. . . 2000-09-16 . . . The Hotsy Totsy Club
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As a certified holder of a Bachelor of Mathematics certificate, I can confidently assert that rationality exists only as a way to juggle all the words one feels compelled to throw into the air. But even that certificate is no guarantee of success, and the Outsider Art go-round left a hatchet, a raw egg, and a beach ball on my face.

Most of the muddle was caused by my smudging across questions of production (what do we notice? what attitude do we take? what markets do we approach?) and questions of consumption (how do we notice? how do we understand? how do we enjoy?) as if all of 'em were one big really dumb question.

Thus, Doug Asherman points out that I claim that the worst thing is the formation and mutual support of a mediocre group, when the really REALLY worst thing is when the mediocre group manages to convince larger groups to take it even more seriously than it takes itself.

Regarding "insularity," David Chess suggests

that there is no "mainland" at all, except in the sense of a particularly large (or visible, or well-funded, or populous) island.
(In fact when we're talking The New York Review of Books it's not even that large an island; it's just that the islanders think it's centrally located.... Minifesto: I'm not sure that a decentered self is necessary for ethical living, but I'm pretty sure that a decentered self-image is.)

And giving David Auerbach the last long word:

With all respect, I want to reframe your insider/outsider argument, because I'm not eager to see another generation of writers inspired by Colin Wilson's The Outsider willing themselves into solipsistic states of media attention and minor celebrity. I'd like to displace the insider/outsider dichotomy into the realm of 'material'. There's a quote from John Crowley's review of Lanark that I'm thinking of:
It is more like the great homemade books, the all-encompassing works that have always been constructed not of mainstream materials but of the author's own peculiar mud and straw: Pilgrim's Progress, say, or Branch Cabell's Jurgen.
I'm willing to admit that the considerations of the intellectual market matter only once you've rejected the satisfactoriness of Borges' "Secret Miracle" [....] But at that point the question of whether the creation of something was approached from the insider or outsider standpoint is more one of idiom than anything else. Or to put it another way, you can't be Kaspar Hauser and Ian Curtis at the same time. (And for a different take, I just read the conclusion of Kim Deitch's latest serial in Zero Zero, which "solves" the problem under discussion by inverting both Heinlein's "Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag" and Charles Fort -- rather than "We are property," it is "We are entertainment.")

But the outsider brand, in its two forms--

--From without--

The Jack Spicer bit is priceless, but all those "Crazy Buddhist art. Crazy Hindu art. Crazy Medieval German art." fall more under the rubric of exotica rather than "outsiderism," I'd say. What the two have in common is a desire to attach the label of foreignness to the work. I think this is less a narrative conceit (as you say) than an impulse on behalf of both the producers & consumers to mythologize & escape. And it's going on contemporaneously too: what Richard Ford & David Foster Wallace have in common is a mythologizing of everyday materials, albeit in very different form. It's not very good mythologizing (Richard Yates did it best, and most honestly, in my view), but it's still an updated variant on what Mailer, Updike, Oates, and the rest of those geezers have been earning accolades for for years. The dominant short story paradigm in most of the anthologies these days seems to be (1) the "I'm so real" Carver-derived approach of Tilghman, Offutt, and many others whose names I've forgotten, or (2) the creepy, sub-supernatural angstploitation of Lorrie Moore, Ann Beattie, David Gates, and I suppose Russell Banks. Both are variants on the same impulse to impose a private "outsider" view on ordinary materials through sheer will -- because that's the only thing that can make it worthwhile. It's a lousy approach. I think the consequent turn to the exotic stems from the same cause -- when people get fed up with the fakery of the above, they turn to the irreducibly foreign.

And then there's people like our friend Jandek who apparently achieve some level of commodification by being fetishized by collectors, and the ensuing debate over whether he and others are the "real [foreign] thing" or not. It's very important to the consumers that they are -- what could he possibly have to say if he were just like you and me?

