had as its essential quality a unilateral, centralized mode of information dispersal. It gathered the entirety of the Western world before its little screen and entranced it, speaking without interruption to a civilization of benumbed, mesmerized, enfeebled children, eager to submit to a satiating authority, eager to subsume themselves in fantasies of any sort, eager to escape time, eager to embrace passivity.

Passivity, then, was the concern of cultural critics. It was integral to televisual media, and it seemed to be shaping the minds of the masses into organs capable only of reception and absorption. It was lamented that through television, we’d reached a nadir of disengagement and apathy.

It would have seemed impossibly utopian to an observer that soon, average citizens would live in a world of text, a world in which it was perfectly typical to spend hours every day scanning articles, arguing politics in writing, corresponding in email and SMS and IM and on Facebook, reading editorials, news, analysis, entertainment, invective, encyclopedias, chasing trails of information through labyrinths of sources, and cultivating an identity based on these activities. It would sound scholastic!

Yet it is not so, and it is not so because superficial knowledge and superficial connections are not so different from the televisual ignorance and audience isolation the Internet has replaced. They are the transmissible tics of occupied minds, minds not self-directed but occupied by external forces who perhaps promise satiation or order but who are there for their own reasons. Why we forever seek occupation is a matter for another time.

Inherited Properties of Technology

Television and the Internet have much in common: even if one must secure access to them, they themselves are often offered without upfront payment. Just as NBC once asked only that you attend to its commercials, so does, say, The Huffington Post. And just like NBC, The Huffington Post is obliged to determine how it can best gather the most of your attention, exploiting you psychologically and conditioning you to be dissatisfied with what does not. Even sites that are not run for profit must compete thusly: after all, most hope for attention as well, and cannot hope to secure it from stimulation-junkies accustomed to shorter-and-shorter articles, ever-more inflammatory rhetoric, easier to parse and “share” information, and so on.

Their central divergence is in their organizational structure: television was one-to-many, a broadcast which permitted no interaction and therefore was incentivized to keep you passively watching. The Internet replaces the passivity of television with an enfeebling quality all its own: it is variously called tangentiality or laterality, and like the broadcast quality of television it has its origin in the fundamental structure of the World Wide Web: hypertextual linking. This model for association, connection, and navigation has its virtues, but its evolution, in conjunction with inevitable market pressures and human tendencies, has made linking antithetical rather than supplemental to depth, reflection, interiorization, focus, attention. 

Attention and Imagination

Reading correspondence recently -of the sort sent through the ordinary mail in the 20th century- I was struck by the imaginative necessity it entailed: if you were to write a letter to a friend far away, and would not be able to amend or clarify or retract what you wrote until a reply came, perhaps weeks or months in the future, you would take care to imagine your friend, his reactions, his feelings. You would not distractedly dash off performative IMs while watching something else; the glacial pace of information exchange, like the skeletal sensory information of books, demanded imagination.

A friend or lover whom one can imagine, whom one interiorizes, who lives in one’s mind, whom one cannot interrupt, IM, scan, or take for granted, seems quaint now. We are no longer obliged to imagine anyone, and we are less compassionate, more splenetic, and lazier because of it. I have taken so many friendships for granted, and have too many acquaintances to give any the time they deserve. We struggle to write cleverly and compassionately to one another, but who has the time? Or -since we still have the same twenty-four hours in each day that we’ve always had- who has the attention? I feel real guilt over my failure to embrace so many whom I’ve met, but what can I do?

There are ethical consequences to the destruction of our interpersonal imaginations, to say nothing at all of tangentiality or laterality. We are intolerant in novel ways, rush to judge and publicly excoriate with astonishing speed, and we abandon causes as quickly as we find them. We pride ourselves more and more on caustic indignation, which now competes with televisual “cool” as the most-sought aesthetic and emotional ideal.

