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Vanishing Point (2010) by Ander Monson – Describing the Self that was not there

June 30, 2010

The existential tradition — via Pascal, Nietzsche, Heidegger and Sartre — has it that there is no fundamental essence to human existence:  For Pascal, our nature lies in our customs. For Sartre, existence precedes essence. A simple way of interpreting this viewpoint is through the notion that we, as individuals, are radically free and that we define ourselves through our actions. But if this vision of the self is correct then what does it mean for society as a whole?  what does it mean for our culture?  For an answer to this, we must look to Heidegger. The American philosopher Hubert L. Dreyfus interprets Heidegger as saying that each culture defines for itself what it means to be human. This conception of human nature allows them to live as though each culture has a predefined essence, an absolute morality and an objective meaning of life. As history changes, so too does the conception of human nature and all of the philosophical infrastructure built up around it.  Looking back on discrete periods of human history such as Ancient Greece and Medieval Europe, it is relatively easy to isolate their conceptions of being in the world because those conceptions were fully articulated by particular authors; Homer in the case of the Ancient Greeks and Dante in the case of the Medieval Christians.

One’s attitude to this understanding of the evolution of culture will most likely depend upon the amount of ontological weight one ascribes to Heidegger’s conception of being-in-the-world:

In his book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976), Julian Jaynes argues that the ancient Greeks had a fundamentally different form of consciousness to contemporary humans.  A form of consciousness that made introversion impossible but which allowed desires and ideas to take perceived physical form in the shape of gods.  According to Jaynes, Homer’s descriptions of human cognition were literally true at the time.  Under this interpretation of Homer, there is a near one-to-one correspondence between the scientific understanding of existence and that of Heidegger: This we can call the Strong Dasein Hypothesis.

The other way of looking at the issue is voiced by Brian Boyd in his On The Origin of Stories – Evolution, Cognition and, Fiction (2009), which states that the difference between Homer and Proust is not that Homer’s mind worked differently to Proust’s but that the folk psychological model that informed Homer’s writing was less advanced than that which informed the rendering of Proust’s characters.  So Homer’s failure to discuss the inner psychology of his characters does not reflect his own lack of inner state but rather an incomplete conceptual framework which did not allow for this inner state to be rendered in a fictional form.  According to this view, which we can call the Weak Dasein Hypothesis, Heidegger spoke not of being but of world-view and dealt not in actual things but in perceptions.

Regardless of where one stands along a presumed spectrum of attitudes towards Heideggerian ontology, the fact remains that art does reflect upon how we think about ourselves.  So how do we represent the modern self?  Again, there is a spectrum of viewpoints.  The literary critic for The New Yorker James Woods argues in his book How Fiction Works (2008) that the novel effectively reached a state of perfection with the development of the “free indirect style” prevalent in the work of authors such as Flaubert, Dostoyevsky and Proust.  However, David Shields has argued in his book Reality Hunger – A Manifesto (2010) that many of the techniques and conceits of the modern novel are hopelessly outdated when it comes to describing a culture imbued with radically different values by individuals with very different conceptions of themselves and their place in the world.  As an example of works that do capture our epochal Dasein, Shields offers up a list of works mostly drawn from the emerging genre of creative or literary non-fiction.  Works such as Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, a collection of themed essays which, as the book’s sub-title assures us, is not a memoir.

Cover of the Book

Vanishing Point is a complex and mercurial work.  In order to get the most out of it, one must navigate two different challenges: one of form and one of content.  The first challenge in coming to grips with Vanishing Point lies in its nature as a physical object :

Part of the process of learning to read is the process of learning to deal with books.  Books are collections of words printed on pieces of paper with ease of reading in mind.  These words are then assembled — according to certain protocols — into sentences, paragraphs, chapters and books that form self-contained bodies of thought.  Monson deconstructs what we generally think of as a ‘book’ by assembling a book out of words using a subtly different set of protocols to the one we are used to.

