The Academic’s Peculiar Dissonance

The academic state of mind is distinguished, I think, by a peculiar kind of dissonance; the academic is able to entertain two conflicting states of being simultaneously; each informs the other and brings to it its peculiar intensity and torment.

At one end of its affective and emotional spectrum lies the well-known impostor syndrome: the academic worries that he or she is a fraud, unsuited to the rigorous demands of the profession that their life’s choices have brought them to; they are besides themselves with anxiety that one day they will be ‘found out’ or worse, that they will go through the rest of their lives living out this charade, one in which they have managed to somehow convince others–by a toxic combination of lies and artifice and outright dishonesty–that they are purveyors of knowledge, skilled and educated beyond the imaginings of most. They are shocked and surprised and intimidated by the blustering displays of knowledge that their fellow academics subject them to; they examine their own achievements and find them wanting in every dimension when compared with those of their colleagues and other contemporaries; they find that academic life, rather than providing for occasions in which their knowledge will be on display instead provides one forum after the other in which they find out just how much they don’t know; they enter a bookstore and retreat, intimidated by the talents on display; they are convinced their ability will never match up to all those who seem to effortlessly master domains of knowledge they themselves can only nibble at.

At the other end of the spectrum lies what I will call the ‘frustrated and unrecognized genius syndrome’: the academic is convinced that the world has failed to adequately recognize his unique and distinctive talents and knowledge, all the while paying obeisance and elevating to the highest reaches of their profession charlatans of all stripes. They look on with barely contained frustration and anger as accolades and recognition are funneled and channeled to those they consider unworthy; they consider themselves cheated by the vagaries of the fortunes of the academic world; their books and articles are unread, unremarked, uncited, falling stillborn from the press to be embalmed on the dusty shelves of libraries, while those of utter nincompoops are elevated to the status of icons; they look back on their intellectual careers and remark on its many contingent occurrences that could have, with a slight twist or two, catapulted them into those very zones whose air they yearn to breathe. They are always on the cusp of ‘making it’; but they never do; and they remain convinced that if only the chips had fallen in the right way, they would be where those they consider unworthy reside instead. Fate and fortune have been cruel; accursed is this world and its ways. A prophet is never recognized in his day and age.

This is an uncomfortable state of affairs at best; it afflicts students and professors alike. It infects the life of the mind with its own distinctive anxieties and neuroses; it may account for some of the depressing statistics pertaining to mental health in the profession.

Hug an academic today. Or not.

Westworld’s ‘Analysis Mode’ For Humans

In the course of a discussion about the various motivations underlying the character Robert Ford‘s actions in HBO’s Westworld, a friend raised the following query:

In what senses would it be good, and in which bad, if human beings could put one another into ‘analysis mode’ like techs can do with hosts in the show? If analysis mode involved emotional detachment, earnest self-reflectiveness, and transparency, but not unconditional obedience.

As a reminder:

Analysis Mode is a state which hosts enter and leave on command…While in Character Mode, hosts seem unaware of what has transpired when they were in Analysis Mode….This mode is used by staff to maintain, adjust, and to diagnose problems with hosts. In this mode, hosts can answer questions and perform actions, but do not appear to initiate conversation or actions….While in Analysis Mode, hosts often do not appear to make eye contact, much like an autistic human, or it could be described as the eyes being unfocused like someone who is day dreaming. However, there are also numerous times when hosts in Analysis Mode do make eye contact with their interviewers.

One effect of the kind of ‘analysis mode’ imagined above would be that humans would be able to transition into a more ‘honest’ interactive state: they could request clarification and explanations of actions and statements from those they interact with; some of the inexplicable nature of our fellow humans could be clarified thus. This immediately suggests that: a) humans would not allow just anyone to place them in ‘analysis mode’ and b) there would be limits on the ‘level’ of analysis allowed. We rely on a great deal of masking in our interactions with others: rarely do we disclose our ‘true’ or ‘actual’ or ‘basic’ motives for an action; a great deal of artifice underwrites even our most ‘honest’ relationships. Indeed, it is not clear to me that such a capacity would permit our current social spaces to be constructed and maintained as they are; they rely for their current form on the ‘iceberg’ model–that which is visible serves to cover a far greater reservoir of the invisible. These considerations suggest that we might ask: Who would allow such access to themselves? Why would they do so? Under what circumstances? (Could you, for instance, just place an interlocutor, on the street, in the boardroom, into ‘analysis mode’?)