Wisdom and happiness

Perhaps, particularly from a capitalist’s perspective, the exchange of attention for distraction remains paradigmatic of a happy market transaction which only concerns the pretentious. What is wrong, after all, with being distracted, with having innumerable acquaintanceships, with exteriorizing one’s nervous system and memory and context-switching one’s mind into a blissful flickering laser beam?

I believe that David Foster Wallace was a better essayist and thinker than a writer of fiction, and I like his oft-quoted Kenyon commencement address very much; in it, he suggests that controlling one’s attention is integral to happiness, to real wisdom, and to meaningful freedom:

I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience […] The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

That entire multi-billion dollar industries exist solely to wrest your attention from you, using whatever pretext they can -“news is important,” “this is a community of your friends,” “you are creating things right now,” “this is vital information,” “this is sex,” “this is where culture is happening”- is proof of attention’s value and its profound connection to will. Attention permits us to control our minds, direct our thoughts, and orient our wills in accordance with what we think is best.

The Internet and television alike are primarily concerned with exploiting weaknesses in our processes for directing attention so that our will can be influenced. And whereas we might hope for, say, health, happiness, and the capacity to love and be loved, businesses want other things from us: “the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing,” and the corresponding will to buy it back from them.

It is not a conspiracy; it is the result of a haphazardly constructed system of entities, some virtuous and some not. And it is not catastrophic: it is merely noteworthy that the defining stupidity of my generation seems to be a fraught thoughtlessness, a disabling inattentiveness which steals every successive moment, and an inability to imagine others. Imagination is a moral act, as Alfred Polgar noted:

To reform an evildoer, you must before anything else help him to an awareness that what he did was evil. With the Nazis this won’t be easy. They know exactly what they’re doing: they just can’t imagine it.

The relationship between attention, awareness, moral decency, and happiness seems fairly straightforward to me, yet I sometimes feel that this knowledge has little or no impact on my behavior; sitting for hours reading what I don’t care to read, detesting commenters whose lives I might imagine and whose transgressions I might therefore forgive, scanning stream after addictive stream of semi-social expressions, ignoring Abby, my dogs, my life, the city around me, the sky, the clouds, my own heart, the need to sleep, the stacks of books I haven’t touched, and the fact that I remember little of what I read last week, I am aware of some malfunction in my mind: I have become thoughtless, superficial, other-directed.

And as I have grown older, it is less the stupidity that upsets me than my lost attention, my collapsing awareness, my shallow morality, predicated on judgement rather than forgiveness, and the sense that what stands between me and greater happiness is will alone, the very will which is being disabled, distracted moment by distracted moment, as I check Facebook on my iPhone while someone I ostensibly care for speaks to me.

December 22nd, 2010

Questions about Fighting

One of the fundamentally false qualities of most narrative fiction -literary or cinematic- is its typically episodic structure. Because neither in prose nor in film can time be presented in its full, ceaseless fluidity, it is corralled into “scenes”; it is because we narrate our own lives according to such forms that we believe scenes exist, when in our lives there is no such thing, no demarcated arcs of action set to neatly start and conclude; rather, we find, there is our unending occupancy of an escaping present moment.

Scenes! Our memory is so easily influenced! A lifetime of interiorizing episodic narratives makes it almost impossible to recall time as we experience it: the caucauphony of sensations, fragmentary thoughts, partialized and distorted recollections, fantasies; the reactions which antedate our cognition and will; the noise; the happenstance and accidental phenomena in our minds. We do not experience the world as we think we do; memory is, from the outset, a falsification of experience, its reduction into a searchable scheme whose structure comes to us from narrative fiction and the properties of the language that informs it.

Aa such, we cannot understand the accurate portrayal of lived time present in books like Ulysses but can easily make sense of absurdly false television dramas; our interior lives are inscrutable to us, while impossible lies about how humans behave seem quite natural. After his wife’s death, CS Lewis noted the nightmarish weight of time and its absence of structure, its lack of chapters:

"One never meets just Cancer, or War, or Unhappiness (or Happiness). One only meets each hour or moment that comes. All manner of ups and downs. Many bad spots in our best times, many good ones in our worst. One never gets the total impact of what we call ‘the thing itself.’ But we call it wrongly. The thing itself is simply all those ups and downs: the rest is a name or an idea."