A BIG Book

Monson challenges our relationship to books as physical objects by using all kinds of non-standard forms of pagination including getting rid of margins (“Exteriority”), intertwining different trains of thought on alternating pages in order to force us to flick back and forth between pages as we work our way through the essay (“Assembloir: Disclaimer”) and alternating between different typesets, different tabulation formats and drawing lines to denote where one thought follows on from another (“Solipsism”).  Uncharitably viewed, these typographical games are nothing more than gimmicks, but while one can legitimately raise questions as to the artistic value of such tricks, it is undeniable that they do serve to highlight the amount of conceptual baggage that underpins even something as simple as reading a book.  Indeed, Monson’s point seems to be that reading is not just about de-cyphering words, it is also about making sense of a physical object.  Hand a book to a Martian and there is absolutely no reason for thinking that he would know what to do with it.

Also strewn throughout the text are daggers which denote words that can be searched for on Monson’s website.  Search the site and discover more content linked to the words in the book.  Is the content of the site an extended part of the site or a DVD extra?  Monson himself is unsure.  But if Monson’s website is a part of the book then what of Wikipedia?  What of the contents of the reader’s head?  The covers of a book serve to impose limits on a thought.  They tell you where an idea begins and where it ends.  By having extra content online, Monson is challenging these boundaries and hinting at a future where the products of intellectual speculation may not be served up as monographs.  Indeed, some have suggested that the age of the monograph may already have passed.

Monson’s final tactic involves the use of literary collage.  Literary collages are a development old surrealist ‘cut-up’ technique of breaking a text down into its component parts in order to reassemble it into an entirely new text.  However, instead of limiting themselves to one specific text, practitioners of the literary collage draw from as many different sources as they want.  Monson’s strand of “Assembloir” essays draw from a wide array of memoirs and autobiographies.  One could see this as ironic given Monson’s emphatic assertion that Vanishing Point is not a memoir but there is also a deeper idea at work here.  One linked to the content of Monson’s thinking.

The second challenge faced by anyone reading Vanishing Point lies in decoding what all of these various essays mean.  Indeed, despite his protests that the book is not a memoir, it is not immediately obvious what Vanishing Point is about aside from Monson as he is the only subject common to all of the essays.  In fact, I suspect that this is the entire point of the book: Vanishing Point is a book that attempts to move past the conception of the self as Ghost in the Machine, a glimmering and largely unchanging kernel of conscious selfhood that experiences both itself and the world with almost perfect transparency.  That sits in our heads working the controls like Vishnu in the centre of the Earth in that episode of the Simpsons.  Monson develops his model of the self using a number of different methods, both direct and indirect:

The Fragmented Self

“Voir Dire” is the first essay in the book and it largely sets the tone and the mission of the book.  The essay focuses upon Monson’s experience as a juror, he reflects both upon the case and upon his own attempts to write about the case in a meaningful way.  As he furiously scribbles notes, he slowly comes to realise the importance of the “I” in the case; Witnesses preface everything they say with “I” while defence and prosecution lawyers attempt to unravel the I’s description of events by picking holes in their understanding of events.  As Monson weaves the two layers of the essay together, he lapses into discussions of his own attempts at remembering events from his past including the reasons for a parent’s death.  He comes to realise that far from being the strong and transparently crystalline structure that confidently asserts its I-ness, the self is actually a fragile and fragmentary thing that cracks all too easily, buckling under close scrutiny due to its tendency to rely upon falsehoods and inaccuracies to construct itself :

“The unreliability, the misrememberings , the act of telling in starts and stops, the fuckups, the pockmarked surface of the I: that’s where all the good stuff is, the fair and foul, that which is rent, that which is whole, that which engages the whole reader.  Let us linger there, not rush past it.” [p. 17]

Monson then explores his model of the self using analogies such as the process of remodelling a house (“Exteriority”), the changing nature of a mid-west city (“Vanishing Point: Former City”), a giant ball of paint that one can pay either to add to or take away from (“Vanishing Point: Middle West, Citizenship”).  The Self, according to Monson is a decidedly Humean construction; like Theseus’ ship it is constantly having its old timbers torn out and replaced with new ones until the only thing in common between the new ship and the old ship is a quasi-religious act of devotion that asserts that yes, this is still the same ship/person/thing despite the fact that it has changed.  It is the same and yet it is not.  Change is stasis.  Stasis is change.

