Skip

Rise of the Neuronovel
January 2, 2011 12:08 PM   Subscribe

Rise of the Neuronovel. Marco Roth at N+1 argues that the recent interest of contemporary novels (Motherless Brooklyn, Saturday, Atmospheric Disturbances) in the disordered wetware of their characters represents a defeat for fiction. "...the new genre of the neuronovel, which looks on the face of it to expand the writ of literature, appears as another sign of the novel’s diminishing purview." Jonah Lehrer responds to Roth and Roth responds back.
posted by escabeche (58 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
The Roth essay is very nice, thanks.
posted by gimonca at 12:17 PM on January 2, 2011


tl;dr -- Novels now aren't about the same things as they were during Dickens' time. Get off my lawn.
posted by hippybear at 12:22 PM on January 2, 2011


I've read at least two "neuronovels", that I recall offhand (the ones mentioned in Roth's opening section) and I did not like them and now avoid reading more. The problem for me was I didn't believe the author had the ability to understand the condition, so the novel was unbelievable from the start, like watching someone pretend to be handicap.
posted by stbalbach at 12:29 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's funny that he mentions Stephen Pinker, because the biggest take-away I took from both How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought was how wholly inadequate the typical perspective taken in pop novels was to describe what is actually going on in the mind. The whole idea that we think in words and that we can describe how we think in words is completely misguided.

If you're writing fiction, you have to in some sense be a scientist, or a philosopher. You're making a statement, in the way you right, about How We Think and How We Perceive and How We Feel, and also on a deeper level -- How We Think That We Think, and so on.

Just imagination a situation where a protagonist walks into his bedroom. Already, there are an infinite number of things that could be described, from the particularities of smell, the texture and color of the wallpaper, the sounds that can be heard, the mood of the character, and so on.

Which do you choose to describe? Do you describe in detail all that the character thinks about? But so much of it is non-verbal, or verbal, but in parallel. Do you describe motivations for why he chooses to do things? But so much of what we decide is decided subconsciously, and only given a rationalization afterwards. The internal monologue isn't really so much 'what you are thinking' as it is a short term memory bank, used to store snatches of words as they come into consciousness so you can act on them.

Most novelists don't even attempt to describe consciousness. They instead tell stories, which seem to me to work between consciousnesses almost the way that API calls work between web applications. You kind of abstract away reality into a series of metaphorical expressions that seem to be universal, and communicate those ('time passed', 'she gave ground and conceded the point', etc) and the listener somehow rebuilds those with imagination into his own model.

Even if one were to attempt to describe consciousness fully, he could only do it by telling a story about it, and everything would still have to be couched in the same metaphors of motion and so on that we use to describe everyday reality.

I guess what I'm saying is that the task of describing reality and consciousness fully is an impossible one, because even at arbitrary levels of detail , we're still using the metaphorical language of storytelling, and are as far away from describing reality as we were just telling a story in the usual way.

I'm pretty sure I'm not at all being clear about what I mean, but oh well.
posted by empath at 12:35 PM on January 2, 2011 [15 favorites]


(god i wish there was an edit button so i could fix the typos)
posted by empath at 12:36 PM on January 2, 2011


Do writers need special institutions that recognize and treat their mental peculiarities, without granting these any special visionary status? (Such institutions are known as MFA programs.)
Oh, snap.
posted by pts at 12:40 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Roth doesn't locate the emergence of this trend, and I find it pretty interesting. My claim is that psychopathologies entered literature by means of the detective novel. Motherless Brooklyn and The Curious Incident came out long before Saturday. Mystery novels have a highly formalized and specific genre structure, and since the sixties all sorts of postmodern writers have enjoyed playing with its tropes. As new categories of neurological disorder started to emerge, they lent themselves extremely well to playing without the tropes of the mystery novel. (This was going to be my English lit undergrad thesis about ten years ago, but I switched topics and then disciplines.) More precisely, neurological disorders represent a modern take on a very common trope of the detective novel: amnesia. Amnesia has always been a good wellspring of detective fiction: the amnesiac is forced to solve the mystery of his or her own identity. Other psychopathologies present similar challenges that also play with genre cliches.

Jonathan Lethem's introduction to The Vintage Anthology of Amnesia makes the case for this really well. (It's one of my favorite short pieces of writing.) It's no surprise that the same guy who wrote that introduction wrote Motherless Brooklyn. I only read the introduction after ditching my thesis, and since then I've always wanted to come back to it....

Matt Ruff's Set This House in Order is another good book in this vein that isn't mentioned in the article.
posted by painquale at 12:43 PM on January 2, 2011 [7 favorites]


I have often been told, when pointing out the invaluable services that modern knowledge and science, if properly applied, can perform for art and specially for the theatre, that art and knowledge are two estimable but wholly distinct fields of human activity. This is a fearful truism, of course, and it is as well to agree quickly that, like most truisms, it is perfectly true. Art and science work in quite different ways: agreed. But, bad as it may sound, I have to admit that I cannot get along as an artist without the use of one or two sciences. This may well arouse serious doubts as to my artistic capacities. People are used to seeing poets as unique and slightly unnatural beings who reveal with a truly godlike assurance things that other people can only recognize after much sweat and toil. It is naturally distasteful to have to admit that one does not belong to this select band... I have to admit, however, that I look askance at all sorts of people who I know do not operate on the level of scientific understanding: that is to say, who sing as the birds sing, or as people imagine the birds to sing.

