2 June 2007

Multiple Overlapping Realities

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:53 am

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.



  1. There was a guy last year who undertook a survival course and died of thirst just short of the next water point. He did not know that water was nearby and those that were with him knew he was in trouble but decided that by intervening they would be spoiling his survival experience. The guide had emergency water but decided against dispensing it…

    Another odd thing last year was the Everest climber who got altitude sickness and was left to die, only to be found alive the next day by another team of climbers.

    This corresponds to common big city experience where domestic violence, murders and muggings happen all around the inhabitants but there is a deliberate failure to engage or intervene.

    Forces that are beyond our control are at work, whether natural or humanly organised and our awareness of these forces urges us to be selfish, look out for yourself…survive.

    Comment by samlcarr — 2 June 2007 @ 2:00 pm

  2. Not surprisingly, I am very interested in this idea of attention and its role in realities. Does this mean that we should take a look at what attention is? What makes us attend to some things and not others when all of the affordances are there before us? If attention is sometimes a matter of choice but other times dictated by something, what is the “something”? Is the something a motivation? What activates the motivation? Are motivations basic up to a point and after that choice kicks in, so we are motivated by danger first then when safe can be motivated by cubism?

    I am also curious about the idea of us seeing multiple realities in the same thing/place. Do we add them up or do they shift radically? Did the vets ever see home the “old” way again?

    I’m big on questions today, I fear. I’ve been writing like this all day.

    Meilleurs voeux!!

    Comment by bluevicar — 2 June 2007 @ 3:20 pm

  3. Sam –

    These are disturbing aspects of our society, or at least certain sectors of it. The mountain climber reality extols the completely self-contained individual; I suspect the people who get left behind regard it as some kind of dignity to be left to die as MEN. Strange. For someone who can smell the summit to violate the ethos and actually SAVE someone — you wonder whether these kindly souls are now banned for life from the fraternity of the oxygen-deprived. Urban anomie feels like something else, something less sadomasochistic but more pathetic.

    “Forces that are beyond our control are at work, whether natural or humanly organised and our awareness of these forces urges us to be selfish, look out for yourself…survive.” I agree: even individual isolation is the result of societal forces. I personally find it difficult to overcome the forces of isolation, less I think from selfishness than from alienation.

    Comment by ktismatics — 2 June 2007 @ 6:06 pm

  4. We talk about ‘keeping out of harm’s way’. This is battlefield talk. it is not selfish at all in this context. Heroes are those who ignore this imperative, perhaps to try to save another or perhaps to accomplish ‘the mission’ at any cost.

    The need for this level of self protectiveness is not supposed to exist in ‘normal’ society. in fact it is the army that stands in the breach to protect society from the dangers that lurk ‘out there’. But you are suggesting that there are equally dangerous dangers inside and that our ignoring them too is somewhat self conscious. The parallel meanings surround us and our failure is in not facing them squarely.

    I suspect that you are right. We should take a much closer, critical look at all of our marginalisations. We might be surprised at how close to us and how thin is the line that divides these margins from our mainstream.

    Comment by samlcarr — 2 June 2007 @ 8:39 pm

  5. vic –

    These are good questions about attention, motivation, etc. I was looking at Deleuze’s theory of desires in this regard: his view is that the desires activate themselves, outside of conscious mediation. Kind of a “squeaky wheel gets the grease” theory — the desire, activated unconsciously, draws attention to itself, stimulating the search for affordances that will satisfy the desire. There are also ways of activating attention and desire via the affordances. While the affordances are always there, they can be manipulated to increase their salience — that’s what advertising is all about. There’s a kind of natural advertising too — an apple whose seeds are ready to grow turns red, drawing attention to creatures that eat apples. Lots of examples can be found for this principle of enhancing the salience of affordances in order to attract the attention and stimulate the desires. Can you simply decide to attend to particular kinds of affordances without the attention being motivated by desire? I think so, although there’s probably some more refined desire that would make you want to direct the attention consciously — aesthetic sensibilities, concerns about justice and morality, pursuit of knowledge, etc.

