Friday, May 29, 2009

Of Noble Past

We all know that our life stories are just that—stories. As with all other stories, they are constructed and distorted depending on our current motivations. If that sounds too cold and formal, we could say our stories are chopped, salted, spiced, cooked, baked—all depending on our current tastes, and on the customer of our life-story dish. What we forget, though, is that our dishes have a peculiar power to shape our tastes—that our stories and theories shape our lives.

It is this very assumption—that personal ‘mythologies and ideologies’ shape our lives, in this case writers' lives, that drives Phyllis Rose’s Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. By reference to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Greeks and Romans, Rose brings the discussion of the pitfalls of public life into a domestic sphere, home hearth of the five 19th century writers and philosophers: Carlyle, Ruskin, Mill, Dickens, and Eliot.

What struck me as rather surprising is the extent to which it still mattered to writers and philosophers of 19th century whether their lives were in accord with their philosophies. There is a neoclassical flavor to this worry—original philosophers were supposedly there to teach youth how to live, and it would have been in poor taste (and very poor advertising) for them not to live according to the principles they had espoused. The necessity of the past, however, acquired a different, more distinguished flavor from 17th century on. There is something noble about John Stuart Mill’s feminist preoccupation that the world recognize his partner, Harriet Taylor, as a full co-author of his works. There is something noble about Ludwig Wittgenstein renouncing his enormous inheritance and teaching in a one room school in remote rural Norway village. There is something noble about Nietzsche, unable to live up to his own ideas, having a nervous breakdown.

This nobility is in marked contrast to how modern day theoreticians of human conduct—philosophers, psychologists, theologists, sociologists—treat their theories. It turns out it is not a tenure requirement for an academic to live according to her own theoretical principles. This kind of deep belief in one’s theory could be even considered fundamentally biased and anti-scientific. So the new, more equivocal relationship to one’s theories, might be a good thing. After all, we are told we have ideas so they can die in our stead.

Still, the noble glow of lives lived out according to one’s theories is hard to extinguish. I can’t but wonder what would happen if academics were asked to bet a life, their own life, on their theories. Perhaps theorizing would become dangerous and sexy—and academic journals a much more interesting read.

Phyllis Rose (1984). Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages. New York: Alfred Knopf.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Psychogeography as Seeing with Metaphors

As part of a sporadic effort to resist the move to wearing reading glasses (my last eye doctor – with a university health service, no less – suggested I could also just read less), I have in this past week taken up a series of eye exercises. The primary exercise involves donning prism glasses: each set distorts what I can see in a different direction, and the optometrist (this time a more reading-friendly one) emphasizes that it is important to feel the distortion, to notice whether the lenses make me seem taller in the room (with everything sloping away from me) or shorter (the floor, dizzingly, swoops up toward the wall). When the lenses make things bulge to the left or to the right, he has me run my hand up and down the doorjamb, and in each case, I am to feel the hill that has been created out of the floor and to walk carefully up and down it, being in that new and novel space.

As I quizzed the good doctor about the effects that this exercise was having on my vestibular and visual systems in its effort to retrain their habits, I do not think he expected that I would already have a framework to which I could liken this new discovery of space: “this is psychogeography!,” I exclaimed to his puzzlement, groping my way enthusiastically through what I had just realized were, in fact, wayfinding exercises that, like psychgeographical exercises like the derive, found their power precisely in their ability to disrupt assumed geometries and geographies, and to promote new learning in domains where old assumptions might generally inhibit such learning.

In this second-to-last post of my current Spring series on psychogeography (the June 8 post will return to the topic of affordances via 'prospects' and 'refuges'), I’d like to return to two previous posts to work my way forward to a consideration of the relationship between metaphor and space in the context of setting, psychology, and fiction. First, in response to my May 1 post on Inventing Place, Nat Case asked:
Is the goal of the dérive to shake loose our preconcieved sense of space, and discover the place itself, or to look back and see patterns of space construction from a newly alienated vantage-point? Are we seeking a deeper understanding of the subject space by clearing away mental debris, or to understand better how that debris is constructed in the first place?
Yes, both – and how eloquently put! In a somewhat roundabout but related way, Keith Oatley’s May 22 post on the Actor Problem has complicated my mulling over this question, and – through the prism lenses of my exercise glasses – has got me wondering about the value of mental ‘debris,’ the measurement of ‘deeper’ understanding, and the tradeoffs that happen in order to understanding something in a new or different way. Let me take some steps back to cover more gracefully the leap from space seen through the prism glasses of a disrupted lens on the spatial (the dérive) to the metaphors involved in the Actor Problem.

In his post, Keith describes Luria’s cognitive tests having to do with a syllogism about white bears. (“In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North. What color are the bears there?”)
He tested 15 people who had remained illiterate. Of these only four were able to answer this question. Those who could not answer it replied, for instance, that they could not say because they had never been to Novaya Zemlya. By contrast all 15 of those who had attended a literacy program could answer the question. They were able to escape the literal and immediate, to think in abstractions. Harris argues that Luria's result occurred because those who took the educational programs were inducted into the possibilities of imagining "what if?"
As someone who is perhaps over-delighted with abstract thought, I certainly appreciate the analytic purchase afforded by the possibility of imagining 'what if'. However, for the last week, I have found myself repeatedly returning to this syllogism, and wondering about what is involved in changing the way one thinks about 'what if' questions. If understanding about bears in places abstractly allows one to draw generalizations, what mental debris was preventing this analytical reasoning?

