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Are We Stories? Do We Want to Be? November 26, 2014

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Philosophy of Human Nature, Philosophy of Literature.
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Every student of mine will know that sooner or later I will be introducing them to some story which illustrates some philosophical idea to perfection. And I am indeed a firm believer in the ability of good stories–film as well as literature–to provide the “meat” for the “bones” of a dry or complicated philosophical theory, especially in moral philosophy. Just think of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” as a critical expose of utilitarianism. The film Extreme Measures, same thing. Ethical relativism, look no further than Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. And my latest addition to the moral universe of fiction: The television series Longmire, with Sheriff Walt Longmire being the most Kantian of heroes since Will Kane in High Noon. But rarely do we get into the core of narratology, the notion of personhood being inexorably linked with the ability of a person to tell his or her own story; it is really only in my Phil 111, Philosophy in Literature class that we have the luxury of getting into that corner of philosophy and storytelling. But this is where the field first saw the light of day, in the 1980s and 1990s, with philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Paul Ricoeur, Martha Nussbaum, Daniel Dennett, and a number of literature people such as Wayne Booth and David Carr. The idea that we become who we are because of our capacity to “connect the dots” in our lives into a narrative whole has caught on so that narratology today has two distinct areas, an epistemological/ontological side where the personal narrative becomes our human mode of being, and the ethical one where gathering one’s events into a story becomes a moral requirement in order to be a human being with care and direction.

But now there are voices, questioning the truth of “humans being storytelling animals,” at least as far as our own stories go. Because when we tell the story of our life, we are (like Ricoeur said) always in the middle, we don’t remember our beginning, and we won’t be able to tell the story of our end. In New Philosopher 11/25/2014 Patrick Stokes writes,

Biographers can describe a human life in narrative terms quite successfully, but they can only do so successfully from a certain distance, leaving out lots of trivial everyday detail. Zoom in close enough, and the ‘story’ of a human life starts to look like a pretty ineptly-scripted one, full of abandoned subplots and details that signify nothing and go nowhere.

Our lives don’t always resolve across a neat five-act structure either. 17th century French philosopher Blaise Pascal noted that the final act is always bloody, but very often that final act comes out of nowhere, a jarring interruption to the narrative coherence of our lives rather than a neat conclusion. And even if our lives are stories, we won’t be around to find out how they end.

That’s a problem for narrativists, because how stories end is central to their meaning. An alternative version of Romeo and Juliet where the protagonists survive isn’t the same story with a different ending – it’s a completely different story. The narrative meaning of everything leading up to the end turns out to be very different.

Stories have narrative shape, and only things with boundaries can have a shape. How a story begins and ends is an integral part of its narrative meaning and trajectory. But we have no idea how our lives will end, and quite possibly won’t know about it when they do. If that happens, we won’t ever have access to the final narrative meaning of our lives, we will never have known whether it was a tragic story of star-crossed loves or a tale of triumph. It’s like we’re watching a movie where we actually have some direct control of the plot, but realise we might never find out how it ends.

For one thing, Ricoeur solved that one, in his book Oneself as Another: He says to imagine one’s ending, and relate to the imaginary unity of one’s life that way. We can’t control our fate, but we can influence its direction through the story we tell. But there is another problem with seeing our lives as stories, and that is something that has made me a little more reluctant to embrace the theory of us being our stories. Because a good story, in order to have a point, invariably has to involve problems, problems that will then get resolved at the end. Maybe even horrific problems, tragedies, horror stories, tales of loss and grief, the depths of human misery. Because nobody wants their life to be a comedy, right? So if our story is supposed to be serious, we must embrace the drama, the tragedy. But perhaps most of us would rather just have a boring, safe life with predictable events, just some fun, some love, some sweetness, and then whatever problems that arise, get rid of them/get over them as fast as we can? But those lives don’t make great stories. In order to leave behind a worthy tale of our lives, we need to include the drama, the tragic, and then overcome it through a character arc.
Aside from the fact that most people’s lives will include tragedy whether we want it or not, it hardly seems like something to strive for, just so we can say that we improved on our character. Maybe most of us would prefer to read/watch fictional stories and biographies about other people’s tragedies and hope those things don’t happen to us…

