Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Self a(nd)(s) Genre

It occurs to me that the statement in the last post "there would be no self without other selves to constitute it" is an echo of Todorov on genre (all genre comes from other genre). Self and genre are both complex collections, complex patterns. "Self" and "genre" also are both signifiers used to refer to things that don't really exist as unitarian, self-enclosed entities.

In the Wind

A few days ago, I attended an ash-scattering ceremony for a recently departed friend, Jack Myers. Several of us gathered there took turns saying a few words, then sprinkled some of his ashes into the wind at the end of a stone quay in Winthrop Harbor, almost within shouting distance of Deer Island, where many American Indians during and after King Phillip’s War were interned (and interred) and where many refugees from the Potato Famine were processed (many died).

During dinner before the ceremony, Jack’s wife, Thea, spoke of not being able to think of being in certain situations, with certain people, in certain places without him. I was reminded not only of Hofstadter’s chapter about his wife, but also of a recent incident at home when I used a phrase that my departed friend used frequently—not only did I use his phrase, I said it the way he would have said it, and in my mind I heard him say it and saw him saying it. I mentioned this episode and Hofstadter’s theory of selves as patterns repeatable in multiple brains, and another old friend of Jack said, “My mother is definitely still in my brain, and she won’t get the hell out!”

It’s easy to dismiss that kind of relationship as simple influence, but it’s more complex than mere influence. These patterns are not just memories—they are active. They are agents in our personalities and partially constitutive of our behavior.

All of this adds a new level of depth (at least for me) in thinking about persona poems (taking on the voice of someone else in the poem) and gives me a new appreciation for a poet like Ai, whose persona poems are among the most vivid of any I know. Does this mean that Ai (also recently departed) was particularly adept at taking on the vision of others—that is, that she was a particularly gifted empath? Or might it mean that she simply was able to let the multiple aspects of her own “self” speak? Is there a difference? Is there a difference between writing a persona poem in the voice of another person and attempting to write from an impersonal (or a-personal) position? Is that possible?

I’ve long had problems with the idea of “voice” in poetry, largely because one of the most useless axioms of creative writing instruction is “you must find your own voice”, as though we all have only one true voice and the job of the poet is to find it and cling to it like a hidden treasure. Wouldn’t it be more useful to say that the poet’s job is to become attuned to multiple voices, to allow one’s attention to voices change, to modulate? Jack was a poet, and he did just that. By the mid-80s, he had a distinctive, ironic but sincere, tragicomic voice that Seamus Heaney called “wise in its pretense of just fooling around.” He was a post-confessional poet and a link in the line of conversational poets between Richard Hugo and Marvin Bell at one end and Billy Collins, Bob Hicok, and Tony Hoagland at the other. He could very easily have clung to that very successful voice and written the same kind of poem for the next 30 years. But he didn’t—he knew that he had too much to learn about himself and about the world, too much to miss by not exploring new ways in which poems can get said.

I’m sure Jack thought of the voice in all of his poems as being identifiably and distinctively Jack, himself. But that kernel of self is merely an illusion—for Jack, for example, it was made up of his childhood in Winthrop, his children, his love for the ocean, lobstering, his jobs as a house painter and mailman, Jungian psychology, Zen, his teaching, his teachers, all of the poets he read and loved, etc. All of these agents had a direct bearing on his “voice” in his poems; in what way is it useful to think of that multitude of things as a single thing, a unitarian voice? Isn't voice, as Hofstadter might say, just a pattern? Or, to look at it another way, isn't all voice persona? Either the poet speaking as someone (or something) else (or as nothing) , or the world speaking as the poet?

This line of thought also brings to mind Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence argument, in which the poet is in agonistic competition with his/her significant predecessors (the father). Bloom’s argument is attractive in that it acknowledges the inherent difficulty in the attempt to establish voice in a poem and acknowledges that voice comes out of other voices, but one must realize that one can never get there. There is never a point where one can say “I have established an original and unitarian voice free of the influence of my predecessors.” One can never slay the father, or Jung, or the lobsters (whether of the arsenic or organic variety), or Neruda. It’s impossible; there would be no self without other selves to constitute it.