Although I will not go into detail here on his theories, Karl Polanyi is a central figure in my field, famous for his interpretation of The Great Transformation, which he effectively interprets as the disembedding of the economy from the social relations of everyday life. As the commodification of values make things generalized and more substitutable for each other, the complex web of social relations that at one point measured meaning and value are substituted by a system that while complex in its own way, undeniably simplifies the meaning of many exchanges -- and by many is considered to cheapen many experiences values, not least that of wage labor.

In this context -- an important one for understanding the experience of modernity that's linked to efforts to promote literacy, analytic reasoning, and progressive eye exercises, I cannot help thinking about what is traded for the ability to generalize bears. What sorts of metaphors of understanding are embedded in our preconcieved senses of space? When we seek the ability to 'to look back and see patterns of space construction from a newly alienated vantage-point,' or to seek 'a deeper understanding of the subject space by clearing away mental debris, or to understand better how that debris is constructed in the first place,' what does this cost us? And are there ways that understanding these trade offs might help us balance the values of a more analytical understanding with the values (that I still only dimly view, as if through prism glasses) involved in not being able to generalize -- with this 'pre-modern' or 'provincial' way of understanding so linked to place and experience?

Alexander Luria (1976). Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Karl Polanyi (1944). The Great Transformation. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Understanding Fiction

As part of a current project, I am reading textbooks on teaching fiction. Over the next while, I plan to post reviews of Robert Protherough's Developing response to fiction and Elaine Showalter's Teaching literature. If anyone has further recommendations I would be glad to receive them. I'll start, today, with Understanding fiction, by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, prominent members of the school of New Critics. (This textbook was first published in 1943 and went to three editions, the image is of the third edition, but the second edition of 1959 is fuller, and the page numbers of quotations in this post are from it.) Brooks and Warren laid out a method for a fiction textbook: presentation of a set of pieces in sections to illustrate plot, character, and theme—mostly short stories by distinguished authors—along with suggestions of how one might think about them. In addition there is a section of stories without annotations. In the first and second editions, a nine-page "Letter to the teacher" offers Brooks and Warren's philosophy of teaching. They say their belief is that:
... the student can best be brought to an appreciation of the more broadly human values implicit in fiction by a course of study which aims at the close analytical and interpretive reading of concrete examples. It seems to us that the student may best come to understand a given piece of fiction by understanding the functions of the various elements which go to make up fiction and by understanding their relationships to each other in the whole construct ... such an end may best be achieved by the use of an inductive method (pp. xiii-xiv).
I take it that what Brooks and Warren mean by "inductive method" is to have students make a "close analytical and interpretive reading" of the pieces to develop a skill that can be applied to any fiction. The first problem for the student, say Brooks and Warren,
is to understand the nature of fictional structure, to become acquainted with the idiom in terms of which the art operates, and to broaden the imaginative sympathies so that the student can transcend stock responses and threshold [i.e. initial] interests (p. xvi).
The watchword of the New Critics was close reading of each text: the text, the whole text, and nothing but the text, excluding readers' emotions, or other aspects of readers' responses. The goal of the analytic process is to break "fiction down into the component parts—plot, theme, character, exposition, atmosphere, and so on" (p. 527). The process involves drawing on the evidence of the text to discover such parts.

Included in the book are four short stories by writers known to the authors (one story, indeed, is by one of the authors!) along with the authors' reflections, written specially for the second edition of this book, of how each story was written. The purpose of this, say Brooks and Warren in a rather non-New-Critical kind of way, is to make "a dramatic presentation of the fact that fiction—serious fiction, at least—is grounded in experience and has a significant relation to the world of actuality" (p. x).

One of the stories is by Eudora Welty, one of best American Southern writers. It is called "No place for you, my love." It's about a man and a woman who meet by chance at a luncheon in New Orleans. Both are strangers to the region, and the man guesses the woman is married and is having an affair. He offers to take her for a drive south of the city in a car he has rented. She accepts, and wonders what the price of her decision will be. After some hours, they come to the end of the road. "The end of the road—she could not ever remember seeing a road simply end—was a spoon shape, with a tree stump in the bowl to turn around by" (p. 538). The story is about the atmosphere of the region, about the relationship between the man and the woman that forms, briefly, in this place.

Welty's reflection is entitled "How I write." It is about how she had a version of a story, and how it was taken over by a drive with a friend south of New Orleans through a region to which she had never been, "south from South." In the second version of her story, the drive is incorporated, and contributes an atmosphere of unbearable heat and unbearable mosquitoes, of road and foliage and houses and rivers and occasional glimpses of people. For her, said Welty, "The story is a vision; while it's being written, all choices must be its choices, and as these multiply upon one another, their field is growing too" (p. 549). The story is about "what a relationship does, be it however brief, tentative, potential, happy or sinister ... what's seen fleeting past by two vulnerable people" (pp. 550-551).

For Brooks and Warren, the good reader, after breaking down a story into its component parts, "puts them back together again ... [to] form a richer and more meaningful whole. The good reader ultimately attains to a sort of 'vision' too" (p. 528).

