Contemporary Fictional Surrealism

I’m not sure how many of the 21 stories in the current issue of Gone Lawn  — stories I explored briefly in my last post — can be categorized as surrealist, or dadaist, or absurdist. My sense was that most of them manifest one or more facets of what I think of as surrealism. What are those facets; how many facets does each story manifest? I could build an algorithm and run it on each of these stories separately; I could compute an aggregate Surrealty Score to the stories collectively. I was going to say “I could, but I won’t,” but I won’t. I might go ahead and generate the algorithm, run each story through it, compute a score for each and for all. The exercise would keep me focused, grounded in actually existing fictions rather than abstracting to fiction generally or contracting into my own fictions — the ones I’ve written or might write in the future.

What variables could be incorporated into the Surrealty calculator? Plenty of surrealist manifestos were written nearly a hundred years ago, but their authors were attempting to dictate what should happen, not to document what had already happened. Besides, I’m not sure whether contemporary fiction writers consciously regard themselves as surrealists, either through exercise of an idiosyncratic aesthetic or through participation in a more widespread movement.

In August 2017 the Washington Post published an article by Elizabeth Bruenig called “Why is millennial humor so weird?” I don’t have access to WaPo online, so I’m reading the article on my wife’s mobile device. I won’t put up a link, but I will excerpt freely. Bruenig regards contemporary surrealism as a kind of affect-laden subjective orientation to the world, an orientation that seems widespread:

I am not a nihilist, but a mood of grim, jolly absurdism comes over me often, as it seems to come over many of my young peers. To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

“Grim, jolly absurdism.” Is that three variables, or one? Arguably all humor has a dark side: funny and cruel, funny and sad, funny and humiliating. There is a butt to the joke, even if it’s the jokester. But “grim” seems less interpersonal — a mood that’s more austere, serious, veering toward depressive. And “jolly” is a good-natured kind of funny; not laughing at or even laughing with, jolliness is more of like a personality trait, an open happy orientation to the world and its occupants.

It might be a mistake to characterize both “grim” and “jolly” as subjective states. The world can be grim — or, perhaps more accurately, the world can “afford” grimness, can create situations that provoke a grim mood in those who participate or witness such situations. The world can also afford jolliness, can generate situations that prompt amusement, even ebullience. Grimness and jolliness aren’t just emotions, nor are they objective features of the world; they’re ecological, generated in the interactions between people and the world they occupy. Heidegger regarded being in a mood as being attuned to the world, as being-there.

A situation doesn’t necessarily generate the same mood in everyone. In part that’s because individuals often respond differently to the same stimulus; in part it’s because situations aren’t univocal in their affordances. A situation can prompt both grimness and jolliness in the same person. How do you reconcile seemingly opposite and incompatible moods? You can eliminate the dissonance by turning up the volume on one while muting the other. Or you can try to find a middle ground: neutral indifference, for example. Or you can try to remain attuned to both poles at once, immersing yourself in opposite moods at the same time.

Maybe that’s what defines the absurd: simultaneously being attuned to opposite affordances from the world and being immersed in opposite moods. A second-order way of being-there.

That Bruenig explicitly disavows her own nihilism suggests strongly that the absurd mood she identifies in herself and her fellow millennials is associated closely with a sense of meaninglessness. Again, where does meaning reside: in the world, or in the head? Neither and both. Meaning too is an affordance, a subjective attunement to objective features of the world. Meaning could be a way to reconcile contradictory affordances like grimness and jolliness, but that would necessitate that the meaning be univocal, unambiguous. What if the same event, the same situation, can be embedded in multiple systems of meaning simultaneously? Now the failure to achieve a unified attunement to the world results not from the absence of meaning but from its surfeit — an overload of mutually contradictory meanings.

Some of those meanings are themselves meaningless — affordances generated not by the world itself but by those who would manipulate the world for their own gain. Bruenig again:

Yet the world is full of noise. Information is both more accessible (and perhaps more oppressively omnipresent) than ever and also less reliable; people select their own facts, and business-funded think tanks produce reports indistinguishable from hard data, except that they are not remotely true. Brands pose as friends on social media, especially to millennials, and if the line between real and artificial isn’t obliterated, it certainly seems to matter less than it once did.

How does this “mood of grim, jolly absurdism” manifest itself in fictional form?