I think Jack would essentially agree with the argument that the self is made up of many components, but I think he would in the end take issue with the idea that there is no central self. He was a student, after all, of Zen. But I also think he would point to the fact that one can readily recognize a Myers poem, a Sexton poem, a Ginsberg poem as evidence that there is something essentially “I” in there. He would also argue that one would be unable to write meaningful poems if it weren’t for some gathering force and if it weren’t for a central set of wants, hopes, regrets. Many times I heard him rail against “postmodernist relativism” and “deconstructionist mumbojumbo” in favor of the lyrical self, regardless of whether or not it is an illusion. And here he is doing it again.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Morris Musings

...wondering whether the brain's (or should I say the mind's?) power to create anosognosia is related in any way to its creative powers, to the relative strength of different minds to create convincing alternative (literary) worlds? Is more anosognosia at display in a poet whose interests lie mainly in interiority (the personal, confession, the lyrical self) or in a poet whose interests lie mainly in exteriority (objects, the external world, actuality)? Which ignores more?
Also wondering whether anosognosia and other similar disruptions are merely errors of thought  without physical manifestations (that is, there's nothing wrong with the brain, just with the ideas it's processing). Are they high-level errors without low-level (mechanical) problems. This is not only a "who's pushing whom around in there?" question, it's also an assumption (that there are such errors of thought or processing) that provides the entire basis of psychoanalysis. Ramachandran's work with phantom limbs certainly seems to support the idea that some problems are in the ideas of which the mind has convinced itself and stored away and that those ideas can be "cured".
And what about language here? How much of the self/not-self disconnect is complicated by the subject's use of language and the attachment of language to a sense of self? The attachment of language to body parts?

This is your brain; this is your brain in denial...

In Part IV of Erroll Morris's series at the Times, Morris's expert summary of VS Ramachandran's work on anosognosia reveals good evidence in favor of the "many experts" model; the brain arguing with itself over what is reality--half of the brain faithful to somatic reality, half of the brain faithful to a version of reality, a narrative about reality, or an alternate reality that it must maintain in order to keep a stable sense of "self".

Sunday, June 20, 2010

NYTimes.com: What Is I.B.M.'s Watson?

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Uniqueness in Jeopardy

MAGAZINE   | June 20, 2010
Smarter Than You Think:  What Is I.B.M.'s Watson?
The category is artificial intelligence. This question-answering computer system is ready to challenge some flesh-and-blood "Jeopardy!" champions.


If you think the idea of a self distributed over several locations (people) is sheer lunacy, then you should check out a lunar drama called Moon, directed by Duncan Jones (who also happens to be the son of The Man Who Fell to Earth). Sam Bell believes himself to be the lone employee working on a 3-year contract on a moonbase to harvest a new energy source and send it back to Earth. Sam, it turns out, is a clone who discovers he is a clone by accidentally meeting a fellow clone and who, with the help of a self-aware, emoting, intelligent computer named GERTY, discovers a cache of other unawakened clones stored away in a hidden storage room in the base. [By the way, we know that GERTY emotes because of the emoticons displayed on his screen. You might argue that a machine cannot display true empathy and that the emoticons are displayed only in response to an algorithm the computer uses to recognize an interlocutor's emotion based on speech and behavior patterns. My response would be "What is empathy other than the ability to recognize emotion and to respond to it appropriately?"]

Sam and his fellow clones either are designed to die after three years of service (the “contract”) or it’s a flaw in the cloning process—that point is never made clear. If the clones are not “programmed” to fall apart at that point, then there are at least memories “downloaded” into the clone mind not only to suggest a personal history that is reinforced by fictional communiqu├ęs from family back home, but also to justify getting the clones into a transport pod for return home that actually turns out to be an incinerator.

The spookily-voiced (by Kevin Spacey) GERTY is a kind of obverse of HAL—vaguely threatening, but in the end “there to help” Sam. GERTY helps Sam in ways that one would think would be contrary to his programming, as Sam actually says at one point (“But I’m here to help you, Sam”, says GERTY). Later, GERTY says something to Sam about his programming, and Sam tells him “We’re not programmed; we’re people!” Or a person—the Sams and GERTY share memories, they feel empathy for each other, they contribute toward common goals, they argue with each other about the best way to go about reaching those goals in a way that is similar to our own internal arguments.