Cleanth Brooks & Robert Penn Warren (1959). Understanding fiction, second edition. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Actor Problem

In a comment on 18 May to a post in OnFiction, Blog Nerd gave a link to a very interesting 2004 article entitled "The actor problem" (click here to read it). This article is by Jennifer Ewing Pierce, who may bear a relationship to Blog Nerd. In the article, to be republished in a collection next year, Pierce poses a challenge. She says:
Is creating and enacting emotion essentially cognitive or essentially perceptuomotor? What is the goal of enacted emotion? ... is the desire for creating and watching performance constitutive of our cognitive ability or is it a happy accident? ... A satisfying model of what the actor does and why we desire him to do it lies at the crux of a comprehensive philosophy of the emotions.
Pierce takes up her own challenge by confronting Kendall Walton's (1990) book Mimesis as make believe. For Walton, fiction yields only pseudo-emotions. If we go to the cinema to watch a thriller and feel frightened, this is not real fear, says Walton. If it were, we would get up and run out, because real fear has an outcome: a strong urge to escape. Instead we stay in our seats. In general, says Walton, the emotions we feel in fiction are make believe, as in children's games.

Pierce counters Walton's argument with one from Wilshire (1978) whom she quotes as saying:
It is badly misleading, though perfectly ‘natural,’ to say that acting is pretending. To say this connotes that the pretender falsifies himself, though he knows perfectly well who he really is. But the actor-artist is searching for himself through enactment---experimentally finding the other “in” himself, and so finding and developing himself in his freedom. If he is in a production with a pre-established script, the playwright has left a character type to be enacted.
Thus the aspect of outcome in emotions, which for Walton is missing in fiction, is present for the actor although in a a different kind of way. I believe Wilshire and Pierce are right, and that Walton has it exactly the wrong way round. Developmentally, as Paul Harris (2000) has shown, imagination and abstract thinking are built on the pretend play of childhood. What Walton offers is an anti-developmental theory so that adult art, instead growing out of play, is regression to a supposed childhood state.

One of the most revealing psychological studies of the development of abstraction was performed by Luria (1976). In 1931 and 1932, he traveled to Uzbekistan to study effects of the USSR’s newly introduced literacy programs. Luria compared people who had taken these programs with people who had not. Among his cognitive tests he asked: “In the Far North, where there is snow, all bears are white. Novaya Zemlya is in the Far North. What color are the bears there?” The form is that of a syllogism. He tested 15 people who had remained illiterate. Of these only four were able to answer this question. Those who could not answer it replied, for instance, that they could not say because they had never been to Novaya Zemlya. By contrast all 15 of those who had attended a literacy program could answer the question. They were able to escape the literal and immediate, to think in abstractions. Harris argues that Luria's result occurred because those who took the educational programs were inducted into the possibilities of imagining "what if?" Walton seems to have set himself into the opposite state, defining emotion as having a certain kind of behavioral outcome and maintaining a literal stance: "I can't have been frightened by the thriller because I didn't run out of the cinema."

In fiction we visit in imagination places we have never seen, we become people whom we are not, we enter many more situations than a lifetime could contain. In doing so we—like Wilshire's actor—undertake mental enactments. Thereby, we discover aspects of ourselves, a perfectly good outcome for the emotions we experience.

(Walton's and Harris's books are reviewed in our Books on the Psychology of Fiction, which you can reach by clicking here.)

Paul Harris (2000). The work of the imagination. Oxford: Blackwell.

Alexander Luria (1976). Cognitive development: Its cultural and social foundations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jennifer Ewing Pierce (2004) “The actor problem: Live and filmed performance and 
classical cognitivism.” Consciousness and the Arts and Literature, 5, December.

Kendall Walton (1990). Mimesis as make-believe: On the foundations of the representational arts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bruce Wilshire (1978). Enactment, transformation and identity of the self. Dialectics and Humanism 3, 52-68.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Do Only Fading Lights Burn Bright?

“To write well I must first be bored to distraction; to be bored to distraction I must enter into life.” Orhan Pamuk’s admission (in Other Colors, 2007) is a bold one. He tells us it is not the so-called real life that enthralls one. Instead, it is only in a dreamland that births fiction that “everyone and everything is interesting, captivating, and real.” It is unclear whether this is an inversion or a corollary to a more entrenched wisdom that it is a lack of access to a full life, rather than its inherent tediousness, that makes sickly children perfect literary apprentices. Left stranded to their imaginative worlds, they have no choice but exercise their creative power by building fictional ones.

It is not just sickness, either, that might help groom the writing candidates. Being orphaned (and other parental absences), having alcoholic parents, various stigmatizing disabilities – all these have a potential to bring a young person into contact with out-of-ordinary experiences that can bring eminence in adulthood (Simonton, 1987). A recent analysis of 282 ‘geniuses’ in 10 different domains (which included imaginative writers, composers, and visual artists, in addition to politicians, revolutionaries, commanders, religious leaders, scientists, and informative writers) surprisingly confirmed this correlation between poor physical health and achieved eminence in adulthood (Simonton & Song, 2009). (The only extraordinarily sturdy children were, fittingly, future commanders). So here we have it – from a cloud of death emerges eminence. Keats would have nodded approvingly.