- Bertoldt Brecht, "Theatre For Pleasure or Theatre for Understanding"
posted by outlandishmarxist at 12:47 PM on January 2, 2011


The aesthetic sensation a reader gets from the neuronovel is not the pleasure of finding the general in the particular, but a frustration born of the defeat of the metaphoric impulse. We want to make the metaphor work, to say, “Yes, we are all a bit like a paranoid schizophrenic sometimes” or, “Yes, as Mark Haddon’s autistic narrator needs to separate the foods on his plate and not let them touch, to sort colors into good and bad, so am I in my impulse to classify a new genre.” ... Instead the reader has to admit to himself that his brain doesn’t work like an autistic person’s, a Capgras sufferer’s, and that when he loves or works or fears or talks, his ordinary neurons fire or misfire for ordinary rather than extraordinary reasons, whatever these may be.

In other words, the neuronovel in its present form presents the experience of a cognitive defeat.


Bullshit.

Somehow, despite the fact that I'm not Autistic, I empathized with the protagonist of Haddon's novel. I have mild Aspergers, so maybe that example is a dirty test tube. Well, luckily for me, I'm not at all sociopathic, and yet I connect with Dexter (the character on the Showetime series), too. I've read many novels about characters with mental disorders I don't have -- and yet, magically, I connect with those characters. And, to me, there's nothing odd about this at all. It's how fiction works.

Because I also connected with the protagonist of "Memoirs of a Geisha," even though I'm male, have never worked in the sex trade and have never been to Japan. I even connected with HAL9000, even though I'm not made of silicone.

Here's the mechanism that makes it work: emotion. I don't understand Dexter's addiction to killing people, but I understand addiction. I understand how frustrating it is to not be able to indulge an addiction; I understand the pleasure of indulging; I understand the guilt that follows.

This is something novels can do really, really well: the can connect very different types of people by exploring how, different as they are, they all dip into the same well of human emotion, which is finite and relatively similar in almost all people.

This is an incredibly stable property of fiction (because it works). Very few theatre-goers in Elizabethan England were aristocrats. Most of them lived lives wildly remote from those of Hamlet, Macbeth, Olivia and Cordelia. And yet -- abracadabra -- they shed tears when Lear disowned Cordelia? Why, because they had fathers and daughters.

To me, the science stuff is cool, but it's SO on the surface. And, by the way, it's never explained in Haddon's book why his protagonist acts the way he does. We know he's different, and we can take a guess, but the word "Autism" doesn't appear in the novel.

The fact that Lily Bart, in Edith Wharton's "House of Mirth" (1905) is the way she is because her mother raised her to feel entitled is not what the story is about. It's about what RESULTED from that. It would be the same story if she felt entitled because she'd had a stroke as a child and it had damaged the part of her brain that controls humility. In any case, I didn't have a mother anything like Lily's. I don't feel entitled. And yet I totally connect with her. She's nothing like me. Yet she's one of my favorite characters in fiction.

Would "King Lear" be seriously damaged if we saw an MRI that proved Lear had dementia and explained the exact brain regions that were damaged? How would that radically change anything?

IF the novel is dying, it's doing so because other forms of fiction are more popular, not because younger writers grew up watching "Cosmos" and reading Dawkins.

Every years someone moans that novels are dying because of this, that and the other. If the moaners are right, it's a pretty slow death.

Speaking of science, I'd like to see a non-anecdotal study of how many modern novels are "neuronovels." How much of a trend is this? I know some popular novels have followed this trend, but so what? I'm very skeptical that this is a widespread thing. I read a lot of novels this year, and I can't think of one that had a neuro-atypical character. So if you're looking for "normal" people in fiction, close your eyes and point to a book at random. I'd say you have a 98% chance of getting what you want.
posted by grumblebee at 12:50 PM on January 2, 2011 [6 favorites]


Just imagination a situation where a protagonist walks into his bedroom. Already, there are an infinite number of things that could be described, from the particularities of smell, the texture and color of the wallpaper, the sounds that can be heard, the mood of the character, and so on.

yes, well ask Proust:

"My dear fellow, I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep."
posted by ennui.bz at 12:59 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


There are already more novels than one could ever hope to read in a lifetime. So what?
posted by tigrefacile at 1:10 PM on January 2, 2011


Would "King Lear" be seriously damaged if we saw an MRI that proved Lear had dementia and explained the exact brain regions that were damaged? How would that radically change anything?

I think it would change the play pretty dramatically. His culpability for his choices at the beginning of the play would feel diminished. Part of what you do in pathologizing a character's actions is remove their autonomy. Their disorder becomes an antagonist rather than a trait of the protagonist.

I don't think that the main influence of neurological disorders on novels is fundamentally different from, say, the influence of madness or syphilis on novels. They give the protagonists a new set of problems to overcome. But I would not write off Roth's main contention entirely. Neurological disorders do show that a lot of things we thought were true about psychology---things that we find in movies and novels and about which we think "yes, that is how things are"---are actually false.

