Tuesday 17 March 2009

The everyday uncanny

I’ve been invited to Matthew Ratcliffe’s University of Durham workshop on psychopathology and the emotions next week and have just now been able to begin to think what to talk about. Since one of the main speakers is Louis Sass (pictured) it seems worth taking his fine short book The Paradoxes of Delusion as my starting point.

In that, Sass says that he aims to counter Jaspers’ pessimism about the possibility of understanding primary delusions by developing just such an account.

In this book I attempt to do what, according to Jaspers, cannot be done: to comprehend both empathically and conceptually some of the most bizarre and mysterious symptoms of schizophrenia. [Sass 1994: 6]

Taking Schreber’s narrative – Memoirs of My Nervous Illness – as his lead, he argues that Schreber’s experiences defy a simple ‘poor reality testing’ approach to defining delusion. An important reason for that is that such an approach takes no account of the difference in force of ordinary beliefs (whether true or false) and schizophrenic delusions. The latter display an ‘as if’ quality.

[M]any schizophrenics who seem to be profoundly preoccupied with their delusions, and who cannot be swayed from belief in them, nevertheless treat these same beliefs with what seems a certain distance or irony… A related feature of schizophrenic patients is what has been called their ‘double bookkeeping’… A patient who claims that the doctors and nurses are trying to torture and poison her may nevertheless happily consume the food they give her; a patient who asserts that the people around him are phantoms or automatons still interacts with them as if they were real. [Sass 1994: 21]

Sass suggests that this tone can be captured by comparing such delusions to expressions of philosophical solipsism.

I have, in the past, expressed some scepticism of this approach. The main problem is that if we take seriously Wittgenstein’s claims about the nonsensical status of solipsism then it threatens to undermine the content of the comparison aimed at shedding light on schizophrenia. We don’t need to be ‘resolute’ readers of the early Wittgenstein to take his critique of solipsism in particular to turn not on its falsity but on the fact that it fails to be a thesis of any sort. ‘Solipsism, when its implications are followed out strictly, coincides with pure realism.’ (Rupert Read was the first person, I know, to publish this line of thought. But he pushed it in the context of a resolute reading.)

Sass qualifies the nature of the thesis. It is not, for example, that to suffer schizophrenia is to believe solipsism to be true. But it is ‘as if’ that.

Let us call this the attitude of ‘quasi-solipsism’ (since the experience is not accompanied by a full and explicit awareness in philosophical terms of the doctrine of solipsism). [ibid: 39]

(So we have a double ‘as if’ quality. Solipsism supports an ‘as if’ attitude to the objective world in a number of respects that Sass discusses. But it is only ‘as if’ that is what is believed by Schreber.)

Now one aspect of the psychopathology in question is that of delusional atmosphere: the uncanny feeling of significance that Jaspers thought sufficiently important that it alone could qualify a belief it accompanied as delusional even if the belief had no cognitive defect. This is one of the phenomena Sass attempts to elucidate and given my scepticism about the general shape of his approach, I am (and should be for consistency) sceptical about his prospects. But this presents a problem for me. The problem is that whatever condition holds which rules out understanding delusional atmosphere (if my Jaspers-inspired pessimism is right), it had better not rule out understanding an everyday experience of the uncanny on pain of imposing a simple-minded literalness on our moods. But what is it to feel that something is uncanny? What is the content of the feeling or mood?

887. The feeling of the uncanny. How is it manifested? The duration of such a 'feeling'. What is it like, e.g., for it to be interrupted? Would it be possible, for example, to have it and not have it every other second? Don't its marks include a characteristic kind of course (beginning and ending), distinguishing it from, e.g., a sense perception? [Wittgenstein Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Volume I]

A couple of nights ago I watched the Spanish film The Orphanage. Its great virtue is atmosphere. The film slowly builds up a sense of strangeness, significance and particular importance of historical resonances. Later, it degenerates into something simply supernatural (supernatural things just happen and we are left with an explicable story arc if you grant the supernatural premises). But, in the early stages, it is successfully uncanny. Perfectly ordinary things happen (we see, for example, children playing a game outside a house) and yet the atmosphere of the film casts these in an alienating light. But I don’t mean that we see in these ordinary events portents of the supernatural happenings that are, as it happens, to come. There is something changed in their everydayness but not in the banal sense of the merely supernatural.

Wittgenstein describes something helpful in this context:

Engelmann told me that when he rummages round at home in a drawer full of his own manuscripts, they strike him as so glorious that he thinks they would be worth presenting to other people. (He said it’s the same when he is reading through letters from his dead relations.) But when he imagines a selection of them published he said the whole business loses its charm & value & becomes impossible I said this case was like the following one: Nothing could be more remarkable than seeing someone who thinks himself unobserved engaged in some quite simple everyday activity. Let’s imagine a theatre, the curtain goes up & and we see someone alone in his room walking up and down, lighting a cigarette, seating himself etc. so that suddenly we are observing a human being from outside in a way that ordinarily we can never observe ourselves; as if we were watching a chapter from a biography with our own eyes,--surely this would be at once uncanny and wonderful. More wonderful than anything that a playwright could cause to be acted or spoken on the stage. We should be seeing life itself.--But then we do see this every day & it makes not the slightest impression on us! True enough, but we do not see it from that point of view.--Similarly when E. looks at his writings and finds them splendid (even though he would not care to publish any of the pieces individually) he is seeing his life as God’s work of art, & and as such it is certainly worth contemplating, as is every life & everything whatever. But only the artist can represent the individual thing so that it appears to us as a work of art; those manuscripts rightly lose their value if we contemplate them singly & in any case without prejudice, i.e. without being enthusiastic about them in advance. The work of art compels us--as one might say--to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object is a piece of nature like any other & the fact that we may exalt it through our enthusiasm does not give anyone the right to display it to us. (I am always reminded of one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experienced something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness; insofar as it is ever justifiable to look at something with coldness.)But now it seems to me too that besides the work of the artist there is another through which the world may be captured sub specie æterni. It is--as I believe--the way of thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight. [Wittgenstein MS 109 28: 22.8.1930]

In this vignette, Wittgenstein imagines that we change our view of everyday events. recontextualised and reviewed, ordinary events become ‘at once uncanny and wonderful’ because seen from a new point of view compared with ‘seeing life as God’s work of art’.

But this seems only to postpone the problem. What is it to see life as God’s work of art? How would that be?

More here.