Knowing all this, there are many questions one can reach for – about nature of reality or the kinds of magical worlds produced in the diminution of exposure to real ones. But here is my question. What would have happened if Marcel Proust was able to amble about without the terrifying prospect of a fatal asthma attack, if Tennessee Williams, age 5, could walk about, instead of lying bedridden for two years from the diphtheria-induced paralysis of the legs, if Sinclair Lewis, not lonely in his ungainliness, had been able to get every girl he so pined for? Would they have still written themselves into history? Would they have enjoyed their lives better? And knowing full well that muses gift only those whose bodies teach them a lesson in transience - do we dare defy them, by trying for both?

Orhan Pamuk (2007). Other Colours: Essays and a story. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Dean Simonton (1987). Developmental antecedents of achieved eminence. Annals of Child Development, 5, 131-169.

Dean Simonton & Anna Song (2009). Eminence, IQ, Physical and Mental Health, and Achievement Domain: Cox’s 282 Geniuses Revisited. Psychological Science, 20, 429-434.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Moods and Stories

In a post of 9 May in The Valve, entitled "Emotion recollected in tranquillity" (click here to read it) Bill Benzon a frequent and welcome contributor to OnFiction put forward a fascinating and original hypothesis about the role of art in our lives. His proposal has two steps. The first is to disagree with Steven Pinker who thinks that liking art has no evolutionary significance. Benzon thinks art, including music, is adaptive, and that it has an important function of reducing anxieties that are hard to express to others. He argues that:
music reduced anxiety in the group and thereby made it more fit to encounter real challenges and dangers. More recently, and inspired by Pinker’s own The Stuff of Thought, I argued that story-telling allows us to share perceptions, feelings, and values that we cannot talk about.
Benzon's proposal is a productive one. It is a more specific, and evolutionarily based, version of a general idea of the Romantics (as hinted at in the title of Benzon's post in The Valve) that art functions to explore and thus help to assimilate and understand emotions. I have turned the Romantics' idea of art as the expression and exploration of emotions into a small set of psychological hypotheses (Oatley, 2003), which Maja Djikic, Jordan Peterson and I (2006) have started to test. We compared the ways in which writers of fiction and physicists talk about themselves and their work in interviews. We found that fiction writers were far more preoccupied with emotions, especially negative emotions, than were physicists. So literary art tends to come from people who are concerned with their emotions—especially negative ones—and they tend to share these emotions with others, perhaps to help allay them.

The second step in Benzon's proposal derives from the finding that memories are often mood dependent: people tend to recall autobiographical memories of when they were happy when they are happy once again, and they best recall memories of loss and failure when they are sad. Benzon's new idea is that, in the ordinary course of events, people are thus partly cut off from large parts of their autobiographical selves. He then argues that in stories people experience depictions of many desires and many emotions. These depictions thus enable people to recall a wider range of experience than usual and, because they tend to discuss stories with others, or experience them in social settings, these experiences also have social implications. Benzon says:
My argument is that this communal experience of stories helps us to create neural circuits that give us the ability to recall a wide range of experience without our having to be in a neurochemical state approximating that which mediated that experience. Stories – as well as poems and plays – allow us to experience a wide range of desires and feelings in an arena where our personal lives are secure and protected, where our experience is socially approved. Without the constant experience of emotionally charged stories, our memories would be captive to the current mood.
I would like to offer an extra observation, to add to Benzon's argument. The research group of which I am part has done a good deal of work to show that stories actively induce moods and emotions. For instance, Seema Nundy and I (see Oatley, 2002) asked people to read Russell Banks's short story "Sarah Cole," which induces different emotions in different readers, most commonly anger and sadness. In different moods, it is not only that different memories become available. We found that different modes of thinking became available. After participants had read "Sarah Cole,' we asked them to respond to three interpretive questions about it. In their answers, people made angry by the story reasoned in a way that cognitive scientists call forward chaining, first offering a premise and then thinking forward from it towards implications. People made sad by the story predominantly used backward chaining, thinking backwards from a conclusion to what led up to it. What have these modes of thinking got to do with moods? When angry one thinks forward from a slight or injustice towards possibilities of what to do about it, including possibilities of vengeance. When sad, one backtracks mentally from the loss or mistake to what might have caused it.

William Benzon (2002). Beethoven's anvil: Music in mind and culture. New York: Basic Books.

Maja Djikic, Keith Oatley & Jordan Peterson (2006). The bitter-sweet labor of emoting: The linguistic comparison of writers and physicists. Creativity Research Journal, 18, 191-197.

Keith Oatley (2002). Emotions and the story worlds of fiction. In Melaine Green, Jeffrey Strange & Tim Brock (Eds.) Narrative impact: Social and cognitive foundations (pp. 39-69). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Keith Oatley (2003). Creative expression and communication of emotion in the visual and narrative arts. In Richard. Davidson, Klaus Scherer & Hill Goldsmith (Eds.) Handbook of Affective Sciences (pp. 481-502). New York: Oxford University Press.

