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May 1, 2021 8:02 AM   Subscribe

The dawn of a superstimulating Entertainment. Biologist Erik Hoel considers the purpose of dreaming, the function of fiction, and some futures of entertained minds. (SLBaffler)
posted by doctornemo (21 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by SansPoint at 8:22 AM on May 1 [5 favorites]


Why do humans desire these petite narratives that we gobble up like treats? What’s the origin of this pull toward artifice, a thing so powerful we might even call it an instinct? Is it virtue or vice?

Has he never heard of the 18th- and 19th-century men who inveighed against novels for filling young women's heads with ideas and wasting the time they could be using for needlework or Hannah More? He starts off sounding like them.

It’s unfortunate that only real blood bleeds red; imagine if we could see the aftermath of social media attack as clearly as we see that of physical attack. There goes the Upper East Side mom jogging with her baby carriage, blood staining her mouth, teeth, hands. There goes the thin-shouldered, unintimidating gamer, his shirt a mess of gore. It would surprise you who the truly vicious in society are.

Did somebody call this guy a corncob, or something

Anyway, I share some of his concerns, in that binge-watching can be bad and too much video gaming can also be bad, but his hand-wringing hurts to watch.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:58 AM on May 1 [6 favorites]


So he argues that art, creative work with a high aesthetic value, is the cure for overconsumption of crummy narrative media (have I got that right?). That’s as plausible as the idea that eating caviar is the cure for obesity caused by junk food (though he seems to think that would actually work?).

Have I misinterpreted what he’s saying?
posted by Phanx at 9:03 AM on May 1


He throws a bunch of stuff out there and touches on some interesting topics, then expects the reader to draw their own conclusions. But there are not enough hints toward what conclusion we are supposed to draw. I think he's saying that people are hardwired to crave and create fictitious narratives, and the way the internet is going, the dividing line between fiction and truth in people's lives will become more and more blurry.
posted by jabah at 9:31 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


Novels for women did destroy a culture - I’m a product of the culture that replaced it so I’m okay with that, but I don’t assume one always gets Middlemarch rather than Q. Eliot and Austen and Edgeworth themselves had some strong warnings about the bad effects of bad stories.
posted by clew at 10:33 AM on May 1


He throws a bunch of stuff out there and touches on some interesting topics, then expects the reader to draw their own conclusions. But there are not enough hints toward what conclusion we are supposed to draw.

I have some sympathy for the seeming end argument he's trying to make, but he really takes an iffy roundabout way to reach his conclusion. While I certainly wouldn't argue that neuroscience has nothing important to say about how we respond to art in some facets, the use of "neuroscience" as a flimsy support to drape arguments about art that neuroscience can't actually bear the weight of, at least as yet, though with some that will probably never hold up.

We had a previous post on "dreams and overfitting" that seemed to many to be more overreaching than fit. Expanding that to cover why and how we appreciate art as well is trying to place a lot of weight on hypotheticals without much in the way of secondary evidence to act as a brace.

Some of the things he touches on, I think, are still of some importance to look at more closely, but this probably isn't the best construct for that, even when it tries to use a base of "science" to hold its audience, but then again, part of the argument is that we are trending further and further away from wanting to test the weight of any arguments about entertainment that don't fit our immediate wants, so there may not be any viable way to argue against that without being scoffed at.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:04 AM on May 1 [2 favorites]


> Why do humans desire these petite narratives that we gobble up like treats?

Because reality for us humans is already reconstructed from sense data and turned into a narrative played inside our brain. Entertainment is just another woven narrative.
posted by toddhoffious at 11:05 AM on May 1 [3 favorites]




METAFILTER: Did somebody call this guy a corncob, or something
posted by philip-random at 11:52 AM on May 1


It is, indeed, silly to insist that society would be saved if only people would just insist on making, consuming and celebrating only The Good Art.
posted by Reyturner at 12:05 PM on May 1


I'm glad I read this and I don't understand the reductive and dismissive responses. I mean, it's possible to read the article and be dismissive and/or reductive in your response to it, but is it necessary?
posted by elkevelvet at 12:36 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


There is a lefty or liberal piety that simultaneously holds that there are bad dangerous beliefs, and that it is bad to claim that some beliefs are bad, and Metafilter is prone to it as a group.

Having just properly read the actual article, I don't think most of the dismissals were grounded in the article itself, either. I quite liked the summary of dream neuroscience and what neuroscience doesn't know yet, as a leadup to the point that we still have to make decisions about how to use our brains. Even though we mostly know we don't know what we're doing. It fits well with a couple of the other recent posts.
posted by clew at 1:08 PM on May 1 [3 favorites]


It’s not a bad essay by any means, but I wish Erik Hoel had asked a scholar of fiction what ‘fiction’ is, and not just jumped in assuming he knew what it was.

