30 November 2007


Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:24 pm

In The Social Construction of Reality, which I’ve been citing liberally the past few days, Berger and Luckmann describe legitimation as “second-order objectivation of meaning,” the object of which is “to integrate the meanings already attached to disparate institutional processes,” making them “objectively available and subjectively plausible.” Here are the architectural sketches for constructing the Matrix:

“It is possible to distinguish analytically between different levels of legitimation… Incipient legitimation is present as soon as a system of linguistic objectifications is transmitted. For example, the transmission of a kinship vocabulary ipso facto legitimates the kinship structure. The fundamental legitimating ‘explanations’ are, so to speak, built into the vocabulary…

“The second level of legitimation contains theoretical propositions in a rudimentary form. Here may be found various explanatory schemes relating sets of objective meanings. These schemes are highly pragmatic, directly related to concrete actions. Proverbs, moral maxims and wise sayings are common on this level. Here, too, belong legends and folk tales, frequently transmitted in poetic forms…

“The third level of legitimation contains explicit theories by which an institutional sector is legitimated in terms of a differentiated body of knowledge. Such legitimations provide fairly comprehensive frames of reference for the respective sectors of institutionalized conduct. Because of their complexity and differentiation, they are frequently entrusted to specialized personnel who transmit them through formalized initiation procedures… With the development of specialized legitimatating theories and their administration by full-time legitimators, legitimation begins to go beyond pragmatic application and to become ‘pure theory’…

“Symbolic universes constitute the fourth level of legitimation. These are bodies of theoretical tradition that integrate different provinces of meaning and encompass the institutional order of a symbolic totality… The symbolic universe is conceived as the matrix of all socially objectivated and subjectively real meanings; the entire historic society and the entire biography of the individual are seen as events taking place within this universe.

“What is particularly important, the marginal situations of the life of the individual (marginal, that is, in not being included in the reality of everyday existence in society) are also encompassed by the symbolic universe… The provinces of meaning that would otherwise remain unintelligible enclaves within the reality of everyday life are thus ordered in terms of a hierarchy of realities, ipso facto becoming intelligible and less terrifying. This integration of the realities of marginal situations within the paramount reality of everyday life is of great importance, because these situations consitute the most acute threat to taken-for-granted, routinized existence in society.

“If one conceives of the latter as the ‘daylight side’ of human life, then the marginal situations constitute a ‘night side’ that keeps lurking ominously on the periphery of everyday consciousness. Just because the ‘night side’ has its own reality, often enough of a sinister kind, it is a constant threat to the taken-for-granted, matter-of-fact ‘sane’ reality of life in society. The thought keeps suggesting itself (the ‘insane’ thought par excellence) that, perhaps, the bright reality of everyday life is an illusion, to be swallowed up at any moment by the howling nightmares of the other, the night-side reality. Such thoughts of madness and terror are contained by ordering all conceivable realities within the same symbolic universe that encompasses the reality of everyday life — to wit, ordering them in such a way that the latter reality retains its paramount, definitive (if one wishes, its ‘most real’) quality.”

The New Deviance

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Psychology — ktismatics @ 1:36 am

According to Berger and Luckmann:

Therapy entails the application of conceptual machinery to ensure that actual or potential deviants stay within the institutionalized definitions of reality, or, in other words, to prevent the “inhabitants” of a given universe from “emigrating.” It does this by applying the legitimating apparatus to individual “cases.” Since every society faces the danger of individual deviance, we may assume that therapy in one form or another is a global social phenomenon. Its specific institutional arrangements, from exorcism to psychoanalysis, from pastoral care to personnel counseling programs, belong, of course, under the category of social control.

The older therapies of our culture define deviance as immorality, imbalance, illness, irrationality, lack of self-control. More recent therapies address a different set of issues: failure, unhappiness, inauthenticity, lack of passion, excessive self-control. Do these new therapeutic regimens signal an opening-up of an overly restrictive culture, a sort of anti-therapy that does away with the very idea of deviance, a portal for those who wish to emigrate to a different universe? Or has the everyday universe redefined itself in such a way that what used to be characterized as deviant now constitutes the norm? If it’s the latter, are there any alternative universes left? Are they to be discovered by disregarding success and happiness, by cultivating artifice and dispassionate interest, by being less concerned with expressing one’s self?

29 November 2007


Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:27 pm

Here’s some more Berger and Luckmann. Is this the ideological underpinning of the neocons’ plan to create reality on the ground in Iraq?

“Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly supra-human terms. Another way of saying this is that reification is the apprehension of the products of human activity as if they were something else than human products — such as facts of nature, results of cosmic laws, or manifestations of divine will. Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his own authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between man, the producer, and his products is lost to consciousness. The reified world is, by definition, a dehumanized world. It is experienced by man as a strange facticity, an opus alienum over which he has no control rather than as the opus proprium of his own productive activity.

“…reification can be described as an exreme step in the process of objectivation, whereby the objectivated world loses its comprehensibility as a human enterprise and becomes fixated as a non-human, non-humanizable, inert facticity. Typically, the real relationship between man and his world is reversed in consciousness. Man, the producer of a world, is apprehended as its product, and human activity is an epiphenomenon of non-human processes. Human meanings are no longer understood as world-producing but as being, in their turn, products of the “nature of things.” It must be emphasized that reification is a modality of consciousness, more precisely, a modality of man’s objectification of the human world. Even while apprehending the world in reified terms, man continues to produce it. That is, man is capable paradoxically of producing a reality that denies him.

“…It would be a mistake to look at reification as a perversion of an originally non-reified apprehension of the social world, a sort of cognitive fall from grace. On the contrary, the available ethnological and psychological evidence seems to indicate the opposite, namely, that the original apprehension of the social world is highly reified both phylogenetically and ontogenetically. This implies that an apprehension of reification as a modality of consciousness is dependent upon at least relative dereification of consciousness, which is a comparatively late development in history and in any individual biography.”

28 November 2007

Usage-Based Social Structure

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 11:30 am

I’ve been quoting long passages of Berger and Luckmann because they address the relationships between subjective and objective realities. They say that, largely through routinized social interaction, everyday reality comes to be regarded as objective by those who participate in it. To reiterate part of yesterday’s quote:

It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity… The institutional world is objectivated human activity , and so is every social institution. In other words, despite the objectivity that marks the social world in human experience, it does not thereby acquire an ontological status apart from the human activity that produced it.

In prior posts about psychology I’ve distinguished the more pragmatic, dynamic, usage-based structuralism of Chomsky and Tomasello from the more architectural and static structuralism of Saussure. The usage-based psycholinguists contend that consciousness doesn’t invoke pre-structured entities stored in the unconscious; rather, consciousness actively structures loosely-linked unconscious material on the fly according to present circumstances and intentions.

In their discussion of social roles Berger and Luckmann present what amounts to a usage-based conceptualization of social structure. Roles are stereotyped performances that take their meaning within the institutionalized social order. But B&L say that roles are more than just a component of the social order: The roles represent the institutional order. Institutions are represented in a variety of ways — in language and other symbol systems, in laws and codes, in institutions, in physical objects and their arrangements, etc.

All these representations, however, become “dead” (that is, bereft of subjective reality) unless they are ongoingly “brought to life” in actual human conduct. The representation of an institution in and by roles is thus the representation par excellence, on which all other representations are dependent.

Suppose I have a lot of knowledge about everyday social reality — symbol systems, values, expectations, common-sense understandings of the way things are, institutions. Roles, expectations of role-taking attitutes and activities, social situations in which particular roles are invoked. And now I’m at large in the world, carrying around in my head a representation of the larger social structure in which I’m embedded. This knowledge isn’t conscious, since at any given moment I only need a little bit of it to guide my thoughts, actions and interactions. It’s also not rigid, since in our world social institutions have very fluid boundaries that overlap in unpredictable ways. I need to be able to call up from my unconscious representation of everyday social reality those particular structures that serve my needs right now, in this particular situation. And I need to be able to act spontaneously and, yes, creatively while I traverse that small sector of the multiply-interconnected and dynamic institutional matrix which I happen to be traversing. So I call up from my loosely-structured and unconscious representation of social structures various components that I can assemble into a complex role performance, possibly a novel and unprecedented performance, that still falls within the accepted parameters of everyday institutionalized social reality. I don’t need to understand the whys and wherefores of these social structures: I just need to be able to use them when I need them. They are role-playing machines with which I generate novel yet socially stereotypical scripts.

