nikki moore

Posts Tagged ‘Jonah Lehrer’

a quick *reflection

In Law, Subjection on May 8, 2009 at 12:11 pm

let me begin by saying (as will become evident) i am a fan of Jonah Lehrer’s blog, the Frontal Cortex. also, I am fresh out of a talk on ‘the liberal subject’ by Jay College’s Jill Stauffer at the New School for Social research, which is coloring my response.  from what I have read and heard of both Lehrer and Stauffer, at least for now, both seem to engage a classic liberal idea of the subject, (Lehrer from a neuro-scientific point of view and Stauffer from a legal and philosophical background) albeit in both cases to challenge as well as posit.  for Lehrer, Obama’s statements this week on his upcoming supreme court judicial nominations sparked a very needed discussion on empathy, where for Stauffer, the question of empathy is or could be contained in her probing of infinite responsibility via Levinas.  both of these conversations come to bear on the upcoming nomination as the reach of law, justice and empathy is part and parcel of a justices’ job description.  and while this is a lot to parse out in a blog post, nonetheless, i’d like to quickly *reflect on two of his Lehrer’s latest posts: Empathy and Watching Movies as something about the I and that liberal self emerge in this linkage. 

first, beginning with Lehrer’s discussion on Adam Smith:

According to Smith, the source of these moral emotions was the imagination, which we used to automatically mirror the minds of others. (The reflective mirror, which had recently become a popular household item, is an important metaphor in Smith’s writing on morality.) “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” Smith wrote, “we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected, but by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” This mirroring process leads to an instinctive sympathy for our fellow man⎯Smith called it “fellow-feeling”⎯which formed the basis for our moral, legal and ethical decisions.

Adam Smith, classic liberal thinker par excellence… (classic liberal meaning one who values individual liberty and equality.  awkwardly classic liberalism in the US is now most closely politically aligned with conservatives or republicans, i.e. we are not talking about ‘bleeding hearts’ when we talk about classical liberalism). in the mirror analogies as presented both by Lehrer and his own writings, Smith opens us up to a very problematic debate on the Other.  for Smith, empathy functions because we can imagine how the other feels, as that other is a mirror image of one’s self.  yet as this dialogue progresses it is crystal clear that the Other is no longer other, but a self projection.  many thinkers, economists, writers and political theorists have worked at this issue, so  i will simply point to it here: if we think the Other as the same, as simply a projection of self, we are never dealing with another, but just another me.  politically this is incredibly problematic as questions of empathy, which Lehrer has brilliantly raised,  rely on our ability to feel what the other feels.

in her presentation at the New School last night, Stauffer, via Levinas, brilliantly raised the problem of the razing of the  Other.  for Stauffer, something like empathy is a response to the infinite responsibility of a subject who never chooses the responsibilities that do befall them.  what emerged both in Jill’s talk and the discussion following was the role that law plays in 1) determining the liberal subject and 2) determining modes of response for trading (not ridding) the weight of infinite responsibility for institutional justice.  yet problems arise when we think of justice as legally derived, for it is only those who are already legally recognized who can seek justice, and precisely those without recognition who need it.   it is ‘clearly’ a problem of poor reflection.  of biased mirrors which see themselves in others and obliviate the Other that is not the same.

this is certainly a brazen run through of very intricate territory, but pushing on… perhaps there is an engagement with this mirroring in Lehrer’s approach in Movie Watching:

in his piece on Movie Watching, Lehrer deftly points out that the brain in a post-modern (if we want to call it that..?) film does not have the ability to shut off.  the fracture on screen will not let the brain settle into a comforting and ‘entertaining’ narrative.  and while Lehrer is simply pointing to this fact and explaining it, rather than making a value judgement, something in the collusion of Movie Watching, Empathy and Jill Stauffer’s work emerges through post-modern film theory.  part of what we could say, at least, is going on in movies like Syriana, (or say Synecdoche  which could be an archetypal film for fracture about fracture,) is that writers, directors, actors are working to portray something that more closely matches up with the fractal nature of lived experience: i.e., by this explanation, in life we don’t have a cohesive narrative until after the story ends, until death writes closure that can then be strung back through a completed life in narrative forms.  therefore, even the move to “…dole out comprehension in sudden spurts, when a crucial twist is suddenly revealed…” is cheating or disingenuous.  

of course we should recognize the flawed fluid narrative of fracture that undergirds fractal postmodern theory, yet this alone ‘gotcha’ is not enough to call for a simple return to narrative form and easy pleasure.  clearly lehrer was not, as his asterisk notes, calling for anything of the sort and what i’d like to suggest, at least for this 5 minutes, is that perhaps, as Stauffer went on to suggest last night, that fractured definitions can lead to a less reductionist understanding not only of the self, but also the Other we can never define as well as our responsibility to this other that is always so large a burden it is hard to move in, with or under.  perhaps a sort of fracturing that does not let the mind shut down – that recognizes, as one of Lehrer’s blog commenters brilliantly pointed out, [brackets mine],

The fundamental error, of course, [in the debate on whether or not empathy = activist judgement] is that the human brain is incapable of objectively reading anything – brains are not passive input reading devices, we are actively processing, recreating, and INTERPRETING every bit of information that enters our sensory organs … including our eyes when we are reading the Constitution. This is scientifically beyond dispute, every human brain is an “activist”.

