20 October 2011

Folk Psychology and Me

Filed under: Fiction, Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 3:05 pm

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.



  1. Well, one has always suspected you of many of these sins, but that was forgiven if you only kill someone else. As for the bleugs, yes, now that I have a bleug, you can suppress all convos you want, and if one feels you are showing favouritism, you are impotent to discharge rules on our site! As witnessed by my recent post which I kept up tilll it was read and then suppressed it briefly.

    OF COURSE someone like Anne has to keep you on the right track, and that’s not even meddling! You’re mad as a loon.

    All right now, but HOLD THE GODDAM VEGETARIANISM as ’empathy’ and ‘pantheism’ all rolled into one. I can’t stand vegetarians any more than Martin Amis can, and just dismissed one–so stupid that even among veggies she thought kale was better than spinach, which is something you can even eat when you hate healthy food and are depressed.

    In typing out that text, did you not write ’emphatic’ twice when you meant ’empathic’. In any case, ’emphatic’ doesn’t have anything to do with empathy as far as I know.

    As you well know, I suppress anything I want to on my bleug, and don’t care what anybody thinks. Although the only one of your I deleted was by accident–on the Magnum Opus Cake, and I don’t know how I lost it, even if I delete, I usually paste it somewhere.

    I go in and out of empathy myself, but don’t worry about it that much. There are enough other things to worry with. But this is an interesting post, and is much appreciated.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 20 October 2011 @ 4:17 pm

  2. I too am only sporadically empathetic, sometimes thinking that I have Asperger leanings. (I always pronounce this word a la maniere francaise as “asperzhay,” since the German way sounds obscene.) The other day someone told me that his girlfriend had just gotten laid off from her marketing job. My immediate reaction was to laugh, which surely did not qualify as empathic. Secretly I was pleased though, hoping that she would find something better to do with her time.

    The “emphatic” typos were embedded in the Philip Dick text I cut-and-pasted from an online full text. I’d have thought they hired androids to enter text, who are notoriously error-free on such tasks. But there was another spelling error I fixed, so somebody must have hand-typed in the whole book, probably several years ago before automatic textreading programs replaced the humans in this realm. Maybe he felt emphatic about the importance of bringing a free book to the reading world.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 October 2011 @ 5:08 pm

  3. “The other day someone told me that his girlfriend had just gotten laid off from her marketing job. My immediate reaction was to laugh, which surely did not qualify as empathic. Secretly I was pleased though, hoping that she would find something better to do with her time.”

    That IS telling. Obviously, it’s according to who they are, and you know them and I don’t. Was HE or SHE sorry she’d been laid off? You said it ‘didn’t qualify as empathic’, so if you had good will, it means your head may be in the clouds if you strongly feel she can find a better job. As loathsome as marketing jobs are, from what you say here, I might not have spent time agonizing over it, but I wouldn’t have laughed either, unless he thought it was good luck in disguise..


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 20 October 2011 @ 7:20 pm

  4. She wasn’t happy about losing her job; I can’t tell about him. Another factor in my amusement: the two of them planned to take a six month trip to Europe next year. She thought that she would take a sabbatical from this advertising job, that she was so highly regarded in the firm that management would agree. It seems that I found this misplaced hubris funny. Again, my laughter was immediate, unpremeditated, so I can only construct possible reasons for it after the fact. She’s applied for unemployment compensation and has begun looking for freelance consulting gigs — in advertising. You may be relieved to know that I didn’t laugh also at this news; I know I was relieved.


    Comment by ktismatics — 20 October 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  5. Love the choice of passage you chose to discuss this. Nowadays, it seems to relate more to developments in American Christianity and the emergence of the New Right (two big preoccupations of PKD). Maybe the Neocons were ‘Mercerites’ in a way? DADOES? is about the ‘acceptable’ cruelties we all take for granted, and the ironic hypocrisies used to justify them. It’s the theme that Blade Runner largely passes on.

    I’m sure you know who’s to be ‘trusted’ to offer advice on empathy, but – why can’t you accept yourself as BOTH empathetic and competitive/cruel? It’s circumstantial, and nobody’s always anything (if they are, that may be a sign of mental illness). It can be a prblem if you worry too much about what you are ‘in essence’. The people I mark as lacking empathy are those who only care about themselves or their own blood relatives – to the point of defending cruelties on their behalf, or using them as a ‘shield’ to justify their own hideousness. I’ve met a few people like that, and they’re dangerous on any number of levels. I’ve known very law-abiding families that nevertheless operate like a ‘mafia’ and treat people like shit to each other’s approval – rich or poor. Like you, “I feel more alienated from people who seem unaware of their own potential to be strange”. Close-knit professional groups/elites/families/religious sects may be the worst for this, because they cling together, to fool themselves that they’re the best example of normality and no-one else matters.

    I now await the comment of a certain someone who will in all likelihood ignore the ’empathy’ talk – because it doesn’t fit his brand – and take the opportunity to list who he hates (again).

    Excellent post BTW.