As might be obvious, what underwrites the suggestion above is the hope that underwrites various forms of psychotherapy, which, of course, is what ‘analysis mode’ sounds a lot like: that under persistent, guided, querying, we would make ourselves more transparent–to ourselves. Moreover, we could reduce the hurt and confusion which often results from our actions by ‘clarifying’ ourselves; by explaining why we did what we did. As the caveat about ‘unconditional obedience’ acknowledges, we generally do not allow therapeutic analysis to proceed in any direction, without limit (psychoanalysis puts this down to ‘unconscious resistance.’) The ‘bad’ here would be those usual results we imagine issuing from greater transparency: that our current relationships would not survive if we were really aware of each others’ motivations and desires.

‘Analysis mode’–understood in the way suggested above–would perhaps only be possible or desirable in a society comfortable with, and accustomed to, the greater access to each other that such interactions would produce.

V. S. Naipaul On The Supposed ‘Writing Personality’

In The Enigma of Arrival (Random House, New York, 1988, pp. 146-147) V. S. Naipaul writes:

It wasn’t only that I was unformed at the age of eighteen or had no idea what I was going to write about. It was that idea given me by my education–and by the more “cultural,” the nicest, part of that education–was that the writer was a person possessed of sensibility; that the writer was someone who recorded or displayed an inward development. So, in an unlikely way, the ideas of the aesthetic movement of the end of the nineteenth century and the ideas of Bloomsbury, ideas essentially bred out of empire, wealth and imperial security, had been transmitted to me in Trinidad. To be that kind of writer (as I interpreted it) I had to be false; I had to pretend to be other than I was, other than what a man of my background could be. Concealing this colonial-Hindu self below the writing personality, I did both my material and myself much damage….Because of my ideas about the writer, I took everything I saw for granted. I thought I knew it all already, like a bright student. I thought that as a writer I had only to find out what I had read about and already knew….It was nearly five years…before I could shed the fantasies given me by my abstract education. Nearly five years before, quite suddenly one day, when I was desperate for such an illumination, vision was granted me of what my material as a writer might be….I wrote very simply and very fast  of the simplest things in my memory. [paragraph breaks removed; link added]

Indeed. The confusion Naipaul speaks of is engendered by several factors here. There is, of course, some of the oldest misunderstandings of the creative process, with its suggestion that the ‘creator,’ the artist, either manufactures something out of thin air, or gives birth to that which already resides within them. But there is too, a suggestion that the writer steps into this world as writer, as finished product; but does not become one. Furthermore, because the writer is identified as an existent type, and because the exemplars available to the colonial subject would have been that of samples drawn from the colonial masters’ land–or those like it–the writer acquires a form, and his or her writings acquire their content. Now, all is clear: to be a writer one must write like one, one must write on what ‘writers’ write on; inauthenticity is the natural result of the mimicry forced upon, or readily taken on by, not the colonial subject. (Nostrums such as ‘to thine own self be true’ and ‘no man can give that which is not his’ instruct us similarly.) But others too imagine that the writer is a pre-formed type that must be instantiated. They would do better to think of the writer as something in the process of becoming over time, worked on by the labors of all those who write. By their form and content alike. Who knows what forms yet writers and writing might yet take, and what they might write on?

John Nash On Thinking Rationally As Dieting

In A Beautiful Mind: The Life of Mathematical Genius and Nobel Laureate John Nash (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1998, p. 351), Sylvia Nasar writes:

Nash has compared rationality to dieting, implying a constant, conscious struggle. It is a matter of policing one’s thoughts, he said, trying to recognize paranoid ideas and rejecting them, just the way somebody who wants to lose weight has to decide consciously to avoid fats or sweets. [link added]

This is a particularly perspicuous analogy for Nash to have made. For the failure rates of diets provide one grim indication of the difficulties of the task at hand: thinking ‘rationally’–whatever that may be, and for the time being, I’m going to elide the difficulties of providing an adequate definition–is almost destined to fail for most people. We get on the wagon, we fall off, we get back on again, straining and striving, only to find out at the most inopportune of moments that our reserves of resilience have run dry, and that we have relapsed.

This slip back down the slope, back to where the rock waits for us, waiting to be pushed back up the slope, is suggestive in more ways than one.

First, the ultimate objective, a lower weight, a more rational mind, remains a contested goal: we might not want to get to the top. We have received conflicting signals about the desirability of it all. Sure, a lower weight will transform some statistics pertaining to my health in a favorable manner, but perhaps my aspiration for it is grounded largely in vanity and low self-esteem, in a failure to accept myself for what I am. And as the Underground Man suspected, thinking rationally isn’t all it’s cracked up to be either–especially if it ends up excluding vast domains of experience and reflection. Or, as another master of suspicion might have wondered: Why should we think ‘rationally’? Who wants us to do so? What is in it for them? Perhaps, I could define ‘rational’ in a way that is more suited to the achievement of ends that I have freely chosen for myself; if I have to ‘overcome’ myself, let me do so my own way, driven by my own needs and wants.

