Take a look at this image. If it looks like some random jumble of black and white, then you, my friend, are living in a very special world right now. A world of purity. A world of innocence.
A world which I am about to shatter, once and forever.
if you wish.
I won't force you.
I do have ethics, after all.
Are you sure you want to keep scrolling?
Adam was given the same choice, you know.
Way, way back in the day.
You know what happened to Man after that.
You still have the chance to turn back.
I won't be sad if you do.
Most people do at some point.
It's a cow.
Given that you couldn't see it before, I've just separated you into two (rough) categories.
The first group is going, "Wow, lame. All that buildup for this? It's just another stupid optical illusion, what a waste of time."1
The second group is thinking, "Holy shit. What. Did you just do to me? I'm not sure if I like this."
If you have seen it before, try to remember how you reacted. If you're in the second camp, like I was, this post is for you. Even if you're in the first, it's my goal to persuade you that this transition between knowledge states is the building block of fictive experience, much like the note is that of music and the word of books.
Consider that "it's a cow" presupposes (for all practical purposes) you know what a cow is and what it looks like. If you had no idea, my three-word sentence wouldn't make sense. Space aliens with no cows on their planet could never call this a cow without first coming to understand what it is that we call cows. They could come to Earth and WWOOF with Bob the Farmer for a week. Or they could look at a photograph of a cow. Or they could take my word at face value and accept that the blitz of white-and-black pixels, in exactly the locations depicted, is a cow.
Silly, but what those aliens are doing is the exact same thing you do. You silly human you!
So what is it that they're doing? Experiencing various states of cow-ness, but more basically, forming ideas of cow and not. Felt states of being intertwined with mental states of storage. Lines drawn on maps, tracing the contours of knowledge. To proceed, we need a word that captures the mechanism behind this exploratory process, behind these various states of becoming cow-ness. Luckily, at the turn of the 20th century, the Germans—via a then-fashionable movement in psychology—bubbled one up to us:
A gestalt is an emergent whole that is other than its constituent parts—meaningful personally and thus, as some fear, endlessly interpretable. As far as hermeneutics is concerned, it's gestalts all the way down. Yet because two people with similar gestalts can communicate with a solid understanding of what the other person is talking about, it is important for society to construct a lattice of common gestalts: a vocabulary. A series of metaphorical frameworks.
A gestalt is itself a metaphorical framework (and a mental model, & thrice versa), and criteria for participation can be defined within any such framework; Gestalt Psychology, as an ideology, prefers a figure/ground dichotomy. In the left image, if the black is the background, the vase is the figure; if white, the faces are the figure. In the right, whether it's a duck or rabbit depends, respectively, on whether you see a bill or ears.
But I think the figure/ground dichotomy is deficient for practical purposes because it constrains people to ask "What is the figure and what is the ground?" of everything: a rigid, inflexible frame. So in this post I'm going to reappropriate the gestalt concept using my own metaphors. If it helps, I prefer the dichotomies of is-ness and isn't-ness, similarity and difference, or, in a word, resonance, which to me feels much more fluid.
A chess pawn has no business outside the chessboard—no business that can be described as "playing the game of chess" in any case. Thus the "correctness" of a gestalt hinges on degrees of validity, as determined by metaphorical resonance; chess and tax forms don't go together nearly as well as say, chess and military strategy. Certain units are more powerful than others, there's (usually) a winner and loser, plans of attack, execution of plans, contingencies based on opponents' maneuvers, etc. In other words, under the chess gestalt, chess and chess is 100% resonant, chess and war maybe 70%, chess and tax forms, 10% if you're clever.
Another example: I once asked my friend, "What's the opposite of red?" And she responded, "Green." It's totally true on the (RGB) color wheel, but it's also true that both are colors. I thought: The actual opposite of red would be whatever has the highest degree of isn't-ness—the lowest resonance—so maybe, uh, the quadratic formula or something. But note: opposites on the color wheel have important design ramifications while my gestalt of opposites (in the context—aha, gestalt!—of this paragraph) amounts to little more than word games.
