Monday, March 23, 2015

A thread to W.G. Sebald

W.G. Sebald is thought by many to be one of the great writers of the last part of the twentieth century. He was tipped for the Nobel Prize for literature but sadly he died at the age of 57 on 14 December 2001. He had emigrated from Germany in his twenties, and worked as an academic at the University of East Anglia, where in 1987 he became Professor of German Literature and, in 1989, Director of the newly established British Centre for Literary Translation. Although he had published energetically on German literature, his career as a literary writer started in 1990 and lasted only eleven years. His books in the newly-invented genre that he called prose fiction were Vertigo, The Emigrants, Rings of Saturn, and Austerlitz. The genre is part travelogue, part history, part fiction, with an intense inwardness and, every few pages, a diagram or photograph, perhaps blurry, perhaps sharp, invariably without caption, invariably suggestive.

Ariadne’s thread: In memory of W.G. Sebald is a memoir, based on diaries and reminiscences, by Philippa Comber. Although without pictures and without much fiction, her book is Sebaldian in style. It’s not a memoir of the ordinary kind, based on a sketch of events in a person’s life. Far more engagingly, it’s a memoir of a friendship, of Comber and Sebald—Max as he liked to be called. Comber had trained in psychology and psychotherapy, and had moved to Norwich to run a day centre there. By chance in August 1981, with a group of friends who went to a movie together, she met Max.

Comber thought Max to be “kindly, yet rather aloof and formal,” He spoke “perfect, slightly dated English … with a distinctive South German lilt.”

Six days after the movie, Comber receives a phone call. It’s Max, who says he would like to see her again. She invites him round to the flat that she is in temporarily. They talk about parallels between natural disasters and man-made disasters. A week later, there’s a tap on Comber’s door. It’s Max with a selection of vegetables that he has grown in his garden. He’s a very practical person, a tinkerer; as well as gardening, he likes “fixing things, mending things.” A week later,  Comber moves into a house she has just bought. Max visits and takes an immediate interest in it. He has ideas about what to do with it, and brings more vegetables … Comber writes that she feels “at ease in his company … perhaps I’m falling in love with him.”

Max Sebald is very proper. In Ariadne’s Thread nothing physical between him and Comber is mentioned. Instead the book depicts an intimacy of affection and an ability shared by both to take part in meandering conversations. This is one of the best books I know about a relationship of this kind.

In his essay Sur la lecture (On reading) Marcel Proust wrote this:
In reading, friendship is restored immediately to its original purity. With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends—books—it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: “What did they think of us?”—“Did we make a mistake and say something tactless?”—“Did they like us?”—nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because of displacement by someone else. All such agitating thoughts expire as we enter the pure and calm friendship of reading (my translation).
In reading, we can befriend a book. At the same time we come to know a certain aspect of the book’s author. So social are we human beings that, just as with a new friend, we often want to know not just that aspect, but all about the author, his or her day-to-day social world, habits, vicissitudes. Comber’s book offers readers of W.G. Sebald some of that: in his social life Max was rather diffident, among his habits were hoarding things in case they might come in useful, among his vicissitudes were that although he was close to his grandfather he did not get along at all well with his father. Proust pointed out that an author’s self-whom-we-meet-when-reading is very different from the author’s day-to-day-social-self. Without contradicting what Proust says about relationships with books, or with authors, it seems to me that Adriadne’s Thread gives us a welcome triangulation with Sebald as Max. In her book, Comber extends the friendship we have with Sebald’s books. By identifying with her, she enables us to take part in a friendship with his social self.

When we read a piece of artistic literature, we can take it in so that it becomes a piece of our own consciousness. The accomplishment of Sebald in his prose fictions was to offer us such pieces of consciousness with, as I remember he put it, a certain density of thought. The accomplishment of Comber, in her memoir, is to write about her friendship with Sebald in the same kind of way. The book offers an intimacy with us readers such that its happenings, revelations, and thoughts, can gently become our own. It is reflective, and of a kind that we can take into our mind. Lovely!

Philippa Comber (2014). Ariadne's thread: In memory of W.G. Sebald. Norwich: Propolis.

