A Reduction of Dimensions

readingI’m often interested in the interplay of genres and forms, particularly when it comes to storytelling and when one form seems to subsume another.  The easy target, of course, is television and the internet.  The relationship between television and the novel comes up often, too.  David Foster Wallace, a child of the television and a writer of novels, thought about it some, particularly in the context of loneliness.  In a recent article at The New Atlantis, Erik P. Hoel brings up the question of “fiction in the age of screens” in light of what that means for writers, including those who move from the printed page to the silver screen.

It is something about the interiority of novel-reading, Hoel seems to suggest, that will remind us that we are always more than the categories used by culture to define us.

Novels will always have a place because we are creatures of both the extrinsic and the intrinsic. Due to the nature of, well, the laws of reality, due to the entire structure and organization of how universes might simply have to be, we are forced to deal with and interact entirely through the extrinsic world. We are stuck having to infer the hidden intrinsic world of other consciousnesses from an extrinsic perspective. This state leaves us open to solipsism, as Wallace suggested in saying that novels are a cure for loneliness. But the loneliness that novels cure, unlike television, is not social. It is metaphysical.

At the same time, our uncomfortable position — both flesh and not — also puts us in danger, beyond just that of solipsism, of forgetting the intrinsic perspective, of ignoring that it holds an equal claim on describing the universe. In contemporary culture there has been a privileging of the extrinsic both ontologically and as explanation. We take the extrinsic perspective on psychology, sociology, biology, technology, even the humanities themselves, forgetting that this perspective gives us, at most, only ever half of the picture. There has been a squeezing out of consciousness from our explanations and considerations of the world. This extrinsic drift obscures individual consciousnesses as important entities worthy of attention.

Recently I overheard a conversation between two psychiatrists in the hallway next to my lab. One doctor was describing a patient, a young woman whose primary problem seemed to be that she was spending too much money on clothes. For the next five minutes the two debated what medications to put her on. Extrinsic drift is why people are so willing to believe that a shopping addiction should be cured by drugs, that serotonin is happiness or oxytocin is love. It’s our drift toward believing that identities are more political than personal, that people are less important than ideologies, that we are whatever we post online, that human beings are data, that attention is a commodity, that artificial intelligence is the same as human intelligence, that the felt experience of our lives is totally epiphenomenal, that the great economic wheel turns without thought, that politics goes on without people, that we are a civilization of machines. It is forgotten that an extrinsic take on human society is always a great reduction of dimensions, that so much more is going on, all under the surface.

Given its very nature, the novel cannot help but stand in cultural opposition to extrinsic drift. For the novel is the only medium in which the fundamental unit of analysis is the interiority of a human life. It opposes the unwarranted privileging of the extrinsic half of the world over the intrinsic. It is a reminder, a sign in the desert that seems to be pointing nowhere until its flickering neon lettering is read: There is something it is like to be a human being. And what it is like matters. The sign points to what cannot be seen.

I like the author’s approach to the intrinsic/extrinsic perspective and approach, how we tend to deal with reality categorically in a way that forgets the individuals (which is interesting because you would think the opposite is most true).  It falls in line with Yuval Levin’s assertion that the have misconstrued identity and community.

That last paragraph is great.  You can read the whole article here.

(image from thenewatlantis.com)

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