Hooked on Stories February 22, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Human Nature, Philosophy of Literature.
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 For someone like me who has researched and written about Narrative Philosophy (philosophy involving the phenomenon of storytelling) for close to 30 years, with special emphasis on Narrative Ethics, it is particularly gratifying to watch the latest developments in neuroscientific research concerning the human urge to tell stories. Some of my students may remember me showing them a science video of the “man with two brains,” a man who had his two brain hemispheres severed, and resorted to making up stories about his associations because he couldn’t explain them any other way. For years I have told my students that the man with two brains was trying to get control of a chaotic situation, and therefore chose to tell a story about it—-an example of why we tell stories: to get a grip, to make unmanageable life manageable. In short, that’s why we tell stories of historic events, why we have myths and legends, why we love novels and movies, and certainly also why we lie. 

The doctor in charge of research in connection with this man’s case was Dr. Mike Gazzaniga, UCSB. And a new article written by Jessica Marshall and published in NewScientist, “Mind Reading: the Science of Storytelling,”  notes that Gazzaniga has pursued the phenomenon of our natural capacity to confabulate in his subsequent work:

Nobody has done more to highlight the central role of storytelling in human psychology than neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga of the University of California, Santa Barbara. In studies of people in whom the connection between the two sides of the brain has been severed, he has shown that the left hemisphere is specialised for interpreting our feelings, actions and experiences in the form of narrative. In fact, Gazzaniga believes this is what creates our sense of a unified self. We also seem to use storytelling to reconcile our conscious and subconscious thoughts – as, for example, when we make choices based on subconscious reasoning and then invent fictions to justify and rationalise them (New Scientist, 7 October 2006, p 32).

The psychology of narrativity (Daniel Morrow, Rolf Zwaan) has reached interesting results over the past 20 years, and now neuroscience is weighing in with corroborative research:

It would appear that we don’t just tell stories to make sense of ourselves, we actually adopt the stories of others as though we were the protagonist.

Brain-scanning research published in 2009 seems to confirm this. When a team led by Jeffrey Zacks of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri, ran functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on people reading a story or watching a movie, they found that the same brain regions that are active in real-life situations fire up when a fictitious character encounters an equivalent situation.

 And furthermore, our brains like it:

Stories can also manipulate how you feel, as anyone who has watched a horror movie or read a Charles Dickens novel will confirm. But what makes us empathise so strongly with fictional characters? Paul Zak from Claremont Graduate University, California, thinks the key is oxytocin, a hormone produced during feel-good encounters such as breastfeeding and sex.

Taking this idea a step further, Read Montague of Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg and William Casebeer of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Virginia, have started using fMRI to see what happens in the brain’s reward centres when people listen to a story. These are the areas that normally respond to pleasurable experiences such as sex, food and drugs. They are also associated with addiction. “I would be shocked if narrative didn’t engage the same kind of circuitry,” says Montague. That would certainly help explain why stories can be so compelling. “If I were a betting man or woman, I would say that certain types of stories might be addictive and, neurobiologically speaking, not that different from taking a tiny hit of cocaine,” says Casebeer.

So now we’re beginning to understand the power of stories: Our brains are set up to confabulate, we engage naturally in storytelling, and we can apparently get hooked on good stories.  But take a look at where some scientists are going with this:

Understanding the mechanisms by which stories affect us can be put to practical use. Hasson has coined the term neurocinematics to describe its application to movie-making. His work reveals how some directors’ styles are particularly effective at synchronising the neural activity among members of the audience. “Hitchcock is the best example I have so far,” he says. “He was considered an expert of really manipulating the audience and turning them on and off as he pleased,” Hasson notes, and this shows up in the scans of people watching his films. Perhaps future directors could use these insights to control an audience’s experience. Hasson’s team has investigated how the order in which different scenes appear affects neural responses to a movie – which could help editors create either more enigmatic or more instantly comprehensible storylines, as required.

