“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Storytelling Animal: a Light Read with Weighty Implications

A review of Jonathan Gottschall's The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human
            Vivian Paley, like many other preschool and kindergarten teachers in the 1970s, was disturbed by how her young charges always separated themselves by gender at playtime. She was further disturbed by how closely the play of each gender group hewed to the old stereotypes about girls and boys. Unlike most other teachers, though, Paley tried to do something about it. Her 1984 book Boys and Girls: Superheroes in the Doll Corner demonstrates in microcosm how quixotic social reforms inspired by the assumption that all behaviors are shaped solely by upbringing and culture can be. Eventually, Paley realized that it wasn’t the children who needed to learn new ways of thinking and behaving, but herself. What happened in her classrooms in the late 70s, developmental psychologists have reliably determined, is the same thing that happens when you put kids together anywhere in the world. As Jonathan Gottschall explains,

Dozens of studies across five decades and a multitude of cultures have found essentially what Paley found in her Midwestern classroom: boys and girls spontaneously segregate themselves by sex; boys engage in more rough-and-tumble play; fantasy play is more frequent in girls, more sophisticated, and more focused on pretend parenting; boys are generally more aggressive and less nurturing than girls, with the differences being present and measurable by the seventeenth month of life. (39)

Jonathan Gottschall
Paley’s study is one of several you probably wouldn’t expect to find discussed in a book about our human fascination with storytelling. But, as Gottschall makes clear in The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, there really aren’t many areas of human existence that aren’t relevant to a discussion of the role stories play in our lives. Those rowdy boys in Paley’s classes were playing recognizable characters from current action and sci-fi movies, and the fantasies of the girls were right out of Grimm’s fairy tales (it’s easy to see why people might assume these cultural staples were to blame for the sex differences). And the play itself was structured around one of the key ingredients—really the key ingredient—of any compelling story, trouble, whether in the form of invading pirates or people trying to poison babies.

The Storytelling Animal is the book to start with if you have yet to cut your teeth on any of the other recent efforts to bring the study of narrative into the realm of cognitive and evolutionary psychology. Gottschall covers many of the central themes of this burgeoning field without getting into the weedier territories of game theory or selection at multiple levels. While readers accustomed to more technical works may balk at wading through all the author’s anecdotes about his daughters, Gottschall’s keen sense of measure and the light touch of his prose keep the book from getting bogged down in frivolousness. This applies as well to the sections in which he succumbs to the temptation any writer faces when trying to explain one or another aspect of storytelling by making a few forays into penning abortive, experimental plots of his own. 
None of the central theses of The Storytelling Animal is groundbreaking. But the style and layout of the book contribute something both surprising and important. Gottschall could simply tell his readers that stories almost invariably feature come kind of conflict or trouble and then present evidence to support the assertion, the way most science books do. Instead, he takes us on a tour from children’s highly gendered, highly trouble-laden play scenarios, through an examination of the most common themes enacted in dreams—which contra Freud are seldom centered on wish-fulfillment—through some thought experiments on how intensely boring so-called hyperrealism, or the rendering of real life as it actually occurs, in fiction would be (or actually is, if you’ve read any of D.F.Wallace’s last novel about an IRS clerk). The effect is that instead of simply having a new idea to toss around we actually feel how odd it is to devote so much of our lives to obsessing over anxiety-inducing fantasies fraught with looming catastrophe. And we appreciate just how integral story is to almost everything we do.

This gloss of Gottschall’s approach gives a sense of what is truly original about The Storytelling Animal—it doesn’t seal off narrative as discrete from other features of human existence but rather shows how stories permeate every aspect of our lives, from our dreams to our plans for the future, even our sense of our own identity. In a chapter titled “Life Stories,” Gottschall writes,

This need to see ourselves as the striving heroes of our own  
epics warps our sense of self. After all, it’s not easy to be a
plausible protagonist. Fiction protagonists tend to be young,
attractive, smart, and brave—all of the things that most of us
aren’t. Fiction protagonists usually live interesting lives that
are marked by intense conflict and drama. We don’t. Average
Americans work retail or cubicle jobs and spend their nights
watching protagonists do interesting things on television, while
they eat pork rinds dipped in Miracle Whip. (171)

If you find this observation a tad unsettling, imagine it situated on a page underneath a mug shot of John Wayne Gacy with a caption explaining how he thought of himself “more as a victim than as a perpetrator.” For the most part, though, stories follow an easily identifiable moral logic, which Gottschall demonstrates with a short plot of his own based on the hypothetical situations Jonathan Haidt designed to induce moral dumbfounding. This almost inviolable moral underpinning of narratives suggests to Gottschall that one of the functions of stories is to encourage a sense of shared values and concern for the wider community, a role similar to the one D.S. Wilson sees religion as having played, and continuing to play in human evolution.

            Though Gottschall stays away from the inside baseball stuff for the most part, he does come down firmly on one issue in opposition to at least one of the leading lights of the field. Gottschall imagines a future “exodus” from the real world into virtual story realms that are much closer to the holodecks of Star Trek than to current World of Warcraft interfaces. The assumption here is that people’s emotional involvement with stories results from audience members imagining themselves to be the protagonist. But interactive videogames are probably much closer to actual wish-fulfillment than the more passive approaches to attending to a story—hence the god-like powers and grandiose speechifying.

William Flesch challenges the identification theory in his own (much more technical) book Comeuppance. He points out that films that have experimented with a first-person approach to camera work failed to capture audiences (think of the complicated contraption that filmed Will Smith’s face as he was running from the zombies in I am Legend). Flesch writes, “If I imagined I were a character, I could not see her face; thus seeing her face means I must have a perspective on her that prevents perfect (naïve) identification” (16). One of the ways we sympathize with one another, though, is to mirror them—to feel, at least to some degree, their pain. That makes the issue a complicated one. Flesch believes our emotional involvement comes not from identification but from a desire to see virtuous characters come through the troubles of the plot unharmed, vindicated, maybe even rewarded. Attending to a story therefore entails tracking characters' interactions to see if they are in fact virtuous, then hoping desperately to see their virtue rewarded.

Gottschall does his best to avoid dismissing the typical obsessive Larper (live-action role player) as the “stereotypical Dungeons and Dragons player” who “is a pimply, introverted boy who isn’t cool and can’t play sports or attract girls” (190). And he does his best to end his book on an optimistic note. But the exodus he writes about may be an example of another phenomenon he discusses. First the optimism:

Humans evolved to crave story. This craving has, on the whole, been a good thing for us. Stories give us pleasure and instruction. They simulate worlds so we can live better in this one. They help bind us into communities and define us as cultures. Stories have been a great boon to our species. (197)

But he then makes an analogy with food cravings, which likewise evolved to serve a beneficial function yet in the modern world are wreaking havoc with our health. Just as there is junk food, so there is such a thing as “junk story,” possibly leading to what Brian Boyd, another luminary in evolutionary criticism, calls a “mental diabetes epidemic” (198). In the context of America’s current education woes, and with how easy it is to conjure images of glazy-eyed zombie students, the idea that video games and shows like Jersey Shore are “the story equivalent of deep-fried Twinkies” (197) makes an unnerving amount of sense.
Scene from my student conferences this semester

            Here, as in the section on how our personal histories are more fictionalized rewritings than accurate recordings, Gottschall manages to achieve something the playful tone and off-handed experimentation don't prepare you for. The surprising accomplishment of this unassuming little book (200 pages) is that it never stops being a light read even as it takes on discoveries with extremely weighty implications. The temptation to eat deep-fried Twinkies is only going to get more powerful as story-delivery systems become more technologically advanced. Might we have already begun the zombie apocalypse without anyone noticing—and, if so, are there already heroes working to save us we won’t recognize until long after the struggle has ended and we’ve begun weaving its history into a workable narrative, a legend?  