Pattern-match: It's what your brain does. My gestalt for Amelie, one of my favorite films, is a wind-up music box; Wes Anderson's entire oeuvre: a dollhouse. If you don't get it, watch the movies and judge for yourself. Nobody would describe Amelie as "the electrostatic covering protecting transatlantic cable lines." Except a fiction writer. And if he's good, he'll convince you that this is the case.
And now it's my turn to convince you I'm good.
But first, dear reader, thank you for being patient. Before we get started, please absorb this advertisement for Hershey's Spread (I'm not being funny, actually watch it right now—my point will make little sense if you don't).
You've heard this music before. Melodramatic, corny, overused beyond any conception of restraint. If I hear it in a movie or video I immediately stop watching because it shows the director is unimaginative and therefore bad.
Let me tell you a story
Take a couple breaths (actually do this).
And don't switch browser tabs while we're at it.
Seven hundred years ago, near the crux of the High Middle Ages, an officer from the papacy came to Bavaria to release a clergyman from ecclesiastical service, for he believed this clergyman's fascination with Greek thought was anathema to the prevailing modes of the Church. Not a rare occurrence for that period, when consolidation of power was core to religious influence in the feudal courts of medieval Europe.
Though it is common nowadays to be fired from a job, in the 13th century such an exile meant, effectively, the loss of honor—and honor, then, was life. Finding himself unable to sleep—how could one, on learning one's existence no longer mattered—for long and torturous weeks, hoping for solace, hoping to commune once more with the God that was no longer his, he wandered into the towering Gothic cathedral where he used to deliver sermons to a populace hungry for guidance. That night the vacant pews were a soft and ethereal white, lit by a moon nearing apogee, glimmering through from the panes. It was enough. Inspired, the fallen priest strolled to the altar. A piece of vellum from the old drawer; a feather and a bottle of ink. He knelt. With a steady hand and a heavy heart, he began to grieve: O Fortuna...
Six hundred years later, Europe found itself once again in a period of great turmoil. Adolf Hitler's rise in Germany caused cultural production to decline. To silence dissent and solidify power, the Third Reich would purge intelligentsia—artists, professors, musicians—as did our Church centuries earlier. But as it is the nature of humans, and indeed all animals, to survive, a few individuals capitulated their craft to the totalitarian state, among them filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl and composer Carl Orff. Resolved to keep his head above the whirling tides of history, the komponist now sought to capture the national zeitgeist with his notes.
But when he opened the pages of his Bavarian predecessor, he found himself overwhelmed, and he knew. Knew what he would create, if on the surface for the Reich's political abuse, would ultimately be for him alone, would reflect his desire to see his own destiny be other than what it was. If the mind is detained, then the spirit shall be free. But how to express this longing espérance against the gravity of a terrible fate? That it would take the full force of his art was no question. Orff gathered himself and set to work; here it is worth noting that the composer finds himself closer to the screenwriter than the novelist, as the ink he spills is only fully alive when living others are there to animate it. Here it is, alive (fullscreen it—ends at 2:45):
A lifelong Catholic, Orff would live to hear God answer his prayer. The Nazi regime would be deposed; he would dissociate from the vile ideologies to which he was subject for more than a decade, free at last in mind and spirit to live and work as he chose. He died in 1982, at 86. Twenty-five years later, the University of California, Davis put on a summer concert to commemorate what many consider his magnum opus.
Consider: Each and every individual in this orchestra went through many trials to sit where they sit, stand where they stand. Years of lessons. Thousands of hours of practice. Setbacks, disappointments, tears in the break rooms of failed auditions. But they are here, and the love of music prevails, trailed by its immanent conviction in art's transcendent capacity. The conductor now raises his baton. And in that moment, in that infinite moment, as the audience braces in anticipation to witness the performance for which it has traveled near and far, he observes the orchestra he has in painstaking detail rehearsed over and over and over again, and he knows: It is time.
He lowers the baton. The percussion sounds, then the trumpets blow and the voices cry.
Like the moon,
You are changeable.