The Sams believe for most of the film that communication with Earth had been cut off three years earlier when a satellite went down. In reality, the link is merely being blocked and GERTY is able to unblock it and have direct communication with the outside world. Later GERTY helps Sam avoid the signal blocking and Sam is able to contact his home; he discovers that his daughter is 12 years older than he thought her to be and that another Sam (the original, we presume) is back home.

One also could read the moon itself as a kind of brain, with its gray, bumpy surface, its multiple bases with specific functions (input/output, collection/storage, etc.) multiple functionaries (the Sams, GERTY) that speak to each other, a great deal of “storage”, the desire of the functionaries within the brain to speak to “the outside” and work towards certain goals together.

This setup is enriched by the fact that Sam Bell is played by Sam Rockwell. This casting (in fact, we are told that the role was written as a "vehicle" for Rockwell) encourages us to extend the analogy beyond the limits of the film. When an actor “plays” a character, the character in the film take on the person-ness of the actor. Tess of the D’Urbervilles will forever be Nastassja Kinsky, for example, in the minds of those who have seen the film. Surely, also, the actor must “become” the character to some degree (and the better the actor, the greater the degree); That becoming doesn’t just go away at the end of the film. Sam Rockwell is forever also the Sams. So, in addition to reading the moon as a kind of big brain in this film, one can also read Moon as a kind of uber-self, containing a number of component selves working together.

Moon was made on a budget of only $5 million, and the effects and light (models, not CGI) are beautiful. Check it out!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Just as your self is made up of numerous selves that are difficult to disentangle or even to distinguish absolutely, it's difficult to draw hard and fast lines between "your body" and "not your body". Are your vegetables part of your body? Is the farm that grew your vegetables part of your body? Is your yard (including the septic tank) part of your body? Do those circles widen? For example, is the water source that feeds the farm that feeds you part of your body? Where does that water come from? And is the creek that collects the runoff from your yard, then feeds the local river which ultimately runs to the sea part of your body?

Well, now this is part of your body. [Thanks to PZ Myers for posting the link on his blog, Pharyngula.]

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Link Links

One cognitive theory that seems to have a lot of support (as well as debate) these days is the “neuronal workspace” model, or one of its variations (its primary developer, Daniel Dennett, called it at first the “multiple drafts” model and later revised it as “fame in the brain”).

It essentially goes like this—the brain holds many little specialists or bots or machines or functions or daemons or departments or tools (or some other term you’d like that indicates a non-aware device that is designed to do a particular job) that go about doing their jobs quite well (whether that’s recognizing letter/sound combinations, recognizing color, processing depth, etc. etc.), and when they’ve done their jobs they all talk to each other along amazingly rich connective paths and figure out who has the best information or best combination of information for the particular moment. That is, processing (and “consciousness”) is distributed across the brain rather than being localized in a particular center or arbiter; it is an alternative to the Cartesian model, which posits a kind of “theatre” model in which “we” are the consumers of our own consciousness (as opposed to being our own consciousness). In the Cartesian model, the processing happens and then it gets delivered to the “conscious” area of the brain; in the workspace model, there is no difference between the processing and the coming into consciousness. I’m oversimplifying here, but I don’t think I’m misrepresenting; if I am, I welcome correction (I’m no specialist!)

In this model, association clearly jumps into the front and center among modes of thinking. In his great tome Consciousness Explained, Dennett offers an excellent description of how our episodic memory might work: great associative chains of links with multiple redundancies so that any one memory is connected (hyperlinked) to many other memories (so maybe, more accurately, multihyperlinked).