    Comment by W.Kasper — 20 October 2011 @ 10:36 pm

  6. In Do Androids Dream, Deckard’s theory is that predators don’t need empathy, that keeping the violent edge honed requires a sociopathic level of isolation. However, the government’s big fear about the replicants that Deckard is hunting is that they’ve begun banding together, looking out for each other, even sacrificing themselves for one another. If those with violent instincts develop empathy with one another, then they don’t become ineffectual like the spider that sympathizes with the fly. Instead they become that much more dangerous, to the point where they pose a potential threat to the authority structure of earth.

    The book takes place in the aftermath of an atomic war. Now warfare has moved to the Martian colonies, with replicants doing most of the heavy combat. They’re programmed not to feel empathy, and if they’re not killed in combat they self-destruct after five years, so there’s no possibility of the replicants building long-term relationships with each other. Still, they probably had to cooperate with each other in the combat zone, so they’re able to use that collective fighting ability to stay alive back on earth. In the book Deckard, presumably a human, actually learns empathy from watching and interacting with the replicants (androids is the term Dick uses; Ridley Scott called them replicants in the Blade Runner adaptation).

    The book was published in 1968, and Dick grew up in Berkeley, so the Vietnam influence is clear. Antiwar protests and occupations were comprised of an uneasy coalition of peace-love-and-understanding hippies along with the SDS, Weathermen, Black Panthers, and various other militantly radical organizations. Was it possible to merge the empathic cumbaya love-in hippie ethos with the anger and aggression of the militants without either falling apart, turning into chaotic mayhem, or building some sort of fascistic discipline cult? In those days the Vietnam Veterans Against the War exemplified the possibility of an angry, mutually empathic, combat-ready, self-organizing militancy — analogous to the replicants returned to earth in the novel.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 10:17 am

  7. It’s probably the cool theoretical stance to contend that empathy and perspective-taking are affective and cognitive capabilities not of the individual but of the society. Empathy would be a kind of affective field in which people interact. I think there’s some truth to this formulation. Children are born into societies with already-existing patterns of social interaction, and it’s adaptive for both the individual and the group for kids to plug into these patterns without spending too much time thinking or feeling about it. As you point out, W, these empathy-enabled social patterns often apply only to the in-group, with outsiders shunned or attacked. In a sense it requires distancing oneself cognitively and affectively from the instinctive empathic connections among one’s in-group in order to find common cause with outsiders.

    Empathy and perspective-taking can also be regarded as characteristics of specific situations. So in the military example, the members of a platoon moving through enemy territory become attuned to one another in ways that are specifically relevant to accomplishing the mission while also preserving their own lives. Athletic events, classrooms, workplaces, highway traffic, bars — these situations afford certain kinds of actions while also imposing certain obstacles to performing those actions. You learn to read others’ signals and movements and attitudes intuitively in navigating these settings.

    On a personal note again, something else that sometimes makes me laugh, or at least smile, is when I hear a baby crying. It’s not that I find pleasure in the baby’s pain or hunger or frustration. I’m happy that the crying baby is not my responsibility. When our kid was an infant it was often my job to figure out how to get her to stop crying. I was motivated not only for the baby’s sake but for my own, since the sound of a crying baby is evolutionarily “designed” to be irritating to adults. I had to read the situation in order to figure out what was wrong, then come up with some intervention that might resolve the problem. It involves a kind of perspective-taking or empathic identification to do this, and since I’d never spent much time around little babies before I had to learn it from scratch. In a sense then the baby teaches the parent empathy, but it’s very specific to situations involving me and one particular baby. It hasn’t generalized to other situations involving other babies, and maybe my sense of being free from the responsibility to empathize I find a bit exhilarating.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 5:35 pm

  8. 8.It’s probably the cool theoretical stance to contend that empathy and perspective-taking are affective and cognitive capabilities not of the individual but of the society

    What you don’t understand for how many – 4 years? that I’ve known you – is that approaching ”empathy” as an ”entity” means that you have placed yourself in a cognitive mindframe pretending that you don’t have emotions, or seeing them as ”external data”. The implicit reductionism of this posturing is silly, because you artificially deconstruct your personality in the ”cognitive” and ”non-cognitive” parts as if these two don’t coexist together.

    This was precisely the cynical message of the Androids, where people desperately hang on to an ”empathbox” because they’re completely numbed out.

    This doesn’t mean that my cognitive-positive dad is a cold person, just that he’s a bit silly, like all cognitive psychologists.


    Comment by parody center — 21 October 2011 @ 6:07 pm

  9. Why would investigating something as a distinct object of study be the same as saying that it exists in isolation? If I take a bite of the chicken satay from my plate of Chinese food and comment on its taste and texture and color, that doesn’t deny the existence of the rice and the basil vegetables that are also on the same plate.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 6:22 pm

  10. 10.Why would investigating something as a distinct object of study be the same as saying that it exists in isolation?

    Because the operation of separating it for the purpose of study (as a specimen) – isolates it. You cannot ”separate” something like empathy from your personality, in order to study it. It’s like those annoying therapists who tell their clients to ”look for their emotions” because they are ”repressed”, as if thought were separate from emotion.


