Trapped in a Fortune-Cookie Factory
Not quite halfway through The Necessity of Experience, Edward S. Reed illustrates the condition of ordinary people in contemporary society by calling to mind an old joke "about a person trapped in a fortune-cookie factory whose only hope for escape is to send out messages inside the cookies." (2)Like most jokes, this one depends on an instantly recognizable account of human experience. Its theme permeates the work of two great twentieth century writersSamuel Beckett and Franz Kafkawhose names are routinely transformed into adjectives to describe the human condition at the end of the century. Reed finds it disconcerting "that the image conveyed by this jokestripped of any pretense at humoris nowadays often used to describe our lives." (3)That neither Beckett nor Kafka abandoned humorboth deepened the humor of this joke until it became inescapably bleakis a point to which I will return later when I move from Reed's diagnosis to his prescription. But first the diagnosis.
Reed's argument is laid out with admirable clarity in his prologue, "A Plea for Experience": "the psychosocial ills that beset many of us todaywhat historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the increasing barbarism of daily lifestem largely from the degradation of opportunities for primary experience that is rampant in all developed and developing societies." (4)The argument depends on a distinction between "primary" and "secondary" experience derived from J.J. Gibson's ecological psychology. (5)That Reed slides easily from "experience" to "information" is less due to Gibson's psychology than to the spirit of the time in which he writes: it is a truism that we live in an age of information, where every experience is an act of communication. But Reed notes from the outset that progress in information technology has been matched by regress in communication. We spend billions on a "superhighway" that carries every kind of information except the ecological information "that allows us to experience things for ourselves." (6)In a pattern familiar from cities shaped by automobiles, the line of this highway traces a virtually impermeable wall. While (sometimes) increasing access to "processed" information (which Reed equates with "selected, modified, packaged, and presented" information), it (almost always) decreases access to "ecological" information. Ecological information is primary "for understanding our place in the world," while "processed information" is secondary: "It is this relation between primary and processed experience, in which the balance should be tilted toward primary experience, that has been disrupted and degraded by modern life." (7)The superhighway that packages and delivers information in ever increasing quantities is a wall that deprives us of access to unpackaged, unprocessed information. It places us with inescapably Kafkaesque efficiency at the same time that it deprives us of the information we need to understand our place in the world. Our places become prisons, our images predictably claustrophobic.
Parallel to the distinction between primary and secondary experience is a distinction between "ordinary" and "exotic" experience. Reed assumes thatwhile primary experience is more ordinary and secondary experience more exoticmodern life has inverted the relationship and devalued the ordinary. He is, of course, not alone in this assumption: he cites Christopher Lasch, who described the inversion as a drift toward elitism; we might also call to mind Richard Flacks (who describes it as a division between "making history" and "making lives") and two of his most important sources, C. Wright Mills and George Konrad. (8)
Because Reed (like Gibson) argues that processed information can only lead to secondhand (or indirect) knowledge, his perceptual theory is almost immediately translatable into a theory of pedagogyand much of his criticism is directed toward the way we teach our children. Reed illustrates the distinction by contrasting the experience of looking at a face with the experience of looking at a photograph: "No matter how thoroughly I scrutinize the photograph, at some point I stop learning about you and begin to learn about the picture (its graininess, color, light values). But when I meet you face to face there is no limit to the possibilities of exploration and discovery." (9)This illustration is as telling as the references to Beckett and Kafka. One of the criticisms that "ecological" theories of perception (and closely related "pragmatic" and "phenomenological" theories) have routinely encountered is that of naive realism. Reed (like Gibson, George Lakoff, and Hilary Putnam) readily embraces the "realist" label while rejecting the adjective "naive." (10)The question is whether any experience is directand encountering a face can very quickly bring this to a head. Candide's may well be the only face that ever offered direct access to the heart (and that only in fiction): if we don't go beyond the face, we are no better informed about the person than if we don't go beyond the picture. Unlimited possibilities of exploration and discovery are no more likely to leap out of a face to face encounter than out of an encounter with a picture. In both cases, it is wise to consider possibilities bounded even if we wish to entertain the possibility that they are infinite. Reed touches on this problem later in his description of the "prospective" character of human experience: the challenge is to construct an account of the world in which every present encounter is as pregnant with future as it is heavy with past. Pedagogically, the problem is how to avoid misleading our children by teaching them to confuse map (or "menu," as Reed notes) with territory. Maps and menus (like Reed's secondary experiences) are useful things, but anyone who confuses a map with a territory or a menu with a meal will be lost, hungry, and nauseous.
