Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Book Club Epilogue

I’ve been reading Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks. I just finished a chapter about a blind man who had surgery removing cataracts, and was thus able to see. His sight was limited, in part because his retinas were damaged, but mainly because his brain had not since birth developed to process visual imagery. Some desultory thoughts:

While I read, I’ve been keeping in mind the criticisms of the doctor in The Echo Maker. Is Sacks invading this man’s privacy? At times the account feels quite intimate, and it is not at all clear that Sacks has helped the man. At the end of the story, “Virgil,” the blind man who can see, descends back into blindness when he gets a terrible case of pneumonia that deprives him of oxygen. All that being said, Virgil is clearly capable of making decisions about his own life, and the account would not have been possible without Virgil’s consent. I’m seconding an earlier point by TK that this aspect of the portrayal of Weber doesn’t ring true.

The story ("To See and Not See") gave me great insight into the tendency of the deaf community to reject the hearing, especially to oppose technologies that might enable them to hear. As Sacks points out, seeing for Virgil was disorienting; the experience was one of losing blindness rather than gaining vision. In a footnote, Sacks adds for the deaf, the sense of isolation is doubled – one loses deafness and an entire community. For Virgil, who loses his vision after gaining it, the sense of isolation and rage is far more damaging than the constraints of blindness.

The tale of Mark and Karin got me thinking about our use of "blindness" as a metaphor. It means not merely "not being able to see," but "not recognizing," and "not understanding. Mark is blind to Karin. The reader blind to the writer of the note (I write the sentence and it sounds funny to me… why?). It's not a semantic slippage that I had thought about prior to now, but it must affect the way we treat the blind. It also makes me wonder about Powers' premise. Sure, the mind can come undone. But it is also remarkably resilient, and I remain not fully convinced (intellectually or emotionally) of the particular kind of undoing that transpires in The Echo Maker.

At times of great stress, such as when his family came to visit, the seeing Virgil would lose his vision anew. The paragraph I found most interesting (pp. 135-136) in hardcover edition:

In these episodes Virgil was treated by his family as a blind man, his seeing identity denied or undermined, and he responded, compliantly, by acting, or even becoming, blind – a massive withdrawal or regression of part of his ego to a crushing, annihilating denial of identity. Such a regression would have to be seen as motivated, albeit unconsciously – an inhibition on a "functional" basis.

Thus there seemed to be two distinct forms of "blind behavior" or "acting blind" – one a collapse of visual processing and visual identity on an organic basis (a "bottom up" or neuropsychological disturbance…), the other a collapse or inhibition of visual identity on a functional basis (a "top-down", or psychoneurotic disturbance), though no less real for him. Given the extreme organic weakness of his vision – the instability of his visual systems and visual identity at this point – it was very difficult at times to know what was going on, to distinguish between the "physiological" and "psychological." His vision was so marginal, so close to the border, that either neural overload or identity conflict might push him over it.

If Sacks is right, it means our very consciousness/identity is visual. Except when it isn't. I feel that's a more profound insight into my own mind than anything I encountered in Powers.


Dawn Coyote said...

I’m not sure that Powers was criticizing Sacks so much as he was using a Sacks-like figure in order to highlight the unsavory aspects of the writer's craft. My sense is that Weber's main conflict is his sudden understanding that all he's achieved is due to the fact that he can take others' authentic experiences and with them build a monument to his own ego.

I’ve never been able to write about anyone without the feeling that I’m co-opting their experiences for my own specious purposes. Sometimes I'm okay with it—like if they’ve been a jerk, for instance—but I feel less okay writing about my brother's problem with drugs, even though I have his permission, even though I’m also writing about my own experience. Does my emotional investment gives me license? If I really just needed to vent, I could do it in a less public manner. As a writer, I have to reconcile myself to being a thief, a fraud, a sinner. I can't do it by layering on a thin veneer of noble causes, which is perhaps what Weber had done before his fall.

On blindness: interesting that identity conflict causes Vergil to regress to blindness. It's really his family who's blind, preferring to keep him in a box rather than acknowledge and adapt to his changes. There's an ultimatum in the refusal to see someone's growth, to hold them static because their infirmity worked for you as an ego prop. It's objectification at its most insidious. TK would identify Virgil's family as soft narcissists, I believe. Is this what Karin and Mark do to each other - refuse to accept the latest version of their sibling because they preferred an earlier copy? I've had friends like that, but don't any longer.