To visit millennial comedy, advertising and memes is to spend time in a dream world where ideas twist and suddenly vanish; where loops of self-referential quips warp and distort with each iteration, tweaked by another user embellishing on someone else’s joke, until nothing coherent is left… In this weird world of the surreal and bizarre, horror mingles with humor, and young people have space to play with emotions that seem more and more to proceed from ordinary life — the creeping suspicion that the world just doesn’t make sense.

Dream world? Well, we are talking about fictions after all, even if they do stem from a mood induced by real-world contradictions between grim and jolly, between empty and oversaturated. The implication though is that these sorts of absurd fictions aren’t realistic but dreamlike, suggesting that millennial comedy, and perhaps other millennial fiction induced by the contradictory meaninglessness of the contemporary world, constitutes not an artistic depiction of that world but an escape or exit from it: not a being-there but a being-elsewhere.

Amid these trends, a particular style of expression has spread among young people. Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they’ve gone missing, the style aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. In a way, it’s a digital update to the surreal and absurd genres of art and literature that characterized the tumultuous early 20th century.

Surrealism in its original manifestation was an attempt, through the juxtaposition of radically disparate elements, to bring together the actual and imaginary worlds, the waking and dreaming states, the conscious and unconscious minds, into a single super-reality. The presumption was that these two aspects of sur-reality had been artificially divided, and so it was the task of the artist to bring them back together. Can the same rationale be inferred from today’s neo-surrealists, who jam together in preposterous admixtures the grim and the jolly, emptiness and excess, information and noise, meaninglessness and supersaturated meaning?  Do the incommensurable fragments cohere into a super-reality, twisted, incoherent, and weird though it might be? Or is the opposite impulse at work, demonstrating that even the most ordinary aspects of life become incongruous when pried loose from ordinary reality, left to dangle in metaphysical isolation or else grafted into an alternative reality? Instead of unifying the fragments into a single super-reality, the new surrealists might be bent on fragmenting the seeming unity of the everyday world, revealing that there is either a plethora of realities, or else no reality at all.

And then there’s the absurd humor it all:

this giant emptiness of meaning… this giant race to the bottom of irony… [Absurdity with humor] lol nothing matters, but things might turn out all right anyway… After all, the weird — even the exceedingly weird — doesn’t have to be purely distressing… …millennial surrealism intermixes relief with stress and levity with lunacy.

Does Bruenig’s thesis fit the short fictions in the latest issue of Gone Lawn? Tomorrow or the next day I’ll go back through each story and see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Deceptively Simple Word Problem by Samuel Rafael Barber

Random short fiction 20.11.5, from Green Mountains Reviewhere’s the link.

Fiction as thought experiment: it’s nice to see someone else going in for this sort of thing. I appreciate the tell-don’t-show expository narrative, the abstraction of fictional components into variables and algorithms, the exploration of hypotheticals and conditionals and alternative futures and other counteractuals.

The person called “You” waits at the bench for the simultaneous arrivals of Trains A and B. They won’t just pass each other without stopping; both trains are expected to stop long enough to let passengers board — it’s a scheduled stop. You must live near this stop, the temporal midpoint between both termini, between station N’s banal urbanity and the outermost edge of civilization at station M. Maybe there are other intermediate stops. Does You live in suburbia, exurbia, smalltownia, ruralia? Are these intermediate positions rejected as mere compromises, places without qualities, each characterized only by its relative positioning on the linear continuum between pure city and pure wilderness? Being neither hot nor cold do You and the fiancé spew these mediocrities out of their mouths?

Maybe A and B aren’t the only two trains to stop here, running their perpetual relay between the same two endpoints. Maybe another train stops here as well, heading in some direction along another vector, its termini representing extreme values of some other variable besides city/wilderness. I’ve navigated these mid-course transfers often enough on European railroads to have lost at least some of the anticipatory anxiety of finding myself lugging my luggage along the platform in futile pursuit of my connection as it eases away on down the tracks. Maybe You is sitting at a bench in some Grand Central Station, with scores of trains arriving and departing every hour, heading to anywhere from everywhere.

Choice. You’s fiancé rides aboard Train A, originating at Station M. Did he change his mind about living at the outermost edge of civilization? Couldn’t he disembark, meet You on the platform, both returning on Train B to station M? Couldn’t both give urban banality a try? If someday they decide they don’t like it then they can buy a couple of tickets for Train B and head back together to the wilderness or to one of the intermediate stops, or else veer off on a different track entirely.

