Wednesday 27 May 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.

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