Granted, I think America (north and south) is more prone to mythology than the Europeans or Asians (hence our great legacy of comic books & comic strips!), but the current crop of writers is too civilized to do it honestly. So while they're too self-conscious to apply the label to themselves even as they incorporate it into their fiction, those who feel it...

--From within--

still don't use it as a primary marker in their work, though they may try. I look at Bruno Schulz's work and compare it to Beckett's, and while I see them trying for similar effects, I think Beckett is more successful. This despite Schulz's Kafka-like isolation and Beckett's (relative) integration into the various scenes around him. I'm tempted to see the issue, then, as irrelevant to the quality of the work being produced -- though it may just be that Beckett was just such a prima facie genius to everyone around him that he could have been totally maladjusted and still fit in.

Thomas Bernhard, on the other hand, is a writer who I think really hurt his work by being so socially involved in Austrian theater and politics, but I don't think that it was socialization per se that damages his books so much as an innate desire to throw obscene epithets at other people. With or without the opportunity to hurl them from a respected position in Austrian letters, I think his work would've suffered the same.

. . . 2000-09-18

Heehaw, dreaming in trash and white
[transient link]
A L L    D R E S S E D    I N    W H I T E    L I N E N
A Christmas Memory

The next night, Bruno is taken by his cousin Sylvie to her favorite Chillecothe bar, a hangout for divorced crackers. The air is murky and peppered with fragmentary singalongs to "Were You Born an Asshole?"

A pair of admirers treat Bruno's cousin Sylvie to a beer and resume a dispute around her.

(Charmingly self-deprecating) "Hell, I ain't no pool player."

(Appealing for arbitration) "I let 'im win, you know that."

(Mock heroic) "I got the other half of the thousand dollars."

The thinner, grayer, more damaged man keeps interrupting himself with the shout "Shut up, Mr. Sand!" but Bruno doesn't think his name is Mr. Sand.

The other man ("49 and holding. 21 and getting younger.") looks as if he's been embalmed with a twinkle in his eye. He redirects his attention to Bruno's cousin Sylvie: "You married yet?" (Tugging at her hand.) "Your hair's gettin' long." (Tugging at her neck.) "'Djou give a kiss for winning this game?" (Suddenly reflective) "This is my favorite song." And back to pool, quartering the table. "I think they're sharks, y'gotta be careful, I ain't seen 'em here.... It's an education." And back to Bruno's cousin: "I saw that trophy your son got."

Something Bruno misses, some trickle of blood scent, triggers open hostility. The twinkler starts nudging the damaged man, closing in. The damaged man retaliates: "What about when you got caught in the coal shed, Jack? What were you doin' in the smoke shed?"

"Shit -- excuse me -- I weren't doin' nothin', I was six years old, what'd I be doin'? I didn't start that early."

"Jack was in first grade but I was in eighth -- shut up, Jack!"

"You shut up, why don't you."

"She were sweet, weren't she, Jack? What you doin' there?"

"Gettin' coal, what ya think?"

"What was you doin' with the corn cobs, Jack?"

"Corn cob? Now you're improvin' the story, that ain't so."

"Rapin' her with the corn cob -- shut up, Mr. Sand!"

"Goddamn good idea."

And back to Bruno's cousin: "Your mom and dad are good people. Good people. We go back a long ways, you know. Didn't mean t' look like I was ignoring you."

Later, Sylvie takes Bruno to Chillecothe's rock club, where high schoolers shuffle and two-step to a "rap" version of "Wild Thing."

. . . 2000-09-19

Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology

The influence of Ernest R. Hilgard's Divided Consciousness: Multiple Controls in Human Thought and Action, first published in 1977, was somewhat hobbled by Hilgard's up-front completely speculative application of his brilliant hypnosis research to his not-very-rigorous understanding of multiple personality disorder. That kind of "these conditions are obviously completely different but their descriptions have some words in common and therefore they must actually be exactly the same" move is best left to us popularizers; in Hilgard's book, it's just a distraction from the stuff Hilgard really knows about.