27 November 2007

Origins of Institutionalization

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:36 pm

More from The Social Construction of Reality by Berger and Luckmann:

“It is an ethnological commonplace that the ways of becoming and being human are as numerous as man’s cultures. Human-ness is socio-culturally variable… While it is possible to say that man has a nature, it is more significant to say that man constructs his own nature, or more simply, that man produces himself…

Habitualization provides the direction and the specialization of activity that is lacking in man’s biological equipment, thus relieving the accumulation of tensions that result from undirected drives. And by providing a stable background in which human activity may proceed with a minimum of decision-making most of the time, it frees energy for such decisions as may be necessary on certain occasions. In other words, the background of habitualized activity opens up a foreground for deliberation and innovation…

Institutionalization occurs whenever there is a reciprocal typification of habitualized actions by types of actors. Put differently, any such typification is an institution… The institution posits that actions of type X will be performed by actors of type X. For example, the institution of the law posits that heads shall be chopped off in specific ways and under specific circumstances, and that specific types of individuals shall do the chopping (executioners, say, or members of an impure caste, or virgins under a certain age, or those who have been designated by an oracle).

“Institutions further imply historicity and control. Reciprocal typifications of actions are built up in the course of a shared history. They cannot be created instantaneously. Institutions always have a history, of which they are the products. It is impossible to understand an institution adequately without an understanding of the historical process in which it was produced. Institutions also, by the very fact of their existence, control human conduct by setting up predefined patterns of conduct, which channel it in one direction as against the many other directions that would theoretically be possible. It is important to stress that this controlling character is inherent in institutionalization as such, prior to or apart from any mechanisms of sanctions specifically set up to support an institution… To say that a segment of human activity has been institutionalized is already to say that this segment of human activity has been subsumed under social control…

“In actual experience institutions generally manifest themselves in collectivities containing considerable numbers of people. It is theoretically important, however, to emphasize that the institutionalizing process of reciprocal typification would occur even if two individuals began to interact de novo. Institutionalization is incipient in every social situation continuing in time…

“At this stage one may ask what gains accrue to the two individuals from this development. The most important gain is that each will be able to predict the other’s actions. Concomitantly, the interaction of both becomes predictable. The “There he goes again” becomes a “There we go again.” This relieves both individuals of a considerable amount of tension. They save time and effort, not only in whatever external tasks they might be engaged in separately or jointly, but in terms of their respective psychological economies. Their life together is now defined by a widening sphere of taken-for-granted routines. Many actions are possible on a low level of attention. Each action of one is no longer a source of astonishment and potential danger to the other. Instead, much of what goes on takes on the triviality of what, to both, will be everyday life… The construction of this background of routine in turn makes possible a division of labor between them, opening the way for innovations, which demand a higher level of attention. The division of labor and the innovations will lead to new habitualizations, further widening the background common to both individuals. In other words, a social world will be in process of construction, containing within it the roots of an expanding institutional order…

“What will in all cases have to be habitualized is the communication process between A and B. Labor, sexuality and territoriality are other likely foci of typification and habitualization. In these various areas teh situation of A and B is paradigmatic of the institutionalization occurring in larger societies…

“With the acquisition of historicity, these formulations also acquire another crucial quality, or, more accurately, perfect a quality that was incipient as soon as A and B began the reciprocal typification of their conduct: this quality is objectivity. This means that the institutions have now been crystallized (for instance, the institution of paternity as it is encountered by the children) are experienced as existing over and beyond the individuals who “happen to” embody them at the moment. In other words, the institutions are now experienced as possessing a reality of their own, a reality that confronts the individual as an external and coercive fact… The “There we go again” now becomes “This is how these things are done.” A world so regarded attains a firmness in consciousness; it becomes real in an ever more massive way and it can no longer be changed so readily…

“Only at this point does it become possible to speak of a social world at all, in the sense of a comprehensive and given reality confronting the individual in a manner analogous to the reality of the natural world. Only in this way, as an objective world, can the social formations be transmitted to a new generation. In the early phases of socialization the child is quite incapable of distinguishing between the objectivity of natural phenomena and the objectivity of the social formations. To take the most important item of socialization, language appears to the child as inherent in the nature of things, and he cannot grasp the notion of its conventionality. A thing is what it is called, and it could not be called anything else. All institutions appear in the same way, as given, unalterable and self-evident…

“An institutional world, then, is experienced as an objective reality… The institutions, as historical and objective facticities, confront the individual as undeniable facts. The institutions are there, external to him, persistent in their reality, whether he likes it or not. He cannot wish them away. They resist his attempts to change or evade them. They have coercive power over him, both in themselves, by the sheer force of their facticity, and through the control mechanisms that are usually attached to the most important of them. The objective reality of institutions is not diminished if the individual does not understand their purpose or their mode of operation. He may experience large sectors of the social world as incomprehensible, perhaps oppressive in their opaqueness, but real nonetheless. Since institutions exist as external reality, the individual cannot understand them by introspection. He must “go out” and learn about them, just as he must to learn about nature. This remains true even though the social world, as a humanly produced reality, is potentially understandable in a way not possible in the case of the natural world.

