A Literary Journey into Consciousness

September 27th, 2016

Invisible or Blind?

Posted by Krystal Dillon in Uncategorized

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man introduces the reader to a protagonist which many would characterize as naïve and easily influenced. I immediately found myself in the position where I interrogated the tension Ellison presented the reader in regards to the invisible man, where he is ostensibly an intelligent, eloquent speaker yet is so unaware and uncritical of his surroundings that it is almost laughable. It is almost absurd that the reader could believe a black character living in America at the time this novel was set, would be so oblivious to the race relations surrounding him. However, this is almost deliberate on the part of Ellison, effectively highlighting the ways in which we are all blind to aspects of our surroundings. His naïve nature is showcased in his meeting with Dr. Bledsoe in which he is reprimanded for his actions with Mr. Norton. As Bledsoe critiques invisible man for not knowing exactly what aspects of black life are appropriate to show the white trustee in order to maintain the prestige of the school, the protagonist is genuinely confused. When asked why he did not simply lie to the trustee, he questions that premise, arguing for truth as the proper action in that situation. At this point in the novel, it is clear that the protagonist sees the world in black and white, in that there are no areas of grey. He sees the truth as something to be exercised at all times regardless of if it comes at great personal consequence, and as a results he trusts blindly. Blindness is a theme that occurs throughout the novel: Brother Jack literally has one glass eye, and the protagonist utilizes a metaphor of two men with one eye walking on opposite ends of the street. It is clear that the protagonist has blind faith in those who are set to lead and instruct him, accepting all they tell him at face value and following their directives with little to no question. This is evident in the fact that he unequivocally follows Bledsoe’s instructions not to open the letter he gives him to gain employment in New York (where most people would have opened at least one just out of curiosity). In fact most of his authoritative figures count on his blind faith and obedience, and choose to treat him in specific ways due to the fact that they see him as the good solider who will follow rules. In fact, The Brotherhood recruits him because of his ability to be moulded according to their devices, he directly opposes Ras the Exhorter, a known rebel. After 225 pages of being angry at his obliviousness to the societal structures around him, I finally gained a glimpse into what has created his mindset. It states “You were trained to accept the foolishness of such old men as this, even when you thought them clowns and fools; you were trained to pretend that you respected them and acknowledged in them the same quality of authority and power in your world as the whites before whom they bowed and scraped and feared and loved and imitated and you were even trained to accept it when, angered or spiteful, or drunk with power, they came at you with a stick or strap or cane and you made no effort to strike back but only to escape unmarked” (225). When I received this glimpse into the protagonist’s thoughts I realized that to some extent he had been a product of his environment, in that he had been conditioned to behave in this manor. He had been conditioned to follow and not lead, to accept injustices and be slow to act,  and to survive rather than revolt. I understood the consciousness of this character better at this point and assumed that in this moment of realization he would evolve. However, even after an injury where he is knocked unconscious and “treated” by the factory’s doctors, he still falls victim to the same behavior. He joins ‘The brotherhood’ and again is fooled, tricked into thinking he has power and is exercising his own ideas and truly he becomes yet another blind follower. In fact he does not even reach a level of critical thinking until it is too late and he has been effectively sent into extreme violence deliberately by his organization. He doesn’t realize that he was complicit in his own subjugation until directly confronted with his own demise. The death of Cliffton finally showed his place in the novel. When Cliffton is seen selling ‘Sambo’ dolls, it is a metaphor for the protagonists position in society. He has effectively been a puppet, which was moved by an “invisible black string” (a clever addition by Ellison) whose puppeteer simply moved from one individual to another: Bledsoe and then Brother Jack.

September 19th, 2016

Consciousness is just a piece of the puzzle?

