Friday, 7 September 2012

Shallows and Depths

In the comments section of my last post, Brian makes a distinction between what he calls shallow and reassuring narratives and deeper more questioning ones. He mentions the work of the German sociologist Theodore Adorno who was highly critical of the Culture Industry (a term Adorno coined with Max Horkheimer in 1944) and its control and dumbing down of mass culture. Brian’s comments, particularly the notion of “reassuring narrative”, touches on some thoughts I’ve been mulling over recently about the nature of fantasy and escapism and whether these are as harmful or unhealthy as is often claimed. Brian’s mention of Adorno reminded me of an essay entitled “Cult of Distraction” by an friend and teacher of Adorno’s: Sigfried Kracauer who in 1926 wrote:

“The bourgeois middle classes… maintain the illusory claim that they are still the guardians of culture and education. Their arrogance, which creates sham oases for itself, keeps the masses down and denigrates their amusement… They claim the status of high art while actually rehearsing anachronistic forms which evade the pressing needs of our time.”

It might be said that these “pressing needs of our time” (then or now) are a wider social phenomena which have little to do with the often far more strongly felt pressing needs of individuals which much culture provokes, feeds, reassures, engages and sometimes even creates (as Adorno and others have noted). Many Marxist thinkers perceived such individualistic ‘needs’ as a distraction (or, in Adorno’s case, a “deception”) and instead urged for an art that would expose the ‘real’ social relations in operation in any given situation and how these function as the actual but otherwise unrecognised cause of discontent at the level of the individual.

But Marxists are not alone in this disavowal of distraction, escapism and fantasy. Freud too believed that fantasy was a form of wish fulfilment. Similarly Piaget interpreted childhood fantasy as a maladaptive pattern that is gradually superseded by more rational logical behaviours. Montessori too advocated ‘real’ play in preference to fantasy play - though, interestingly, her grandson tells of how she read fantasy stories to him at a younger age than she suggested for other children.

The bourgeois denigration of the masses amusement that Kracauer speaks of is as widespread today as it ever was. But in developmental psychology, at least, researchers like Paul L. Harris are beginning to show how childhood fantasy is a fundamental site of rationalisations about cause and effect and even of moral reasoning. In fact it is children who cannot play at make-believe who suffer the most serious developmental difficulties.

But at the adult level the attitude persists that all forms of fantasy and escapism are a frivolous, shallow, meaningless waste of time and are deleterious to insightful thinking (as Adorno claimed) and that the only culture worthy of our attention should be a challenging, thought provoking, critical and self aware one.

Presumably even the deepest thinkers need to take a break from the taxing practice of gazing into the fathomless pool of revelation occasionally. Sometimes a little reassurance is the perfect salve, especially in lives that are otherwise solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. And who is to say that such distractions do not provide other goods than amusement alone – just as fantasy is of benefit to the development of children? And, as a further point of contrast: how numerous I wonder are those unfortunate individuals that, due to their highly educated academic insight, are now unable to fully immerse themselves in the pleasures of fiction or illusion? – though fiction, it seems, is particularly prone to this malady (see here for example). 

“Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived.” -Jonathan Swift 

Or, as Adorno, laying it on thick, put it:

“The phrase, the world wants to be deceived, has become truer than had ever been intended. People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them. They force their eyes shut and voice approval, in a kind of self-loathing, for what is meted out to them, knowing fully the purpose for which it is manufactured. Without admitting it they sense that their lives would be completely intolerable as soon as they no longer clung to satisfactions which are none at all.” 

Adorno’s essay “Culture Industry Reconsidered”, from which the above is taken, is not wrong by any means, but in his determination to get at the truth, he generalizes, oversimplifies and overstates the case. In fact he does exactly what Nassim Taleb warns of in my last post.

It’s probably evident by now that I’m not at all convinced that fantasy is such a harmful thing as is so often claimed (though it’s probably really just a question of degree) and I’m also not so sure that it is deleterious to insightful thinking either. As Adorno acknowledges:

“It is true that thorough research has not, for the time being, produced an airtight case proving the regressive effects of particular products of the culture industry.” 

Nor has it yet. And this is probably because insight is a two way process between a curious object and an inquiring mind, and curious objects can be found wherever one looks deeply, not just where depth has already been excavated through the insight (or deviousness) of others, whether they be heavyweight thinkers or even self-serving functionaries of the Culture Industry.


Brian said...

“Adorno (...) put it ‘People are not only, as the saying goes, falling for the swindle; if it guarantees them even the most fleeting gratification they desire a deception which is nonetheless transparent to them’ ” ... is this not what Taleb also says of ‘narrative fallacy’? It seems to me that he and Adorno agree, not disagree, only Adorno believes that the self-deception is immediately conscious and Taleb does not stress this. I think it was Lao-Zi who said that people do not know the truth because they do not want to know. It comes to the same thing, however - we want to believe something because it is easier to believe: in a child this is through natural innocence and trust, and an intuitive sense of what is True. But the child in the adult will exercise wisdom, not belief.

