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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: psychology (page 2 of 6)

Jenny Diski on Erving Goffman

Rejecting any possibility of an essential identity, his notion is of the self as purely contingent, a shape-shifting construction of altering circumstances. The individual, Goffman says, arrives into an already established social world, and is shaped by, rather than shapes, his environment. All interaction is performance; each individual (or ‘team’) performs for the other and is the other’s audience. Careful ritual and fear of embarrassment are all that hold social order together, which results in the social actor’s impression management being colluded with (if it is not too incompetent or absurd: the comb-over in preference to a bad wig) by the audience, which no more wishes to be embarrassed by the unmasking of the other than the other wishes to be unmasked.

Thus we are actors or con artists or gamblers or audiences or team members or marks, who walk into discrete situational frames and become whatever will get us through. There is no essential morality, only human nature, anxious risk avoidance or calculative dealings. Read Goffman all these years on, and you see the ghostly images of sociobiology and Thatcherism to come. He made no pretence that he was doing anything about the world, he merely described it, using the metaphor of drama as a tool. When he was accused, as he had to be in the early 1970s, of making no attempt to analyse the world in terms of social or economic advantage or disadvantage, or to reveal the true reality behind appearances, he shrugged: ‘I think that is true. I can only suggest that he who would combat false consciousness and awaken people to their true interests has much to do, because the sleep is very deep. And I do not intend here to provide a lullaby but merely to sneak in and watch the way people snore.’ He had no interest in endearing himself to others.

More than thirty years later, academic sociologists are still enraged or delighted by him for his refusal to conform to the rules of sociology, his lack of political passion, his early perception of the fragmented, postmodern, socially constructed individual, his contempt for orthodoxies (we sociologists ‘haven’t managed to produce in our students the high level of trained incompetence that psychologists have achieved in theirs, although, God knows, we’re working on it’). According to Thomas Scheff’s essay, his work is ‘so advanced that we haven’t yet understood it . . . none of us, not even his fans are yet as free of the assumptive world as Goffman. We haven’t caught up with him yet.’ Norman Denzin, on the other hand, believes he offered a sociology ‘that seemed to turn human beings into Kafkaesque insects to be studied under glass’. He did not address ‘social injustice, violence or war under capitalism’. Goffman’s actors were men and women in grey flannel suits who did not resist, ‘they conformed to the requirements of a local and global capitalism that erased class, race and gender in the name of a universal, circumspect human nature . . . Capital was a missing term . . . His was a universal sociology, part of a pandisciplinary project, that moved from linguistics to psychoanalysis, sociology, anthropology, psychology and economics.’

I am still unable to understand what is so wrong with a pandisciplinary project, but I can see the rest of Denzin’s point. Reading Goffman now is alarmingly claustrophobic. He presents a world where there is nowhere to run; a perpetual dinner party of status seeking, jockeying for position and saving face. Any idea of an authentic self becomes a nonsense. You may or may not believe in what you are performing; either type of performance is believed in or it is not. There is, as Goffman repeatedly says, no real reality. Still, you wonder, what is it then in either actor or audience that’s doing the believing or not believing? And when the individual is alone, does she continue to perform for herself? Always? And when she is asleep and dreaming? And if she is ever not performing, what or who is she? Certainly something, because Javier Treviño tells us Goffman acknowledged that the self is ‘always “anchored” in an individual’s “continuing biography” before and after every social event’. I remain baffled, no image comes of this accrued history sitting alone in her bath with flashes of me-ness in between performances. Marshall Berman is quoted as writing of Goffman: ‘Although he was magnificent at evoking human situations, he seemed . . . to lack empathy with actual human beings. People seemed to exist for him only as manipulative players in an endless series of games people play. Feelings, emotions, love, hate, the self, did not seem to come in anywhere at all.’