“It is important to keep in mind that the objectivity of the institutional world, however massive it may appear to the individual, is a humanly produced, constructed objectivity… The institutional world is objectivated human activity , and so is every social institution. In other words, despite the objectivity that marks the social world in human experience, it does not thereby acquire an ontological status apart from the human activity that produced it… [I]t is important to emphasize that the relationship between man, the producer, and the social world, his product, is and remains a dialectical one. The product acts back on the producer. Externalization and objectivation are moments in a continuing dialectical process. The third moment in this proces… is internalization (by which the objectivated social world is retrojected into consciousness in the course of socialization)… Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product…

“The more conduct is institutionalized, the more predictable and thus the more controlled it becomes. If socialization into the institutions has been effective, outright coercive measures can be applied economically and selectively. Most of the time, conduct will occur “spontaneously” within the institutionally set channels. The more, on the level of meaning, conduct is taken for granted, the more possible alternatives to the institutional “programs” will recede, and the more predictable and controlled conduct will be…

“The primary knowledge about the institutional order is knowledge on the pretheoretical level. It is the sum total of “what everybody knows” about a social world, an assemblage of maxims, morals, proverbial nuggets of wisdom, values and beliefs, myths, and so forth… Such knowledge constitutes the motivating dynamics of institutionalized conduct. It defines the institutionalized areas of conduct and designates all situations falling within them. It defines and constructs the roles to be played in the context of the institutions in question. Ipso facto, it controls and predicts all such conduct. Since this knowledge is socially objectivated as knowledge, that is, as a body of generally valid truths about reality, any radical deviance from the institutional order appears as a departure from reality. Such deviance may be designated as moral depravity, mental disease, or just plain ignorance… In this way, the particular social world becomes the world tout court. What is taken for granted as knowledge in the society comes to be coextensive with the knowable, or at any rate provides the framework within which anything not yet known will come to be known in the future. Knowledge, in this sense, is at the heart of the fundamental dialectic of society. It “programs” the channels in which externalization produces an objective world. It objectifies this world through language and the cognitive apparatus based on language, that is, it orders it into objects to be apprehended as reality. It is internalized again as objectively valid truth in the course of socialization. Knowledge about society is thus a realization in the double sense of the word, in the sense of apprehending the objectivated social reality, and in the sense of ongoingly producing this reality.”

25 November 2007

The Reality of Everyday Life

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 6:34 am

From The Social Construction of Reality (1966) by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. Part One: “The Foundations of Knowledge in Everyday Life.”

“The reality of everyday life is taken for granted as reality… While I am capable of engaging in doubt about its reality, I am obliged to suspend such doubt as I routinely exist in everyday life…

“Compared to the reality of everyday life, other realities appear as finite provinces of meaning, enclaves within the paramount reality marked by circumscribed meanings and modes of experience. The paramount reality envelops them on all sides, as it were, and consciousness always returns to the paramount reality as from an excursion. This is evident from… the reality of dreams or that of theoretical thought. Similar “commutations” take place between the world of everyday life and the world of play, both the playing of children and, even more sharply, of adults. The theater provides an excellent illustration of such playing on the part of adults. The transition between realities is marked by the rising and falling of the curtain. As the curtain rises, the spectator is “transported to another world,” with its own meanings and an order that may or may not have much to do with the order of everyday life. As the curtain falls, the spectator “returns to reality,” that is, to the paramount reality of everyday life by which the reality presented on the stage now appears tenuous and ephemeral, however vivid the presentation may have been a few moments previously. Aesthetic and religious experience is rich in producing tensions of this kind, inasmuch as art and religion are endemic producers of finite provinces of meaning.

