Friday, September 12, 2014

Literature, Emotion, and Unity of Being

I've uploaded a new working paper. Here's the SSRN link:
Abstract and introduction are below.

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Abstract: Unity of being is both an aesthetic and an ethical ideal and it is about organizing desire, action, and emotion into a pattern of overall coherence. Such patterns are necessarily culture specific and somewhat arbitrary in their disposition of underlying biological materials. Stories involving often painful and embarrassing aspects of human behavior provide a means of publicly acknowledging and affirming the bewildering diversity of our behavior. Thus publically affirmed, these nonfictions are the means of constructing the neural 'scaffolding' on which we recall and organize the events of our lives.

Introduction: Unity of Being Through Literary Experience

When I first introduced the term “unity of being” it was a placeholder. I needed a concept and I knew why I needed that concept, but I didn’t quite know to define or discuss it. So I named it and talked around it. This set of notes is an initial attempt to discuss unity of being.

Unity of being is central to my thinking about literature and my thinking about the disciplines of literary criticism, for it is at the border between naturalist criticism and ethical criticism, connecting and dividing them at the same time. One central task for the naturalist critic is to infer a culture’s realization of unity of being through an examination of its literary texts. But the naturalist critic is not in the business of asserting what unity of being should be, not for his or her own culture, much less for any other culture.

That is the job of the ethical critic. What is beautiful? What is the good life? What texts advance the good and the beautiful, and why? Those are the central pursuits of ethical criticism. They are about how one should achieve unity of being.

A given critic may, of course, practice both naturalist and ethical criticism. But they are different disciplines with different requirements. We must learn to make the separation so that we can deliberately choose to function in the naturalist or the ethnical mode, as the occasion demands.

Two Meanings

When I introduced the term “unity of being” in a post entitled Unity of Being and Ethical Criticism I gave it two meanings, more or less, as follows:
In real time, unity of being is, well, unity of being. I don’t mean to be perverse, but I don’t know of any general term, though perhaps Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow will do, or the phrase “being in the moment.” As far as I know flow always happens spontaneously in that we cannot flip the mind’s flow switch at will—I rather doubt there’s such a thing as a flow-switch, rather it’s a matter of balance. But we can do things that will increase the likelihood that the mind will flip into flow.

One of those things is to read, in the basic ordinary sense of the word, a literary text. Or listen to a story, watch a play or movie. Whatever. In this sense, unity of being is psychological, it happens in the mind/brain in real time.

But unity of being, I believe, is also a reasonable way to talk about how individuals and peoples live their lives in the large, from years to decades to centuries. One wants everything one does, 24/7/365, to fall into a coherent pattern. A pattern more or less attributed to the nature of the world. To the extent that one cannot achieve unity of being one feels, well, perhaps alienated is the most general concept for it. In that literary texts are (always) about the world, they point toward unity of being in the large.

As far as I know there is no one way of life that yields unity of being in the large nor is there one way of organizing texts that yields it in the small. In the large it is a matter of how one chooses to live, where that one can be an individual or a group. In the small it is a matter of craft and one’s knowledge of its ways and means.
While these two senses – (1) as aesthetic flow, (2) as a coherent way of life – are related in that literary texts are about the world and how we live in it, it is the former sense that most interests me in this brief working paper.

As aesthetic flow, unity of being is a phenomenon that happens in the brain and nervous system. I currently believe, but cannot argue strongly, that this phenomenon can be defined in universal terms but that the means of constructing and enabling it are culturally specific. The means must be discovered by an encultured group and must be learned individuals in the group.

The Disjointed Mind

With this in mind, let us consider a passage from Augustine’s The City of God (Book 14, Chapter 17):
Justly is shame very specially connected with this lust; justly, too, these members themselves, being moved and restrained not at our will, but by a certain independent autocracy, so to speak, are called "shameful." Their condition was different before sin. . . . because not yet did lust move those members without the will's consent; not yet did the flesh by its disobedience testify against the disobedience of man. For they were not created blind, as the unenlightened vulgar fancy; . . . Their eyes, therefore were open, but were not open to this, that is to say, were not observant so as to recognize what was conferred upon them by the garment of grace, for they had no consciousness of their members warring against their will. But when they were stripped of this grace, that their disobedience might be punished by fit retribution, there began in the movement of their bodily members a shameless novelty which made nakedness indecent.
Augustine is here complaining about sexuality, and offering the interesting speculation that before humankind’s fall from grace, sexuality was under the control of the will but that afterward, alas, such control was lost.

What is true of sexuality is true of emotion and motivation in general: we cannot command it. It is not subject to our will. What makes sexuality particularly troublesome, I speculate, is that it is dormant throughout childhood–yeah, yeah, I know the Freudian story; in Freudian terms, I’m talking about genital sexuality–while the nervous system is developing and one is learning how to get about in the world. Just as one reaches adolescence and the capacity for abstract thought (in Piaget’s terms, formal operations, cf. Benzon and Hays, Principles and development of natural intelligence, 1988), the nervous system changes at its most fundamental level. In that situation sexuality is likely to be experienced as a ‘stranger’ in the body, a foreign intrusion. That makes it problematic in the way that other motives and emotions are not, as they have been present early in life and have been incorporated into the developing psyche.