I think there is a distinction between fantasy and imagination, although in itself it is not an easy one. Fantasy is willfully believing in deception: it has its source in the duality of ‘reality’ and ‘dream’. A child does not ‘fantasize’ because in children ‘reality’ has not yet taken a firm and dull hold. Imagination is for the child of any age, and it leads to Realities of a different kind. Would you agree?

To my mind the relevance of post-Marxist thought as exemplified in Adorno (this is to be clearly distinguished from that of “Marxists”) is that its inherent perspicacity can be applied in the realm of phenomenology: that is, how we think and perceive inwardly ... and how that affects what happens outwardly.

J. Hamlyn said...

I'll have to take your word for it that Adorno is clearly post-Marxist since I can't find any clear reference to him as such other than perhaps via John B's book. Certainly the only other prominent commentator on the subject - online at least - (Chris Cutrone) suggests that Adorno's Marxism was forged in the flames of the upheavals of the 20s and 30's aftermath of the revolutions of 1917-19, which would seem to mark Adorno out as fairly straightforwardly Marxist.

On the subject of fantasy and imagination I would describe fantasy as the willing (as distinct from wilful) suspension of disbelief in an illusory representation, usually where one or more commonly accepted aspect of reality is omitted or distorted. I would describe imagination as the cognitive process in which such representations - and indeed all perceptions - are 'formed' in the mind.

Both perception and imagination draw significantly upon memory to create the semblance of a coherence that we take for reality. The difference in the case of perceptions is that they are accompanied by sensory stimulus, whereas imagined images are formed through the triggering and elaborate recombination of previous memories only.

For this reason I think you may have gotten it a little wrong about children, illusion, reality and fantasy. It is well documented that dreaming is something that develops as children become older and that infants either do not dream or only rarely briefly and in comparatively simple imagery. Without sufficient memories (mental imagery) to draw upon how could this be otherwise? Similarly we might ask of young infants possess imagination in the sense that we think of it. Certainly they perceive to some degree, but whether the images captured in memory (mural pathways laid down) are sufficiently stable to be utilised in image formation in the absence of direct sensory input is another question entirely. Presumably this is a gradual process, which suggests that imagination and fantasy are distinctly not "for the child of any age". Indeed it might be said that reality is absolutely fundamental to the infant as the foundation upon which imagination can then be built in order to form hypotheses about the potential consequences of certain events and actions etc. without the associated risk involved in testing such actions in the flesh, so to speak. Fantasy at this stage, before a basic map of reality is laid down, could be absolutely fatal. No wonder therefore that the organism has no need of an imagination at such an early stage of life.

Brian said...

As for Adorno, don’t take my word for it - read any of his books, or their introductions, and you will clearly see that he is not “fairly straightforwardly Marxist”.

“Illusory representation” ... I would ask what ‘representation’ is not illusory? To whom are things being ‘represented’? It is the narrow notion of ‘reality’ as purely material, and the notion of a purely objective view of the mind from a supposed position outside of itself, that is illusory. I would not describe imagination as a "process”, as if it were an industrial assembly line. It is far more than that.

Your description of perception and imagination is derived from Hume: it is an empirical, and instrumental view that is quite at home in the eighteenth century laboratory, and useful to an extent, but it cannot address art or endow the world we live in with any significant meaning.

Regarding children, perhaps I was not clear enough in my intention. I assumed from your statement “in fact it is children that cannot play at make-believe that suffer the most serious developmental difficulties” that you were of the opinion that children do have “imagination in the sense that we think of it”. What I meant by the “child of any age” is the child of wonder that exists within every adult, whatever the adult’s age. Admittedly I know very little about the developmental stages of the child as an “organism”: but I was one once (a child - that is), and do remember that imagination was my world's constant companion. This becomes less so as one grows into a dull and cautious adult - art is one way of keeping that child-like (but not childish) imagination alive. This is perhaps more urgent today, when we run the risk of becoming more and more like the machines that we produce, or perhaps of seeing ourselves as such.

Brian said...

Hi again, Jim. Further to my comment above, I note that you say that “Both perception and imagination draw significantly upon memory to create the semblance of a coherence that we take for reality.” Here, imagination precedes a notion of “reality”. But later, in relation to fantasy and imagination being “distinctly not” for the infant child you state “Indeed it might be said that reality is absolutely fundamental to the infant as the foundation upon which imagination can then be built ...” . That is to say, that “reality” precedes imagination. My question is, what foundational “reality” does the infant child begin with, as without imagination or fantasy (as you pointed out in the first statement) there can be no coherent notion of reality?

I suppose you might say the notion of reality comes from memory of sensory experience, since it cannot be from perception (as you have decided that memory also precedes perception). But, since you have also already pointed out that children do not have “sufficient memories” to draw upon in order to dream, or to imagine, or to perceive, what memories can they draw upon in order to have a notion of reality to begin with?

J. Hamlyn said...

Ahh yes, I can see how that may seem confusing. Thanks for spotting the apparent logical inconsistency. I'll try to explain from a less abstract route and maybe that way it will also become clear how it's not so much Hume that informs my view as my interest in neuroscience (though Hume was remarkably prescient in this, as in many other subjects).

