Neuronovelizing Nausea

In a neuronovel, human behavior is explained in terms of the brain, neurochemistry and synapses firing. There is usually a disorder seen reductionistically and the narrative is characterized by biological determinism. For instance in Ian McEwan’s Sunday, the main character has Huntington’s disease; his life and behavior are explained in terms of the flaws in his DNA. In Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex, the main character’s life is determined by his hermaphroditic condition caused by 5-alpha-reductase deficiency. (More about neuronovels here.)

It is 2011 and neurons are in vogue. It may seem plausible, interesting and cool to examine a protagonist completely at the mercy of his hardware, when there is an exotic disease to act as a barrier, distancing you from him and shielding you against identifying with him. There is, however, yet another step the deterministic neuronovels haven’t taken – would they ever dare to explain everything in terms of neurons, however popular they are? Can you describe the whole human experience solely in terms of neurochemistry – reducing everything we are into biology?

I have attempted to get closer to this by trying to neuronovelize a novel. I’ve (pretentiously) chosen Sartre’s ‘The Nausea’. The main character, Roquentin, can arguably be diagnosed with a myriad of psychiatric disorders – at least OCD and Major Depressive Disorder with occasional psychotic symptoms. Even though these too are disorders, they’re far more common than Huntington’s, allowing identification with the protagonist. Now, if we assume the widely accepted neurochemical model behind depression and OCD, suggesting serotonine imbalance as well as impaired hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal gland -axis, we can see that much of Roquentin’s narrative throughout the whole novel is heavily influenced by his synapses gone astray.

Through Roquentin, Sartre conveys some of his widespread thoughts of freedom and the nature of existence. Are these thoughts to be understood as symptoms of a disorder, rather than a portrayal of the human condition? Are the meditations on total freedom nothing more than expressions of obsessive-compulsive disorder treatable with Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (e.g.Prozac)? Also, the novel came out 1947 when the western world had a lot to be depressed about. Why would the novel be considered as anything else than a voice of collective ‘reactive depression’?

I think the neuronovel experiment can only exist if it’s about somebody you can’t identify with. It’s ok if Baxter’s life was all about Huntington, but there is something creepy about a character closer to be able to be identified with being just a soup of chemicals. Hurts the pride?

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Looking at it from another angle, if you examine the Nausea in terms of biological determinisim, what would the evolutionary implications be? Why would natural selection have brought forth anyone who thinks like Roquentin? Is he ‘flawed’ or diseased, expressing a malfunction or an undesired by-product of our massive neocortices? Or is the chemical ‘imbalance’ in his brain in fact somehow good for preserving the species? The depression is what brings Roquentin into contact with existence (in the scene with the chestnut tree); is there some evolutionary advantage in understanding this?

Or, why else would so many people in the western world be depressed, if it wasn’t that our genes produce this chemical imbalance as a result of the environment we live in?

Of course one can argue that natural selection is out of the window now that modern medicine saves us from so many external pathogens. Then again, it is also possible to ask if depression, is in fact ‘nature’s’ way of countering how we tamper with natural selection? If we spend so much time curing all diseases, nature will have found depression – and it’s complication suicide – to act as the instrument of natural selection?

A final word for a cool determinist to ponder; if I’m just a soup of neurotransmittors, why would I choose to write this text. I don’t believe I have a disease. Why are my genes making me do what I’m doing right now? There cannot possibly be any evolutionary advantages to writing this text right here and now.

Narratization

There is a facebook group titled ‘Disney gave me false expectations of love.’ I may go a step further and start one called ‘Stories gave me false expectations of life’.

I believe the grand narratives are far from dead. Around us, in movies, tabloids and the multitude of stories we surround ourselves with, the grand narrative is strong. There are stories like ‘boy meets girl and finally they marry’ – or ‘good guys catch the bad guys’, or at least there is a mystery that then gets solved. Or even if it doesn’t get solved per se, there is some form of closure. These ‘memes’ or fragments of narrative are reiterated all around us. There are beginnings, endings, plots, protagonists, antagonists, inciting incidents that are woven together to stories.