Human history is full of examples of the motivating power of a shared narrative – be it national, religious or focused on some other ideal – and Casebeer wants to investigate the possible military and political applications of a deeper understanding of this kind of storytelling. “One of my interests is in understanding how we can design institutions that more effectively promote moral judgement and development,” he says. He believes, for example, that the right stories could help military academies produce officers who are more willing to exercise moral courage.

Casebeer notes that a compelling narrative can seal the resolve of a suicide bomber, and suggests that developing “counter-narrative strategies” could help deter such attackers. “It might be that understanding the neurobiology of a story can give us new insights into how we prevent radicalisation and how we prevent people from becoming entrenched in the grip of a narrative that makes it more likely that they would want to intentionally cause harm to others,” he says.

At this point I’m seeing the ghosts of Watson and Skinner, the behaviorists, and their grand program, not just to understand human behavior, but to control it.  I also see the ghost of Plato and his “Noble Lie.” And the ghost of every parent in the world who has ever told the story of “Little Red Riding Hood.” The fact that we’re story-telling animals (a term coined by Alasdair MacIntyre) also implies that we’re story-consuming animals, and as such we’re vulnerable to well-told manipulative stories. So this is where we need Narrative Philosophy/Narrative Ethics, in addition to brain research and psychological statistics. Even though the article by Casebeer referred to in Marshall’s piece is from 2005, reflecting the urgency of the post-9/11 years (which may of course feel new and fresh with every new terrorist act), the core concept of using stories to change the world remains the same—equally promising, and equally dangerous. Because what Casebeer is suggesting may sound, and be,  benign and downright useful in a new century with an ongoing struggle against terrorism (regardless of changing administrations’ different nomenclature): telling stories to counteract the narratives of fanaticism that can lead to radicalization and mass-murder. Science-Fiction has engaged in precisely such narratives for a couple of decades. But we cannot engage in such a practice without first having analyzed the ethical implications of narratives being deliberately told to control the emotions of the audience. We already have a term for such narratives—-we call them propaganda. And in order to evaluate whether such an approach is justified we need to engage in an ethical analysis of all aspects of storytelling, and raise our awareness of when we’re being entertained, and when we’re being manipulated/educated. One level doesn’t preclude the other, and we don’t have to vilify the manipulative/educational aspect, but we need to be aware of it, and the motivations of the manipulators. In other words, we need an Ethic of Narratives, not just Narrative Ethics, understanding ourselves as moral agents in the world through stories. 

And we haven’t even started talking about the stories embedded in commercials!

Can Novels Be Philosophical? Part 2 February 6, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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In his NY Times article from Jan.20 James Ryerson brought up arguments supporting the view that there is a world of difference between the analytical arguments of philosophy and the murky feelings of literature (see blogpost below). But he also cites opposing views:

Of course, such oppositions are never so simple. Plato, paradoxically, was himself a brilliant literary artist. Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard were all writers of immense literary as well as philosophical power. Philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre and George Santayana have written novels, while novelists like Thomas Mann and Robert Musil have created fiction dense with philosophical allusion. Some have even suggested, only half in jest, that of the brothers William and Henry James, the philosopher, William, was the more natural novelist, while the novelist, Henry, was the more natural philosopher.

David Foster Wallace, who briefly attended the Ph.D. program in philosophy at Harvard after writing a first-rate undergraduate philosophy thesis (published in December by Columbia University Press as “Fate, Time, and Language”), believed that fiction offered a way to capture the emotional mood of a philosophical work. The goal, as he explained in a 1990 essay in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, wasn’t to make “abstract philosophy ‘accessible’ ” by simplifying ideas for a lay audience, but to figure out how to recreate a reader’s more subjective reactions to a philosophical text.

Unlike Murdoch, Gass and Wallace, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, whose latest novel is “36 Arguments for the Existence of God,” treats philosophical questions with unabashed directness in her fiction, often featuring debates or dialogues among characters who are themselves philosophers or physicists or mathematicians. Still, she says that part of her empathizes with Murdoch’s wish to keep the loose subjectivity of the novel at a safe remove from the philosopher’s search for hard truth. It’s a “huge source of inner conflict,” she told me. “I come from a hard-core analytic background: philosophy of science, mathematical logic. I believe in the ideal of objectivity.” But she has become convinced over the years of what you might call the psychology of philosophy: that how we tackle intellectual problems depends critically on who we are as individuals, and is as much a function of temperament as cognition. Embedding a philosophical debate in richly imagined human stories conveys a key aspect of intellectual life. You don’t just understand a conceptual problem, she says: “You feel the problem.”

