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SUNDAY, AUGUST 25, 2019

FAMILIARITY BREEDS CONTENT

Hogan

2008-12-09 21:36:19

Creative Writing

I really like those C.S.I. shows. Or any of those investigative, forensic cop shows. They always get everything right. They’re always able to find the right pattern and figure it all out. Because, after all, there’s got to be something, some pattern that applies to everything waiting to be uncovered, that explains why things happen the way they do. How could it be otherwise? I’m no philosopher – I’m better at math and science – so I don’t try to answer that question. I just know there’s a correct pattern to things, and when it comes to people, that pattern is especially obvious.

Elements A, B, C denote phenomenon X, and conversely, with phenomenon X in mind, element A predicts B and C: very simple. In the case of people we have enough behaviour and brain research to explain and predict most types of human action. It’s a wonderful way see things, to see the world – for me it feels almost religious. We all have a spiritual side, and its always located in the same side of the brain. People I meet call me a pessimist when I talk about this stuff, but I’m certainly not. It’s just the way things are.

You wouldn’t think a psychological researcher like myself, a specialist in group behaviour – gang activity, mob mentality, social interaction – would feel awkward in social situations. But I am, and I’ve accepted it. My friends are few in number and mostly made up of colleagues, others like me. As a group behaviourist I have to stand apart from people and observe them objectively. And I’m good at it.

This all runs through my mind (it often does) while sitting at the bar, like I usually am, drinking my usual, and watching a group of people at a table: an interesting group, mixed, but not your usual mix: this group is young and old, different races, guys and girls. So right away I know the normal structures don’t apply: I have to be creative. Sometimes that can be fun, if it means you’re correct.

The guys (5 in total), predictably, are in forceful control of the conversation, and the girls (4) sit quietly holding back the contemptuous reactions I can see bubbling up, but the guys are too obnoxious to let a word in edgewise: textbook. Two of the four the girls, however, are holding their own private conversation, which looks heavier than the loud conversation, but is nonetheless dominated by one of the girls, not surprisingly. In groups of two, more often than not, one is the teller, one the listener; one the complainer, one the absorber. There are always “types.” It’s just a matter of figuring out which ones.

Despite the varied nature of the group some recognizable traits do apply: obnoxious male dominance; female reserve and quiet distaste; and satellite figures: the people in a group that “orbit” or stick to a specific individual (or individuals) but have a weaker, in extreme cases adverse, connection to the group in general. The satellite figures (of which there are many types) in this scenario are two in number: one is the loner that hovers near his closest friend in the group and says little if anything, but reacts dutifully to group dynamics (laughing on cue, greeting comers and goers, etc.); the other satellite figure, like the first, clings to his closest friend in the vicinity and follows the group in general, but is much more vocal. And like most vocal satellites this one feeds off of the main speaker, reiterating whatever he says: i.e., Main speaker says, “That shit was fucked up,” and the vocal satellite echoes, “It was fucked up, man, totally.” But the vocal satellite will not himself add anything original to the discourse, however innocuous.

A proud smile pierces my lips. I take a sip of my usual, closing my eyes as it reaches my mouth. I have this group figured out pretty good. Drinking slowly I think, rather soothingly, about how I can see things in a sort of total pattern, where everything fits: “the whole story”; “the big picture.” It’s like imagining life in fast motion, kind of seeing things in their all-at-onceness. This is what I do, this is my gift.

But then something hits me. Something very terrible: the Heisenberg principle. My mind stops, and the idea hangs there defiantly. It’s come back to haunt me, to mock me, and it’s threatening to undo all the certainty I’ve established concerning the world as I understand it. The Heisenberg principle basically states that what one studies is inevitably altered by the very fact you are studying it. So, if what I study – human behaviour – is, as I believe it is, inalterable and perfectly predictable – but by being studied it is altered, how can the behaviour really be predicted? My mind goes in circles around this stupid question – I’m not a fucking philosopher. For several moments my face must have exuded a dumb, numb look of confusion. When I snap out of it I’m looking right at the main speaker in the group, who’s just made a joke and is laughing at it even though, or maybe because, no one else at the table laughs. Our eyes are locked.