Fights

I think particularly of fights with those we love. After some reflection, I cannot recall a single work of fiction or film which captures -or even attempts to do so- the qualities of a domestic fight of the highest order: its relentlessness, its looping inescapability, the bleakness which comes to characterize all of one’s thoughts as one descends deeper and deeper into it. Fights are not an exchange of barbs which terminate when, music swelling, one character says something particularly pithy, leaving their counterpart stone silent and blank, before quitting the room and permitting all to move on to the next scene.

Fights are hallucinogenic and interminable. From within them, one cannot even tell who is truly at fault -though it generally seems that one’s lover is more at fault, even as one painfully recalls all the insults and exaggerations and distortions one is now responsible for, though “they provoked it!”- or whether fault is even relevant. One loses all of one’s painfully acquired wisdom about the stupidity of fights, about the meaninglessness of them, about the importance of love and respect. One loses one’s sense of time, one’s values, one’s ability to imagine the relationship as it was before the fight and will be after.

Indeed, one cannot imagine an “after”; the truly catastrophic arguments seem like black holes: no amount of love will permit one to escape from within; one has passed an event horizon, and will not now recover. One is drained, exhausted, miserable, angry but unsure of oneself, but sure that one ought not be as unsure as one’s partner, who seems not unsure in the least. Perhaps one will venture, tentatively, to reconcile: a remark about how stupid the fight is, how they ought not waste their time quarreling when they love one another; and one will be met with “that’s why I don’t get why you’re making a big deal out of this; I didn’t want to fight, but you had to bring up…”

Synchronicity is lost, the momentary reprieve vanishes, and it all begins again: a concrete instance of cyclical time that mocks linearity with every new phase, level, exchange. Late into the night, or well past one’s class time, the fight undulates and repeats and takes on new attributes or discards them, and references to previous statements become comically tricky: “I said that.” “No, you said that you bought two of them.” “No, not when I said that, when earlier I said I didn’t buy them.” “When did you say that? You didn’t!” “I did, when I was sitting in the chair over there.” “I don’t remember that.” “That’s because you weren’t listening”

And on and on.

So! My questions for the industrious -and I should add that Abby and I are not fighting!- who wish to answer:

  1. Do you experience fights in this way? Is it just me? Do you experience other things in a way that makes scenes seem like ludicrous inventions?
  2. Can you cite any good cinematic or literary representation of an ordinary domestic fight?
  3. Do you suppose, if you cannot, that artists avoid them because (a) they’re too dull, quotidian, yet painful (a real “banality of evil”), (b) the mechanics of narrative time don’t permit them, or (c) no character can be accurately portrayed in such a fight without all audiences coming to despite them?
  4. Is the nightmarish dilation of time and reason within fights a universal experience that is only ignored because it’s too astonishingly painful?
December 20th, 2010
He noted with distaste his own trick of appealing for sympathy. A personality had its own ways. A mind might observe them without approval. Herzog did not care for his own personality, and at the moment there was apparently nothing he could do about its impulses.

Saul Bellow in Herzog, quoted by American Roulette. Much of youth revolves around feeling ashamed of, burdened by, alienated from the unruly body: it does not do what one wants and needs it to do; it sabotages and humiliates; it is not one’s own, and it has an arsenal of idiocies with which one must contend. And worse even than the nightmare of puberty is the essential problem: you are not your body, yet will be contained by it, limited by it, judged by it.

Adulthood, it seems to me, involves much the same relationship with one’s personality: tastes, desires, proclivities, habits, needs, reactions, longings, and so on. One begins to identify above all with the observing self, and to feel ever more estranged from the rest, from the parts of oneself that talk, think, feel, and will. You are not your personality, but it is the part of you that is visible, socially-extant, named, hated, loved.