Fate. Both the A train and the B train stop at You’s location in precisely two hours. Presumably they run on the same schedule every day. You could wait until next week to decide which one to board, or next month. However, You’s fiancé rides Train A only on this particular day; this is the day when, in two hours, two lines of Fate are destined to merge into a temporary node, a singularity, a portal. And hasn’t You already decided by agreeing to marry; isn’t that why the fiancé is riding to meet You here in two hours, locked onto a particular course determined by You’s decision? Is this the problem with any decision, that once it’s made You’d like to take it back, as if it had never been made, as if all routes remain open to You as pure potential, sitting on the bench reading a story?

What if, unbeknownst to You, the fiancé changed his mind and Train A pulled out of Station M without him? Now You changes her mind about meeting the fiancé and gets aboard Train B, pulling in at Station M in 1 hour and 43 minutes. Stopping at the café near station M before heading out into the wilderness, You spots the fiancé in a booth having a cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie.

 

 

Exaptation

Last week I explored online the possibility of writing a variant of Prop O’Gandhi that’s ten percent leaner than the already-existing version. In a comment to that post I observed that the randomly selected page of text, excerpted from the present version of O’Gandhi and subjected to the editorial slimming experiment, was nearly identical to the original draft version of that page written fourteen years ago.

But while the words themselves have persisted with few changes, the context in which those words appear have altered significantly and repeatedly. Originally the page in question was part of “Episode Three” in what was envisioned as a 15-episode novella. Once it was finished I interleaved the episodes of O’Gandhi with the episodes of the Time Out! comic I’d written a couple of years before, compiling what had been two separate works into a single aggregate piece. Several years later I pulled O’Gandhi apart from the comic, expanding it into a text that’s three times as long as the original. I also reorganized some of the original material: what had been Episode Three became the ninth chapter of the novel-length rewrite. More years passed; more long fictions ensued. No longer a stand-alone novel, O’Gandhi was repositioned as the second “movement” in an eight-part “suite” of interrelated fictions.

Has the experimented-upon page, originally drafted so many years ago, found its final resting place as a particular page in a chapter in a movement in a suite? Not necessarily. The suite might expand from eight movements to fourteen. O’Gandhi might get shuffled in the sequence depending on what new movements are composed. It might get disaggregated, asked again to stand alone as a novel. The page in question has even been extracted from its original narrative context and inserted into a different context, serving as the subject of a blog post here. In that post the individual sentences in the page, the individual words in those sentences, came under scrutiny, being experimentally altered and interpreted before being restored to their original configuration. Some day I might delete that post, or I might incorporate it into a longer piece as illustrating one tactic among many for constructing an imaginary slimmed-down O’Gandhi döppelganger.

On this website I’ve also disaggregated other writers’ fictional texts, reassembling excerpts to describe locations or movements in an intertextual fictional City. I’ve linked some of these excerpts from multiple short fictions together into an alternative narrative. I’ve also split some of the excerpts into their actual and counteractual components.

Maybe these fictional phrases are like selfish genes, preserving themselves across various phenotypic configurations in pursuit of adaptive survival. Certainly the individual words persist, incorporated into a potentially unlimited variety of phrases. On the other hand, the ten percent reduction experiment hints at the possibility that an alternative O’Gandhi could be built that retains its phenotypic integrity using ten percent fewer genes, fewer words. Could O’Gandhi persist if every one of its phrases were swapped out for a different set? In a sense that’s what would happen if it were translated into a different language. But under other circumstances couldn’t I have written the same book while deploying an entirely different array of English phrases? I’d have been an inverted döppelganger of Borges’s Pierre Menard, an early twentieth-century fictional fictionalist whose admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided — word for word and line for line — with those of Miguel Cervantes.

Leaning Into a Fictional Döppelganger

I’ve been challenged with the idea that trimming one’s fictions by 10 percent makes them better, not just for readers but for the writer. To experiment with this proposition I selected a random page from the Google Docs version of my long fiction Prop O’Gandhi: the excerpt comes from the seventh chapter called “The Travel Agency.” [You can download the e-book for free here.]

