Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Finding meaning in the public sphere, despite one’s intuition

I’m a fourth of the way through Madness and Modernism, by Louis Sass. Sass’s thesis is that schizophrenia can be seen as a somewhat logical extension of 20th century social and artistic trends.

On p. 100, he quotes French philosopher Nathalie Sarraute (1900-1999), who I had never heard of, in the following: “Sarraute … is a harsh critic of conformity to the ‘impurities’ of social convention and tradition. She associates such conformism with a focus, in novel writing, on ‘literary types’ and on ‘tiresome descriptions’ of public events, which she dismisses as ‘but large empty carcasses’ when set beside the ‘wealth and complexity’ of the inner life.”

This attitude strikes me as intuitively appealing and highly undesirable. Value is among the trickiest of mental phenomena. A few of our values (e.g. food, company) are inborn, but most of them have to be learned, if not deduced. Having evolved in tribal situations, our brains are in particular unlikely to correctly valuate, based only on immediate stimuli and impressions, events from the unbelieveably huge “public sphere” of modern Earth. (I mean, when you were a kid, did you enjoy watching the evening news?)

I agree that public events can fell pretty lame. And sure, some of the blame can usually be placed on an event’s planners. But just as much responsibility lies with the audience. We can’t rely on any neurologically pre-coded value to fire in the course of such events. The challenge we face is to actively find and experience meaning in the public sphere, however unnatural it may be.

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