You must escape your context

Posted on by TheLastPsychiatrist and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

It’s easy to criticize the theories and interpretations of a society long gone– not because we know more, but because our context is radically different.  Regardless of what you think you know, the “language” of our culture makes previous cultures’ understandings just sound… stupid.

Every paradigm is informed by its contemporary society, even if they seem unrelated.  The go-to example of this is Freud’s theories, from which we derive “pent up” and “release” and “drives” and “pressures”– all of which are the language of the turn-of-the century steam industrial world.  Whether Freud was right or not isn’t the point– he just sounds wrong because we don’t use steam engines and the brain doesn’t look like an engine anymore.

The point here is that we acknowledge the ideas of prior cultures relied on their context, but we willfully ignore our own immersion in our context.  I read this in The Economist (which, BTW, features this ad on the back cover:)


However, unlike Freud’s unconscious (a hot, claustrophobic place full of repressed memories and inappropriate sexual fantasies about one’s parents) the modern unconscious is a place of super-fast data processing, useful survival mechanisms and rules of thumb about the world that have been honed by millions of years of evolution. It is the unconscious, for instance, that stitches together data on colour, shape, movement…

Note that this isn’t merely a metaphor or analogy to modern computers– it is an earnest but uncritical assumption of an actual similarity.

I’m often asked what books I draw inspiration from, and I regularly refer to Notes From The Underground, Fear And Trembling, and, of course, Interpretation Of Dreams– but the reason I rely on them for the blog is because they are so “wrong” for our contemporary society.  They don’t fit our language, our science, our values or our desires, they are anachronistic– and so applying them to today is bound to either be insane or insightful.

This is the problem with omnivores of contemporary media, the people who are constantly reading every magazine that comes out or every new book on X.  Even the best stuff still suffers from its immersion in 2012.  If you want to see things differently, you have to approach them from radically different contexts.

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14 Responses to You must escape your context

  1. JohnJ says:

    I kind of thought the point of this blog was to provide more opportunities for accessing different perspectives.

    • Guy Fox says:

      So provide some different perspectives, John. The website also what we make it within some editorial limits, so make it what you want it to be. Don’t just use your passivity as power, like a kid who pesters mom to entertain him.

    • bogart says:

      What’s the difference between *perspective* and *context* – e.g. a blog post about “If you want to see things differently, you have to approach them from radically different contexts” – and the first comment is…. “I kind of thought the point of this blog was to provide more opportunities for accessing different perspectives”.

      How about a different orientation too? Are these just different levels of abstraction? e.g. My orientation is citizen’s representative government; my context is the U.S. style democracy; different perspectives are Democrat and Republican (maybe not the best analogy, but I’ve only had one cup of coffee so far this morning).

      I think the big breakthroughs, or insight, comes from when people change their orientations.

      “…if an orientation is useful, it is capable of being changed as the world changes, and the world changes as the way we look at it changes…as our artists change the way they paint sunsets, so we see sunsets in a different way…as our science changes, we see new things and old things in a different way…the orientation controls our perception, but the perception, if we can manage to observe a disparity between the two, changes our orientation…”

      “…for centuries upon centuries, it would appear, certain Indians of the southwestern US have performed dances which they conceive as responsible for forcing the gods to send rain. When the rain fails to come, do they conclude that there are no gods, or that the rain ordinarily comes within a certain seasonal range, but sometimes comes outside of that range, that the coming of the rain is inherently, as far as we can see in a limited state of knowledge, irregular and somewhat random and not certain? Not at all; they save the orientation by concluding that they made an error in the dance ritual…”

  2. Guy Fox says:

    It’s true that you need to get outside your context to perceive difference, but it’s also valuable in the way it shows you continuity. When Freud needed to communicate what he saw, he found a passable metaphor in Greek drama from the 5th century BC. Ditto Camus and Sisyphus. Ditto Nolan and Ariadne.
    Sure, you can only be critical of something if you can step outside it and free yourself of the signs it takes for granted, but it also helps you to identify what’s important. If Shakespeare (via Macbeth), Dostoyevsky (via Porfiry), and John Hughes (via Ferris Bueller) have all felt compelled to ask what happens when an individual dares to deviate from the Rules, you can bet that it’s going to be a matter worthy of your attention. The questions that don’t go away are the questions that won’t go away, but you can only find them if you look.

    • Gabe Ruth says:

      That’s a good point. A few months ago I was talking about Anna Karenina with a co-worker, and how it is another iteration of the same investigation. Only, to his mind, it was more like an early feminist text, showing how necessary female liberation was. I suppose these aren’t mutually exclusive, but I thought his emphasis showed a limited perspective, which made it hard for him to see the more general lessons of the story.

  3. CubaLibre says:

    Hence a classical liberal eduction is mandatory for critical thinking. Too bad there are so few of those available any more.

  4. sdenheyer says:

    This is a good point – ti’s always useful to closely examine your metaphors.

    Notice that “pressure” metaphors are still used for sex. It’s apt – if you haven’t orgasmed for a while, it progressively gets more urgent that you do so. And when you do, it feels like a stronger release.

    We’ve abandoned (or should) the “pressure” metaphors for individual acts of violence – people don’t commit violent acts because they haven’t done so in a while. Violence is deployed only in very restrictive, specific contexts, and strategically.