Perhaps it would be helpful to start with Eric Kandel's Nobel prize winning research. In his studies of the neurobiology of sea snails he found that repeated adverse stimuli would trigger similar constellations of neuronal activity. Reinforcement led to these constellations of activity (neural pathways) to become increasingly focused and stable (through protein synthesis) in what is believed to be an elementary form of learning (memory). However, since these neural pathways were laid down in response to (ie: associated with) adverse stimuli they triggered a defensive response and can thus be thought of as a rudimentary form of perception or re-cognition. The word "recognition" is interesting here in its suggestion of a similar previously remembered state or condition. To perceive, it might be argued, is a form of recognition, a familiarity made possible through memory.

As long ago as the 1970’s (40 years is a long time in neuroscience) Cornell University psychologist, Ulric Neisser was putting forward the idea that perception is a constructive process in which an internal map or “schema” constantly loops through anticipation, exploration and modification in an interweaving of sensory inputs, memories and imagination. More recently Richard Gregory, a prominent British neuropsychologist estimated that perception may be as much as 90% memory. His claims are backed up, for example, by the fact that 80% of the nerve fibers to the visual cortex originate from regions of the brain associated with functions such as memory whereas only 20% issue from the retina. Scientists increasingly agree that perception is the "brain's best guess" at reality.

Returning to the subject of imagination. Imagination would seem to be the ability to trigger constellations of neuronal activity at will, as well as to recombine fragments in new and novel ways (fantasy). But the capacity to conjure imagery in this way, I would suggest, may presents dangers, as is demonstrated in cases of cognitive pathology where the line between imagination and reality is blurred or entirely invisible.

Brian said...

Thanks for that, Jim. Very clear and informative, not to mention interesting. I've written something on "Imagination and Fantasy", which you can reach by clicking on my name above.

J. Hamlyn said...

Thanks for the post. I've responded on your blog with:

I suggest, on the contrary, that fantasy is a form of imagination in which 'reality' may be suspended for the purposes of modelling speculative and otherwise unimaginable hypotheses about the world and testing these in the risk free, and relatively unbounded, environment of the mind. Yes, certainly fantasy (like many drugs in fact) can be abused but, with a little self control, I would contend that it is one of the most vital cognitive tools we possess. Imagination alone is simply not enough. Let me attempt to explain why.

In a paper entitled "The Evolution of Imagination" (2001) British Archaeologist Steven Mithen outlines three different forms of imagination: decision making (anticipation), the thoughts or intentions of others (theory of mind) and fantasy (where the rules of nature are broken).

Mithen begins by raising a series of questions about fantasy and imagination and by contrasting fantasy artworks such as those of Arthur C. Clarke or Dali with what he suggests are "more imaginative" works that do not break the rules of society or nature (Jane Austin for example). he writes: "This is, perhaps, the type of imagination that we find most fulfilling" though a few lines later he writes: "A case can be made that the most imaginative thoughts or works are those that combine elements of both other-worldliness and the familiar."

Later in the paper Mithen discusses the archaeological evidence for the emergence of imagination and he notes that our ancestors were routinely manufacturing stone tools as long as 1.8m years ago. He uses this evidence to speculate about the need to imagine the intended form of tools during their manufacture as well as the imagination necessary to anticipate the actions of fellow hunters and to make rudimentary communications with them during collective hunting expeditions. However, he also points out that the methods of tool manufacture, or types of tools, underwent very little, if any, developmental change over an extraordinarily long period of time and he proposes that this was due to different domains of thought (imagination) being functionally isolated from one another such that discoveries in one domain could not be imaginatively transposed to another:

"As a consequence, ideas about, say, animal behavior, could not be engaged with those about, say, people, to come up with notions of talking animals or beings that are part human and part animal. …the type of imagination that leads to fantasy requires that such rules be broken, or at least ignored."

I think this is crucial for our discussion, since Mithen makes a clear distinction between imagination on one hand and rule breaking imagination, ie: fantasy.

"How were modern humans able to engage in this new type of thinking? They were able to integrate bodies of knowledge and ways of thinking that had evolved in, and previously been restricted to, quite different cognitive domains. For instance, they could take knowledge about a lion, and about a man, and come up with a new imaginary type of animal—that represented by the 33,000-year-old lion/man carving from Hohlenstein Stadel, Germany. I have termed this ability “cognitive fluidity” and have argued that it underlies art, religion and science."

Mithen concludes by clarifying how the three forms of imagination (anticipation, social and fantasy) most likely evolved at different stages in human history and that fantasy is the most recent. He also suggests that the reason we tend to find fictions of the Jane Austin variety more fulfilling is because this form of imagination (the social form, in which rules of nature are not broken) is more deeply seated in our psyches. Perhaps the common disavowal of fantasy (that you also exhibit in your post) has a similar root. Nonetheless without it, it seems unlikely that art or culture would ever have come into existence and we'd probably still be sitting around on our haunches knapping lumps of flint.

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