“Think of Mrs Darling,” LRB, 4 March 2004

But I don’t see how Berman’s assessment can be. For me the anger seeps off the page in his books, especially Asylums, which had to be the inspiration for Frederick Wiseman’s Titticut Follies a few years later. He just knew how difficult the task of action would be, and abdicated responsibility.

And how much more concrete and realistic his visions are than the abstractions given to us by our contemporary social theorists. If we can’t generalize from the reality at hand, the one Goffman described, to the greater world situation, that is our blindness and not his.

Russian Revolution Quotes

Some great quotes from Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian Revolution (endorsed by Communist Eric Hobsbawm, no less!).

Oh, how [the Soviet leaders of the February 1917 revolution] feared the masses! As I watched our ‘socialists’ speaking to the crowds … I could feel their nauseating fear… I felt the inner trembling, and the effort of will it took not to lower their gaze before the trusting, wide-open eyes of the workers and soldiers crowded around them. As recently as yesterday it had been relatively easy to be ‘representatives and leaders’ of these working masses; peaceable parliamentary socialists could still utter the most bloodcurdling words ‘in the name of the proletariat’ without even blinking. It became a different story, however, when this theoretical proletariat suddenly appeared here, in the full power of exhausted flesh and mutinous blood. And when the truly elemental nature of this force, so capable of either creation or destruction, became tangible to even the most insensitive observer — then, almost involuntarily, the pale lips of the leaders’ began to utter words of peace and compromise in place of yesterday’s harangues. They were scared — and who could blame them?

Mstislavsky, Five Days

‘The countryside is falling into chaos, with robberies and arson every day, while you sit doing nothing in your comfortable Petersburg office,’ one Tambov squire wrote to him in April. ‘Your local committees are powerless to do anything, and even encourage the theft of property. The police are asleep while the peasants rob and burn. The old government knew better how to deal with this peasant scum which you call “the people”.

Tambov Squire to Prince Lvov, April 1917

The terrible thing in Lenin was that combination in one person of self-castigation, which is the essence of all real asceticism, with the castigation of other people as expressed in abstract social hatred and cold political cruelty.

Peter Struve, “My Contacts and Conflicts with Lenin”

Sweet Father and Mother,
It was already clear to me about a week ago that there was no way out. Without a doubt the country is heading for a general slaughter, famine, the collapse of the front, where half the soldiers will perish, and the ruin of the urban population. The cultural inheritance of the nation, its people and civilization, will be destroyed. Armies of migrants, then small groups, and then maybe no more than individual people, will roam around the country fighting each other with rifles and then no more than clubs. I will not live to see it, and, I hope, neither will you.

Prince Lvov on the eve of his resignation, July 1917

Lenin and Trotsky do not have the slightest idea of the meaning of freedom or the Rights of Man. They have already become poisoned with the filthy venom of power, and this is shown by their shameful attitude towards freedom of speech, the individual, and all those other civil liberties for which the democracy struggled.

Gorky, Untimely Thoughts, 7 November 1917

Psychologically, the Whites conducted themselves as if nothing had happened, whereas in reality the whole world around them had collapsed, and in order to vanquish the enemy they themselves had to undergo, in a certain sense, a rebirth . . . Nothing so harmed the ‘White’ movement as this very condition of psychologically staying put in previous circumstances, circumstances which had ceased to exist. . . Men with this ‘old regime’ psychology were immersed in the raging sea of revolutionary anarchy, and psychologically could not find their bearings in it… In the revolutionary storm that struck Russia in 1917, even out-and-out restorationists had to turn revolutionaries in the psychological sense: because in a revolution only revolutionaries can find their way.

Peter Struve, 1921

Nonsense, how can you make a revolution without firing squads? Do you expect to dispose of your enemies by disarming yourself? What other means of repression are there? Prisons? Who attaches significance to that during a civil war?

