Saturday, August 7, 2010

Acheronta non movebo: the neurosymbology of dreams

Christopher Nolan's Inception admittedly does not fit neatly into the frameworks we have established so far for the discussion of contemporary symbological and quasi-symbological cultural products. Indeed, the subject positions available within the film's diegesis are nearly all ultimately reducible to what I have called in my discussion of Avatar "vulgar economic determinism," which we might generously understand as a kind of degraded version of cacognosis (or conversely, and this is a matter that should be explored in greater depth on another occasion, we might understand cacognosis as a mythification of the calculating literalism-materialism imputed to the homo economicus of modern capitalist societies). The protagonists' ventures into the intricately manufactured and utterly undreamlike dreamscapes of Nolan's film, after all, are all prompted by the banal business interests of Japanese energy executive Saito. It should be added that despite the film's underdetermined use of a Japanese character, apparently mainly as an excuse for some decorative scenes of sumptuous luxury, as well as decorative riot scene in what seems to be someone's dream-image of a chaotic Oriental city, and a long and largely pointless and irrelevant chase scene in Mombasa, which leads the protagonists to Yusuf, the "chemist" who will be responsible for inducing the dream state in which the film's main action takes place, the film ultimately does not bother to engage in any particularly extensive Orientalism, even of the most standard Hollywood sort. I take this avoidance as symptomatic of its equally significant lack of interest in orthognosis, even as a structuring absence - that is, it shows no interest in positing a subject who knows completely and intuitively (cf. the function of the Na'vi in Avatar). Meanwhile, we might posit a sort of degree zero of cacognosis in the de-instrumentalized use of the technologies of dream exploration by protagonist Cobb and his wife Mal, whose mistake is to have taken all too literally the epistemological implications of their adventures in inner space (by way of which implications, by the way, the film offers us little more than the dumbed-down version of Cartesian doubt familiar from The Matrix and elsewhere), and to detach these implications from the utility of the technologies as a means to achieve more effectively the quotidian goals allegedly guiding waking life, like maintaining corporate hegemony. However, this connection is tenuous, in part because the film is so insistent in returning us to a world in which subjects' only conceivable motivations belong either to the realm of the economic (Saito's desire not to have his energy empire taken over by Fischer) or to that of the sentimental (Cobb's desire to get back to his kids), Mal's suicide is consigned to the realm of the irrational and the nonsensical, which is of course concomitant with the fact that it was brought about inadvertently by Cobb's use of "inception" (understood as "getting people to do things for reasons they are not aware of").
The latter definition of the term also used as the film's title, incidentally, points us towards what Twinglebrook-Hastings (private correspondence) has described as the radically anti-Freudian core of the film: Nolan presents unconscious motivation as the improbable and hard-to-achieve (for Cobb and his colleagues) exception to the generally complete self-awareness of the human subject, who at all times has intuitive consciousness of the real of his (pedestrian and mechanical) desire. In spite of all the caveats just adduced, and particularly in light of Prandleforth's scintillating recent discussion of Avatar, which helpfully codifies the shared assumptions and procedures of symbological and neurosymbological discourse, I would like to propose that Inception gives us, in nuce, an emblematic explication of the (neuro)symbological model of the mind and thereby allows us to formulate, expanding upon Twinglebrook-Hastings' observations, a new and perhaps not entirely obvious hypothesis: symbology is that discourse for which there can be no unconscious, properly understood. Such a hypothesis, if its validity stands, may allow us to to find points of encounter between the project of critical symbology and such apparently disparate enterprises as Lacan's critique of ego psychology.
Reigning neurosymbologist-in-chief Jonah Lehrer has helpfully provided us with a starting point for our considerations. In a recent installment of his Frontal Cortex blog, Lehrer offers a reading of the film as a resounding confirmation of certain neurosymbological pseudo-insights, proceeding from the assertion that "from the perspective of your brain, dreaming and movie-watching are strangely parallel experiences" to posit baldly that "Inception tries to collapse the already thin distinction between dreaming and movie-watching." The last time I looked, asserting that there is a parallel between x and y does not imply that there is only a thin distinction between x and y, but such objections are of course moot in the face of the correlations enabled by the wondrous fMRI machine: predictably enough, the evidence that allows Lehrer to make this leap comes in the form of a series of brain scans carried out by researchers at Hebrew University on subjects during a screening of Clint Eastwood's "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." From this study, we learn that "people showed a remarkable level of similarity when it came to the activation of areas including the visual cortex (no surprise there), fusiform gyrus (it was turned on when the camera zoomed in on a face), areas related to the processing of touch (they were activated during scenes involving physical contact) and so on," and that in the course of viewing a film, just as when we dream "self-awareness is strangely diminished" with the partial shutting down of the prefrontal cortex while there is "an increase in activation of the so-called 'limbic' areas, those chunks of the cortex associated with the production of emotion." When, we dream, Lehrer notes, "[i]t's as if our cortex is entertaining us with surreal cinema." In his enthusiasm, Lehrer has evidently forgotten that one of the main goals of surrealism, the movement which both coined the term "surreal" and brought it into general parlance, was to attempt to bring art closer to the logic of dreams - the simile is therefore about as illuminating as stating that "it's as if that bear was wrapped in an extremely convincing imitation bearskin rug!"
