Posts Tagged ‘Iain McGilchrist’

Continuing from part 1 and part 2, let me add one further example of how meaning is reversed under the Ironic perspective. At my abandoned group blog, Creative Destruction, which garners more traffic than The Spiral Staircase despite being woefully out of date, the post that gets the most hits argues (without irony) that, in the Star Wars universe, the Empire represents the good guys and the Jedi are the terrorists despite the good vs. evil archetypes being almost cartoonishly drawn, with the principal villain having succumbed to the dark side only to be redeemed by his innate goodness in the 11th hour. The reverse argument undoubtedly has some merit, but it requires overthinking and outsmarting oneself to arrive at the backwards conclusion. A similar dilemma of competing perspectives is present in The Avengers, where Captain America is unconflicted in his all-American goodness and straightforward identification of villainy but is surrounded by other far-too-clever superheroes who overanalyze (snarkily so), cannot agree on strategy, and/or question motivations and each others’ double or triple agency. If I understand correctly, this plot hook is the basis for the civil war among allies in the next Avengers movie.

The Post-Ironic takes the reversal of meaning and paradoxical retention of opposites that characterizes the Ironic and expands issues from false dualisms (e.g., either you’re with us or against us) to multifaceted free-for-alls where anyone’s wild interpretation of facts, events, policy, and strategy has roughly equal footing with another’s precisely because no authority exists to satisfy everyone as to the truth of matters. The cacophony of competing viewpoints — the multiplicity of possible meanings conjured from any collection of evidence — virtually guarantees that someone out there (often someone loony) will speak as though reading your mind. Don’t trust politicians, scientists, news anchors, pundits, teachers, academics, your parents, or even the pope? No problem. Just belly up to the ideological buffet and cherry pick choose from any of a multitude of viewpoints, few of which have much plausibility. But no matter: it’s a smorgasbord of options, and almost none of them can be discarded out of hand for being too beyond the pale. All must be tried and entertained.

One of the themes of this blog is imminent (i.e., occurring within the lifetimes of most readers) industrial collapse resulting from either financial collapse or loss of habitat for humans (or a combination of factors). Either could happen first, but my suspicion is that financial collapse will be the lit fuse leading to explosion of the population bomb. Collapse is quite literally the biggest story of our time despite its being prospective. However, opinion on the matter is loose, undisciplined, and ranges all over the map. Consensus within expert bodies such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, assembled specifically to study climate change and reports its findings, ought to put an end to controversy, yet waters have been so muddied by competing narratives that credulous folks, if they bother paying attention at all, can’t really tell whom to believe. It doesn’t help that even well-educated folks, including many professionals, often lack critical thinking skill with which to evaluate evidence. So instead, wishy-washy emotionalism and psychological vulnerability awards hearts and minds to the most charismatic storyteller, not the truth-teller.

Perhaps the best instance of multiple meanings being simultaneously present and demanding consideration is found in the game of poker, which has become enormously popular in the past decade. To play the game effectively, one must weigh the likelihood and potential for any one of several competing narratives based on opponents’ actions. Mathematical analysis and intuition combine to recommend which scenario is most likely true and whether the risk is worth it (pot odds). If, for just one example, an opponent bets big at any point in the poker hand, several scenarios that must be considered:

  • the opponent has made his hand and cannot be beaten (e.g., nut flush, full house)
  • the opponent has a dominating hand and can be beaten only if one draws to make a better hand (e.g., top pair with high kicker or two pair)
  • the opponent has not yet fully made his hand and is on a draw (open-ended straight or four cards to a flush)
  • the opponent has a partial or weak hand and is bluffing at the pot

Take note that, as with climate change, evaluation in poker is prospective. Sometimes an opponent’s betting strategy is discovered in a showdown where players must reveal their cards; but often, one player or another mucks or folds and the actual scenario is undisclosed. The truth of climate change, until the future manifests, is to some tantalizingly unknown and contingent, as though it could be influenced by belief, hope, and/or faith. To rigorous thinkers, however, the future is charted for us with about the same inevitability as the sun rising in the morning — the biggest remaining unknown being timing.