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Madness and Bliss: Critical vs Primitive Readings in A.S. Byatt's Possesion: A Romance 2

Read part one.
            The critical responses to the challenges posed by Byatt in Possession fit neatly within the novel’s satire. Louise Yelin, for instance, unselfconsciously divides the audience for the novel into “middlebrow readers” and “the culturally literate” (38), placing herself in the latter category. She overlooks Byatt’s challenge to her methods of criticism and the ideologies underpinning them, for the most part, and suggests that several of the themes, like ventriloquism, actually support poststructuralist philosophy. Still, Yelin worries about the novel’s “homophobic implications” (39). (A lesbian, formerly straight character takes up with a man in the end, and Christabel LaMotte’s female lover commits suicide after the dissolution of their relationship, but no one actually expresses any fear or hatred of homosexuals.) Yelin then takes it upon herself to “suggest directions that our work might take” while avoiding the “critical wilderness” Byatt identifies. She proposes a critical approach to a novel that “exposes its dependencies on the bourgeois, patriarchal, and colonial economies that underwrite” it (40). And since all fiction fails to give voice to one or another oppressed minority, it is the critic’s responsibility to “expose the complicity of those effacements in the larger order that they simultaneously distort and reproduce” (41). This is not in fact a response to Byatt’s undermining of critical theories; it is instead an uncritical reassertion of their importance.

            Yelin and several other critics respond to Possession as if Byatt had suggested that “culturally literate” readers should momentarily push to the back of their minds what they know about how literature is complicit in various forms of political oppression so they can get more enjoyment from their reading. This response is symptomatic of an astonishing inability to even imagine what the novel is really inviting literary scholars to imagine—that the theories implicating literature are flat-out wrong. Monica Flegel for instance writes that “What must be privileged and what must be sacrificed in order for Byatt’s Edenic reading (and living) state to be achieved may give some indication of Byatt’s own conventionalizing agenda, and the negative enchantment that her particular fairy tale offers” (414). Flegel goes on to show that she does in fact appreciate the satire on academic critics; she even sympathizes with the nostalgia for simpler times, before political readings became mandatory. But she ends her critical essay with another reassertion of the political, accusing Byatt of “replicating” through her old-fashioned novel “such negative qualities of the form as its misogyny and its omission of the lower class.” Flegel is particularly appalled by Maud’s treatment in the final scene, since, she claims, “stereotypical gender roles are reaffirmed” (428). “Maud is reduced in the end,” Flegel alleges, “to being taken possession of by her lover…and assured that Roland will ‘take care of her’” (429). This interpretation places Flegel in the company of the feminists in the novel who hiss at Maud for trying to please men, forcing her to bind her head.

            Flegel believes that her analysis proves Byatt is guilty of misogyny and mistreatment of the poor. “Byatt urges us to leave behind critical readings and embrace reading for enjoyment,” she warns her fellow critics, “but the narrative she offers shows just how much is at stake when we leave criticism behind” (429). Flegel quotes Yelin to the effect that Possession is “seductive,” and goes on to declaim that

it is naïve, and unethical, to see the kind of reading that Byatt offers as happy. To return to an Edenic state of reading, we must first believe that such a state truly existed and that it was always open to all readers of every class, gender, and race. Obviously, such a belief cannot be held, not because we have lost the ability to believe, but because such a space never really did exist. (430)

In her preening self-righteous zealotry, Flegel represents a current in modern criticism that’s only slightly more extreme than that represented by Byatt’s misguided but generally harmless scholars. The step from using dubious theories to decode alleged justifications for political oppression in literature to Flegel’s frightening brand of absurd condemnatory moralizing leveled at authors and readers alike is a short one.

            Another way critics have attempted to respond to Byatt’s challenge is by denying that she is in fact making any such challenge. Christien Franken suggests that Byatt’s problems with theories like poststructuralism stem from her dual identity as a critic and an author. In a lecture Byatt once gave titled “Identity and the Writer” which was later published as an essay, Franken finds what she believes is evidence of poststructuralist thinking, even though Byatt denies taking the theory seriously. Franken believes that in the essay, “the affinity between post-structuralism and her own thought on authorship is affirmed and then again denied” (18). Her explanation is that

the critic in A.S. Byatt begins her lecture “Identity and the Writer” with a recognition of her own intellectual affinity with post-structuralist theories which criticize the paramount importance of “the author.” The writer in Byatt feels threatened by the same post-structuralist criticism. (17)

Franken claims that this ambivalence runs throughout all of Byatt’s fiction and criticism. But Ann Marie Adams disagrees, writing that “When Byatt does delve into poststructuralist theory in this essay, she does so only to articulate what ‘threatens’ and ‘beleaguers’ her as a writer, not to productively help her identify the true ‘identity’ of the writer” (349). In Adams view, Byatt belongs in the humanist tradition of criticism going back to Matthew Arnold and the romantics. In her own response to Byatt, Adams manages to come closer than any of her fellow critics to being able to imagine that the ascendant literary theories are simply wrong. But her obvious admiration for Byatt doesn’t prevent her from suggesting that “Yelin and Flegel are right to note that the conclusion of Possession, with its focus on closure and seeming transcendence of critical anxiety, affords a particularly ‘seductive’ and ideologically laden pleasure to academic readers” (120). And, while she seems to find some value in Arnoldian approaches, she fails to engage in any serious reassessment of the theories Byatt targets.

            Frederick Holmes, in his attempt to explain Byatt’s attitude toward history as evidenced by the novel, agrees with the critics who see in Possession clear signs of the author’s embrace of postmodernism in spite of the parody and explicit disavowals. “It is important to acknowledge,” he writes,

that the liberation provided by Roland’s imagination from the previously discussed sterility of his intellectual sophistication is never satisfactorily accounted for in rational terms. It is not clear how he overcomes the post-structuralist positions on language, authorship, and identity. His claim that some signifiers are concretely attached to signifieds is simply asserted, not argued for. (330)


While Holmes is probably mistaken in taking this absence of rational justification as a tacit endorsement of the abandoned theory, the observation is the nearest any of the critics comes to a rebuttal of Byatt’s challenge. What Holmes is forgetting, though, is that structuralist and poststructuralist theorists themselves, from Saussure through Derrida, have been insisting on the inadequacy of language to describe the real world, a radical idea that flies in the face of every human’s lived experience, without ever providing any rational, empirical, or even coherent support for the departure. The stark irony to which Holmes is completely oblivious is that he’s asking for a rational justification to abandon a theory that proclaims such justification impossible. The burden remains on poststructuralists to prove that people shouldn’t trust their own experiences with language. And it is precisely this disconnect with experience that Byatt shows to be problematic. Holmes, like the other critics, simply can’t imagine that critical theories have absolutely no validity, so he’s forced to read into the novel the same chimerical ambivalence Franken tries so desperately to prove.

Roland’s dramatic alteration is validated by the very sort of emotional or existential experience that critical theory has conditioned him to dismiss as insubstantial. We might account for Roland’s shift by positing, not a rejection of his earlier thinking, but a recognition that his psychological well-being depends on his living as if such powerful emotional experiences had an unquestioned reality. (330)

            Adams quotes from an interview in which Byatt discusses her inspiration for the characters in Possession, saying, “poor moderns are always asking themselves so many questions about whether their actions are real and whether what they say can be thought to be true […] that they become rather papery and are miserably aware of this” (111-2). Byatt believes this type of self-doubt is unnecessary. Indeed, Maud’s notion that “there isn’t a unitary ego” (290) and Roland’s thinking of the “idea of his ‘self’ as an illusion” (459)—not to mention Holmes’s conviction that emotional experiences are somehow unreal—are simple examples of the reductionist fallacy. While it is true that an individual’s consciousness and sense of self rest on a substrate of unconscious mental processes and mechanics that can be traced all the way down to the firing of neurons, to suggest this mechanical accounting somehow delegitimizes selfhood is akin to saying that water being made up of hydrogen and oxygen atoms means the feeling of wetness can only be an illusion.
Helen Fisher

       Just as silly are the ideas that romantic love is a “suspect ideological construct” (290), as Maud calls it, and that “the expectations of Romance control almost everyone in the Western world” (460), as Roland suggests. Anthropologist Helen Fisher writes in her book Anatomy of Love, “some Westerners have come to believe that romantic love is an invention of the troubadours… I find this preposterous. Romantic love is far more widespread” (49). After a long list of examples of love-strickenness from all over the world from west to east to everywhere in-between, Fisher concludes that it “must be a universal human trait” (50). Scientists have found empirical support as well for Roland’s discovery that words can in fact refer to real things. Psychologist Nicole Speer and her colleagues used fMRI to scan people’s brains as they read stories. The actions and descriptions on the page activated the same parts of the brain as witnessing or perceiving their counterparts in reality. The researchers report, “Different brain regions track different aspects of a story, such as a character’s physical location or current goals. Some of these regions mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities” (989).

