Friday, December 30, 2011

Thinking Through Aspergers: Alienation & Community

"You said you were 'close.' 
What were you close to? The group? People?"
"Please don't make this a special episode about me"

Community, Contemporary American Poultry


To dispel misnomers, I do not wish to here clinically examine or speculate on aspergers, but rather to "think through" aspergers, and see what it might help us articulate about the experience of alienation and community. 

A great example of this sort of thinking through occurs on the NBC comedy 'Community' in which the character Abed Nadir is often unofficially diagnosed as portraying aspergers by other characters and by the shows creator Dan Harman (himself open about being clinically diagnosed). In commentaries for several of the episodes and in interviews, however, Harman voiced pride in avoiding ever trying to strictly classify Abed as having a specific condition or to 'run down the check-list' although he is also proud that the character has come to be respected and admire by 'members of a certain community' for not only demonstrating the challenges but also the dignity of functioning with aspergers. He may be the most liked and put together persons on the show, comments Harman.


Thinking through aspergers, while not trying to over-determine a person based on a clinical mindset, Abed routinely performs the 'meta' commentary on the television-ism, media-ism, philosophy-ism, writing-ism, that is being attempted on the show. Harman comments how Abed allows him to call himself out on things which appear overly theatrical or pedagogical, and to explain things without the need for breaking the 4th wall in the way many mock-reality TV shows such as the Office or Modern Family do. One issue with this, which Abed ends up calling himself out on, is when the Meta-Language attempts to escape itself by being Meta about itself. In an episode where Abed attempts to make a movie about him making a movie about him making a movie etc. etc. etc. he ends up becoming a self-titled Christ figure, and explaining his theory about how meta-movie making and theology become inevitably recursive.  This enclosed, if not narrowing circle, wonderfully comments on a issue which thinking through Abed/Aspergers allows us to approach: logic can become alienating.

Logicians are probably familiar with the criticism to "get out of your head" and there is much to learn from that. The modern tradition of philosophy following Descartes "Cogito Ergo Sum" and on through Psychoanalysts such as Freud, Lacan, and Zizek run into the dilemma which is that by doubting everything outside their own thought, their thought becomes the engine of the universe. Even when moving into physical and meta-physical speculation, Zizek describes reality as a great mind, brought  into  being  spontaneously through an un-being, an un-God, which is in other words: an un-conscious. In this line of thought, we find not only that it becomes difficult to care about the world outside one's mind, something which Zizek often criticizes himself for. Furthermore, Zizek, following Lacan, in basing their existence out of a central lack, or nothingness, which perpetuates only by narrowly erring away from the void on each pass, we can see the circle-game at play. Some creeds of Buddhism likewise follow this logic, but asserting existence as a wheel of suffering which the escape out or into nothingness is the ultimate goal.


How is that Abed came to be one of the most endearing characters in Community? By not being perfectly logical. In the episode in which Abed becomes meta-meta, the story arc ends with Abed praying publicly for the narcissistic film he is making to be destroyed, a plea which is over-heard by another character who comes in and destroys the footage and the film cameras. As GK Chesterton writes in the Suicide of Thought chapter of Orthodoxy, to escape the perfectly circular logic of 'the madman' we must not try to argue with him but to get him to simply stop arguing/thinking and to simply do something else. It is the illogical wanderings of a happy person kicking the grass and humming a nonsensical tune which will get us out from trying to assert fantasies of perfect conspiracy and understanding over all reality. We escape Meta-Language when we walk away from trying to define the meaning of language. Also, when we ask for intervention.

We do not need to follow the theological under-tones of the Meta-Episode, but merely the self-contained Media(tion) and Community logic of the show to discover how Abed escapes his alienation. The first episodes after the Pilot, introduces Abed as a character who openly uses Media references and making movies as a performative language to allow him to communicate and make connections with others. His father, who initially disapproves of his choice in college majors, after seeing his first film project realizes the value of doing something, even if it has no inherent meaning, for the sake of allowing his son a means to connect with others. We can see Judith Butler's performativity exemplified by Abed who admits that what he is doing is theatrical but nonetheless enjoys it and employs the behavior as the best (if only) option available to him to accomplish things. Derrida seems to suggest a similar conclusion in his study of structure, sign and play. There is a sense in which one cannot even say "there is no meta-language" because that itself becomes a meta-language. One can only perform performing and find some sense of irony and game in that.