Steven Pinker (2007). The stuff of thought: Language as a window into human nature. New York: Viking.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Research Bulletin: Resonance to Media Archetypes

Following on the heels of an extensive discussion on narrative universals on this site (posts here and here), today we bring to your attention a very interesting article on archetypes recently published by Michael A. Faber and John D. Mayer (2009). It describes two quite expansive studies, examining presence, recognition, and resonance related to prototypical characters in music, art, and film. The neo-archetypal theory put forth by Faber and Mayer proposes that archetypes are “story characters—prototypes of culturally important figures—that are learned and recognized implicitly, and whose historical and personal significance evoke emotional reactions.” Their research found that people can readily categorize examples from music, movies, and art into one of thirteen different archetypes (e.g., Hero, Creator, Lover, Jester), with a fascinating degree of agreement across raters. These thirteen archetypes were also found to cluster into five different groups: Knower (Creator, Magician, Sage), Carer (Caregiver, Innocent, Lover), Striver (Hero, Ruler), Conflictor (Outlaw, Shadow), and Everyperson (Everyman/Everywoman, Explorer, Jester). Interestingly, people varied quite widely in their emotional reactions to these different archetypes, and their individual patterns of resonance helped to explain their media preferences. This was true even after taking into account their individual personality traits. Faber and Mayer’s research takes a unique approach toward describing and explaining our emotional reactions to art, drawing heavily upon ideas from Carl Jung (1968) while employing a rigourous empirical method. Their synthetic work certainly deserves to be read closely and read widely; I would be happy to provide anyone interested with a copy of the article. (Please see my profile for e-mail address.)

Jung, C. G. (1968). The archetypes and the collective unconscious (R. Hull, Trans.) (2nd ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Faber, M. A., & Mayer, J. D. (2009). Resonance to archetypes in media: There’s some accounting for taste. Journal of Research in Personality, 43, 307–322.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Psychogeography's Affordances

Psychogeography might be considered an action-oriented branch of phenomenology. In today's installment of my exploration of psychogeography as a domain of the relationship between psychology and fiction relating to setting, I reflect on the way that psychogeography's creative approach to places involves a radical receptivity to the affordances provided in environments.

A significant part of the point of psychogeography is thinking about and noticing the experience of place. This noticing is often then used to serve thinking about what has made the place -- a reading of the landscape that could help to reveal the power undergirding daily reality. In so revealing this power, psychogeographers such as the Situationists hoped to encourage inventive "transformation of daily reality," or to instigate the creation of new situations and new relationships with settings.

One common mechanism of the Situationist practice of place exploration known as the dérive involves disrupting usual wayfinding in a place by mutilating or re-inventing a map. The dissonance between the mapped space and experienced space helps to draw attention both to what is actually experienced in the place and also to the ways that experience of a place is mediated by the kinds of expectations mediated by a map. Perhaps even more traditional is the technique of simply wandering, or drifting, in which one might introduce randomness or disrupt habit by using an algorithm such as a coin toss to decide direction at choice points.

However much these mechanisms may be associated with a particular way of exploring places, they are really merely the training wheels of psychogeography: tools to break the habits of everyday automatic interactions with place and perceptions of place as real and given. Disrupting such habits leaves mental resources for more exploratory stances toward the environment, in which explorers tune in to the behaviors or emotions that the situation and setting most afford.

Associated frequently with the psychologist James Gibson, the idea of affordance is central to the tradition of phenomenology: in Gibson's vocabulary, affordances are all action possibilities perceived in an environment; in Heidegger's vocabulary, a hammer, for example, in its very design, affords a particular readiness-to-hand, or way to be used. The behaviors and emotions that particular settings afford are central to our experience of place, and to our consequent ways of imagining, behaving in, maintaining, and reproducing places -- both material and fictional, as I have argued in my effort to show the similarities between constructing characters and constructing settings.

The radical exploration of urban affordances of the Situationist dérive can be perceived in tension with phenomenological traditions of engagement with places that sought to create in the landscape character of a different sort -- often national, or white, related to homeland and security. Rhetoric inheres powerfully in setting, partly because it is so often perceived in a taken-for-granted way as a given. So while coin-toss or ripped up and re-taped together map guided rambles may seem silly from some perspectives, from others - and particularly, perhaps, from the sympathetic view of fiction writers who have considered the task of setting the scene - such disruptions of assumptions about place can be seen as powerful tools of invention.

James J. Gibson (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Martin Heidegger (1927/1962) Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Travelogue: Solent Scene

This coming weekend, if the English weather smiles on us, I plan to go sailing with my son in his 26-foot Westerly in the Solent, the area of water on the South Coast between the mainland and the Isle of Wight. Geologically, the whole region is sunken, as if the southern edge of England has been stepped on by a giant and pressed beneath the waters of the English Channel. Streams have become tidal rivers, estuaries have become lakes of open water, and rivers have become great waterways, one of which is the Solent. Amid such features of the natural landscape are elements of the man-made (sic) environment, some of which I describe in this brief excerpt from a novel in progress, set in 1946. The protagonist George is sailing with another character Bernardette in her 26-foot Folkboat. In this segment, they are in the eastern Solent approaches heading south, and leaving Chichester Harbour Entrance about a mile astern (the image is No Mans Land Fort, with the Isle of Wight in the background, and a boat sailing in the opposite direction to the one in the excerpt; click here for source.)
“All through history, there have been the most tremendous disasters, muddles, wars, mistakes," said Bernardette. "The Nab Tower, for instance, way out there.”

She pointed forward to where, perhaps five miles out to sea, a substantial object could be seen against the horizon.