“Whut!” he says, like it’s not a question. I’m too much in shock to say anything, still paralysed by the Heisenberg thing. I kind of look away but keep them in the corner of my eye. What he should do (but doesn’t) is smirk and continue dominating the conversation with an extra charge of bully confidence from our exchange. Or, if he is of a more subdued type, he’ll exhibit a prick of embarrassment and resume talking more quietly. But neither of these things happen. What does happen is the whole table starts to stare at me with a focused, collective contempt, like a conspiracy. I normally don’t believe in conspiracies because people obviously don’t come up with plans of their own. It’s more realistic to suppose that people are part of a plan already in progress. But then I realize something else, something far worse than the fucking Heisenberg principle: if everything, like I so want to believe – like I do believe – has a definite cause and effect, then am I not also predetermined by a long chain of causes and effects to have reached all my conclusions? Is anything I think really objective, or am I just part of the larger scheme that I’m trying to figure out but never can because I'm inside of it? If so, I don’t know a single thing, because, just like what I study – people – can be no other way, I, too, can be no other way, which means I’m just as unconscious as the behaviour I observe and predict.

I don’t want to think this.

The table is staring and snickering at me. I get some comfort in remembering that old mob mentality staple: a group unites quickly when it has a common enemy. In this case: me. But surprisingly, disturbingly, and after much taunting – too, too much, like in a movie or something – the most unlikely thing in human behaviour occurs: in technical terms, “sympathy from other, type 2a): “disobedient persecutor”, a form of extreme selflessness, regarded in my field as a total anomaly in behaviour: completely irrational. The vocal satellite, the one who orbits and echoes the main speaker, the one who is never supposed to defy the leader, speaks up and says, “Okay leave him alone,” but, strangely, with no less contempt for me than the others. I can’t figure it out. What’s happening in front of me is fiction: something both not real and real. It’s painful. I’d be excited for research purposes at this impossible behaviour if my entire set of beliefs – my very life – wasn’t crashing before my eyes.

The table continues to eye and mock me: the main speaker, the quiet satellite, the girls who were talking privately: all of them. The vocal satellite, though, just shakes his head and stares at me as if to say, 'Look what you did, you got them all riled up'. He shouldn’t be doing that! Gravity lets go, I feel ungrounded and queasy. I spill my drink and overreact, bolting up and knocking over my chair to avoid the two drops that were left in the cup, which provokes even more laughter from my menacing observers. As casually as possible I pick up the chair and my coat half crushed beneath it, brush it off, put it on too fast, smile at the clerk and say, “Thanks!”

I get the hell out of there, hardly able to breathe, and still thinking: If nothing escapes an explanation – indeed if nothing escapes a prediction – from a smile to a punch, flirtation to a tapping foot – this line of thought – my conclusions – are also predictable, and could not have been any other way. Predictions about behaviour are formed just as unconsciously as the behaviour predictions are made about. I feel small and lost all of a sudden. I know where I am but I still feel lost. My work has lost meaning. I walk for a block then land myself on a bench.

Feel like throwing up. Painful pathways are burning into my brain where they’ve never been before. I want comfort: something I can recognize, something known, a familiar path. I rub my temples trying to find it. I can’t.

After a few minutes (5, 10, 20, hard to say, I’m in a daze) I spot a rat coming my way. It doesn’t notice me so I stay quiet and still. I need to confirm that the world makes sense – is logical – so when the rat gets close enough I drag my foot on the pavement, and the harsh, gritty scratch sends the rat scuttling away, like the push of a button, exactly as I knew it would. This calms me, brings me back to the reality I know.

I’m trying forget about the group from the café but I can’t help thinking that if the rat hadn’t budged at the scraping of my shoe – if it had ignored its own natural instincts and contradicted its regular behaviour – it would be like that group. I must have been hallucinating because no people – studied, documented – act that way. It must have been a bad dream, that’s all.