That stuff started in a classroom demonstration when Hilgard hypnotised a blind guy and told him he would be completely deaf until a hand was placed on his shoulder. The students had their usual sadistic fun trying to make little Tommy jump with handclaps, gunshots, and Keith Moon imitations, and then some Pysch-for-Poets throwback asked about subconscious memories (a red herring, but good bait). OK, if you're curious, said Hilgard to the student, and then to the blind deaf guy, "If there's some part of you that hears me, I'd like your right index finger to raise."

It did.

And the blind guy said "Please restore my hearing so you can tell me what you did. I felt my finger rise and it wasn't a twitch."

Post-hand-on-shoulder, Hilgard asked the blind guy what he remembered.

"Everything was quiet for a while. It was a little boring just sitting here so I busied myself with a statistical problem. I was still doing that when I felt my finger lift."
Hilgard hypnotized the guy again and told him, "I can be in touch with that part of you which made your finger rise and it can answer me when I put my hand on your arm."

"It" did. "It" answered, for example, every question about what kind of noises had assaulted the deafened blind guy, and reported the lifting finger command too.

Then Hilgard asked the hypnotized "subject" what "he" thought was happening.

"You said something about placing your hand on my arm and some part of me would talk to you. Did I talk?"
... to be continued ...

+ + +

Chollycam Guest Access

As per the kind request of dumbmonkey, esq., here's an exclusive look Behind the Curtain at the Hotsy Totsy Club....

. . . 2000-09-20

Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology, cont.

Lacking both a theoretical foundation and any profitability for pharmaceutical companies, hypnosis has never been a particularly easy sell to scholars. Ernest Hilgard's Stanford lab was a great legitimizer, and it was justified largely by hypnosis's usefulness as a pain reliever (although only as a last resort -- there are those pharmaceutical companies to consider, after all).

How do you measure pain without damaging the experimental subjects? (After all, there are only so many political prisoners in the world.) With a bucket of ice water, that's how: a freezing hand has the useful quality of ramping up its agony fairly predictably over time. Once you get yourself a time-coded diary of reported pain levels ("bad," "awful," "fucking awful," and so on) and reported discomfort levels ("I'd rather be doing something else," "I can't stand it any more," "I'll kill you, I swear I'll kill you" and so on), all you have to do is put the subject through it again after hypnosis and measure how the new reports differ.

While the speaking "hypnotized subject" was told not to feel pain, the "part that knew about the hypnotic suggestion" was given control of the subject's non-freezing hand and told to report its feelings in writing. And while the "subject" then verbally reported low pain and discomfort levels, the "outside the performance" hand reported pretty much the same pain levels as before and discomfort levels midway between the unhypnotized state and the hypnotized state.

So some aspect of the mind could accurately perceive what had been hidden from the unifying verbal consciousness that we usually metonymize as "The Mind." Moreover, that "aware" aspect had privileged access even to perceptions that the explicitly "conscious" aspect was allowed to monitor. In the ice water tests, the hypnotized subjects may not feel pain qua pain, but they can still feel a variable rate of throbbing in their hand. When the "aware" aspect and the "conscious" aspect had to make their reports by taking turns using the same medium, the "aware" reporter described slow continuous change in the throbbing while the "conscious" reporter described sudden jumps correlating to the time taken up by the "hidden" reports.

Hilgard says that it was only later that he realized how these experiments duplicated some results from the ooh-spooky! days of hypnosis research, when there was similarly trendy interest in automatic writing: an arm was hypnotically anesthetized and then "the arm" was given a pencil and paper and permission to write; when the anesthetized arm was pricked with a pin, "the subject" felt nothing but "the arm" was vehement in its complaints. (Unfortunately, automatic writing research continues to languish in the spiritualist ghetto from which Hilgard and company partially rescued hypnotism.)

... to be continued ...

. . . 2000-09-21

Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology

Continuing our summary of Ernest R. Hilgard's out-of-print Divided Consciousness....