So according to Ryerson there are indeed authors whose work straddle the two fields—but I’m curious about his approach, because it seems to be exclusively from the viewpoint of analytic philosophy that a gap exists: Continental philosophers have traditionally felt far closer to fictional literature, and continental authors have blended philosophical thoughts into their works, as Ryerson himself mentions. Paul Ricoeur, the French philosopher, spent decades teaching his readers about the value of narrative philosophy. Here in this country similar lessons have been taught since the 1980s by literature people such as Wayne Booth and Hayden White. But even in contemporary American philosophy there is an increasing rapprochement between literature and philosophy; I’m surprised that Ryerson doesn’t even mention the one contemporary American philosopher who, perhaps more than anybody else, has seen the philosophical value in fiction without getting hung up on whether fiction displays formal arguments and “hard truths”: Martha Nussbaum. And if we want to look for an American novelist who has excelled in writing fictional works of moral philosophy where the reader doesn’t choke on formal arguments, but instead sees moral deliberations come alive through his characters, John Steinbeck is probably the best example of a writer who fuses literature and ethics—to the profound irritation of literary critics, because he broke with the standard rules of literature. From Of Mice and Men to East of Eden, and in particular The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck weaves philosophical arguments about right and wrong, good and evil, into his storylines. And if you read Stephen K. George’s collections of essays, John Steinbeck and Moral Philosophy, and John Steinbeck and His Contemporaries, as well as Ethics, Literature, and Theory, you’ll find that a new generation of literature critics and moral philosophers have no problem recognizing philosophical fiction as simultaneously  representative of good philosophy and good fiction.

Can Novels be Philosophical? Part 1 January 26, 2011

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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A fabulously interesting piece by James Ryerson in the New York Times Book Review section! My comments to his piece will have to wait a few days–for now I just want to share excerpts from this thought-provoking essay with you:

Can a novelist write philosophically? Even those novelists most commonly deemed “philosophical” have sometimes answered with an emphatic no. Iris Murdoch, the longtime Oxford philosopher and author of some two dozen novels treating highbrow themes like consciousness and morality, argued that philosophy and literature were contrary pursuits. Philosophy calls on the analytical mind to solve conceptual problems in an “austere, unselfish, candid” prose, she said in a BBC interview broadcast in 1978, while literature looks to the imagination to show us something “mysterious, ambiguous, particular” about the world.

Philosophy has historically viewed literature with suspicion, or at least a vague unease. Plato was openly hostile to art, fearful of its ability to produce emotionally beguiling falsehoods that would disrupt the quest for what is real and true. Plato’s view was extreme (he proposed banning dramatists from his model state), but he wasn’t crazy to suggest that the two enterprises have incompatible agendas. Philosophy is written for the few; literature for the many. Philosophy is concerned with the general and abstract; literature with the specific and particular. Philosophy dispels illusions; literature creates them. Most philosophers are wary of the aesthetic urge in themselves. It says something about philosophy that two of its greatest practitioners, Aristotle and Kant, were pretty terrible writers.

In Part 2 I’ll post more excerpts from Ryerson’s essay, and post some comments. For one thing, the bridge-building between philosophy and literature has been going on for a few decades now, and these arguments are rather outdated. Novels, and the occasional movie, can indeed not just “feel” philosophical, but present philosophical points. You just have to dig for them. But interestingly, literature professors have been just as suspicious of philosophers messing with their literature. Are those days coming to an end? Stay tuned.