“All finite provinces of meaning are characterized by a turning away of attention from the reality of everyday life… It is important to stress, however, that the reality of everyday life retains its paramount status even as such “leaps” take place. If nothing else, language makes sure of this. The common language available to me for the objectification of my experiences is grounded in everyday life and keeps pointing back to it even as I employ it to interpret experiences in finite provinces of meaning. Typically, therefore, I “distort” the reality of the latter as soon as I begin to use the common language in interpreting them, that is, I “translate” the non-everyday experiences back into the paramount reality of everyday life. This may be readily seen in terms of dreams, but is also typical of those trying to report about theoretical, aesthetic or religious worlds of meaning. The theoretical physicist tells us that his concept of space cannot be conveyed linguistically, just as the artist does with regard to the meaning of his creations and the mystic with regard to his encounters with the divine. Yet all these — the dreamer, physicist, artist and mystic — also live in the reality of everyday life. Indeed, one of their important problems is to interpret the coexistence of this reality with the reality enclaves into which they have ventured…

“Moreover, language is capable of transcending the reality of everyday life altogether. It can refer to experiences pertaining to finite provinces of meaning, and it can span discrete spheres of reality. For instance, I can interpret “the meaning” of a dream by integrating it linguistically within the order of everyday life. Such integration transposes the discrete reality of the dream into the reality of everyday life by making it an enclave within the latter. The dream is now meaningful in terms of the reality of everyday life rather than of its own discrete reality. Enclaves produced by such transpositions belong, in a sense, to both spheres of reality. They are “located” in one reality, but “refer” to another.

“Any significative theme that thus spans spheres of reality may be defined as a symbol, and the linguistic mode by which such transcendence is achieved may be called symbolic language… Language now constructs immense edifices of symbolic representations that appear to tower over the reality of everyday life like gigantic presences from another world.”

21 November 2007

Linguistic Portality

Filed under: Ktismata — ktismatics @ 4:52 pm

Continuing from yesterday’s post…

A reality is an array of phenomena organized according to a particular structure. Any single phenomenon can be assigned a place in an unlimited number of structural schemata. This means that a single phenomenon can participate in an unlimited number of alternate realities. A phenomenon, or the linguistic signifier that points to it, can thus function as a portal between alternate realities.

Probably the most frequently-encountered example of linguistic portality is the metaphor. “It’s not my cup of tea.” The phrase points to a hot drink, but the hot drink occupies a different structural place in two different realities: as a particular variety in an array of beverages, as something that’s high on the list of personal preferences. It turns out that humans are adept at traversing metaphorical portals: linguistic processing time isn’t delayed when shifting between literal and metaphorical understanding.

The question is whether the phrase “cup of tea” points to the same phenomenon in both the literal and the metaphorical situation. I suspect it does not: once the metaphorical structure is invoked by context, the phrase no longer points to the hot drink. So maybe the words are the portal rather than the beverage: the same phrase occupies a place in two different realities. But the phrase doesn’t float free of signifier: the same phrase signifies “hot beverage” in one reality and “something I prefer” in the other reality. The signifier is loosely linked to multiple signifieds, and the appropriate one gets invoked depending on which reality it’s participating in at the moment. The loose linkage makes reality linguistic reality travel a quick and almost unconscious passage. If there were no linkages readily available, or if one particular link was particularly rigid, then shifting between realities would be a lot more difficult, a lot slower, requiring a lot more conscious processing.

In a sense all words are metaphors for the things they point to. Words are portals that transport people back and forth between interpersonal communication and joint imaginary participation in a world of phenomena to which the words point.

Language also functions as a portal between the immediate specific encounter with phenomena and the more abstract realities in which the phenomena participate. The word “flower” transports the language-user from this particular flower to the idea of “flowerness” in realities having to do with plants, gardens and beautiful objects. The opening of this linguistic portal between specific and generic, between phenomena and structures, must have been a significant achievement in human cultural development. Linguistic history shows traces of the struggle. The ancient Greek and Hebrew languages had a definite article but not an indefinite article: “the” but not “a.” The early Indo-European languages — Sanscrit, Persian, Latin — had neither kind of article. The article is absent from some modern languages (e.g., Russian).

20 November 2007

What Structure Means to Me

Filed under: Ktismata, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 7:10 am

The human environment is populated by real phenomena. Through sensory-perceptual systems we can detect and interpret information generated by phenomena — their color, shape, pattern, sound, velocity, etc. We can then categorize and organize these phenomena in a variety of ways, depending on the particular salient features under consideration. So, this particular thing can be a dog, an animal, a chocolate Lab, the neighbor’s pet, Fido, the cause of the yellow spots on my lawn, the source of all that barking, the dog that likes to be scratched under the chin. Each of these ways of categorizing the real phenomenon is embedded in and derived from a larger structural order. The structural order assigns a particular kind of meaning to the environment. This meaning is conveyed linguistically, so that the structure can be understood by the community of language-speakers in approximately the same way.