It's interesting to me that you mention Dexter. I don't think of that show in this genre at all, because it does not at all portray sociopathy accurately, nor does it even really try to. It's an old-school account of a serial killer; not a new-fangled attempt to get the psychology right. Dexter feels guilt in a way that true sociopaths don't. An actual portrayal of a sociopath would be much harder to sympathize with. I don't really know whether any movies accurately portray sociopathy.
posted by painquale at 1:20 PM on January 2, 2011 [2 favorites]


Reminds me tangentially of something that Douglas Adams wrote, in 1998:
I find when I read literary novels - you know, with a capital 'L' - I think an awful lot is nonsense. If I want to know something interesting about the way human beings work, how they relate to each other and how they behave, I'll find an awful lot of women crime novelists who do it better, Ruth Rendell for instance. If I want to read something that's really giving me something serious and fundamental to think about, about the human condition, if you like, or what we're all doing here, or what's going on, then I'd rather read something by a scientist in the life sciences, like Richard Dawkins. I feel that the agenda of life's important issues has moved away from novelists to science writers, because they know more.
posted by memebake at 1:20 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


I just had to say: I found McEwan's Saturday really annoying. Upper/middle-class twit in love with his Mercedes vanquishes the lower-class in hand-to-hand combat, while using lots of prosaic descriptions of things. Yuck. The little ironic glimmers in the book made me think I was maybe being fooled or missing the point, which annoyed me even more.

Maybe that's an underlying point here.
posted by ovvl at 1:43 PM on January 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


Would "King Lear" be seriously damaged if we saw an MRI that proved Lear had dementia and explained the exact brain regions that were damaged? How would that radically change anything?

I think it would change the play pretty dramatically. His culpability for his choices at the beginning of the play would feel diminished


This is a great comment. I can see how it might totally change things for a certain sort of reader. Maybe for most readers.

I tend to be uninterested in fiction as morality-tale. I'm sure you're not reducing Lear to that, but, unless I misunderstand you, you ARE saying that element is important (is Lear culpable or not?).

I don't care, which is maybe why I don't get what Roth is hot under the collar about. Maybe I don't care because, at heart, I'm a determinist. It doesn't really interest me whether or not what Lear does is "his fault." What interests me is how it affects him and those around him.

Also, this definitely ISN'T the case with all stories, but in the case of Lear, I'd argue Shakespeare isn't terribly interested in Lear's reasons. He starts the story at the point of crisis (when Lear makes his terrible choice) and doesn't really explore what lead up to it.

(I agree that "Dexter" presents an inaccurate, cartoon version of sociopathy. At heart, the show is a superhero story. But realistic or not, it suggest he's the way he is at least in part because of brain trauma. Actually, it's confusing even when it comes to that. But he's certainly not the way he is because of bad choices he's made it the past.)
posted by grumblebee at 1:51 PM on January 2, 2011


Would "King Lear" be seriously damaged if we saw an MRI that proved Lear had dementia and explained the exact brain regions that were damaged? How would that radically change anything?

There was a furious reaction this year when someone presented a paper exploring the idea that Anne of Green Gables displayed a lot of the characteristics of a child with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. From a news story about the reaction here:
"Anne's positive features are among the strengths of people with fetal alcohol," she said. "Her verbal skill, her trusting friendliness, her flair for drama, her rich fantasy life, her storytelling. Those are all things that seem to emerge undamaged in people affected by fetal alcohol. But she also has the distractibility, obviously, the inattention, the poor judgment, the indiscriminate friendliness."

Hoy said her theory is not meant to ruin the book for readers.

"For me it's a way of showing how our readings change over time, just as our readings of social conditions change over time."
The most hilarious reaction was an angry newspaper site commenter who came up with the gotcha that no one even knew what FAS was back when the book was written, so there's no way this could be true. The idea that the mother of a girl who would end up as an orphan just might have consumed alcohol while pregnant - or that before such a thing was known to be not a good idea, that there would be more kids around who displayed symptoms of FAS - didn't seem to occur to any of those reacting.

So I think authors throughout the ages have portrayed characters with flaws and weaknesses and who are outright lunatics without boggingthe reader down in the medical side of what was going on with the character. Modern writers have more access to medical vocabulary and I think readers who take in a lot of pop science have a taste for reading about mental disorders. If a novel like that is unenjoyable to read it's only because it wasn't written well and the author was bogging you down. It doesn't mean the idea itself is a poor thing to write about.

Still, with Anne of Green Gables it's probably best that if she was meant to have some kind of medical cause for her personality that it was only ever in the mind of the author as she constructed the story.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:58 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I find when I read literary novels - you know, with a capital 'L' - I think an awful lot is nonsense. If I want to know something interesting about the way human beings work, how they relate to each other and how they behave, I'll find an awful lot of women crime novelists who do it better, Ruth Rendell for instance

I guess I'm going to be this thread's contrarian. I call bullshit again. (Though I love Rendell!) I read "literary" and "popular" novels indiscriminately. I've never cared about the difference. This year I read Franzen's "Freedom," a couple of Updikes I'd never read before, several YA novels ("Chaos Walking" is AWESOME!), some sci-fi and, as it happens, a couple of Rendell mysteries. I just read whatever tickles my fancy and quit if I'm bored or turned off by it. My guess is that I'm not alone here. When you read this way, the distinction between "literary" and "genre" starts to dissolve. And I think it's mostly a bogus distinction, anyway.

Having spent a lifetime doing this kind of reading, I'd say that lots of novel that "get it" when it comes to human nature and lots more don't. And of both those types, many have been "literary" and some haven't. Ruth Rendell is great, but for every one of here there are countless genre hacks. Just as there are lots of with literary-novelist hacks. Neither type has a monopoly of understanding what makes people tick.