       Critics like Flegel insist on joyless reading because happy endings necessarily overlook the injustices of the world. But this is like saying anyone who savors a meal is complicit in world hunger (or for that matter anyone who enjoys reading about a character savoring a meal). If feminist poststructuralists were right about how language functions as a vehicle for oppressive ideologies, then the most literate societies would be the most oppressive, instead of the other way around. Jacques Lacan is the theorist Byatt has the most fun with in Possession—and he is also the main target of the book Fashionable Nonsense:Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by the scientists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont. “According to his disciples,” they write, Lacan “revolutionized the theory and practice of psychoanalysis; according to his critics, he is a charlatan and his writings are pure verbiage” (18). After assessing Lacan’s use of concepts in topological mathematics, like the Mobius strip, which he sets up as analogies for various aspects of the human psyche, Sokal and Bricmont conclude that Lacan’s ideas are complete nonsense. They write,

Bricmont and Sokal
The most striking aspect of Lacan and his disciples is probably their attitude toward science, and the extreme privilege they accord to “theory”… at the expense of observations and experiments… Before launching into vast theoretical generalizations, it might be prudent to check the empirical adequacy of at least some of its propositions. But, in Lacan’s writings, one finds mainly quotations and analyses of texts and concepts. (37)

Sokal and Bricmont wonder if the abuses of theorists like Lacan “arise from conscious fraud, self-deception, or perhaps a combination of the two” (6). The question resonates with the poem Randolph Henry Ash wrote about his experience exposing a supposed spiritualist as a fraud, in which he has a mentor assure her protégée, a fledgling spiritualist with qualms about engaging in deception, “All Mages have been tricksters” (444).

There’s even some evidence that Byatt is right about postmodern thinking making academics into “papery” people. In a 2006 lecture titled “The Inhumanity of the Humanities,” William van Peer reports on research he conducted with a former student comparing the emotional intelligence of students in the humanities to students in the natural sciences. Although the psychologists Raymond Mar and Keith Oately (407) have demonstrated that reading fiction increases empathy and emotional intelligence, van Peer found that humanities students had no advantage in emotional intelligence over students of natural science. In fact, there was a weak trend in the opposite direction—this despite the fact that the humanities students were reading more fiction. Van Peer attributes the deficit to common academic approaches to literature:

Consider the ills flowing from postmodern approaches, the “posthuman”: this usually involves the hegemony of “race/class/gender” in which literary texts are treated with suspicion. Here is a major source of that loss of emotional connection between student and literature. How can one expect a certain humanity to grow in students if they are continuously instructed to distrust authors and texts? (8)

Steven Pinker
Whether it derives from her early reading of Arnold and his successors, as Adams suggests, or simply from her own artistic and readerly sensibilities, Byatt has an intense desire to revive that very humanity so many academics sacrifice on the altar of postmodern theory. Critical theory urges students to assume that any discussion of humanity, or universal traits, or human nature can only be exclusionary, oppressive, and, in Flegel’s words, “naïve” and “unethical.” The cognitive linguist Steven Pinker devotes his book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature to debunking the radical cultural and linguistic determinism that is the foundation of modern literary theory. In a section on the arts, Pinker credits Byatt for playing a leading role in what he characterizes as a “revolt”: 

Museum-goers have become bored with the umpteenth exhibit on the female body featuring dismembered torsos or hundreds of pounds of lard chewed up and spat out by the artist. Graduate students in the humanities are grumbling in emails and conference hallways about being locked out of the job market unless they write in gibberish while randomly dropping the names of authorities like Foucault and Butler. Maverick scholars are doffing the blinders that prevented them from looking at exciting developments in the sciences of human nature. And younger artists are wondering how the art world got itself into the bizarre place in which beauty is a dirty word. (Pinker 416)

There are resonances with Roland Mitchell’s complaints about how psychoanalysis transforms perceptions of landscapes in Pinker’s characterization of modern art. And the idea that beauty has become a dirty word is underscored by the critical condemnations of Byatt’s “fairy tale ending.” Pinker goes on to quote Byatt’s response in New York Times Magazine to the question of what the best story ever told was.  Her answer—The Arabian Nights:

The stories in “The Thousand and One Nights”… are about storytelling without ever ceasing to be stories about love and life and death and money and food and other human necessities. Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood. Modernist literature tried to do away with storytelling, which it thought vulgar, replacing it with flashbacks, epiphanies, streams of consciousness. But storytelling is intrinsic to biological time, which we cannot escape. Life, Pascal said, is like living in a prison from which every day fellow prisoners are taken away to be executed. We are all, like Scheherazade, under sentences of death, and we all think of our lives as narratives, with beginnings, middles, and ends. (quoted in Pinker 419)

            Byatt’s satire of papery scholars and her portrayals of her characters’ transcendence of nonsensical theories are but the simplest and most direct ways she celebrates the power of language to transport readers—and the power of stories to possess them. Though she incorporates an array of diverse genres, from letters to poems to diaries, and though some of the excerpts’ meanings subtly change in light of discoveries about their authors’ histories, all these disparate parts nonetheless “hook together,” collaborating in the telling of this magnificent tale. This cooperation would be impossible if the postmodern truism about the medium being the message were actually true. Meanwhile, the novel’s intimate engagement with the mythologies of wide-ranging cultures thoroughly undermines the paradigm according to which myths are deterministic “repeating patterns” imposed on individuals, showing instead that these stories simultaneously emerge from and lend meaning to our common human experiences. As the critical responses to Possession make abundantly clear, current literary theories are completely inadequate in any attempt to arrive at an understanding of Byatt’s work. While new theories may be better suited to the task, it is incumbent on us to put forth a good faith effort to imagine the possibility that true appreciation of this and other works of literature will come only after we’ve done away with theory altogether. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

Madness and Bliss: Critical versus Primitive Readings in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: a Romance

                                                                                Part 1 of 2
“You have one of the gifts of the novelist at least,” Christabel LaMotte says to her cousin Sabine de Kercoz in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: a Romance, “you persist in undermining facile illusions” (377). LaMotte is staying with her uncle and cousin, Sabine later learns, because she is carrying the child of the renowned, and married, poet Randolph Henry Ash. The affair began when the two met at a breakfast party where they struck up an impassioned conversation that later prompted Ash to instigate a correspondence. LaMotte too was a poet, so each turned out to be an ideal reader for the other’s work. Just over a hundred years after this initial meeting, in the present day of Byatt’s narrative, the literary scholar Roland Mitchell finds two drafts of Ash’s first letter to LaMotte tucked away in the pages of a book he’s examining for evidence about the great poet’s life, and the detective work begins.

Roland, an unpaid research assistant financially dependent on the girlfriend he’s in a mutually unfulfilling relationship with, is overtaken with curiosity and embarks on a quest to piece together the story of what happened between LaMotte and Ash. Knowing next to nothing about LaMotte, Mitchell partners with the feminist scholar Maud Bailey, who one character describes as “a chilly mortal” (159), and a stilted romance develops between them as they seek out the clues to the earlier, doomed relationship. Through her juxtaposition of the romance between the intensely passionate, intensely curious nineteenth century couple and the subdued, hyper-analytic, and sterile modern one, the novelist Byatt does some undermining of facile illusions of her own.
A.S. Byatt

       Both of the modern characters are steeped in literary theory, but Byatt’s narrative suggests that their education and training is more a hindrance than an aid to true engagement with literature, and with life. It is only by breaking with professional protocol—by stealing the drafts of the letter from Ash to LaMotte—and breaking away from his mentor and fellow researchers that Roland has a chance to read, and experience, the story that transforms him. “He had been taught that language was essentially inadequate, that it could never speak what was there, that it only spoke itself” (513). But over the course of the story Roland comes to believe that this central tenet of poststructuralism is itself inadequate, along with the main tenets of other leading critical theories, including psychoanalysis. Byatt, in a later book of criticism, counts herself among the writers of fiction who “feel that powerful figures in the modern critical movements feel almost a gladiatorial antagonism to the author and the authority the author claims” (6).  Indeed, Possession can be read as the novelist’s narrative challenge to the ascendant critical theories, an “undermining of facile illusions” about language and culture and politics—a literary refutation of current approaches to literary criticism. In the two decades since the novel’s publication, critics working in these traditions have been unable to adequately respond to Byatt’s challenge because they’ve been unable to imagine that their ideas are not simply impediments to pleasurable reading but that they’re both wrong and harmful to the creation and appreciation of literature.