“How do you mean?”

"If you sail out there, you see it's like an immense gasometer. It was built, one of eight, to be planted on the sea bed across the Straits of Dover in the First War. They were going to string steel nets between them to stop the Germans whizzing up and down the Channel in their submarines. Completely barmy idea. At the end of the War, in 1918, they’d only completed one. They didn’t know what to do with it, so they put it out there.”

“What are you saying?”

“History. The history of mistakes and muddle.”

“But you believe in plans.”

“Over there,” said Bernardette. “See those?”

She pointed off the starboard bow.

“See there’s a fort there, that's No Man's Land. A mile or so from the land, at the edge of the main shipping channel. And another one there. See them? There they are on the chart.”

Bernardette pointed to them on the chart.

“Take the tiller again. Keep on this heading, make sure you don’t gybe by mistake. When we get out a bit more the tide will be stronger, and we’ll alter course to starboard, and run down between the forts. Military mistakes—those forts—a bit like the Nab Tower, but from fifty years earlier, when the English thought the French might invade.”

“Kind of Martello Towers?”

“Much bigger, they're huge, 200 feet in diameter. You’ll see when we’re closer."

"What were they for?"

"The idea was to guard the entrance to Portsmouth, headquarters of the King's Navee. Gun platforms, incredibly expensive, but obsolete before they were finished in 1880, because whereas gunners on them wouldn’t know where French warships were, gunners on ships at that time with quite good position-finding and range-finding, would know exactly where the forts were.”

“What about this last War?”

“Never fired a belligerent shot since they were built. In this last war, they weren’t strong enough to mount anti-aircraft guns on.”

Friday, May 8, 2009

Origins of Art

Although art exists in all societies, it seems only to have arrived among humankind rather recently. Steven Mithen (1996, 2001) proposed that the first objects in the archaeological record that unequivocally indicate the workings of art appeared between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago. Thus a wooden flute has been discovered from 43,000 years ago, and the earliest cave paintings, at Chauvet in France, are from 31,000 years ago. In this same period, ornaments such as bracelets appeared, as did sites of human burial. In all these cases the thing produced was both itself and something else. A piece of wood was also a flute capable of sounding notes. Charcoal on a cave wall was also a rhinoceros. A piece of bronze was also an adornment. A burial site was something constructed to show that someone was dead and also alive on some other plane.

Mithen’s hypothesis is that, until this period in prehistory, our ancestors were knowledgeable but their knowledge was confined within domains. One domain was of understandings of interactions in the social group, another was the properties of plant foods, and so on. At a certain point in the evolution of the human brain, the domains of our cognitive structures started to interpenetrate. Metaphor was born: marks on the wall of a cave could become a rhinoceros.

The mental process of metaphor later allowed the ancient Greek lyric poet Sappho to write: “Love shakes me again, that bitter-sweet creature.” Love is itself, and also something else. A piece of social understanding with a physiological aspect is interpenetrated by the experience of food, in a phrase that was so striking that the idea of love being bitter-sweet has lasted 2600 years. Such crossings of domain boundaries can have an arresting quality, so that we recognize them as special, as larger than ourselves.

Among the many important implications of this idea are that metaphor is not just ornament, not even just a linguistic phenomenon, it is fundamental to the way we think. It supports our abilities to make models of our world, in language, film, and other media. It also enables some permanence for externalized mental products. Though thought is ephemeral, art lasts and can spread to others. So although one can imagine a lover whispering an improvised poem into her lover’s ear, usually a poem lasts beyond the moment of its conception, and can travel. Also, art is not just frippery. As Maja Djikic has pointed out, the effort required for people 31,000 years ago to journey deep into caves, to make torches that enabled them to see, to manufacture pigments, indicated that they felt what they were doing was important.

The most recent issue of the magazine, Greater Good, is entitled "Why make art?" (To see and read this issue, click here.) I have an article in this issue which, as well as including a discussion of Mithen's work, has a summary of the recent results of our research group (Maja Djikic, Raymond Mar, Keith Oatley). My article is also in our archive or magazine articles, to access which you may click here.

Steven Mithen (1996). The prehistory of the mind: The cognitive origins of art and science. London: Thames and Hudson.

Steven Mithen (2001). The evolution of imagination: An archeological perspective. SubStance (# 94/95), 28-54.

Keith Oatley (2009). Changing our minds. Greater Good, 5, (3) Winter.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Is Shame Invincible? by Thomas Scheff

Professional reviewers had a hard time with Stephen Daldry's 2008 film The reader, adapted by David Hare from Bernhard Schlink's 1997 novel of the same name. A majority were favorable, but like the minority, they seemed unable to formulate clearly the crux of the film and their own reactions to it. This film depicts complex feelings in its protagonists, and seems to seek to evoke them in the audience. It might help understand the struggle if you assume, as I do, that the emotion at the core of the film was shame. Modern societies have a difficult time with this emotion, to the point that it might be called taboo. We have this emotion as much or more than prior societies, but recognizing it in ourselves and others, let alone discussing it, has become problematic.