The ecosystem of novels is incredibly varied and chaotic. This seems to really trouble people like Roth and Adams. They want to simplify it. They read four books that follow an trend and then proclaim that trend to be the State of the Art. I don't know if they're serious or if they're playing a parlor game. (I certainly had plenty of professors who played that game in college. And the NY Times LOVES it. There will happen to be two movies out about sharks, and they'll run a story titled "Why Are Americans Obsessed With Sharks?") Confirmation bias with a side of fries.
posted by grumblebee at 2:03 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of the things Roth says is true:

By comparison with most 19th-century novels, and even with most 20th-century modernist novels of the "stream of consciousness" school, the neuronovels have in them very little of society, of different classes, of individuals interacting, of development either alongside or against historical forces and expectations.

But this seems to be less a facet of neuronovels than of novels, in general, and indeed, of social life in general. There is less of the immediately "social" in social life. Socialites are localized, nobody really cares what the queen does, there's much less mixing across professions and fields of activity (imagine, today, a hipster novelist attending the same party as a four star general - it just wouldn't happen; but during and after WWI, for example, these kinds of things did happen; just read Dos Passos or Hemingway). The "masses" are not what they used to be - one couldn't make a film like October or Battleship Potemkin today, because mass activity has a very different quality (although, to be fair, Eisenstein apparently used more extras in October than were actually present for the October Revolution). There have also been other versions of the "neuronovel," i.e., the novel experimenting with perspective/a single perspective. Think Mrs. Dalloway, for example. That novel is deeply immersed in the dominant science of the mind of the day (psychoanalysis).
posted by outlandishmarxist at 2:04 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Would "King Lear" be seriously damaged if we saw an MRI that proved Lear had dementia and explained the exact brain regions that were damaged? How would that radically change anything?

It creates a character who is not in full control of his actions. Also Hamlet is a very different play if you conclude that his father's ghost is not an actual literal ghost but a symptom of psychosis. He is no longer a character that suffers from indecision, he is a character who doubts his own sanity.
posted by Ad hominem at 2:27 PM on January 2, 2011


Also Hamlet is a very different play if you conclude that his father's ghost is not an actual literal ghost but a symptom of psychosis. He is no longer a character that suffers from indecision, he is a character who doubts his own sanity.

Not really. Only if Hamlet THINKS the ghost is in his own mind, which he might even if it's real. He is going to act exactly the same way if he believes the ghost is real because it IS real and if he believes it's real because he'a been suckered by his own mind into believing an illusion.
posted by grumblebee at 2:30 PM on January 2, 2011


Would "King Lear" be seriously damaged if we saw an MRI that proved Lear had dementia and explained the exact brain regions that were damaged? How would that radically change anything?

It creates a character who is not in full control of his actions.


Shakespeare already created that character. Which is why Lear, in an Incredible-Hulk-esque moment, begs his daughter to not make him mad.
posted by grumblebee at 2:31 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also Hamlet is a very different play if you conclude that his father's ghost is not an actual literal ghost but a symptom of psychosis. He is no longer a character that suffers from indecision, he is a character who doubts his own sanity.

I definitely doubt Hamlet's sanity and I don't think that's an uncommon opinion. It doesn't ruin the play, it makes it more interesting.
posted by fshgrl at 2:43 PM on January 2, 2011


There's a thread of ambiguity that runs all the way back to the Greeks (at least), as to whether characters are morally culpable. Cocteau wrote an adaptation of "Oedipus" called "The Infernal Machine," which basically made it clear that Oedipus was a determined being -- that he was a pinball being buffeted around by the gods.

Some would say Cocteau's play is redundant, because the original already posits this reality: Oedipus was set up from birth to kill his mother and marry his father. Other see him as a person who made bad choices. Many probably see him as someone in-between those two camps.

I suspect that the most ardent determinists amongst us (I'm one) falls prey to feelings of free will (even if he thinks those feelings are based in illusion, as I do). And I bet the most ardent free willers sometimes feel like their fates are out of their hands. I think most powerful drama doesn't try to make this fundamental ambiguity non-ambiguous. Most great plays and novels allow both interpretations.

When people say, "Lear caused his own fate through bad choices" or "Lear wasn't responsible," they are betraying their own prejudices (though I don't mean that in a bad way) rather than seeing something that's intrinsically in the play. Because I'm a determinist, I DON'T see a difference between the MRI Lear and the existing one, because I can see the MRI version IN the existing one. But I don't think that makes my interpretation correct. I just think its one of several interpretations supported by Shakespeare's play.
posted by grumblebee at 2:54 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


I definitely doubt Hamlet's sanity and I don't think that's an uncommon opinion. It doesn't ruin the play, it makes it more interesting.

Well I am just basing this on the 1948 Olivier Hamlet. Encounters with the ghost are filmed from Hamlet's point of view,where we see a the ghost. But intercut are shots of Hamlet staring fixedly at nothing. Maybe somebody who knows the theatre better than me can tell me how this would have been staged. The audience would have seen the ghost, there would have been no "this shit is all in his head" hat tip as in the Olivier version. So yeah it doesn't ruin it, just seems incompatible with the way it would have been staged.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:00 PM on January 2, 2011


yes, well ask Proust:

I may be biased, but, yes, let's. I'd suggest that À la Recherche du Temps Perdu is essentially a 3000+ page examination of one person's emotional state, or, if you prefer, his neuroses. So I wouldn't say the idea is exactly new...
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:03 PM on January 2, 2011


You'd have to work hard to make the ghost be a figment of Hamlet's imagination, since it's scene by several other characters. You could do it, but you'd have to significantly alter the play from what was written.

But, again, I don't see how this alters the play all that much. For SOME reason, Hamlet believes his stepfather murdered his father. The events of the play follow from this belief.