.. in place of the precise, systematic “fetch-execute cycle” or “instruction cycle” that brings each new instruction to the instruction register to be executed, we should look for imperfectly marshaled, somewhat wandering, far-from-logical transition “rules,” where the brain’s largely innate penchant for “free association” is provided with longish association-chains to more or less ensure that the right sequences get tried out. (225)

I need not draw out here the obvious implications for imagination, association, brainstorming, etc.. What this all implies, to me at least, is that the associative thinking that we find commonly in poetry may be the most “natural”, or at least the most direct, form of thinking. Hofstadter carries the train of (associative) thought one step further and says that analogy building is at the core of consciousness (that's another long post). Robert Bly, of course, makes association (or “leaping”) the center of his argument in Leaping Poetry, but we need not assume that the leaping be done from image to image. The kind of linguistic association or wordplay you find in Charles Bernstein, Ron Silliman, John Ashbery, et al. is certainly a kind of leaping, and Bly says so. What’s interesting, though, is that we need not limit ourselves to imagistic leaping or to linguistic leaping. Bly, though, in his arguments for transparency of language (despite the opacity of image in some of the poets he endorses) seems to want to say that the language (the words) themselves don’t matter. And one might deduce just that from his translation practice—it’s what’s behind the words that matter to him.

So I suppose what I’m wondering here is whether there might be a parallelism between thought in the brain and language in the world—and whether there is no "behind". The human brain’s processing of information is consciousness; the language used to leap is the leap itself (rather than merely representing some quasi-mystical content in the images themselves).

I think Marinetti recognized or at least sensed this relationship. While he said that imagery is the lifeblood of poetry, he also called for speed, immediacy (non-mediation), precision (or prescision), minimal punctuation, disruption of syntax, and using only nouns and verbs. His attempt to get at the immediate image was through efficiency of language. There is no behind the language; the images are the language. Marinetti was trying to get the most direct access possible to the brain.

Marinetti, like Breton, was also interested in dramatic analogies, images, metaphors—assembling disparate objects into the same cognitive space. For Breton, these “collisions” brought together the dream world and the waking world; Bly wants images to bring together the shadow world and the world of light. They all seem interested in a poetry made of the most basic brain stuff.

But Marinetti used some interesting language in his “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Literature” that seems relevant to the multiple drafts model: “Analogy is nothing more than the deep love that assembles distant, seemingly diverse and hostile things. An orchestral style, at once polychromatic, polyphonic, and polymorphous, can embrace the life of matter only by means of the most extensive analogies.”

I suspect neither Dennett nor Hofstadter could come up with a more vivid analogy for the many drafts model; Hofstadter would love it, because it’s an analogy for analogy.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Looped Ones

Last week I went down to Norfolk for my close friend Brian Brennan’s (surprise) birthday party and celebratory golf round. I took along with me Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, and on the plane ride back home I read H’s moving chapter about his wife’s death and H’s grappling with what it means when a loved one—that is, one whose being has become intricately entwined with one’s own being—dies: both what it means for the survivor and for the “self” of the loved one.

When we have close relationships with others—spouses, children, parents, close friends, even pets—those beings become parts of our personalities (or selves, or whatever term you want to use here). That’s not just a bathetic homily, it’s a real issue of what it means to have (to have built over time) a self:

If you seriously believe, as I do and have been asserting for most of this book, that concepts are active symbols in a brain, and if furthermore you seriously believe that people, no less than objects, are represented by symbols in the brain (in other words, that each person that one knows is internally mirrored by a concept, albeit a very complicated one, in one’s brain), and if lastly you seriously believe that a self is also a concept, just an even more complicated one (namely an “I”…), then it is a necessary and unavoidable consequence of this set of beliefs that your brain is inhabited to varying extents by other “I”s, other souls, the extent of each one depending upon the degree to which you faithfully represent, and resonate with, the individual in question. (248)

This passage reminded me of a poem by Robert Bly that my other close friend Dean Rader read at Abbey's and my wedding (and that I read at Dean’s wedding and that I believe Dean may have read at Brian’s wedding also). Bly’s poem places in an external metaphor what Hofstadter internalizes; the real, in-the-world phenomena that our close relationships effect. And this habit of the human brain to make “third bodies” (out of all of our relationships, not just marriages) is directly related to Hofstadter’s idea of the strange loop and how it makes us what we are—self-reflecting beings.

