Your Brain on Postmodernism

Posted: February 11, 2013 in History, Idealism, Philosophy
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Returning to The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist, I finished reading the book some while back (took more than two years, I think) but have two or three more blog posts to finish off my book blogging project. Warning: this is another long post.

Part One of the book is about the divided brain: its structural and functional attributes that make us who we are. This presumes identity resides mostly in the brain/mind rather than the body (probably my presumption, not McGilchrist’s). Part Two is how the brain shaped our world, referring more to human history, institutions, and values than physical setting, though that, too, is an outgrowth of our brain structure in light of how thoroughly mankind has shaped and engineered his own environment. Part Two traces through history from the ancient world to the Renaissance, the Reformation (and Counter-Reformation), the Enlightenment, Romanticism, the Industrial Revolution, and finally to the linked Modern and Postmodern worlds. (McGilchrist uses the form Post-Modern, which I will shorten to PoMo).

I had expected to be far more comfortable with Part Two than Part One owing to my greater familiarity with themes of human history and Western culture than with brain structure and function. It surprised me how much Part Two also discusses brain structure, but in hindsight, that makes good sense because the book’s thesis is that brain structure has had substantial influence on all of Western culture. What really surprised me, however, is that the section on Modernism and PoMo affords McGilchrist the opportunity to launch into a sustained harangue. Indeed, given the virulence of his attack, it felt like the book up to that point was merely a set-up to lay foundation for a rant fulminating in McGilchrist’s mind all along.

We have learned plenty in the last eighty or more years about the brain on drugs, both recreational (caffeine, alcohol, opium, cannabis, cocaine, crack, ecstasy, etc.) and psychiatric (Quaaludes, Valium, Zoloft, Prozac, Lithium, etc.). McGilchrist provides a withering account of what the brain is like on PoMo (a late-stage intensification of Modernism, really), which now constitutes our basic operating instructions or deep culture. The account includes a comparison of the PoMo mind with the aberrant psyche of schizophrenia, drawing heavily on the work of Louis Sass. Here is McGilchrist’s not-so-brief recap of right-brain (the Master) damaged individuals, defaulting excessive processing control to the left brain (the Emissary):

… we see a range of clinically similar problems to those found in schizophrenia. In either group, subjects find it difficult to understand context, and therefore have problems with pragmatics, and with appreciating the ‘discourse elements’ of communication. They have similar problems in understanding tone, interpreting facial expressions, expressing and interpreting emotion, and understanding the presuppositions that lie behind another’s point of view. They have similar problems with Gestalt perception and the understanding and grasping of wholes. They have similar problems with intuitive processing, and similar deficits in understanding metaphor. Both exhibit problems with appreciating narrative, and both tend to lose a sense of the natural flow of time, which becomes substituted by a succession of moments in stasis. Both report experiencing the related Zeitraffer phenomenon in visual perception … Both appear to have a deficient sense of the reality or substantiality of experience (‘it’s all play-acting’), as well as of the uniqueness of an event, object or person. Perhaps most significantly they have a similar lack of what might be called common sense. In both there is a loss of the stabilising, coherence-giving, framework-building role that the right hemisphere fulfils in normal individuals. Both exhibit a reduction in pre-attentive processing and an increase in narrowly focussed attention, which is particularistic, over-intellectualising and inappropriately deliberate in approach. Both rely on piecemeal decontextualised analysis, rather than on an intuitive, spontaneous or global mode of apprehension. Both tend to schematise — for example, to scrutinise the behaviour of others, rather as a visitor from another culture might, to discover the ‘rules’ which explain their behavior. The living become machine-like: as if to confirm the primacy of the left hemisphere’s view of the world, one schizophrenic patient described by Sass reported that ‘the world consists of tools, and … everything that we glance at has some utilization.’ [p. 392]

Most of these problems are readily apparent across Western culture today, especially narrowly focused attention, over-intellectualizing, and decontextualized analysis, which are counterparts of intuitive and Gestalt perception. Indeed, those of us with analytical abilities, the favored part of the educational curriculum, find ourselves irresistibly channeled toward specialties simply to leverage our skills for maximization of income and utility. The obvious downside is that despite increased interest in multidisciplinary endeavor — a notion that would never have occurred to our forebears, who if educated were all multidisciplinary — few possess the wherewithal to decipher and describe our cultural narratives. Not that it matters: the rest of us are too busy chasing careers and distracted by lifestyles to even grok that perhaps something is askew, much less pay attention.