    Comment by parody center — 21 October 2011 @ 7:31 pm

  11. At this point the usual move is to type *sigh* and move on. If I study the moon I’m not taking it out of the earth’s orbit; if I study orbiting I’m not separating the process from the things that orbit. If I study your ability to do algebra problems I’m not detaching the algebra module from your brain, nor even from the algebra problems you’re trying to solve. If I pay attention to the word “pretending” in this sentence, I’m not pretending that the other words in the sentence don’t exist, nor that the word in question doesn’t affect the meaning of the sentence as a whole. And so on. The usual way of studying empathy scientifically would be to investigate people’s responses to various people dealing with various other people in various social situations: this is studying the phenomenon in context, not in isolation.

    It would be amusing to find someone who regards empathy as an object that could be isolated in the brain, surgically removed, and placed in a jar. It would be somewhat easier to find someone who regards empathy as nonexistent, an epiphenomenon, a folk-psychological imaginary construct people invoke after the fact to explain their emotions and behaviors.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 7:46 pm

  12. There’s empirical evidence demonstrating that, if someone makes a happy facial expression or a sad one or an angry one, that person is likely to start feeling the emotion corresponding to the expression. I don’t know if it works for making a sympathetic facial expression, but I expect that it does.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 7:55 pm

  13. you’re pretending you didn’t hear me, if you study empathy in a social group (people’s responses to each other), you’re still separating something like emotional identification from the rest of those people, meaning their ability for ”empathy” is something separate from, and therefore, isolated from the rest of their hypothetical personalities; this is a typically cognitivist move, to treat the personality as a plastic bucket consisting of ”parts”

    this apart from the fact that ”empathy” is one of those hypothetical constructs that come out of the functionalist-biologistic mindframe, examining what ”function” they might serve, and is for me at least, a highly dubious notion that way; i prefer to think that the unconscious knows no conscious barriers and this is how people are able to connect ”empathically”


    Comment by parody center — 21 October 2011 @ 8:02 pm

  14. I confess however that the ridiculous ”empathic rapport” you developed with W. in the meantime is what really makes me irritated in this discussion, not the relatively harmless cognitivist foolishness. I want my cognitive-positive dad FOR MYSELF and not to share him with some wretched Manchester [PARENTAL ADVISORY]


    Comment by parody center — 21 October 2011 @ 8:08 pm

  15. Sure empathy a hypothetical construct, just like mind and emotion and cognition and personality. They’re abstract terms describing kinds of capabilities that people demonstrate in concrete situations. And the separation of these constructs from each other is also an abstract hypothetical move. The scientific question is whether and in what ways these abstract constructs correspond to the reality of the way people act, speak, deal with each other, fire their neurons, etc. If you hypothesize that the connection among people comes through the interaction of unbounded unconsciousnesses, then the scientist would try to set up situations to see whether the hypothetical construct “unconscious that knows no conscious barriers” explains anything functionally in actual social interactions. Otherwise all you have is “I prefer to think” as the basis for assertion.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 8:20 pm

  16. Maybe I do have robust empathic rapport abilities after all, at least in blogworld. The question is, when you and W insult and yell at each other, is this a sort of “dark empathy” linking you together?


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 8:23 pm

  17. Here’s the psychoanalytic take on empathy, which markedly was studied by Kohut (who had a theory of the self) and Melanie Klein

    Predictably the term was lambasted by humanistic psychologists such as good ole Carl Rogers

    The problem of course, the article reminds me, is that it’s very difficult to establish a difference with projection, and more generally,
    I think psychoanalysis would be wary of empathy because all communication=miscommunication as per dad Lacan, that is to say there
    really isn’t a ”self” that would ”understand” another ”self”


    Comment by parody center — 21 October 2011 @ 8:42 pm

  18. …Or maybe, like a replicant, I’m pretty good at simulating empathy in certain situations.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 8:42 pm

  19. The question is, when you and W insult and yell at each other, is this a sort of “dark empathy” linking you together?

    I think [PARENTAL ADVISORY] is attracted to me, because I showed him the vomit-stained edges of the toilet drain that is the center of his [PARENTAL ADVISORY] personality. But he cannot cope with it because his humanistic Marxism compels him to ”niceness”, and so he’s built this chivalrous Robin Hood blawg persona that makes Missuz Sherbert feel better about herself. It’s a kind of a negative projective identification, you may surmise.


    Comment by parody center — 21 October 2011 @ 8:49 pm

  20. 17.Maybe I do have robust empathic rapport abilities after all,

    Dad if I ever had any doubts about your fabulousness, that picture of you in a suit at Kenzie’s graduation took them all away.


    Comment by parody center — 21 October 2011 @ 8:52 pm

  21. This is so cloyingly embarassing that I think you should have to use the phone again…i swear I felt bad about saying you were ‘mad as a loon’, even though I’ve been called that. Now I don’t feel bad about it. I cannot even believe he is so rude as to call you ‘Dad’. This: ” you’re pretending you didn’t hear me” is HIS technique, of course, and he always does it. That’s why I don’t address him directly under any but the most urgent circumstances. And what did that get me? He still calls it ‘The Bus Stop’, just like he called it ‘The Imitation of Life’.

    I think I’ll go and watch ‘The Melancholia’.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 21 October 2011 @ 10:03 pm

  22. Yes, Dad is a bit much, though there is the beatnik tradition of using the term as comparable to “Man” or “Pal.” Still, I’ll parental advisory it out next time. Speaking of movies, I picked up Marienbad from the library and will watch it probably not tomorrow but soon. In Blade Runner, the actor who plays Tyrell, the head of the company that designs and manufactures the replicants, is the same guy who played the bartender in The Shining.