First, the page as written:


…sent word back from the other shore. “First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, and then the travel agencies.”

It is conceivable that Prop O’Gandhi was overly hasty in abandoning the travel agency idea. Couldn’t his hero, the Time Traveler, have arranged passage to and from the year 2547, say, without ever having actually been there himself? The Time Traveler provided the means of transport. He could have built a whole garageful of time machines; he could have hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way. With the infrastructure in place, The Time Traveler could have sat behind the desk with the phone and the computer, the brochures and the books, and done some business.

What happened was that Prop O’Gandhi realized he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. He didn’t want to be the guy strapped into the machine, either. He didn’t even want to build the machine. Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do, as well as the general principles by which it would operate. It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the kind of guy who would be there to cash in on the boom. As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how it had been totally co-opted by money and success and power, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Prop probably saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency. In fact, this writing also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

If you open the doors wide enough, people will come through.

A psychologically minded observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he had experienced in his life. He feared many things, but success wasn’t one of them. The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success. Here again was evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory, which in another Reality is his spare bedroom, envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, people riding the Strands from one Reality to the next, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals? Prop O’Gandhi’s Lab is a room that measures 10 feet by 13 feet, its two small windows looking directly onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage. If he were to peer around the edge of the garage Prop could just see the window of the neighbor’s kitchen, some tall lilac bushes growing up next to the house partially occluding the view. Nonetheless, as he thought about the hypothetical Portalic travel agency, Prop could glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen. Based on what he watched her doing – chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – he guessed that she was going to have spaghetti for lunch. He realized he was hungry. He wished she would invite him over for lunch. He could bring a nice bottle of red wine, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out in her yard, at the picnic table, and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.


That’s 610 words — which means I’d need to trim 61 words to cut the length by ten percent. Here I go:


…sent word back from the other shore. “First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, then the travel agencies.”

It is conceivable that Prop O’Gandhi was overly hasty in abandoning the travel agency idea. Couldn’t his hero, the Time Traveler, have arranged passage to and from the year 2547, say, without ever having actually been there himself? The Time Traveler provided the means of transport: he could have built a whole garageful of time machines, hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way. With the infrastructure in place, The Time Traveler could have sat behind the desk with the phone and the computer, the brochures and the books, and done some business.

But Prop O’Gandhi realized that he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. Or the guy strapped into the machine either. He didn’t even want to build the machine. Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do and its general operating principles. It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the guy to cash in on the boom. As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Prop saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency — writing that also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

If you open the doors wide enough, people will come through.

An observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success. That wasn’t likely, since he had relished those rare successes he’d experienced in his life. He feared many things, but success wasn’t one of them. The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success — more evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals from one Reality to the next? Prop O’Gandhi’s Lab is a room that measures 10 by 13 feet, its two small windows looking directly onto the roof of his neighbor’s garage. If he were to peer around the edge of the garage, around the lilac bushes, Prop could just glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen. Chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – looks like spaghetti for lunch. Prop realized he was hungry. He wished she would invite him over for lunch. He could bring a nice bottle of red, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out at her picnic table and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.


Okay, that gets the passage down to 511 words. I chopped it by 99 — 37 more than I needed, a reduction of 16 percent! It didn’t take long, and it was fairly painless. No critical information is deleted, no essential meaning is lost; even I can barely notice the differences. Is the leaner alternative version of the fictional text better than the actually existing version? Is it worse? I’ll take it one sentence at a time: deleted words are lined out; added words are italicized.


“First you need the explorers,” reasoned Prop, “then the map-makers, then the innkeepers, and then the travel agencies.”

In this chapter Prop O’Gandhi is thinking about setting up a portalic travel agency. By this point he’s doubting that idea. The alternate realities need to be discovered and charted and made hospitable before the tourist trade can open up. The and in this sentence emphasizes the divide, both temporal and categorical, between the first three professions and the one that Prop is presently considering. The and stays.

The Time Traveler provided the means of transport. He could have built a whole garageful of time machines; he could have hired a crew of mechanics to maintain the machines and a team of outfitters to send people on their way.

The repetition of he could have emphasizes the qualitative distinction between two separate hypothetical moves that the Time Traveler could have made: first, the design and construction of amazing devices like the prototype he’d already made and pilot-tested; second, the mundane managerial task of staffing an ongoing business. The second he could have stays.