Marcel Proust (1905). Sur la lecture. Amazon Kindle.
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Monday, March 16, 2015

Don't pitch over the edge! Introduction to short series on Applied Discourse Analysis

A recent study has helped put to rest clinicians' concerns that people who listen to internal dialogue might be crazy. This has been brought to my attention partly because of my recent preoccupation with understanding how stories work. My interest is in what I think of as "applied discourse analysis." Figuring out how stories are helping govern what happens in any given situation can be useful when those situations don't seem to be going well, and particularly when they seem not to be going well in part because of how we understand and govern them.

As I have noted in recent essays, I have spent the past season on a study trip meant to explore the way that stories of food security are operationalized in different agricultural systems. I will spend the next few weeks going over some of those stories, and I want to take this moment of introduction of this small series on applied discourse with a qualification and a related personal moment of insight.

My caveat has to do with what I will call "weak" versus "strong" applied discourse analysis. The injunction to "Change the story" can be used perniciously to suggest that various forms of suffering are largely matters of perception and perspective -- as if a positive attitude were all that might be needed to resolve oppression and the rampant inequalities that contribute to it. I want to be clear not only that this is NOT what I mean but also that I think it's worthwhile explicitly considering how to push back against such tendencies, and to figure out how to make this kind of storytelling more attentive to context.

If applied discourse analysis involves paying attention to the ways stories are being used to organize what happens -- and then seeing what can be done with that analysis to negotiate course corrections, the "weak" version is probably best exemplified by neoconservative attempts to praise romanticized stories of the (heroically individualistic) past while ignoring their bleaker aspects, a tendency well called out by Helaine Olen as "poor stories" in her analysis of this past week's weak efforts by Ross Douthat and David Brooks. She also points to the recently publicized discrepancies between The Little House on the Prairie stories that have been in circulation for the past 80 years and Laura Ingalls Wilder's original and more accurate stories of her experience. I find this a particularly salient example because of the number of people who have cited the Little House books as an influence on their decision to move out of the city and pursue the rural life. Imagine the implications of using, as an implicit instruction manual, a version that had all the potential hazards and challenges removed!

My related moment of insight (aftermath pictured above) has to do with the challenge of connecting critical stories to audiences who might be inclined to use them. Brooks and Douthat and ideologues spinning far worse stories about where society has gone wrong find audiences partly because they echo familiar moralistic tropes that people identify with: things have gone wrong (/vitality and power has been lost) because of people who are different from you (or, worse, people who represent impulses you would prefer to pretend don't exist). If we could only return to a version of the past that we remember as comfortable, easy, and going the way we wanted, things will be better. It's much harder for people to hear stories that tell them they need to make a change, put in effort toward goals they haven't entirely adopted as their own, or recognize other people's (competing) goals as valid and perhaps valuable. Except that there are moments that people NEED instructions, and these seem like the sweet spots for applied discourse analysis.

Stay to the left! Don't pitch over the edge!

On my odyssey to find the ruling narratives of global agricultural trade, I visited the Wanaka Agricultural and Pastoral Show this weekend. I have commuted by bicycle while living here, and this was my chance to finally use my mountain bike in the mountains. I was expecting a relatively tame track into town -- but ended up on an intermediate-skill rated single track trail for an exciting hour. Without any practice mountain biking, I watched and tried to mimic the moves my husband made (he's a much more experienced mountain biker) -- and tried to interpret his occasionally yelled pieces of advice.

The first ("stay to the left!") was incomprehensible. We were already on the left (this was a loop, and we were on the leftward "to town" section -- the sharper descent on the image above, rather than the switchback). Just as I was hoping he would stop to explain, a pile of stones appeared in my path with a track around it barely perceptible to the left. (Judging by several more of these piles of rocks or sticks that followed, the trail appeared to be under revision to be maximally bendy.) The bypass would have been much harder to see if I hadn't been primed. And the instructions were being repeated in my head as I needed them, so they were available. It was such a simple example, but it resonated with me for the rest of the ride: how do we get instructions to be available at the moment people might need to shift their path?