When these attributes are exhibited within one individual, the diagnosis is far easier than when the same attributes are shared across the culture in normalized, less extreme though scarcely less dysfunctional forms. For instance, the rise of Taylorism in the early 20th century, where people and the functions they perform are treated as equivalences, much like today’s checkout clerks in the grocery or tellers at the bank who don’t register on us as people but are instead treated as mere transactional mechanisms, coincides with Modernism. This was a particularly nasty development that fits handily within the ongoing war on labor, where people are subordinated to dehumanizing bureaucratic processes. Indeed, from this same perspective, people are now valued primarily as consumers, or if unprofitable, then regarded as useless eaters to be managed, or better yet, destroyed. This may well be the endpoint of a stance taken during the Enlightenment that all of nature is essentially material, lifeless or not, available for exploitation and destruction. Don’t bother telling that to those still promising the return to a growth economy, however. They have apparently never heard of Malthus and are the proverbial blind men feeling up an elephant.

McGilchrist provides many other descriptions of how wrecked is modern life. Here is his description from pp. 389–390, the beginning of the chapter:

Modernity was marked by a process of social disintegration which clearly derived from the effects of the Industrial Revolution, but which could also be seen to have its roots in Comte’s vision of society as an aggregation of essentially atomistic individuals. The drift from rural to urban life, again both a consequence of the realities of industrial expansion and of the Enlightenment quest for an ideal society untrammelled by the fetters of the past, led to a breakdown of familiar social orders, and the loss of a sense of belonging, with far-reaching effects on the life of the mind. The advances of scientific materialism, on the one hand, and of bureaucracy on the other, help to produce what Weber called the disenchanted world. Capitalism and consumerism, ways of conceiving human relationships based on little more than utility, greed, and competition, came to supplant those based on felt connection and cultural continuity. The state, the representative of the organising, categorising, and subjugating forces of systematic conformity, was beginning to show itself to be an overweening presence even in democracies. And there were worrying signs that the combination of an adulation of power and material force with the desire, and power (through technological advance) to subjugate, would lead to the abandonment of any form of democracy, and the rise of totalitarianism. The effect of abstraction, bureaucratisation and social dislocation on personal identity have been themes of sociology since Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, and their effects on consciousness in modernity have been explored in works such as The Homeless Mind, by Peter Berger and colleagues. Pervasive rationalistic, technical and bureaucratic ways of thinking have emptied life of meaning by destroying what Berger calls the ‘sacred canopy’ of meaning reflecting collective beliefs about life, death and the world in which we live. The resulting anomie, or loss of all bearings, the demise of any shared structure of values, leads to a sort of existential angst.

If McGilchrist’s hedges (e.g., “worrying signs”) suggest the tone of a sober, academic analysis, try reading all of Chapter 12 or the entire book. The full power of this jeremiad is breathtaking. To me, it’s nothing short of a diagnosis of when and how the world went mad. Indeed, our hindsight knowledge of two world wars, multiple genocides, creation and obliteration of political superpowers, and now today the creeping installation of new dystopian, totalitarian regimes (replacing those damn bastard Nazis, everyone’s go-to example of pure evil on Earth) based on full-time fear-mongering and war, which were prophesied by several mid-20th-century British writers, is enough to know that the madness already overtook us and was only driven underground by the chastening and numbing effects of a potential doomsday in the form of the atomic bomb. Certainly, the world knew war and genocide prior to the 20th century, but the scope of warfare using the newly developed tools and mindset of modernity is pretty far beyond what humanity could muster in the 19th century and prior. We might be able to congratulate ourselves a little bit about not yet devolving again into world war, as in “better we don’t do that again,” but the number of regional and stateless wars populating the calendar reveals no adjustments or unwillingness to go there again but rather relish in a dangerous game of brinkmanship.