Many people have unrealistic expectations of life due to this process – call it ‘narratization’ of life. We yearn for closure when there is a riddle. A change in life may be interpreted as a beginning, necessitating a plot. Something needs to happen! Take the severed limbs found in the sea in the West Coast of Canada. There is a story in there somewhere, but how to put it together? There is no antagonist, no clues, no motifs. The limbs keep showing up, which we in our narrativized minds interpret as ‘plot thickening’ – we desire to bring the fragments of limbs together just like we want to stitch up stories together, forcing a narrative on courses of life’s events.

There is a sense of being in control of life when you expose yourself to a story, neatly bundled in a beginning, end, and everything in between. Even as fragmented as the postmodern stories may be, the elements of the narrative are present, per definition, in a story – in a narration. The narratives purify us from a sense of randomness and meaninglessness inherent in life, and we’re hooked.

This yapping about narratives seems to be my preferred narrative. As it happens, I’ve already written a similar post a few years back. Oh well.

Not sure if postmodernism really is over

About to go as meta as it gets… going to deconstruct the concept of postmodernism:

While being hard and elusive to define, postmodernism per definition has a relationship to modernism. Whatever postmodernism is, it is being compared to modernism, to the Grand Big Ideas, the metanarratives, to the era of broadcasting. However, when postmodernism defines itself against modernism, this very act makes modernism the “default condition”, or norm against which the postmodern world is being compared to.

I believe this should be seen the other way around; modernism and the grand narratives are not a default, but more of a parenthesis in history. There was only a short period of time when Big, centrally approved Ideas were broadcast on the one and only radio channel. No reason to make this period a norm or to cry over the fact that it’s gone. The postmodern condition with its pluralism, superstition and hearsay are more of a norm throughout history.

Today is still being compared against a modernistic “default”. Until we realize that modernity was a parenthesis, we live in the shadow of modernism, i.e. postmodernism.

Post-laboural society

Enough about exhibitions or trying to find out what other people consider as the emerging post-postmodernism. In my opinion, post-postmodernism in the Nordic countries (and the whole Western world) will invariably deal with the concept of labour. We have moved through postmodernism and postindustrialism into a new phase, which I’ve (somewhat pretentiously) named post-labouralism.

In the forefront are the 20-somethings, the “millennials” without employment. Words like labour, job, employment and salary are axiomatic to the baby-boomer generation, as well as GenX and even to GenY. The words, however self-evident they may seem, carry a different meaning to a large portion of the 18-year olds in the West, for whom the industrial type jobs not only have moved to China, but have “always” been in  China. There is a generation of unemployed, who do not even have the concept of how life is when you have a job. In the Nordic countries this includes many young people whose parents were laid off at the financial crisis of the 90s. Problems like not having a daily rhythm sound like banalities, but if neither you nor your parents have ever been expected to punch in at 8am, maybe staying in bed until the evening is commonplace. There is a huge cultural gap between those whose time divided into work, leisure time and rest, and those who have but a ‘soup of haphazard habits’. A sense of being in charge of your life may be hard to achieve. Depression and anxiety are common, not just because of the existential condition, but from the sheer lack of daily rhythm. (Several hormones associated with mood are secreted in a circadian pattern.)

How to make ends meet, then? Welfare, different youth stimulus programs, internships and “trial periods” are common in the Nordic youth lingo. To actually have a long term contract is extremely rare, and even short term employment contracts are hard to find. Instead, the millennials often “work” through stimulus programs or 2011-style “internships”, which often translate into VERY low pay that may not even be called a salary, and compared to their parents’ generation, extremely unfavourable conditions. Many fall through the cracks and simply end up on welfare or permanent sick leave from the day they enter the labour force.

Slowly, the working class is becoming the no-working class. If art is to “portray society”, the experiences of this class, as well as the implications of this fundamental transformation, cannot be neglected. Here I don’t mean any neo-marxist mosaic of hammers and such, but the portrayal of the existential condition of the no-working class; an artistic sublimation of the world seen through eyes of a generation on non-salary or a “citizen’s salary”.

