Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Reframing Reality: Finding the Words

Part 27 of Prisoners of the Real

If relationships between human beings, not to mention between humanity and nature, are to be transformed so must the language used to describe them. We simply can't expect to regenerate ourselves without finding more fitting forms of expression.


Abraham Maslow, who provided the intellectual foundation for what became known as humanistic psychology, understood the dilemma. The archaic language of science couldn't encompass his new view of human nature. How could the subjective and private nature of a peak experience, for example, be adequately discussed in an "objective" or analytical way? The formal, academic style of psychological journals, he realized, was inconsistent with the unconventional and highly personal ideas he was pursuing.

"Journals, books and conferences," Maslow wrote, "are primarily suitable for the communication and discussion of the rational, the abstract, the logical, the public, the impersonal, the nomothetic, the repeatable, the objective, the unemotional. They thereby assume the very things that we 'personal psychologists' are trying to change."

Maslow's approach, a 'third force' combining Gestalt theory and health-and-growth psychology, demanded a more personal language, one that acknowledged and respected the inner world. Like many artists and a growing number of his fellow scientists, Maslow saw that the worship of facts had become the disease of "enlightened" humanity, and turned to personal testimony in the hope of sharing the fruits of his quest. If a philosophy of science that included experiential knowledge was to be constructed, he concluded, communication would have to candidly express its assumptions.

"Most of our 'objective' work is simultaneously subjective," he noted near the end of his life. Since the external problems that we usually approach scientifically are often also our internal problems, Maslow believed, our solutions are also self-therapies in the broadest sense.

Acutely aware of the depersonalizing effects of extreme rationalism – flight from impulse, emotion, and the personal – Maslow traced the cause to the Aristotelian framework. The separation of subject and object discouraged fusion and forbade integration. "Respecting the rational, verbal and logical as the only language of truth," he wrote, "inhibits us in our necessary study of the non-rational, of the poetic, the mystic, the vague, the primary process, the dreamlike."

Despite his warnings and those of other subsequent critics, however, most discussion and literature in the field of psychology, leadership and organization theory since Maslow has remained impersonal and 'objective.' But a gradual transformation has been underway in the fields of journalism and fiction writing. Over the last 50 years both forms of expression have provided increased space for speculation. In journalism, the process began during the 1960s, just as fiction was drifting away from social realism. The so-called 'new journalism' that emerged was a break with the reporting of isolated events. Reporters began to consider society as a whole.

Adopting techniques of realism, journalists developed devices that gave their writings an immediacy and emotional impact missing in both objective reporting and surrealist fiction. For a time subjectivity returned to reporting under the banners of 'advocacy journalism' and the 'non-fiction novel.' According to Tom Wolfe, a move from news reporting to this field led naturally to the discovery "that the basic reporting unit is no longer the datum, the piece of information, but the scene, since most of the sophisticated strategies of prose depend upon scenes." The old rules no longer apply when a journalist takes this leap, said Wolfe, "it is completely a test of his personality."

Speculative reporters turned from the "objective" concerns for verification, specificity and readability that dominated conventional journalism to the uniqueness of each experience and the writer's own impressions and intentions. The presentation ranged from the polemic to the dramatic, as these new pioneers pondered their subjects in all their aspects and relations.

This journalistic revolution didn't significantly alter the way the mainstream press dealt with events. It did, however, subtly expand the range of permissible expression for reporters, paralleling trends in documentary film making, where the subjective point of view became a powerful tool, as well as in non-fiction writing. In the 1960s, few authors dared to bring their personal experiences into the consideration of issues in areas such as politics, sociology, and psychology. Today such "testimonial" touches are commonplace. In certain fields, notable pop psychology, they have virtually become a requirement.

Meanwhile, speculative fiction – an outgrowth of science fiction and fantasy – moved from the margins to the mainstream. The merging of surrealism and sci fi began with writers such as Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula LeGuin, Samuel Delany, Harlan Ellison, Romain Gary and others who explored current and potential realities. Since then speculative fiction has attained the status of a highly popular genre, a form of communication affirming the view that the arithmetically predictable model of the world is only one of many possibilities.


Among the most direct early expressions of this view was Colin Wilson's synthesis of H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells and his own theory of evolutionary existentialism in The Mind Parasites. With this breakthrough novel, Wilson attacked both the notion of "objective" reality and the assumption that humans have only a few avenues of interaction with the external world. His story followed two archeologists who, gradually drawn into research on psychokinesis (PK), discover that throughout human history "mind parasites" have been holding us back. The parasites have infected the best minds on the planet with "a deep feeling of psychological insecurity that made them grasp eagerly at the idea of science as 'purely objective' knowledge." Through the "direct action of mind upon matter," however, humanity begins to fight back:

“There was immense exhilaration as our minds combined, such a sense of power as I have never known before. All at once, I knew what is meant by the phrase: we are 'members of one another', but in a deeper, realler sense than before. I had a vision of the whole human race in constant telepathic contact, and able to combine their psychic powers in this manner. Man as a 'human' being would cease to exist; the vistas of power would be infinite.

“Our wills locked like a great searchlight beam, and stabbed out at the moon...It was suddenly as if we were in the middle of the noisiest crowd the world has ever known. The disturbing vibrations from the moon were transmitted directly along the taut cable of force that stretched between us.”

With the combined will of a group, says Wilson's tale, even the moon can be moved. Ultimately, the beams of psychic energy that the parasites have for so long been directing at the Earth are pointed away into space. PK is also used to shield the Earth from these destructive emanations, and even to push the moon toward the sun, so that its "bodiless inhabitants might once again be free."

Mixing philosophy, myth and traditional science fantasy, Wilson created a mood of existential realism, the novelist's version of Alfred North Whitehead's speculative philosophy. In Adventures of Ideas, Whitehead explained that such a philosophy "guards our higher intuitions from base alliances by its suggestions of ultimate meanings, disengaged from the facts of current modes of behavior." Our discussions cannot be restricted solely to evidence provided by the five senses, Whitehead explained, or by acts of conscious introspective analysis. The sources of evidence must include also language, social institutions and action, fused together through a language that interprets the other two.

The evidence of language is delivered through the meaning of words, the grammatical forms, and other meanings miraculously revealed in great literature. These insights, said Whitehead, provide us with new meanings, linguistic expressions for meanings as yet unexpressed, a triumph of dramatic intuition over temperamental skepticism. In Whitehead's view, as long as the imperfect nature of language is recognized, it can be a convivial tool rather than a master. In particular, speculative writing can reestablish the human circuit of instinct and intelligence, asserting that inherent flashes of spontaneity are valuable parts of human wisdom.

Or, as Whitehead put it, in judging the rise, culmination and decay of social institutions, "we have to estimate the types of instinct, of intelligence, and of wisdom which have cooperated with natural forces to develop the story. The folly of intelligent people, the clear-headed and narrow-visioned, has precipitated many catastrophes."

Next: Glimpses of Uncertainty


To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey
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