The descent down to the road level (above) involved a dauntingly steep path (especially for a bike loaded up with documentary equipment). "Well," said my husband, as we surveyed the only path down, "go carefully and don't pitch over the edge." Then he shot off down the hill.

"Easy for him to say," I obviously thought, but "don't pitch over the edge" ended up being much more helpful than you might expect. As with my approach to the waves learning to bellyboard, I found myself using that phrase at a number of challenging points in the short descent. As I would pause before a particularly impossible curve, I would calculate what angle seemed least likely to pitch me over the edge, and, like the heuristics one might use for billiards, this worked better than just shooting straight for the apparent goal.

Stories are almost always much more complex than we're able to recognize at first (as Douthat's analysis of past morality demonstrates). Applying our analyses is likely to run us into chapters of the stories that complicate what we think we understand. This makes it useful to find out what kinds of stories people are hearing and acting on as we dive in to figuring how to build "strong" or "rich" discourse analysis, a topic I will continue to explore over the next two weeks.
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Monday, March 9, 2015

Research Bulletin: Humor Styles and Relationship Satisfaction

Very few of us are published fiction authors, or even write fiction as a hobby. But most of us generate creative fiction on a daily basis in the form of making jokes with our friends and colleagues. A study by Cann, Zapata and Davis (2011) investigated the role that humor plays in romantic relationships. Specifically, this study explored three question. The first was explored hether individuals in serious dating relationships possess similar styles of humor. The second question examined whether one person’s humor style was seen in the same way by the relationship partner. The final question was which of the following would be the best predictor of relationship satisfaction: one’s own humor use, your partner’s humor use, or one’s perception of the partner’s humor use? 
Participants were on average about 20 years old and consisted of 82 unmarried but romantically committed heterosexual couples attending a southeastern United States university. Each couple had been together for a minimum of two months. 
The couples filled out demographic questions along with questionnaires regarding their humor style, their partner’s humor style, and relationship satisfaction. The four humor styles discussed were, (1) affiliative (other-focused, benevolent), (2) aggressive (other-focused, demeaning), (3) self-enhancing (self-focused, benevolent) and (4) self-defeating (self-focused, demeaning).   Couples were found to be generally happy in their relationships and the length of the relationship did not affect levels of relationship satisfaction. There was no support for the idea that couples are drawn to each other based on similarity of their humor styles, which was a particularly surprising finding. However, a person’s perception of their partner’s humor style did affect relationship satisfaction. If a person rated their relationship high on support and depth, they were more likely to believe their partner possessed an affiliative humor style. If a person rated their relationship high on conflict, they believed their partner rarely exhibited a self-enhancing humor style.
This research provided an interesting examination of how everyday creative language production can influence our social relationships. More specifically, it highlights how humor may play an important role in how others perceive us.

Cann, A., Zapata, C. L., & Davis, H., (2011).  Humor style and relationship satisfaction in dating couples: perceived versus self-reported humor styles as predictors in satisfaction. Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, 24, 1-20.

Posted by Marlee Eden.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Reflexive Dialogics

In recent posts, I have been thinking through some questions of internal dialogue. Noticing the process of narrating new places as I explore them has heightened my awareness of a relatively constant layer of internal dialogue, and I have become interested in the functions of this dialogic layer of thought.

One of my projects in my temporary home has been to make itako boards for planing in the surf here, as the shape of the waves is different from the water where I have swum before, and I have been exploring how to move in unfamiliar water. This has provided two domains for continuing my observation of internal dialogue.

First, surfing language is so amusingly already incorporated into everyday vernacular that there is a hiccoughing cadence to the process of realizing what words like “wipeout,” “bail,” and “rip” mean in embodied, rather than metaphorical, experience. I often find myself using the surfing terms I have picked up from pop culture in the imperative, directed at myself: “duck dive!”

I then often have an agonizing (and very motivated) moment with a wave looming up over me as I summon all of the embodied associations I have with this word to launch myself into (under) the wave (usually a second too late, after such a thought process, and often with the accompanying doubt, “or should that have been a turtle roll?). As the physical experience becomes more familiar and automatic, the verbal exploratory layer gets less noticeable. It is when I am flailing in the fizz that I thrash the potential accumulated glossary for insight; when I am shooting along in a wave, it seems less likely to be narrated. (It will be interesting to see if this is a parabolic association: perhaps once there is more bandwidth to spare, exploratory language will be more noticeable? Are there proportions of expertise to novelty that maximize or minimize internal narration?)