What happened was that But Prop O’Gandhi realized he didn’t want to be the guy behind the desk after all. He didn’t want to be Or the guy strapped into the machine, either.

Throughout the book the narrator intercedes with observations, and occasionally critiques, of the titular character. The what happened was accentuates the intrusion of the narrator at this point in Prop O’Gandhi’s ambivalence. It stays. The repetition of he didn’t want to be accentuates Prop’s Bartlebyesque reluctance to act, his sense that none of the options arrayed before him is viable. It stays.

Mostly he wanted to imagine what the machine would do, as well as the and its general operating principles by which it would operate.

As well as emphasizes the distinction between the “what” and the “how” of the machine. The more economically worded operating principles combines pragmatics and theory into a single phrase; in contrast, principles by which it would operate emphasizes theory as foundational to practice. Prop is a theoretical sort of fellow who would insist on that distinction. The original wording stays.

It was clear: if Portalic transport was ever going to take off, Prop O’Gandhi wasn’t the kind of guy who would be there to cash in on the boom.

Prop O’Gandhi is reasoning from abstractions, not from personal preferences: he’s not just the wrong individual; he’s the wrong kind of individual. Who would be there emphasizes both the futurity and the inevitability that someone is going to cash in eventually. The original wording stays.

As the tide of public enthusiasm rose, he would grumble to himself, and to his wife of course, about what a sell-out Portalic transport had turned out to be, how it had been totally co-opted by money and success and power, how all the other Realities had gotten absorbed into the mainstream Reality.

Here’s a case where the shortened version eliminates not just words but an idea. Avoiding capitalist co-optation is a central tenet of Prop O’Gandhi’s project, or perhaps a key cognitive dissonance reducer he invokes to rationalize his loserhood. It stays.

Prop probably saw the writing on the wall of his hypothetical travel agency. In fact, this — writing that also appeared in his Portality Notebook, though he skipped right over that part:

The probably and in fact again signify the narrator’s interpretation. The original stays.

A psychologically minded An observer might have diagnosed him as suffering from fear of success.

The narrator is an observer; here he’s dismissively claiming not to be psychologically minded in his presumably more profound interpretation of O’Gandhi’s inertia. The original stays.

The thing was this: what Prop O’Gandhi foresaw as imminent failure, most other people would regard as success. Here again was — more evidence that he was living in the wrong Reality.

More is a quantifier; here again emphasizes a repetitive pattern. The repetition is the important consideration here, how each episode in the narrative illustrates a consistent pattern in O’Gandhi’s life.

Can you picture Prop O’Gandhi sitting in his Laboratory, which in another Reality is his spare bedroom, envisioning vast networks of interlinked Realities, people riding the Strands from one Reality to the next, an entire travel infrastructure moving everyone along through the Portals from one Reality to the next?

Here again the proposed deletions affect not just nuance but content. Prop is searching for portals to alternate Realities, whereas he’s already straddling two Realities every time he steps into his “Lab.” This chapter begins with a quote from Prop’s Portality Notebook — “A Strand is a link between a Self and a Reality” — so invoking the Strands here embeds this paragraph into the chapter’s framing context. Stick with the original wording.

If he were to peer around the edge of the garage, around the lilac bushes, Prop could just see the window of the neighbor’s kitchen, some tall lilac bushes growing up next to the house partially occluding the view. Nonetheless, as he thought about the hypothetical Portalic travel agency, Prop could glimpse the neighbor lady standing in her kitchen.

Prop doesn’t just happen to see the neighbor lady in her kitchen with a casual glimpse. He has to peer through his window, around obstacles blocking his view, into her window — voyeurism. Though he’s purportedly hard at work in his Lab, he finds himself distracted by what, and who, is outside. The original wording accentuates Prop’s unconscious urge.

Based on what he watched her doing – chopping and sautéing onions, boiling a big pot of water, opening up a jar of red goo and heating it on the stovetop with the onions – he guessed that she was going to have looks like spaghetti for lunch.

The watching and the guessing — indicators of Prop’s intensifying distraction — are at least as important as the neighbor lady’s meal prep. Stick with the original.

He could bring a nice bottle of red wine, maybe even a green salad. It was a fine sunny day: they could sit out in her yard, at the her picnic table, and run their bare feet through the freshly mown weedless grass.