Posted by Krystal Dillon in Uncategorized

I am truly enjoying the progression of these texts. Each piece that we have read so far seems to build off of the preceding, each complicating the previous author’s findings and offering a conclusion of their own. We have gone from strictly reductionist views, to ideas that the mind is an illusion of the brain, to Hustvedt’s very personalised approach to subjectivity, all which have lead us to Antonio Damasio. He complicates Hustvedt’s individualism creating a theory who sees the self as an essential component of consciousness! I have been waiting for a text that would reconcile the ostensible tension between the brain and self hood, and Damasio does a great job arguing the connection between the two. While there were many parts of Damasio’s articles that perplexed me such as his argument that consciousness is only a small component of the mind, there were many aspects of his argument that I agreed with and enjoyed. The part of his theory that interested me most was his attempt to close the explanatory gap and his attempt to explain the phenomena of qualia. What I found interesting was his theory that our sense of self is what transforms these interactions with stimuli into emotions. He argues that “consciousness is the critical biological function that allows us to know sorrow or know joy, to know suffering or know pleasure, to sense embarrassment or pride, to grieve for lost love or lost life” (Page 4). I enjoyed the fact that the self was intrinsic to function of consciousness, that subjectivity was the main component. In fact, Damasio speaks about the multifaceted forms of consciousness: core consciousness, extended consciousness. At the foundational level (core consciousness) there is a necessity to recognise oneself within the present moment. Damasio also makes the distinction that consciousness consists of oneself as the object and oneself as the knower. The former being to recognize yourself in the abstract sense, to recognize your physical/material self, and to see yourself in relationship to the world around you. The latter almost being a sense of possession, oneself as the knower is seeing how you are the ‘holder of your memories’ and recognizing yourself as experiencing.

Damasio continues his argument about the necessity for an understanding of the self for these ‘mental processes’ to be complete. Our brain can form these mental patterns and try to gain a conception of a stimulus, however this process will not be complete without our understanding of the self and the relationship the object has with us and its affect. Damasio says “But if no self is generated, the images still are, although no one, inside or outside the organism, knows of their existence” (Page 16). This sentence reminded me of my Theory course were Ferdinand de Sassure speaks about language. He speaks about objects in the world being in existence but they do not become “known” to an individual without the medium of language, where the signified becomes linked intrinsically with its signifier. Damasio has the same idea with consciousness, in that the images will not be known to us a subjects until we can reconcile their relationship to the self.

September 12th, 2016

There’s no ‘I’ in Illness

Posted by Krystal Dillon in Uncategorized

I was intrigued by the assertions made in Neurocomic regarding the mind/brain duality, given that it sought to provide an answer to an age old problem that would appeal to those who hold an affinity towards literature. It presented the perfect answer, that yes the mind exists, something that is often hard for scientists to admit, but it is created by the brain (the ultimate storyteller). Although this conclusion was one that I did not dismiss wholeheartedly, I knew that there were many limitations to this idea. It seemed to once again take the individuality and the humanity out of the idea of selfhood removing agency as many of the reductionist views often do. Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman posed many questions regarding subjectivity, questions that can be posed to the writers of Neurocomic. 

Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman is written as an exploration into her own consciousness, or a discovery of the meaning and the etiology of her ‘shaking’. Through an exploration of many scientific discoveries, she tries to discern the root of her illness, often using others’ experiences and narratives to better understand her own. Hustvedt is very concerned with the individuality of mental disorders. She remarks that many scientists shy away from individual’s stories because they do not aid in finding the similarities that allow them to define, constitute and classify mental illnesses. Where Farinella and Ros see the idea of an ‘I’ as purely a figment of our imagination (imagination also being constructed by the brain), Hustvedt sees it as a more complex subject. She poses many questions highlighting the very idea that individuality exists. For instance, she argues that it is important to understand why individuals with the same mental disorder, manifesting itself through the same brain abnormality have differing experiences, differing manifestations of their symptoms, as well as differing emotional triggers. Due to the fact that many classified disorders, specifically PTSD and conversion disorder often correlate with an individual’s distinct memories or trauma, it is clear that one’s story is important when speaking about the brain. In this reading, it may even complicate Farinella and Ros’ idea that the brain is a great storyteller, offering the assertion that if this conclusion is true, the individual’s story is important way to understand how the mind works and is constructed.