Second, the laborious process of making boards that were seaworthy provided a chance to observe the kind of dialogue that appears when doing repetitive things like sanding or painting. Almost every time I dug into the process of sanding to reach the state of even attention over the surface that contributes to a proper finish, I would find that quality of attention accompanied by the playing out of elaborate dialogues of fictional characters in my head. It reminded me of summers painting houses with my father—a very distinctive kind of imaginative dialogue, where I often came to notice that I was spinning out a story right in the middle of a complex plot.  

Together with my recent attention to the constant labeling efforts of internal narration, this familiar process made me think about how the dialogue that plays through our heads as we make sense of the things we are doing (or as we reach a certain daydreaming quality of attention) seems useful to understand. It tells about the complex networks of meaning and bias we bring to new situations, and reveals some of the ways that we bring our already existing interpretive schemes even when we think we are experiencing something novel and fresh.

It also may suggest interesting things about the way we model dialogue.

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours passingly portrays Virginia Woolf’s relationship with this almost subterranean creative process. In the film version, Woolf is seen in a series of scenes in a very specific state of distracted attention, in which she discovers, in quite fully formed shape, large sections of dialogue and plot. Looking back over our archives to see how dialogic thought has been treated, I found it productive along this line of thought to revisit Thomas Scheff’s 2009 essay on “Virginia Woolf’s Multi-personal Dialogues”:

If women are usually better than men at spontaneous, non-instrumental, rapid role-taking, with looseness of association, this difference might explain women’s greater intuition then men. It may be that rapid, loose and/or non-conventional associations are a feature of parallel, rather than serial processing in mental activity. Parallel mental processing means that one is thinking in several different trains of thought at once. These parallel trains of thought are all, or all but one, going on outside awareness. When these several trains are all attempts to solve the same problem, they can give rise to extremely rapid and imaginative solutions to difficult problems.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Films and Facts

I recently reviewed for PsycCRITIQUES The imitation game (Oatley, 2014). It’s a film about the life of Alan Turing, founder of modern computing and artificial intelligence, and important contributor to cognitive science. The film is a good one, and it’s been well received. Many people will not have heard of Turing or the contribution he made during World War II at the British Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park (click here) to breaking German codes, and hence to defeating the Nazis and probably shortening the War, perhaps by as much as two years. It’s good that the film tells audiences something about this. But Turing is someone I happened to know about. I did not enjoy the film as much as many of my friends did because for me the misinformation in the film was irritating. Why, I think to myself, does the film industry use the caption “based on a true story,” as if this somehow implies that a film with this designation is better than one drawn from a novel, or short story, or written by a scriptwriter?  Documentaries have a dedication to truth, but why in movies are there no genres that correspond to history or biography in which filmed events are anchored in known facts and evidence?

In the New York Times Sunday Review section, of 15 February this year, Jeff Zacks, who has done very interesting research on events in movies (Zacks, 2013) wrote a piece for the column Gray Matter in which he discussed how people remember incidents and issues from historical films that aren’t true, and which don’t appear in histories or biographies. These incidents and issues are inserted by film-makers because they think that they make for a better story. In the New York Times piece Zacks cites, but does not give references for, two studies that relate to this issue. The references are below. In a study by Butler et al. (2009), students read a text on a piece of history and watched a film clip on the same subject. In a test, one week later, they better remembered events that were seen in the clip and had also read about, than those who recalled information from the text without having seen a film clip about it. When, however, the film’s information contradicted information from the text, subjects often recalled the false information from the film. Umanath et al. (2012) repeated the experiment but asked the students to monitor the films for inaccuracies. Even when they had done this, tests of recall often showed they had remembered not the correct information from the text but the misinformation from the movie. 

