Monday, November 5, 2007

"Hell is other people"

Well, yes, I suppose it is so, but it's probably closer to the mark to say that all of human experience is other people. Aside from the vanishingly few of us living out the experience of Tom Hanks' character in Cast Away (and who ever hears from them anyway?), to be a human person is definitionally to mingle with other human persons -- talk with them, fight with them, share with them, wonder about them, make fun of them. Even the Tom Hanks character had Wilson.

Ophelia Benson muses:

Our brains would have been too expensive to have evolved if they didn't have a huge payoff; the payoff is social collaboration; for that we need a working theory of mind. So we have this hypertrophied faculty of thinking and feeling about the interior worlds of other people ...
This is a good two-sentence summary of Daniel Dennett's best explanation for both the evolution of consciousness in our species and the tendency to believe in gods; these are actually traced to the same root. We can't help but spend time guessing at the motives and future actions of agents -- prey, peers, predators, even ourselves -- and this has obvious survival benefits. But the hyperalertness to agency frequently goes too far -- the grill of a car forms a face with a personality, the shape of Jesus appears in the plate of pancakes, the change in weather or the fortunes of battle signal the dispositions of a god. Materialism is counterintuitive; our intuitions are wired to find and focus on other conscious agents. The idea that a strong storm is not angry feels wrong.

I'm less sure about the following, as she continues the point to include the reception of fictional works:
It is easy to be jostled out of it - to be deeply in it one moment and the next to remember that you're sitting in a chair holding and looking at a rectangular box-shaped object packed with slices of paper with black marks on them in rows. But then it's easy to jump right back into it again. Story-telling seems to work that way. Peter Cave suggests that romantic love does too.
I question how easy it is to jump back in and back out in any thorough way. I am not sure we ever fully let go of the realness of agents we experience through fiction. We certainly tell ourselves, even at the moment we're allowing ourselves to be pulled into their world, that this is just marks on a page or pixels on a screen, that it was deliberately created by some person not being represented, and in a sense we fully accept this. But I think these represented consciousnesses press down with as much force as one attached to any 'real' person, differing in degree but not in kind, the degree being limited by the brevity of the work: we see but a small patch of the life of Captain Ahab or Odysseus.

[More on this topic here.]

1 comment:

dan said...

10 Years Later, Fake Sartre Remains Viral -- Even on the N.Y. Times ...
This is how things work in the Internet Age. A witty writer in Boston sets
up a fake quote from the late Jean-Paul Sartre back in 2003 in an article
about introverts ...