I recently read Wiliam Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, after seeing an article in the London Review that made a case for it. I can see the case: the writing is exciting for the most part, until it is dragged into that dread sink of genre fiction, the need for a resolution of a problem. I’m down with solutions, I’m a great fan of pacing out London under the shadow of Sherlock Holmes and finding the criminal, but I’m also a fan of things blowing up in your face. And a little too little blew up in the face of Gibson’s coolhunter heroine, Cayce Pollard. I admired her as an occasion for transvestism – the property Angela Carter rather patronized in D.H. Lawrence, all those stockings and dresses – but as an occasion for detection, her advance to the resolution of the problem became increasingly like an exercise in algebra: “solve the problem with a proof as to how you arrived at the solution.”
In solving her problem, Cayce comes into contact with one of those gross “entrepreneurs” of the early OOs, when the book was written. The heyday of the cult of Davos and the invasion of Iraq! Ah, it hurts, it hurts. The tycoon, with the horrid name Hubertus Bigend, is not only a money maker but fancies himself, as tycoon’s do, a philosopher. This means he has read the popular science books we all have read, but has “seriously” absorbed its lessons. The dialogue between the tycoon and the coolhunter, then, becomes a moment in zeitgeistery of the highest order.
It is from this moment in their dialogue that I received a certain jolt. Here’s the bit:
“It doesn’t feel so
much like a leap of faith as something I know in my heart.” Strange to hear
herself say this, but it’s the truth.
“The heart is a muscle,” Bigend corrects. “You ‘know’ in your limbic brain. The seat of the instinct. The mammalian brain. Deeper, wider, beyond logic. That is where advertising works, not in the upstart cortex. What we think of as ‘mind’ is only a sort of jumped-up gland, piggybacking on the reptilian brainstem and the older, mammalian mind, but our culture tricks us into recognizing it all as consciousness.”
The jolt I received, though, was about language. Although Bigend here is trying to explain the ‘mind’ – a thing that has to have airquotes even in the explanation – his explanation turns out to be more mythic and less actionable than the word “heart”. The ‘reptilian’ limbic system is, of course, an old chestnut in the popular science vein. It is ‘reptilian’ instead of just a limbic system because it somehow demystifies the heart, or intuition, or mind – but relies, nonetheless, for its semantic effect on the old hierarchy between the animal and the human. One could as well call it the “higher mammal limbic system.’”
If this sounds rather weird as a gecko shadow self, it sounds all too familiar as colonialist discourse – with that “determining leadership” being an especially attractive property for the tycoon whose wealth depends on extracting surplus labor value.
“This would make it sort of subprimitive, though it is capable of overriding man’s scientifically acknowledged two brains, a primitive one and the civilized one.”
The geopolitics of brain structure – in one small announcement, the Washington Post in 1969 was explaining why we were in Vietnam – to bring the Vietnamese out of the limbic dark ages!
I am very interested in the vocabularies of the emotions. I think that the decline of the older temperament theory of the body-feeling synthesis, which is something that marks early modernism, has left a hole in our passion-speak. The “heart”, which is an orphan of that earlier way of conceptualizing emotions, has still not been replaced by the “reptilian limbic brain” – though the Bigends of the world correct us sagely on the whole topic. Reminding us that an explanation of an underlying substrate is not an explanation of what that substrate supports, any more than a map is an explanation of the territory.