(Actually, unless you want to say something like "the whole play is in Hamlet's head," we know that Claudius DID murder Hamlet Sr., because Claudius admits to this in soliloquies. So if the ghost is in Hamlet's head, it's a mental ghost that happens to be right.)
posted by grumblebee at 3:04 PM on January 2, 2011


(Even after hearing the ghost, Hamlet isn't 100% sure to trust the ghost's word until about halfway through the play -- until after the Mousetrap scene.)
posted by grumblebee at 3:05 PM on January 2, 2011


This is getting pretty far afield but it is meant to be a real ghost. But I guess that does not prevent hamlet from doubting his own sanity since he is not present for the first appearance and Gertrude cannot see the ghost.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:18 PM on January 2, 2011


If I want to know something interesting about the way human beings work, how they relate to each other and how they behave, I'll find an awful lot of women crime novelists who do it better...

Having spent a lifetime doing this kind of reading, I'd say that lots of novel that "get it" when it comes to human nature and lots more don't.


I was actually quite surprised when I first heard the claim that novels and novelists have some kind of special insight into human nature, and this is some kind of conventionally accepted thing. Maybe someone needs to patiently explain it to me, because I'm not getting it. I can see that novelists are able to represent the inner experience of other people in a convincing way, but I'm not sure how this qualifies as insight. If anything, the story that I'm telling myself about myself is, as a rule, a lie. Or if you like, a fiction. So fiction can convincingly represent another fiction, but what's insightful about doing that? It seems like the more flawed and "vulgar" the novel, the more it exposes the truth by way of its failure to cover it up. You learn more about people by watching American Idol and the Bachelor - it's not because those are real, just the opposite. It's amateurs playing flimsy, poorly conceived characters that have been miscast, and that happen to be who they are in real life.
posted by AlsoMike at 3:18 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


this is just nature versus nurture again, isn't it? Which is bullshit. It's not either or. We're born with certain tendencies and then certain aspects of our upbringing and experiences amplify and/or deflect these tendencies in all manner of weird and unpredictable directions.

So, yes, if you end up in prison for life, your brain's hardwiring is likely part of what you got there. But certain other influences (education, class, family etc), also contributed. That is, the same brain with different influences could well have gotten you to a quiet beach somewhere on the Baja.
posted by philip-random at 3:39 PM on January 2, 2011


That is, the same brain with different influences could well have gotten you to a quiet beach somewhere on the Baja

... and that's what interests me in the stories I read (fictional and otherwise): how individuals play the hands their dealt, for good or for ill.
posted by philip-random at 3:47 PM on January 2, 2011


As far as Hamlet goes my pet theory was that his friend, Horatio, is actually retelling the story of Hamlet, but this is a terrible theory because there is little to no textual evidence for it. Also commenters are way behind the times -- the authenticity of Hamlets madness is an old question but as far as the ghost being 'real' see grumblebee (also he must mean 'seen' instead of 'scene') The same goes for Lear's madness.

besides all this, people who don't believe in free will don't really believe in art nor can they like it that much.
posted by Shit Parade at 3:51 PM on January 2, 2011


people who don't believe in free will don't really believe in art nor can they like it that much.

Is that joke? I don't believe in free will and yet I've run a theatre company for ten years. It sure FEELS like I like art.

(And I don't know what it means to "believe in art." I definitely believe that all the paintings in the Met exist.)
posted by grumblebee at 3:54 PM on January 2, 2011 [5 favorites]


@grumblebee: I want to "favorite" that last comment twice.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 3:57 PM on January 2, 2011


serious question: assuming a completely deterministic universe, what is the value of (so-called) art?

and when I say "art", I mean far more than just pretty pictures, nice music, etc; I mean (if necessary) visceral explorations of the (so-called) human condition via creative means of representation, expression, apprehension.
posted by philip-random at 4:09 PM on January 2, 2011


maybe the question of free will applies to the OP (which I haven't even read) but it feels tangential and off topic, but in short and small: No, it isn't a joke, and don't mother mefi mailing me, I had this conversation too many times to care to have it again. sorry.
posted by Shit Parade at 4:13 PM on January 2, 2011


serious question: assuming a completely deterministic universe, what is the value of (so-called) art?

My serious answer is that I don't know what "what is the value of art" means. I don't think anything has intrinsic value for everyone, except possibly food and water. IF you like art, it has value to you for whatever reason it does.

It has GREAT value for me. I get depressed if my life has no art in it for lengthy periods of time, and little makes me as happy as looking at a great painting, listening to a great piece of music or seeing a great play. (And by great, I mean great to me.)

If you're asking why we should value art -- e.g. why "we as a culture" should support the making of art, I don't care. I don't think we should. Or shouldn't. I think we will. I think art is something people do.
posted by grumblebee at 4:17 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Does the human condition cease to exist if the universe turns out to be completely deterministic?
posted by ssg at 4:21 PM on January 2, 2011


No, it isn't a joke, and don't mother mefi mailing me, I had this conversation too many times to care to have it again. sorry.


Don't worry. I don't memail you, but I think you're playing a pretty rotten game: you drop a contentious statement into a thread and then rebuff discussion, making it sound like I'm derailing the thread. If you don't want to discuss something, don't bring it up in the first place. Bringing it up and then saying "I refuse to talk to you about it" is a sly way of having the last word. Next time why don't you refuse to talk about it BEFORE you start talking about it?

posted by grumblebee at 4:22 PM on January 2, 2011 [3 favorites]


Does the human condition cease to exist if the universe turns out to be completely deterministic?