    As for the same person seeing multiple realities, we do it all the time — affordances for food, shelter, sex, truth, love, etc. all overlap in the world, awaiting our attention. Do the vets ever see America the way they used to? Strangely I never asked anybody that question. I’m not sure: maybe experiences that are particularly important permanently change our ways of engaging the world. Surely this is true for children, who grow out of ways of being in the world. I’d like to think that a veteran can engage the world as a source of solace and safety, but in perhaps a more mature and complex way than they used to. I’m not sure we need to mourn lost innocence. We need to celebrate innocence as an ongoing achievement that incorporates what we’ve learned rather than forcing us to unlearn.

    Comment by ktismatics — 2 June 2007 @ 8:54 pm

  6. Sam –

    We want to externalize the threats, assigning them to foreigners and crazies and atheists and so on, rather than acknowledging the capacity for violence in our own towns, our own families, ourselves. Paranoia seems like an overreaction to this awareness, but it’s still externalized — the threat is all around us. But the threat is also ourselves: provoking confrontations, socially marginalizing ourselves, pushing others into isolation, etc. So the paranoid self may need to come to an awareness that the enemy is also within. Some kind of reconciliation of our own latent danger to ourselves is probably a good idea.

    I’m aware that I’m practically turning the paranoid people into models of appropriate behavior. But I think some sort of acknowledgment is desirable, not just of the subjectively paranoiac point of view but also of the real dangers that the paranoiac is attuned to. A kind of corrective or counterbalance to the tendency to label and treat disorders, which keeps us safe from the infection.

    Comment by ktismatics — 2 June 2007 @ 9:27 pm

  7. Isn’t stuff like DSM IV amazing? if we can name, classify, and diagnostically distinguish it, then we can treat it too. What a laugh! it’s a system that is designed for to enable the below average practitioner to get by without killing off too many patients.

    Comment by samlcarr — 2 June 2007 @ 10:18 pm

  8. It’s one manifestation of the relationship between knowledge and power that Foucault talks about — if we name it we control it. It’s also partly about money, I think — the client’s diagnostic category can be converted into coded data for reimbursement by insurance companies.

    Comment by ktismatics — 3 June 2007 @ 4:22 am

  9. Understanding the paranoia, not just as an after effect of some childhood or more recent trauma, but as something that may have a basis in a real alternative interpretation of present dangers sounds like where you are looking to start, but is it practical? How will you be able to tell when something may be valid and when it is not? Clearly it makes a difference, whether one can enter into the understanding of the alternative or not.

    Comment by samlcarr — 3 June 2007 @ 12:05 pm

  10. Sam –

    I think psychotic paranoia — obviously delusional thinking, hallucinations, etc. — is something outside the scope of what I’m trying to do here, though perhaps all of us lose perspective entirely if things are going badly enough. Even in ordinary situations, even without paranoia, I can’t really tell who’s right and who’s wrong in an argument between two other people, and especially if I only ever hear one person’s side of the story. That’s why the relationship between therapist and client seems like the best place to focus attention. If the client mistrusts me, regards me as a threat, etc. then we have something to work with that we can both evaluate, something that’s happening right in our midst. That’s also why I’m resistant to problem-solving or achieving goals outside the therapeutic relationship: I can never really know what’s going on out there. All I’ve got is this relationship, playing out in this limited setting.

    This is a fairly orthodox analytic approach, and I’m not sure how well it fits with my interest in sociocultural impact. If everything is unconscious until we need it, then everything is fair game for formulating the unformulated experiences of the client — including interpersonal relationships, work, politics, etc. I don’t have clearly in mind how much to change the nature of the therapeutic conversations. But I do think it’s more important for the client to determine whether his/her perceptions of others are valid, rather than for the therapist to make this determination.

    Comment by ktismatics — 3 June 2007 @ 2:25 pm

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