Eight years ago,
For a high school English class, I had to read an Orwellian essay titled Politics and the English Language whose author enumerated several forms of linguistic bastardization, among them pretentious Latinization (guilty), verbal false limbs, and obscurantism; not the clever kind done for its own sake (plenty of that here), but the kind effected by linguistic drift in academia and certain professions; examples can found in Stephen Pinker's vicious excoriation of the practice in our contemporary Ivory Tower. But for this post, I want to focus on what Orwell calls dying metaphors:
A newly invented metaphor assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically ‘dead’ (e. g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves.
The class was discussing whether, due to acronyms like "LOL" and "OMG" and online communication in general, proper grammar was itself such a "dying metaphor," and if so, what that would mean, what exactly was lost. But I think the easiest way to demonstrate Orwell's point is to say "broccoli" over and over again; witness how quickly this collection of sounds degenerates into meaninglessness (any word works, really, but I like the word broccoli for some reason).
Alternatively, read this:
We really need to leverage our core competencies in a way that moves the needle without rocking the boat, so we gain competitive advantage in the market while preserving our cash cows. Our turnkey solution is a real paradigm shift, but unless we put our noses to the grindstone we'll end up boiling the ocean trying to reinvent the wheel. Gordon, I need a deep dive on the low-hanging fruit for our all-hands tomorrow, soup-to-nuts if possible but you can back-of-the-envelope to get granular where it counts. No more treading water, chop chop! Oh and Peter, if you could put cover sheets on those TPS reports, that would be greaaaat.
Or you might have realized that the Hershey's commercial used O Fortuna in such a manner, divorced from a context which lent it weight and contorted into one with little resonance.
But Orwell was mistaken. Style and substance is a false dichotomy; just because the form decays does not mean the content disappears, and grammatical prescriptivism is a poor substitute for affective resonance. Culture has a telos; to lament its plot is okay (I'm super guilty, as you'll see in the conclusion), but to deny its existence is blindness. "How funny" and "Inconceivable!" make way for LOL and OMG which make way for 😆 and 😮; that they mean less is debatable, that they mean other is undeniable. The irony: "How funny" and "Inconceivable!" now mean other too. Shakespearean English, and Old English before that, went out of style ages ago and I hesitate to claim we're all the poorer for it.
Ready for another exercise?
Here's the song Castle Walls by T.I. and Christina Aguilera. No history this time. Listen to it, then let's talk. Ask yourself: what is this song about? What is its gestalt?
In ego psychology - Freud's school, in contrast to Gestalt Psychology - there is a concept known as the defense mechanism that we employ to protect our selves, our egos, from the array of psychic assaults we may face in the course of our lives.
- "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is a mantra schoolchildren can repeat and internalize to not feel bad when bullies insult them.
- In romantic relationships, partners may mask conflict on more serious issues by giving each other presents or compliments.
- Religion can be considered a defense against nihilism and social isolation.
- In the extreme case of Stockholm Syndrome, captives may turn masochistic to spare themselves from psychic agony.
As you can see, defense mechanisms are not necessarily adaptive and can backfire easily. Daniel Kahneman's Thinking Fast and Slow (which I recommend) unearths a slew of cognitive biases built into our brains, many, if not most, of which can be construed as defense mechanisms.
So. What is this "castle" in the song? I see a medieval fortress with cannons, turrets, moats, snake pits, trapdoors; the whole nine. The person inside is well-protected against, well... pretty much everything. Except herself. Why did this person need to build the castle in the first place? And then it comes: She experienced so much psychic trauma that unless she were to erect such a fortress, she would be unable to cope with life. Genie's castle may look very different from that of the insecure pickup artist or the imposter-syndrome-afflicted workaholic, but a castle is a castle is a castle.
That's my gestalt.
If that was too heavy for you, take a break. Our next topic is regeneration, the process of building resonance, which, if you've been a good reader who read my above stories without skipping ahead to this part, you'll notice you've just done. At least I hope O Fortuna means more to you now than it did before, and maybe you have a different way of seeing Castle Walls. Good. Now I want you to give this a shot. Aleister Crowley, famed British occultist, has a go interpreting nursery rhymes.
