Sunday, February 27, 2011

Men In Black

About a month ago I caught the second half of Men in Black on television; a superbly made movie in hindsight. There were a lot of things I liked about it, but I think the most important thing was that unlike a lot of science-fiction themed movies, which support their plot with a well articulated con-world, Men in Black simply relies on a series of quirks: tabloid style vignettes portraying the protagonists' and our own lack of understanding of everything happening.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

People talk to their friends and see psychiatrists in order to reconstruct their personal narratives—and yet when people do the same thing via religion, it suddenly becomes a debate about religion being "unscientific" or "misleading" or some other nonsense. Just saying.

EDIT: I just realized that the only way I can articulate my defense of religion is with these little vignettes. I have an idea of why, but I don't want to get into a long essay about it (talk to me—or leave a comment if you're interested in that sort of thing.)

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Garden of Platonic Forms

More on this later perhaps; time permitting, but I may have stumbled upon the fundamental essence of post-structuralism:

Literature has no platonic forms, invalidating the underlying assumption since Aristotle that literature is a way to bring us closer to Platonic forms (Plato believed that poetry and drama was "thrice removed from nature", meaning that it was an imitation of an imitation; but Aristotle believed in the power of poetry/drama to bypass the limitations of Earthly manifestations.)

Structuralism was the most rigorous* way of doing this, but eventually saw its own limits; thus becoming a study of this very cycle of interpreting and then finding new meaning by figuring out how the interpretation contradicted itself or simply didn't apply. Perhaps that's why I have as hard a time as the French understanding any real difference between structuralism and post-structuralism.


*Please take "rigorous with a grain of salt.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Two Social Psychology Observations

Cognitive Dissonance: A long time I wrote that I thought that cognitive dissonance was an evolutionary adaptation that made people in groups more predctable and trustworthy and ultimately facilitated the use of narrative as a social heuristic. I still think this is true, but I also think its function is important on an individual level; in order to explain, I'll point out an observation by the computer scientist and cultural theorist Phoebe Sengers:

In listening to Julie, it was often as though one were doing group psychotherapy with the one patient. Thus I was confronted with a babble or jumble of quite disparate attitudes, feelings, expressions of impulse. The patient's intonations, gestures, mannerisms, changed their character from moment to moment. ...It seemed therefore that one was in the presence of various fragments, or incomplete elements of different 'personalities' in operation at the one time. Her 'word-salad' seemed to be the result of a number of quasi-autonomous partial systems striving to give expression to themselves.
out of the same mouth at the same time.
(Laing 1960, 195-196; quoted in Phoebe Sengers' "Schizophrenia and Narrative")

Sengers uses this example to make a point about how current methods in artificial intelligence (AI) operate: an optimal behavior is selected on the basis of some utility metric without any regard for what was done in the past. This disregard for consistency is optimal for any agent within a game-theoretic model (classical economics, chess, etc.), but if a person were to operate this way, their identity would be completely inconsistent, every action acting completely out of context with any other one. In more simple terms, acting in this manner requires completely throwing out one's identity.

To a theoretical economist, this might be great news; after all, it was once said that consistency is the hobgoblin of all minds; but we shouldn't dismiss the importance of a consistent identity so fast. Reading through Antonio Damasio's Self Comes to Mind, I took note of his explanation of consciousness (synonymous with subjectivity, and in this blogger's humble opinion, narrative) as a more evolutionarily advanced mechanism for self-regulation, the process by which all life forms, from prokaryotes to mammals, fight off external chaos and maintain internal order. Self-regulation is the essence of all life, and consciousness is the most advanced tool for doing so by allowing us to make complex plans and coordinate seamlessly with large groups; but more than that, consciousness regulates itself in the same manner that life-forms do—it is a consistent narrative that maintains itself and in doing so endows us with identity. Without a cohesive narrative, we cannot have a subjective identity; and without a subjective identity, our consciousness, that most crucial of means of human survival, quickly disintegrates. If you don't believe me, read the passage above one more time.

Cognitive dissonance is a way for us to fight external entropy, no different than the regulation of our body temperatures or our immune system's constant attack on what's foreign to the body.

2) Protagonists: On a much shorter note, it occurred to me that the presence of protagonists in stories is possibly a symptom-of/appeal-to our own universally shared narcissism.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

If On A Winter's Night...

It was cold as balls tonight as I was taking a walk in only a hoodie and some gloves after a 20 minute workout. A lot of doubts were running through my head and, of course, passing by the scenery of Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo I had the fleeting fantasy of being a twenty-something year old millionaire with a condo perfectly overlooking the East River.

Can't survive on such self-indulging fantasies; and if you have to wait for that moment in your life to find meaning, then million dollars or not, you're stuffed. That tied in with all my Taleb-inspired thoughts about randomness and how to live with it and reminded me of part of why I came to love studying narratives:

Narratives are the only thing that truly belong to us. We can't (for the most part) control what happens to us, but we can choose how to make sense of it. We can't control the material consequences of our situation, but we can choose how they shape our intentionality. I feel as if more than anything, this is what atheists misunderstand about religion; the primacy of subjective narratives over objective facts.*

Narrative lets us live for the moment as connected with the associations of the past and the projections and unknowns of the future.


*It may be accurate to say that what religion deals with is eminently subjective; the multiplicity of narratives in our lives that can only be understood as subjective experiences.