I still haven’t finished The Echo Maker. I’m at the part where Mark and Karin visit their old house, which is one of the best parts, I agree with you. But the revelation about the videos? Was that really necessary?

JohnMcG said...

Maybe that's where the cranes come in a bit.

Their habitat is reduced, which means the cranes are crowded into smaller and smaller areas, and everyone thinks, "Hey! -- The cranes are magnificent!" We're blind to the reality -- willfully so, since it doesn't take that much scientific expertise to see what's really going on.

JohnMcG said...

We Catholics who went to a Mass with those about to join the Church just heard about Jeus healing the man blind from birth, as well as Paul's echortations for Christians to "live in the light."

Jesus does this same semantic slipping -- sahying the Pharisees are really the blind ones because they cannot see that Jesus is Lord.

To Jesus, blindness isn't so much an affliction as a rejection of light.

Anyway, not attempting to proselytize, but I thought it was interesting that our discussion of blindness came on the heels of us hearing these stories.

august said...

I feel like I've mentioned this before, but I once read an essay called "Moral Luck" by someone named Williams. It's one of the few things that has stuck with me from an undergrad philosophy course. Part of the idea was that we (some of us) will intuitively grant artists a degree of moral leeway provided the art is good. If you leave your wife to go to Tahiti, better make damn sure that what you do in Tahiti is worthwhile. Part of Williams's point was that the success or failure of one's tahiti ventures are subject to some factors beyond your control -- hence you can see how a degree of luck might be involved in some moral judgements (Another example might be if somebody driving on the wrong side of the road struck your car and died. you would not be at fault, but might still feel some guilt resulting from bad luck rather than a volitional (that word again!) act.)

A long tangent. My point was that reading Sacks made the Weber character feel less convincing to me. But I certainly see your point about art. It may be one reason artists have such a reputation for being self-centered. I've been thinking a lot about how various intuitions/responses to art, and particularly to artists, are recent phenomena. Thoughts spurred in part by my conversation with Gregor about genes and religion. I was thinking that there might also be interesting arguments about genes and art, but that such arguments would need to get past tired 19-20th century sanctimonious notions of the capital-A Artist to get at the precise traits (genes) that might be subject to selection.

That's a fairly natural segue to your point, John. I kind of think the blindness as metaphor idea is everywhere ("the blind leading the blind"). If you are invested in what you see as truth, and you are faced with competing versions of truth, it seems to be a very powerful way of describing the situation -- "awakening" and "being lost" are other common metaphors. I don't mean to undermine the power of the word (nor of religious experience --"amazing grace... I once was lost/but now, I'm found/ was blind/ but now, I see"). I just think that there may be subtle ways such metaphors affect the ways we regard and act toward blind people, and the implications are worrisome.

But in addition to challenging the application of the metaphor, one could deepen it. There are different levels of blindness. If a person is truly "cured" of blindness in a stroke, that means that Jesus (or whatever) has affected both the eyes and the brain. For me, it can suggest new ways of thinking about non-understanding. "Rejection of light" could cover a multitude of evils, not just willful denial.

Echo Maker -- Dawn, sorry, had I realized that you weren't done, I'd have toned down some of my criticisms (and would not have titled this post an "epilogue"). The last bit is page-turning, and many mysteries are solved.

Anyway, maybe the multiple forms of non-comprehension are Powers basic material for this book. The situation of the birds reminds me of the work of Lakoff, of whom I've been wanting to top post. Lakoff argues that logic is not the way the brain works. If you are trying to convince a person of something, metaphor is often more effective.

If I were M.C., I'd want to hand the microphone over to TK. Ladies and gentlemen, let's give a big round of applause for ...

TenaciousK said...

Ack! I’m feeling guilty (again, actually) about being busy and distracted at the moment. I hate it when that happens!

August – it’s been a very long time since I read that book (and I think it’s currently packed away in a box that says “office” on it). I think that one has the story about the Buddhist acolyte who achieved enlightenment? It occurred to me after I posted in defense of Sacks that this is one that should perhaps give me pause. I’m curious about your thoughts.