Thoughts on Bookstores January 26, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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At the start of the Spring 2010 semester I thought I’d celebrate our return to the Halls of Thinking with some thoughts on books and bookstores. Sunday I was out and about in a neighborhood close to home, but one I haven’t explored much. And there, in a strip mall, tucked in next to a deli and a pizza place, was a used bookstore. And I jumped for joy! An honest-to-goodness used bookstore!  Now why would that matter so much to me? In all likelihood (because I didn’t have time to explore it, but I will do so in the near future) all it offers is paperbacks of bestsellers, some gardening books, some books about weight loss, and raising children, and other types of books that people discard when they move on to something else. A Philosophy section is not very likely, unless it is lumped in with “Metaphysics,” meaning New Age stories of reincarnation and How to Get Everything You Want through Maniacal Positive Thinking. But what elated me was the mere thought of being able to go into a bookstore full of old books, and let serendipity take over—take books down from shelves, browse and become inspired, and end up going home with some brand new thought process tucked under your arm. Something I used to do at least once a week for my entire adult life, regardless of where I have lived, until the arrival of Amazon.com, AbeBooks and the other book search engines. And that is of course also why the used bookstores are disappearing. There used to be one used bookstore after another on San Diego’s Adams Ave. Now how many are there? Three? And I’m as much to blame as anyone else who goes online instead of patronizing the used bookstores. But it is horrendously sad, because when you “browse” for books online, you only go after what you already know. The Hermeneutic Circle has captured you. Yes, Amazon’s clever trick of pointing out what other people buy may expose you to books you hadn’t thought of, but it still isn’t the same as spending time in a place where all the possibilities are right there in front of you, in the stacks. It has to do with our 21st century time perception, and our sense of convenience—we want what we want fast, and as cheaply as possible, so we can go on to other things. Who among us these days takes time—perhaps hours—to browse a bookstore when the outcome may even be nil? We (some of us) have stopped considering browsing in used bookstores as something you do for its own sake, something enjoyable. But we are the ones who lose out, because we think we already know what we want and what we need.  We’ve deselected the element of the chance encounter through the assumption that we can manage and control what comes into our lives, and that of course goes for many situations other than browsing in bookstores…

But it can get worse. How about losing regular bookstores, with new books? A recent CNN report told us that there are now no more regular bookstores in the city of Laredo. And before you start thinking snidely about Laredo, Texas, cowboys, and so forth, just let me remind you that for one thing, reading books used to be a widespread, nonpartisan pastime, and for another, you can’t jump to cultural conclusions based on geographical assumptions. So Laredo has lost all its bookstores, and it seems that other cities will follow. The irony is that it wasn’t even because nobody was buying books in the last remaining mall bookstore—it was a thriving business, but the bookstore chain was looking to save money by closing outlets.

Barnes & Noble says it closed the Laredo store as part of an overall strategy to shut down the chain of mall-based bookstores. Even though the Laredo store was profitable, the overall chain was losing money, according to company officials.

Some in Laredo fear the lack of a book store will make the city look like an ignorant outpost on the Texas border.

“Assuming that we don’t read because we’re Mexican or we’re immigrant or we’re poor, that is not the case,” said Xochitl Mora, the city’s spokeswoman who spearheads the “Laredo Reads” initiative.

“Our challenge is to convince a corporate America bookstore and others they will find a literate, articulate, eloquent citizenry.”

The publishing industry is in the midst of a revolution. Threats from Internet sites, like Amazon.com, and electronic book devices, like the Kindle, have cut into profits of retail book giants. In addition, bookstores are facing increasing competition from mass merchandisers like Target and Wal-Mart.

About 50 to 60 small Barnes & Noble-owned bookstores have closed every year over the last 5 to 6 years, the company said. Rival Borders has also struggled financially amid the tough marketplace.

This tendency is bad news for the efforts to reverse the dropping literacy rate among young people, and that’s alarming in itself. But this leads to another concern: a change in attitude toward the very activity of reading—which I of course do for fun, and I assume that you do, too, but look at the homes featured in the endless series of home improvement shows on cable channels. Where are the bookshelves? Where are the home libraries? A young friend of a friend came to our house a while back, and looked at our bookshelves (which take up a wall), and asked, innocently, “Why do you have so many books?” As if that is even a good question, ever. But it provided for a great opportunity to have a conversation about books…

Are we really on the road to a future where owning and reading books is “quaint” and perhaps a little subversive, a little disturbing? Is Ray Bradbury going to be right?