Crowley's interpretation probably sounds crazy to you, but consider—what I just wrote above would sound crazy to someone who had never encountered psychology before. Bogus though you think he is, the fact remains: If he hadn't been charismatic enough to design and communicate his hermeneutics in a way that resonated with people, nobody would've joined his cults. Thus a more interesting exercise would be to put yourself in Crowley's gestalt such that his nursery rhyme theories make perfect sense. Couldja do it? Think you got that that kind of empathy, kid? Think you got that kind of fiction? 2
Created 8 months ago by a fellow Seattleite (whom I don't know3) for a Facebook group I have little business being in (apart from my tendencies as a vigilante cultural anthropologist) and blatantly plagiarized for the sake of this post, this image (itself plagiarized from Stalinist propaganda) describes its preference for cultural regeneration while being itself emblematic of the regenerative process. It's unclear whether Orwell would agree or disagree with its thesis (he's dead so we can't ask him), but I'm a fan.
In other words: Playing chess is useless in the zombie apocalypse. But using the pieces as makeshift bullets to tear holes through hordes of undead? Rock on. And suffice it to say, if you want *anything* to mean something for you, yours has to be the effort.
Get it yet?
As it is fire's nature to burn, fish's to swim, and the landlord's to collect monthly rent checks from you, the nature of fiction is to recontextualize (sisters defamiliarization and displacement)4. To chip, push, massage, and morph your previously existing gestalts into new variants.
Every time your eyes register the words on the page, every time they soak in the photons from the screen pretending they're someone's face, a part of the character's identity (and in some form, the author's) lives on with you.
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.
-The dude who wrote Game of Thrones
Which of them stay alive? The ones you feed. But feed one too much, it gets obese and blocks your view of the others. And eventually, it becomes you. Don't let that happen.
That's one extreme, can you spot the other? Given that we're able to have a Marxist reading of Animal Farm, a Freudian understanding of the mind, a Voxplanation, a mansplanation, and, yes, a Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, does this suck us into an inescapable vortex of relativism?
All affirmations are true in some sense, false in some sense, meaningless in some sense, true and false in some sense, true and meaningless in some sense, false and meaningless in some sense, and true and false and meaningless in some sense.
-Malaclypse the Younger
Darkness! Desolation! Despair!
Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.
-George E. P. Box
Much better. Now we could go into what useful means, but that would constitute another blog post (or a book, or a library, or an entire deontological discourse), a post I won't write because:
- Others have already done a much better job and—
- It frankly doesn't interest me nearly as much as fiction does.
Nevertheless, an attempt:
Resonance represents the degree of inter-gestalt utility.
Corollary, with its paraphrase: Gestalts are relative universally, but utile instrumentally. Meaningless atomically, meaningful relationally:
- A bowling ball has no place in the game of chess under standard rules.
- ALL PERSONNEL WITHIN THIS HOSPITAL MUST WEAR SCRUBS.
- The New Yorker magazine insists on diaresis (naïve, reëlect, coöperate, noötropics) as a house grammatical style to signal sophistication—our English is superior, clearly—although it's also self-aware enough to recognize this (but not self-aware enough to recognize that).
- And I guess Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange) didn't exactly resonate with Rolling Stone:
You object: "But you've made all these points before. Stop repeating yourself!"
Well, yes and no. The principle is the same but the circumstances are different. Dorothy in Oz longs for Kansas while middle-American nutmegger Walter Mitty longs for adventure, but voilà: the grass is greener on the other side. And now you know why you pop romcoms like potato chips without getting bored. All it takes is for Jim in Movie A to become Janice in Movie B, and Jake in Movie C is just Jim with a beard. Cars Brave Moana. Crunch crunch crunch. 5
The Guardian published an article last year editorializing a study which linked reading literary fiction—canonized "Great Works," vs. genre fiction like sci-fi and romance—to greater empathy. While I, as someone with a soft spot for litfic, would love for this to be true, this particular study is a little too porous for my empirical side. Regardless, it seems directionally correct. Character-driven plots demand humanistic resonance with their protagonists, good or bad, as opposed to satires and story-driven plots which prefer resonance with concepts; Dostoyevsky was a psychonaut long before "psychology" as we know it was a thing; The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a hilarious repudiation of human hypocrisy from an alien's-eye perspective.