    Comment by ktismatics — 21 October 2011 @ 10:13 pm

  23. Hey did comment 15 and 20 just prove the final paragraph of comment 6 to be correct?

    “dark empathy”? Brrr… It has no empathy, just six legs.


    Comment by W.Kasper — 21 October 2011 @ 11:12 pm

  24. The final paragraph of 6 reads “Excellent post BTW.” Thanks, and I think the discussion by and large went well through 8. After that the “joint intentionality” of the commentary got derailed, mostly by my responding to 9 as if it had been intended seriously rather than as a lure, as revealed in 15’s dismissive remark about “harmless cognitivist foolishness.” I let myself fall for it, rehearsing old debates about empiricism, distracting myself from what had been (for me anyway) important about the topic. This is the gist of the critique offered in 22.

    Anyhow, I did respond to the rest of your comment 6 in good faith, presuming that you were not intending it too as a lure for eliciting 15 and 20. Back to Mercerism. It’s why I had returned to this passage from Dick. I was writing on a bit of dialogue:

    “But I’m also immersed in death. Everything around me is dead. Everyone. There is nothing moving.”
    “Right. The Dead Man lives in the Dead World. You know Philip Dick, Bud?”
    Bud, watching a spider lurching its way across the floor, nodded. “Tomb World.”
    “Tomb World,” Henry repeated. “But we’re not Mercerists, you know? That’s Sisyphus, the eternal return, the death drive. We want to go somewhere else, somewhere different. Somewhere that might not even exist until the instant we set foot on it.”

    Mercerism is, as you say, a form of virtual Catholic gnosticism. Empathy in that society is manipulated by the authorities as an opiate of the masses, keeping them subdued by having them achieve virtual union with someone voluntarily walking to his death, again and again and again — which is how the Stations of the Cross work. The herd are not even living out their own Lacanian double-edged sword of joyful suffering; they’re doing it vicariously, virtually, as a simulation, plugging themselves into a machine hooked up to a television screen. In a sense it would be like holding hands and watching Melancholia together again and again as a collective spiritual pilgrimage into blissful oblivion. The character in my story who brings Philip Dick into the conversation advocates instead a kind of “hyperstitional” invention of alternate realities. This is a different sort of gnosticism in which the real is a manifestation of thought, and so reality can be changed if enough minds think some different thought together. I’m hopeful that Bud will eventually reject both the Mercerist and the hyperstitional pathways, but I’m not sure what alternative route he’ll take. I’ll have to wait and see how it turns out.

    I don’t think that the OWS participants are Mercerists, even if from a cynical perspective the occupation seems like an empathic participation in a collective joy that will inevitably plunge them back down into Tomb World together. For one thing they’re actually doing it together, not watching or reading about someone else doing it. And it’s also an attempt to experiment with a “prefigurative praxis” of how an anarchistic society might actually function. It’s being played out in a kind of bubble adjacent to but functionally isolated from the so-called real world, but then again experiments are often conducted in these sorts of artificial conditions (per earlier discussion on this thread). I suspect that most of the clear-headed participants acknowledge that OWS will not become the mainstream reality merely through empathically imagining it together like hyperstitionalists. A consensus manifesto isn’t enough: strategies and tactics must be developed and deployed. It’s an easy critique to level against OWS, but an exceedingly difficult one to address.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 October 2011 @ 2:49 am

  25. Fiction in either written or cinematic form can become a kind of Merceristic opiate in which the reader/viewer identifies with the characters as an empathetic distraction from real life. Fiction can also function as a kind of off-line laboratory for experimenting with alternative ways of thinking and being without stooping to propaganda pushing a predetermined right answer to life. So-called realistic fiction can induce the virtual blissful suffering of Mercerism; so-called fantasies can be good experiments.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 October 2011 @ 3:18 am

  26. I meant 2nd to last paragraph. As for OWS, it is a “prefigurative praxis” of further movements (as was intended). It’s already getting spin-offs with a different focus, but still in the spirit of the thing. To focus on Wall St from the beginning was quite clever, as it will always be related back to finance capital, not matter where else it springs up. It sets up ‘democracy’ as something distinct from – and invalidating – ‘democracy’ as owned by Wall St.

    There is something ‘Gnostic’ about how Graeber etc. discuss debt ie. a ‘god’ that’s had fraudulent authority for way too long. With more sophistication than the Matrix, but related to PKD’s Gnostic notions of disguised empires, false histories etc. Debt as a very powerful simulcra.


    Comment by W.Kasper — 22 October 2011 @ 3:27 am

  27. Yes I knew which paragraph you meant. It’s hard to read those comic pages even in blow-up mode, but I’ve previously read some of PK Dick’s mystical hallucinations.

    Three weeks ago I tried to reserve the library copy of Graeber’s book but it already had 6 holds on it. I read a summary of Graeber’s evidence-based contention that the money economy grew not from an exchange economy but from debt tokens. But the debts were more of a ritualistic acknowledgment of interpersonal relations, the debt being more of a promised gift than a repayment. But many societal structures and processes are exaptations, taking on functions and meanings not originally intended. Why do you regard debt as a simulacrum? You mean that it simulates labor in the creation of real value?