This idea of the slowly accumulating and self-correcting Self is then projected onto Monson’s fondness for found objects such as data retrieved from the hard drives of cheap second hand computers and old photographs (“The Essay Vanishes”):

“I once believed I could vanish and be gone — only a zero left behind.  Local man disappears inexplicably in a furious burst of smoke, the headlines would read.  Or man dies of overdose, if that’s newsworthy enough.  If I were to commit suicide, I have always thought I would blow myself up in an Upper Peninsula Walmart.  Achieve notoriety, if not notability.  Have my disappearance noticed, noted in obituaries, or left to persist as mystery, which would be better.  But what if I were gone and there was no trace no wake no bread crumb trail no unfinished manuscripts with sentences ending in ellipses…” [p.47]

Indeed, the vanishing point of the title refers not just to Monson’s ideas about the self (the wikipedia model as he referred to it on Michael Silverblatt’s Bookworm) but also to Monson’s mortality and fear of death.  This is made abundantly clear in an essay dealing with President Gerald Ford’s funeral (“Ceremony”) in which Monson muses on the fact that the finality of death allows people to construct a model of the individual in their heads that would never have been possible while they were alive and doing stuff.  From Saturday Night Live sketches to the choice of music at the funeral, Ford was fixed in people’s memories with a degree of finality.  The crystalline self-contained self can only be truly approached with death, until then we are trapped, constantly building and rebuilding.

This ongoing process of self-renovation means that we are constantly leaving old version of ourselves behind.  Monson tackles these ideas in an essay dealing with all the alternative Ander Monsons discovered during a google search (“Ander Alert”) and one dealing with the death of Dungeons and Dragons creator E. Gary Gygax (“Geas”):

“We are increasingly a culture raised on games.  Sure, the idea of the hero isn’t recent, nor are the story arcs that readers continue to desire.  But the idea of roleplaying as a formative game experience, of playing the role of a character in a fictional world, does make us more likely to consider our own roles in our own lives, to think of our lives in game terms.” [p. 136]

The concept of a role that we adopt and then cast aside cuts to the heart of Monson’s conception of the self.  Indeed, anyone who has lived as a gamer for a sizable chunk of their life will recognise the sensation of discovering an old file full of character sheets.  Stripped of their social functions and contexts, these bundles of statistics and obscure facts represent fragments of identities assumed in passing.  Like old blogs or usenet posts they speak of who we were and what we were doing at a time that seems remote.  Jesus… did I really have a character called ‘Ramset of the Shadow Blade’?  Before I (sadly) parted company with my last gaming group, I was greatly enthused by the idea of keeping campaign notes online.  Looking back at them, I relate to them in the same way as I do my old blog SF Diplomat… that is who I was.  I am not them now.  That Jonathan is Gone.  Here, ‘Gone’ has the finality of death because the lack of a clearly defined self means that we are all constantly dying and being reborn.  This is the essence of the post-modern Self : Perpetual Death, Perpetual Change, Perpetual Lack of Essence.  The Dasein of the world as it is now is to have no fixed Dasein.

A Self-Help book for the 21st Century?

Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point was a challenging but hugely rewarding read but, the challenges of its form and content overcome (mostly) I do find myself wondering about the extent to which this book really is as revolutionary as the likes of Shields would like to suggest it is.  Indeed, the idea that the Self is a fragmentary thing is hardly new; Hume argued for it and Baudelaire wrote a prose poem championing its importance to the contemporary poetical sensibility :

“Not everyone can bathe in the multitudes: deriving pleasure from the crowd is an art; and he alone can do it who creates an orgy of vitality at the expense of the human race, he who’s been visited in his crib by a fairy who fills him with a taste for dressing up and disguise, a hatred of the home and a passion for travel.” [From Crowds]

The history of the philosophy of mind is also punctuated with attempts to address what Wilfrid Sellars calls, in his seminal piece “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man”, the difference between the Manifest Image of Man that places subjectivity at the forefront of our thinking and the Scientific Image of Man that places objective physical fact at the forefront of our thinking about the Self.  This desire to turf out Folk Psychological talk of ‘beliefs’ and ‘desires’ in order to replace it with something grounded in actual psychological thought has emerged in the works of different generations of thinkers.  For example, when it was Behaviourism that ruled the roost, Gilbert Ryle wrote a book entitled The Concept of Mind (1949) in which he said of the Cartesian model of the self :

“I shall often speak of it, with deliberate abusiveness, as ‘the dogma of the Ghost in the Machine’.  I hope to prove that it is entirely false, and false not in detail but in principle.  It is not merely an assemblage of particular mistakes.  It is one big mistake” [p. 17]

The rest of Ryle’s book is devoted to coming up with ways in which the traditional concepts that govern how we think about ourselves and others might be replaced with a logic and a language informed by a Behaviourist model of the mind.  Though Behaviourism has fallen by the way-side the desire to replace Folk Psychology has never gone away.  Indeed, Paul and Patricia Churchland’s philosophical careers have been dominated by an unflinching war to replace Folk Psychology with a language informed by computational neuropsychology.  In the snappily-titled A Neurocomputational Perspective: The Nature of Mind and the Structure of Science (1989), Paul Churchland eerily echoes Ryle’s disdain for the traditional models of Self that still hold sway over philosophy and literature:

“Spontaneous introspective judgement is just an instance of an acquired habit of conceptual response to one’s internal states, and the integrity of any particular response is always contingent on the integrity of the acquired conceptual framework (theory) in which the response is framed.  Accordingly, one’s own introspective certainty that one’s mind is the seat of beliefs and desires may be as badly misplaced as was the classical man’s visual certainty that the star-flecked sphere of the heavens turns daily.” [p. 3]

Those thinkers who are wedded to the subjectivity of the Manifest Image claim that, for all its scientific correctness, actual psychology cannot replace Folk Psychology because, as Jerry Fodor puts it in Psychosemantics (1987) :

“If commonsense intentional psychology were really to collapse that would be, beyond comparison, the greatest intellectual catastrophe in the history of the species” [p. xii]

However, science fiction authors have attempted to move past the Manifest Image and produce stories that embody different conceptions of the Self.  Indeed, one famous example is Greg Egan’s short story “Mister Volition” (1995), which is reportedly informed by the so-called Pandemonium Architecture that was first developed by AI theorists in the 1950s and later engaged with by the likes of Daniel Dennett and Marvin Minsky :

“There is nothing, no one to kill for: no emperor in the mind to defend to the death.  And there are no barriers to freedom to be overcome.  Love, hope, morality… tear all that beautiful machinery down, and there’d be nothing left but a few nerve cells twitching at random, not some radiant purified unemcombered ubermensch.  The only freedom lies in being this machine., and not another.  So this machine lowers the gun, raises a hand in a clumsy gesture of contrition turns, and flees into the night.  Not stopping for breath, and weary as ever of the danger of pursuit, but crying tears of liberation all the way.”

Other notable attempts to express a more scientific Dasein include Peter Watts’ Hugo-nominated novel Blindsight (2006) and Scott Bakker’s Neuropath (2008) which both attempted to deploy the traditional language and devices of fiction to articulate conceptions of the Self informed by the Eliminativist Materialism of the likes of Churchland and Thomas Metzinger.