The psychoanalyst Helen B. Lewis was also a research psychologist. Her study of emotions in psychotherapy sessions (Lewis 1971) reported the results of her systematic search for emotion markers in the transcripts of hundreds of psychotherapy sessions. To her surprise, by far the most frequent emotion was shame/embarrassment, occurring far more often than all the other emotions combined. A further surprise was that its presence was virtually never mentioned, either by therapist or client. She named the unmentioned emotion unacknowledged shame. Relevant to the film reviewed here, she named the form most common in men, bypassed shame, evidenced by expressionless talk.

The film seems to hinge on the power of unacknowledged shame, both for the characters and for the audience. During the trial, Hanna is so ashamed of being illiterate that she accepts a life sentence. Michael is so ashamed of his relationship with her that he doesn’t inform the court that she is illiterate, that she couldn’t have written the document she is charged with. Because of his inaction, he then is overcome with shame for not having helped Hanna.

In modern societies, most people find it difficult to credit shame as a powerful motive. In traditional societies, shame is understood to be the most insistent of all motives. The Japanese dread of shaming the family comes to mind. In this passage several hundred years ago in pre-modern France, Jean-Jacques Rousseau described in his Confessions the feeling that led him falsely to accuse a maid-servant of a theft which he had himself committed.
When she appeared my heart was agonized, but the presence of so many people was more powerful than my compunction. I did not fear punishment, but I dreaded shame: I dreaded it more than death, more than the crime, more than all the world. I would have buried, hid myself in the center of the earth: invincible shame bore down every other sentiment; shame alone caused all my impudence, and in proportion as I became criminal the fear of discovery rendered me intrepid. I felt no dread but that of being detected, of being publicly and to my face declared a thief, liar, and calumniator.
It is hard for us moderns to credit this kind of statement, because shame has gone underground. Yet it still is controlling, even when hidden. Hanna’s motives in facing the court, and less directly, Michael’s, could be seen as similar to Rousseau’s, since they both seem controlled by “invincible” shame. In modern times, it seems to be doubly invincible because it is usually almost invisible.

Like many of the reviewers, I was put off by Michael’s woodenness after seeing Hanna in court. But the second viewing reminded me of Lewis’s report that expressionlessness, that is, bypassed shame, is the most frequent defense against shame in men.

When Michael visits Hanna in prison, he is virtually paralyzed by his emotions. He is still ashamed of associating with a criminal, and intensely ashamed of his shame. He could be frozen by the looping of shame: shame about shame about shame. These loops have no natural limit, and can end in withdrawal, silence, or paralyzing depression (Scheff 2009).

For much of the film, the filmmaker seems to want the audience to identify first of all with Michael, an innocent who is also guilty and therefore bound in endless cycles of shame. The novel puts more emphasis than the film on Hanna’s growth as a person while in prison. Both book and film show that she learns to read by obtaining the books that match the cassettes that Michael sends her.

In the book, however, she goes on to read about the Holocaust, the crime that she participated in. Both book and film suggest that in court and in prison she is both a perpetrator and a victim. Mainly because Michael didn’t provide evidence that would have shortened her prison term, and didn’t give her the support that might have avoided her suicide. She was also victimized by the other defendants in the trial.

After her death, Michael tries to overcome his shame by flying to New York to visit the surviving daughter of one of Hanna’s victims. He asks her to take Hannah’s money, or at least give advice about how to use it, but the daughter refuses. She harshly rejects the least involvement in Hanna's affairs, much less allowing even a shred of forgiveness.

A somewhat puzzling aspect of this last scene is the obvious splendor of the daughter’s current life. She has a huge apartment, awash with art and style. There is no hint of this in the book. Why did the filmmaker want her to be so rich? Another puzzle is the difference between the dialogue in the book and in the film. The film version makes the daughter more haughty and rejecting than in the book. What is going on?

One guess is that the filmmaker is trying to stir guilt in the audiences. Relative to the poverty of Hanna’s entire life, the members of the audience are rich. Perhaps the filmmaker was trying to turn the sympathy of audience from the daughter, to encourage them to be more forgiving of Hanna than the daughter was.

The ideas in this story may be relevant to our own lives. People are always asking how we put up with the Bush administration for eight years. Perhaps the people slept because they were both innocent and guilty. We were innocent in the sense that we ourselves weren’t corrupt, and did not commit fraud and cause the death of innocents. Yet we were guilty in the sense that we didn’t do anything about bringing down the perpetrators, or at least anything effective.

As with Michael, perhaps we were paralyzed by shame. Again, like Michael, one way toward ending our paralysis would be to learn to forgive others, so that we can begin to forgive ourselves.

Stephen Daldry (Director) The reader (2008). Film.

Helen B. Lewis (1971). Shame and guilt in neurosis. New York: International Universities Press.

Thomas J. Scheff (2009). A social theory of depression and its treatment. Journal of Ethical and Human Psychiatry. Forthcoming.

Bernhard Schlink (1997). The reader. London: Random House.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Travelogue Review: Wings of Poesy

There are six great English writers of the early Romantic period: William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Jane Austen, George Gordon Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats (in chronological order of their births between 1770 and 1795). There is just one woman and just one prose writer: Jane Austen. If you want to add to this list, you may do so. I could make a case for Mary Shelley, but the difficulty, as usual, is to convince others.