To boil it down to a ridiculously short summary, we have episodic memories. My episodic memory space, for example, is loaded with information about my wife, my children, my parents, Brian Brennan, Dean Rader, my other friends, my colleagues at work, my dog Moose, my childhood dog Butch, my college mentors, former teammates, etc. What I remember about all of those people and pets amounts to a version of their selves that is constructed in my mind (a self, again, can be thought of as a complex pattern of complex symbols in the brain). Those selves are nowhere near as complex, of course, as the versions of those selves in their own minds. But those versions in my mind are partially constitutive of my mind, and they serve as feedback sources. I might wonder for example, what my wife Abbey will think of this blog post, and I can imagine two or three precise scenarios that might characterize her reactions. These scenarios are not arbitrary guesses; they are based on Abbey’s personality, her behavior, her character, her interests, her reading and research interests, her relationships with Brian, Dean, Moose, our children, etc. Hofstatdter’s question is this—how close is that version of Abbey that exists in my mind to being a “self”? How close is the Abbey in my mind to the Abbey in Abbey’s mind? What about the Brian Brennan in Abbey’s mind? What about the Brian Brennan in my mind? What about the Moose in my mind? Ah….

Does Moose (our five-year-old Chocolate Lab/Newfoundland mix) have a mind? If so, how complex is it as compared to that of a human five-year-old? A human 6-month-old? Hofstatder’s argument is that since there are degrees of symbols in brains, there are degrees of selfhood. A dog certainly behaves based on past experience (whether consciously or not), certainly is able to respond to the mood of an owner, certainly has “personality”; but does a dog have access to episodic memory? And if so, is the dog able to relate a constantly revised self-image to a constantly revised bank of those episodic memories? Clearly not.

So, then, is the “Moose” in my mind more of, less of, or the equal of the “Moose” in Moose’s mind? What if I imagine him being able to think? Then is that Moose more of a “self” than the actual Moose?

When we were in grad school, Brian had a cat named Bosco. Bosco certainly had a personality and Bosco most certainly had become a part of Brian’s identity. In fact, Bosco was such a strong part of Brian’s identity that when Bosco passed away, it took several simultaneous replacement cats to make up for Bosco’s absence. What happened when Bosco passed away? His body died certainly, but the “Bosco pattern” certainly is still active in Brian’s mind and even in my mind. While I was at Brian’s house I briefly saw one of his current cats, and I couldn’t help but project Bosco’s personality onto that cat. Bosco is still acting on my reality and on Brian’s reality; Hofstadter’s wife is still acting on his reality in a far more complex way—so complex that at times he finds himself thinking that he is seeing for her things that she would liked to have seen, or speaking for her, or acting on her behalf in a manner in which she would have acted.

Hofstatder sees this multiplicity of selves as “levels” almost like quantum levels; his argument is (partially) that our episodic memories, self-reflective ability, and our ability to leap among these levels (which amount to feedback loops) combine to create “strange loops” (which have paradoxical elements I won’t get into here) that don't just contribute to our sense of self; they are our sense of self.

At one point during my visit to Norfolk, Brian’s nine-year-old daughter Katharine asked him (referring to me) “Is he your friend or your brother?” We responded almost simultaneously—Brian said “Both, really,” and I said “The answer to your question is ‘Yes’”. But, in fact, we are more than either. Along with our wives, our children, our other close friends and family members, we are a significant part of each other.

As for Brian’s age and his golf game (a "loop", by the way, is a caddie's term for a round of golf), I’ll say only that he shot his age on the front nine.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

My good friend Joe Ahearn sent me an interesting article a few weeks ago—“Constructing Meaning When Reading Poetry: An Expert-Novice Study”, by Joan Peskin of the University of Tornoto. It appeared in the journal Cognition and Instruction (Vol 16, No. 3. [1998]). The study (though limited to only 16 subjects) purports to compare how “experts” construct meaning while reading poems to how “novices” construct meaning while reading poems.