       The possession of the title refers initially to how the story of LaMotte and Ash’s romance takes over Maud and Roland—in defiance of the supposed inadequacy of language. If words only speak themselves, then true communication would be impossible. But, as Roland says to Maud after they’ve discovered some uncanny correspondences between each of the two great poets’ works and the physical setting the modern scholars deduce they must’ve visited together, “People’s minds do hook together” (257). This hooking-together is precisely what inspires them to embark on their mission of discovery in the first place. “I want to—to—follow the path,” Maud says to Roland after they’ve read the poets’ correspondence together.

I feel taken over by this. I want to know what happened, and I want it to be me that finds out. I thought you were mad when you came to Lincoln with your piece of stolen letter. Now I feel the same. It isn’t professional greed. It’s something more primitive. (239)

Roland interrupts to propose the label “Narrative curiosity” for her feeling of being taken over, to which she responds, “Partly” (239). Later in the story, after several more crucial discoveries, Maud proposes revealing all they’ve learned to their academic colleagues and returning to their homes and their lives. Roland worries doing so would mean going back “Unenchanted.” “Are we enchanted?” Maud replies. “I suppose we must start thinking again, sometime” (454). But it’s the primitive, enchanted, supposedly unthinking reading of the biographical clues about the poets that has brought the two scholars to where they are, and their journey ends up resulting in a transformation that allows Maud and Roland to experience the happy ending LaMotte and Ash were tragically deprived of.

            Before discovering and being possessed by the romance of the nineteenth century poets, both Maud and Roland were living isolated and sterile lives. Maud, for instance, always has her hair covered in a kind of “head-binding” and twisted in tightly regimented braids that cause Roland “a kind of sympathetic pain on his own skull-skin” (282). She later reveals that she has to cover it because her fellow feminists always assume she’s “dyeing it to please men.” “It’s exhausting,” Roland has just said. “When everything’s a deliberate political stance. Even if it’s interesting” (295). Maud’s bound head thus serves as a symbol (if read in precisely the type of way Byatt’s story implicitly admonishes her audience to avoid) of the burdensome and even oppressive nature of an ideology that supposedly works for the liberation and wider consciousness of women.

            Meanwhile, Roland is troubling himself about the implications of his budding romantic feelings for Maud. He has what he calls a “superstitious dread” of “repeating patterns,” a phrase he repeats over and over again throughout the novel. Thinking of his relations with Maud, he muses,

“Falling in love,” characteristically, combs the appearances of the world, and of the particular lover’s history, out of a random tangle and into a coherent plot. Roland was troubled that the opposite might be true. Finding themselves in a plot, they might suppose it appropriate to behave as though it was a sort of plot. And that would be to compromise some kind of integrity they had set out with. (456)

He later wrestles with the idea that “a Romance was one of the systems that controlled him, as the expectations of Romance control almost everyone in the Western world” (460). Because of his education, he cannot help doubting his own feelings, suspecting that giving in to their promptings would have political implications, and worrying that doing so would result in a comprising of his integrity (which he must likewise doubt) and his free will. Roland’s self-conscious lucubration forms a stark contrast to what Randolph Henry Ash wrote in an early letter to his wife Ellen: “I cannot get out of my mind—as indeed, how should I wish to, whose most ardent desire is to be possessed entirely by the pure thought of you—I cannot get out of my mind the entire picture of you” (500). It is only by reading letters like this, and by becoming more like Ash, turning away in the process from his modern learning, that Roland can come to an understanding of himself and accept his feelings for Maud as genuine and innocent.

            Identity for modern literary scholars, Byatt suggests, is a fraught and complicated issue. At different points in the novel, both Maud and Roland engage in baroque, abortive efforts to arrive at a sense of who they are. Maud, reflecting on how another scholar’s writing about Ash says more about the author than about the subject, meditates,

Narcissism, the unstable self, the fractured ego, Maud thought, who am I? A matrix for a susurration of texts and codes? It was both a pleasant and an unpleasant idea, this requirement that she think of herself as intermittent and partial. There was the question of the awkward body. The skin, the breath, the eyes, the hair, their history, which did seem to exist. (273)

Roland later echoes this head-binding poststructuralist notion of the self as he continues to dither over whether or not he should act on his feelings for Maud.

Roland had learned to see himself, theoretically, as a crossing-place for a number of systems, all loosely connected. He had been trained to see his idea of his “self” as an illusion, to be replaced by a discontinuous machinery and electrical message-network of various desires, ideological beliefs and responses, language forms and hormones and pheromones. Mostly he liked this. He had no desire for any strenuous Romantic self-assertion. (459)

But he mistakes that lack of desire for self-assertion as genuine, when it fact it is borne of his theory-induced self-doubt. He will have to discover in himself that very desire to assert or express himself if he wants to escape his lifeless, menial occupation and end his sexless isolation. He and Maud both have to learn how to integrate their bodies and their desires into their conceptions of themselves.
Yorkshire Moors courtesy of Park Benches and Book Ends

            Unfortunately, thinking about sex is even more fraught with exhausting political implications for Byatt’s scholars than thinking about the self. While on a trek to retrace the steps they believe LaMotte and Ash took in the hills of Yorkshire, Roland considers the writing of a psychoanalytic theorist. Disturbed, he asks Maud, “Do you never have the sense that our metaphors eat up our world?” (275). He goes on to explain, that no matter what they tried to discuss,

It all reduced like boiling jam to—human sexuality… And then, really, what is it, what is this arcane power we have, when we see everything is human sexuality? It’s really powerlessness… We are so knowing… Everything relates to us and so we’re imprisoned in ourselves—we can’t see things. (276)

The couple is coming to realize that they can in fact see things, the same things that the couple whose story they're tracking down saw over a century ago. This budding realization inspires in Roland an awareness of how limiting, even incapacitating, the dubious ideas of critical theorizing can be. Through the distorting prism of psychoanalysis, “Sexuality was like thick smoked glass; everything took on the same blurred tint through it. He could not imagine a pool with stones and water” (278).

The irony is that for all the faux sophistication of psychoanalytic sexual terminology it engenders in both Roland and Maud nothing but bafflement and aversion to actual sex. Roland highlights this paradox later, thinking,

They were children of a time and culture that mistrusted love, “in love,” romantic love, romance in toto, and which nevertheless in revenge proliferated sexual language, linguistic sexuality, analysis, dissection, deconstruction, exposure. (458)

Maud sums up the central problem when she says to Roland, “And desire, that we look into so carefully—I think all the looking-into has some very odd effects on the desire” (290). In that same scene, while still in Yorkshire trying to find evidence of LaMotte’s having accompanied Ash on his trip, the two modern scholars discover they share a fantasy, not a sexual fantasy, but one involving “An empty clean bed,” “An empty bed in an empty room,” and they wonder if “they’re symptomatic of whole flocks of exhausted scholars and theorists” (290-1).

            Guided by their intense desire to be possessed by the two poets of the previous century, Maud and Roland try to imagine how they would have seen the world, and in so doing they try to imagine what it would be like not to believe in the poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theories they’ve been inculcated with. At first Maud tells Roland, “We live in the truth of what Freud discovered. Whether or not we like it. However we’ve modified it. We aren’t really free to suppose—to imagine—he could possibly have been wrong about human nature” (276). But after they’ve discovered a cave with a pool whose reflected light looks like white fire, a metaphor that both LaMotte and Ash used in poems written around the time they would’ve come to that very place, prompting Maud to proclaim, “She saw this. I’m sure she saw this” (289), the two begin trying in earnest to imagine what it would be like to live without their theories. Maud explains to Roland,

We know all sorts of things, too—about how there isn’t a unitary ego—how we’re made up of conflicting, interacting systems of things—and I suppose we believe that? We know we’re driven by desire, but we can’t see it as they did, can we? We never say the word Love, do we—we know it’s a suspect ideological construct—especially Romantic Love—so we have to make a real effort of imagination to know what it felt like to be them, here, believing in these things—Love—themselves—that what they did mattered—(290)

       Though many critics have pointed out how the affair between LaMotte and Ash parallels the one between Maud and Roland, in some way the trajectories of the two relationships run in opposite directions. For instance, LaMotte leaves Ash as even more of a “chilly mortal” (310) than she was when she first met him. It turns out the term derives from a Mrs. Cammish, who lodged LaMotte and Ash while they were on their trip, and was handed down to the Lady Bailey, Maud’s relative, who applies it to her in a conversation with Roland. And whereas the ultimate falling out between LaMotte and Ash comes in the wake of Ash exposing a spiritualist, whose ideas and abilities LaMotte had invested a great deal of faith in, as a fraud, Roland’s counterpart disillusionment, his epiphany that literary theory as he has learned it is a fraud, is what finally makes the consummation of his relationship with Maud possible. Maud too has to overcome, to a degree, her feminist compunctions to be with Roland. Noting how this chilly mortal is warming over the course of their quest, Roland thinks how, “It was odd to hear Maud Bailey talking wildly of madness and bliss” (360). But at last she lets her hair down.

