Mental and Perceptual Filters

Posted: April 10, 2013 in Advertising, Consciousness, Consumerism, Culture, Philosophy
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Filtering performs an important explanatory function in shaping the ways we understand ourselves and our existence within a larger outer reality. Perception and cognition filtered through language is normally regarded as better than preverbal, ontological existence in its raw forms, such as we all experience in infancy prior to acquiring language, perhaps because truth (the adult kind, not the kid kind) is so powerful and unpalatable we either lose or never really had the ability to face up to it. Using words as symbols of thought, language performs an intermediary function by shaping mental activity, mostly of the intellectual variety, into stories, narratives, scenarios, and straightforward lies, each with their own subtle transformation of reality into something else, something quasifictional, something disembodied and distorted from the original source of direct experience. Figurative language, including similes, analogies, metaphors, euphemisms, metonymy, synecdoche, etc., establish notions extended even further from direct perception. Again and again, I stumble across metaphors that offer explanations of how objective truth/reality (assuming such a thing exists) is not merely compared to something more readily relatable but is in fact spun around through various mental and perceptual agencies and faculties, typically with our own willingness to grant authority to these quasifictions.

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, telling how we perceive shadows cast against the wall rather than the reality projecting those shadows, is perhaps the earliest of such metaphors. Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophical work, The World as Will and Representation, is another exploration of underlying realty vs. our mental image or perception of it. Jean Baudrillard wrote another philosophic treatise on the same subject called Simulacra and Simulation. The field of semiotics deals with similar categorical divisions, namely, the signifier and the signified. No doubt there are others of which I am unaware, and truth be told, I dare to blog about this subject without really having delved too deeply into the subject (books linked to above are unread). But then, I’ve always been an armchair intellectual, not a pundit, writer, or university professor with the time and position to devote to rigorous explorations.

Perhaps the most universal albeit pejorative term I have come across recently to describe the entire complex of mental associations that yield social consensus and cohesion is by Joe Bageant: the hologram, as described in his blog/article “Escape from the Zombie Food Court” (and elsewhere). Nicolas Carr has a thought-provoking blog at Rough Type discussing online/offline experience, which might be more recognizable as digital/analog or virtual reality/meatworld. I also learned recently from Thomas Frank, a columnist at Harper’s who is quickly earning my admiration, that in the political realm, the preferred term to denote the appearance of actuality, not truth itself, is optics. (Worthy of note is the fact that the optic nerve connects to the emotional center of the brain, bypassing the logical/rational part. So video in particular, and even imagistic words (those that conjure pictures in the mind), play on our sensibilities more effectively than text even though text is nominally perceived through the eye as well.)

In the age of marketing and mass media, the most significant means of shaping perception and consensus are undoubtedly television and cinema, including all the advertising and product placements that work insidiously to manufacture desire. Constantly served up for our brainwashing entertainment are the rich, powerful, young, beautiful, fashionable, and famous. The picture of the good life, or the American dream, that emerges from these ubiquitous images is glamorous and glitzy, much like the commodities with which these people surround themselves, but the picture typically bears little resemblance to day-to-day life as most of us experience it. And on closer inspection, the images/ideals are revealed to be hollow, sometimes even tawdry and trashy, mere fabrications used as inducements (carrots) to participate fully in commodity culture.

Given how omnipresent this interlocking set of filters is, it should be no surprise that the resulting ideology appears to sensitive souls completely false and meaningless yet paradoxically the only thing that matters, since all other competing worldviews are driven out of sight, mind, and existence. So, for instance, we continue to subscribe to the idea that political action can effect positive, meaningful change even though what actually appears before us is the political theater of profoundly dysfunctional institutions no longer able to solve fundamental problems of social organization and justice. This is the tragedy behind Lawrence Lessig’s latest TED Talk, which tantalizes the viewer (instead of the listener) with a whizbang PowerPoint show and falsely reified textual talking points but really recommends that the citizenry deal with the eternal problem of undue political influence flowing from deep pockets by throwing even more money at the problem, now siphoned off the entire population (sorta like a electoral tax). There is little danger, however, that the scales will fall from our eyes. The self-reinforcing nature of social consensus ensures that nothing outside the hologram will intrude until, at last, unavoidably, the entire, fragile daydream shatters like so many fallen tree ornaments.

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