[I should dedicate this post to Ray Davis, without whom I couldn't have written it. But who dedicates posts to people? That said, one item he linked to deserves special consideration, as it proves stuff written years ago possesses commensurate quantities of wit and intelligence to things posted within the past 24 hours. Also, I remember now why I miss him, and regret again whatever part I played in driving him away. But enough of that. To the post!]
Today is one of those rare days I regret not being a "professional" blogger. I have so much on my plate—so much which seems urgent—that I hardly know where to focus my attention. So I'll let someone else decide:
Following Ray's links, I stumbled on Jonah Lehrer's lukewarm defense of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Unbeknownst to you, dear readers, I wrote a very similar account not only of Gladwell's book, but of all popular neuroscience, in which I declared sublime those
"meta-" moments that only books about human consciousness provide. For example:
Picture in your mind the face of Marilyn Monroe. Ready? You just used your fusiform gyrus. (219)
Blows my mind every time. I love books that produce the physiological effects they describe in the act of describing them. Steven Pinker's explanations may be just-so stories, but the processes for which they account are solid science. When he says "when Y, then X," you can be certain that when a guy confronts Y, his brain explodes with X—even if X didn't develop because a greater percentage of monkeys who could scuttle up trees one-handed in the rain survived than didn't.
Now, thanks to Lehrer, I can trumpet Timothy D. Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves too, only without all the caveats Gladwell inspired. For one, the complaint about the dearth of footnotes evaporates. Wilson documents the studies he cites, and I've spent the past couple of hours browsing through those articles. I'm surprised by what I've found.
More often than not, the claims the authors propound are far more radical than those Wilson attributes to them. He tones them down, renders them more palatable to the regnant orthodoxy. Which is odd. Most popular science writers inflate the importance of the research they cite in order to grab the reader's attention. (Norman Holland and Steven Pinker spring to mind.) Why does Wilson take the opposite tack?
I'm not sure. It may be constitutional. Anyone who can "teach the conflicts"—that is the first non-paywalled link I could find—the way Wilson can possesses the rare talent for fairness in the face of vicious intellectual bluster. He presents all arguments—the psychoanalytic included—in their strongest forms and that, apparently, entails deflating the work of contemporary cognitive science while inflating the importance of psychoanalytic "findings." With the exception of Occam's Razor's appearance on page 79 —there is "no need to introduce additional theoretical constructs"—psychoanalysis seems a viable, if frequently problematic, alternative to contemporary cognitive theory. (Which, of course, merely validates the "scientific" quality of Freud's intuitions. Not that Wilson says that, mind you, only that he doesn't refute it vehemently enough.)
In short, Wilson's book is diplomatic, albeit devestatingly so. What do I mean? His rhetoric aside, one cannot read the first 130 pages and not immediately dismiss psychoanalysis. While some of the mechanisms of the modern brain resemble their psychoanalytic counterparts, they share neither their power nor etiology. And etiology is of fundamental, foundational importance to psychoanalytic thinking. Does this mean that the psychoanalytic model is wholly irrelevant to the study of cultural or literature?
No. (Although this may convince you otherwise.) I'll write more once I've finished the book and have time to sort through my new theory of the importance of the obsolete philosophies of mind to study of literature. (Sure, I sound dismissive, but the strange thing is, I'm not.)
UPDATE: I included no accounts of the fascinating studies Wilson cites in his book. I'm not sure why, other than the vanilla excuse that I am, on occasion, not all that bright. So I present those tomorrow, after I've finished the book. (It only arrived around 3 p.m. Who can read a 300 page book in two hours?)