Lenin, October 1917

What is man? He is by no means a finished or harmonious being. No, he is still a highly awkward creature. Man, as an animal, has not evolved by plan but spontaneously, and has accumulated many contradictions. The question of how to educate and regulate, of how to improve and complete the physical and spiritual construction of man, is a colossal problem which can only be conceived on the basis of Socialism. We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but we surely cannot improve man. No, we can! To produce a new, ‘improved version’ of man — that is the future task of Communism. And for that we first have to find out everything about man, his anatomy, his physiology and that part of his physiology which is called his psychology. Man must look at himself and see himself as a raw material, or at best as a semi-manufactured product, and say: ‘At last, my dear homo sapiens, I will work on you.’

Trotsky

From A.R. Luria’s The Mind of a Mnemonist

The Mind of a Mnemonist is about an otherwise ordinary man, S., with an extreme eidetic memory, able to remember completely random strings of numbers and characters for years on end. Though he sometimes omits items in the sequences, he never misremembers or falsely adds one, as he seems to have intuitively developed a memory palace technique based on overwhelming synaesthetic associations. If he misses an item, it’s because it was quite literally overlooked in the visual framework. Here he is explaining how he “overlooked” some words in a list while repeating them:

I put the image of the pencil near a fence .. . the one
down the street, you know. But what happened was
that the image fused with that of the fence and I walked
right on past without noticing it. The same thing happened with the word egg. I had put it up against a
white wall and it blended in with the background. How
could I possibly spot a white egg up against a white
wall? Now take the word blimp. That’s something gray,
so it blended in with the gray of the pavement . . .
Banner, of course, means the Red Banner. But, you
know, the building which houses the Moscow City
Soviet of Workers’ Deputies is also red, and since I’d
put the banner close to one of the walls of the building
I just walked on without seeing it.. . Then there’s the
word putamen. I don’t know what this means, but it’s
such a dark word that I couldn’t see it . . . and, be-
sides, the street lamp was quite a distance away . . .

The cost of his prodigious memory is a verbal literalism that incapacitates his ability to appreciate nuance, abstraction, or multiple meanings. Each word only had one concrete, visual meaning summoned up by his mind immediately upon seeing it. Here he is tripping over some lines from Pasternak:

[It] Smiled at a bird-cherry tree, sobbed, drenched
The lacquer of cabs, the tremor of trees . . .*
  Boris Pasternak

He smiled at a bird-cherry tree. This called up an image
of a young man. Then I realized this was taking place
on the Metinskaya in Rezhitsa .. . He smiled at it. But
right after that there’s the word sobbed. That is, tears
have appeared and are wetting it . . . it means the
lines have to do with grief .. . I remembered how some
woman went to the crematorium and sat there for hours
looking at a portrait. . . That expression the lacquer of
cabs—it’s the lady of the manor driving by in her car-
riage from the mill at Yuzhatov. I look on. What is
she doing? She’s looking out of the carriage, trying to
see what’s wrong there. Why is “he” sad? . . . Then
there’s the expression the tremor of trees [word order
reversed in the Russian]. I can see the tremor and then
the trees, but when the words are reversed like this, I
see a tree and have to make it sway back and forth
to understand the phrase itself. This means a lot of
work for me.

[* The verbs are all in the past tense, masculine singular, but
they apply to rain; it is the spring rain Pasternak ascribes
human emotions to. S. interpreted the content and endings
of the verbs as the action of a masculine subject, whereas the
subject was masculine in a purely grammatical sense. [Tr.]]

So to make space for all of the visual associations that are forced upon him with every word, character, and number, S. lost some other kind of internal mental representation, something that allows for abstraction, metaphor, analogy, and indeterminacy. S. was forever unable to grasp the concept of “infinity”:

. . . Infinity—that means what has always been. But
what came before this? What is to follow? No, it’s impossible to see this . . .