Brittany Coast
Sabine’s journal of the time her cousin Christabel stayed with her and her father on the Brittany coast, where she’d sought refuge after discovering she was pregnant, offers Roland and Maud a glimpse at how wrongheaded it can be to give precedence to their brand of critical reading over what they would consider a more primitive approach. Ironically, it is the young aspiring writer who gives them this glimpse as she chastises her high-minded poet cousin for her attempts to analyze and explain the meanings of the myths and stories she’s grown up with. “The stories come before the meanings,” Sabine insists to Christabel. “I do not believe all these explanations. They diminish. The idea of Woman is less than brilliant Vivien, and the idea of Merlin will not allegorise into male wisdom. He is Merlin” (384). These words come from the same young woman who LaMotte earlier credited for her persistence “in undermining facile illusions” (377).

Readers of Byatt’s novel, though not Maud and Roland, both of whom likely already know of the episode, learn about how Ash attended a séance and, reaching up to grab a supposedly levitating wreath, revealed it to be attached to a set of strings connected to the spiritualist. In a letter to Ruskin read for Byatt’s readers by another modern scholar, Ash expresses his outrage that someone would exploit the credulity and longing of the bereaved, especially mothers who’ve lost children. “If this is fraud, playing on a mother’s harrowed feelings, it is wickedness indeed” (423). He also wonders what the ultimate benefit would be if spiritualist studies into other realms proved to be valid. “But if it were so, if the departed spirits were called back—what good does it do? Were we meant to spend our days sitting and peering into the edge of the shadows?” (422). LaMotte and Ash part ways for good after his exposure of the spiritualist as a charlatan because she is so disturbed by the revelation. And, for the reader, the interlude serves as a reminder of past follies that today are widely acknowledged to have depended on trickery and impassioned credulity. So it might be for the ideas of Freud and Derrida and Lacan.

Roland arrives at the conclusion that this is indeed the case. Having been taught that language is inadequate and only speaks itself, he gradually comes to realize that this idea is nonsense. Reflecting on how he was taught that language couldn’t speak about what really existed in the world, he suddenly realizes that he’s been disabused of the idea. “What happened to him was that the ways in which it could be said had become more interesting than the idea that it could not” (513). He has learned through his quest to discover what had occurred between LaMotte and Ash that “It is possible for a writer to make, or remake at least, for a reader, the primary pleasures of eating, or drinking, or looking on, or sex.” People’s minds do in fact “hook together,” as he’d observed earlier, and they do it through language. The novel’s narrator intrudes to explain here near the end of the book what Roland is coming to understand.

 Now and then there are readings that make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire, like points of stars in the dark—readings when the knowledge that we shall know the writing differently or better or satisfactorily, runs ahead of any capacity to say what we know, or how. In these readings, a sense of that text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of, our knowledge. (512) (Neuroscientists agree.)

The recognition the narrator refers to—which Roland is presumably experiencing in the scene—is of a shared human nature, and shared human experience, the notions of which are considered by most literary critics to be politically reactionary.

Though he earlier claimed to have no desire to assert himself, Roland discovers he has a desire to write poetry. He decides to turn away from literary scholarship altogether and become a poet. He also asserts himself by finally taking charge and initiating sex with Maud.

And very slowly and with infinite gentle delays and delicate diversions and variations of indirect assault Roland finally, to use an outdated phrase, entered and took possession of all her white coolness that grew warm against him, so that there seemed to be no boundaries, and he heard, towards dawn, from a long way off, her clear voice crying out, uninhibited, unashamed, in pleasure and triumph. (551)

This is in fact, except for postscript focusing on Ash, the final scene of the novel, and it represents Roland’s total, and Maud’s partial transcendence of the theories and habits that hitherto made their lives so barren and lonely.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Useless Art and Beautiful Minds

Three Continents by El Anatsui (made with bottle caps)
           When you experience a work of art you can’t help imagining the mind behind it. Many people go so far as to imagine the events of the natural world as attempts by incorporeal minds to communicate their intentions. Creating art demands effort and clear intentionality, and so we automatically try to understand the creator’s message. Ghanaian artist El Anatsui says the difference between the tools and consumer artifacts that go into his creations and the creations themselves is that you are meant to use bottle caps and can lids, but you are meant to contemplate works of art. 
Peak Project El Anatsui (made with tin can lids)

Ai Weiwei’s marble sculpture of a surveillance camera, for instance, takes its form from an object that has a clear function and transforms it into an object that stands inert, useless but for the irresistible compulsion it evokes to ponder what it means to live under the watchful gaze of an oppressive state. Mastering the challenge posed by his tormenters, taking their tools and turning them into objects of beauty and contemplation, is an obvious intention and thus an obvious message. We look at the sculpture and we feel we understand what Ai Weiwei meant in creating it. 

Surveillance Camera Ai Weiwei
Not all art is conducive to such ease of recognition, and sometimes unsettledness of meaning is its own meaning. We are given to classifying objects or images, primarily by their use. Asking the question, what is this, is usually the same as asking, what is it for? If we see an image surrounded by a frame hanging on a wall, even the least artistically inclined of us will assume the picture in some way pleases the man or woman who put it there. It could be a picture of a loved one. It could be an image whose symmetry and colors and complexity strike most people as beautiful. It could signify some aspect of group identity. 

Not all art pleases, and sometimes the artist’s intention is to disturb. John Keats believed what he called negative capability, a state in which someone “is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” to be central to the creation and appreciation of art. If everything we encounter fits neatly into our long-established categories, we will never experience such uncertainty. The temptation is always to avoid challenges to what we know because being so challenged can be profoundly discomfiting. But if our minds are never challenged they atrophy.
Coffin Ai Weiwei

        While artists often challenge us to contemplate topics like the slave trade for the manufacture of beer, the relation between industrial manufacturing and the natural world, or surveillance and freedom of expression, the mystery that lies at the foundation of art is the mind of the artist. Once we realize we’re to have an experience of art, we stop wondering, what is this for, and begin pondering what it means.

        Art isn’t however simply an expression of the artist’s thoughts or emotions, and neither should it be considered merely an attempt at rendering some aspect of the real world through one of the representative media. How Anatsui conveys his message about the slave trade is just as important as any attempt to decipher what that message might be. The paradox of art is that the artist conveys more of him or herself by focusing on the subject of the work. The artists who cast the most powerful spells are the ones who can get the most caught up in things other than themselves. Falling in love exposes as much of the lover as it does of the one who’s loved.  
Akua's Surviving Children El Anatsui
Music and narrative arts rely on the dimension of time, so they illustrate the point more effectively. The pace of the rhythms and the pitch of voices and instruments convey emotion with immediacy and force. Musicians must to some degree experience the emotions they hope to spread through their performances (though they may begin in tranquility and only succumb afterward, affected by their own performance). They are like actors. But audiences do not assume that the man who plays low-pitched, violent music is angry when the song is over. Nor do they assume the singer who croons a plangent love song is at that moment in her life in the throes of an infatuation. The musicians throw themselves into their performances, and perhaps into the writing and composing of the songs, and, to the extent that we forget we’re listening to a performer as we feel or relive the anger or the pangs of love their music immerses us in, they achieve a transcendence we recognize as an experience of true art. We in the audience attribute that transcendence to the musicians, and infer that even though they may not currently be in the state their song inspired they must know a great deal about it.

Likewise a fiction writer accomplishes the most by betraying little or no interest in him or herself. Line by line, scene by scene, if the reader is thinking of the author and not the characters the work is a failure. When the story ceases to be a story and the fates of characters become matters of real concern for the reader, the author has achieved that same artistic transcendence as the musician whose songs take hold of our hearts and make us want to rage, to cry, to dance. But, finishing the chapter, leaving the company of the characters, reemerging from the story, we can marvel at the seeming magic that so consumed us. Contemplating the ultimate outcomes as the unfolding of the plot comes to an end, we’re free to treat the work holistically and see in it the vision of the writer.