From a linguistic and a material level, all things are mediated, and so our connections with others as we enter into understanding our languages and networks/communities we find that the words and objects which constitute us and allow us to connect with others are "not our own." We do not and cannot come into being without an outside system and we cannot continue to live without taking in things (food, air, affection, care, etc) from outside ourselves and then expelling them. 

By saying that Abed depends on Media to connect with others, or his Community to connect with others, is really no more than saying we all that we all depend on games/things which are a common go-betweens/languages in order to communicate. You may say that Abed is crip, because of his need for these prostheses, but then we are all crip; but in different ways at different times/places. Becoming aware of this may in fact help us to better help ourselves and others. 

As Abed concludes the quote above: "Everyone else needs my help. That's what people don't get. They need to connect with me. I just need to be able to connect with people like you can, then I can make everyone happy." A bit optimistic, but thinking through optimism may need to be the focus of another post.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Remembering the Past in Out of the Silent Planet

"A pleasure is full grown 
only when it is remembered... 
You say you have poets in your world. 
Do they not teach you this?"

CS Lewis 

Out of the Silent Planet

I. Forgetting the Past

Another semester is over, a blur, which in places is hard to remember. Another return home for the holidays, a queer confrontation with the past. With Fall term papers over, as well as numerous applications sent for jobs and academic opportunities for my friends and me, it is often hard to remember where the last couple months went. Part of that is neurological/chemical. In times of intense emotion, when endorphin and adrenaline are surging through constricted blood vessels in the body, we can do a lot in what appears to be a much shorter period of time. The eyes dilate, the brain's processing is heightened, and we could very well deliver a KO against a bus that is blocking the cross-walk. Good for the moment, bad for memory. 

Likewise, lack of sleep  is a common partner to periods of stress and greatly inhibits the complexity, creativity, and speed of thought, in addition to being absolutely terrible for memory production. Sleep, neurologists generally agree, helps the brain process the events of the day and establish the networks which will allow for memories to be recalled at a later date. Little sleep, little memory. Often why the day after conferences I may earnestly ask "how did my paper go?" I am not (necessarily) being vain, I may not remember it very well. We have often had that experience of remembering stepping onto stage and the rest being a big blur. In clinical terms, this is called Trauma.

If the brain usually functions in such a way as to be able to retain certain connections and impressions, while letting others pass over without significant impact, trauma exhibits the interesting characteristics of being so memorable that it over-loads the system so as to short-circuit storage. It can be pleasurable as well as painful. An emotional first-date and a funeral may both be hard to remember at a later date because in the moment our mental networks were disoriented by intense jouissance.

The effect of such trauma is also interesting, as the lack of memory might seem like only a minor problem or even a blessing which helps us move on with our lives without the burden of the intense emotional baggage. This may in many situations be the case, but complications can arise, among other avenues, from the incomplete storage of memory. The body has a memory it is holding on to but can't process out, so it becomes a cyclical occurrence. The traumatic event is relived. The traumatic event is relived. The traumatic event is relived, and it can cause cycles of hurtful behavior. The army vet hears a car back fire and begins uncontrollably shaking and taking cover. The graduate student calls up Mr. Bad-News to hook up, takes up smoking again, or just has panic attacks for weeks after a particularly bad round of papers because they were unable to process the bodily/mental intensity in the moment.

This irony is exemplified in ritual terms by the Roman practice of Damnatio Memoriae in which a person hated by the state is not only killed, all record and memorial of him is destroyed as well. The intent was to erase the person's presence in the past, the now, and the future completely. What often came of this was that these persons took on an infamy and are passed down to historians through hidden but public references. By making it so that the person was hard to remember, the memory created by and around their absence took on a mythic dimension. This not only speaks to the allure of the forbidden, but the way memory encapsulates and continually revisits sites of trauma.