In addition to what’s happening at the level of our insane society, one cannot lose sight of the fact that individuals are disintegrating, too. Like war and genocide, there has always been killing. The PoMo oddity is that young people, usually 18 to 25 years old when they are still feeling youthful invulnerability and yet first feeling adult confidence and power — typically augmented by democratized implements of force — are now randomly destroying innocents and themselves in a spate of nihilistic mass murders. The most recent to date was Newtown, CT. I also recently learned of a double murder in Joliet, IL. The details of the case are bizarre: four friends strangled two more of their friends, the motivation appearing to be robbery, but then decided once the deed was done to return to partying and playing video games with the intent to later dismember the bodies and conceal the crime. The level of disconnect from reality is striking: kill two your own friends, probably over a small sum (after all, how much do young adults in Joliet have on hand?), and then resume entertainments as though what had just been done was not so out of the ordinary and consequences would not ensue. My suspicion, unsupported by mounds of data and scholarly studies we must now take as gospel authority, is that they are products of our insane culture, and there are lots more ticking time bombs like them poised to go off. In short, coherence and continuity within PoMo life are largely missing, and the self-correcting mechanisms of consciousness are no longer functioning in many young people, who sense something awful about to happen but are too impatient to wait for it.

  1. leavergirl says:

    Character disturbance, my friend. The rates are skyrocketing.

  2. Chris says:

    McGilchrist’s reference to the left-hemispheric bias of a patient who saw everything in terms of tools and utilisation brought to my mind the teleological perspective, the idea that everything has a design and a purpose, and therefore a function and a use, all of which is usually wrapped up in the idea of God’s plan.

    Does McGilchrist refer to the teleological perspective? How would you see it tying in with his central thesis?

    • Brutus says:

      Thanks for your comment and question. Honestly, I don’t recall him using the particular term “teleological perspective.” That could be my faulty memory, however. The book is so dense with ideas that it could easily have gotten lost amid other details.

      I think I would remember something referencing faith so specifically. I don’t think McGilchrist mentions millennialism, either, but they both fit handily with his principal thesis. They’re both part of a mindset that sees the world instrumentally, what some call instrumental rationality or instrumentalism. Myriad terms can be uncovered to describe the basic problem, each having their own particular attributes. McGilchrist finds the source of our dysfunction in biology rather than in culture, which might be merely seeking the biggest umbrella. It might also be a question of the chicken and the egg, never being able to decide which comes first.

      For my part, I don’t think it’s particularly important to pin down just what/where/which/when is to blame so long as the main thrust is accurate. On this question, there are many correct answers, though they are still not part of public awareness. We’re still inside the bubble.

      • Chris says:

        Understood. After reading excerpts from McGilchrist on your post, Hearing Voices, I wondered how far he got into specific questions relating to faith, and to cultural shifts in language and in some of the basic concepts with which we think. There is also the question of cultural shifts in the way we interpret our thinking process, as per the excerpts you have in Hearing Voices, but it sounds as if McGilchrist only goes so far in examining this question.

        Despite the fact that we’re “inside the bubble”, as you say, an examination of faith seems like a fertile follow-on from his central thesis, like a couple of other things you felt were missing in your discussion on Hearing Voices.

  3. Brutus says:

    McGilchrist disavows early on that his book is about consciousness, but he discusses it anyway in great detail throughout the book. It’s unavoidable. He skirts lengthy discussions of Western religions, but they get some modest consideration as well. His discussion of shifts in language is far more involved, citing among other things “musilanguage” in relation to brain lateralization. These are just broad strokes based on my memory. As they say, the map is not the terrain, so you will have to read him yourself for the details.

    An examination of faith might be, as you say, a fertile follow-on, but I cannot undertake it. This area of inquiry has some sociological interest for me, but as a personal matter (do I believe?), it is no longer important to me. There are lots of brands of toothpaste; I’ve arrived at a choice. Am I right or wrong in that choice? Doesn’t matter: it’s just toothpaste to me. This isn’t to say I’m free to choose another brand. I’m not wired that way.

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