What is "the human condition"? Whether the universe is deterministic or not, there are still humans in it, and they're still in some sort of condition.

Personally, I like art because it's got plots and characters and colors and sounds -- stuff like that. And I get off on that stuff.
posted by grumblebee at 4:23 PM on January 2, 2011


Most novelists don't even attempt to describe consciousness.

Well said. I think Joyce came closest, and the result is practically unreadable.
posted by lumpenprole at 5:46 PM on January 2, 2011


Well, even if you were to capture every bit of 'internal monologue' that goes through a person's head, you'd be capturing a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage of what's going on.

I write stories every once in a while, and when I imagine them before the process of writing them, I don't at all think of words, sentences, paragraphs, and so on -- dialogue perhaps, but that's it. And when I do write, it's a torturous process of first writing a rough approximation of what I was thinking of and then filling in details over successive passes. If the act of story creation, as verbal an activity as one could possibly imagine, is largely done non-verbally, then what hope is there of describing every day consciousness using words alone. It's impossible.
posted by empath at 5:55 PM on January 2, 2011


philip-random: In a nondeterministic universe what is the value of art? I can't answer that question either, but I suspect it has the same answer as your question.
posted by hattifattener at 6:54 PM on January 2, 2011


Normally I hate articles that are trying to create a new word or trend, but I kind of have to agree with Marco Roth's article. Often I'll read a book review and it seems like the author had read about a neurological disorder and makes a checklist and lets that dominate the novel (Ferris's "The Unnamed" comes to mind although that involves a new unknown disorder).

From the article: "By comparison with most 19th-century novels, and even with most 20th-century modernist novels of the "stream of consciousness" school, the neuronovels have in them very little of society, of different classes, of individuals interacting, of development either alongside or against historical forces and expectations."

Not that there's a lack novels dealing with those things, there are so many big sprawling novels dealing with society and the great of events of our day that someone came up with the term hysterical realism.

Though I should add one thing about the Hamlet debate, I remember my old high school English teacher lamented that suspecting that the ghost is being imagined by Hamlet is a particularly modern sentiment that isn't really supported by the text. Audiences back in the 1600s would be suspecting that the ghost was a demon or devil of some sort, as Protestant belief; while Catholic beliefs allowed for the ghost to be from Purgatory.
posted by bobo123 at 7:03 PM on January 2, 2011


Similarly to the ghost being a potential piece of psychosis, everyone and their aunty puts weird Oedipal assertions into the relationship between poor old Queen Gertrude and Hamlet and accuses the queen of lavaciousness. Nothing in the text other than Hamlet insulting her (and he also calls Ophelia a harlot too, though she is preserved as a pure victim) says that the Danish queen married out of a need to get laid, and she explicitly states it was a matter of political necessity in one of her speeches.

And the Oedipal stuff was only placed after Freud decided that people wanted to screw their mothers. Pure modern insertion.

That being said, the reason why characters are cropping up as Aspies or other mental disorders/handicaps is because it's a natural part of the fabric of modern life. It's not a "loss of self", it's a shared perception of human character as represented by the knowledge of the era and furthermore anyone who things my Aspergers caused a loss of self can go fuck themselves with their typing hand, preferably in their least elastic orifice.
posted by Phalene at 7:29 PM on January 2, 2011


philip-random: In a nondeterministic universe what is the value of art? I can't answer that question either, but I suspect it has the same answer as your question.

I've long felt that taking a firm position on determinist/non-determinist is an easy trap to fall into, because of course, we just don't know. That said, in a democracy, I'd vote non-determinist because it makes more sense of my day to day struggles, pains, frustrations etc, because I like to think that I can somehow reconcile them, through acquired wisdom, research, hard work, resilience, guile. And how would I manifest this reconciliation? Via my art by which I mean ...

(if necessary) visceral explorations of the (so-called) human condition via creative means of representation, expression, apprehension.

So yeah, I asked the question from a position of believing that art exists precisely because we do live in a non-determinist universe. And as such, I found it difficult to grasp how someone could both be a determinist and an artist. Still do.
posted by philip-random at 7:30 PM on January 2, 2011


I don't think you have to be a determinist to imagine a deterministic universe in which art exists. But maybe I'm as confused as you are -- in the opposite direction. I don't understand why art could only exist in a universe with free will. I actually don't see how free will OR determinism makes any difference to whether or not art exists. It seems to me that art can happily exist via either mechanism, free will or determinism.

Sorry if this sounds tautological, but all you'd need for art to exist in a deterministic universe are conditions that cause art-creation to be determined. (Thats what you'd need in a deterministic universe in order for ANYTHING to exist.)

Here's a toy example. (PLEASE note that I said "toy." This is NOT why I think art actually exists. I don't know why it exists, but I'm betting there are multiple, complex causes.) In this made up deterministic universe, animals (including humans) are determined by natural selection, and human females are attracted to creative males. Therefor the system selects for males who create. So we get artists creating art.

Of course, this doesn't explain female artists and all kinds of other things. I'm just trying to give the flavor of an explanation. My point isn't that this particular explanation is correct. I'm sure it's not. (At best it's woefully incomplete.) I'm just suggesting that there could be deterministic forces that would cause art to exist.

If I'm right, that just means a possible universe could exist in which art is caused by determinism. It doesn't mean that determinism is the cause of art in OUR universe. I, of course, think art in our universe IS determined, because I'm a determinist*. Or, rather, I think art's existence has nothing to do with free will. But that's not what you asked about. You asked about how someone could be a determinist and an artist. I don't see the conflict.

