“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Friday, November 30, 2012

freud x ray eyes and peekaboo

Among the learned in  ancient India and Greece, the emission theory of vision was standard. That theory proposed that subtle rays were emitted by the eyes, which met objects and illuminated them. Alcmaeon, the Greek poet, used the example of being struck in the eye as a proof that there is a ‘fire’ in the eye: “the eye obviously has fire within, for when one is struck (this fire) flashes out. Vision is due to the gleaming – that is to say, the transparent character of that which (in the eye) reflects to the object. And sight is more perfect, the greater the purity of the substance. Empedocles believed the visual, the eidolons of the things about us, are the product of the merger of the rays of the eyes and the rays of the things. Indian scholars had doubts about the rays of things – if this was so, we could see in the dark – but they, too, believed that the eye emits rays. Interestingly, the Mohists in China, working about the same time, accepted the reception theory – that the eye receives light rather than projects it.
All of which is a matter of cherrypicking texts on the intellectual level.  On the folk psychological level, the notion that the eye – unlike the ear, the tongue, the nose, the fingers – has a certain active role in the world is hard to shake off. One stares at a person hoping that person will look up and see one – and it happens. Or we hide our eyes not only to keep ourselves from seeing something, but to keep that thing from happening. Perhaps it is the structure of the eye, with a lid that closes – which makes the eye ensemble a very different receptor set from the other senses – that gives us this primitive sense of the eye as projector. Piaget was the first childhood researcher to mention the fact that the child’s theory of vision is often curiously like the ancient Greek theory of vision.
Gerald Cottrell and Jane Winer have written a series of papers about the “extramission” theory of the eye in children and adults. One of their more startling papers,  “Fundamentally misunderstanding visual  perception”, concerns a survey they took among college students.
“For example, we typically found extramission beliefs among college students who were
tested after they had received instruction on sensation and perception in introductory psychology classes, thus suggesting not only that adults were affirming extramission beliefs but that such beliefs were resistant to education. We were confronted, then, with the likelihood that students
were emerging from basic-level psychology courses without an understanding of one of the most important psychological processes, namely, visual perception.”
Interestingly, in the history of ideas, it was the Arabic natural philosophers who first overthrew the “extramission” theory. In the West, the names to look for are Nicolas de Cusa and Kepler. That Cottrell and Winer find college students who believe the eye emits a kind of power is, to my mind, much more interesting evidence of the intellectual folkways of Americans than their poll-ready responses to questions about evolution. It is absolutely unsurprising to a Freudian to find that numbers of adults believe that the eye has some mysterious power. Projection and the omnipotence of thought are two of the great pillars of Freudian anthropology.
Incidentally, this is how Winer and Cottrell made their survey:
The test most recently used to examine extramission beliefs involves computer representations of vision (see Gregg,Winer, Cottrell, Hedman, & Fournier, 2001; Winer, Cottrell, Karefilaki, & Gregg, 1996). We typically instructed participants that we were interested in how vision occurs, sometimes adding that we were specifically concerned with whether anything, like rays or waves, comes into or goes out of the eyes when people see. We then presented a series of trials in which we simultaneously displayed on a com-puter screen various representations of vision that involved different combinations of input and output. The participants then indicated which representation they thought depicted how or why people see.” Among the choices was pure reception – the correct choice, pure extramission, and a mix in which the eye bounces back information to the object. Amazingly 40 to 60 percent of college students chose either pure extramission or the idea of the eye bouncing back information on the object.
Intellectually, of course, I am down with Kepler and crewe. But life is lived on a level of pure superstition as well. Especially when you are raising a baby. Thus, I have found myself closing my eyes when shushing Adam, as though my eye rays were keeping him up. Or as though some esp mimicry action would work, where pure shushing doesn’t. Of course, it is true that infants latch onto faces, but I close my eyes sometimes even when he is not looking me in the face.
On the level of my psychopathological life, the eye, the gaze, the stare, has a power that no other sensory state has. I do not believe that I can change sound through my ear, but the thought creeps in that I can change sight through my eye. I imagine that me – and forty to sixty percent  of college students – are not alone. What car driver has not decided to stare and point at a red light, willing it green, at some point in his or her driving career? And yet where could this idea possibly come from? I can’t imagine a similar thought about smell, hearing, or touch.
Of course, what other sense is so involved in our waking, doing, communicating, having sex, entertaining lives? Aldous Huxley’s feelies – in which touch would enter our waking world with the power of sight – unfortunately has never been realized. Most of our working life is utterly indifferent to touch – and our concern with smell is mostly that there not be any. But the eye retains its mysterious, mesmerizing symbolic power over us.
All of which will make playing peekaboo with Adam when he is a year older an interesting philosophical exercise, no?

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Entropy and Adam

“Microscopic disorder (entropy) of a system and its surroundings (all of the relevant universe) does not spontaneously decrease.|” This is one of the definitions of Entropy. It is also the hope and salvation of the parent, facing the crying baby. Patience must ride entropy over a few rough spots, and if you hum or make shushing sounds while this is happening, all the better.

Entropy, of course, implies order. And order implies a certain form of vision. In Rudolf Arnheim’s Art and Entropy, he takes shuffling cards as a double-sided act – on the one hand, increasing the disorder in a pack of cards, and on the other hand, equalizing the chances of the players – which of course is an imperative that only makes sense in terms of the order of the game.