II. Memorials and Pharmakons

During the Holidays we repeat these rituals and mark time in relation to the past, to perform an act in the present and to affirm that this ritual will be practiced again in the future. For me, in addition to being one of the few things that has made the dark, dreary months of winter a little more cheery, the Holidays also remind me of how terrible my memory is. While I can recall the book and page numbers, even the place on the page, where I read a certain quote or repeat from memory the lines of a favorite play or movie, the details of events often are lost to me. This has lead me personally to blog, facebook, tweet, buy souvenirs, and take a lot of photos. It has been commented that I will have a very well documented life when all is said and done; but usually its less aimed at future generations remembering what I have done, and more so I can. Thus I can only conclude that societies enjoy rituals and holidays for very similar reasons. It is a personal point of relief, and a public point of frustration, observing how quick society forgets things.

However: is it worth it to remember? what can memorials possibly give? A chief irony and use of memory/memorials is that they re-present things which no longer exist. They are performances, like fictions and fantasies. They are not the things they claim are important and for which they claim to stand in. Hence the horror many people feel for seeing statues carved, portraits hung or biographies delivered on their lives, while they are still alive. It is not simply a matter of humility, its often a matter of threat. By remembering me and encapsulating me in this way, are you not eschewing all that I am/doing right now and in the future? Are you not erasing me as you inscribe my memorial?

This is the concern which prompted Plato/Socrate's discussion in the Phaedrus, which Jacques Derrida took up in Plato's Pharmacy. Articulating his objection to having his teachings written down, Socrates explains to his interlocutor(s; including us) that putting words down into a more enduring material has the double threat of encouraging the loss of memory and the loss of control over the text by the author. This perhaps argues against Shakespeare's argument in the Sonnets that a poem shall live forever while the poet fades; and that we should prize the eternal over the temporary.

The formation of these "two" sides seem to depend on the issue which I have discussed often of alienation versus identification. Where the consider the poem a part of our body, our mental network, then it does in fact have the power to last longer (although not forever) than our brain tissue and to engage with other networks in far off places. Where we consider the poem separate from ourselves then we would not take comfort at its publication because it is no longer "in" us or our control. It has a life of its own now (which it had before but in a subjugated state) and may do "us" as much harm as good, as any other thing externalized to us may. Thus it may be said that in the ritual or memorial, we are brought together with those that we have lost. It is also true that the ritual, an event of the now, has become something very different from what it was. Not all rituals or memorials may bring the honor, use, or joy we might claim they deliver, and so we may chose to change the map of the past which we have created.


III. Reliving the Past

The past is a queer thing. Normative visions of the past paint a picture of home. "Remember where you came from" and "Never forget who you are," things like that. What this seems to tell us is that things transform. That is a disorienting experience. You go home and you look back (at yourself), and it seems unfriendly or otherworldly beautiful. We don't need to fall into cliches about idealizing the past to account for this. The past is wonderful and awful. It is something familiar yet strange. It is something we cannot look at, speak about, or hold. We are its inheritors, and it is with us, but no longer what it was. Jonathan Gil Harris talks about Untimely Matter and Temporally Explosive Matter. In a sense, both in the Derridian sense, but also how Harris articulates the concept, all matter is in a sense untimely or explosive. We have discusses the Hole or the Chaos which in a sense constitutes what we can speculate is the material universe, which depends on a kind of timelessness. Things become multi-locational, in time and space and quality. Physicists such as Einstein and Hawking likewise suggest that Space-Time behaves in such a material, folding, mixing manner. This is to say, that the past is a queer thing in more than how we remember it, but in how it remains present to us. It is "lost" but more like how knight errants may be lost in the fairy realm of our present reality.

Thus dividing this place, in time, space, and quality, is performative. It is undermined as we assert it but it is difficult (if possible) to become constituted without the performance. With different ecologies/maps of space-time ever competing and interpenetrating, "home" or "here" serves like the pronoun "I" insofar as it defines a space which Sara Ahmed says we expand into and saturate; thus expelling and asserting "others" in the process. Memories then can be seen as the "other" in us, because it speaks to a place and a person which has been abjectively rejected from the here and now. It is little surprise then that we may look on them with wonder, fear and awe. We have no escape from the past, because we cannot become impenetrable. We have no essential exteriority to the past. Although we cannot escape the past, we may learn how to find a life livable with it.