It is lonely not to feel kinship with or fondness for one’s personality; it is exhausting to contend with it, too. It also tends to be temporary: just as with the right catalyst the irksome body can be resurgent, its sensations expanding to constitute a total, blissful universe, so too does the personality flare again and again and become all we are.

Reblogged from American Roulette
October 31st, 2010
I’ve come to the conclusion that this has been the Great Dream of my generation: to position ourselves in such a way that we’re beyond mockery. To not look stupid. That’s the biggest crime of all —looking stupid.

Mark Ames, quoted by Britticisms. I doubt that this dream is unique to our generation; history is far too repetitive, generations generally too alike, humans too uniform, for me to suppose that this, as they say, defines us apart from our forbears.

It may be the case, however, that our interiorization of technology -"the way we look to the camera in slo-mo"- has amplified our terror of appearing stupid by convincing us we are more scrutinized than ever. After all: to look stupid, we must be seen by someone, and it is ever harder for us to imagine not being seen.

Even if we escape the effect of televisual media —which have for more than a decade proffered the idea of the ‘documentary’ film crew, the reality-show camera, the cast members talking in the kitchen while they narrate their own interactions— we must still accept that the Internet is always with us: either when we talk through it —alone in the city we address ourselves to Twitter or Tumblr— or when others represent its gaze —are they photographing us, will they comment on us, will they follow us online?

That is to say: the forms of narrative —journalistic and fictive— and communication which most inform our habits of perception all suggest an omnipresent audience waiting to judge, an audience for whom we perform in our most private moments, an audience whom we address with every act and utterance, meaning to or not. Being alone is no longer possible; looking stupid is always a risk.

Twice this weekend I’ve advanced to friends the idea that what most informed my adolescence, through college, was the following form of relation: if around a woman to whom I was attracted, I would imagine her suspecting me of being attracted to her, suspecting me of base and low motives for our interaction, and I would assume that this revolted and appalled her —being aware of my own absurd, awkward lumpishness; and so to prove that I was not ‘a typical guy,’ to prove that I was not some lecher pursuing her, to prove that I was exceptional or unique, I would strenuously avoid interacting with her, or would do so in a mannered way so as to insist by deed and sometimes speech that I was interested in her only as a friend, etc.

Because even as I feared her revulsion —feared being rejected, looking stupid— I wanted her approval, her acceptance, and was willing to seek it through platonic means. That is: I sublimated any sexual longing into a longing for approval; I sought approval at the expense of the longing that inspired my seeking; I preferred to behave as though I wanted nothing in order not to be denied what I wanted.

Both friends to whom I mentioned this shared the experience, and both were, like me, amazed to recall it. Such complex deformations of desire and personality happening so automatically: that is youth. Reduced to its dominant themes, Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke is a novel about these mutations of self that occur in the presence of other selves, as our reckoning about those selves forces us into certain patterns of behavior we cannot escape but which hardly reflect our hopes.

As it happens, a character in Milan Kundera’s Immortality argues that the true desire of most is for the admiration and approval of their peers, of their community, of the world, such that real hedonism does not exist; hedonism, and our culture’s constant claims of desire —sexual desire, gustatory desire, experiential desire— are all desperate acts. As he puts it:

"Imagine that you are given the choice of two possibilities: to spend a night of love with a world-famous beauty, let’s say Brigitte Bardot or Greta Garbo, but on condition that nobody must know about it. Or to stroll down the main avenue of the city with your arm wrapped intimately around her shoulder, but on condition that you must never sleep with her… everyone, including the worst wretches, would maintain that they would rather sleep with her. Because all of them would want to appear to themselves, to their wives, and even to the bald official conducting the poll as hedonists. This, however, is a self-delusion. Their comedy act. Nowadays hedonists no longer exist… Except for me. No matter what they say, if they had a real choice to make, all of them, I repeat, all of them would prefer to stroll with her down the avenue. Because all of them are eager for admiration and not for pleasure. For appearance and not for reality. Reality no longer means anything to anyone. To anyone."