“This will become clearer if I refer to another common model for the increase of entropy, namely shuffling. The usual interpretation of this operation is thatby shuffling, say, a deck of cards one converts an initial order into a reasonably perfect disorder. This, however, can be maintained only if any particular initial sequence of cards in the deck is considered an order and if the purpose of the shuf_ing operation is ignored. Actually,
of course, the deck is shuf_ed because all players are to have the chance of receiving a comparable assortment of cards. To this end, shuffling, by aiming at a random sequence, is meant to create a homogeneous distribution of the various kinds of cards throughout the deck. This homogeneity is the order demanded by the purpose of the operation. To be sure, it is a low level of order and, in fact, a limiting case of order because the only structural condition it fulfills is that a sufficiently equal distribution shall prevail throughout the sequence.|”

In other words, disorder can actually be the ruse of order. This is at the heart of the artistic instinct. Perhaps something like this is also happening when I take Adam up and repeat something to him over and over while walking and rocking him. Sometimes, this work. I repeat tout va bien so often that even to me, the phrase becomes sheer comforting sound. Adam – sometimes – ceases to cry, and begins to look around him. Or to burble. What I am aiming at, though, is that glassy look and the heavy eyelid. In effect, I am in the process of shuffling, of transiting between one order and the other.

At other times, this doesn’t work at all. I will say for Adam that he is, on the whole, a wise babe, and if he is crying or awake, there is a reason for it. Sometimes, however, the reason is simply that he has been crying or has been awake. At these points, the lapse into disorder is hard to contain. The ruses fail. However, eventually Adam will sleep, and so will I. It is simply a question of time. Adam’s strength, here, is that the question of time is a lot different for him than for me. For me, every day that passes is in proportion to what now seems like a mountainous sum of days. For Adam, every day that passes is in a very sensible proportion to the amount of time he has been scanning the planet – around five weeks, or 35 days. Thus, the minute is a huger and more monumental thing to his instincts than to mine. He has more riding, or so he thinks, on the minute. My strength is that, when I wrest myself from the tedious hurry of the screen or the deadline, I can look back and see that I’ve never really been hurt by taking more time to do things. Thrust into the mechanical world where every contact is measured, the traffic is dangerous, the work is relative to inflexible turnaround times, I am aware – especially holding Adam – that this world is essentially exterior to me. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Epidemiology of a cliche

Hendrick Herzberg at the New Yorker had the cleverest idea. Why not apply the  Kubler Ross stages of grief to the Romney defeat? I don’t know why nobody else has ever thought of this. 

“… the House. The Republicans will have seven or eight fewer seats in that body, but hold it they did, and this fact is what those among them who are stuck at Stage 1 of Mme. Kübler-Ross’s five-stage topography of grief (“Denial”), and even a few who are tentatively assaying Stage 3 (“Bargaining”), are clinging to. (Talk radio is permanently tuned to Stage 2, “Anger,” and Stage 4, “Depression,” hangs heavy.) In the view of these Republicans, the election was a tie; and on the legitimacy of their most cherished goal—keeping rich folks’ taxes at their current historic lows…”

Meanwhile, Will Oremus at Slate had the cleverest idea ever to brighten that mag: why not apply the Kubler Ross stages of grief to the Fox News perception of the Romney defeat? I can’t believe nobody ever thought of this!

In Fox News' election coverage Tuesday night, there was little pretense of fairness or balance. What there was, from the start, was a glum tone that turned downright funereal by the time Mitt Romney finally conceded, near 1 a.m. To watch the network's anchors and guests work through the dawning realization that their candidate was doomed was to witness a textbook case of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief.

Meanwhile, in the Guardian,Richard Adams and Tim McCarthy had the brilliant idea of comparing the conservative reaction to the Election to – Kubler Ross’s five stages of grief! I don’t know where these pundits get their ideas, but isn’t that just brilliant and unexpected? 

“On the Kübler-Ross model, Red State's Erick Erickson is still at stage one:
The odds were never with us historically. It has nothing to do with an embrace of one world view or rejection of another. It is just damn hard to beat an incumbent President who is raking in millions and laying a ground work for re-election while your side is fighting it out in a primary.That's like wandering around saying "I'm fine, honestly."
Meanwhile the RedState site itself seems to at stage two”
The NYT’ is unfortunately behind the curve this cycle in brilliantly and unexpectedly pairing  Kubler Ross and the election. Perhaps this is because Frank Rich, in 2008, was already using Kubler Ross to talk about the Republicans. Or perhaps it is because in the analysis of the 2010 defeat by the Democrats, political reporter Henry Alford compared the Democratic reaction to… Kubler Ross!
Then of course there is Jordan Bloom at the American Conservative, who analysed the GOP reaction  to their loss in terms of … Kubler-Ross! The Daily Kos thread which analyzed the GOP loss in terms of… Kubler-Ross! And the columnist for the Albany Union-Leader who analyzes the GOP loss in terms of… Kubler Ross!
This collection almost makes me think – almost! – that we have about done to death the comparison with Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief and elections. And having done it to death, are we going to grieve?
Perhaps. My grief will take the form of wondering if there is anything – burning the eggs, missing your bus – that can’t be subsumed into the Kubler-Ross grieving process. And whether that process with its supposed order cherrypicks reactions to create a pseudo-universal.
But I wouldn’t want to knock the sheer genius of the political analysis we have had during this election cycle. That would be anger and denial, and I won’t do that!