The presence of the artist’s mind need not distract from the subject we are being asked to contemplate. But all art can be thought of as an exercise in empathy. More than that, though, the making strange of familiar objects and experiences, the communion of minds assumed to be separated by some hitherto unbridgeable divide, these experiences inspire an approach to living and socializing that is an art in its own right. Sometimes to see something clearly we have to be able to imagine it otherwise. To really hear someone else we have to appreciate ourselves. To break free of our own habits, it helps to know how others think and live.
Ai Weiwei

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Enlightened Hypocrisy of Jonathan Haidt's Righteous Mind

A Review of Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion
            Back in the early 1950s, Muzafer Sherif and his colleagues conducted a now-infamous experiment that validated the central premise of Lord of the Flies. Two groups of 12-year-old boys were brought to a camp called Robber’s Cave in southern Oklahoma where they were observed by researchers as the members got to know each other. Each group, unaware at first of the other’s presence at the camp, spontaneously formed a hierarchy, and they each came up with a name for themselves, the Eagles and the Rattlers. That was the first stage of the study. In the second stage, the two groups were gradually made aware of each other’s presence, and then they were pitted against each other in several games like baseball and tug-o-war. The goal was to find out if animosity would emerge between the groups. This phase of the study had to be brought to an end after the groups began staging armed raids on each other’s territory, wielding socks they’d filled with rocks. Prepubescent boys, this and several other studies confirm, tend to be highly tribal.
           
            So do conservatives.
           
           This is what University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt heroically avoids saying explicitly for the entirety of his new 318-page, heavily endnoted The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. In the first of three parts, he takes on ethicists like John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, along with the so-called New Atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, because, as he says in a characteristically self-undermining pronouncement, “Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason” (89). Intuition, Haidt insists, is more worthy of focus. In part two, he lays out evidence from his own research showing that all over the world judgments about behaviors rely on a total of six intuitive dimensions, all of which served some ancestral, adaptive function. Conservatives live in “moral matrices” that incorporate all six, while liberal morality rests disproportionally on just three. At times, Haidt intimates that more dimensions is better, but then he explicitly disavows that position. He is, after all, a liberal himself. In part three, he covers some of the most fascinating research to emerge from the field of human evolutionary anthropology over the past decade and a half, concluding that tribalism emerged from group selection and that without it humans never would have become, well, human. Again, the point is that tribal morality—i.e. conservatism—cannot be all bad.
Jonathan Haidt

            One of Haidt’s goals in writing The Righteous Mind, though, was to improve understanding on each side of the central political divide by exploring, and even encouraging an appreciation for, the moral psychology of those on the rival side. Tribalism can’t be all bad—and yet we need much less of it in the form of partisanship. “My hope,” Haidt writes in the introduction, “is that this book will make conversations about morality, politics, and religion more common, more civil, and more fun, even in mixed company” (xii). Later he identifies the crux of his challenge, “Empathy is an antidote to righteousness, although it’s very difficult to empathize across a moral divide” (49). There are plenty of books by conservative authors which gleefully point out the contradictions and errors in the thinking of naïve liberals, and there are plenty by liberals returning the favor. What Haidt attempts is a willful disregard of his own politics for the sake of transcending the entrenched divisions, even as he’s covering some key evidence that forms the basis of his beliefs. Not surprisingly, he gives the impression at several points throughout the book that he’s either withholding the conclusions he really draws from the research or exercising great discipline in directing his conclusions along paths amenable to his agenda of bringing about greater civility.

            Haidt’s focus is on intuition, so he faces the same challenge Daniel Kahneman did in writing Thinking, Fast and Slow: how to convey all these different theories and findings in a book people will enjoy reading from first page to last? Kahneman’s attempt was unsuccessful, but his encyclopedic book is still readable because its topic is so compelling. Haidt’s approach is to discuss the science in the context of his own story of intellectual development. The product reads like a postmodern hero’s journey in which the unreliable narrator returns right back to where he started, but with a heightened awareness of how small his neighborhood really is. It’s a riveting trip down the rabbit hole of self-reflection where the distinction between is and ought gets blurred and erased and reinstated, as do the distinctions between intuition and reason, and even self and other. Since, as Haidt reports, liberals tend to score higher on the personality trait called openness to new ideas and experiences, he seems to have decided on a strategy of uncritically adopting several points of conservative rhetoric—like suggesting liberals are out-of-touch with most normal people—in order to subtly encourage less open members of his audience to read all the way through. Who, after all, wants to read a book by a liberal scientist pointing out all the ways conservatives go wrong in their thinking?

The Elephant in the Room
            Haidt’s first move is to challenge the primacy of thinking over intuiting. If you’ve ever debated someone into a corner, you know simply demolishing the reasons behind a position will pretty much never be enough to change anyone’s mind. Citing psychologist Tom Gilovich, Haidt explains that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” We begin a search, “and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have justification, in case anyone asks.” But if we don’t like the implications of, say, global warming, or the beneficial outcomes associated with free markets, we ask a different question:

when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it. You only need one key to unlock the handcuffs of must. Psychologists now have file cabinets full of findings on “motivated reasoning,” showing the many tricks people use to reach the conclusions they want to reach. (84)

Haidt’s early research was designed to force people into making weak moral arguments so that he could explore the intuitive foundations of judgments of right and wrong. When presented with stories involving incest, or eating the family dog, which in every case were carefully worded to make it clear no harm would result to anyone—the incest couldn’t result in pregnancy; the dog was already dead—“subjects tried to invent victims” (24). It was clear that they wanted there to be a logical case based on somebody getting hurt so they could justify their intuitive answer that a wrong had been done.

They said things like ‘I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t think of a reason why.’ They seemed morally dumbfounded—rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively. These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of their emotional reactions. (25)

Reading this section, you get the sense that people come to their beliefs about the world and how to behave in it by asking the same three questions they’d ask before deciding on a t-shirt: how does it feel, how much does it cost, and how does it make me look? Quoting political scientist Don Kinder, Haidt writes, “Political opinions function as ‘badges of social membership.’ They’re like the array of bumper stickers people put on their cars showing the political causes, universities, and sports teams they support” (86)—or like the skinny jeans showing everybody how hip you are.
Image courtesy of Useable Learning

           Kahneman uses the metaphor of two systems to explain the workings of the mind. System 1, intuition, does most of the work most of the time. System 2 takes a lot more effort to engage and can never manage to operate independently of intuition. Kahneman therefore proposes educating your friends about the common intuitive mistakes—because you’ll never recognize them yourself. Haidt uses the metaphor of an intuitive elephant and a cerebrating rider. He first used this image for an earlier book on happiness, so the use of the GOP mascot was accidental. But because of the more intuitive nature of conservative beliefs it’s appropriate. Far from saying that republicans need to think more, though, Haidt emphasizes the point that rational thought is never really rational and never anything but self-interested. He argues,

the rider acts as the spokesman for the elephant, even though it doesn’t necessarily know what the elephant is really thinking. The rider is skilled at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has just done, and it is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next. Once human beings developed language and began to use it to gossip about each other, it became extremely valuable for elephants to carry around on their backs a full-time public relations firm. (46)

The futility of trying to avoid motivated reasoning provides Haidt some justification of his own to engage in what can only be called pandering. He cites cultural psychologists Joe Henrich, Steve Heine, and Ara Noenzayan, who argued in their 2010 paper “The Weirdest People in the World?” that researchers need to do more studies with culturally diverse subjects. Haidt commandeers the acronym WEIRD—western, educated, industrial, rich, and democratic—and applies it somewhat derisively for most of his book, even though it applies both to him and to his scientific endeavors. Of course, he can’t argue that what’s popular is necessarily better. But he manages to convey that attitude implicitly, even though he can’t really share the attitude himself.
  