Dropping the wine from the bottle of red seems almost too casually cool for Prop’s nerdy asocial persona. In her yard establishes a lush feminine sensuality for the bare feet in the green grass. Keep the original wording.


In each pairwise comparison I’ve opted to keep the original wordier wording. A psychologically minded observer might diagnose me as suffering from effort justification, preferring the weightier (fatter?) creation to its leaner döppelganger. Of course this isn’t the only way to strip ten percent of the skin off a cat. I could get rid of this whole Travel Agency chapter. I could scrap the intrusive observations of the narrator, letting the reader do the work. Why do I get the feeling that I won’t be the sort of guy to make those streamlining improvements either?

 

Wandering and Tripping

[From the Wikipedia entry on the default mode network]

In neuroscience, the default mode network (DMN), also default network, or default state network, is a large scale brain network of interacting brain regions known to have activity highly correlated with each other and distinct from other networks in the brain.

The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. But it is also active when the individual is thinking about others, thinking about themselves, remembering the past, and planning for the future. The network activates “by default” when a person is not involved in a task. Though the DMN was originally noticed to be deactivated in certain goal-oriented tasks and is sometimes referred to as the task-negative network, it can be active in other goal-oriented tasks such as social working memory or autobiographical tasks. The DMN has been shown to be negatively correlated with other networks in the brain such as attention networks.

Evidence has pointed to disruptions in the DMN of people with Alzheimer’s and autism spectrum disorder.

The default mode network is known to be involved in many seemingly different functions:

It is the neurological basis for the self:

  • Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
  • Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
  • Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting about one’s own emotional state

Thinking about others:

  • Theory of Mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
  • Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
  • Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
  • Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
  • Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:

  • Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
  • Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
  • Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
  • Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

The default mode network is active during passive rest and mind-wandering. Mind-wandering usually involves thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future. Electrocorticography studies (which involve placing electrodes on the surface of a subject’s scalp) have shown the default mode network becomes activated within a fraction of a second after participants finish a task.

Studies have shown that when people watch a movie, listen to a story, or read a story, their DMNs are highly correlated with each other. DMNs are not correlated if the stories are scrambled or are in a language the person does not understand, suggesting that the network is highly involved in the comprehension and the subsequent memory formation of that story. The DMN is shown to even be correlated if the same story is presented to different people in different languages, further suggesting the DMN is truly involved in the comprehension aspect of the story and not the auditory or language aspect.

*   *   *

[From “A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind,” a 2010 Science research article by Killingsworth and Gilbert:]

We developed a smartphone technology to sample people’s ongoing thoughts, feelings, and actions and found (i) that people are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and (ii) found that doing so typically makes them unhappy…

Although negative moods are known to cause mind wandering, time-lag analyses strongly suggested that mind wandering in our sample was generally the cause, and not merely the consequence, of unhappiness.

*   *   *

[From How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, a 2018 book by Michael Pollan:]

Perhaps the most striking discovery of Carhart-Harris’s first experiment [to study the effect of psilocybin on the brain] was that the steepest drops in default mode network activity occurred with the volunteers’ subjective experience of “ego dissolution.” (“I existed only as an idea or concept,” one volunteer reported. Recalled another, “I didn’t know where I ended and my surroundings began.” The more precipitous the drop-off in blood flow and oxygen consumption in the default network, the more likely a volunteer was to report the loss of a sense of self…

The transcendence of self reported by expert mediators showed up on fMRIs as a quieting of the default mode network. It appears that when activity in the default mode network falls off precipitously, the ego temporarily vanishes, and the usual boundaries we experience between self and world, subject and object, all melt away…

In its normal state, the brain’s various networks talk mostly to themselves, with a relatively few heavily trafficked pathways among them. But when the brain operates under the influence of psilocybin, thousands of new connections form, linking far-flung brain regions that during normal waking consciousness don’t exchange much information. In effect, traffic is rerouted from a relatively small number of interstate highways onto myriad smaller roads linking a great many more destinations. The brain appears to become less specialized and more globally interconnected, with considerably more intercourse, or “cross talk,” among its various neighborhoods.

*   *   *

[From “The Yard Boy,” a 1977 short story by Joy Williams:]

The yard boy was a spiritual materialist. He lived in the Now. He was free from the karmic chain. Being enlightened wasn’t easy. It was very hard work. It was manual labor, actually.