When I think of the Alter modern art, I think of ethnic heterogenity, obliteration of borders, neo-idealism across time and space. There is however, a significant fraction of society who do are not onboard the alter modern ship; the now unemployed working class and middle class, with very strong bonds to a local culture. The young, uneducated, unglobal. And they’re not feeling good on the inside.

Is it even possible to sustain the axiom that people should have jobs? Maybe other forms of social circumstances have to be generated. Some people have already suggested “citizen’s salary”, a sum of money that everybody gets regardless of whether they are employed or not. This, of course, necessitates a wealthy state. I personally find this model repulsive, but it should be named and stated fairly, said out loud, since for many of the millennials it is practically already a reality. The stimulus programs are basically equal to benefits disconnected from  job performance and the very concept of employment.

In Sweden 2023, the dependency ratio is estimated to be 80% . This is equal to the percentage of population over 65 or under 18. (Source: Statistics Sweden) In the hands of the remaining 20 percent is the support of all the others. This is all fair and square, but the question is how do we support the dependents if there is no work available? Can there be a new form of industry that employs us en masse? The current total unemployment rate in Sweden is 8,8% , but for the population under 24 years of age this figure is 22%. This means that of the generation supposed to support others, a significant part is already not accustomed to working and quite unemployable. Also, even if you raise the taxes of labor to high figures, the low number of employed people cannot sustain the dependenants-en-masse.

Again, if art is to portray society, these issues should be addressed. Right now the art from this silent generation and social group is “shining with its absence”. If the post-postmodern world is not ready to analyze the concept of labour/no-labour yet, it will surely happen by 2023, when the dependency problem really kicks in.

WikiSpace&WikiTime

According to alter modernism, time and space have lost their meaning through increased communication and the internet. Devices allow us to talk to each other when say, waiting for the train. Sounds obvious? Yes, I guess, but I don’t think most of us pause to consider the extent to which time and place have become obsolete.  Just take a breath and dive deeper into a situation at a train  platform. Say a hundred people are waiting for the train, out of which 30 are engaged in an activity with a portable gadget or gimmick, 35 daydream or read the free papers and the rest chat. Perhaps one person on the platform plays the peruvian panflute. How many people are actually “present” in the moment at the station? How many people are seizing the day? Perhaps the flute player, perhaps a few people here and there. The main thing is, many people live in the net or otherwise connected to other places while physically at the station. Time and space at the station are not self-evident. People have always been able to daydream while the physical body is doing something else, but there is a difference between drifting away in your thoughts and actually working, having conferences, replying to emails.

Another way to see how time and space are deconstructed and reconstructed is by considering the station as a Wikipedia entry. Somebody describes the physical dimensions of the station, another the history. Perhaps in the discussion field, there is even a controversy or two. People are discussing the station, out of which some may have been in the station at the time of writing, others not. The wikipedia page becomes a metaplace, with characteristics known to many people (who have visited the station, or seen pictures of it). In the metaplace, the presence at the station is no longer required.

David Horwitz’ artwork Public Access can be seen as an alter modern obliteration of time and space. Horwitz (physically) drove a car down the West Coast of the U.S. taking photographs of several nameless beach, with himself in them. Not in the dead center or in any way as the subject, but there nonetheless, in the background. He then added these pictures in the Wikipedia entries of these beaches. (see the link for images.) Within two weeks, they were taken down following a controversy from the wiki community. The argument was that wikipedia should not be used for self-promotion or artwork. The booklet in which Horwitz describes the artwork, he includes the wiki controversy, which is fascinating to read. So many people have so much time to discuss desolate beaches in the West Coast! How many of them have even been to these places? Does it matter that most people cannot possibly have been to the places they talk about? There are the numerous physical beaches, as lonesome and desolate as ever, and then there are the meta-beaches, little internet hotspots of small-scale controversy.

I tried to find a wikipedia entry for David Horwitz, but failed… Maybe there has never been one, or maybe there has been a page, but it’s been deleted too?