Habitual awareness of multiple, competing scenarios extends well beyond table games and climate change. In geopolitics, the refusal to rule out the nuclear option, even when it would be completely disproportionate to a given provocation, is reckless brinkmanship. The typical rhetoric is that, like fighting dogs, any gesture of backing down would be interpreted as a display of submission or weakness and thus invite attack. So is the provocation or the response a bluff, a strong hand, or both? Although it is difficult to judge how U.S. leadership is perceived abroad (since I’m inside the bubble), the historical record demonstrates that the U.S. never hesitates to get mixed up in military action and adopts overweening strategies to defeat essentially feudal societies (e.g., Korea and Vietnam). Never mind that those strategies have been shown to fail or that those countries represented no credible threat to the U.S. Our military escapades in the 21st century are not so divergent, with the perception of threats being raised well beyond their true proportions relative to any number of health and social scourges that routinely kill many more Americans than terrorism ever did.

Because this post is already running long, conclusions will be in an addendum. Apologies for the drawn out posts.

Continuing from part 1, the Ironic is characterized by (among other things) reversal of meaning, sometimes understood as the unexpected manifested but more commonly as sarcasm. The old joke goes that in pompous, authoritarian fashion, the language/semiotics professor says to his class of neophytes, “In many languages, a double negative equals a positive, but in no language does a double positive make a negative.” In response, a student mutters under his breath, “yeah, right ….” Up to a certain age and level of cognitive development, children don’t process sarcasm; they are literal-minded and don’t understand subtext. Transcripts and text (e.g., blog posts and comments) also typically fail to transmit nonverbal cues that one may be less than earnest making certain statements. Significantly, no one is allowed to make offhand jokes in line at security checkpoints because, in that context, remarks such as “yeah, like my shoes are full of C4” are treated quite literally.

I have a vague memory of the period in my adolescence when I discovered sarcasm, at which time it was deployed almost continuously, saying the opposite of what I meant with the expectation that others (older than me) would understand the implied or latent meaning. I also adopted the same mock abuse being used elsewhere, which regrettably lasted into my late 20s. Maybe it’s a phase everyone must go through, part of growing up, and as a society, our cultural development must also pass through that phase, though I contend we remain mired in irony or ironic posturing.

The model for me was insult comedy, still in style now but more familiar from my childhood. Like most during this developmental phase, I accepted the TV as social tutor for how people communicate and what’s acceptable to say. So who can blame me or other children, fed a diet of snark and attitude (adult writers of TV shows being a lot more clever than the adolescent actors who voice the lines) from speaking the same way? But to appreciate irony more directly, consider the comedian (then and now) who levies criticism using clichés drawn from his or her own gender, race, religion, social class, etc. In comedy, sexism, racism, and class conflict are not just joke fodder but stereotyped bigotry that reinforces the very scourges they ostensibly criticize. Oh, sure, the jokes are often funny. We all know to laugh at the black comedian who trades nonstop in nigger jokes or the female who complains of being nothing more than an object for male titillation. Comedians (and special interest groups — minority or not — that lay claim to victimhood) may coopt the language of their oppressors (some actual, some imagined — see for instance those complaining about the War on Christmas), but the language and attitudes are broken down and reinforced at the same time.

This isn’t solely the domain of comedy, either. Whereas TV sitcoms are ruled by hip, ironic posturing — the show about nothing that plumbs the surprising depths inside everything trivial, banal, and inane, the show full of nerd archetypes who rise above their inherent nerdiness to be real people worthy of respect (or not surprisingly, not so worthy after all), or the endless parade of sitcom families with unrealistically precocious, smart aleck kids who take aim at everyone with a continuous stream of baleful insults, take-downs, and mockery but are, despite truly cretinous behavior, always forgiven (or passed over because another joke is imminent) and still lovable — in the virtual world (the Internet, where you are reading this), sarcasm, snark, irony, abuse, and corrosive jokiness are legion. Take, for instance, this video at and tell me there isn’t something deeply wrong with it:

One might wonder whether the intent is interdiction or recruitment (or both at once), especially if one acknowledges that most of the awful things depicted in the video are precisely what the U.S. military has been doing in the Middle East for well over a decade. The Fox News blurb linked below the video says, “The State Department is launching a tough and graphic propaganda counteroffensive against the Islamic State, using some of the group’s own images of barbaric acts against fellow Muslims to undercut its message.” Maybe the word propaganda is a mistake and publicity was intended, but I suspect that propaganda is the right word precisely because it’s understood as both pejorative and superlative. As with everything else, meaning has become polysemous.

Iain McGilchrist illustrates this with special emphasis on the arts and how substitution of symbolic tokens normalizes distortion. For instance, art theory of the Aesthetes contains a fundamental paradox:

The Aesthetes’ creed of ‘art for art’s sake’, while it sounds like an elevation of the value of art, in that it denies that it should have an ulterior purpose beyond itself — so far so good — is also a devaluation of art, in that it marginalizes its relationship with life. In other words it sacrifices the betweenness of art with life, instead allowing art to become self-reflexively fulfilled. There is a difference between the forlorn business of creating ‘art for art’s sake’, and art nonetheless being judged solely ‘as art’, not as for another purpose. [p. 409]

Isolating artistic creation in a mental or virtual transactional space ought to be quite familiar (or perhaps more accurately, assumed and thus invisible) to 21st-century people, but it was a new concept at the outset of the 20th century. The paradox is that the doctrine is both a reversal of meaning and retention of opposites together. Over the course of the 20th century, we became habituated to such thinking, namely, that a thing automatically engenders its opposite and is both things at once. For instance, what used to be called the War on Poverty, meant to help those suffering deprivation, is now also its reverse: literally a war on the poverty-stricken. Similarly, the War on Drugs, meant to eradicate drug use as a social ill, is also quite literally a war against drug users, who are a large and improper part of the bloated U.S. prison population. Reduction of government services to the poor and rampant victim-blaming demonstrate that programs once meant to assist those in need now often instead leave them to fend for themselves, or worse, pile on with criminal charges. Disinformation campaign about welfare cheats and the minimum wage are further examples of information being distorted and used to serve an unwholesome agenda.

My conclusion is not yet ready to be drawn; it’s far too subtle to fit in a Tweet or even a series of blog posts. However, consider what it means when the language we use is laden with ironic twists that force recipients of any message to hold simultaneously forward/backward, up/down, left/right, and true/false meanings. Little can be established beyond reasonable doubt not just because so many of us have been poorly served by educational institutions (or is it the students themselves — sort of a chicken-and-egg question) more interested in business and credentialing than teaching and learning that few possess the ability to assess and evaluate information (ironically, from a variety of perspectives) being spun and spoon fed to us by omnimedia but because the essential underlying structure of language and communications has been corrupted by disembedding, decontextualization, and deconstruction that relegate reality to something to be dreamt up and then used to convince others. In the end, of course, we’re only fooling ourselves.

At last, getting to my much, much delayed final book blogs (three parts) on Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary. The book came out in 2010, I picked it up in 2012 (as memory serves), and it took me nearly two years to read its entirety, during which time I blogged my observations. I knew at the time of my previous post on the book that there would be more to say, and it’s taken considerable time to get back to it.

McGilchrist ends with a withering criticism of the Modern and Postmodern (PoMo) Eras, which I characterized as an account of how the world went mad. That still seems accurate to me: the madness that overtook us in the Modern Era led to world wars, genocides, and systematic reduction of humanity to mere material and mechanism, what Ortega y Gasset called Mass Man. Reduction of the rest of the living world to resources to be harvested and exploited by us is a worldview often called instrumental reality. From my armchair, I sense that our societal madness has shape-shifted a few times since the fin de siècle 1880s and 90s. Let’s start with quotes from McGilchrist before I extend into my own analysis. Here is one of his many descriptions of the left-hemisphere paradigm under which we now operate:

In his book on the subject, Modernity and Self-identity, Anthony Giddens describes the characteristic disruption of space and time required by globalisation, itself the necessary consequence of industrial capitalism, which destroys the sense of belonging, and ultimately of individual identity. He refers to what he calls ‘disembedding mechanisms’, the effect of which is to separate things from their context, and ourselves from the uniqueness of place, what he calls ‘locale’. Real things and experiences are replaced by symbolic tokens; ‘expert’ systems replace local know-how and skill with a centralised process dependent on rules. He sees a dangerous form of positive feedback, whereby theoretical positions, once promulgated, dictate the reality that comes about, since they are then fed back to us through the media, which form, as much as reflect, reality. The media also promote fragmentation by a random juxtaposition of items of information, as well as permitting the ‘intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness’, another aspect of decontextualisation in modern life adding to loss of meaning in the experienced world. [p. 390]

Reliance on abstract, decontextualized tokens having only figurative, nonintrinsic power and meaning is a specific sort of distancing, isolation, and reduction that describes much of modern life and shares many characteristics with schizophrenia, as McGilchrist points out throughout the chapter. That was the first shape-shift of our madness: full-blown mechanization borne out of reductionism and materialism, perspectives bequeathed to us by science. The slow process had been underway since the invention of the mechanical clock and discovery of heliocentrism, but it gained steam (pun intended) as the Industrial Revolution matured in the late 19th century.

The PoMo Era is recognized as having begun just after the middle of the 20th century, though its attributes are questionably defined or understood. That said, the most damning criticism leveled at PoMo is its hall-of-mirrors effect that renders objects in the mirrors meaningless because the original reference point is obscured or lost. McGilchrist also refers repeatedly to loss of meaning resulting from the ironizing effect of left-brain dominance. The corresponding academic fad was PoMo literary criticism (deconstruction) in the 1970s, but it had antecedents in quantum theory. Here is McGilchrist on PoMo:

With post-modernism, meaning drains away. Art becomes a game in which the emptiness of a wholly insubstantial world, in which there is nothing beyond the set of terms we have in vain used to ‘construct’ mean, is allowed to speak for its own vacuity. The set of terms are now seen simply to refer to themselves. They have lost transparency; and all conditions that would yield meaning have been ironized out of existence. [pp. 422–423]

This was the second shape-shift: loss of meaning in the middle of the 20th century as purely theoretical formulations, which is to say, abstraction, gained adherents. He goes on:

Over-awareness … alienates us from the world and leads to a belief that only we, or our thought processes, are real … The detached, unmoving, unmoved observer feels that the world loses reality, becomes merely ‘things seen’. Attention is focussed on the field of consciousness itself, not on the world beyond, and we seem to experience experience … [In hyperconsciousness, elements] of the self and of experience which normally remain, and need to remain, intuitive, unconscious, become the objects of a detached, alienating attention, the levels of consciousness multiply, so that there is an awareness of one’s own awareness, and so on. The result of this is a sort of paralysis, in which even everyday ‘automatic’ actions such as moving one leg in front of another in order to walk can become problematic … The effect of hyperconsciousness is to produce a flight from the body and from its attendant emotions. [pp. 394–396]

Having devoted a fair amount of my intellectual life to trying to understand consciousness, I immediately recognized the discussion of hyperconsciousness (derived from Louis Sass) as what I often call recursion error, where consciousness becomes the object of its own contemplation, with obvious consequences. Modern, first-world people all suffer from this effect to varying degrees because that is how modern consciousness is warped shaped.

I believe we can observe now two more characteristic extensions or variations of our madness, probably overlapping, not discrete, following closely on each other: the Ironic and Post-Ironic. The characteristics are these:

  • Modern — reductive, mechanistic, instrumental interpretation of reality
  • Postmodern — self-referential (recursive) and meaningless reality
  • Ironic — reversed reality
  • Post-Ironic — multiplicity of competing meanings/narratives, multiple realities

All this is quite enough to the chew on for a start. I plan to continue in pts. 2 and 3 with description of the Ironic and Post-Ironic.