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 October 2011 @ 4:04 am

  28. Or are you referring to the fact that, e.g., the US Federal Reserve, which is a central function of the private banking industry, can simply create out of thin air the money it lends to companies, governments, other banks, and ultimately to individual debtors?


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 October 2011 @ 4:11 am

  29. “You mean that it simulates labor in the creation of real value?” – yeah. The illusory idea of “wealth creation”, the sleight of hand that tells the population that their labour is an unsustainable burden, getting in the way of prosperity. Devaluing actual labour, to over-value their fraudulent claim to whatever we ‘owe’ them.


    Comment by W.Kasper — 22 October 2011 @ 6:17 am

  30. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/10/22/local-manifestation-and-withdrawal/

    Dr Sinthome’s new post:

    The quoted example with the two flowers SOUNDS logical, but when you think about it, I still don’t understand how he came to the conclusion that the flower is withdrawn? In other words, just because the flower changes appearance depending on what kind of light falls on it, why does this imply that it has some ”inscrutable essence” outside of these appearances? Why isn’t it equally or more possible that there are in fact two flowers, each existing in a different perceptual dimension, in parallel realities?

    And then let’s say that indeed there is a withdrawn flower that we’ll never get to know. How and why is this important to the human? The human can’t change the way his eyes perceive light (or maybe he can, by some new technology, but we’re not there yet) You could say that a cognizance of the fact that objects do not necessarily DEPEND on our vision of them, could make us more attuned to the environment. But this isn’t something that object-oriented philosophy invented, or was the first one to talk about. Nor does it really usurp the centrality of human experience – for humans.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 22 October 2011 @ 5:36 pm

  31. I agree with all that you say there, CofP. This core OOO idea that the real is always withdrawn sounds like idealism to “real” realists. I pay much less attention to Larval Subjects ever he acknowledged that he’s not trying to make true statements about reality.

    It would be possible to construe “empathy” according to Levi’s terminology. My specific altruistic interactions with babies and laid-off workers and bloggers are “local manifestations,” a set of “becomings-actual” of my “virtual proper being,” which is the “real” me. It’s not clear from this latest post, but as I understand it my “empathy” is a “potentiality” of my virtual proper being, while the specific actualizations of this potentiality are clustered into a “property” or “quality” describing a particular subcategory of the various local manifestations of my empathic potentiality in interacting with babies, job-losers, bloggers, etc. If empathy is part of my real potentiality, then it seems paradoxical that my real empathy always withdraws from interacting with others, since empathy specifically refers to the ability to interact with others. This paradox could be generalized: it’s a real potentiality of all real things to generate local manifestations when interacting with other objects, but this potential to interact always withdraws from all interactions. WTF?


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 October 2011 @ 9:09 am

  32. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/23/health/23lives.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&adxnnlx=1319386151-m/EOnXSz8NdU5TXaONBjWw

    This is a beautiful story, not exactly on-topic, but I think people should read it, because it has a flexibility of surprises that few would imagine. It goes off in at least some other directions in terms of treatment that are very useful to read in this form. My own tendencies to OCD are rarely very strong, certainly never like this woman’s, and the only time I thought ‘things were happening as hallucinations’ was when we had the earthquake just before the hurricane; but even that went away when I saw that more than one thing was shaking back and forth–so I merely assumed the building was collapsing and we’d soon die (so did my neighbor above me, who called yet another building tenant, who confirmed from the radio that it was an earthquake.) The main thing I do to control my own tendencies in this direction is to GET RID of extreme other OCD people who can ‘infect’ me. This includes the Swede whom I’ve replaced (no info on the net), and who was a real functioning OCD in such a slow way I didn’t know it literally until she left. I did know that for some reason I was getting depressed more daily in a way I never had before (my depressions are usually very short, which is why I’ve never used ADP’s). That it would get noticeably worse every day for some 6 weeks was new, except for that time sketched out in IDNYC in 2007, but that was clearly a ‘matter of the heart’. The one thing I do that is similar to this woman, though, is to use forms of luxury (in her case, the hotel) to fully relax. Athough my forms of it are not necessarily expensive. While I’m sure that spending money somewhat extravagantly can also be therapeutic, ‘luxury’ is for me more a matter of ‘conspicuous leisure’ than ‘conspicuous consumption’. I like the ease of being able to neglect things that ‘could be useful if done’, although I don’t ever purposely neglect things that are simply necessary (I can’t imagine making a payment late that would incur a serious late fee, for example; although, sometimes I did postpone my power bill during the AC summer months, something you can do through Con Edison, even though you still incur a late fee of a dollar or two, but big deal about that.) Since I got this book finished, I’ve been able to do a lot of more nuanced things than I was before. My slight estrangement with some of my collaborators has not had to be ‘made official’ with a ‘violent gesture’ of ‘divorce’, but a little chill setting in is just fine (especially since I know I’m right in this case.) When the Swede was here, she worried about every single detail to such a degree she began to make life totally miserable. A cheap skirt she would demand to model for me, and then say that the merchant had told her that it would not shrink when washed. I said well, then it won’t. Her response was ‘But what if it does?’ She also took 8 weeks to compose and research the Semla pastry, and then on the day she made it with my assistance, she would scream “Don’t TOUCH it! Don’t TOUCH it!” She was annoyed with her mother for not offering any other advice for ‘authentic Swedish Semla’ than to ‘look at recipes on the internet. She must also have only ‘organic cream’, ‘raw yeast’, and almond paste instead of outright Marzipan. She tried to convince me to buy parchment paper instead of wax paper, but I just lied to her and said they didn’t have it, that I didn’t give a shit what either my sister or Martha Stewart had said about how ‘you can’t use wax paper’. Eh bien? If you can’t, then why did we use it for years and not suffer any fire and smoke, and also, why do they then sell it? So nothing happened, and I saved $3.