Recalling Prandleforth's recent definition of neurosymbology, therefore, as "discourse about the mind which demands that phenomenological expeirence subsist in, and be sufficiently accountable for by, anatomo-physiological mechanisms in the brain and that, to continue the parallel, hermeneutic discrimination privilege indexically correlative relations (i.e. those observed in functional brain imaging studies), univalence, (how can mechanism be polyvalent?) and antiquity," we may quickly conclude that Lehrer's Inception review is a veritable classic of the genre. Dreams and cinema are not simply parallel but rather indistinguishable in this account insofar as they activate and deactivate the same regions of the brain; whatever glaring differences might exist between them in broad terms, or between individual films and individual dreams, belong to the realm of the epiphenomenal. Likewise, the criterion of univalence is satisfied by the study's claims about the "remarkable similarities" between different subjects' experiences of the film as measured their "virtually universal" patterns of brain activity when viewing the same film (as an aside, I am unclear as to how this observation does anything more than confirm the obvious point, for which we need no fMRI machine, that different subjects tend to receive and process the same sensory stimuli in the same way). Although it does not appear here, an evolutionary psychological supplement would no doubt be easy to supply (for instance, one can imagine the claim that periodic exercise of the visual cortex in the absence of frontal cortex-induced self-awareness carried an adaptive advantage for our ancestors by helping them to engage more fully in the hunt, or perhaps by allowing them to respond uninhibitedly to the visual enticements placed before them by potential mates, or both).
A further conclusion to be drawn from Lehrer's account of the Hebrew University study is that we are all, qua dreamers/moviegoers, hard-wired to be symb-pologists (A), that is, to recall own definition of this class, to espouse by default the following proposition: "'[Insert name of symbological work] may be stupid and pointless in the end, but who cares? It was a good read/fun/beautiful/riveting.' Which we might translate: 'Insert name of symbological work] was an effective formal exercise, so why worry about the particular content that was plugged into it?'" By universalizing symb-pology (A) as the default stance of what we might call the "subject of fun," Lehrer accounts for the viewer's ostensible lack of concern about the glaring internal incoherence of Nolan's storyline ("most of the major plot points are simultaneously nonsensical and strangely compelling") while also providing the film with a minimal second-order explanation of its own representation of dreamlife as a kind of inner multiplex. It should be clear by now how this explanation of dreamlife, and therefore of the unconscious, turns out to be rather a refusal to offer an explanation, and more importantly a categorical denial of the existence of anything recognizable as the unconscious. For Lehrer as for Nolan, movies and dreams are essentially the same thing in that they mobilize a kind of pure sensory experience in which both "self-awareness" and its concomitant critical faculties recede and allow us to enjoy in precisely the manner symb-pology (A) instructs us to. There is no part of our mind which is inaccessible per se to conscious introspection, there are simply realms of experience in which introspection tends to be temporarily shut off, and in which, evidently, our ability to control the content of our consciousness is partially disabled (the appearances of Mal, for instance, do not represent anything more than Cobb's consciously avowed feelings of guilt about his role in her death). The model possesses notable parallels with symbological hermeneutics, in that the contents of the mind are something to be literally physically extracted, much as Robert Langdon might extract encoded documents from a cryptex: after all, the entire task of "extractors" like DiCaprio's Cobb is to obtain information like safe combinations and Swiss bank account numbers from the subjects whose dreams they invade. But just as the bones of Mary Magdalene turn out to be a pretext for the vigorous reassertion of mind-numbingly familiar cultural obviousnesses, Cobb's allegedly intrepid probings of the mind merely lead him back to the banality of his desire to "get back to his kids," the latter functioning throughout the film as nothing more than a pure formal vehicle of recontainment.
(Neuro-)symbological desire, we may conclude from Nolan's and Lehrer's mappings of the mind, is that desire whose real is always already known to us, completely consistent as it is at all moments with its conscious articulation; both the unfolding and the enjoyment of narrative depend upon a temporary amnesia vis-à-vis its humdrum kernel. To conclude, I would like to suggest that an identically structured desire is operative, by definition, in all symbological fiction worthy of the name, where what we seek in the pursuit of the code turns out to simply be what we always sought and knew we sought anyway.