Hilgard called the aware-but-not-included-in-unified-consciousness portion of the communicating subject "the hidden observer," partly because of its privileged access to sensation and partly because it denied being the boss: when a hypnotized "subject" thinks he has a unmovable arm, the "observer" knows that the arm is actually just stiff but still doesn't feel itself as stiffening the muscles of the arm.

If the "hidden observer" had been asked what was controlling the arm, the answer would presumably have been the hypnotist, because, by definition, that's the story that's agreed to during the hypnotic state. According to Hilgard, after all other suggested attributes were successfully argued away, the final explanation of the hypnotized as to how they know they're hypnotized is "I know I'll do what you tell me."

But the hypnotist's assignments still give a lot of leeway, and hypnotized subjects aren't puppets: they come up with their own back story fantasies to explain the suggestion and their own strategies for performance. Which is why Hilgard describes hypnotism not as control so much as goal-setting. What the successfully hypnotized report about their experience of hypnotic suggestion isn't a feeling of subjection to the suggestion but a complete lack of interest in not following the suggestion; e.g., "I didn't blink because it just didn't seem worth the effort to blink."

And, Hilgard guesses, it's also why, when he looked for some personality trait that highly hypnotizable subjects have in common (because we're only talking about a subclass of the most hypnotizable subjects here; less hypnotizable people don't enter into this -- or into most of the other interesting clinical results, for that matter), the only correlation he found was "imaginativeness." His best hypnotic subjects were already comfortable with contorting themselves into somewhat arbitrary new goals and rules; in fact, they sought them out: they included pleasure readers, sensualists, and adventurers, used to vivid fantasies and compartmentalized emotions.

Thus they also included a number of what Hilgard descibes as "excellent storytellers," one of whom was asked, under hypnosis, to produce a story with "you and some friends in front of a cave." What spilled out was fifteen minutes of smoothly related, vividly detailed narrative which started by exploring the cavern's chambers and then moved into a Lost World adventure.

Afterward, the storyteller explained his apparent effortlessness: "In hypnosis, once I create the pattern, I don't have to take any more initiative; the story just unfolds. I knew ahead of time that there would be another room inside the cavern, but I didn't know what it would look like until I walked through and was describing it. In the waking state, storytelling seems more fabricated. I don't see the things that I describe in the way I actually see them in hypnosis."

And, backing up this report, while still in the hypnotic state, a "hidden observer" had claimed to be handling the distracting structural work of planning the move to the Lost World and monitoring the story's length, thus letting "the subject" concentrate on a description of the passively viewed surface fantasy.

... Next: What does it all mean, Doctor? ...


Concluding the Neuraesthetics: Hypnotic Narratology saga... Bookworm or Genius?

Sometimes all it takes to leap to a conclusion is the choice of an article. Whereas calling a communicating-but-unavailable-to-consciousness mental process "a hidden observer" would have brought out its transient nature, calling it "the hidden observer" made it sound like an invincible Masked Avenger, predisposing Hilgard to treat it as more persistent than his evidence would support.

Once on that train of thought, multiple personality disorder may have seemed like a natural stop, but you'd think a clinical hypnotist would be more reluctant to draw attention to a "hypnotist = trauma," "suggestion = repressed trauma," and "hypnosis = serious mental illness" equation.

Anyway, there's no need to board that train. What makes MPD socially and emotionally problematic isn't its modularity per se but its assignment of personalities to the modules. What makes the term "modularity" problematic isn't the notion that the mind is multiply streamed, but the notion that the streams can all be divvied up neatly into things called modules. And what makes Hilgard's hypnosis research interesting isn't how it maps dysfunction but the insight it offers into function.

(Walter Jon Williams's Aristoi takes a similar wrong turn: the novel assumes that modularity makes for efficient thinking, but it takes a trauma-and-MPD route rather than the practice-and-hypnosis route.)
Post-Hilgard hypnosis researchers have been at pains to point out that "hypnosis entails social interaction as well as alterations in conscious awareness"; what they forget and what Hilgard's research underscores is the extent to which conscious awareness is also a matter of social interaction.