Magical Thinking, in Moderation December 24, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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Remember when children’s books weren’t allowed to contain anything imaginary? At least according to recommendations of child psychologists. We’re talking about the 1970s and well into the Eighties. No fairy tales allowed, no tooth fairy, no Santa, and above all no imaginary friends, because one wouldn’t want children to grow up with a bunch of illusions that life could never measure up to, would one? So instead they wrote children’s books about parents divorcing, Fluffy the dog dying, and other realistic in-your-face topics, to train kids for more in-your-face adult hardship. Oh joy! That wasn’t much fun, was it? And I suspect that magical thinking just never went away, it just went underground—and resurfaced in graphic novels. So for a while we’ve been used to Superheroes being part of the Collective Unconscious of kids. But now we even hear from psychologists that it is downright healthy for kids to not only be exposed to fantastic tales, but even to make up stories themselves. Imaginary friends are to be encouraged and welcomed into the family! Apparently, children’s cognitive powers thrive by being exposed to, and learning to be comfortable within an imaginary universe.

Psychologists like Jacqueline Woolley, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, are studying the process of “magical thinking,” or children’s fantasy lives, and how kids learn to distinguish between what is real and what isn’t.

The hope is that understanding how children’s cognition typically develops will also help scientists better understand developmental delays and conditions such as autism. For instance, there is evidence that imagination and role play appears to have a key role in helping children take someone else’s perspective, says Dr. Harris. Kids with autism, on the other hand, don’t engage in much pretend play, leading some to suggest that the lack of such activity contributes to their social deficits, according to Dr. Harris.

…It is important but not necessary for parents to encourage fantasy play in their children, says Dr. Woolley. If the child already has an imaginary friend, for instance, parents should follow their children’s lead and offer encouragement if they are comfortable doing so, she says. Similarly, with Santa, if a child seems excited by the idea, parents can encourage it. But if parents choose not to introduce or encourage the belief in fictitious characters, they should look for other ways to encourage their children’s imaginations, such as by playing dress-up or reading fiction.

For a narrative ethicist like myself this is of course fun stuff: psychologists advocating magical story-telling as an enhancement of social skills! That’s what narrative ethicists call a moral thought experiment. All over the world, raconteurs of children’s stories have always engaged in such mind experiments, but it is encouraging to see such an activity being promoted by psychologists. However…there’s got to be more to the study than that. Exactly how, and when does the child learn the difference between what’s real and what isn’t? Where is the built-in reality check? How far is the encouragement supposed to go? And is there an upper age limit? Are we supposed to engage in magical thinking into adulthood? (Which of course brings up the whole question of religion, and numerous anthropological studies.) This could be the flip side of the austere no-fairy-tales attitude: an indiscriminate acceptance of fantasies and magic, and I’m already beginning to yearn for stories like “When Mom and Dad Split Up.” Storytelling as a cognitive/ethical device has to include a measure of moderation, and a clear understanding that fantasy only “works” when contrasted to reality. And the studies referred to  surely must include just such an understanding—it’s just not apparent from the article.

Be that as it may, there is another aspect that fascinates me: the similarity to the old discussion between Plato (who discouraged an interest in fiction) and Aristotle (who encouraged it). Arguments that were presented 24 centuries ago are still valid today: Plato’s concern that exposure to emotional fiction (in the theater) can make the audience forget the all-important self-control provided by rationality, contrasted with Aristotle’s enthusiasm for the moral and psychological cleansing provided by a good, emotional drama. But both Plato and Aristotle lived in a world where moderation (Maeden Agan) was a moral and aesthetic ideal. So if we go down the Aristotelian path and encourage an immersion in dramatic fiction we should remember that he never meant for it to replace our sense of reality, but to enhance it. Some imagination is good, and even necessary in order to understand other minds, and other possibilities. Too much of it is not a good thing!

So, getting back to the imaginary friends: since this is Christmas Eve, is our imaginary friend Santa a plus or a minus in the cognitive development of a child? You decide. I never had a problem with Santa, not even when I realized (around the age of 5) that he was my granddad. And I was very careful not to let on that I had figured him out, because he was so jolly, and I didn’t want to ruin his Christmas…

Life on the Table Top April 24, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Culture, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy of Literature.
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Sometimes I’m wondering if I’m living on a table top, and just haven’t discovered it yet. The significance of that metaphor will be explained below.