Another thought: The road trip as a phenomenon was originally a very modern rite of passage. I’m thinking Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson. Through Robert Pirsig the concept was postmodernized. Also, the architects Denise Scott Brown and Robert Venturi made a trip on the Route 66 before going on to becoming renowned postmodernists. David Horvitz is continuing on the tradition of the American Road Trip – but taking it to an alter modern level.

Being unique

I, like many of us, have always liked to think I’m very unique and not just a product of my times. Not a synthesis of subcurrents in the common narrative of my culture, age, gender. Sure I’d be subjected to the surrounding environment, but would find a combination of interests, habits, thoughts, dreams unique to me.

I recently discovered a coworker who has the same food interests, hobby interests, and we happen to live in the same neighbourhood. This may sound like a non-issue, as it is normal for there to be matching trends in different aspects of life. Also, it is not strange to find somebody with similar food interests also having similar ideas about where to go camping in the weekend. Or that it is camping we’d want to do on the weekend in the first place. This is all true, but we have similar interests down to the same blender brand, campsites as well as grocery stores on- and offline.

Are we really that unique, or is it that we’re typecast? Marketing experts like to divide people into subgroups based on our consumer habits. Have I internalized my target group, so much so that I am more a member of this group than a sum of my individual peculiarities? Am I actually that predictable and categorizable?

Somehow the thought is horrifying – at least for the ego.

Return of the Crafts – the art of causa efficieus

The V&A museum in London is ever so hot right now. In the fall we’ll see not only the exhibition about postmodernism hanba’s been so pumped about, but also one about what’s coming afterwards. Maybe post-postmodernism is about a return of the crafts? Parallel to the postmodern exhibition, the V&A museum focuses on craftmanship. Art made with care, with tools, with effort put into it. Is this just a lone random exhibition at V&A, or are the current trends actually going towards a revival of skill? Revival of McGuyverism – examining objects, seeing how they can be worked on to produce something else, and then applying the skill? Also, the exhibition encourages people to obtain skills – perhaps as a carryover from postmodern idea that ‘everyone’s an artist’.

Pål Rodenius: "2440x1220 Saw, Assemble" (Photo: Pål Rodenius)

Looking around  you may see more examples of this kind, not just in the V&A. For example, Pål Rodenius with his 2440x 1220 Saw, Assemble, where the whole artwork is a sheet of plywood with instructions how to cut seven different pieces of furniture out of it. Or take Christoph Thetards R2B2 kitchen appliance unit, where only three different appliances are to do all the tasks in the kitchen. This unit is human-powered by pedaling instead of electricity. This makes the user perform something themselves instead of just pushing a button. And, according to the artist, it actually works.

Both artworks are beautiful, simple, inspiring. They make me think of Aristotle’s four causes describing how objects undergo change. There is causa materialis, the raw material and causa formalis, the object’s form. These are then, through a transformation process called causa efficieus, made into causa finalis, the final product. The postmodern times were all about the causa finalis. The product mattered, not the process of getting there. Cheap things made in China, no matter if they last or not, just as long as they look nice when you buy them. The materials weren’t particularly valued, nor the form, nor the process of producing it.

In contrast, Pal Rodenius’ work can be seen as a tribute to causa formalis and efficieus. One sheet of plywood is there, constituting the causa materialis, and while you certainly can appreciate it as such, most of us do not find plywood so special. The focus is not in the final product either; when you look at the final cause, the finished product, it has a certain crudeness and simplicity over it. While it also may be considered aesthetically pleasing, you just might not use the word “spectacular”, or “breathtaking”. However, all the criss-crossing lines make you see the potential in it, the potential of causa formalis.  What’s special about this plywood plank is that around it is a nimbus of all the potential it can turn into. There is excitement and thrill about “rolling your sleeves” upon examining this artwork. This is the causa efficieus, the moving cause. Dynamics of creation.

Similarly, considering Thetards R2B2, the object makes you think about using it, how it’ll be in action. This artwork’s causa efficieus is in the idea of grinding beans by pressing the pedal. Even here is a nimbus of movement, work, creation.

(Inspiration for this article: iconeye.com)