One might argue that he is wrong on one point alone: “reality” means something to us all still, but it no longer means our experience of the world; it means what it means when we speak of “reality television,” which is to say: a fundamentally performative reality which is dedicated to pretending it is not performative. 

"Reality" is that act which claims not to be an act, that private moment in which one is as deliberate and methodical and self-redacted as one would be in an interview, that moment in which one pretends to want sex so one can deny that one wants love, or pretends to want love in order to deny one wants sex, or pretends to be oneself so one can deny that one’s "self" is just the series of deformations wrought by all the other performing selves likewise deformed. Gombrowicz describes this as an endless mutual exchange of what he calls "pulled faces," all of which merely cover the ass: seeking to conceal what we find shameful, repress what we fear is stupid, deny what we worry is weakness or need.

Montaigne famously noted that however high our throne, we sit on our ass; every generation has a solution: one denies the ass, hides it beneath finery, pretends it isn’t there; another exposes the ass, claims to be at peace with it, to love it, but instead hides its shame, is ashamed of any shame, any weakness, any traditional sense of privacy.

Pulled faces, feigned hedonism, phony enthusiasms, a terror of looking stupid: much of what was awful about adolescence, and much of what remains, it seems, into one’s thirties!

Reblogged from BRITTICISMS
August 4th, 2010
The putative honesty of many memoirs often seems incomplete to me, a superabundance of dates and names proffered in place of a more revolting thoroughness of psychological accounting. One might somberly confess to addiction or depression -both of which have in recent decades acquired moral weight approaching that of virtue in our culture of disclosure, our culture of confession, our culture of victimhood- without risking the opprobrium of one’s readers. But I often wonder if the absence of any discussion of violence, of violent fantasy, of envy and sneering petulance, of cruelty and exploitation reflects the fact that indeed the rest of the world is kinder and purer than I am or whether it is simply that some things must still be kept secret.
James Ellroy’s memoir of his mother’s murder and his subsequent descent into perversion, Freudian sexual derangement, criminality of a low and repellant order, homelessness, and willful exploitation of his life’s tragedies for attention, fame, and success is an exception. In My Dark Places, his honesty frightens. I think only when reading Nabokov have I stopped so often to admire the courage of a writer in baring the parts of his mind it is unlikely any will admit to understanding, though in the latter author’s novels at least there remains a fictive abstraction. When Ellroy plainly recalls how he’s used his mother, fantasized about his mother, exploited her as a novelist and a celebrity, I think of the countless times in my life I’ve courted advantage by mining the misfortunes of my own life and those of others. Often I have done so without clear intent, thinking that I am merely being honest, but thorough reflection often exposes the subtle calculations my mind has made.
The mind! Among the voices it uses are those of salesmen, preachers, politicians, hucksters! Each year I mention Katrina, for example; its hardship for my family has become, for me, something to mention with dutifully-bowed head. My friend Stewart noted that for many New Orleanians -not the dead, of course- it is a moral trump card to be played for decisive advantage, even as it remains something capable of provoking real pain. The same is true of mental illness; never is anything I write as popular as my posts about my bipolar disorder, and since suffering and victimhood are in the Nietzschean sense the highest of all values for us, it would be a miserable lie to suggest that the part of my mind that is ever-aware of advantage, of the affection I crave, hasn’t noticed it.
What appalls about such angles of attack and repose in our relation to tribulation is the simultaneity of manipulation and sincerity. We honestly mourn, honestly suffer, but we rarely forget how we look in doing so, how we will be met by our peers and judges. The mind disturbs with its permanent preening, even in times of deep despair. When my mother sent me this photo, taken around 1985, I thought of how much fun my sister and I seem to be having; I don’t remember it. There are scores of photos of me smiling adoringly at her, but they have diminished in recollection over the years. As I began to develop the fury and cruelty of the manic, our relationship darkened, and my clearest memory is an ugly one, which I exploit and confess here as a kind of experiment:
I was ten or eleven. Coming home one night from playing drums at a neighbor’s house, I dropped a snare or a tom on the floor as I entered our side door. The crash of it woke Alex, who was asleep in her bed with its floral blanket. Angrily, she told me to be quiet, and I seem to recall there being a threat that she’d tell our parents; I may have been home later than I was supposed to be; I may have already been in trouble for this reason. Then, as for years afterward, I felt a sudden rush of rage, an overwhelming and propulsive anger that seemed to demand externalization; within seconds a crescendo of hatred surged through me as I impotently sought to smash the world with my little limbs. I felt weak, cruel; I felt I could hear myself screaming before I opened my mouth; I felt a hideous malice and wanted to shout “no, no, no, no,” and I ran to her bed. I jumped onto her. I held her in her blanket and I sat on top of her. I punched her in the stomach and told her that if she made any noise I’d kill her. As she started to cry, I remember becoming aware of what I’d done, of what I was, and I remember feeling ashamed and disgusted and sorry, but being unwilling to let her go. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I left the room and could hear her sobbing, my little sister whom I loved and had hurt, and I felt sick and angry and sorry in no steady order. My mind started to sell me something more complex: rationalizations about her provocation, about her complicity in my abuse. I didn’t believe them but wanted to, and this distance between what I wanted and what I could accept was the space in which more rage and disgust grew. I don’t remember anything else; I don’t know what else happened.
Alex and everyone else tells me that older siblings are mean to younger siblings, sometimes just like that; people tell me that I was mentally ill, that I was reacting to family stresses, that it was an ordinary aberration; my psychiatrist tells me it’s quite typical. But I don’t believe any of them, because I can remember how I felt when I was hitting her, full of hatred and shame and violence and regret, and I can remember which of those emotions won the scrum and captured my will; I can remember which were most tolerable, most acceptable to me whatever they cost others I loved; I can remember that I found it easier to hurt someone else than simply to be in pain myself.
On the other hand: Alex and I grew into friends and siblings, and my family became a happy one. She is now pregnant with twin boys. Although I still feel sick about that night, almost twenty years ago, there seems in life to be nothing past which one cannot grow and in spite of which one cannot give and be given love.
If this piece gives you concerns about my viability as an employee, renter, applicant, neighbor, etc., please read this disclaimer / claimer.

The putative honesty of many memoirs often seems incomplete to me, a superabundance of dates and names proffered in place of a more revolting thoroughness of psychological accounting. One might somberly confess to addiction or depression -both of which have in recent decades acquired moral weight approaching that of virtue in our culture of disclosure, our culture of confession, our culture of victimhood- without risking the opprobrium of one’s readers. But I often wonder if the absence of any discussion of violence, of violent fantasy, of envy and sneering petulance, of cruelty and exploitation reflects the fact that indeed the rest of the world is kinder and purer than I am or whether it is simply that some things must still be kept secret.

James Ellroy’s memoir of his mother’s murder and his subsequent descent into perversion, Freudian sexual derangement, criminality of a low and repellant order, homelessness, and willful exploitation of his life’s tragedies for attention, fame, and success is an exception. In My Dark Places, his honesty frightens. I think only when reading Nabokov have I stopped so often to admire the courage of a writer in baring the parts of his mind it is unlikely any will admit to understanding, though in the latter author’s novels at least there remains a fictive abstraction. When Ellroy plainly recalls how he’s used his mother, fantasized about his mother, exploited her as a novelist and a celebrity, I think of the countless times in my life I’ve courted advantage by mining the misfortunes of my own life and those of others. Often I have done so without clear intent, thinking that I am merely being honest, but thorough reflection often exposes the subtle calculations my mind has made.