One of the noisiest "paradoxes" of the cognitive sciences is that the mind handles tasks faster than consciousness possibly can. But as a paradox, it shows the same kind of naivete as artsy types blathering about quantum theory. Philosophers got over that one in the nineteenth century (and before the nineteenth century, they handled it with stuff like the humours and astrology): we're just talking about the fact that consciousness, by definition, has to pretend to be the boss even when it's perfectly obviously not. Maybe Nietzsche overstated the case when he described consciousness as only a kind of surface froth on the driving waves (Nietzsche exaggerating for effect? What are the odds?), but he was clearly right that the conscious self's usefulness and power get overestimated to justify concepts of legal and religious responsibility.

The corresponding problem is, most folks who latch onto the non-unified-self drop into one of two camps: a New Agey hippyish irresponsibility groovin' on its drives, man, or a Calvinistic morose fatalism where the lucky ones happen to be born naturally more unified (and then fool themselves that it's their super-thick undisturbed froth of will power that's doing the trick) and the rest of us are born permanent losers.

Hilgard's work points toward a less melodramatically binary state of affairs. Rather than a sharp constrast between the self-deceived "self" and the uncontrollable mind-flood, it indicates a constantly shifting array of simultaneous processes, capable of handing off tasks and even of taking over communication. It's not so much that "consciousness" is inherently modular as that modularity is a useful mental technique, with the narrating "consciousness" a specific case in point.

(Man, it's hard to figure out where to put the scare quotes with this stuff. At least I'm leaving sous rature out of the toolbox....)

A narrating consciousness doesn't exclude the possibility of other modules, nor is it invalidated by their existence. When we're all at our best, it's more a matter of efficient mutual support, like in a WPA poster, or like in Hilgard's storyteller story.

When I read it, I thought of Samuel R. Delany, in The Motion of Light in Water:

"... but now what pressed me to put words on paper -- what made me open my notebook and pick up my ball-point -- were comparatively large, if vague, blocks of language that came.... It was as if the whole writing process had finally secreted another, verbal layer. These 'language blocks' were not, certainly, lengths of finished prose, all words in place. But now, as well as the vague images and ideas that formed the prewritten story, I would also envision equally vague sentences or paragraphs, sometimes as much as a page and a half of them -- which was when I knew it was time to write."
The skeptical reaction to Hilgard's work was that since hypnotism research depends on introspection by the lab animals, the research is untrustworthy. In particular, since we know that distraction reduces the affect of pain for less hypnotizable subjects, and since hypnosis reduces the affect of pain for highly hypnotizable subjects, how do we know, first, that the supposedly hypnotizable subjects aren't lying, and second, that the supposedly hypnotizable subjects aren't just distracted drama queens?

So someone compared how well distracted subjects in pain did on a vocabulary test with how well hypnotized subjects in pain did on a vocabulary test. The distracted subjects seemed... distracted. The hypnotized subjects did just as well as if they weren't in pain at all.

The researchers expressed surprise, because surely the limited store of "cognitive energy" (I'm picturing a sort of green glowing fluid) would be even more depleted by ignoring pain and forgetting that you're ignoring the pain than it would be by just taking the pain straight.

As if we have more energy when we aren't doing anything! No, as sensibly evolved organisms, we're more likely to produce energy when there's a reason to do so: when we have an achievable goal and we're achieving it efficiently. Thus the appeal of hypnotism to the hypnotizable, and thus the dismay that Hilgard reports after he revealed her "hidden observer" to a hypnotized woman:

"There's an unspoken agreement that the hidden observer is supposed to stay hidden and not come out. He broke his promise, he's not abiding by the rules..."

... an' anotha thing ...... then again ...

Copyright to contributed work and quoted correspondence remains with the original authors.
All other material: Copyright 2000 Ray Davis.