In his New York Times article, Zacks writes that what is going on here is that we are better at remembering events than at remembering the source of events, and that this usually makes sense as it’s the events themselves that are likely to be the most important. The trouble with inaccurate information in movies is that we may remember it, and believe it to be true, even when we don’t remember that the film was only “based on a true story.” Umanath et al. did however find one technique that helped. If the misinformation was identified at the time it was seen in the film then its influence was substantially reduced. 

So, if you haven’t seen The imitation game, and think you might go, here are some of its inaccuracies, so that you can recognize them at the time. Turing was eccentric but did not have a stammer. He did not suffer official opposition of the kind depicted in the film. He did not invent and build the machine to decode the Nazi Enigma code all by himself; he had important collaborators, who included Gordon Welshman (who does not appear in the film). The woman to whom Turing becomes engaged, Joan Clarke, did not apply to join Bletchley Park and be mistaken as a typist. She won a double first in mathematics at Cambridge and was recruited by Welshman. And so on. And so on. You can read more about the inaccuracies in an article by Caryl (2015) in the New York Review of Books.

In the Wikipedia article on The imitation game the following appears, in relation to the film’s inaccuracies.
In a January 2015 interview with The Huffington Post in response to general complaints about the level of historical accuracy in the film, its screenwriter Moore said: "When you use the language of 'fact checking' to talk about a film, I think you're sort of fundamentally misunderstanding how art works. You don't fact check Monet's 'Water Lilies'. That's not what water lilies look like, that's what the sensation of experiencing water lilies feel like. That's the goal of the piece.
Yesterday evening Graham Moore won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for his work on this film. Good for him. All the same, it sounds from his Huffington Post quote that if he were painting Monet’s “Water Lilies,” he might replace some of the lilies with orchids because they are more valuable.

Butler, A. C., Zaromb, F. M., Lyle, K. B., & Roediger, H. L. (2009). Using popular films to enhance classroom learning: The good, the bad, and the interesting. Psychological Science, 20, 1161-1168.

Caryl, C. (2015, February 5). Saving Alan Turing from his friends. New York Review of Books, 42 (2), 19-21. 

Oatley, K. (2014) Coded messages. Review of The Imitation Game (2014) dir. Morten Tyldum, PsycCRITIQUES, 59 (52), pp. [np]

Umanath, S., Butler, A. C., & Marsh, E. (2012). Positive and negative effects of monitoring popular films for historical inaccuracies. Applied Cognitive Science, 26, 556-567. 

Zacks, J. M. (2013). Constructing event representations during film comprehension. In A. P. Shimamura (Ed.), Psychocinematics: Exploring cognition at the movies. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zacks, J. M. (2015, February 15). Why movie "facts" prevail. New York Times, p. SR 12. 

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Monday, February 16, 2015

Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things: A Review

 Cover of The Book of Strange New Things
Michel Faber does something remarkable in his novel The Book of Strange New Things (2014). He creatively, and gently but resolutely, sidesteps all those script variations on the aliens theme that make one yawn when reading sci-fi, and the variations on mission stories that make one stop at the blurb on the cover. And the way he does it makes for a very enjoyable read.

His  main character, thirty-something Peter Leigh, is an English Christian minister who has made it through a rigorous selection process to be granted the opportunity to go to a planet far away to minister to the natives. Faber derails our expectations in small ways and large. In the human colony where Peter will be stationed, no one carries a weapon or is engaged in any way in militaristic colonial pursuits. And Peter is not the first minister to work with the natives on the planet Oasis: indeed a good many of the natives already know about the Gospel from an earlier minister, and are already converts to Christianity – so convincingly so that they have names such as Jesus Lover One, Jesus Lover Two, Jesus Lover Three, and so on, and know much of what is written in “the book of strange new things,” (125), the Oasan’s phrase for the Bible. Thus our main character will not get the glory for the original conversion of the natives. Whatever his role on Oasis, it will be, already, in some sense second-order.