It seems like a useful idea, but, in practice, the study seems only to confirm that expert readers are experts because they’re more highly trained and have developed a couple of reliable strategies (“textbase” and “the situation model”) from the network of references, structures, quotes, forms, and patterns they’ve accumulated in their reading histories; also that having difficulty reading poetry makes it less likely that one will enjoy reading poetry. Didn't we know those things already?

Now, this article is from 1998, which on one hand seems pretty dated, but on the other hand seems quite recent, especially given the fact that there seems to have been little or no study done on this topic since Peskin. But I have to say I have a couple of problems with Peskin’s approach.

First, she makes the same mistake that 95% of all high school English teachers make; she presents the high schoolers with 400-year-old poems written in an “English” that only vaguely resembles our own. One of the poems presented to the readers is Marvell (“On a Drop of Dew”) and the other is Spenser (“Lyke as a Huntsman”). The study doesn’t take into account the difficulty of reading what amounts to a dialect that only the experts have been trained to interpret. If we were only testing the ability to read poetry (and not testing the ability to interpret 16th-17th Century English), we would present the novice poems in the contemporary native dialect of the test subjects. If the study needed to present a range of difficulty, that could easily be accomplished with poems in modern or contemporary English (one Billy Collins’s “easier” poems alongside one of Ashbery’s “more difficult” poems, for example, though I have problems with the dichotomy that comparison establishes, too).

Secondly, Peskin is biased toward the idea that “Poetry communicates universal human truths.” [That’s the first sentence of her paper.] Really? Always? She’s looking for one kind of poem and one kind of reading, namely the kind of reading —the close reading of New Criticism—that has dominated our high school classes for half a century and has kept those high school teachers churning through antiquated poetry that Peskin’s study clearly shows the high school students are not prepared to understand. But those are the poems that work well with the New Critical approach, because they are written in a strategy (metaphorical conceit) that confirms what the New Critics wanted to believe about poetry, or wanted to promote in poetry.

Peskin says: “Poetry, on the other hand, tends to compress, and in doing so, it inclines toward the comparisons and condensation of figurative language. By emphasizing image formation, it often disregards syntax, the connectives and linear order of language. It seems, then, that the construction of meaning when reading poetry must make far greater demands on the inferential process.” She even goes so far as to use her paper to argue in support of a pillar of the New Critical program—the idea that there is “an identifiable and objective meaning in the text”, that there are strategies that any reader can be trained to use to decipher a poem, that “an assumption that poetry reading is personal and natural would blur any distinction between an experienced or inexperienced reader.” In fact, she admits that she chose the Marvell and the Spenser because they seem to her to have limited readings, which she clearly desires.

I see this problem regularly in the poetry courses that I teach. Students (and I don’t just mean high school students here—I’m including upperclassmen) have been consistently led to believe that poetry is by its nature difficult, that it is supposed to be difficult to read, that its meanings are supposed to be deciphered rather than apparent, that reading poetry is a kind of game that is open only to the initiated. It seems to me that Peskin’s study comes out of that kind of thinking and reinforces it.

To Peskin’s credit, she makes a stab at acknowledging that there may be some value in reader-response theories, though she refers to them (borrowing language from LM Rosenblatt) as “biased overemphasis on feeling, on the search for childhood memories.” Again, is that really reader-response in a nutshell? She seems to cite Eco on reader subjectivity more as a matter of professional obligation than in the spirit of inquiry, so her fourth and final research question (whether the readers are satisfied with their own readings) seems empty and tacked on.

But the paper is useful to me, at least, for a couple of reasons—for highlighting the importance for expert readers of what Peskin calls textbase (“a mental representation of the propositional relations in a specific text” ) and the situation model (“the cognitive representation of that area of domain knowledge that is relevant for the particular text”) mentioned earlier—that is, the ability to recognize how a text is put together and the ability to bring knowledge outside the text to bear on the reading of the text. These are exactly the things that we train our professional readers to do. Peskin does a good job of relating these strategies to Culler, to Fish, to Eco.

If only she’d related it all to the practice of contemporary readers and the kinds of things that real novice readers might actually encounter in the contemporary world outside an English Lit class.