Seeking comfort, I head home. C.S.I. will be on soon. I get to my apartment in time for the opening scene. The credits are still fading in and out at the bottom of the screen. Another comfort: the credits always follow the same logical order, ending with producer, writer, and director. But that comfort is smashed to bits when I’m hit with one of those irrational bugs of experience: coincidence. Two characters discuss the behaviour of a rat in the lab, and compare it to human behaviour. I stare at the TV frozen, hypnotized by the sheer chance (impossible!) of this occurring. Coincidence has always frustrated me. It’s one of those things that mock you, defying explanation. But I do have one explanation that I find consoling, no matter how daunting coincidence in general might seem.

It’s what Oprah says: There are no coincidences. Everything happens for a reason, and it’s my job – literally – to discover those reasons. Bob Dylan (who I simply don’t understand) says, Take what you gather from coincidence. But that doesn’t make sense: coincidence doesn’t explain anything. It illustrates something larger. It has no secret of its own. It’s explainable, an example, a manifestation of a prior hypothesis. Not something that explains something else. Vladimir Nabokov (the sick bastard who wrote Lolita) said something like coincidence is what the poet loves and the logician loathes. This doesn’t make sense either. Despite its irrationality, perhaps coincidence is logical precisely because parallel phenomena are bound, inevitably, to collide, and what we notice is simply termed ‘coincidence’ because we happen to notice it, but it would exist just the same even if we hadn’t. So really, nothing isn’t coincidence. The key is discovering the chain of causes and inalterable effects that lead to our noticing them. Imagine how many coincidences we are routinely ignorant of, such as missing an old friend on the street by just seconds or feet. In these cases the coincidences exist, they just go unnoticed. Surely that takes away some of their magic.

This particular episode of C.S.I. is not agreeing with me. The two characters – one male, one female – mention that the rat’s behaviour is not consistent: sometimes, they observe, the rat will avoid the prized food at one end of the maze for what appears to be no reason, and at other times risk, even endure, electric shock to get at the food, regardless of levels of hunger. The male character quotes what he calls ‘existentialism’ and says, “Maybe the rat thinks he’s a person.” The female partner asks (as I would have, and did in my head), “How so?” The man: “Well, Sartre said that consciousness is a no-thing. Human beings are inconsistent, non-predictable, irrational, able to choose anything for their behaviour. This rat is acting human by breaking all the obvious rules.” I have trouble understanding this because I never before made any qualified difference between rats and humans: both are animals, and animals have traits, mainly geared towards survival. Behaviour follows from that. How could it be otherwise? But then the real shocker comes: “There’s more to what we see than just what we see,” says the wise, male character. I turn off the TV. I have to think about this.

Shit. So things are not definite, things are not definable. Those painful pathways light up in my head again. I feel nauseous, caught in a swirling vortex of uncertainty, lost in a dark, unfamiliar forest. I want- I need to figure this out. I think of the gods. The ancients had it right: we are subordinate to structure, which isn’t loose at all but fixed, static, pre-determined, and therefore discoverable. Truth is in the definition of a thing. Or is all my worrying a genuine sign of real danger, of actual uncertainty? A sign that I am wrong about everything?

No. Just a temporary aberration. An anomaly. A glitch. That’s what it is. I’m only human, after all, and prone to the occasional lapse in judgement. Everything is just as it should be. Doubt ceases. Comfort sets back in.

I get up from the couch, where I fell maybe an hour ago after turning off the TV, and go to the window. The unpleasant feelings are almost gone but a practical example would be reassuring. I spot a couple zigzagging down the sidewalk: both are drunk (the girl more so, no surprise), and they stop on the corner. The guy wants to go one way, the girl the other. What would make sense, given the circumstances (A, B, C, = X), is the guy will convince the girl to go his way.

I watch.