The mind! Among the voices it uses are those of salesmen, preachers, politicians, hucksters! Each year I mention Katrina, for example; its hardship for my family has become, for me, something to mention with dutifully-bowed head. My friend Stewart noted that for many New Orleanians -not the dead, of course- it is a moral trump card to be played for decisive advantage, even as it remains something capable of provoking real pain. The same is true of mental illness; never is anything I write as popular as my posts about my bipolar disorder, and since suffering and victimhood are in the Nietzschean sense the highest of all values for us, it would be a miserable lie to suggest that the part of my mind that is ever-aware of advantage, of the affection I crave, hasn’t noticed it.

What appalls about such angles of attack and repose in our relation to tribulation is the simultaneity of manipulation and sincerity. We honestly mourn, honestly suffer, but we rarely forget how we look in doing so, how we will be met by our peers and judges. The mind disturbs with its permanent preening, even in times of deep despair. When my mother sent me this photo, taken around 1985, I thought of how much fun my sister and I seem to be having; I don’t remember it. There are scores of photos of me smiling adoringly at her, but they have diminished in recollection over the years. As I began to develop the fury and cruelty of the manic, our relationship darkened, and my clearest memory is an ugly one, which I exploit and confess here as a kind of experiment:

I was ten or eleven. Coming home one night from playing drums at a neighbor’s house, I dropped a snare or a tom on the floor as I entered our side door. The crash of it woke Alex, who was asleep in her bed with its floral blanket. Angrily, she told me to be quiet, and I seem to recall there being a threat that she’d tell our parents; I may have been home later than I was supposed to be; I may have already been in trouble for this reason. Then, as for years afterward, I felt a sudden rush of rage, an overwhelming and propulsive anger that seemed to demand externalization; within seconds a crescendo of hatred surged through me as I impotently sought to smash the world with my little limbs. I felt weak, cruel; I felt I could hear myself screaming before I opened my mouth; I felt a hideous malice and wanted to shout “no, no, no, no,” and I ran to her bed. I jumped onto her. I held her in her blanket and I sat on top of her. I punched her in the stomach and told her that if she made any noise I’d kill her. As she started to cry, I remember becoming aware of what I’d done, of what I was, and I remember feeling ashamed and disgusted and sorry, but being unwilling to let her go. I didn’t want to get in trouble. I left the room and could hear her sobbing, my little sister whom I loved and had hurt, and I felt sick and angry and sorry in no steady order. My mind started to sell me something more complex: rationalizations about her provocation, about her complicity in my abuse. I didn’t believe them but wanted to, and this distance between what I wanted and what I could accept was the space in which more rage and disgust grew. I don’t remember anything else; I don’t know what else happened.

Alex and everyone else tells me that older siblings are mean to younger siblings, sometimes just like that; people tell me that I was mentally ill, that I was reacting to family stresses, that it was an ordinary aberration; my psychiatrist tells me it’s quite typical. But I don’t believe any of them, because I can remember how I felt when I was hitting her, full of hatred and shame and violence and regret, and I can remember which of those emotions won the scrum and captured my will; I can remember which were most tolerable, most acceptable to me whatever they cost others I loved; I can remember that I found it easier to hurt someone else than simply to be in pain myself.

On the other hand: Alex and I grew into friends and siblings, and my family became a happy one. She is now pregnant with twin boys. Although I still feel sick about that night, almost twenty years ago, there seems in life to be nothing past which one cannot grow and in spite of which one cannot give and be given love.

If this piece gives you concerns about my viability as an employee, renter, applicant, neighbor, etc., please read this disclaimer / claimer.

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Hello! My name is Mills Baker. I write about art, culture, love, philosophy, memory, history, and more. Here are some relatively better posts. This site has been featured on Tumblr Tuesday and is listed in the Spotlight, but it pines for its youth as a coloring book. (Header lettering by the amazing Chirp).