A lot of his argument breaks down once you remember that fiction is a relatively new development in human culture, first coming into existence as a concept in the 16th Century, and only really cohering into our modern term in the 19th.

It’s not some innate thing in humanity, but a culturally bound concept that arouse out of a complex interplay of mass printing and an intellectual culture that prized novelty.

Yes, there are older traditions which produced texts which to our minds read like fiction (e.g. Japanese monogatari, Icelandic sagas, Ancient Greek epics) but that is because the concept has suffused our understanding of the world to the point that we, like Hoel, have a hard time imaging a time when the concept of ‘fiction’ didn’t exist.
posted by Kattullus at 2:54 PM on May 1 [1 favorite]


I don't follow you, re: the relatively recent development of fiction (dating back a little over 500 years ago?).

If we constrain 'fiction' to mean something quite specific, perhaps I can see where you are going with that. If we are talking about 'stories,' then not so much. I don't wish to conflate time periods and suggest that the exact same thing was happening when humans gathered at a fire and told stories, vs. reading Tolstoy (or producing "The Metamorphosis" for that matter). But something similar could be happening, in fact I'd argue that is a trivially true contention.
posted by elkevelvet at 9:18 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]


Also, Hoel specifically describes novels as having a powerful effect on individuals and society in the timeframe kattullus gives for recognized fiction. I had a college class in the novel as a technology of - I think the self, this was a while ago.

Plus also, we can observe in people now that not having a separate mental category for particular alternative representations of reality lets the representations work very powerfully on people. Perhaps the category fiction was a safety invention of just the kind Hoel thinks we need more of.
posted by clew at 10:58 AM on May 2


The clear distinction between fact and fiction as modes of expression is certainly more culturally bound, and more modern, than the essay grapples with. For example, that's pretty much the first thing you get taught about literary form when you approach Chaucer: the word "stories" in the first line of the Knight's Tale is usually translated as "histories", but (as its orthography implies) does not contain the sort of claim about literal veracity that the modern word "histories" would, because the whole history/story dichotomy simply hasn't arisen yet. Stories were all just stories about the world, descriptions of a place that was unknowably vast and fundamentally mysterious, whereas fiction is a mode in which things are understood as occurring in an imaginary version of the world, as distinct from the knowable reality we exist in.

The essay is weirdly florid and overwritten, given the rather crude biological determinism it ultimately seems to be arguing for. The references to philosophers that the author either hasn't read or hasn't engaged with (the Leibniz stuff is particularly embarrassing in its apparently fundamental misunderstanding of the "two clocks" analogy) really don't help. Neither does positing an "experiential worldline" without apparently doing any thinking about whether experiences actually do function like a set of coordinates in space (whether or not "transfinite" mathematics would be required to describe such a space, a claim I am sceptical of in itself). So, for all his italicisation of "phenomenology", I don't get the impression of someone familiar with even the basic positions in the field.

It reads like an essay by someone who has embraced the apparently exuberant style of post-modernist expression without understanding that, to do this kind of writing well (which most people don't), you need an exceptionally firm grasp on your materials. You can't just name-drop, throw in a bunch of $10 words and the occasional Authoritative Pronouncement and hope it will somehow result in a compelling case.

Do not recommend.
posted by howfar at 2:48 PM on May 2 [3 favorites]


The clear distinction between fact and fiction as modes of expression is certainly more culturally bound, and more modern, than the essay grapples with.

Even if that were not the case and we allow for a more open concept of "fiction" there are still issues with a lot of the assumptions about dreams, fiction, and entertainment/art. One could, for example, point to how it was the expressed goal of surrealists to break from previous ideas of "fictions" as being coherent models of some aspect of the world and embrace the incoherent, or symbolic logic, of dreaming as their model, which importantly points to one way that dreams do not match fiction in their manner of presentation.

Fictions may not be real, but they tend to have a sense of uniting "logic" to them that "explains" something, which dreams do not. Art traditionally communicates concepts or associative patterns as an intermediatory experience between the creators of the work and those attending to it, while dreams are internal processes that somehow might facilitate organization of perception in a, as yet, unclear manner that is not ordered in the same fashion as fictions.

Beyond that, in the era of binging, the author should note that much of what is being binged are things that don't really follow the model of fictions in the usual sense, beyond being produced to be viewed/read/heard. For example, binging youtube videos on rebuilding ships, the cleaning and repairing of old metal objects, podcasts about history or movies, "listening" to lo-fi chill hip hop beats while studying, or even repeatedly rewatching favorite sitcoms, aren't indulging in fictions in the older sense of the idea, they are purposefully looking to media as a escape from narrative by embrace of the familiar and simplified patterns that provide an expected reward or feedback.

