Synthetic Experience

Posted: April 1, 2012 in Culture, Debate, Idle Nonsense, Nomenclature

I wanted to follow up my previous post for a variety of reasons, not least of which is to admit yet again that I’m guilty of doing the very thing I complained about with others: breaking ideas into arbitrary categories so as to construct arguments and metaphors around the distinctions. Obviously, for words to have useful meanings, they can’t be interpreted too openly, like notorious exercises in deconstructivist literary theory, one of the benchmarks of postmodernism that has propagated well beyond the aeries of the academy. Yet many of us are still only too easily carried away with our own verbal cleverness.

Some time ago, I commented on a blog post at Ribbon Farm called Warrens, Plazas, and the Edge of Legibility. The author (Venkat) adopted a metaphor using the warren/plaza distinction as applied to the legibility of social networking environments, but in the course of unpacking his metaphor, he reversed the two terms’ utility. Venkat is clearly a very clever fellow, but I stopped reading and commenting at his blog out of frustration. His latest blog post is Lawyer Mind, Judge Mind, another exploration of categorical distinctions where he ends by saying that the two types overlap and/or swap position despite their ostensible separations. I weary of these blog posts.

Of course, I’m guilty of the same thing, though my treatments are typically far shorter than those at Ribbon Farm. Many of my posts are descriptions of neologisms and/or draw distinctions between two or more related terms. However, I intuit that these are perversions of hyper-verbal patterns of cognition to which I am prone. This is apparent primarily because while I argued previously that natural and unnatural (or artificial) cannot be collapsed into one category, I nonetheless observe that the human brain/mind is exceptionally poor at distinguishing between experiences arising out of authentic circumstance — those positioned within reality — and those arising out of fiction or narrative. Indeed, many hybrids occupy the space between reality and fiction to further confound faulty perception.

In another previous post, I reported on mirror neurons that fire in response to observation of human but not mechanical behaviors. It does not matter whether observed behavior is real or playacted, such as in cinema. We perceive and process behaviors from either source and share in the experiences vicariously. One’s emotional response is actual emotion whether observed behaviors be spontaneous or sought out for mere entertainment purposes. If I were to commit another error of categorization, I would say some experiences are authentic and some are synthetic, being provoked by artificial means, but what I’m arguing instead is that our minds don’t really care about that useless distinction.

Examples of emotional response, which is the root of all cognition, to stimuli of questionable origin are legion. Does the euphoria of one’s favorite team or candidate winning a championship or election differ significantly from the gratification of watching a superhero vanquish a villain? Are responsive emotions more powerful or permanent if based on reality or fiction? In all cases, there is a strong sense of one’s emotions being manipulated or manufactured. And what’s so “real” about a sporting contest that is engineered to produce a winner, which proceeds through year-over-year cycles of repetition with all manner of pageantry and theatricality? Or for that matter, what’s so “real” about political candidates whose platitudes and rhetoric bear little resemblance to their actual governance? We happily buy the lies narrative because they give us the emotional fix we crave, no matter whether the underlying stimulation is authentic, synthetic, contrived, or some mixture. The high of sugar, caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol are further examples of the same provocation, and the idea extends to even more aggressive examples of pharmacologically managed emotional states. For a more tawdry example, the mind/body doesn’t care that erotica and straightforward porn are viewed or observed in print, on screen, or in person; sexual excitement is provoked easily and effectively enough despite its being wholly vicarious.

From the perspective of Plato’s Cave, we have no access to the true nature of things but are limited to how they are presented, represented, or re-presented in the mind. A similar point (if I understand it correctly) is made by Schopenhauer in The World as Will and Representation. This last term, the German Vorstellung, is translated variously as Idea, Presentation, and Representation, those distinctions being especially important to Richard Aquila and David Carus, who insist that

it’s the notion of a performance or a theatrical presentation that is key here. The world that we perceive is a ‘presentation’ of objects in the theatre of our own mind; we, the ‘subject,’ craft the show with our own stage managers, stagehands, sets, lighting, code of dress, pay scale, etc. The other part of the world, the Will, or ‘thing in itself,’ not perceivable as a presentation, exists outside time, space, and causality.

The question reasserts itself then: are these useful verbal distinctions, especially in light of the apparent inability of the brain/mind/body to separate authentic from synthetic experience or the irrelevance of the distinctions even if one can make them intellectually?

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