            Haidt is at his best when he’s synthesizing research findings into a holistic vision of human moral nature; he’s at his worst, his cringe-inducing worst, when he tries to be polemical. He succumbs to his most embarrassingly hypocritical impulses in what are transparently intended to be concessions to the religious and the conservative. WEIRD people are more apt to deny their intuitive, judgmental impulses—except where harm or oppression are involved—and insist on the fair application of governing principles derived from reasoned analysis. But apparently there’s something wrong with this approach:

Western philosophy has been worshipping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to Lawrence Kohlberg. I’ll refer to this worshipful attitude throughout this book as the rationalist delusion. I call it a delusion because when a group of people make something sacred, the members of the cult lose the ability to think clearly about it. (28)

This is disingenuous. For one thing, he doesn’t refer to the rationalist delusion throughout the book; it only shows up one other time. Both instances implicate the New Atheists. Haidt coins the term rationalist delusion in response to Dawkins’s The God Delusion. An atheist himself, Haidt is throwing believers a bone. To make this concession, though, he’s forced to seriously muddle his argument. “I’m not saying,” he insists,

we should all stop reasoning and go with our gut feelings. Gut feelings are sometimes better guides than reasoning for making consumer choices and interpersonal judgments, but they are often disastrous as a basis for public policy, science, and law. Rather, what I’m saying is that we must be wary of any individual’s ability to reason. We should see each individual as being limited, like a neuron. (90)

As far as I know, neither Harris nor Dawkins has ever declared himself dictator of reason—nor, for that matter, did Mill or Rawls (Hitchens might have). Haidt, in his concessions, is guilty of making points against arguments that were never made. He goes on to make a point similar to Kahneman’s.

We should not expect individuals to produce good, open-minded, truth-seeking reasoning, particularly when self-interest or reputational concerns are in play. But if you put individuals together in the right way, such that some individuals can use their reasoning powers to disconfirm the claims of others, and all individuals feel some common bond or shared fate that allows them to interact civilly, you can create a group that ends up producing good reasoning as an emergent property of the social system. (90)

What Haidt probably realizes but isn’t saying is that the environment he’s describing is a lot like scientific institutions in academia. In other words, if you hang out in them, you’ll be WEIRD.

A Taste for Self-Righteousness
            The divide over morality can largely be reduced to the differences between the urban educated and the poor not-so-educated. As Haidt says of his research in South America, “I had flown five thousand miles south to search for moral variation when in fact there was more to be found a few blocks west of campus, in the poor neighborhood surrounding my university” (22). One of the major differences he and his research assistants serendipitously discovered was that educated people think it’s normal to discuss the underlying reasons for moral judgments while everyone else in the world—who isn’t WEIRD—thinks it’s odd:

But what I didn’t expect was that these working-class subjects would sometimes find my request for justifications so perplexing. Each time someone said that the people in a story had done something wrong, I asked, “Can you tell me why that was wrong?” When I had interviewed college students on the Penn campus a month earlier, this question brought forth their moral justifications quite smoothly. But a few blocks west, this same question often led to long pauses and disbelieving stares. Those pauses and stares seemed to say, You mean you don’t know why it’s wrong to do that to a chicken? I have to explain it to you? What planet are you from? (95)

The Penn students “were unique in their unwavering devotion to the ‘harm principle,’” Mill’s dictum that laws are only justified when they prevent harm to citizens. Haidt quotes one of the students as saying, “It’s his chicken, he’s eating it, nobody is getting hurt” (96). (You don’t want to know what he did before cooking it.)

Having spent a little bit of time with working-class people, I can make a point that Haidt overlooks: they weren’t just looking at him as if he were an alien—they were judging him. In their minds, he was wrong just to ask the question. The really odd thing is that even though Haidt is the one asking the questions he seems at points throughout The Righteous Mind to agree that we shouldn’t ask questions like that:

There’s more to morality than harm and fairness. I’m going to try to convince you that this principle is true descriptively—that is, as a portrait of the moralities we see when we look around the world. I’ll set aside the question of whether any of these alternative moralities are really good, true, or justifiable. As an intuitionist, I believe it is a mistake to even raise that emotionally powerful question until we’ve calmed our elephants and cultivated some understanding of what such moralities are trying to accomplish. It’s just too easy for our riders to build a case against every morality, political party, and religion that we don’t like. So let’s try to understand moral diversity first, before we judge other moralities. (98)
The Brits always get better book covers.

But he’s already been busy judging people who base their morality on reason, taking them to task for worshipping it. And while he’s expending so much effort to hold back his own judgments he’s being judged by those whose rival conceptions he’s trying to understand. His open-mindedness and disciplined restraint are as quintessentially liberal as they are unilateral.

            In the book’s first section, Haidt recounts his education and his early research into moral intuition. The second section is the story of how he developed his Moral Foundations Theory. It begins with his voyage to Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa in India. He went to conduct experiments similar to those he’d already been doing in the Americas. “But these experiments,” he writes, “taught me little in comparison to what I learned just from stumbling around the complex social web of a small Indian city and then talking with my hosts and advisors about my confusion.” It was an earlier account of this sojourn Haidt had written for the online salon The Edge that first piqued my interest in his work and his writing. In both, he talks about his two “incompatible identities.”

On one hand, I was a twenty-nine-year-old liberal atheist with very definite views about right and wrong. On the other hand, I wanted to be like those open-minded anthropologists I had read so much about and had studied with. (101)

The people he meets in India are similar in many ways to American conservatives. “I was immersed,” Haidt writes, “in a sex-segregated, hierarchically stratified, devoutly religious society, and I was committed to understanding it on its own terms, not on mine” (102). The conversion to what he calls pluralism doesn’t lead to any realignment of his politics. But supposedly for the first time he begins to feel and experience the appeal of other types of moral thinking. He could see why protecting physical purity might be fulfilling. This is part of what's known as the “ethic of divinity,” and it was missing from his earlier way of thinking. He also began to appreciate certain aspects of the social order, not to the point of advocating hierarchy or rigid sex roles but seeing value in the complex network of interdependence.

Image Courtesy of The New York Times
            The story is thoroughly engrossing, so engrossing that you want it to build up into a life-changing insight that resolves the crisis. That’s where the six moral dimensions come in (though he begins with just five and only adds the last one much later), which he compares to the different dimensions of taste that make up our flavor palette. The two that everyone shares but that liberals give priority to whenever any two or more suggest different responses are Care and Harm—hurting people is wrong and we should help those in need—and Fairness. The other three from the original set are Loyalty, Authority, and Sanctity, loyalty to the tribe, respect for the hierarchy, and recognition of the sacredness of the tribe’s symbols, like the flag. Libertarians are closer to liberals; they just rely less on the Care dimension and much more on the recently added sixth one, Liberty from Opression, which Haidt believes evolved in the context of ancestral egalitarianism similar to that found among modern nomadic foragers. Haidt suggests that restricting yourself to one or two dimensions is like swearing off every flavor but sweet and salty, saying,

many authors reduce morality to a single principle, usually some variant of welfare maximization (basically, help people, don’t hurt them). Or sometimes it’s justice or related notions of fairness, rights, or respect for individuals and their autonomy. There’s The Utilitarian Grill, serving only sweeteners (welfare), and The Deontological Diner, serving only salts (rights). Those are your options. (113)

Haidt doesn’t make the connection between tribalism and the conservative moral trifecta explicit. And he insists he’s not relying on what’s called the Naturalistic Fallacy—reasoning that what’s natural must be right. Rather, he’s being, he claims, strictly descriptive and scientific.

Moral judgment is a kind of perception, and moral science should begin with a careful study of the moral taste receptors. You can’t possibly deduce the list of five taste receptors by pure reasoning, nor should you search for it in scripture. There’s nothing transcendental about them. You’ve got to examine tongues. (115)

But if he really were restricting himself to description he would have no beef with the utilitarian ethicists like Mill, the deontological ones like Kant, or for that matter with the New Atheists, all of whom are operating in the realm of how we should behave and what we should believe as opposed to how we’re naturally, intuitively primed to behave and believe. At one point, he goes so far as to present a case for Kant and Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism, being autistic (the trendy psychological diagnosis du jour) (120). But, like a lawyer who throws out a damning but inadmissible comment only to say “withdrawn” when the defense objects, he assures us that he doesn’t mean the autism thing as an ad hominem.
From The Moral Foundation Website

            I think most of my fellow liberals are going to think Haidt’s metaphor needs some adjusting. Humans evolved a craving for sweets because in our ancestral environment fruits were a rare but nutrient-rich delicacy. Likewise, our taste for salt used to be adaptive. But in the modern world our appetites for sugar and salt have created a health crisis. These taste receptors are also easy for industrial food manufacturers to exploit in a way that enriches them and harms us. As Haidt goes on to explain in the third section, our tribal intuitions were what allowed us to flourish as a species. But what he doesn’t realize or won’t openly admit is that in the modern world tribalism is dangerous and far too easily exploited by demagogues and PR experts.