In my travelogues over the last few weeks, I have concentrated on the part of London where my partner, Jennifer, and I are living, South End Green, at the southern tip of Hampstead Heath. Two of the English Romantics lived near here. Keats lived for nearly two years in part of a house called Wentworth Place, which was built around 1815. We are about 400 yards from it. About a mile away on the opposite edge of the Heath, Coleridge lived in a fine terraced house in Highgate.

In a letter of 15 April 1819 that Keats wrote to his brother and sister-in-law (George and Georgianna), he describes how, when he was out walking towards Highgate the previous Sunday (i.e. 11 April), he met someone he knew who was walking with the famous Coleridge, and who made the introduction. Then, writes, Keats:
I walked with him [Coleridge] at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things--let me see if I can give you a list--Nightingales, Poetry--on Poetical Sensation--Metaphysics--Different genera and species of Dreams ...
And so on for a few more lines. Keats ends this paragraph by saying that Coleridge "was civil enough to ask [him] to call on him at Highgate." The biographers (e.g. Motion, 1997), say that Keats did not take up the invitation. They also tell us that, according to his friend Charles Brown, with whom he shared part of Wentworth Place, a few weeks after the conversation that touched on nightingales and dreams, Keats took a chair one morning after breakfast, and sat outside under a plum tree in which a nightingale had built her nest. For some time, Brown says, Keats had "felt a tranquil and continual joy" in the nightingale's song. Now, under the plum tree, over two or three hours he wrote a draft of "Ode to a nightingale." The poem is a dream in which Keats imagines himself no longer in springtime but in summer, not in the morning but at night, as he accompanies the nightingale, and fades into the darkness of the forest. The move to night-time increases the intensity of the dream state, and allows Keats to replace distancing qualities of sight with more intimate sensations and feelings.

Keats had nursed his brother Tom, who died of tuberculosis the previous December; and we know that less than two years after writing the poem, he would die of the same disease. The poem is full of contrasts between the dream state and the frailty of human embodiment, with passages of intense sadness. But although, in its beginning, the poem is about escape from the human condition, as he continues Keats forgoes that idea and takes up instead the idea of engagement. By joining the bird he too can offer song; he becomes most fully what he wishes for himself in poetry.
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
Then in concentrated thoughts, Keats understands that while we mortals live amid suffering in history, the nightingale in her song is immortal.
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
With his own voice achieving immortality, flying "already with thee" in this very poem "on the viewless wings of Poesy," Keats ends by returning to his embodied state, awake and sitting in daylight in May 1819, in a garden you can still visit (the house is now a museum), though not until after November because at present the house is closed, covered with scaffolding, needing repair.

John Keats (1816-20). Selected poems and letters of Keats (Ed. D Bush). New York: Houghton Mifflin (current edition 1959).

Andrew Motion (1997). Keats. London: Faber and Faber.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Inventing Place

Authors of fiction may think of themselves as inventing places in their stories, but 'place,' as a concept, is something many people think of as given, not invented. Geographers and other theorists of place, however, think of place as a malleable medium, caught in a constant flux of desire and pragmatic action, and between the experiences and imagination of many different users.

Psychogeography turns specific attention to the experience of place, and people who practice psychogeography often work to disrupt the given nature of place experience. The dérive has been one of the most classic practices of psychogeography gatherings; associated with situationism, this form of place exploration has a wide following and some fascinating implications for thinking about fiction.

Literally a form of 'drifting' through space and place, Guy Debord described the dérive in the late 50s in his “Théorie de la dérive”:
One of the basic situationist practices is the dérive, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiences. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.
Individuals and groups embarking on this kind of exploration are encouraged to observe and respond to the possibilities and meanings that exist in the landscape -- indeed, noting one of the fundamental principles of landscape analysis, Debord cites Marx’s observation that “Men can see nothing around them that is not their own image; everything speaks to them of themselves. Their very landscape is alive.” The politics of this approach to landscape are a central part of its lasting appeal and currency -- who can go where in the landscape - and how and why - are all telling exhibitions of our social fabric. Psychogeography attracts people largely because of this promise of exploration (and attendant exercise) of agency in relation to place involved in this politics.
The lessons drawn from dérives enable us to draft the first surveys of the psychogeographical articulations of a modern city. Beyond the discovery of unities of ambience, of their main components and their spatial localization, one comes to perceive their principal axes of passage, their exits and their defenses. One arrives at the central hypothesis of the existence of psychogeographical pivotal points. One measures the distances that actually separate two regions of a city, distances that may have little relation with the physical distance between them. With the aid of old maps, aerial photographs and experimental dérives, one can draw up hitherto lacking maps of influences, maps whose inevitable imprecision at this early stage is no worse than that of the earliest navigational charts. The only difference is that it is no longer a matter of precisely delineating stable continents, but of changing architecture and urbanism.
Discovering this ability to engage places and to invent and re-invent settings has continued to attract people to psychogeographical writings and events. Although the way we invent places runs up against a myriad of immovable boundaries and forces beyond our power to change - or sometimes even understand, the engagement with place involved in this kind of exploration must have many of the same benefits that have been demonstrated in engagement with fictional characters and inventive future authoring. More on this in weeks to come.

Guy Debord “Théorie de la dérive.” Internationale Situationniste #2 (Paris, December 1958). A slightly different version was first published in the Belgian surrealist journal Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956) along with accounts of two dérives. This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.
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