My last two posts on Vietnam vets illustrate various points about realities:
Realities aren’t coextensive with physical stuff. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings can participate in the same heroic mythic reality; the Vietnamese jungle and the Midwestern American suburb can participate in the same warzone reality. On the other hand, a single place can simultaneously occupy two different realities: the jungle can be both a beautiful habitat and a source of danger; a suburban home can be a source of both security and insecurity.
Realities aren’t all in your head. For some people Vietnam and suburbia are dangerously insecure places; for others these same places are loci of supply and demand in the global marketplace. But these aren’t just different subjective responses: they’re responses to different meaningful features of the world.
Realities aren’t defined solely by intersubjective agreement. Isolated Vietnam vets can participate in the same alternative American reality as one another without even realizing it. An artist can “see” impressionism or cubism even before anyone else does; a handful of scientists can detect signs of global warming without knowing that anyone else is detecting the same evidence. On the other hand, intersubjective agreement can validate a particular reality, defining it as either mainstream or marginal, healthy or sick.
Realities are systems of meaning that link individuals to the world and to other people. A reality isn’t centered in the individual or the world or the community. A reality is more like a web that stretches across, embeds and links together the self, the world, and other people. A web of reality is knit together from multiple interlacing strands of meaning: beauty, danger, money, security, etc. A reality is neither objective nor subjective, neither a permanent part of the world nor a mental construct. An unlimited number of realities coexist in the world, but they are what Deleuze calls “virtual” realities (see prior post). A particular reality actualizes itself on the fly, assembled from whatever strands of meaning are important to an individual or group as they interact with the physical and social world. Language illustrates the general structure common to all realities: each of us has language inside our head; language can be represented as physical symbols that point to features of the world; language is an interpersonal medium in which conversation takes place.
As psychologist J.J. Gibson pointed out (see prior post), animals don’t just occupy space and time; they live in environments. An environment “affords” nourishment, shelter, danger, etc. — features of the environment that are specifically meaningful to the animals living in it. Individual animals are genetically attuned to these affordances, continually seeking out and making use of affordance information in order to eat, avoid predators, reproduce, protect offspring, etc.
The environment consists of multiple overlapping virtual realities, each of which comprises one or more categories of affordances. If the animal is hungry and thirsty, the food and drink affordances of the world become salient, and the animal attunes to them: the virtual reality that links hunger and food, thirst and drink. When the hunger and thirst are satisfied, these affordances of the world aren’t exhausted; rather, they recede back into the virtual, ready to be activated again any time.
Humans are like other animals: we live in environments, we attune to affordances, we assemble realities on the fly depending on whatever motivations are activated. Because we are really clever and complex animals we can attune to affordances that aren’t purely instinctual; e.g., beauty, justice, understanding. Most of the time we participate in realities without paying conscious attention. But we can pay attention; we can become aware of realities and the strands of meaning that comprise them. I can realize that right now I’m attuned to the jungle’s affordances of beauty and taxonomic knowledge rather than to its affordances of danger and food.
If I’m attending to the environment’s affordances for threat and protection, it’s because I’m currently motivated to avoid danger and/or to seek out security. For each of us these motivations surge and recede, as do the environmental affordances that are meaningful relative to these motivations. This particular reality, which links danger to environmental threats, insecurity to environmental sources of safety, is always virtual but only intermittently actualized. If I’m constantly participating in this particular reality, it means that I’m sensing immanent threat or insecurity all the time, and so I’m hyperattuned to sources of danger and protection. On the other hand, I might never participate in this reality, never recognize any sort of danger or need to protect myself from it. These two extremes — overengagement and underengagement in particular realities — should probably constitute the dual foci of a psychological practice.