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Is It Possible To Trick Oneself Out of Discplinary Biases?

Is It Possible To Trick Oneself Out of Discplinary Biases? This is aquestion I keep asking as I spin out my own ideas about neuralplasticity and social neuroscience. I'm not sure. And perhaps thatuncertainty is a good thing. I'd love to hear from anyone else who has ever tried to do this, I'd love to hear your methods, your successes, failures (I like failures, by the way), and conclusions from the journey.


If I really believe (and I do), that Berkeley was more right than Descartes, if I really believe (and I do) that the last six decades of work on brain localization has resulted in reductionist "cartographic determinacy" (Levitin's term), and if I really do believe (and I do) that the nature v. nurture question is a wrong-headed binary and what we really need to ask is how is nature nurtured, then maybe (maybe) it is exactly right that I have no idea how successful this year's experiment-on-myself (a fine ol' psychoanalytic tradition) will turn out.


Here's the thinking behind what I've been doing this year. I'm trying to account for how the most basic "ideas" are conveyed across generations and within and across groups. I put "ideas" in quotation marks because we don't really have a word in English that crosses from ideation to sensation to fears to affections to proprioception to practices to behaviors to values to gestures to proscriptions--to that Whole Big World of Stuff that comes at the infant the moment s/he is born, all of it unsorted (except, of course, for sound and touch which start getting sorted out at the sixth month of gestation; the about-to-be-born baby already knows which noises are "familiar" and which ones "other").


The word "knows" in that sentence is especially interesting and a lot of my new project is about that level of "knowing," the infant's prelingual, nonlingual sensing that the grown-ups out there categorize the Whole Big World of Stuff into some very limited, overlapping, contradictory, hypocritical, inconsistent, and unobservant categories, both linguistic and behavioral (and points in between). Some things are known through what we call "senses" and, in the West, we say there are five of those, even though an infant is synesthetic and experiences all of them at once as do most of us in some situations (that's why you can't tell an onion from an apple when you are blindfolded and have your nose closed) and some of us in many situations (think Nabakov) all our lives.


In our culture (by which I mean "Western" but specifically "English-language speakers"), we name things. And we name non-material phenomenon as if they were things. That means we leave out a lot, we force the child to conform to our inexact descriptors of the world, and we expect a child not to be confused when we use the same word for large and messy categories. I sometimes think "Terrible Twos" are the culturally-sanctioned form of protest in our culture against the conscription of the psychedelic mindscape of synesthetic infancy into the clunky nominalizations of early language acquisition (which is to say early language imposition): "This is a dog." "This is red." "This is Jesus." "This is mommy. Mommy's upset today. Mommy really loves you." Behavioral restraints belong there too. The Whole Big World of Stuff has lots of variations and permutations and evacuations on the way to communication and performance.


A social group (this is my argument) is really about having a shared unspoken vocabulary for the interstices between words---even though, by the time we can use them well, we rarely remember that our words do not convey a truth about the Whole Big World of Stuff but about the forms of categorization of that Stuff shared by our group. (If that seems circular, it is. That's the point. That's what allows "us" so easily to create the "Other" without even being aware of the process. Another part of my argument.)


I recently read an interesting discussion by Norman Doidge in his excellent The Brain That Changes Itself on how people with acute balance disorders, people who are debilitated by a perpetual sensation that they are catapulting to their deaths at every second--a problem which, in less severe forms, is not that uncommon due to the overprescription of certain antibiotics that harm the inner ear---have not been taken as seriously as people who have vision or hearing disorders because, in the West, we don't count balance as a specific, unified "sense." The good news of that is that, lacking a single category, we have not falsely localized where "balance" occurs in the brain or in the body or in that complex thing that is a body that, of course (take that, Descartes!) includes the brain. The bodyless brain is one of the deep-seated fictions I'm writing against. Doidge's discussion of balance leads to the quite amazing perception-based rehabilitations--aided by very nineteenth-century style contraptions you wear for a while to retrain your brain/body/mind--pioneered by the late, brilliant Paul Bach-y-Rita, a neurobiologist who dedicated himself to actual, hands'on physical therapy as he believed that rehabilitation required working across that divide of mind/brain/body/perception/culture.


Okay, now I better ask my question again since I've gone quite far astray here: Is It Possible To Trick Oneself Out of Disciplinary Biases?


Starting back last summer, when my leave began, I decided that for a year I wouldn't read in my own disciplines of critical theory, cultural studies, or science studies. I recently printed out the list of books currently checked out from the library and none of the LC numbers for my current project match with the LC numbers for another project I'm doing on Equiano. Several of the books come not from our main library but from our specialized Biological and Environmental Sciences Library. I read journals for specialists in the field, and I read more general books by renowned specialists written for non-specialists. I also read a lot of memoirs by people who have the syndrome or disability about which I'm reading. In researching autism, I went from the science journals to lots of Temple Grandin and others, for example. Same for hearing, speech, vision, addiction, schizophrenia, ADHD, and so forth. What I have not read this year is critical/theoretical/historical analyses of these fields. Why? Is that just plain ornery or arrogant? I hope not! My shelves are heavy and my file cabinets and del.ici.ous site full of those but, this year, I wanted to read "reports from the field" for those who do not share my clunky categories (critical theory, historical, cultural studies categories) but, who, instead are writing for a group that shares a different set of clunky categories. I want to be the Other to their categories, to their experimental methods, to their jargon, to their assumptions, to their procedures and practices for extrapolating from the specific to the general, to their site-maps and their foundational theories (including their prejudices, although I'm not sure I like that word here).   When I read Brian Masumi, I sometimes agree, sometimes disagree, but I realize we are talking the same language derived from a certain set of practices regarding language, texts, and generalization and therefore (if I believe the theory about the Whole Big World of Stuff above) as I communicate with his ideas and he communicates to me as his [highly specialized] implied reader, a lot is getting left out, a lot is shorthanded, telegraphed, unsaid, assumed.  