Regardless regardless, the basic nature of fiction remains the same, and how much it's able to influence theory of mind test scores has nothing to do with it. In order for you to create a picture in your head, you must know what the words mean, must have gestalts that can be reconfigured. Any type of fictive consumption therefore entails a desire for reconfiguration. And when artists say art can change the world, this is what they're drawing from.
Now, an individual film or novel might not add up to much—maybe a single pixel on my cow illusion—but collectively, they influence our direction as a society. Do you even remember half of what you read or watch? No. But here's another thing about gestalts. They're mostly unconscious. Most of the time, you don't think about them, and the ones you do think about are just the tip of the iceberg. And those little pixels add up to create you. Just like groups of us add up to create cultures. Did I say gestalts all the way down before? Gestalts all the way up too: collective beliefs—egregores—and collective unconscious (yup, Carl Jung's in the ring now).
Wow, THREE psychologies in ONE post! Told you it was gonna be 🔥.
Let's add some more fuel. You're gonna have to take this one on ethos (not even the hint of a study here), but several people who, like me, have noticed funny things happening in their mind-space when they read fiction, have tried to figure out what's going on. Duncan Sabien, author of the just-hyperlinked piece, and I would agree that narrative stories in particular seem to have some sort of privileged phenomenological power over other rhetorical methods. One thing is obvious, though: Sabien's gestalts are different from mine. Which is great! As cartoonist Zen Pencils illustrated with the Richard Feynman quote above, to approach knowledge means to build a vocabulary.
"Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt,"
observed Ludwig Wittgenstein.
The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.
Needless to say, if I ever have a kid one day, that kid is going to be fed a steady diet of fictions. Not that I have any expertise in the perennially contentious
battleground discipline of parenthood, but I'll claim off the cuff that it's a good sign if in nebulous situations your kid says "Well maybe..." and not "Because..." Whether feeding him more fictions makes it likelier that he'll say the former is up in the air, but it's a bet I'd be willing to take once we have the means (universe simulator) to test this empirically.
But the real focus of all this, the real juice, is that... Ignore my other URLs at your peril, but not this one. It's a short piece by heavyweight historian Yuval Noah Harari (currently popular among my NYT-demo friends, which means you better know him if you wanna signal sophistication in 2017). Artists say art is world-changing? Pff, save that for the minor leagues. How about world-making? Yes, my friends, that's right: The real crux is that human society runs on fiction.
It's true: Human society also only exists because atoms exist, and because the Big Bang, and because a wild series of cosmic coincidences made it possible for the terrestrial biosphere to emerge and for you to be reading these words.6 But if you pressed me on what makes humans
uniquely human special (ha) among all forms of biological life, I'd be inclined to agree with Mr. Harari.
We tell stories.
A few of you will point out (rightly) that I haven't made any straightforward, no-nonsense logical deductions in this post; most of it, reflecting the fictive process it describes, is inferential and speculative. Those of you with pre-existing gestalts for this kind of thing will, by definition, find it resonates more. But though you may disagree with my cartographic methods, to suppose—and yes I feel this straw man needs to be burned—that the phenomenon I'm terming fiction doesn't exist is as preposterous as saying atoms don't exist. The difference is that fiction exists precisely because we believe in it, while reality—now there's a dichotomy huh—exists regardless. But that they exist is something they have in common. Common also is the mistake of conflating the process with its effects; reading narrative is different from reading research journals—I don't think it's a stretch to say that, for most, the former triggers the brain's empathy circuits more than the latter—but the process of both is fictive; both entail the recontexualization of existing gestalts. The effects are circumstantial.
Alas, we all have our sensibilities. Mine lie in narrative storytelling, and to that end I have a few closing remarks on the media-saturated times in which we live. Culture must constantly generate new content if it is to remain alive—and it is the wish of all organisms, egregores included, to remain, in some sense, alive. The rate of cultural production is faster than it's ever been, as any rudimentary research into how many hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube per second will quickly prove. Everyone has a voice. Every millisecond represents a new historical frontier in which we have more content at our fingertips than at every moment prior. By these measures, it is a golden age of content.
But we are entering a dark age of resonance. The proliferation of this "attention economy" has a side effect, in that fewer and fewer things mean something to communities of individuals. Our collective gestalts are in a state of accelerated continental drift. A new tribalism is emerging, and we lack the tools to beat it back.