The author hints at some issues with this concept that, I think, have some importance, but to do so in the manner he suggests misses a lot of the major elements, not the least in failing to see it as a response to an increasingly complex world that individuals may be finding themselves feeling adrift in. Positing an opposition as a "choice" between art and entertainment, while to some degree true, misses out on the adaptive function the arts play in responding to the world and previous art and other values
posted by gusottertrout at 4:02 PM on May 2 [1 favorite]


...I share some of his concerns, in that binge-watching can be bad and too much video gaming can also be bad, but his hand-wringing hurts to watch...

So he argues that art, creative work with a high aesthetic value, is the cure for overconsumption of crummy narrative media (have I got that right?). That’s as plausible as the idea that eating caviar is the cure for obesity caused by junk food (though he seems to think that would actually work?).

Have I misinterpreted what he’s saying?


I think one issue with this article, and what attracted me to it, is that it is pointing towards the future of entertainment, and less so its history. Hoel is focused on the rest of the 21st century and how our fiction and nonfiction consumption will expand (in his view). If he's right, and I'm not sure he is (which is one reason I posted here), the immersive power of media will expand, as will our hours spent with it. Think of the full potential power gaming and VR for starters, embedded in that dream framework. Then: "with each passing year Wallace’s prophetic description of the video it is impossible to look away from, called in Infinite Jest only 'The Entertainment,' slouches toward birth."

In that context his conclusion about literature vs fiction seems different to me from (say) 18th century moralizing about novels, at least quantitatively. It's not about the occasional Pamela (remember how relatively rare literacy was then) but the appeal to the entire human race, depending on accessibility, and about our entire time.

There are antecedents to this argument, but they come from science fiction and I'm surprised he doesn't cite them. There are various stories about too-addictive entertainment, including direct brain stimulation (I think Larry Niven has one invention, "the tasp"). Perhaps Hoel avoided sf in that sad, anti-sf snobbery US lit crit all too often enjoys.
posted by doctornemo at 3:46 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


Peter Watts blurbed Hoel’s novel, which sounds like it might be science fiction.
posted by clew at 9:55 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


I think one issue with this article, and what attracted me to it, is that it is pointing towards the future of entertainment, and less so its history. Hoel is focused on the rest of the 21st century and how our fiction and nonfiction consumption will expand (in his view).

Yeah, and there are some things within his concerns that I also find troubling, but cast them a bit differently, which is where I have some issues with his history and choice of reference. Using Wallace and relying on a kind of scientific expertise as his claim to authority both kinda point to some of the problems with old ideas of "capital A Art" in the problematic case of Wallace, and a creeping "scientism" into art appreciation/aesthetics that helps feed the neo-liberal entertainment complex.

His isn't the only essay to address variations on these concerns, or near relatives. Heck, I posted an essay on the site a couple weeks ago about the "Undeath of the Middlebrow" that has some clear similarities of concern, and that's just one of many I've read lately along those lines. There's a clear trend in worry over some of the current developments in the arts that is worth noting for its frequency in pointing towards certain aspects of art/entertainment and the associated possible trends and costs to the culture and society. Some of it may well be just fear of the new and uncertainty over the way things are changing, but there also may be something more prescient in some of the concerns and how the changes may not all be for the better.

Personally, I think art/entertainment is collapsing into a simplified entity that is losing some of its lasting value for how we engage with it, as polemic or for pleasure. The glut of narrative, sound and image has made us more content to catalog, label, and sort rather than seek any deeper communicative value. We are in a golden age of understanding and discussing craft and form, but seem to be backing away from discussing the complexity of what is being communicated for taking pleasure in what money buys or agreement with the already decided values we group to. Some of that is probably temporary, some likely has some real good, but some is worrying for seeming to lead towards a solipsism of immediate satisfaction rather than thought of shared lasting value. We are quick to judge the deficiencies of the past, but are often blind to our own faults in the present and don't notice that we are compounding errors in feeling so.

But then again, many of these arguments have some deeper root as well, just read Nietzsche on the Alexandrian aesthetic attitude to get a taste of that, so an ongoing give and take is just a part of the package as well. The past provides plenty of examples of accurate diagnosis and occasionally in prescription as well, but figuring out the values of any given claims in their time is always gonna be difficult. We can only poke at what we take to be holes in the logic and prod them with counter arguments to see what might eventually hold, which is its own reward for offering new ways to connect and understand the relationship between the individual, art, and society.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:35 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]


His isn't the only essay to address variations on these concerns, or near relatives.
True, and it's an ancient issue.

Yet I rarely see people making a neurological argument, and one tied to how our brain dreams. That's interesting.
posted by doctornemo at 8:44 AM on May 8 [1 favorite]


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