It would be tempting to describe a system that leaves people lost, hungry, and nauseous as simply inefficient; but, Reed's criticism of work and school (like Foucault's critical accounts of prisons, sexuality, and asylums) reminds us to ask what a system is for. (11) In a variation on the fortune-cookie joke, John Searle proposed a thought experiment intended as an argument against proponents of artificial intelligence: Imagine an English speaking person in a room with no exit. The room is empty except for a device that periodically dispenses papers with marks on them, a book or manual of some sort, and writing materials. Because there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, the person studies the papers coming into the room but does not understand the writing they contain, which looks like Chinese ideograms. Upon examining the book, she discovers that it also contains the marks that are on the papers coming into the room. The marks are in columns arranged in parallel with columns of English words. Because there is nothing else to do and nowhere else to go, she takes the papers coming into the room, finds the marks in the manual, and writes the "corresponding" English words next to the marks on the paper. She discovers what looks like a mail slot in the wall of the room and, after looking up the marks and writing the corresponding English words on the papers, places them in the slot. She continues to do this with all of the papers that come into the room. (12)Whether this is a good argument against proponents of artificial intelligence is beside the point here. From the outsideto a person who did not know (or did not care) that another person was trapped insidethe room would look like a device for turning Chinese ideograms into English equivalents. Its efficiency would not require that the person inside the room understand Chinese (and it would not appear to be a very efficient mechanism for teaching Chinese). Its efficiency would be profoundly diminished if the room had an exitor if the person trapped inside decided to write her own messages on the papers she dispensed to the outside (or if someone on the "outside" read, understood, or responded to her messages).
"Looked at from the worker's point of view," Reed writes, "the fundamental goal of modern management is to make all jobs resemble the ones in Searle's prison." (13)And the goal of modern schooling is to ensure that students destined to end up inside the box will not write their own messages nor will those destined to end up outside the box read or respond to them. Reed comments early in the book that "although we like to think of the post-World War II era as an age of democracy and opportunity, few of the major innovations in social institutions or organizations in these years have resulted in more shared experience or responsibility. Improvements in the access of individuals to social and economic resources have occurred in the context of increasingly large-scale and stratified social organizations. Nondemocratic institutionsmegacorporations, large schools, entertainment conglomerates, and prisonshave begun to fill the available social space, dominating the daily life of individuals and crowding out opportunities for autonomous or grassroots activities and experience." (14)Reed's point is not to call for a return to some supposed golden age of democracy and community but to identify the post-World War II era as (to borrow an image from Alan Nadel) a culture of "containment" intended to put people in our place and keep us therea function it has performed with devastating efficiency. (15)
So far, I have attended primarily to symptoms; butwhile Reed's identification of symptoms is an important contribution to a critical tradition that includes John Dewey, C. Wright Mills, Richard Flacks, and Cornel Westhis analysis of their etiology is equally important. (16) According to Reed, the symptoms point to an "anti-experiential" bias in Western philosophy rendered most explicit in Descartes and Cartesian theories of perception that have dominated Western philosophy and science since the seventeenth century. Reed's map of philosophy makes "realism" the pivotal issue: on one side is realism (identified with experience andlaterJames' radical empiricism), while on the other is Cartesian rationalism. Cartesian rationalism was built on a systematic suspicion of the senses that led to an ever widening separation between the philosopher/scientist and the worldand a corresponding separation between philosophy (or science) and the ordinary experience of ordinary persons in the world. Crucial to Reed's account is a seventeenth century change in the meaning of "idea." As the influence of the "new philosophy" grew, what Thomas Reid criticized as the "ideal theory" relocated ideas from essences beyond (beneath, behind, above) the world to intermediaries (between person and world) inside the head. Since Descartes, Western philosophy has tended to assume that what we experience is internal (in the mind), not external (in the world). Descartes separated perception into experience and judgement, privileging judgment and withdrawing from experience. In fact, as numerous commentators have noted, one was considered "philosophical" or "rational" only to the extent that one withdrew (abstracted) from ordinary experience. (17) Reed's historical account moves quickly from Descartes to Kant, who proposed empirical realism combined with transcendental idealismthough his "followers" have tended to read him as an empirical idealist. Reed identifies two metaphysical strands coming out of Kant, one associated with Schopenhauer that dismisses primary experience as "appearance," and one associated with Hegel that identifies primary experiences (appearances) as contradictions to be overcome. Different as the two strands are, Reed maintains that their shared legacy is a disdain for primary experience.
