Monthly Archives: September 2011

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.