One line of research in cognitive psychology explores how people understand each other. There are variants on the theme — perspective-taking, joint intentionality, empathy, mirror neurons, theory theory, simulation, embodied/extended mind, etc. — but much of it is predicated on the subjective and often unconscious sense of the self being similar to the other, of being fellow-members of the same species interacting in a shared social space. In contrast to these investigations, one of my more common subjective experiences is how different other people seem from me, how incomprehensible their actions and reactions. Sometimes I impose speculative and scholarly abstractions on my interactions with them in an attempt to make sense. Or I invent fictional versions of real people and put them through simulated situations in an attempt to come to grips. It’s as if I’m making first contact with an alien species.
It could be that my sense of alienation from others is symptomatic of self-alienation: because I refuse to acknowledge certain characteristics in myself I am incapable of acknowledging them in others. By implication, I should be better able to understand the seemingly alien actions of others if I could create a realistic fictional version of myself onto which I would assign these seemingly alien emotions, thoughts, motivations, and actions. I could put my fictional double through simulated experiences and interactions to see how it responds. Then I could rely on my ability to empathize with my own fictional doppelganger as a means of understanding other people.
It’s certainly the case that over the past ten years or so I’ve come to see in myself the potential to be a wide variety of creepy or crazy or violent or antisocial people. Paradoxically, this self-awareness of my own strangenesses, both overt and latent, may have made me feel less alienated from a wider variety of others. I’ve also become less of an alien to various alternate versions of myself. At the same time, I feel more alienated from people who seem unaware of their own potential to be strange. Maybe they actually lack the potential to be strange, this incipient craziness. Maybe they really are quite different from me after all, quite alien from my own alienation.
It’s not particularly pleasant, this awareness, nor does it necessarily make me any happier to be in others’ company, or even in my own company. Also, becoming consciously aware of certain aspects of myself and others that presumably have been there all along but that I have ignored or repressed or failed to formulate — it doesn’t mean that I therefore find these previously hidden facets pleasurable or worthy of cultivation and full expression in the world. At the same time I recognize that others do find pleasure and value in expressing aspects of themselves, and in encountering aspects in others, that I might find distasteful or even reprehensible. I see no reason to restrict their pleasure of self-expression or social interaction. At the same time, if they infringe on my own pleasure then I’m free to walk away.
As host of a blog, do I simply ignore discussion threads unfolding here that I don’t find pleasurable, letting them play themselves out among the participants and spectators who like that sort of thing? Or, if I find it disagreeable myself, do I stifle the discussion? Do I assume that other readers not participating in the discussion are like me in their reactions and would rather see these discussions either curtailed or taken offline? Here’s the thing though: if I were to read some of these interactions on somebody else’s blog I would find them — I have found them — entertaining. At the same time, I would be reluctant to comment on that blog for fear of becoming embroiled myself in a conversation I would find unpleasant and not at all entertaining as a participant. What is that? It’s the world where Michael Haneke holds the mirror in front of my face. It makes me uncomfortable; I turn away.
Tomorrow at a literary conference in Canada a friend will be delivering a talk on “the cognitive turn” in narratology. He will explore the idea that readers invoke similar cognitive mechanisms in understanding and relating to fictional characters as they do in interacting with real people. If I were in the audience at this talk I would ask my friend something like this: Fiction reading is on the decline. Can you speculate on why this is the case, specifically in light of what you’ve said about readers identifying with, empathizing with, simulating, and taking the perspective of fictional characters?
The other day, in a completely different context, I was thinking about the “tomb world” in PK Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? But empathy is after all the central theme of Dick’s book, so it’s not surprising that Dick would have a response to the question my imaginary self will be posing tomorrow at the literary conference. Here’s a passage from chapter 3:
The Nexus-6 android types, Rick reflected, surpassed several classes of human specials in terms of intelligence. In other words, androids equipped with the new Nexus-6 brain unit had from a sort of rough, pragmatic, no-nonsense standpoint evolved beyond a major — but inferior — segment of mankind. For better or worse. The servant had in some cases become more adroit than its master. But new scales of achievement, for example the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test, had emerged as criteria by which to judge. An android, no matter how gifted as to pure intellectual capacity, could make no sense out of the fusion which took place routinely among the followers of Mercerism — an experience which he, and virtually everyone else, including subnormal chickenheads, managed with no difficulty.
He had wondered as had most people at one time or another precisely why an android bounced helplessly about when confronted by an empathy-measuring test. Empathy, evidently, existed only within the human community, whereas intelligence to some degree could be found throughout every phylum and order including the arachnids. For one thing, the empathic faculty probably required an unimpaired group instinct; a solitary organism, such as a spider, would have no use for it; in fact it would tend to abort a spider’s ability to survive. It would make him conscious of the desire to live on the part of his prey. Hence all predators, even highly developed mammals such as cats, would starve.
Empathy, he once had decided, must be limited to herbivores or anyhow omnivores who could depart from a meat diet. Because, ultimately, the empathic gift blurred the boundaries between hunter and victim, between the successful and the defeated. As in the fusion with Mercer, everyone ascended together or, when the cycle had come to an end, fell together into the trough of the tomb world. Oddly, it resembled a sort of biological insurance, but double-edged. As long as some creature experienced joy, then the condition for all other creatures included a fragment of joy. However, if any living being suffered, then for all the rest the shadow could not be entirely cast off. A herd animal such as man would acquire a higher survival factor through this; an owl or a cobra would be destroyed.
Evidently the humanoid robot constituted a solitary predator.
Rick liked to think of them that way; it made his job palatable. In retiring — i.e. killing — an andy he did not violate the rule of life laid down by Mercer. You shall kill only the killers, Mercer had told them the year empathy boxes first appeared on Earth. And in Mercerism, as it evolved into a full theology, the concept of The Killers had grown insidiously. In Mercerism, an absolute evil plucked at the threadbare cloak of the tottering, ascending old man, but it was never clear who or what this evil presence was. A Mercerite sensed evil without understanding it. Put another way, a Mercerite was free to locate the nebulous presence of The Killers wherever he saw fit. For Rick Deckard an escaped humanoid robot, which had killed its master, which had been equipped with an intelligence greater than that of many human beings, which had no regard for animals, which possessed no ability to feel empathic joy for another life form’s success or grief at its defeat — that, for him, epitomized The Killers.
Rick Deckard is trying to persuade himself that it’s normal not to feel empathy for the rogue replicants he “retires.” But he can’t help but wonder: if I administered the Voigt-Kampff Empathy Test to myself, would I pass? Or am I a solitary predator, a Killer, surrounded by prey and competitors? I can simulate empathy when it suits my predatory purposes — gaining the trust of my victims, disguising myself from the guy who comes to retire me when my shelf life is up and I’m no longer productive — but do I really feel the connection with the others of my kind? When you read the book you ask yourself: Can I relate to Deckard? Am I sympathetic with the replicants he’s tracking down? If you never bother to read the book you don’t have to ask yourself these questions. But you ask yourself: If I did read it, would I pass the fictional empathy test? Maybe fewer and fewer people are willing to give it a try, or are even curious about the results.