Here's the analogy between disciplinary learning and infant knowledge acquisition: As in an infant learning that this is red and so is this but that is orange (distinctions not shared by all cultures and grouped in different ways in different cultures), there is a lot of material left out and a lot of other material condensed. So, once mastered "red" means "all those things our group is categorizing as red" which means, until one deconstructs the argument, the argument itself carries the form of its own categories. That is the shorthand of language for the infant. That is the shorthand of disciplinary communication. In math, it might be an equation. In literary theory, it might be a collection of terms that have their own histories and their own histories of disagreement that are all, even if loosely (like "red") siituated. That's what it means to read within a discipline. We don't need to stop and ask about the histories of terms for every term we use. We share that history. Even when we disagree. What exactly is Neoliberalism? Is it really the explanation or is it the thing that needs explaining in a particular argument, and is it explicable? Or is it a shorthand for a certain constellations of beliefs presumed to be shared by those who use the term? "Red" again.


So my year-long thought experiment has been to read only articles and books not written for me. I never, ever come across the term "Neoliberalism" in my reading this year.


Or, when I'm not reading in specialized journals, I read those rare "translators," specialists in a field, who are evangelical enough about their field to want to communicate its underlying assumptions, experimental methods, histories, protocols, and routines to me, as the Other who is not part of the culture that celebrates or, more accurately, simply assumes the good of those assumptions, experimental methods, histories, and routines.


Or I read memoirs by other kinds of translators who have an experience they deem to be unique and worthy of communication to we Others who are impoverished in our understanding of that particular experience.


Backstory: When I was writing Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, I took a year off from giving talks at literary conferences and only gave presentations to historians. Not only that, I realized at large professional history meetings, there were enough historians interested in the history-of-the-book and theoretical issues of reception that my audience was self-selecting. So I gave talks at local historical societies and genealogical societies. People there knew everything about a given ancestor or the detailed history of an eighteenth-century schoolhouse that was now a crafts center and they responded vibrantly, passionately to my work, often oppositionally . . . but I came away, always, not thinking that I'd "gotten it," but that I had lots more to learn. It was among local community historians, not among literary scholars or reception theorists or historians-of-the-book, that I first received support for my entirely ad hoc (curiosity alone was the driver for the first seven or eight years) and quirky interest in the actual marks and annotations and inscriptions that actual readers left in their scrappy copies of early American novels. Revolution and the Word has had a surprisingly long shelf-life and I think it may be because it's so, well, quirky and asks a lot of questions that people in my field weren't asking back then and yet that, at the time, seemed almost matter-of-fact to genealogists and community historians who mostly conversed among themselves and rarely with a theorist who had been motivated to understand literacy and social values in the age of mass printing and Liberalism by the great British cultural studies and Marxist historians--Hill, Thompson, Williams, et al--of the 1970s and 1980s. Being an Other in that closed world of local archivists gave me the Other's watchful, wary, paranoid, sometimes angrily observant perspective of learning as a mode of self-protection. (There was always some fact I missed, some four-times-great-grandmother who was a Webster not a Foster, you idiot! Etc.)


I never, ever felt cozy in that world. I had a lump in my throat whenever I gave such a talk. I never felt like I belonged in that world of New England historical societies and their in-group knowledges, passed on and kept burning for centuries. Verfrumdung is a nice way of putting it (for someone who had no American antiquarians in her own family, no ancester anywhere that was around at the time of the American Revolution). Ostracization was the gift of my discomfort in those local historical societies because, as we know, the ostracized know incomparably more about "us" than we ever know about "them." They have to. It's like what Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said about Canadians knowing so much more about the U.S. than vice versa. "If a mouse shares a bed with an elephant, it's the mouse that has to be aware of the elephant's every movement."


So that's what I have been doing this year with neuroscience, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and many other fields. I am not sure if it is working or not and, before this book is done, I will of course catch up on a year of great work in my field that I've been missing. I have a reading list for when my first draft is finished. In the meantime, I am loving this year of wild reading. it's like a treasure hunt even when it is most unpleasant. (I disagree with a lot which means I spend a lot of time thinking about disagreement as a practice.)


I don't have any doubt that I am still reading with all the prejudices of my field, but I am giving myself this quite remarkable year of breathing that feels like the intellectual and bookish equivalent of the first year I lived in Japan. There, a gaijin is any foreigner---gaijin is Japanese for goyim or gringo. The other. This year I feel like a disciplinary gaijin. And I'm learning a lot.


Is It Possible To Trick Oneself Out of Disciplinary Biases? That's my question. I'd love to hear from anyone who has found other ways to do this, even if it is a thought experiment that will, inevitably, prove as futile as trying to understand that "red" is only a construct. And so is "construct."






Poster image taken by myself; image courtesy of Vurtego Pogo Team's Pogo-Phonic performance at HASTAC 08, UCLA, May 2008


1 comment

When I came across this post on Popmatters and the opening quote from Helene Hanff, it reminded me of your interest in the actual marks and annotations and inscriptions that actual readers left in their scrappy copies of early American novels you mentioned here.