An aside:

My favorite moment in the paper is when Expert reader #3 says of one of the poems “The poem is incredibly beautiful… The circle imagery is reflecting the rhyme-scheme which reflects the name of the poem which is about the round perfection of God. It’s all so beautifully interconnected it makes me shiver.” Is this one of those “top of my head taken off” moments I mentioned in an earlier post? I don’t think so.

Here, #3 is quite simply perceiving beauty. The moments I’m talking about are subtly different—moments where a sudden shift in internal vision occurs, where an entirely new linguistic path has been trod in previously undiscovered territory, where a shift in perspective or an unexpected turn or a sudden revelation or epiphany or turn of phrase makes the reader feel as though, literally, they have undergone a bodily transformation, a feeling that diminishes when the experience is repeated, when the territory is learned. On repeat, it’s as though the brain has been there, done that; the reader may experience a minor version of the initial response, but it’s a pale comparison, as though the brain recognizes that the reader wants to repeat the experience and is obliged to approximate it. Or… is there a subtle difference between what I’m describing and beauty, after all?

If, as Neuroestheticians like Semir Zeki claim, "visual art has an overall function, which is an extension of the function of the visual brain, to acquire knowledge" and, as  Stanislas Dehaene and other researchers have clearly shown, reading is a function of the visual brain, then...
...no, there might not be a subtle difference. I thought I was pursuing the point where knowledge acquisition and memory meet some yet undescribed phenomenon related to reading. But it appears that what I'm trying to describe may simply be the perception of a kind of beauty; and its function is related to the acquisition of knowledge.
Furthermore, this all is evidence that beauty resides, then, in the interaction between a reader (listener/viewer/audience) and a text (performance/painting/film), not in the intrinsic qualities of the object itself; and that is what reader-response theories are all about (and where aesthetic theory should meet scientific investigation--Neuroesthetics!)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Empathy and the Individual Talent

A friend recently sent me a link to a post by Mike Young on <HTML GIANT> that started out with a promising mention of Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness; the post fairly quickly moves on to something else, but it does point out Damasio’s interesting distinction between emotion and feelings. The distinction brought to my friend’s mind Pound’s declaration that only emotion endures, and it brought to my mind Eliot’s discussion of emotion and feeling in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”.

Damasio and Eliot seem to be working off diametrically opposed conceptions of emotion/feelings. Eliot argues in essence (and Pound seems to have a similar idea in mind) that emotion is, well, an affective idea—an abstraction that is available commonly to many individuals simultaneously (we all are able to understand the emotion in Lear’s downfall, for example)—whereas feelings are hermetic, limited to individuals. Damasio, meanwhile, (according to Young) defines emotion as grounded in the body and defines feelings as our awareness of emotion.

While these two ways of looking at emotion and feeling are essentially flip-flopped (for Eliot emotion is the more general, while for Damasio emotion is the more specifically grounded), they have a link. What both Damasio and Eliot are attempting, at least in part, is to come up with a way of thinking about emotion/feelings that leave some portion accessible only to the individual while some other portion is available to a communal experience. Young’s characterization of Damasio’s distinction seems to be that there is some function in having both feelings and emotions—namely, that being conscious of one’s feelings or emotions has some evolutionary value. So what we’re really talking about here is empathy (which clearly has evolutionary value to social creatures); and I suspect that when Pound says “only emotion endures” he really is talking about empathy as well.

Whether we call them feelings or emotions or neurochemical reactions, those individual, internal moments can be pushed out into the world (ex-pressed) by description, by metaphor, by association, by rhythm and music, but they can only be felt by the expressing individual, who must hope that the individual affect rises to the level of public affect (which seems a bit different from the truism of the specific rising to the level of the universal--or is it?). You might have feelings after reading one of Pound’s poems, but they’re not the same feelings he felt; you certainly have access to the same emotions as Pound, though (the River Merchant’s Wife’s sorrow, for example). MUST empathy be the goal, then, in poetry that seeks an emotional connection, because it provides the path between those internal states and those more publicly accessible states?