    Then we ate them, she finally said “now let’s go ahead and just enjoy”. They were good, but she also saved one for Jack, who ate one the next day. He said “Well, it’s good, but a bit dry”, which was so perfectly divine I thank him for it regularly.

    Worse still, the Marzipan added to the French Creme Patissiere and made into the Italian Rum Cake aka the Magnum Opus Ballet Cake, was infinitely better than the Semla, used nothing organic, and only took me two days (a total of maybe 2 hours, I just made the sponge layers a day in advance). But I owed my full understanding of the genius of Marzipan to her OCD. However, I am grateful for that and nothing else. Never has anyone I thought I basically was ‘getting along with’ left and THEN caused problems: She was so OCD that she wouldn’t leave me her forwarding address for her mail, even after telling me she wanted me to visit her at her new place in Brooklyn. She said “I’d appreciate a call, and I can just come by and pick up any mail that slips past the forwarding”. I told her “why should you come here if I don’t even get your forwarding address”. I just made up lies to her and sent it “Return to sender, No longer at address”.

    Since she is not a clinical case like the one in the article, I am not at all interested in catering to this bitch. She is like this because she is a highly skilled professional in finishing and polishing high-end frames of the sort that are used only in museums and galleries (or perhaps very rich collectors.) Meaning she has to even use gold-leaf sometimes, and there’s a limited amount of it, she thinks she ‘can’t make a mistake ever.’ But even the people at her job said “JUST DO IT!” She shouldn’t have told me that, because then I knew what I was dealing with. Her brother had apparently also told her she was incapable of spontaneity–ever. Being around this for 7 months was like slow-acting poison. If it weren’t for the Marzipan, I’d have little positive to say about her. As far as this mostly off-topic comment has to do with empathy, I would say I empathized for awhile in allowing her to get away with some of the stupidest delays (8 weeks to research a simple recipe which ended up ‘a bit dry’), but when she expected to have appointments made for receipt of mail that she said would be ‘only unimportant mail by now’, I balked. She could wait, and when I told her that she’d have to wait till the end of the month, she finally put her own forwarding order through. For some reason, she had wanted to continue to exert some kind of control here exclusively, and I just said no, that’s as far as you’re going to go (and I used those words in emails to her.) I also said ‘I find you impossibly obsessive, and I do not intend to ever see you again under any circumstances. You could have left here with a sense of amicableness, and you didn’t, because you are afraid of every little detail and the possibility of its going wrong’.

    If she needs ’emergency care’, I wasn’t the one to give it anyway, and my resentment of what it did to me (since it was so slow-moving and I’d never not been able to identify something negative in someone I was actually residing with) was enough that I didn’t give a shit what inconvenience she had to go to. I suppose I could remind her that she ALSO forgot to ever make the Fried Herrings with Lingonberry Sauce. She is also an extremely attractive stereotyped blonde Scandinavian–and doesn’t know it, instead complains that her waist-length golden hair is ‘not as blonde as it used to be’. She also has a fine figure, but doesn’t think so, and won’t wear a swimsuit, uses the beach only for ‘jogging’. Nobody I have told about this has any idea why she’d refuse to give me the forwarding address, since not doing so only meant a delay for her. I do remember telling her once something about ‘what if meteorology really was so exact that it could be predicted exactly for a full month or more without mistakes’, she died laughing at the thought of it, but there seemed to be the subtext that she picked up: I knew she would be just fine with ‘living like that’, although she said she wouldn’t.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 23 October 2011 @ 11:01 am

  33. it’s a real potentiality of all real things to generate local manifestations when interacting with other objects, but this potential to interact always withdraws from all interactions. WTF?

    That’s just it: we’re talking about a potentiality, something that could be. I could just as easily say that there are aliens in space, and then convince the public by using the narcissistic cat’s rhetoric panache – and she is sexy when she rambles – that this is so, and BECAUSE IT IS OUTSIDE OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE, THERE’S NO WAY YOU CAN TEST IT. Really clever! I mean Lacan was at least relying on hypothetical quasi-mathematical theorems to explain his personality theories, but this wants us to speak the ”language of flowes”, which is ridiculous.