In his story about his time in India, he makes it seem like a whole new world of experiences was opened to him. But this is absurd (and insulting). Liberals experience the sacred too; they just don’t attempt to legislate it. Liberals recognize intuitions pushing them toward dominance and submission. They have feelings of animosity toward outgroups and intense loyalty toward members of their ingroup. Sometimes, they even indulge these intuitions and impulses. The distinction is not that liberals don’t experience such feelings; they simply believe they should question whether acting on them is appropriate in the given context. Loyalty in a friendship or a marriage is moral and essential; loyalty in business, in the form of cronyism, is profoundly immoral. Liberals believe they shouldn’t apply their personal feelings about loyalty or sacredness to their judgments of others because it’s wrong to try to legislate your personal intuitions, or even the intuitions you share with a group whose beliefs may not be shared in other sectors of society. In fact, the need to consider diverse beliefs—the pluralism that Haidt extolls—is precisely the impetus behind the efforts ethicists make to pare down the list of moral considerations.

           Moral intuitions, like food cravings, can be seen as temptations requiring discipline to resist. It’s probably no coincidence that the obesity epidemic tracks the moral divide Haidt found when he left the Penn campus. As I read Haidt’s account of Drew Westen’s fMRI experiments with political partisans, I got a bit anxious because I worried a scan might reveal me to be something other than what I consider myself. The machine in this case is a bit like the Sorting Hat at Hogwarts, and I hoped, like Harry Potter, not to be placed in Slytherin. But this hope, even if it stems from my wish to identify with the group of liberals I admire and feel loyalty toward, cannot be as meaningless as Haidt’s “intuitionism” posits.

            Ultimately, the findings Haidt brings together under the rubric of Moral Foundations Theory don’t lend themselves in any way to his larger program of bringing about greater understanding and greater civility. He fails to understand that liberals appreciate all the moral dimensions but don’t think they should all be seen as guides to political policies. And while he may want there to be less tribalism in politics he has to realize that most conservatives believe tribalism is politics—and should be.

Resistance to the Hive Switch is Futile

            “We are not saints,” Haidt writes in the third section, “but we are sometimes good team players” (191). Though his efforts to use Moral Foundations to understand and appreciate conservatives lead to some bizarre contortions and a profound misunderstanding of liberals, his synthesis of research on moral intuitions with research and theorizing on multi-level selection, including selection at the level of the group, is an important contribution to psychology and anthropology. He writes that

anytime a group finds a way to suppress selfishness, it changes the balance of forces in a multi-level analysis: individual-level selection becomes less important, and group-level selection becomes more powerful. For example, if there is a genetic basis for feelings of loyalty and sanctity (i.e., the Loyalty and Sanctity Foundations), then intense intergroup competition will make these genes become more common in the next generation. (194)

The most interesting idea in this section is that humans possess what Haidt calls a “hive switch” that gets flipped whenever we engage in coordinated group activities. He cites historian William McNeil who recalls an “altered state of consciousness” when he was marching in formation with fellow soldiers in his army days. He describes it as a “sense of pervasive well-being…a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life” (221). Sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to this same experience as “collective effervescence.” People feel it today at football games, at concerts as they dance to a unifying beat, and during religious rituals. It’s a profoundly spiritual experience, and it likely evolved to create a greater sense of social cohesion within groups competing with other groups.

            Surprisingly, the altruism inspired by this sense of the sacred triggered by coordinated activity, though primarily directed at fellow group members—parochial altruism—can also flow out in ways that aren’t entirely tribal.  Haidt cites political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell’s book, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, where they report the finding that “the more frequently people attend religious services, the more generous and charitable they become across the board” (267); they do give more to religious charities, but they also give more to secular ones. Putnam and Campbell write that “religiously observant Americans are better neighbors and better citizens.” The really astonishing finding from Putnam and Campbell’s research, though, is that the social advantages enjoyed by religious people had nothing to do with the actual religious beliefs. Haidt explains,

These beliefs and practices turned out to matter very little. Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew, or Mormon… none of these things correlated with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within a moral matrix that emphasizes selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people. (267)

The Sacred foundation, then, is an integral aspect of our sense of community, as well as a powerful inspiration for altruism. Haidt cites the work of Richard Sosis, who combed through all the records he could find on communes in America. His central finding is that “just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of the religious communes.” Socis went on to identify “one master variable” which accounted for the difference between success and failure for religious groups: “the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members” (257). But sacrifices demanded by secular groups made no difference whatsoever. Haidt concludes,

In other words, the very ritual practices that the New Atheists dismiss as costly, inefficient, and irrational turn out to be a solution to one of the hardest problems humans face: cooperation without kinship. Irrational beliefs can sometimes help the group function more rationally, particularly when those beliefs rest upon the Sanctity foundation. Sacredness binds people together, and then blinds them to the arbitrariness of the practice. (257)

This section captures the best and the worst of Haidt's work. The idea that humans have an evolved sense of the sacred, and that it came about to help our ancestral groups cooperate and cohere—that’s a brilliant contribution to theories going back through D.S.Wilson, Emile Durkheim, all the way back to Darwin. Contemplating it sparks a sense of wonder that must emerge from that same evolved feeling for the sacred. But then he uses the insight in the service of a really lame argument.

            The costs critics of religion point to aren’t the minor personal ones like giving up alcohol or fasting for a few days. Haidt compares studying the actual, “arbitrary” beliefs and practices of religious communities to observing the movements of a football for the purpose of trying to understand why people love watching games. It’s the coming together as a group, he suggests, the sharing of goals and mutual direction of attention, the feeling of shared triumph or even disappointment. But if the beliefs and rituals aren’t what’s important then there’s no reason they have to be arbitrary—and there’s no reason they should have to entail any degree of hostility toward outsiders. How then can Haidt condemn Harris and Dawkins for “worshipping reason” and celebrating the collective endeavor known as science? Why doesn’t he recognize that for highly educated people, especially scientists, discovery is sacred? He seriously mars his otherwise magnificent work by wrongly assuming anyone who doesn’t think flushing an American flag down the toilet is wrong has no sense of the sacred, shaking his finger at them, effectively saying, rallying around a cause is what being human is all about, but what you flag-flushers think is important just isn’t worthy—even though it’s exactly what I think is important too, what I’ve devoted my career and this book you're holding to anyway.

            As Kahneman stresses in his book, resisting the pull of intuition takes a great deal of effort. The main difference between highly educated people and everyone else isn’t a matter of separate moral intuitions. It’s a different attitude toward intuitions in general. Those of us who worship reason believe in the Enlightenment ideals of scientific progress and universal human rights. I think most of us even feel those ideals are sacred and inviolable. But the Enlightenment is a victim of its own success. No one remembers the unchecked violence and injustice that were the norms before it came about—and still are the norms in many parts of the world. In some academic sectors, the Enlightenment is even blamed for some of the crimes its own principles are used to combat, like patriarchy and colonialism. Intuitions are still very much a part of human existence, even among those who are the most thoroughly steeped in Enlightenment values. But worshipping them is far more dangerous than worshipping reason. As the world becomes ever more complicated, nostalgia for simpler times becomes an ever more powerful temptation. And surmounting the pull of intuition may ultimately be an impossible goal. But it’s still a worthy, and even sacred ideal.  

But if Haidt’s attempt to inspire understanding and appreciation misfires how are we to achieve the goal of greater civility and less partisanship? Haidt does offer some useful suggestions. Still, I worry that his injunction to “Talk to the elephant” will merely contribute to the growing sway of the burgeoning focus-groupocracy. Interestingly, the third stage of the Robber's Cave experiment may provide some guidance. Sherif and his colleagues did manage to curtail the escalating hostility between the Eagles and the Rattlers. And all it took was some shared goals they had to cooperate to achieve, like when their bus got stuck on the side of the road and all the boys in both groups had to work together to work it free. Maybe it’s time for a mission to Mars all Americans could support (credit Neil de Grasse Tyson). Unfortunately, the conservatives would probably never get behind it. Maybe we should do another of our liberal conspiracy hoaxes to convince them China is planning to build a military base on the Red Planet. Then we’ll be there in no time.