I haven’t read Lakoff, though I probably have some familiarity with the argument. The short answer is – all reasoning is, at the molecular level, associative. The longer answer is much more complicated, because the process is so multilayered. DC talks about pattern recognition, cognitive psychologists talked for the longest time about analogical reasoning, and people like John Anderson (I was a fan of his model, back when I was thinking more about such things) talk about conceptual priming, activation level and proceduralization. There’s schemata, and daemons, and declarative/procedural, or semantic/episodic, or long-term, short-term, and working memory: everybody has a pet model, and most are useful in their own way, yet each terribly incomplete. And none of the straight cognitive models have anything of any use at all to say about the self, which I suppose is one of the reasons that cognitive neuroscientists and clinical psychologists rarely (with notable exceptions) have much positive to say about each other. Much of the difficulty lies in our inability to coherently conceptualize the relationships between such a multitude of simultaneous processes.

And at some level, of course, the theoretical constructs are only so virtuous as they are useful. Perhaps this is what our author was driving at, in part, as he contrasts the beauty of the cranes (unselfconscious beings) with the technically expository model which Weber was himself resisting. Actually, he probably wasn’t, or he’d have portrayed Weber as the experientially-based technical observer in a more sympathetic light, I think. I dunno – I keep feeling like Powers was aiming for something in this book, but we can never be sure whether or not he ever hit the mark; it’s obscured.

Some quick thoughts, before I get my ass back in it’s customary position before the grindstone:

Genes and art. I like Koestler’s rather simple-minded definition of creativity (novel combination of existing ideas, or perhaps generalizing an idea from one context to an unrelated one). Though you can’t define art, it’s notable that you can get a group of art experts together, have them rate the creativity expressed in different art pieces, and that their level of agreement will be surprisingly high. Great art has in common, I think, an ability to make farflung associations, and express them in symbolic form. It’s a difficult process, because of the signal-to-noise ratio problem (spurious association versus difficult to recognize, but valid association). Drawing relationships between unrelated things, (and lacking a self-corrective mechanism) is what defines delusional thinking.

People with trauma backgrounds are frequently more inclined to make such distant connections (due to radical changes in perspective), and art (or something like it) becomes the vehicle by which they reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. People with trauma backgrounds are frequently more inclined to make such distant connections (due to radical changes in perspective), and art (or something like it) becomes the vehicle by which they reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. There are dark gifts in the most horrid of experiences, if one has the courage to reap them [Frankl is one of my heroes, BTW].

Drugs, sometimes, can approximate this, though eventually to ill ends, I think. I keep threatening to write a lengthy post on substance-induced enlightenment, and some day I will, I promise. Suffice it to say that being unable to describe the steps that led you from hither to yon rather undermines your ability to express the relationship between hither and yon.

Expression of identity: I remember reading Gregor (or someone) talking about online anonymity, and how that impacts self-expression (is it more the “true self” that’s expressed, or a fabricated self). I thought he left time out of the equation. In a new environment, it’s rather natural to experiment with different ways of being (partly because we’re all much bigger than we can express in a moment, or even be aware of in a moment, and it’s nice to be able to figure out exactly how one best fits). Over time, though, I imagine that what’s expressed is more consistent with who one is, though even here there are probably exceptions (radical compartmentalization/identity schisms). As the “recovered memory” controversies in the 80’s taught us, multiple personality disorder is probably a condition one could cultivate, if one were inclined (a very bad idea, IMO).

It takes awhile for us to find our feet whenever things have significantly changed, whether that be the landscape we’re operating in, or ourselves in relation to it (like brain damage, for instance). We flail around for awhile, and then we find ourselves.

Being bigger than we express: This only makes sense. We are, every one of us, homicidal maniacs. At least, some (hopefully distant and discrete) aspect of us is. It only makes sense for us to have evolved this way – we have to be extremely adaptable to cope with extreme changes in circumstances. This is why simplistic sociobiological explanations for trait selection are so ludicrous. What makes sense is not to select things out of the gene pool so much as digging a deeper basement to hide things in. Psychological regression is undeniably adaptive, yet we never really seem to talk about it. We sure live with it though [thinking about things like – inner city crime, the impact of war on propensity to violence, the relationship between child abuse and crime, the relationship between being victimized and becoming a perpetrator, resiliency and the lack thereof].

Types of reasoning: All reasoning is at some level associative. It’s also multilayered, however. There’s a fundamental relationship between analogical reasoning, learning through modeling, and “top-down” thinking. Though it might be easier/quicker to teach something this way, there’s a potential multiplicative error problem.

Argh! I don’t even know if any of this makes sense, but I gotta’ run for awhile. In the mean time, the issue continues to be discussed by better minds* than mine.

*I so dig the pic on that page, but the ripple’s done via a java applet (I was able to scam the jpeg file underneath it). Anyone know how to convert something like that into an animated jpeg, or whatever?