This further suggests then that the dieting and reasoning Sisyphus might, while only partway up the slope, let go of the rock himself. Not only are the doubts about the destination overwhelming, but so is the promised relief of the downhill journey back to the rock. We should not forget that Sisyphus has the  pleasures of an easier task ahead of him now; sure, the agonizing task of pushing the rock back up the slope awaits, but for now, sweet release awaits. (Let us not forget the pleasures of the early stages of the ascent too.)

Perhaps rationality, like dieting, only ‘works’ if it’s not seen as such; if it’s not a program of self-improvement, but an ongoing way of life. That ongoing way requires constant decisions and choices, each consuming considerable cognitive resources; pitfalls abound along this path. Failure is more common than success; as it should be, given the ambiguities noted above. And much as we use the data pertaining to the failures of diets into our reckonings of what a ‘good weight’ is, and what ‘success’ in a diet amounts to, we should reconfigure our notions of the desirability and possibility of rationality as well.

On Failing In Our Own Style

In Flaubert’s Parrot (Vintage International, New York, 1990, pp. 39) Julian Barnes writes:

But then Ed Winterton liked to present himself as a failure….

His air of failure had nothing desperate about it; rather, it seemed to stem from an unresented realisation that he was not cut out for success, and his duty was therefore to ensure only that he failed in a correct and acceptable fashion.

We are reminded, in many walks of life, that it is not only winning that is important, we must lose, if such is our fate, with dignity too. This ‘American academic,’ whose biography of Edmund Gosse will almost certainly never be completed (perhaps because the weight of its own ambition drags it down and renders onward movement impossible), has found his own unique realization of that state of grace–a state not suffused with bitterness and resentment. Success is not imminent; failure is highly probable; better to not rage against the dying light if that rage were to result in further indignities being heaped upon an already bowed head, a knee already bent.  Cut the line; sink gently to the bottom.

A realization that many dreamed of projects–members of the dreaded ‘bucket list’–will not ever be made manifest is sometimes said to dawn in ‘middle age.’ (The scare quotes indicate that ‘middle age’ is not a precise chronological quantity.) Then, our bodies betray us with ever greater frequency, we realize–thanks to a clear remembrance of the past–that a pattern of behavior we have been trying desperately to modify has been an ever-present feature of our selves, and that new habits are increasingly harder to form. Self-improvement becomes intractable; we become tired of the role of Sisyphus we have been cast in. We had imagined for ourselves an endless and infinitely renewable plasticity; we had extended ourselves and pushed against the bounds of our being and capabilities; but we find familiar barriers blocking our path onwards and upwards.

Under such circumstances Ed Winterton’s strategy is an eminently respectable one–even if not beloved of those who compose inspirational quotations for calendars and internet memes. At some point, we cease the straining and start to find greater comfort in homilies that urge us to accept ourselves for who we are, to not live for the future, but for the present. These now appeal to our sensibility–a more ambitious version of which had scorned them in the past. Now they appear to speak to a truth previously unglimpsed.

The notion of ‘a correct and acceptable fashion’ for failure introduces a wrinkle of course. It is unclear whose standards of correctness and acceptability we are to follow as we decide to settle for failure. Surely, we cannot imitate and emulate other failures; they are failures after all. The ambiguity of such a description provides hope then for one last signature gesture. If we are to fail, then we must fail in our own distinctive style; we must choose its manner and time and mode of expression. (Remember the bit about unhappy families being unhappy in their own particular way.) If we cannot succeed, then let us not at least fail at failing.

Mankind as Deluded Sisyphus

As the apocalypse closes in again on humanity in Walter M. Miller Jr.’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Joshua, who has been ‘chosen’ to ‘escape’ into space, leaving this world behind, wonders about the cyclical nature of human history:

The closer men came to perfecting for themselves a paradise, the more impatient they seemed to become with it, and with themselves as well. They made a garden of pleasure, and became progressively more miserable with it as it grew in richness and power and beauty; for them, perhaps, it was easier for them to see that something was  missing in the garden, some tree or shrub that would not grow. When the world was in darkness and wretchedness, it could believe in perfection and yearn for it. But when the world became bright with reason and riches, it began to sense the narrowness of the needle’s eye, and that rankled for a world no longer willing to believe or yearn. Well, they were going to destroy it again, were they?–this garden Earth, civilized and knowing, to be torn apart again that Man might hope again in wretched darkness. [pp. 285]