This is in a sense, one possible way to conceive of "Hell" without necessarily asserting an "after-life" or "judgement" as such. It merely requires the assertion that all time is in a sense always-already present with us. Every act leading up to, participating, and reverberating off from our present actions are bound up together. We cannot escape our past or the futures it created. Nor can we escape our present. There is suffering, insofar as there is suffering. But there is also the hope that together, there may be a sense of goodness (or at very least justice) however it might be understood. Thus, defining what may be a livable, good, or just life is a project for many many more attempted projects. And yet for the moment, we may tentatively say, that there is some sort of ethical imperative to find a way to live the past and I would hope in a way which "betters" both the past and present. It requires in a sense recognizing the past for its stark identity, but also its mutability and activity in the present which may lead to forgiveness, even self-forgiveness.

We may see this in such performances as Renaissance Fairs or Sci-Fi Conventions, both play with the idea of the past as a hard thing but also play with it as a present thing which we can transform to suit our needs. Having a Queen Elizabeth I which defies documented gender/racial/etc data may not be "historical" but it is a type of memory; memory as a map which may be remade or altered to perform the ethical demands of the present rather than enforce a perpetuation of traced/inscribed violence. We give up one way of knowing the past for another. Sometimes and places we need the past to be hard and distant. Other times and places we need the past to be soft and close. Looking back on a semester of academic and non-academic trauma, memory and performances, I can say as CS Lewis did, that what it means will continue to become itself as I become cognizant of more past, presents, and futures. What joys and suffering I experienced then, what joys and suffering I experience now in recalling it, and how I will experience them when I see the fruit (or lack there of) that came from it will undoubtedly change. I take a certain amount of comfort that it will continue to be with me and thus be in a sense at my disposal. I also take a degree of frustration that, yes, even while on vacation, the labor of the past sticks with me and I cannot escape it. Or at least, what I can remember.

More on the Space Trilogy

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Becoming Singular in That Hideous Strength

CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“That is the point,” said Frost. “One must guard against supposing that the political and economic dominance of England by the N.I.C.E. is more than a subordinate object: it individuals we are really concerned with. A hard core of individuals really devoted to the cause—that is what we need and are under orders to supply. We have not succeeded so far in bringing many people in—really in..."

“Of course,” said Wither, “nothing is so much to be desired as the greatest possible unity. Any fresh individual brought into that unity would be a source of the most intense satisfaction—to—ah—all concerned. You need not doubt that I would open my arms to receive—to absorb—to assimilate this young man."


I. Ice-burgs in the Oceanic Mind

Following my post on Fragmenting Minds, I wanted to address the benefits and dangers of Defragging a mind, or making it singular.

The benefits are in many ways clear to me during brief vacation to Chicago for Thanksgiving where I get to eat, sleep, and hopefully reset my brain some before returning to work. Fragmenting requires creating walls and distinctions which take much effort to maintain and which ultimately fail. We might loosely think of the efforts of structuralism to hold off deconstruction, or normativity to hold off queerness.

Things relax and we can focus (or not) on singular things. We can thus shake off the strain of stress and complicated mental processes. This simplicity makes thought and work easier, often because it involves simplifying our reading of the environment. This may even be relatively harmless, given we don't need to make any complicated or consequential decisions. Following our "gut" may be dangerous when electing politician, but is less so when electing which glazed doughnut to buy.

The dangers of Defragging however can be illustrated by the complimentary pair of antagonists in CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength: Prof. Frost and Mr Wither. Both have effectively made their minds singular.

The former has sharpened his thought (we are told) to a point, coming as close to a singularity as possible. The latter has broadened his thought (we are told) to be utterly open, becoming as global in his thinking as possible. Both, as is seen, in doing so not only dissolve the distinctions of other bodies, but themselves come as close to 0 as possible in their attempts to become 1. They are either too narrow or too wide to seem to be anything at all.