    And then you have the following: WHY would a human want to change his eyes, the way he sees? Is there some underlying credo…I suspect so..that the human eye is evil, that it doesn’t see democratically enough. OK I understand scientific curiosity or playing, but these conclusions seem so geared towards some ideological agenda of the objectology. Perplexingly confusing to me.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 23 October 2011 @ 11:13 am

  34. IDNYC, you say that your empathy with the Swede was situation-specific: yes for the recipe delay, no for the postal receipt appointments. This is my experience too: certain people and situations deserve an empathic response, others are too trivial to be worth the investment of psychological energy. Plus my own capacity for empathy fluctuates with mood, preoccupation, attention, and so on. Speaking of marzipan, the woman who lost her advertising job had previously given me some of the marzipan-filled chocolates she’d purchased in Germany, which were delightful and which perhaps should have earned her a more empathic response from me when she lost her job. Maybe if she’d given me the whole box…

    The woman in the linked article uses various tricks to keep her schizoaffective disorder under control: stay busy with outside interests, avoid certain situations that trigger the symptoms, take leisure breaks, do reality checks to see if other people hear the voices, have an empathic dog as a pet, and so on. That these techniques are effective for her suggests that what’s “real” about a psychosis is largely a matter of interactions with the world. In some situations her condition proves to be an asset, including her ability to help others with psychological disorders. One characteristic of schizophrenia is impaired empathy, but if she can recognize and respond to problems that people are having in the world then that’s a pretty effective compensation.


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 October 2011 @ 12:27 pm

  35. What I find perversely amusing about the Swedish episode is that the proprietor, due to the ridiculous expense of NYC, has the luxury of assessing his candidates on the basis of a profile, as though they were applying for a job. This is also common in the overpopulated Holland. Then he chooses those with the same or similar amount of obsessiveness, or character difficulty, and comes into a battle with himself – all the while the tenant is so completely powerless, for fear of losing his habitat, that the proprietor can go as far as he wants, and as much as he wants, provided he stays within the limits of bourgeois pathology so that people still want to rent the place. It plays out like an upscale remake of Polanski’s THE TENANT, and I’m surprised the Swede didn’t end up jumping out of the window in order to punish herself for getting thrown out.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 23 October 2011 @ 2:09 pm

  36. W and I make no pretense of the ‘friendliness’ we briefly endured and/or enjoyed to some degree, but we clearly do both know that you cannot read: To wit, that I GOT RID of her does not mean I threw her out. She left quite to my surprise, gave me a full month’s notice, and even allowed others to look at the place while her things were here (I didn’t do that, though.) I helped her with moving all her very heavy things, and she constantly worried that something ‘tres fragile’ was going to get broken, BUT…she also told me ‘you don’t have to do any of this..’ but I always do that, out of sheer politeness.

    But in any conscious sense, she LEFT. She found a room in Bklyn, where the rents are not cheap, but still much less than Manhattan, that is why she LEFT. Can you follow that. I said ‘GOT RID’ of her, because, for whatever reason, it did turn out to be the best thing for me; but I had had no intention, since we had had problems way back in June, of ‘throwing her out’. She even wanted to ‘be a reference’ and ‘recommend me favourably’, but after she did this absurdity with the mail (which was asking beyond politeness, and she also knew it), I informed her that, of course I’d never ask her for a recommendation for that or anything else.

    Not that I consider that you deserved an answer, but just for the record. You do not consider it your responsibility to read anyone’s posts carefully at all, the only thing that is important is that you write any frivolous thing you can make out of it in your own terms, that don’t interest anybody. And you cannot even get comments on your blog anymore.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 23 October 2011 @ 3:35 pm

  37. that is why she LEFT.

    She might have LEFT, performatively, but obviously you didn’t WANT her there, cause you’ve been having bitchy cold and hot showers ever since that Mamma Mia! thread. Which effectively means that you threw her out, or else you would have made sure that she stayed. And it’s always been like that. Anyhow what does this have to do with my Tenant fantasy, which I can have as much as I want, in any form I want, because that is my right as a fantasist and a blawg reader.


    Comment by Center of Parody — 23 October 2011 @ 4:36 pm

  38. ”If everything were just simply a product of internal relations there’d be no point in pursuing projects of emancipation because oppressed peoples would irrevocably be what they are and would harbor no potentials to become otherwise. But the whole injustice of these circumstances is that people do have being independent of their relations, they do harbor potentials to be otherwise, yet certain regimes of attraction prevent them from doing so.(from the comment boxes)

    It’s perfectly alright to say that people do have being independent of their relations, but again, where is the logic of claiming this being to be withdrawn? If the being of the black woman is withdrawn, then how will it ever out itself in order to combat the repression by the regimes of attraction?


    Comment by Center of Parody — 23 October 2011 @ 6:50 pm

  39. Agreed. It seems that these OOO ideas serve primarily as metaphors, as stimuli to think about things from a different angle. I don’t know why it’s necessary to adopt these ontological notions to talk about the unrealized potential of an individual, group, or class. What’s under consideration here is their potential to engage in different sorts of relations, but for the OOOlogist to regard the actualization of those relations as unreal seems counterproductive. Also if the real withdraws from relations, then it seems that the OOO realist would not really care about realizing the unrealized relational potentials. What brings your attention back to these issues, CofP? Did this particular post trigger insights or objections?


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 October 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  40. Well, we know nothing can trigger its empathy. That’s for sure.


    Comment by W.Kasper — 23 October 2011 @ 8:10 pm

  41. “Anyhow what does this have to do with my Tenant fantasy, which I can have as much as I want, in any form I want, because that is my right as a fantasist and a blawg reader.”