In order for me to grasp the meaning of a thing, I
have to see it. . . Take the word nothing. I read it and
thought it must be very profound. I thought it would
be better to call nothing something . . . for I see this
nothing and it is something . . . If I’m to understand
any meaning that is fairly deep, I have to get an image
of it right away. So I turned to my wife and asked
her what nothing meant. But it was so clear to her
that she simply said: “Nothing means there is nothing.”
I understood it differently. I saw this nothing and felt
she must be wrong. The logic we use, for example. It’s
been worked out on the basis of years of experience.
I can see how it has developed, and what it means to
me is that one has to rely on his own sensations of
things. If nothing can appear to a person, that means
it is something. That’s where the trouble comes in . . .

It’s his sensations, and his inability to evade recollection of them in association with any sort of discourse, that disconnect him from many modes of speaking. Though he was able to be social, I imagine he was in some ways cut off from other people, because he could only ever think that they were talking about one thing in particular with each word or phrase, and if words were to be used in different ways, he would be immediately estranged from such a use. By relying on his own sensations, his language is more private than that of other people. Abstraction is more social than sensation.

[Another Russian note: It’s now thought that famous synaesthete Alexander Scriabin was in fact not synaesthetic, as real synaesthetics such as Messiaen do not have synaesthetic associations that map so neatly onto the western scale.]

The Cap of Hearing

We might add, perhaps, that the ego wears a ‘cap of hearing’–on one side only, as we learn from cerebral anatomy. It might be said to wear it awry.Freud, “The Ego and the Id”

Further Last Thoughts on Roberto Bolano’s 2666

The last section is about Archimboldi, the mysterious writer who the academics were chasing after way back at the start of the book, and who has not been of much significance since then. Bolano explicitly constructs the section as a linear Bildungsroman, or at least as a pastiche of one.

While the section eventually joins with the rest of the book, it is mostly self-sufficient. Archimboldi is born as a naif, grows up and has horrendous wartime experiences, then slowly becomes a writer. The section is solid if not overwhelming (unlike the penultimate section about the murders), and Archimboldi does give Bolano a nice but contrived mouthpiece for discoursing directly on literature. By this point the critics of the first section are long forgotten, and consequently the the contrast of Archimboldi’s life with their facile obsessions does not weigh too heavily on the writing.

I don’t want to say that much about this section other than to point out a movement that takes place toward its end. After Archimboldi has gone through most of the formative experiences of his life and has established himself as a writer, he disappears. His person is still there in the book, but the intimate introspection given into his mind for much of the section is drastically curtailed. He moves from being a subject to an opaque object, i.e., the object studied by the critics. And evidently this is where he is to stay.

What is meant by this movement? Bolano heavily uses reportage in his work, and when introspection is present, as in By Night and Chile and Amulet, it is carefully circumscribed so as not to overreach its place and time. I suspect that there is some criticism of introspection and psychology as being a luxurious distraction, something that draws our eyes away from things like the horrible murders of Santa Teresa. So Bolano’s abandonment/subversion of the Bildungsroman, where rather than coming to fruition, Archimboldi becomes a cipher, is Bolano’s proposal for how individuals turn into history, or how the mask of intimacy is removed so that inexplicable reality is faced. And this is the movement of the novel as a whole: 2666 is about removing the mask.

In conclusion? The novel is a major achievement, but I can’t call it a masterpiece. (Archimboldi’s somewhat incongruous speech beginning on page 785 rails against the hierarchy of masterpieces and minor works, so take the terms with a grain of salt.) Bolano’s intent was too focused on undermining the claims of the integrity and autonomy of literary work for his skills to work best in long form. By Night in Chile and the stories in Last Evenings on Earth strike me as his best work, where the prose does not have to take on too much weight of undermining itself.

Still, self-abnegation at this scale is striking, and it seems to have successfully disoriented a number of his readers, including Ignacio Echevarria, who writes in his somewhat haughty afterword: “Although the five parts can be read independently, they not only share many elements (a subtle web of recurring motifs), they also serve a common end. There is no point attempting to justify the relatively ‘open’ structure that contains them.” Conveniently, he concludes no justification is necessary, alluding to subtle but apparently indisputable evidence without presenting it. This, too, is something that Bolano would not tolerate.

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