It’s possible to imagine phenomena as they really are, disembedded from the various systems of meaning by which we understand them. But we can’t actually encounter the raw thing in itself: even the sensory signals we receive from phenomena are organized by our perceptual systems so that we can make sense of the input. Raw phenomena exist, but from our human perspective they are an abstraction, the result of a thought experiment in which we strip phenomena of all the meaningful structures in which they’re always already embedded. Likewise we can imagine empty structures unpopulated by real phenomena. However, it may be impossible to generate a structure out of thin air without at least imagining the kinds of phenomena that would populate it. More often we abstract the structure beyond the bounds of the specific phenomena available to us.

From memory we are able to call up mental representations of specific phenomena: events, people, objects. We can also call up a variety of cognitive-linguistic schemata whereby we can make sense of phenomena, directing our attention to specific salient features in order to assign them to appropriate categories in various cognitive-linguistic structures. The linkages between phenomena and schemata are multiple and loose, so we can match them up on the fly according to our needs and intentions and whims of the moment.

Because of these loose multiple connections it’s possible for us to embed familiar phenomena in unfamiliar structures, and to extend existing structures to new phenomena. However, this doesn’t mean that structures exist in memory decoupled from representations of real phenomena, that signifiers float free of signifieds. Neither do signifieds float free of signifiers: our memories aren’t occupied by ghosts of raw phenomena decoupled from the various schemata by which we are able to incorporate them into structured systems of meaning. The connections between phenomena and structure, between signifier and signified, are loose and many-to-many. Together, phenomena and schemata constitute an unlimited variety of alternate virtual realities, any one of which can be activated by attention, intention or contagion and assembled in real time.

16 November 2007

Immanent Neomarxist Utopia

Filed under: Culture, Ktismata — ktismatics @ 12:12 pm

Empire pretends to be the master of [the] world because it can destroy it. What a horrible illusion! In reality we are masters of the world because our desire and labor regenerate it continuously. The biopolitical world is an inexhaustible weaving together of generative actions, of which the collective (as meeting point of singularities) is the motor. No metaphysics, except a delirious one, can pretend to define humanity as isolated and powerless. No ontology, except a transcendent one, can relegate humanity to individuality. No anthropology, except a pathological one, can define humanity as a negative power. Generation, that first fact of metaphysics, ontology, and anthropology, is a collective mechanism or apparatus of desire…

For generation to take place, the political has to yield to love and desire, and that is to the fundamental forces of biopolitical production. The political is not what we are taught it is today by the cynical Machiavellianism of politicians; it is rather, as the democratic Machiavelli tells us, the power of generation, desire, and love. Political theory has to reorient itself along these lines and assume the language of generation.

– from Hardt and Negri, Empire, 2000

Cognitivist Apologetic

Filed under: Culture, Language, Psychology — ktismatics @ 10:55 am

During the death of this blog I’ve continued to haunt some of my favorite other blogs. In a recent discussion on American Stranger (see blogroll), Traxus and Parodycenter provoked me into defending empirical psychology from charges of naivete, the valorization of consciousness, complicity with technofascism, hostility to psychoanalysis, and all sorts of other offenses against humanity and the revolution. So I wrote three comments back to back, not so much as a point-by-point response but as a kind of substrate for how empirical cognitivism might be viewed: as a field of inquiry among many others rather than as a “totalizing discourse” about minds. For those of you who weren’t participating or following along with the original discussion but find this sort of thing interesting, here are my three comments.

* * *

Even if empirical psychologists had a strong and reliable model of human cognition, individual human differences override the general regularities. Everybody has different genetically-endowed capabilities and drives, different experiences in the world, different others to interact with. So even on just the input side the material that is available to memory and the relative strengths of neural associations is going to be vastly different from one person to the next. Outputs would be all over the scatterplot.

And that’s just on a purely behavioral level, as if inputs were mechanically processed by the brain into theoretically predictable outputs. The cognitive paradigm acknowledges and demonstrates that individuals also exercise different ways of processing inputs based on things like intentionality, preference, bias, attention. These intermediaries between I and O may be conscious or unconscious, freely chosen by autonomous subjective agents or bent by cultural macroforces like economics and power. Collectively, these intermediaries are regarded as “cognitive,” mostly to distinguish them from environment and physiology.