“Before going on,” said Frost, “I must ask you to be objective. Resentment and fear are both chemical phenomena. Our reactions to one another are chemical phenomena. You must observe these feelings in yourself in an objective manner. Do not let them distract your attention from the facts...Motives are not the causes of action but its by-products. When you have attained real objectivity you will recognize all motives as subjective epiphenomena. You will then have no motives and you will find that you do not need them...”

“And that,” continued Frost, “is why a systematic training in objectivity must be given to you. It is like killing a nerve. That whole system of instinctive preferences, whatever ethical, aesthetic, or logical disguise they wear, is to be simply destroyed...."

He understood the whole business now. Frost was not trying to make him insane; at least not in the sense Mark had hitherto given to the word “insanity”. To sit in the room was the first step towards what Frost called objectivity—the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed in a man so that he might become fit for the fastidious society of the Macrobes. Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-nature would doubtless follow.


II. Prof. Frost: the Frozen Mind

Prof. Frost appears to embody the critique that is often made against Modernism: it becomes increasingly focused and narrow in its parameters until next to nothing fits into it.

This form of singularity can be incredibly efficient and justified, as simplistic thinking often can. People like seeing hard decisions made quickly and willfully, hard questions answered easily and with brevity, and things getting done in sensitive and consequential circumstances. But this usually depends on setting values and methods which set up unsustainable ecological conditions and which do great violence to anything that does not fit within the real of valued bodies.

Focus, logic, and objectivity are great. They are however ideologies. That is to say, we may be able to imagine them in the abstract, 1 + 1 = 2, but they are hard to "prove" or much less "use." Without going into the entire history of pre-modern, modern, post-modern critiques of reason, it is enough to say that it may seem pragmatic to give your new step-cousin roller-blades for Christmas, to stay up all night preparing for a meeting, or to try to set up your lonely co-worker Jim with a woman from the mail-room. But then you find out after doing so, that your new cousin is in a wheel-chair, your workplace burned to the ground that night, or that your co-worker prefers to date men.

It is often required that we make decisions and act as one person, but the more diverse things we can be conscious of at once, the better decisions we can make. It may be straining, especially when many important thoughts are operating at once, but we experience the benefits and pleasures of having those "nerves" active. I wrote earlier derogatorily of following your "gut" but your "gut" or emotions or subconscious or however you come to understand the less articulate parts of your consciousness is information as well. 

It seems from my experience that when two choices seem equally logical, then following my various feelings can put me in touch with lots of "little" observations or memories. This also fits in with what last post I negatively described as "choosing what you really want." I may want the burger and the hot-dog and the salad but can't eat them all at once, but listening to the various parts of me that just aren't in the mood for meat right now may lead me to selecting what is really the healthier choice. Plus, I may be more likely as a result to enjoy the results. 

Such are the joys and perils of being "Frosty."


"The Deputy Director [i.e. Wither] hardly ever slept. When it became necessary for him to do so, he took a drug, but the necessity was rare, for the mode of consciousness he experienced at most hours of day or night had long ceased to be exactly like what other men call waking. 

The manner and outward attitude which he had adopted half a century ago were now an organisation which functioned almost independently, like a gramophone. While the brain and lips carried on his work, and built up day by day for those around him the vague and formidable personality which they knew so well, his inmost self was free to pursue its own life. A detachment of the spirit not only from the senses but even from the reason was now his. 

Hence he was still, in a sense, awake an hour after Frost had left him. His eyes were not shut. The face had no expression; the real man was far away, suffering, enjoying, or inflicting whatever such souls do suffer, enjoy, or inflict when the cord that binds them to the natural order is stretched out to its utmost."


III. Mr Wither: the Oceanic Mind

Mr. Wither on the other hand appears to embody the critique often waged against many post-modernists, which is that they become relativists, and become so open as to lose any sense of form, position, or decision making ability.

The benefits of this frame of mind are also pretty apparent. Being able to listen without speaking over another or pushing them aside, remaining flexible, at least appearing to be able to accept new persons or new ideas with ease. But these also presume that at some point a response will be given, a position enforced, and acceptance given which effectively denies certain possibilities from becoming realized. If trying to persuade Frost is like running at the point of a sword, then trying to persuade Wither is like running through mist. Nothing really happens, but you might become a bit more disoriented.