One common criticism of contemporary poetry is that it either is without empathy (though it’s usually expressed as a total absence of emotion or human feeling) or, on the contrary, is limited to expression of private, personal feelings. My sense is that a lot of the (“experimental”) work that is accused of lacking emotion, feeling, or empathy is usually work that seeks to find connection on levels other than the affective; a lot of the work that is accused of being limited to mere expression of feeling (confessional) is rarely, at least among the most successful practitioners, without empathic availability.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

I have questions.

Some of those questions are:
  • What is consciousness, and how is it made?
I suppose that that sentence composed of two questions really is a mirroring of the same question. I suppose, too, that most of my other questions would self-resolve if I had the answer to that doubled/split question.

The other questions I have have mostly to do with poetry:

  • What makes some poems extremely memorable and other poems extremely forgettable?
I suspect that both memorability and hair-stand-upability have to do with novelty (can "creativity" be defined as "the ability to combine novelty and usefulness in a particular social context"?). Does a poem novel to the reader require the brain (and/or the mind) to work in a new way, to change itself in order to process; that is, does a novel poem require the brain to learn? What I would like to discover, or have someone else discover, is that those hair-on-the-neck, head-taken-off, mind expanding (or "blossoming") experiences are quite simply the process of a learning organism taking pleasure in being aware of learning something new. In other words, that consciousness is self-aware learning. Surely someone else already has thought about/tested this idea?
  • But why take so much pleasure in some learning and not in other learning? Is it the poem's music that makes the learning pleasurable?

  • What does it mean to “take pleasure” in learning?

I have other questions about language, too:
  • “I experience my consciousness”—isn’t that at least a double if not a triple or a quadruple redundancy?

  • Or, in other words, as Daniel Dennett argues, isn’t consciousness just the process of the human brain being itself rather than some product that sits on top of the brain’s processes?

  • Wouldn't such a product sound suspiciously close to a “soul”?

  • If consciousness is NOT a product that sits on top of the brain’s processes, but is rather the typical human brain’s processes themselves, then how is it that we can talk about consciousness by talking about thinking, ideas, abstractions; how is it that, as Dennett says, function is as function does? Am I the only person who finds this truly astounding? As though the top of my head had been taken off?

On the other hand, it’s not the slightest bit astounding that we can discuss how to fly an airplane without discussing jet engine mechanics.

And more questions about poems:

Praise be to Vishnu
his hands fondle in secret
the large breasts of Laksme
as though looking there
for his own lost heart.
Mapuche Ranger

When I asked to click a picture of him with the Patagonias in the background he refused. From that perspective he was invisible.

On Growing Old in San Francisco

Two girls barefoot walking in the rain
Both girls lovely, one of them is sane
Hurting me softly
Hurting me though

Two girls barefoot walking in the snow
Walking in the white snow
Walking in the black
Two girls barefoot never coming back.

seem to produce that hair-on-back-of-neck, or head-removed, or noticeable shift in internal vision, or aha moment, or wow factor, or “fame” (Dennett--but I'm using his word in a different context and in a different way than he uses it) more frequently or more readily than longer poems?
  • And why is it that those poems might do it for me, but not for you?

  • Is there something other than mere "taste" (whatever that is) in my reading history (or in my “self”) that primes me to be moved by those poems? What could that possibly be or mean?

  • What does it mean to be moved by a poem? Who is pushing whom around in there?
If I were really lucky, someone with access to functional MRI would say to me, “I’m interested in these questions, too. Let’s see what’s happening in the brains of readers while they’re reading some of these poems.”

Since that’s unlikely to happen, I started a blog. It’s called mirror mirror. Maybe someone (you) will read it on occasion and will have an article, or a theory, or an experiment, or a thought experiment, or a study, or a link, or an idea that will shed some light or contribute to a conversation.

I’m no expert. I’m just interested.

And, by the way:

  • What is an expert?

And also by the way:
  • Once I dump a bunch of questions here, will I have more questions in a few weeks or a few months or will this blog, like a poem, exhaust itself only to be abandoned after such intense thinkodynamics? How much do we ever really abandon?
  • Is language the pure product of consciousness? And, therefore, are we in our words?
Mirror, mirror…