    Explosions have been around for a while, and we still use explosion metaphors for violence (a “poderkeg” situation, etc.), which captures salient aspects – small things leading to nasty consequences, sudden-ness, etc.

    Metaphors which actually capture many of the features of the referent have sticking power.

    So, a prediction: we’ll be using “brains as computers” metaphors for a while, because brains are basically protein computers (IMO). And the trajectory seems to be that the boundaries between what we call “thought” and what we call “computing” seem to be dissolving.

    “Natural language” used to be something only brains did. Now it’s not.

  5. Tim says:

    I was reading the rather fun The Games People Play by Eric Berne recently.
    It’s interesting because there is some core truth to it, but also because it is so very politically unacceptable these days. An example quote:
    {“The game of “Homosexuality” has become elaborated into a subculture in many countries, just as it
    is ritualized in others. Many of the disabilities which result from homosexuality arise from making
    it into a game. The provocative behavior which gives rise to “Cops and Robbers,” “Why Does This
    Always Happen to Us,” “It’s the Society We Live In,” “AH Great Men Were” and so forth, is often
    amenable to social control, which reduces the handicaps to a minimum. The “professional
    homosexual” wastes a large amount of time and energy which could be applied to other ends.
    Analysis of his games may help him establish a quiet manage which will leave him free to enjoy
    the benefits that bourgeois society offers, instead of devoting himself to playing his own variation
    of “Ain’t It Awful!””}

    But what the quote also arises when dealing with old books is that sometimes they make compelling arguments without information available today. If one can convince by lieing through omission, then reading books from the ignorant past is lieing to ourselves by omission. Where a modern book dealt with homosexuality, it would have to address the demonstrated heritability and (shakey) genetics findings on the subject. Sexual attraction is one of the more automatic things our brain does – isolated tribes do have sex in much the same way as we do, and have homosexuals at the same sort of rate. So to address the destructive psycology of an individual, secondary to thier homosexuality, you would have to concider that their sexual desires, a big part of a persons self even without modern identity culture, were condemned by the people around them.

    So books from the past are interesting, and the insights they yield are valuable, perhaps especially when they jar with todays dogma. But the past is a foreign country, and it is a primitive one.

  6. Somebody says:

    Note that this isn’t merely a metaphor or analogy to modern computers– it is an earnest but uncritical assumption of an actual similarity.

    The people reasoning about the brain use metaphors from computers, while the people reasoning about computers use metaphors from the brain.

  7. Forsooth says:

    There is something beautiful about the phrasing “a hot, claustrophobic place” but I’m not quite sure I’d want to put my finger on it. On that thought, they should have left us more ladders, because the purpose of escaping is not so much the present toxicity, but the motion. Is this why water beats land for life and folly?

  8. xylokopos says:

    That’s all fine and interesting, assuming there is such a thing as a “contemporary context” that billions of living humans all experience by submerging in it. Also, you reckon Notes from the Underground is anachronistic and dated? Seriously? Can you not relate to the characters, don’t you see a certain human type in the narrator that could be your neighbor or your brother or yourself?

    As a type this, there is a minor government official in Gujarat that is typing away in his typewriter, who has never operated a computer. No, forget that, there is a monk in Mt Athos, living in a monastery built a thousand years ago, reading a manuscript from eight hundred years ago that has never even seen a computer. Oh, and he speaks no English and is blissfully unaware of sex and the city. What’s his context?

    Lovecraft was Hemingway’s contemporary. Their only context was the English language. Barely.
    Or are you saying that every single person has a context, linguistic and ideological they cannot escape?

    • MarcusB says:

      I believe Alone still refers to stuff like Notes from the Underground because it can still be applied today but lacks any variables that and references to modern times, so the reader is forced to rely more on the words of the text rather than using preconceived notions made from recalling TV/film references etc. Of course, this doesn’t mean they’re free from bias, we still have notions of what the 1800s were like from documentaries and Hollywood.

      A monk may have never heard of sex and the city, but a monk knows what goes on in television, even without having to watch it. I think you underestimate how much of a connection people in 3rd world conditions have to pop culture. They receive a lot of the second hand, recycled TV shows and magazines. Just look at how many spinoffs of
      ______’s Got Talent there are in other countries.

      “Or are you saying that every single person has a context, linguistic and ideological they cannot escape?”

      I don’t know about this myself, but it’s pretty hard to “un-know” something.

    • Guy Fox says:

      While almost every person has his/her own culture, seeing the world in a particular way in terms of particular symbols, there is a dominant culture, and it’s not decided by democratic or egalitarian means. Do a survey of people on the Clapham omnibus, and you’ll find that it’s called ‘prime time’ for a reason, i.e. that’s the dominant culture. And you’ll get pretty much the same results in San Jose, East St. Louis, Queens, or Mississauga. Pick 50 people at random on the subway and ask how many have read Hemmingway (beyond Coles Notes of ‘The Old Man and the Sea’). Your counterexamples are all valid, but you kind of had to grasp to find deviance, no?

      And even if this is totally overstating world cultural homogeneity, it’s still not a bad thing for everyone to take a step back/to the side/forward to gain a little critical distance from the parts of their own culture they take for granted whatever and wherever they may be.

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