Fluidity is great. But this too is ideology. While Frost once again illustrates a kind of fanatic or fundamentalist ideology, Wither illustrates an ideology which never rises to the level of articulate thought. A person who exhibits too oceanic thought in this sense may seem like they are on every ones side, but when push comes to shove, they slip away. It is fair to say "I do not know" or "I cannot say definitively" because totality escapes us as it does Frost, but to presume you do not know anything is deny your vary ability to think (however imperfectly) and your ability to speak (however inarticulately). 

It is often required that we remain open to change and unexpected outcomes, but refusing to move ahead because you cannot know or control all things will lead to either bring about little good for the things you do value (which in the extreme may be all things or effectively nothing) or bring about negative effects by refusing to participate or use the things you are given. Using the example from before, it may be that you are not sure on the ability of your cousin to roller-blade, your business to be there in the morning, or the sexual orientation of your co-worker, but to be too Withered would mean potentially slighting your relative by not giving a gift, being unprepared for a meeting, or leaving your co-worker totally alone when he could use some company.

Gathering further knowledge and view-points is helpful, as is expecting the unexpected, but not acting because it might be a mistake may be more or equal an act of pride as Frost's assertions of self. Both refuse to admit the possibility of failure. Is that not a critical element in the stress of Fragmenting? We fear failure in our thinking and our work. What singularity offers us is a way to ignore the potential for being wrong. This is itself almost an insurance that failures will occur, you just won't be worrying or cognizant of them. You become like Wither, a tool of great violence but with no idea of what he is doing.

Such are the joys and dangers of being "Withered."


"Neither at this stage of the conversation nor at any other did the Deputy Director look much at the face of Frost. But either Frost or Wither—it was difficult to say which—had been gradually moving his chair, so that by this time the two sat with their knees almost touching...

They were now sitting so close together that their faces almost touched, as if they had been lovers about to kiss. Suddenly there was a crash. Who’s Who had fallen off the table, swept on to the floor as, with sudden, swift convulsive movement, the two old men lurched forward towards each other and sat swaying to and fro, locked in an embrace from which each seemed to be struggling to escape.

And as they swayed and scrabbled with hand and nail, there arose, shrill and faint at first, a cackling noise that seemed in the end rather an animal than a senile parody of laughter."


IV. N.I.C.E.: The Meeting of Single Minds

In addition to being another example of CS Lewis attaching queer sexualities and gender identities on his "evil" characters, the meeting of Frost and Wither to form a unified body illustrates that in their extremes the Frost and the Oceanic come together.

As noted, both arise out of a desire to become 1: Frost by becoming a single colonial power and Wither by disappearing into a sort of pantheistic mind (which as articulated earlier, in equating a = b and b=c says that effectively a and c do not exist; all is b). The one becomes narrower and wider until they effectively become 0. With a diversity of things always at work, both methods commits violence against the self and others (in a sense by refusing to acknowledge the ways they coincide and conflict).

For those who suffer with anxious-depressive tendencies, this may seem lall too familiar. The deep desire to do one thing perfectly and the despair of doing anything both freeze up the body. Tricks to overcoming episodes of both are likewise similar: do something else. It sounds flippant, but to quote GK Chesterton's critique of rationalism and madness, he notes that usually monomaniacal thought streams cannot be argued out from because they are extraordinarily logical. They simply are very closed loops. Pushing on them or trying to think through them may not be effective because it just pushes things around the circle. The trick, as I said, is to loosen or divert thought out from its path. Get it to do "other" things which may very well not be logical. Get the mind to make mistakes and accept different thoughts at once; such as "mistakes are okay." This is at least one example.

Again, Fragmenting the mind has its strain and Defragging has its perils, but both prove useful in their own ways. Working under a lot of deadlines and also enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with family, I am experiencing both right now. In fact, adding these blog-posts has been a useful way to Fragment and do something different to help get my mind out of its loops; in addition to being an interesting line of thought in its own right.