(*I accept the possibility of quantum randomness. I don't call myself a Determinist. What I really am is a free-will skeptic, or a free-will disbeliever. Most people call free-will skeptics "determinists," so I generally don't contest that label. But my main stance isn't that determinism is true. My main stance is that free will is false.)
posted by grumblebee at 8:12 PM on January 2, 2011


And the Oedipal stuff was only placed after Freud decided that people wanted to screw their mothers. Pure modern insertion.

I agree. What's odd to me about Roth is that, from my point of view, he's sort of right but his focus is way too narrow.

There's a trend that started around the Turn of the Century (19th-to-20th) of "psychological drama." Freud was largely responsible, but so were dramatists like Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg and Schnitzler.

The basic tenet of this movement is that human motivation is not ambiguous or mysterious -- that it has a cause. I don't really see a huge difference (for fiction) between "because he's in love with his mother" and "because his amygdala is larger than normal." BOTH of those views are opposed to the older view... the more romantic view that the "human heart" is mysterious.

Some early writers embraced that mystery; some didn't. But even the ones that didn't tended to just shrug it off.

This is what I think Shakespeare does. It's not that he's uninterested in inner life. He's PROFOUNDLY interested in it. But what he tends to set up is a machine that's already complete. And he doesn't explore how that machine got made. For instance, Macbeth is driven by powerful, obsessive ambition. Okay, but why? Because his father pushed him? Because he's brain damaged? We don't know. Shakespeare doesn't say. He doesn't care. He just wants to explore how being that ambitious affects someone, regardless of how the ambition got there in the first place. He says, "Imagine there's this really ambitious man..." And he gets on with it without looking back.

It's really telling when you get to plays like "The Tempest," which actually trace adults from childhood. In that play, we learn Miranda's whole history, including the startling fact that she's never seen a man besides her father. But, from a modern standpoint, Shakespeare is extraordinarily uninterested in exploring what that engenders. Within ten seconds of seeing a young man, Miranda knows what to do. She becomes the perfect fairy-tale princess.

Several hundred years later, at the dawn of the 20th Century, we get Chekhov's Sonya in "Uncle Vanya," who is a sort of Miranda. She's seen men, but not many. She was basically raised by her self-absorbed, bachelor uncle. Now she's madly in love with the local doctor, but she has no idea what to do. She doesn't know how to flirt or attract men.

In any case, I DO think the notion that "we're the way we are because of some reason" HAS had a profound effect on storytelling. Sometimes it makes for great stories. At its worst, it leads to really trite self-help-book bullshit: pat, pseudo psychology that fits neatly into an hour of network television. (The worst of it is the sort of stuff that belches out of characters like the Counselor on "Star Trek, the Next Generation.") You get these characters who are absurdly self aware -- characters that get over some crippling childhood drama via some pat realization. Of course, if you don't believe (or care) that current conditions were caused by childhood traumas, you aren't going to write stories like that.

There's a HORRIBLE trend (in my opinion) of realizing that some mythic tale can be seen as a metaphor for a modern malaise (e.g. Oedipus) and then adapting it in such a way that is vulgarly obvious (e.g. Hamlet making out with Gertrude). But that's part of another 20th-Century trend: a loss of subtlety.

But I don't get why Roth has zeroed in on the most recent vogue of this trend. The trend has really been going on for a long, long time.
posted by grumblebee at 8:36 PM on January 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


The internal monologue isn't really so much 'what you are thinking' as it is a short term memory bank, used to store snatches of words as they come into consciousness so you can act on them.

Yeah there's an interesting game you can play. I mean, when words come one after another in the internal monologue, where do they come from? If I pay attention I think I can somewhat sense words forming from non-verbal thought. It's especially interesting to mix between speaking words aloud, speaking them internally, or just trying to 'feel' them without 'hearing' them, inside your head. Words are an incredible neurological hack

/tangent
posted by crayz at 8:48 PM on January 2, 2011


This is getting pretty far afield but it is meant to be a real ghost. But I guess that does not prevent hamlet from doubting his own sanity since he is not present for the first appearance and Gertrude cannot see the ghost.

He also doesn't know that it's the ghost, and not some evil spirit tempting him to hell. The dynamic again not unlike doubting one's sanity. I actually just read something on this point of Hamlet: link (NB most relevant bits may appear in brackets).
posted by grobstein at 8:53 PM on January 2, 2011


(He does vociferously assert that it's the ghost and not an evil spirit, but we are permitted not to completely buy that.)
posted by grobstein at 8:54 PM on January 2, 2011


That being said, the reason why characters are cropping up as Aspies or other mental disorders/handicaps is because it's a natural part of the fabric of modern life.

Parkinson's disease is central to the plot of The Corrections, but it's just one part of a novel about getting the family together for Christmas, I think Roth is complaining about the dominance of the neurological disorder in a book. Had the entire novel (as originally planned) been set on the cruise then it probably would have also got lumped into Roth's neuronovel critique, I think Franzen then wisely expanded to make a big social novel.

Also, another thing I think Roth is getting at is writers relying on science to dictate the characters, for example, in the film The Social Network I think Sorkin went out of the way to give Zuckerberg signs of Asperger's, which could be true, but the film leaves out his long term relationship with his college girlfriend who would have been around for most of the events of the film, as well as accounts from colleagues of his sense of humour. Now those things aren't incompatible with Asperger's but it's not quite "textbook" so you're left with a character who's compelling but not quite in sync with the real person.
posted by bobo123 at 9:13 PM on January 2, 2011


Apologies in advance for the digression, but...

empath: "I guess what I'm saying is that the task of describing reality and consciousness fully is an impossible one, because even at arbitrary levels of detail , we're still using the metaphorical language of storytelling, and are as far away from describing reality as we were just telling a story in the usual way."