Hustvedt investigates the relationship between the brain and the mind trying to show how the former and its anatomical structure can affect the construction of the latter. For instance, she does so by highlighting our constant ability to associate the brain and its make-up with our linguistic description of the self. For instance, she remarks that often when one is suffering from an illness that directly involves the brain they utilize said illness in direct combination with the self: using terms such as I am schizophrenic, or I am epileptic. Utilizing the word ‘am’ as opposed to ‘have’, show the individual’s conception of the self is directly related with their illness. Hustvedt even capitulates to this connection by ending the book identifying her conception of herself with her illness stating “I am the shaking woman” (199). Overall, Hustvedt’s analysis can be seen as an answer to Farinella and Ros’ assertions about the relationship between the brain and the mind, however she does complicate their description of the mind as simply being a product of the brain, whose ability to invent and create a narrative is unparalleled. She attempts to complicate this understanding and hold importance and emphasis on the ‘I’ and the self that is created. By asking questions such as how our stories differ and why, will also allow us to better understand the brain. This is best articulated by the physician Rita Charon whom Hustvedt quotes in the text who states “Nonnarrative knowledge attempts to illuminate the universal by transcending the particular; narrative knowledge, by looking closely at individual human beings grappling with the conditions of life attempts to illuminate the universals of the human condition by revealing the particular” (27). When speaking about the brain/mind duality, Hustvedt sees the two as mutually informative. While the brain and its ‘abnormalities’ can help us understand the individual and its selfhood, their mind can also help us better understand the brain. As Dr. Charon posits, in investigating the individuality of our narratives we can better understand the universality of our brains/minds. Hustvedt would then serve as a challenge to Farinella and Ros, urging them to reevaluate their stance and see the true significance of the process of the brain’s storytelling and what that can reveal about us all.

September 5th, 2016

The Brain as the Inventor of Reality

Posted by Krystal Dillon in Uncategorized

This weeks assigned readings had me thinking about how much of our perception of reality is shaped by our brain. I immediately rejected the reductionist view of consciousness last week, which sought to diminish all functions of one’s existence to an internal process housed in the brain. However, this week I saw myself questioning the hasty way I dismissed such claims. As I began to read Neurocomic I thought it would follow the same framework as Lodge’s Thinks in that it would present these scientific discoveries about the brain and conclude with a humanistic approach to consciousness. I assumed the graphic novel would end in a way that would at least problematize the reductionist approach given the medium. I assumed that all authors, by choosing the medium of literature housed some affinity to the sort of ambivalence towards the cerebral subject outlined in the piece by Ortega and Vidal. However, the end of the novel tried to synthesize and depolarize the debate between philosophers and scientists in an unexpected way. Farinella and Ross end with an explanation of the mind as being an illusion created by the brain. The protagonist of the novel, after his long journey through brainland realizes there is no way out of the brain, in fact, everything including the mind are housed within. After confronting his reflection, he is told that “The idea of yourself as ‘someone’ inhabiting your brain is nothing but an illusion; a reflection that the brain has of its own body and actions” (Farinella and Ros 124).

The idea of the brain creating the illusion of selfhood and the idea of the mind is one that I cannot dismiss wholeheartedly. The novel goes on to show how the brain inherently creates and analyzes images everyday. After the authors referred to the brain as a great “storyteller” I realized that the very idea of an ‘imagination’ shows the ability of the brain to distort and even to some extent create reality. The epilogue highlights for the reader the ability we have to see images and immediately make connections, in fact, we read a graphic novel which is essentially a book of artificial images and comprehend and process it as the linear progression of a story. The images do not present the story, however we in the process of reading, perceiving and analyzing these images do so, which is why it is hard to dismiss Ros and Farinella’s notion of the brain creating the illusion of the mind.

When I read John Donne’s piece ‘Present in Absence’ I gathered the same notion of the brain as the creator of things not there. In this poem it shown that the author is longing for his love. However he showcases the power of images such as those of his beloved which are housed in his mind. This is an example of the brain’s ability to hold onto something in the present which is actually absent from the individual’s grasp in the external world, an example being memory. While the author states ‘My senses want their outward motion which now within’ meaning he wishes he could interact with the ‘real’ person and not simply the image of her created in his brain, he then showcases the benefits to this love affair housed in his mind. The author remarks ‘by absence this good means I gain, that I can catch her where none can watch her, in some close corner of my brain: there I embrace and kiss her; and so enjoy her and none miss her” (line 19-24). In the author’s mind he can create an illusion in which he and his beloved are together, and where he is master of their particular story. Poetry is an example of the blurred lines between reality and illusion. Not only does the author blur this line, but the reader does the same when analyzing the images it creates. By deciphering a fictional piece of work to make sense of one’s own reality we showcase the artifice of this process. However, Starr in Feeling Beauty complicates this portrayal of the brain/mind when using the stance of ancient philosopher Epicurus who “saw mental images as no less real than those of external perception, for all images have a material existence in the brain that produces them” (9). If we follow the logic of Farinella and Ros it then complicates our understanding of reality. The question then becomes to what extent is the brain truly the inventor of reality given that even mental images have a physical location even if it is housed in the brain. This way of thinking about the brain blurs the line that demarcates reality from illusion in a way that is simultaneously reductionist and not. It does reduce the mind to an illusion, and reduces reality or at least our perception of it to a process of our brain making patterns and finding connections. However it also does not take agency away from the individual and its creation of the self due to the fact that if combined with Starr’s idea of aesthetics shows that there are external forces in our creation of the self as well. Starr talks about the inability for aesthetics to be a cohesive entity because the idea of beauty is often shaped by the type of art valorized by a given society. Therefore, even though one’s mind is an illusion created by the brain, the creation and the cultivation of the self is informed by external sociocultural forces. Overall Neurocomic’s representation of the brain/mind has caused me to complicate my interpretation of Thinks and the aim of the neuronovel as well as to ask multiple questions of my own perception of reality and selfhood.