When one of the experts on the space capsule headed to Oasis asks him about his role on the planet, he replies, “’I don’t really think of myself as a preacher.’ …. ’I’m just someone who loves people and wants to help them, whatever shape they’re in.’” (49). Peter’s past is one of drug abuse, alcoholism, and at times, homelessness. But his redemption came with meeting and falling in love with Bea, a Christian nurse who tends to him in hospital after he had broken his ankles trying to escape from police. He begins to read Christian scriptures with her, converts to Christianity, and they marry. But redemption already? How can a main character already have found redemption at the beginning of a 584 page novel? Isn’t that supposed to happen at the end of a story? Here we have a main character who is already redeemed, and already mature, empathetic, open to otherness, and not in it for the glory. In a sense, everything is already done. How could an intricate and engaging novel spring from such beginnings? 

But all of this ostensibly anticlimactic preparatory work is just Faber very deftly suggesting that a novel set among aliens on another planet need not involve a great clash of weapons; that a minister need not be a missionary, whose primary goal is to introduce a people to his God in the first place; that redemption need not happen only once in a lifetime; and that feeling that one loves people and wants to help them is not necessarily the end of a growth trajectory. None of these themes develops in the way that it might typically be allowed to, and I find Faber’s restraint regarding each admirable. 

What this clearing away allows is the consideration of other more interesting questions, as they manifest in this singular setting: How do you maintain a relationship with your partner from many billions of miles away, when the only way of communicating is a form of e-mail? (Time-differentials are of no consequence in this futuristic world – Peter knows before leaving that he can return to earth and rejoin his partner at some point.) Does the quality of a relationship depend in any important way on how well we can express our feelings, or how well we can envision our beloved in their absence? How strange do one's own experiences have to be, in one's own judgment, before they are no longer communicable? What is the relationship between one’s love for a partner and one’s love for God?  How does a Christian minister witness to a group of creatures whose attainment of Christian morality in some ways rivals his own? How do you share the stories of the New and Old Testaments among creatures whose planets have no seas, no mountains, no deserts, and who themselves seem to have no blood, no sexual organs, no eyes, and no teeth? How can a universal message of God’s love be universal in the absence of these physical entities so often used symbolically in scriptures? And further, is a group of socially unattached, highly-motivated, largely unemotional, and accomplished scientists the ideal group to be resident researchers in an alien world? What can and can’t such a group do toward understanding the natives and their world?

Over the course of the novel, it’s evident that having found faith was not the culmination of Peter’s spiritual journey, but a beginning. One night, in a revealing scene, he experiences what he calls his “Crying Jag” (297), which is a kind of unspoken confessional, after waking from a dream he cannot remember, during one of his extended stays among the Oasans. He cries for hours and hours “about the weirdest things, things he had long forgotten, things he would not have imagined could rank very high in his roll-call of griefs” (297). He remembers moments either when he had done harm to others, or when those he loves had had disappointments, or had harm inflicted on them by others. He cries until he can cry no more. Then, from somewhere in the new church building where he sleeps, he hears Jesus Lover Five, whom he did not know had been present, address him. Jesus Lover Five is Peter’s favorite among the Oasans, and another example of Faber’s aesthetically-pleasing restraint – we never learn her or his sex, nor does Peter, no matter the inquiries and body-language reading that he engages in. But Peter loves this Oasan. “A very long song” she or he says, apparently not being able to distinguish song from wailing. She quotes a verse from Jeremiah: “Long ago, the Lord said to Israel, I have loved you, my people.” (300). The invocation of the covenant between God and the Hebrews is an overarching reminder that what matters in the end is relationship. It’s about I and Thou, before, throughout and after grief occasioned by one’s own deep inadequacies or those of others. The Oasan understands Peter, just as surely as herself, or himself, to be included in this sacred covenant. 

Through the correspondence between Peter and his partner back on Earth, we watch their relationship deteriorate. On the ground, his friendship -- or is it perhaps more interpersonal ministry? -- with the female colleague, the colony’s pharmacist, develops. He must decide if he should stay on Oasis or return to a catastrophe-afflicted Earth and a severely morally deteriorating population of Earthlings, as well as to an alienated partner, or stay on Oasis where his faith is floundering. Faber’s aesthetic restraint throughout the novel is evident here, too. There’s no predicting the end of this story from the genres this work might be said to rank among.

Faber, Michel. (2014). The Book of Strange New Things. Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers, Ltd.

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