    Not to mention a helluva Carrion Imitator.


    Comment by illegal dances of new york city — 23 October 2011 @ 8:44 pm

  42. I can’t wait for the Marienbad discussion…


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 October 2011 @ 10:29 pm

  43. “Also if the real withdraws from relations, then it seems that the OOO realist would not really care about realizing the unrealized relational potentials.”

    That’s fucking deep, man. Who said that?


    Comment by ktismatics — 23 October 2011 @ 10:32 pm

  44. Returning to the earlier question of whether it’s possible to build empathic alliances not just around peace, love, and understanding, but also around cruelty, violence, resentment, and rage, I draw your attention to the review of Peter Sloterdijk’s book Rage and Time, linked on the newly-revived Perverse Egalitarianism blog. Sloterdijk explores the concept of the “rage bank,” where emotional responses to injustice are collected from individual and group depositors accumulate, earn interest, and are eventually invested in vengeful “rage projects” like a religious last judgment or a political revolution. As best I can tell from the review, Sloterdijk isn’t happy with historical rage investments and projects, yet he doesn’t develop a coherent alternative.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 October 2011 @ 7:33 am

  45. Also if the real withdraws from relations, then it seems that the OOO realist would not really care about realizing the unrealized relational potentials. What brings your attention back to these issues, CofP? Did this particular post trigger insights or objections?

    Well that whole conversation has always been interesting because it does tap into the Zeitgeist (what better example than Melancholia, with the strangeness of its own ”withdrawal”) and also because in principle I subscribe to the psychoanalytic idea of the hole in personality, and then also to the kabalistic idea of multiple personalities etc. in any case I don’t believe in the integrated positive self. So the objectologists are surely on the trace of something important, even though I can’t for the laugh of me understand how the withdrawal resolution resolves anything. Which brings me back yet again to Melancholia, or maybe to Marienbad. In Melancholia, there is thus also a kind of a concept of the ultimate total inscrutability of the world,but simultaneously, the idea that everything is so profoundly connected (by affects) that the world is this enormous organism, and everything relates to everything.


    Comment by parody center — 24 October 2011 @ 7:51 am

  46. A veritable ocean of empathy!

    So tell us, how did you feel by the end of ‘The Breaking Of The Waves’? Did you want to cry or jerk off?


    Comment by W.Kasper — 24 October 2011 @ 9:22 am

  47. Or let me put it another way, I think it makes a lot of sense to exit one’s skin – that we can only become human if we first become inhuman – as in Cronenberg’s ”The Fly”, of the more notable metaphors I can imagine. Because as in the example above, as long as you’re in your human skin as a researcher, your prejudices will go along – if you examine empathy, your own empathic ability will color your object of research.

    But where I feel a disconnect is the idea that ”the truth” is inscrutable, unavailable. Life seems just too incredibly complex for it to be meaningless. I think our inquisitive brains have been made such because the world is endlessly complex, so obviously they are also like instruments, meant to examine the world. Why would anyone bother creating such a fascinating intricate play if it was all for nothing.


    Comment by parody center — 24 October 2011 @ 10:41 am

  48. Did you want to cry or jerk off?

    Neither, I found it a mediocre film because there was no humor in it. The visuals were incredible, as every Lars von Trier is, but the film was empty. Like taking the soul out of Dostoyevski. I started loving Lars after ‘”Dogville”, which is where he reached maturity as an artist. Since then, it’s only been brilliant.

    Now you can finish your bottle of cheap brandy and feel sorry for yourself some more, then process that in a series of mind-numbingly pessimistic postings.


    Comment by parody center — 24 October 2011 @ 10:43 am

  49. …and then the question is, does maybe the IDEA that it’s meaningless, TRIGGER a kind of an out-of-body experience, perhaps an attempt to flee our own condition, which then in turn negatively inspires creation and discovery? I think that’s certainly a possibility.

    What I have found interesting in Lovecraft – at least, filmed Lovecraft, because not liking his style, I haven’t read many of his books – is that the stories are pure Hell, doom, nothingness, but they seem to be driven by a strange kind of eroticism, for example in ”Dagon”, a very nice adaptation, you can feel that this dark Hell is deeply imbued with a sense of wonder, almos sensual enjoyment. So it surprises me when some of the objectologists talk about Lovecraft as though he were about the horror of realizing that we’re not the most important thing in the universe. That’s just the beginning of the journey: thereafter comes this strange jouissance of horror.


    Comment by parody center — 24 October 2011 @ 10:49 am

  50. From an interview with Graham Harman linked on Larval Subjects: “Psychology treats all reality as made up primarily of mental phenomena.”

    “What a ridiculously ignorant assertion,” Doyle sneered.


    Comment by ktismatics — 24 October 2011 @ 12:21 pm

  51. “That’s just the beginning of the journey: thereafter comes this strange jouissance of horror.”

    You don’t have many mid-00s blog cliches left to re-hash now. Spend the remainder wisely…


    Comment by W.Kasper — 24 October 2011 @ 12:31 pm

  52. In fact, forget the above. Your wanton abuse of two or three braincells deserves no advice.


    Comment by W.Kasper — 24 October 2011 @ 12:35 pm

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