I go to the store to find a favorite product, and it’s gone from the shelves. There’s not even a label where it used to be. Other stores don’t carry it, either. I am met with blank stares: “I don’t think we’ve ever carried that item” or, sometimes, “We haven’t had that item while I’ve been working here.” Occasionally a sales clerk will remember, “They just canceled a bunch of items,” or “It wasn’t selling.” (But it was! I was buying it, and had for years!) Instead there are other items, stuff I’ve never seen before; ads for new products, products we can’t live without, stuff that will make us feel better, look better, live longer, have nicer breath, and so forth. And in another 6 months they will be gone from the shelves, and we will be asked to be excited about other products. Sure, this is life in a Western consumer society, and truthfully, I prefer it to the limited number of available goods from my post-WWII childhood, or neighbors fighting over a loaf of bread in empty bakeries in other cultures. It’s just that I have this sneaking suspicion that there’s a certain scenario at play, involving a huge table top, and that’s because of one of the first science fiction stories I ever read when I was in my late teens. I haven’t read it since, so I apologize if my summary isn’t completely accurate. But it’s the metaphor that counts, not so much the actual story:


The story was called “The Tunnel Under the World,” written by Frederick Pohl. It is about a husband and wife living in a small town, ordinary lives, work, shopping, dinners, sex, and so forth, but every morning they wake up from terrible nightmares, and so does everyone else. Their world is awash with commercials—billboards, commercials on TV and on the radio, in papers and magazines, even advertising trucks driving around the neighborhood with bullhorns. And somehow, it seems like all the items advertised are products nobody has heard of. They usually go to bed fairly early, because they have busy days and get tired—but one night the husband, let’s call him Joe, changes his routine, and works in his garage. Here he discovers that the floor and walls are really fake, and underneath is solid metal. Joe sleeps in the garage overnight, and goes upstairs next morning. He notices that the date on the newspaper is yesterday’s, but his wife thinks that date is correct. Nobody else seems to notice that the date, on TV and the radio, is also the day before, and the news is old. But Joe remembers—and he also remembers the commercials from yesterday: They were different. That night he hides in his garage again, apparently shielded from whatever steals his memory by the metal walls, and sure enough, next day his wife, co-workers and neighbors all have had nightmares, and remember nothing; the fresh newspaper still reads the date from two days ago, with the same news, their clock shows the same date—but the commercials are totally different. When he recognizes a co-worker who tried to contact him the day before, the co-worker realizes that Joe can remember—and takes him underground to show him that nothing is what it seems. Underneath the town there is now a new, shiny metal tunnel. Every night the entire community has been drugged, somehow, and someone is manipulating everybody to think it is always the same date. The co-worker has managed to stay awake, and avoid the collective nightly brain wipe. But why this elaborate scheme? And what’s with the never ending commercials for products nobody has ever heard of before? Joe decides to explore the tunnel—and ends up on a large smooth surface ending abruptly, with a bottomless abyss in front of him, and across the abyss, a huge dark mountain. That moves. And has hands. Joe realizes the terrifying truth: They can never escape, because they are not real people—they are nothing but miniaturized robots, living on a table top, as part of a major experiment. What kind of experiment?  Every day these little test subjects who think they live real lives are being exposed to new forms of advertising and store items, to judge what is most attractive to consumers. Then at night their little brains are wiped, and in the morning it starts all over again: Same newspaper, same TV news, same date, different commercials and different items in the stores. And it will go on forever.

Quite a story to read when you’re 17 and starting to question the social status quo, and there were no Truman Show, Thirteenth Floor or Matrix movies yet. But of course we’ve always had Descartes and Plato. Evil demons and shadows on a wall…So the “table top” is a metaphor that has been on my list of possible scenarios of deceptions/delusions for a long time. And that’s why I’m thinking, when I shop for my favorite items and find nothing but new stuff on the shelves that maybe we’re all on that table top, reduced to guinea pigs…