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Si recommends…

“Storyness is argument”

From Refiguring Hayden White, Nancy Partner, “Post-Postmodernism: What Exactly Has Been Left Behind?,” Stanford University Press, 2009:

The psychic work narrative does at the core of personal identity—an insight shared by psychoanalysts and research psychologists, and by Hayden White—anchors the persuasive force of narrative in the public sphere. Narratives are layered, from the interior of the self out to local and public collectivities, and the effect of narrative in maintaining identity may be the engine of its power in the public realm. …Storyness is argument.

“What wish is enacted, what desire is gratified, by the fantasy that real events are properly represented when they can be shown to display the formal coherency of a story? In the enigma of this wish, this desire, we catch a glimpse of the cultural function of narrativizing discourse in general.” (Hayden White)

The New York Times


  • June 17, 2010

    The Psychology of Bliss

    By ROBIN MARANTZ HENIG

    HOW PLEASURE WORKS

    The New Science of Why We Like What We Like

    By Paul Bloom

    280 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $26.95

    In 2003, a German computer expert named Armin Meiwes advertised online for someone to kill and then eat. Incredibly, 200 people replied, and Meiwes chose a man named Bernd Brandes. One night, in Meiwes’s farmhouse, Brandes took some sleeping pills and drank some schnapps and was still awake when Meiwes cut off his penis, fried it in olive oil and offered him some to eat. Brandes then retreated to the bathtub, bleeding profusely. Meiwes stabbed him in the neck, chopped him up and stored him in the freezer. Over the next several weeks, he defrosted and sautéed 44 pounds of Brandes, eating him by candlelight with his best cutlery.

    Hold on a minute. Why does this story appear in “How Pleasure Works,” a book whose jacket copy promises a “new understanding of pleasure, desire and value”? If this is a “new under standing,” maybe we’ll just stick with the old one, thank you very much. For heaven’s sake, we’re only on Chapter 2, and already we’re deep into cannibalism, compounded by a suicidal-masochistic impulse. Still to come are such topics as rubber vomit, human grimacing contests and monkey pornography.

    But stick with it and trust the author, Paul Bloom, to use these weird digressions to get us someplace interesting. Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, has written a book that is different from the slew already out there on the general subject of happiness. No advice here about how to become happier by organizing your closets; Bloom is after something deeper than the mere stuff of feeling good. He analyzes how our minds have evolved certain cognitive tricks that help us negotiate the physical and social world — and how those tricks lead us to derive pleasure in some rather unexpected places.

    “Many significant human pleasures are universal,” Bloom writes. “But they are not biological adaptations. They are byproducts of mental systems that have evolved for other purposes.” Evolutionary psychologists like Bloom are fond of explaining perplexing psychological attributes this way. These traits emerged, the argument goes, as accidental accompaniments to other traits that help us survive and reproduce.

    Our most puzzling sources of pleasure, according to this view, are side effects of our inborn “essentialism,” the idea that “things have an underlying reality or true nature . . . and it is this hidden nature that really matters.” It was to our ancestors’ advantage to be essentialists, so they could categorize the plants and animals in their environment into “dangerous” and “harmless” and thereby know which ones to avoid. Today, our ability to recognize the essence of things explains, for instance, why someone would be willing to pay $48,875 for a tape measure once owned by John F. Kennedy.

    Pornography is another example of pleasure via essentialism. Why do some men spend more time looking at Internet porn than interacting with flesh-and-blood lovers? There may be “no reproductive advantage” to liking pornography, Bloom writes, but there is an advantage to its source: an urge to look at real-world “attractive naked people,” which makes us want sex, which in turn is good for continuation of the species. Pornography uses the same pleasure mechanism as actual sex, which is handy since “there aren’t always attractive naked people around when you need them.”

    Then there are the (sometimes) more G-rated pleasures of the imagination: the joys of fiction, movies, television, daydreaming. “Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities — eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter and teaching our children,” Bloom writes. But when we retreat into an imagined world, it’s almost like experiencing the pleasure for real. Bloom calls it “Reality Lite — a useful substitute when the real pleasure is inaccessible, too risky or too much work.”

    Bloom’s ideas go against the traditional view of pleasure as purely sensory: that is, that we get pleasure from food because of how it tastes, from music because of how it sounds, from art because of how it looks. The sensory explanation is only partially true, he writes. “Pleasure is affected by deeper factors, including what the person thinks about the true essence of what he or she is getting pleasure from.” When we pay good money for tape measures that famous people have touched, or treasure our children’s clumsy kindergarten art, it is because we believe that something about the person’s essence exists in the object itself. How else to explain Jonathan Safran Foer’s collection of blank sheets of paper? These are not just any blank sheets: they are the sheets that were about to be written on next by Paul AusterSusan Sontag and David Foster Wallace, who sent them to Foer at his request.

    And what about the seamier sides of pleasure, like the performance artist who sold 90 cans of his own feces, half of which were improperly autoclaved and would eventually explode, for as much as $61,000 a can? Bloom writes about them without judgment; they just help prove his point, albeit in some grotesque ways. Remember the cannibal Armin Meiwes and his victim, Bernd Brandes? Meiwes believed he was eating Brandes’s essence. “With every bite, my memory of him grew stronger,” Meiwes told the authorities. He also noted that Brandes had been fluent in English — and that since eating him, his own English had much improved.

    Robin Marantz Henig is the author, most recently, of “Pandora’s Baby: How the First Test Tube Babies Sparked the Reproductive Revolution.”