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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Meaning Threats, and the Uses of Nonsense

Here's an interesting article in the NY Times about the feeling of "nonsense," and how absurdity can focus our perceptions: "How Nonsense Sharpens the Intellect." To me it relates to the sorts of creative thinking and creative problem-solving that art-making encourages. It's telling that the title of the article frames things in terms of "nonsense," a trivializing word that'll have to do until "countersense" or "othersense" enter the lexicon.

"Nonsense," in the article, is shorthand for an experience that violates "all logic and expectation." According to a recent paper by Travis Proulx and Steven J. Heine, when people are confronted by such an experience, they may subsequently have a heightened sense of pattern recognition. The theory is that, when there is a rupture in our sense of ordinary meaning, the brain works overtime to establish meaning in some other area. From the article:

When those [normal] patterns break down — as when a hiker stumbles across an easy chair sitting deep in the woods, as if dropped from the sky — the brain gropes for something, anything that makes sense. It may retreat to a familiar ritual, like checking equipment. But it may also turn its attention outward, the researchers argue, and notice, say, a pattern in animal tracks that was previously hidden. The urge to find a coherent pattern makes it more likely that the brain will find one.

Proulx and Heine's paper has the great title Connections From Kafka: Exposure to Meaning Threats Improves Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar. "Implicit Learning of an Artificial Grammar" is wonderful enough, but "Meaning Threat" is a phrase that should really migrate from psychological jargon to general use. It indicates something that violates the "meaning frameworks" that ordinarily keep us coherent from day to day. Some mornings, I could be convinced that Life Itself constitutes a "meaning threat" of staggering proportions.

As might be guessed from the paper's title, for an injection of the absurd, the researchers resorted to Kafka. "Nonsense" is difficult to synthesize in a laboratory setting, but it can be well-preserved in a work of art. Twenty students were asked to read a tale adapted from Kafka's short story "A Country Doctor" (which can be read in its unadulterated form here). The story is one of Kafka's greatest achievements; in it, a doctor goes out one night on a hopeless errand, intending to alleviate the suffering of a very ill man laid up in a house ten miles distant, but instead, after being bombarded by various hallucinatory incidents and images, ends up naked in the bed with the patient, who only wishes for more room on his deathbed, expressing the desire to scratch the doctor's eyes out.

This story was intended, by the researchers, to constitute a "meaning threat" in its intense absurdity. And they discovered that, after the students had been exposed to the story, they had a greater facility for uncovering patterns in cryptic letter sequences they were given to decode; that's where the "Artificial Grammar" comes in. (Curiously, in their adaptation of the story, downloadable here, the Country Doctor becomes a Country Dentist, and the protagonist's errand becomes one of pulling teeth rather than of diagnosing an axe-wound; as the researchers explain, "All references to death and dying were removed to distinguish affirmation following from the absurd nature of the story and affirmation following from mortality-salience meaning threats.")

The efficacy of this dose of the absurd is predicated on the notion that absurd feelings are unpleasant ones. Proulx is quoted as saying: “We’re so motivated to get rid of that feeling that we look for meaning and coherence elsewhere.” Which wasn't my feeling on my first encounters with Kafka. Kafka made me uneasy, but the feeling of unease wasn't offputting -- in fact it was sharply pleasing. It broke my head open, in a gratifying way. I remember being amazed at the sorts of incidents and impressions Kafka was able to lay claim to, as the provenance of his fiction. There was a bracing audacity to his work. "Wait, can it be that these sorts of things really amount to a story? Can you really get away with this?' And of course he could -- but not without inventing new territories for fiction itself.

The NY Times article, in an attempt at humor that nonetheless aggravated me, winds down like this:

Researchers familiar with the new work say it would be premature to incorporate film shorts by David Lynch, say, or compositions by John Cage into school curriculums. For one thing, no one knows whether exposure to the absurd can help people with explicit learning, like memorizing French. For another, studies have found that people in the grip of the uncanny tend to see patterns where none exist — becoming more prone to conspiracy theories, for example. The urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of the evidence.

That last sentence -- "the urge for order satisfies itself, it seems, regardless of the quality of evidence" -- is a neat summation of much of human history, politics and religion. But the rest of it brings up the ugly bugbear of utility that always dogs evaluations of art activity. Art activity is only judged useful if it creates some positive spillover into other, less "nonsensical," areas of activity. If screening David Lynch or performing John Cage would improve the memorization of French, then they'd be admissible to the curriculum. No one would ever flip that equation -- suggesting that we should have students memorize French because the memorization of French has the demonstrable effect of making students enjoy David Lynch and John Cage.

This sort of reductive utilitarianism is what lead Elliot Eisner, an Arts Education scholar, to warn against enthusiasm for studies that linked exposure to classical music with better performance in Math testing. Eisner argued for Art Education's inherent value. If a Music program's existence is tied parasitically to its functionality for Math, that's pretty shaky ground to stand on. If researchers eventually figure out that jumping rope increases Math scores even more, your music program will be out the window: make way for the ascendency of the rope-jumpers.

If we can argue for the inherent value of Music, can we argue for the inherent value of "nonsense?" Is "nonsense," properly understood, closer to the texture of the actual world: the world that lies beyond the screen of our habitual, stereotyped and narrow view of it? One could look at art practice, in the industrialized world in the 21st century, as a sort of machinery for producing nonsense. Restrictively defined within the framework of social utility (and using the sorts of medical metaphors 'A Country Doctor' might suggest), you could make the argument that it's a practice that produces a "nonsense vaccine," giving the social body enough hits of weakened absurdity that society is able to create its own antibodies of pattern recognition.

But contrary to that implied dichotomy between healthy and sickness, within the act of art-making itself, one gets comfortable with absurdity, with ambiguity. You don't want to banish the nonsense, you want to dwell in it: to let multiple patterns unfurl from its invitation. If you're comfortable and at ease with the absurd, are you as motivated to seek the solace of pattern? Art seeks pattern not just a solace, but as an ethic.

I'll close out with a couple things: first, a thanks to Gonzalo Barr, for posting a wonderful nugget from The Times Literary Supplement to his blog; it seems that, a year after Kafka's story The Metamorphosis was published, a Doctor Wolff wrote Kafka, pleading that he explain the story (which famously opens with a man waking up in his bed, and finding himself transformed into a giant insect):

Sir, — You have made me unhappy. I purchased your Metamorphosis and gifted it to my cousin, but she could not make sense of the story. My cousin gave it to her mother: she could not explain it. Her mother gave it to another cousin, but she could not explain it either. And now they have written to me, the supposed doctor in the family. But I am at a loss. Sir! I spent months fighting the Russians in the trenches without batting an eyelash. I won’t stand idle while my reputation among my cousins goes to the devil. Only you can come to my aid. You must, since you cooked up this stew in the first place. So tell me please what my cousin ought to think of the Metamorphosis.

I'm sure he never got a sufficient answer, but it's interesting to think that while this doctor was puzzling over the symbols and signs in the Metamorphosis, perhaps he was also doing a better job at diagnosing his patients.

And here's the first part of an animation based on "A Country Doctor," directed by Koji Yamamura. I think it's a worthy interpretation. Click on through to youtube to see the other two parts.

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