Monday, December 1, 2008

Against the Virtues of Classification

In the spring of 2008 I took a long walk with my friend the poet Keith Taylor at the headwaters of the Huron river. It was a magical place, and I was so grateful to him for taking me there. I ended up writing a piece about it.

But we had a little gentle disagreement about the virtues of naming–here’s my side, in verse:

Against the Virtues of Classification
(for Keith Taylor)

If I were a better person, I would know the name of that…” KT

It should be no great shame to bear.
I can’t name maidenhair,
cinnamon, or fiddlehead.
I rhyme slough with enough,
consistently failing
to distinguish marsh from fen,
shagbark from hophornbeam.

I can’t tell my alders from my elders,
and my maples may be muddled,
but in the Spring,
when both eyes turn on the strings of one furry spiral,
and my mind floods
with that singular moment of uncurling,
what I know
is not called fern.

Emotion Permitted/Emotion Reduced

Some time ago I participated in a worthy musicological experiment undertaken by Judith Becker titled Emotion permitted/Emotion reduced. Subjects were chosen who self-reported strong emotional responses to music; they were asked to pick out two recordings they found especially moving and listen to them while having their galvanic skin response monitored. This is like taking a lie detector test, only there are no grilling questions, and you get to listen to music. Subjects were asked to let their emotions flow in one listening, and to try to turn off their emotional responses in a second instance.

I love listening to music, and was happy to do so, even with electrodes placed on my fingertips. But I was nervous.

I was pretty sure I could manage the emotion permitted part. I believe that I am extremely fluent in permitting feeling to arise; as a creative artist it is my stock-in-trade to preserve the outlines of emotional experience within myself in order to call them up again and again over the long course of creating a work. I am a composer, and I have come to believe that the emotional play of forces created by sound is the real content of music, and that this play of emotional energies is (even more than sound) the material that I am working with. I subscribe to the idea that musical art is indeed the act of “creating magic through emotion.” (Damasio 1999: 50).

Capturing a feeling and exploring the dimensions of it over time requires a level of skill with emotive experience that does require a certain distance, but I was absolutely convinced that I was not equipped to complete the second part of the experiment: emotion reduced. Reflection upon an experienced emotional state is not the same thing as willful reduction of it by any means.

Even though I wasn’t sure I could do it, I had little doubt that it would be easy to find many subjects with tremendous expertise in the reduction of emotional response.

Can you do it?

When emotion arises in you, can you shut it off? Can you tell your skin not to become charged and hot when you see the child mangled on TV? Or feel no sense of dread when you sense the explosion approaching because the ominous underscoring comes up in the war movie?

I began to wonder:

Haven’t we as a society all been preparing for the second half of this experiment for decades by learning how to shut ourselves off from emotionally-charged stimuli? Popular music presents us with an aggressive wall of sound that we practice ignoring—anything that requires engaged attention hasn’t got a chance of generating a spark of feeling in the vast majority of us Americans. (A rap song I heard on network television once describes a brutally murdered dismembered female body in the trunk of a car; it seems we are not horrified enough by this to recognize and reject a play to our most odious violent impulses being used as a cheap thrill.) It is no surprise to me that we can make ourselves immune to the emotional pull of music if we practice not-responding so assiduously to murder, war, and all kinds of numbing violence every night as we watch TV.

No, no surprise there. We see all these horrible things happen to our fellow humans every day on television, and bathe ourselves in noisy environments that require us to tune out, a rigorous training in callousness and lack of feeling. Our senses have been dulled, our feeling blunted, and our compassion stunted by the onslaught of our cruel entertainments. I guess that is why classical music is useless to most of us now—it does not quite get up to the thrill level we expect; the dynamic range of its emotional life, (to say nothing of the sustained attention it requires) cannot begin to approximate the quick brutality of our cinema and the law-enforcement morality plays we daily ingest on television.

In a society where the routine exposure to graphic representations of murder, rape and violent death of all kinds is taken as the norm, it is abnormal to be sensitive. The quality of sensitivity becomes stigmatized as an intolerable weakness, especially in males, who above all are supposed to be “tough” (which translates as inured to all suffering). So according to this logic, anyone who is emotionally sensitive to another’s suffering is abnormal: sensitivity comes to be seen as un-American.

But without sensitivity, there can be no interoception: the ability to sense our own internal mental and physical states. And without interoception, there can be no compassion. In other words, we cannot feel for others unless we can feel for ourselves. If there is no compassion, we are lost in self-referential childish grabbing at rewards without any thought of our companions on this planet, or any regard for the consequences of our selfish or even violent actions.

Sometimes it seems that large swaths of our popular culture have come to constitute a kind of abuse we subject ourselves to in order to hold down natural emotional responses and “toughen ourselves up.” Over-exposure to media sex and violence doesn’t make us stronger or sexier, but it certainly does make us less sensitive and makes violence more present to us, more easily imaginable. By these means we are engaging in a mass exercise aimed at squashing our humanity. I believe that the collective weight of our suppressed emotional responses is beginning to come out as rage and disease, as violence expressed in so many ways as to be uncountable.