Blurry Mental States

Here’s a little ponder I did a while back, which I came across recently while poking around in my files.

Zadie Smith in NYRB, reviewing The Social Network (the Mark Zuckerberg movie) and You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier (11/25/10):

“When I read something like that [semi-literate Facebook posts to the recently dead], I have a little argument with myself: ‘It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.’ But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive?”

More and more, I’m coming to think of this as a false dichotomy. To mis-use a concept Smith deploys in this review, it’s a kind of 1.0 thinking—or, to put it in more familiar terms, it’s characteristic of the long tradition of Enlightenment thought. My experience teaching composition has led me to the conclusion that people’s minds are much messier than we hyperliterate types like to represent them as, and that what appear on paper to be logical contradictions like this are in fact quite normal in most people’s everyday thinking.

[Then, to quote Wallace Stevens, “pages of illustrations.”]

Even this understates the case: language itself requires a clarity, a crystallization—a reduction to the monads of words—that imposes an appearance of discreteness quite at odds with the fluidity of actual thought. Writing by people unaccustomed to the conventions of writing reveals this fluidity in the ways it violates the conventions. It’s not the writing itself but the fluid dynamics, the roiling of the reader’s own thinking and expectation, that acts as a trace, revealing indexically that elusive fluidity and ease with contradiction that characterizes ordinary thinking. Language, I suspect, will never be able to represent this reality. At best it can indicate it by producing those same disruptions. Perhaps this is just a way of saying what Stein and Faulkner and Joyce and others were after with the development of stream-of-consciousness; certainly it helps explain what I love about Woolf. But for me, the language itself always interposes itself, becomes the object of attention, and the fluidity of thought escapes again into its nonverbality.

Maybe what I’m trying to describe is, again, Bateson’s idea of “primary process” (a concept he borrowed from Freud), and I’ve come unexpectedly by a different route to the same question I addressed in my comments on writing from a nonhuman perspective.

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The (in)human author and the (in)human characters

The other night we were talking about fiction, or more generally any art, that could represent a non-human reality, a non-human perspective and experience. I argued that fiction was particularly unsuited to this task, because it’s a genre rooted in very human experiences and conventions for representing those experiences. A couple of us speculated that any art is ultimately going to founder on this problem, because we always bring our human perspective to bear, both in the making and in the reception of the work. But I suggested that other genres—poetry, nonfiction—might do better at getting us closer to some such world.

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