Reed's account of the rise of the "new philosophy" largely ignores seventeenth (and eighteenth) century alternatives to Descartes other than the "common sense realism" identified with Thomas Reid. This variety of realism was (and is) often used as a cover for anti-intellectualism. But there were important rationalist alternatives to Descartes (most notably, Conway, Leibniz, and Spinoza) that have much to offer to "ecological" approaches like Gibson's. (18) Since Reed's most devastating criticism of the "new philosophy" is directed toward the fragmentation and disconnection that resulted from its atomism and almost paranoid individualism, a "monadic" approach like the ones developed by Conway and Leibniz (and, as Reed briefly notes, Goethe) should be appealing. Like Putnam, Reed argues that there is no need for an "interface" between ourselves and the world. (19) Conway offered a similar rejoinder to Descartes late in the seventeenth century. Both she and Elisabeth of Bohemia challenged Descartes' separation of "mind" and "body" and argued (as Reed and Gibson do) for a more holistic understanding of persons as always embodied, always in the world. (20)
I promised earlier to return to Beckett, Kafka, and humor. When Reed turns from diagnosis to prescription, he sets out to connect experience with the birth of hope. To do this, he turns first to Dewey's insistence that freedom is more than an absence of constraints marked by unrestrained pursuit of self-interest: it is an exercise of power that is social to the core. (21) But he also returns to the bleak inversion characteristic of modern life in which claustrophobic images routinely elicit glimmers of recognition. (22) And he turns again to art and artists, specifically Bertolt Brecht and Pablo Picasso. Given Reed's running criticism of artists, his suspicion of montage, and his summary dismissal of narrative theories of experience, this is an intriguing move. It appears motivated in part by recognition of the need to work within existing patterns of experience that are permeated by what William Leach has described as a "brokering style" marked by routine repression of conviction and judgement in the interest of forging profitable relationships. (23) Most of the artists to whom he refers favorably throughout the bookbeginning with the dedication to Victor Jara, Bob Marley, and Pete Seeger, and continuing through the discussion of Brechtare widely recognized as "political." But Beckett, Kafka, Picasso, and Jimi Hendrix are less likely to be recognized as such. Reed's reference to Picasso is direct, a quotation from a statement issued in the mid-1940s: "painting is not there merely to decorate the walls of flats. It is a means of waging offensive and defensive war against the enemy." (24) Hendrix is the source of his title for the first chapter of the book, "Have You Ever Been Experienced?" Reed cites the song from which that question is quoted as evidence of the shift away from "ordinary" experience to "exotic," from "primary" to "secondary." But Hendrix's "answer" dripping with irony is as "primary" as it could possibly be: "Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Well I have; let me prove it to you," followed by a brief but convincing demonstration of guitar virtuosity. (25) Even a casual listener knows Jimi Hendrix is experienced, has been experienced, because s/he has experienced him. His instantly recognizable performance of the "Star Spangled Banner" is an even more obvious example of waging offensive and defensive war against the enemy. This is what Beckett, Kafka, and Hendrix have in common that is crucial if Reed's argument is to be more than a counsel of despair: all of them were masters at telling stories from inside prisons designed to ensure that there is nothing to tell. That is, at least, reason enough to laugh through our tears. More, given the widespread "ordinary" experience of grindingly efficient imprisonment, it is a perceptual and pedagogical insight worthy of careful cultivation.
(1) John Cage, "Lecture on Nothing," Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middleton: Wesleyan University Press, 1961).
(2) Edward S. Reed, The Necessity of Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), p.68. The Necessity of Experience is part of what Reed describes as a "tryptic," which also includes Encountering the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) and From Soul To Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, forthcoming).The Necessity of Experience will be the focus of this discussion. Encountering the World gives a fuller account of Reed's "ecological psychology," and From Soul To Mind expands the historical account that is implicit in The Necessity of Experience.
(3) Reed, The Necessity of Experience, p.68.
(4) Ibid., p.5.
(5) J.J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979) and The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1966).
(6) Reed, The Necessity of Experience, p.2.
(8) Richard Flacks, Making History: The American Left and the American Mind (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988); George Konrad, Anti-politics (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984); Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites (New York: Norton, 1995) and The True and Only Heaven (New York: Norton, 1993); C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956).
(9) Reed, The Necessity of Experience, p.3.
(10) George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Hilary Putnam, Realism with a Human Face (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990).
(11) Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. R. Howard (New York: Random House, 1965); The Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of Medical Perception, trans. A.M. Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1973); Discipline and Punish: Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (New York: Random House, 1977; Second Edition, 1995); and The History of Sexuality. Volume I: An Introduction, trans. R. Hurley (New York: Random House, 1978).
(12) Reed, The Necessity of Experience, pp.72,73; John Searle, Minds, Brains, and Science (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984).
(13) Reed, The Necessity of Experience, p.73.
(14) Reed, The Necessity of Experience, p.6.
(15) Alan Nadel, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism, and the Atomic Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996).
(16) Cf. Cornell West, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989).
(17) See, e.g., Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984; Second Edition, 1993).
(18) See especially Anne Conway's The Principles of the Most Ancient and Modern Philosophy (translated and edited by Allison P. Coudert and Taylor Corse) in the Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996). Also note Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Harper, 1980; Second Edition, 1989).
(19) Reed, The Necessity of Experience, p.30.
(20) (Where else?) It is interesting, by the way, that Conway's criticism of Descartes' separation may have been motivated in part by herunfortunatelyeveryday experience of pain in the form of chronic migraines.
(21) Ibid., p.128.
(22) In this regard, Dilbert's appearance on the cover of Newsweek is every bit as important as Beckett or Kafka.
(23) Reed, The Necessity of Experience, p.136.
(24) Ibid., p.160.
(25) The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are You Experienced (Reprise Records, 6261-2, 1967).