September 2nd, 2016

Consciousness is a Puzzler

Posted by Krystal Dillon in Uncategorized

While Lodge’s Thinks definitely showcases reductionist and determinist views on the cerebral subject, the novel itself does not capitulate to these ideals as Roth suggests. Instead, the novel, presents the binary opposite of this view of consciousness through Helen Reed. She introduces a nuanced idea of selfhood that cannot be simply explained by the brain. Through the juxtaposition of these characters, the novel is seemingly able to maintain a stance of ambivalence by not reinforcing either mode of thinking. The conclusion is then left to the readers discretion. This stance of ambivalence is inherent to the novel which “should test ideas, not surrender to them” (Ortega and Vidal 339). Ralph Messenger allows the reader to gain insight into the reductionist approach by making this school of thought more accessible to the reader. Helen Reed’s character was useful in two of the novel’s aims: to help the reader understand an esoteric approach to consciousness in a comprehensive and accessible way, and also to represent the opposing side of this debate of ‘literature vs. the brain’. Lodge’s Thinks forges a link between these two modes of thinking, seeking to provide an understanding of consciousness that synthesizes Ralph’s reductionist views, and Helen’s more nuanced approach. This synthesis of opposing views is evidenced by the end of the novel, where a conference built upon science and objective discovery is concluded with a speech about literature and selfhood.

It is problematic to reduce the self to simply the inner workings of the brain. This reductionist view is one that takes the humanity out of everyday experiences. Ralph, in the novel has reduced all human behaviour and experience to a biological explanation. For instance, when Ralph tries to explain Helen’s experience with grief he argues that it is “An extended process of cognitive reorganization characterized by the occurrence of negatively valences perturbing states caused by an attachment structure reacting to a death event” (Lodge 63). Although the basis of grief can be explained in this manner, it is also a very subjective experience. Helen attempts to explain this as she personalizes her encounter with grief, and her lyrical explanation of the ‘feeling’ of grief is one where reductionist views fall short. This is the way the neuronovel operates, in a way that deconstructs the binary of subjective and objective, the personal and impersonal, and forges the two. However, Ortega and Vidal explain that neuronovel “may be an attempt at bridging the two cultures; yet the tensions that animate the narrative speak about the perhaps insuperable difficulties to transcend their differences” (339). Though Lodge’s novel seeks to synthesize these “two cultures” the end of the novel directly show the issue with combining opposing ideas. Helen’s speech at the end of the novel although well received, does not simply convert all, if any, of those still holding these reductionist views. The ability to discredit either way of thinking is impossible because no definitive conclusions have been found on either side, and the idea of consciousness is still so abstract that this synthesis has no concrete basis.

However, Lodge’s novel does not aim to make any assertions as to the nature of consciousness, he simply problematizes the views already prescribed on the subject. Ralph’s views are placed on shaky ground with the introduction of Helen Reed. Her speech at the end of the novel speaks about the very basis and foundation of our society being built off of ideas of selfhood and critiques a reductionist view that would take away agency, autonomy and individuality. By this logic, not only would the idea of morality be obsolete, but what can be said of human choice and free will, and how can ‘justice’ exist if all of our behaviour can be explained by the brain? These types of questions complicate the reductionist view and try to place an emphasis on humanity to a purely objective argument. Helen’s use of the poem in her speech showed how literature has always been dualistic in this frame of mind, always seeing the idea of consciousness as something both universal and individual, both objective and subjective. This blending of two sides is inherent to the neuronovel that seeks to find middle ground in an argument that at many times can be polarizing, a process that is specific and done artfully through the medium of literature.

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