The enlightened being is free. He feels the sorrow and sadness of those around him but does not necessarily feel his own. The yard boy felt that he had been enlightened for about two months, at the most.

The yard boy had two possessions. One was a pickup truck. The other was a stuffed and mounted plover he had found in the take-it-or-leave-it shed at the dump. The bird was now in the room he rented…

The yard boy is disgusted with himself. The spider’s web is woven into wanting, he thinks. He has desire for his girlfriend. His mind is shuttling between thoughts of the future and thoughts of the past. He is out of touch with the sharp simplicity and wonderfulness of the moment. He looks around him. He opens his eyes wide. The yard boy’s jeans are filthy. A green insect crawls in and out of the scapular feathers of the plover.

The yard boy goes downstairs. He gives the plover to his landlady. She seems delighted. She puts it on a shelf in the pantry with her milk-glass collection. The landlady has white hair, a wen and old legs that end in sneakers. She wants the yard boy to look at a plant she has just bought. It is in a big green plastic pot in the sunshine of her kitchen. Nothing is more obvious than the hidden, the yard boy thinks.

“This plant is insane,” the yard boy says.

Already Not Yet

Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:21)

There are two words in New Testament Greek commonly translated “blessed”: the first, eulogeo, refers to having received another’s blessing; the other, makarios, means to be happy or to consider oneself fortunate. Of course the two ideas can be interrelated: someone who has received another’s blessing might well be made happy thereby. In this passage from Jesus’s Sermon on the Plain the word for blessed is makarios: happy are you hungry ones, you weepers; consider yourselves fortunate. Even though you hunger now, you weep now, you are also to regard yourselves as fortunate, as happy. Why? Not because of your current situation, as if hunger and weeping are masochistic sources of joy in and of themselves. You can be happy now because you will be satisfied, will laugh. It might not happen until the end of the world but, inevitably and assuredly, it will happen.

Jesus enjoins his listeners to occupy their present miserable state as if they’re already living in a future state of plenty and jubilation. And why? Presumably because that future blessed state of affairs is so certain it’s as if it’s already present. And why is future blessedness so fully assured? Because it’s been promised by God. Those hungry weepers can consider themselves blessed, makarios, now because they have been blessed — have received God’s blessing, his eulogeo— in the past. God blessed man and woman at the creation in Genesis 1; he blessed Abraham the patriarch of Israel in Genesis 12; he blessed the nation of Israel in Deuteronomy 28; he blessed David the king of Israel in 2 Samuel 7; now in Jesus’s prophetic words he has blessed the remnant of Israel.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20b)

Jesus’s issues a counteractual injunction to his listeners: Be happy now, in your present miserable state, because you presently occupy a kingdom of God that’s superimposed over all temporary regimes and circumstances. As residents of this kingdom you can count yourselves as blessed because you will be satisfied and elated in the future, because that glorious future was promised to you in the past. This is the “already not yet” ecology of the kingdom of God as taught by Jesus and his disciples. In that kingdom the present isn’t an instantaneous and transient now, a being in the moment; it’s a continuous interval that reaches back to the beginning of time and forward to the end of time.

 

Actualizing the Counteractuals: A Bad Mix?

From the first section of “Too Loud for Fear to Leave Us” by oddmadland:

A fear of missing out.
a negative anticipation of a negative future.

The pangs of what you are and what you are doing.
a negative present actuality.

he was going to do everything.
a positive anticipation of a positive future.

with every choice made to do something, there was an equal and opposite choice not to do something else.
alternative presents, both positive, leading to alternative futures, one positive, the other negative, as a repetitive abstraction.

Participating, participating, participating. Homelessly riding the scene.
positive present actuality, continuously.

Making exciting plans, only to break them for the last minute thrill of being in more than one place at once:.. of having done it, and having not done it.
positive anticipation of a positive future; negative actuality of a positive future; positive actuality of alternative futures, one positive, the other negative, made simultaneously present.

What he was missing became a presence, always there outside of what was happening.
positive actuality of negative present = negative actuality of positive present, as a constant abstraction.

Only when you’re truly nowhere can you be assumed to be everywhere. This was his last epiphany.
negative actuality = positive actuality, as a probabilistic abstraction.