These reflections on mankind’s supposed propensity for self-destruction indict it of a particular–and peculiar–failing: a lack of self-knowledge, a misguided or deluded Sisypheanism (which I noted a while ago in the context of personal quests for ‘self-improvement.’) To wit, the achievement of a previously desired state is not enough; a regression–to the bottom–is undertaken; the climb to the ‘top’ begins again; the pleasure of ascending through the ‘lower stages’ is re-experienced; and this novelty, this rapid transience, is all the reward sought or desired. The desired state, the supposed end point, is merely used as marker–it is never to be attained, only the pleasure of the movement toward it is sought.

The nature of the recurrence–the rise, the fall, the rise, the fall again–in mankind’s history, as depicted in Miller’s science-fiction classic, suggests that mankind prefers the anticipatory pleasures of hoping for unavailable light in the ‘wretched darkness’ to learning how to reconcile itself to the illumination of the brightly lit day. The ‘richness and power and beauty’ of this ‘garden of pleasure’ – the world constructed with knowledge and technique and painfully acquired wisdom acts as a disincentive for inquiry, as a retardant on the ‘yearning’, the movement to ‘perfection.’ Thus the destruction, so that the seeking, and its pleasures, may be re-experienced.

Here then, the inevitability of the recurrence finds its grounding in the nature of man, not in the workings of the cosmos. Man is not subject to the cycles of the Eternal Recurrence because such are the cosmologies he confronts, but rather it is because he is the kind of creature who will make of his world a cyclical one, in which he can find his most coveted pleasures in the form he desires. The darkness returns again and again because man brings it back, finding in its enveloping folds a space for his desires not afforded him elsewhere.

Unmasking our Self-Deception about Self-Improvement

In reviewing the incongruous medley of Dan Brown‘s Inferno and two new translations of Dante‘s classic (by Clive James and Mary Jo Bang), Robert Pogue Harrison writes:

Much of the fascination of the Inferno revolves around Dante’s probing of the covert psychic recesses of his characters’ inner will. The sinners’ great soliloquies are self-serving and fraught with irony. One cannot take them at their word. One must bring to bear on their speeches a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that is alert to the discrepancy between what they tell us and what they show us. Oftentimes the characters themselves are unaware of the way they are masking their true motivations, which makes it all the more imperative that the reader adopt an analytic distance from their self-presentations. In sum, the Inferno educates the reader in the ways of deception and self-deception, and in that respect remains one of the great archives of human psychology. (‘Dante: The Most Vivid VersionNew York Review of Books, 24 October 2013).

In my post on the ‘Sisyphus of sorts’ a couple of days ago, I had sought to provide an unmasking of projects of self-improvement, which all too many of us find ourselves engaged in with little hope–based on their persistent failure–of bringing them to completion. (I hesitate to say ‘similar unmasking’ for fear of being viewed as comparing my attempt to Dante’s!) That post–hopefully!–speaks for itself, but let me, at the risk of sounding excessively pompous, just embellish its claims just a bit.

Repeated, and failed, attempts at self-improvement and self-help display a familiar pattern: the old behavior is discarded in a burst of moralistic enthusiasm, the old lifestyle is deprecated and disdained, and enthusiastic reports are provided on the glories and attractions of the new path chosen. There is relief at a millstone discarded and this palpable emotion is loudly and visibly noted.

Yet, through all this, all too often, the attractions of the older way of being, which indeed, had made it such a persistently adopted mode of behavior, are not paid their due. We fail to recognize that that path had its own role to play in the forms of life we lived; we fail to note the deep habits it formed; no clean surgical excision of it from our selves has been effected. And then, there is the simple matter of the ‘sophomore effect’; the rapid gains visible in the early days of our new-found virtuous life are quickly replaced by the far more mundane, glacial increments of the life that comes about when such novel behavior has become commonplace.

We remain impatient; we miss the easy pleasures of the older way of being, which suddenly, now seems more attractive than ever. So we lapse. But now we encounter again its pathologies. And so we resolve to change again.

The self-deception here is that we do not seek the publicly avowed goal of self-improvement, but merely the movement away from a kind of stagnation, a state of wallowing. When we encounter yet another one, as is inevitable, for life cannot give us endless novelty, we seek out our ‘fall’ again, so that we may ‘climb’ again. In doing all this, we are reminded again, of Goethe, Burke and Freud’s claims that happiness, for most, is characterized by novelty and rapid transition, not by persistent, quiescent states.