Back in 1910, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead began to write a really long treatise called the Principia Mathematica, wherein they tried to stake out one little corner of reality (mathematics), and describe it in a truly self-consistent and logical manner by building everything up from a foundation of symbolic logic. No metaphors, no stories and no circular dictionary definitions that refer back to other undefined concepts, just logic from the ground up. But they had to stop after three volumes, because it was really freakin' hard. Even a rigorously logical field like mathematics is packed so full of inference chains that it would take many human lifetimes to describe it all in a truly objective way.

In theory you could build a completely objective and full picture of reality as we know it (including internal mental states like consciousness), maybe using the Principia Mathematica as a kernel, then using math to describe physics, physics to describe the other sciences, and the sciences to build up a picture of human thought and culture. I'm not sure how you could get from, say, chemistry and biology to psychology solely by inference, but it must be possible if the world we live in is logically consistent. Doing so, however, would be a huge, multi-generational labor, and nobody will ever bother with it because the metaphors and stories and circular definitions we already use work so well. So score one for evolution over logic, I guess.

But that kind of rational world-view is probably the way a machine would describe reality, and if computers ever gain self awareness maybe they'll do it for us.
posted by Kevin Street at 10:52 PM on January 2, 2011


Sounds to me like Roth's real targets are the Daniel Dennets of this world, not the 'neuronovel' authors who, as has been pointed out above, are only following a long tradition of writing about disordered minds.

His argument boils down to 'consciousness is magical and brilliant and indefinable. If you try and name it and define it all the magic will disappear.' It's the age-old argument - we are only humans, not gods. It's not for us to know.
posted by Summer at 3:10 AM on January 3, 2011


people aren't writing about what I want them to write about, how dare they
posted by r_nebblesworthII at 6:53 AM on January 3, 2011


I think Sorkin went out of the way to give Zuckerberg signs of Asperger's

I think, having Aspergers syndrome, that having a sense of humour and a long term partner are both reasonable things to expect to have and great harm is found in showing it as impossible. Aspie traits do make useful shorthand to convey a character, but I think the frat-nerd-douche interpretation of the man's character goes deeper than a desire to make him fit into a particular view of human mental health.

Aspie is the new woobie: the disorder pops up over and over again in fiction depictions to try to make a character socially awkward, because humans identify with feeling disconnected from the social groups they live in, and is simply another way of signalling socially awkward. Bad writing does not capture the nuanced possibilities of living with a mental quirk like being on the Autism spectrum, but that doesn't make all writers who use mental handicaps as character traits bad writers.

For example in the premise of Lear-as-a-dementia-patient, the story does not suffer when you try to explain Lear's choice in a modern context- say breaking up a business empire amongst his daughters because he knows he's slipping, and loosing all including the daughter who loved him best when he chooses wrong.

Believable writers borrow from how things go in real life. While you can get depressing lapses like making the character of Queen Gertrude be set by one interpretation of a flexible material, psychological diagnoses don't inherently limit things.
posted by Phalene at 7:21 AM on January 3, 2011


Seeing the human character as an assemblage of pathologies does not seem like anything new beyond a clinical terminology, wouldn't you say?
How is this different from an outward definition of character based on their standing in a religious framework (whether personal or cosmological see Dante, any character in Tolostoy, etc.) or a character defined by personal standing in a society or history?
I don't know, I think the reaction is to a new terminology rather than an entirely new narrative mode.
posted by Enigmark at 9:19 AM on January 3, 2011


I am astounded, in all this discussion of Hamlet, that no one has pointed out that many, many scholars are convinced that Shakespeare, in creating the character, drew directly from current psychological theory as it existed (not called by that name, of course) during Elizabethan times. The "stages of melancholy" were a dominant theory, and Hamlet's progression through the play follows them very closely.

Sample quote on the subject:

"At the time that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, the most important work on the subject of melancholy was Dr. Timothy Bright's Treatise of Melancholy. Two editions of this work came out in 1586, and a third was to appear in 1612. Bright states that melancholic humors, being cold by nature, settle in the spleen which causes vapors to rise past the heart to the brain. This process proves to be both disheartening and the cause of unreasonable behavior ... Shakespeare scholars have made convincing arguments about the likelihood that Shakespeare was familiar with Timothy Bright's work, paying particular attention to Hamlet."

That is to say, there is at least well-argued evidence that educated Elizabethans would have considered Hamlet's actions to arise at least in part from an uncontrollable psychological condition.

In other words, many people think Hamlet was a "neuroplay".

The twentieth century didn't invent the question of whether or not people are in control of their actions. These are old, old ideas. Only the theories and explanations have changed as the science gets better.

This isn't, of course, the only way to view Hamlet. There are lots of interpretations of Lear. And interpretations of course change to reflect the mores and beliefs of the time of performance.

But the "neuro" approach isn't NEW. It's been around for centuries, and will be around for centuries. It's one way of writing or thinking about a character. It won't ruin anything. What a tempest in a teapot.
posted by kyrademon at 6:07 AM on January 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


« Older "The key to any accent is to isolate the sounds...   |   The very interesting Melanie Thernstrom. Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post