If anything, then, the cognitive paradigm is less deterministic than the behavioral one. Structuralism in the way Europeans talk about it never had much of an influence on the American-dominated empirical psychology from which cognitivism emerged. Even somebody like Chomsky, who proposed one of the early structural models of psycholinguistics that eventually led to cognitivism, looks like a pragmatic instrumentalist when compared with somebody like Saussure. For Chomsky linguistic structure is an instrumental capability for intentionally manipulating language in order to generate unique sentences. So he talks about “generative grammar” as a very flexible tool for assembling signifiers on the fly to suit the speaker’s purposes. He does propose that human brains are uniquely structured to handle generative grammars, making him kind of Hegelian in that regard. But if anything the advance of cognitivism has led the field to dismiss Chomsky’s unique-brain-structure argument as an unnecessary holdover from idealism. The human brain evolved from other primate brains; human cognitive-linguistic abilities evolved from other primate abilities.

* * *

The working empirical psychologist isn’t typically driven by philosophy or grand theory. Some start out with an inclination to use science as a sort of rhetorical device, to stage demonstrations of favorite theories. This inclination is quickly trained out of you. Empirical investigations are informed by an attempt to understand phenomena that so far have not been investigated or have eluded prior efforts to pull them out of randomness. Sometimes the theory makes the researcher aware of classes of phenomena that it might be able to account for; sometimes the phenomena are compelling in their own right; sometimes they’ve been partially accounted for by competing theories and the question is whether the new theory suggests an alternative, perhaps a more complete, understanding.

A specific study takes place within a narrow band of theory and empiricism. In writing up the findings the researcher might cite one or two broadly-known figures who signify the general field of endeavor, but for the most part the citations are very specific to the empirical question under investigaion, and usually very recent. The field as a whole expands somewhat amorphously from the surface rather than building depth or structure or moving linearly down well-defined trajectories. Rare is the pitched dialectical “throw-down” between competing theories. In experimental design the battle is almost always waged against “the null hypothesis” = phenomenological randomness.

* * *

In the cognitive paradigm, consciousness isn’t a structured assemblage of content; rather, consciousness is a dynamic interface where a specific set of assembly procedures is mapped onto a particular subset of content (perceptions, memories, ideas) in a way that generates structured and meaningful output — thought, speech, behavior, etc. The content, the toolkit of procedures, the array of alternative prefabricated structures that can be imposed on content — all of it remains unconscious until it is called up, either intentionally or not, by the conscious interface. So as the individual moves through the continuous present the vast majority of her cognitive capability is unconscious. The content of the unconscious is loosely interconnected in a distributed and multiply-connected matrix. The structure of the unconscious is more virtual rather than actual: content can be assembled on the fly according to any number of structuration paradigms and procedures.

Some pre-canned structures are easier for consciousness to summon than others, based on habit or demonstrated pragmatic value — so even this dynamic structuring work of consciousness becomes stereotypical, nearly automatic, almost unconscious. Some virtual structures rarely become actual in consciousness: maybe they’ve never been tried before, maybe they’ve failed miserably before, maybe they’ve become associated with unpleasant emotions or memories so they don’t readily pop to the surface, etc.

It might be possible to exercise an individual’s cognitive structuration processes so that the passage between unconscious and conscious becomes freer and more flexible. You might make the person aware of automatic and stereotypic ways of thinking, do “free association” exercises in which material is dynamically structured in unaccustomed ways, identify obstacles in memory and affect that repress certain structures, identify past events that cause habitual structures to be applied transferentially to inappropriate situations, etc.

10 November 2007

The Wall

Filed under: Culture, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:31 pm

Twenty-five years ago this weekend the Vietnam War Memorial in DC was dedicated. At the time I was in grad school in Charlottesville VA, working part-time at a vet counseling center I had helped get started (I wrote about this HERE and HERE). There was this Canadian vet, I’m pretty sure his name was John, who was walking from Vancouver, down into the States, and on to Washington in a one-man campaign for increased recognition of vets’ issues, including P-TSD and Agent Orange. He reached Charlottesville the day before the dedication, accompanied by a retinue of maybe a couple dozen casual supporters. John was a small scraggly-bearded fellow carrying a walking stick and dressed in fatigues and hiking boots, hauling on his back a heavy pack surmounted by two flagpoles, one flying a Canadian flag and the other an American one. He still had something like a hundred miles to go, so it was clear he wasn’t going to make it to DC in time on foot. Reluctantly he agreed to let me drive him to the ceremony.

At the time the Memorial generated a lot of controversy among the vets I knew. The project had been vet-initiated and vet-organized throughout, financed entirely by private donations. But the architect selected to design the memorial was a woman, and a Chinese-American woman at that. Instead of a white phallic monument to heroism this memorial was to be a black gash in the ground. Not only that, but General Westmoreland and Caspar Weinberger, Reagan’s Defense Secretary, had finagled invitations to speak. In short, expectations were low.