The girl resists slightly, as if out of obligatory ritual, drops her head, and pretends, predictably, to be sad, then unenthusiastically but willingly walks on with her guy, who awkwardly grips two of her fingers and pulls her along. Textbook. I sigh in relief and say to myself, “That’s more like it.”
Alamir

Alamir

2008-12-09 23:07:10

This has some real good writing in it.. It inspired me to write a response article that is not directly related other than by the fact that creativity breeds creativity.
REPLIES: Hogan

Hogan

Hogan

2008-12-09 23:20:03


Jackson

Jackson

2008-12-10 15:32:35

I think you missed one thing at the pub - there was another Psychology Researcher watching you and the group interact, and in her mind, you were a member of that group. First off, you couldn't incorporate your own Heisenberg-effect into your consideration because you were an insider. This second observer could because she analyzed you as you did the group. She probably knew what would happen; she probably saw the fulfillment of the 'unity against a common enemy phenomena' coming. Second, it was your observation that caught the guy's attention, so that right there is an example of the Heisenberg principle in play (at the macro, sociological level).

The world is perfectly predictable, but I think you and I will never have enough data to make perfect predictions. I wonder if Oprah realizes that her 'Everything happens for a reason' shtick sounds like an explicit reinforcement of my own determinist beliefs.

Even if the woman on the street corner had diverged from the man, there would have been a causal antecedent, though it would have been invisible because of your unfamiliarity with her background. I don't think I'll ever be able to freely perceive causal chains, but I feel bound by them none-the-less...
REPLIES: Hogan

Hogan

Hogan

2008-12-10 17:42:55

Replying to Jackson:
I removed the disclaimer I originally had up, which read: "This is fiction. This is not me."

Meaning, I wanted to write about how the narrator (not me) is so obsessed with certainty and wanting "an answer" that he can't stand unpredictability, quirkiness, and all that other stuff that makes life fun and interesting. He's missing out, and causing himself a lot of unnecessary stress. Plus he's so deterministic he's practically a misanthrope. Humans are just glorified rats to this guy.

Anyway, to add to your point about the second, even-more-overarching observer, couldn't there have been yet another researcher, looking at the second researcher, too? And yet another, a fourth? And so on. We're getting into an infinite regress, and you know what that means, fellow philosopher: it's a crappy solution. The story is not about a hidden, actually-correct answer that the narrator is just missing somehow; it's about the silliness of desiring the final answer, as if there were one.

As for the girl who might have diverged: same goes. The point isn't that there is some true, hidden reality of cause-and-effect explanations that - if only we knew! - could answer every question. The point is that that desire for certainty causes, so to speak, all sorts of suffering and dehumanization, and has its root in a kind of arrogance and insecurity and fear of real life, which doesn't have easy answers. At least not for the interesting questions.
REPLIES: Alamir

Alamir

Alamir

2008-12-10 20:08:25

Replying to Hogan:
"This is fiction. This is not me."

Is it though? I'm not just making a common comparison of the author with his work. Yours goes a step further. You're writing about characters that do determined things based on your observations. Your main character who doesn't believe in the unpredictable is a "scientist." That's because that's what you've observed in scientists. You've observed that scientists side with predictability and determined actions, and so you made you main character a scientist to represent that quality. All the characters are reacting to your own chain of command and observations. You didn't make the narrator a 12 year old Paris Hilton-wannabe because no one would be able to swallow that someone like that analyzing Heisenberg. So you made it a mature scientist who denies just enough philosophy to be a stepping-stone away from your own observations. I don't blame you though, because without coincidences, cause and effect, determinism...we'd all be surrealists.

On another note I think your narrator should be a student just out of university for two reasons: 1) I feel he makes way too many realizations and epiphanies for the length of a short-fiction or even the time span of an evening at the bar. 2) He switches from being deterministic to being lost too many times. 3) He references pop-culture a bit too much. (I have a feeling the older scientists don't like CSI, not because of the determism factor (you may be right that they enjoy that..that's debatable) but because their science can go off-the-wall and almost feel like a bad joke.)

So I'd suggest to establish that the narrator is fresh and ready to adopt new speculations on his beliefs.

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