What is adaptive in such a scenario? "I can't sort through all this. I don't have the time." Thus we relinquish our taste to systems and algorithms, and in the process it becomes less our own than it has ever been. "If you can't beat em, join em." "The math knows what I want better than I do." "And what if I want the math?" Such rationalizations are adaptive—in the same way Puritannical religiosity was adaptive as a defense against the vicissitudes of nature in the Columbian Frontier—but, as the Puritans sacrificed individual liberty for societal order, so our beloved algorithms decay our individual taste into a collective mediocrity. Huddled instinctively around the communal fires of Netflix and HBO, we cling to ever more ephemeral sources of warmth, poorly ventriloquized golems of tedious nostalgia, sensing what lies beyond is a vast grave of forgotten memories, a charnel junkyard of dormant meanings longing for regeneration.
I have a gestalt for that.
Let's ask, for the last time, just to quell it for good, whether I'm playing word games or if this is actually Serious Stuff. By now I hope you know my answer: Not. Incompatible. Besides, I wouldn't have spent hours typing this baby up if I didn't believe it deserved attention. If that's not enough for you, I'll make it real concrete: Anyone who understands fiction adheres, in some form or other, to the axiom:
To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.
Miller's Law—my Golden Rule—and I firmly believe you, and everyone, should not only adopt it as such but spread the word. I propose it's as close as we can get to curing fundamental attribution error without altering our brain's physiology. Which is a pretty big deal.
"But what's wrong with the O.G. Rule?" you ask. To that I say,
"Do you really want to know?
If you can't see anything wrong with it, then you, my friend, are living in a very special world right now. A world of purity. A world of innocence.
A world which I am about to shatter, once and forever.
if you wish.
Are you sure you want to keep scrolling?
Adam was given the same choice, you know.
Way, way back in the day.
But, the thing is...
It wasn't a choice.
It was written.
And you're going to keep scrolling.
Maybe I'm not so ethical, after all.
You know what happened to Man after that.
He came up with the Golden Rule.
And, centuries later, chemical analysis.
And in his thirst for knowledge...
He discovered the rule was pyrite.
'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.'
But what you would have others do unto you...
is not necessarily what they would have done unto themselves."
It would be quite novelistic for me to end this post in such a circular fashion, but as a constant subverter of tropes, I refuse (also this is a blog post, not a book). If I can conceptualize entire movies as physical objects, you might be wondering if I can gestaltify gestalts in the same way. Sure.
My gestalt for gestalts is the lens:
And what of a gestalt of the gestalt of gestalts? In principle, yes, but I can't think of one. I'd love for you to try. Just keep in mind that if you want to convince me (and not just yourself), you're going to have to build from my gestalts, not from yours, and certainly not ex nihilo.
You think you got that kind of fiction?
Also: "Oh, that's kinda cool, I guess." Anything other than reaction category 2, honestly. ↩
More examples! West Side Story was a fantastic musical version of Romeo and Juliet; Apocalypse Now was an imaginative translation of Heart of Darkness. Jorge Luis Borges, magician of logical extrema, penned the best take on interpretation I've ever seen. Though for the greatest work of fiction qua interpretation, period, I tip my hat to Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian. ↩
I have a premonition that the Seattleite is going to see it here one day, laugh, and then critique my use of it within the context of my usage. Or not care at all. Or comment on the practice of projecting mental states onto strangers you've never met. ↩
Comparative literature is essentially a gestalt orgy far surpassing the most lavish bacchanalia of ancient Rome—who, lest you forget, literally invented the term. I would bet math and physics are similar (orgiastically). Also, when I hyperlink to external content here, I'm performing miniature acts of complit. Letting you in on the joke, inviting you to participate (it's no fun being alone). ↩
If you were thinking along these lines, notice this time the dichotomy (once again, and as usual, false) was in your head, an implicit gestalt. ↩
+A brief note on Steve Jobs. People used to say he had a "reality distortion field." In the framework of my post, this just means he was
really good great legendary at fiction; talk to him for a few minutes and—even if you're super smart and stubborn—watch as your gestalts become his.