Though sexuality is a threat to psychic coherence in the way that other motives and emotions are not, the question of self-control is hardly confined to sexuality. And that is he fundamental issue: will and self-control. One cannot become hungry at will, nor curious, affectionate, playful, angry, and so forth. One can fake many of these things, and more, and sometimes one can fake it until it becomes real, after a fashion. But faking it is not so easy as simply raising or lowering one’s arm. It is a more elaborate activity.

This disordered psyche, teaming with beings that refuse to submit to one’s will, I submit, is at the core of our search for unity of being. We are subject to feelings and desires that we cannot control and that often lead us to do destructive things. The search for unity of being often takes the form of a search for self-control, but THAT search is futile, as the nervous system is structured in such a way that control of the mind and body by the will is impossible (see various posts under the heading of behavioral mode). Instead, we must somehow come to terms with the issue, and do so in a way that is acknowledged, shared, and approved by our social group. Literature is a vehicle for the sharing and acknowledging, as are all the expressive arts.

Pleasure and Norms, Individuals in the Group

Returning to aesthetic flow, it is pleasurable in the culmination, though it may entail pain and anxiety in process. And pleasure, as I have argued at some length in Beethoven’s Anvil (chapter 4), is a function of the whole nervous system, not of so-called ‘pleasure centers’, which simply don’t exist as such – in the book I argue, following Walter Freeman and Jack Panksepp, that that conception involves a misinterpretation of the observations.

Pleasure is necessarily experienced by individuals, whether we are dealing with someone reading a novel in the comfort and security of his or her home, or people experiencing a play or story-telling along with others. In the latter case, of course, individuals certainly influence one another. But the pleasure is experienced in each individual nervous system, even if those systems are coupled together though their common apprehension of the story and through vocal, gestural, and postural signals transmitted among one another.

Over time the group will have developed norms about which stories work, which stories flow, and which ones fail. This is particularly important as many stories, often the deepest ones, involve elements of pain and embarrassment which one must experience before the final pleasurable release. As one internalizes the norms of the group, one learns to sit through the pain and embarrassment, for only then will it be possible to experience the (greater) flow at the end.

In this I am assuming that there is no one best way, much less a ‘natural’ way, to organize one’s desires and emotions into some overall coherent pattern, into patterns that flow when realized in story, dance, song, and ritual. There is an arbitrary aspect to each proposed pattern of coherence, and none are perfect. Each group finds its own pattern of coherence, of unity of being, with socially approved patterns varying between groups. Unity of being is thus culturally specific.

The Notes

I have arranged the notes in this working paper in an order that is roughly cumulative. First we have two brief segments, one on how we experience the activities of others and the other on using indirect fictional means to manipulate our own moods (affective technology). The first segment calls on William Flesch, Comeuppance (2007) to suggest biological and evolutionary grounding through the concept of vicarious experience, which Flesh has from David Hume and Adam Smith. In the second segment I read a series of incidents from my own life through the episode of Tom Sawyer where Tom takes pleasure in secretly watching his Aunt Polly react to the (incorrect) news of his death. His experience of her reactions is vicarious.

Then I take a look at a few incidents from the Winnebago Trickster cycle as reported by Paul Radin. These particular tales are scatological, sexual, and quite funny. They are also ridiculous in a way that defies the notion, much beloved by literary Darwinians, that stories encode information that’s useful for getting around in the world. What’s going on, I argue, is that people are sharing these absurd stories about embarrassing and problematic bodily functions as a way of acknowledging and thus accepting them among themselves. Even as individuals take pains to enact these functions in private, they express them publicly in story so as to take cultural and, if you will, vicarious possession of them. Thus they achieve unity of being.

In the last segment I offer a contemporary reinterpretation of Wordsworth’s formula that people is arises from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” One of the peculiarities of the nervous system is that our are biochemically sensitive. Different feelings and actions are supported by different biochemical states in the nervous system. Thus it is easiest to recall an incident if we are, at the moment of recall, in a similar neurochemical state.

How then are we going to be able to recall incidents from our life if we’re just sitting around in a ‘neutral’ neurochemical state? Many of these incidents will be biochemically specific, but our neutral state isn’t at all biochemically specific. That creates a fundamental problem.

I suggest that fictions create the neural means to circumvent this problem. We entertain stories from a biochemically neutral stance. Because these stories are affirmed by the group, that socially sanctioned affirmation creates a neural means by which we can access different kinds of experience from our own lives.

Thus our ability to think about our lives in a coherent way–which surely is a form of unity of being–depends on the stories we have experienced. For to think about our lives, we must be able to recall our experiences, and to recall them fluidly and at will. Literature is the scaffolding that gives us access to the memory palace of our personal history. I am thus led to, and conclude with, a passage from Kenneth Burke’s essay on “Literature as Equipment for Living” from The Philosophy of Literary Form (1973). Using words and phrases from several definitions of the term “strategy” (in quotes in the following passage), he asserts that (p. 298):
... surely, the most highly alembicated and sophisticated work of art, arising in complex civilizations, could be considered as designed to organize and command the army of one’s thoughts and images, and to so organize them that one “imposes upon the enemy the time and place and conditions for fighting preferred by oneself.” One seeks to “direct the larger movements and operations” in one's campaign of living. One “maneuvers,” and the maneuvering is an “art.”

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