‘every human brain is an “activist” and perhaps it does well to be: to be active in fracture rather than passive in unity, whether this fracture be that of film, self and Other or otherwise…


In Subjection on April 12, 2009 at 10:25 pm

it’s an interesting argument:science and art would both be bettered in a coupling of their (un)like bodies and minds.

but perhaps i’ve got a better one.  

and more precisley, perhaps ‘I’ don’t: but one could say with Francois Lyotard and others that science already is art.  and if one took that stance, then science and art need simply confess their already ongoing state of living in sin and get on with the process of procreation.

because pro-creation is really what is at stake when art is called in to help us see what the sciences are up to… 

that’s my contention at least, after reading the above article by jonah lehrer, a clearly brilliant writer, scholar, thinker of all things scientific.  convincingly lehrer skims the histories of science and art, finding in their historical overlaps (picasso, atomic theory, etc) brilliance in the making.  or, rather, brilliance in the metaphor.  for as lehrer writes, science needs art to give us metaphors for understanding its production.  it is an interesting argument, one I would agree with wholeheartedly if it didn’t leave out the founding metaphors of science themselves.  for at base, as Francois Lyotard pointed out in the Postmodern Condition 

The principle of legitimation functioning in capitalism is efficiency or performativity [see The Postmodern Condition], and this principle attempts to be hegemonic. Science and technology are prime candidates for this attempted hegemony, since they contribute to the growth of capital. Lyotard accepts that performativity is a legitimate criterion for technology, but argues that it is not proper to science. He develops his argument around what he calls postmodern science, by which he means recent sciences such as Benoit Mandelbrot’s fractal theory and Rene Thom’s catastrophe theory that search for instabilities rather than regularities in systems. Following to some extent philosophers of science Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, Lyotard argues that the performativity criterion does not accurately capture the kind of knowledge developed in the sciences nor the way such knowledge develops. For Lyotard, science is a language game to which legitimation by performativity is not proper. Such performativity merely subordinates science to capital.

quoted from amy woodward’s article on Francois Lyotard, on the internet encyclopedia of philosophy

as a language game itself (could we say metaphor?), science is not a description, the description, of what is true.  nor is it truth in need of translation via art: science is itself a language game, an art, if you will… and one particularly prone to capitalist intervention and interpellation.

thus rather than take the hardened binary stance Lehrer offers wholesale, we could, should, (even must?) nuance this a bit… claiming instead, as we first said that science as art simply needs to take a look in the mirror, embrace its creative underpinnings and continue to nurture that of which it is most intimately made. while also inspecting its own drive for translation, for metaphor, for public consumption.  

yet as Lehrer pointed out, it is not just the external world that science aims to describe and which art would be best suited for aiding in description:  it is the very internal self that seems to slip through the palms and poetry of both science and art to date.  somehow words, (Lehrer, like early philosophy, looks first -though not exclusively – to poetry for artistic function), fail when we try to describe the spot we stand in most intimately, the spot we are… in fact the blind spot that subjectivity, personality and individuality continually prove to be in neuroscience.

precisely here, in the blind spot where science as art reaches without success, stand two philosophical figures working a metaphor of, of course, themselves: as two.  as blind spot.  as the high noon shadow.  as mid-day. 

alenka zupancic has written a book on what she is calling the two of nietzsche…

and Zizek’s recent talk  and, of course, the parallax view call on the ultimate metaphoricist, jacques lacan, to describe the very blind spot they are and we are… endlessly and without escape.  as Zizek  uses hitchcock to show, the truth of the subject is exactly the blank between the subjective and the objective view.  it is not Scotty looking at Kim Novak’s character and it is not the lens looking at the two, but precisely the breakdowns and build ups of both views which constitute the subject.  or to use Zizek’s example of Levi Strauss’ work: it is not the villagers who describe their understanding of exchange, nor the anthropoligist’s own assessment, but precisely the breakdown between these two descriptive circles which best serves to describe the workings of the village exchange in question. 

Zupancic calls this, with a very particular (yet compellingly interesting) Nietzsche, the shadow cast at high noon, the shadow that falls on its own object almost without distinction from that object, to reveal not one object but, in fact, two.

what does this mean for us, for science, for Lehrer’s point?  am I not making his point by employing philosophy (the supposed art of words and wisdom) to explain the scientific gap in the subject?  you could certainly say so.  or am I fighting a personal battle against the ‘truth’ claims of science regarding its own corner on life?  you could say this as well… yet the proposal at hand, the metaphor I’m working to the bone is instead one of noncompliance: between what can be explained subjectively and what can be explained by science is the gap, the break(down), the parallax view. the answer is there, and perhaps the metaphors all lie there as well, in a gap and break where art might humbly yet curiously re-find and refine scientific description from within its own blindspot: in the paint, pixels and poetry already within the lab and without.


thanks to artist John Parker for the Lehrer link.