The afternoon before the big event I got behind the wheel of my VW Dasher, my wife-to-be Anne riding shotgun and our new buddy John sitting in the middle of the back seat, talking compulsively about all manner of things. We got to DC sometime in the late afternoon. Our charge was to deliver John to Tom Daschle, then a second-term Democratic congressman from South Dakota, years later ascending to the post of Senate Majority Leader before being unseated in a concerted Republican effort to label him a radical liberal. Apparently John had been in correspondence with Daschle, also a Vietnam vet, and Daschle had agreed to put him up for the night. So we drove across the Potomac, found a place to park on Capitol Hill, and walked over to the House Office Building. We’re here to see Congressman Daschle, we told the person at the front desk. She told us where to find Daschle’s office, we thanked her, and off we went. The halls of power didn’t make much of an impression, what with the linoleum floors and the bad lighting. We found the right office number and knocked. Daschle himself came to the door, stepping into the corridor to greet us. He helped John with his stuff, stashing it under one of the chairs in his office. We all chatted briefly, and having discharged our duty Anne and I said our good-byes and headed for our cheap hotel a couple blocks away.

Morning broke cold and gray as Anne and I started walking toward the Mall. Men in their thirties and forties, most wearing green army jackets and looking kind of scruffy and wary, alone or with maybe one or two other guys, a few with wife and kids, were converging silently and almost reluctantly on the Memorial. And then, almost without realizing it, we were there. No jubilation or rage, no joking around, no mass communal outpouring: it was a pervasive, private solemnity that had settled over that place. Nobody had really known it before it happened, but now everyone knew: we had come to pay our respects.

9 November 2007

No Country

Filed under: Fiction, First Lines, Movies — ktismatics @ 1:23 pm

I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited with him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didn’t have to go but I did. I sure didn’t want to.

– Sheriff Bell in No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men, a Coen brothers’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, starts today in “selected theaters” — which means not in Boulder Colorado. So while I wait for broader release I’ll think about what it might be like.

I was disappointed with the book, which surprised me since I love just about everything the guy has written. I had a sense that it was a McCarthy book with all the distinctive McCarthyesque features edited out. That left the reader with a stripped-down story involving a couple of men confronting a violent depersonalized world. It is McCarthy’s world to be sure. The characters fill slots straight out of genre fiction: bad guy, good guy, ambivalent guy. The story is formulaic: bad guy is chasing ambivalent guy, good guy is chasing bad guy. It’s similar to other McCarthy plots, which usually entail linear movements of a handful of characters, always men and boys. And there’s the usual sense of inevitability in how the events unfold themselves in a McCarthy book. Despite the fatalism, the forward momentum doesn’t take us to the same old place, and there’s satisfaction in that.

So what’s missing? Well, besides the florid style and the nearly obsessive attention to detail, it’s missing the sense of verticality that characterizes most of McCarthy’s work. In his other books the situations, the roles, the motivations, the events aren’t just genre stereotypes; they’re mythic archetypes. Ordinary, stoic, laconic, the McCarthy hero finds himself being moved across a world rendered desolate by the endless repetitions of whatever impersonal or superpersonal forces traverse it. In No Country, though, it’s all been demythologized, rendered mundane in the sheer materiality of a world stripped bare of meaning. Even brutal transcendence seems more habitable somehow than this coarse brutality.

But there is another spirit infusing No Country that replaces the gnostic sublimity. Incredibly enough, it’s old-fashioned humanism. The main character, an old sheriff, still plays out the usual cops-and-robbers choreography. But he senses that there’s something missing in today’s bad guys. The passions — greed, hatred, love — that used to drive them to violence are gone, replaced by — what? By nothing, by an almost mechanical will to commit mayhem. It’s a nostalgic story, a regret at the loss of humanity even in the most inhumane of killers.

Thinking about a movie based on this book, I’m worried. Billy Bob Thornton directed an awful film version of All the Pretty Horses. Now we have No Country, with its stock genre characters and plots, infused with humanistic nostalgia, engaged in acts of extreme violence — it could be the formula for a really ordinary B movie. But then we factor in the Coen brothers, masters of the extraordinary B movie. Even a stripped-down, rather unsatisfying McCarthy book is still something to be reckoned with. Will it be transformed into an exceptional cinematic adaptation? Hopefully soon, in a theater near me, I’ll find out.

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