The Cover of Peter Watts' Blindsight

Given that these much more traditionally framed attempts at engaging with non-traditional models of the self exist, a question must be raised about Monson’s methods and whether his typographical and structural tricks actually bring anything to the table that the likes of Egan, Watts and Bakker could not replicate using more traditional methods.  My answer comes as an unreserved “Yes”, the novel in its current form is inherently tied to a way of thinking about ourselves that originates in the 17th and 18th Centuries and by beating at the boundaries between essay and art, fiction and non-fiction, criticism and memoir, creative non-fiction writers are laying the ground rules for the spirit of tomorrow’s age.  Even if our post-modernity prevents us from accepting the idea that there is one model that the novel must evolve into, then it is perfectly in keeping with the death of the author and the evisceration of all meta-narratives to allow as many different forms to flourish as possible.  The effectiveness of Monson’s essays vary as widely as their intellectual content but together they show us the future.

9 Comments
  1. June 30, 2010 4:45 pm

    How did Jaynes address the fact that a number of Greek philosophies were atheist in nature? That some Greeks denied the existence of the gods as anything other than metaphoric?

    Greek works differ widely in whether or not they incorporate the mythic, many don’t. Homer captured a worldview, but not literally – that’s a bizarre claim. He captured it much more subtly, in ideas of fate, how to live and what gives a life value. He also dealt in issues such as the horror of war, but to take the view that his Greek readers took it as literal fact just seems a massive and unwarranted leap. What on Earth does he base that on? When did it stop? By Classical Athens we have tons of manuscripts with an essentially modern consciousness, in the few centuries between Homer and the Classical Greeks (who considered his works genius) did human consciousness change that profoundly? Is there any evidence for that beyond a couple of epic poems? Isn’t it likelier that internal states simply weren’t part of what what Homer was working to portray?

    Boyd’s analysis is equally flawed, because it starts from the assumption that Homer didn’t address internal states because he couldn’t. There’s simply no evidence for that, it’s much simpler to hypothesise that his themes didn’t require him to and his medium (epic poetry) wasn’t well suited to doing so. I can’t think of any epic poems offhand that deal in internal states, including ones dating firmly into the middle ages. They pretty much all deal in acts and dialogue, which given the form isn’t really a surprise. These are after all performance works.

    The fact something wasn’t rendered in fictional form in two particular fictional works (the precise authorship of which is uncertain) is a poor basis for making assumptions about changes in human perception. Both arguments strike me as attempts to mount a controversial (and therefore publicity attracting) thesis on the back of easily recognised works which simply don’t assist either way with respect to the points argued.

    I have huge respect for the philosophy of mind and for the emerging science of consciousness, but both those particular contributions sound stretched (to be kind).

    What I find interesting is how little any of the thinking in this area has advanced beyond Hume, who made all these points so eloquently and who has yet to be surpassed by the Daniel C Dennett’s of this world.

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  2. June 30, 2010 5:06 pm

    Hi Max :-)

    I haven’t read Jaynes’ book since I was a teenager but I do remember the suggestion that by the time Plato turned up the change had already taken place. Homer was writing about the Greeks from the Bronze age so there was a sizable period of time in which changes could have taken place.

    Jaynes’ theory is based upon a close analysis of the text and some (then) recent thinking on neuroscience. I believe that pretty much all of the neuroscience has since been overturned.

    Jaynes’ significance is not scientific as much as it is Humanistic. His book coincides with a point in the development of the Humanities when scholars started to move away from the view that all of Western Culture could be seen in terms of gradually decreasing wrongness leading up to the present day. This is evidently a deeply deeply unfashionable view to hold nowadays… it’s the Humanities’ equivalent of the Whig view of history. Jaynes was one of the people providing ammunition for the rise of the fashion that is currently in vogue.

    In a way, his opinions are like those of Freud: Obviously false but useful to people writing about books.

    Re the philosophy of mind, I went on about Hume here because I think it’s the Humean model that is closest to Monson’s. If you read Metzinger and Churchland you’ll find incredibly complex theories that are light-years ahead of Hume. Metzinger argues that there is no self but that’s pretty much line one of the introduction to an 800 page work :-) I didn’t go into the eliminativist position in any detail partly because I’m not entirely sure I understand a lot of it and partly because they’re only significant (in this context) in so far as they argue that there’s a need for radical change in the way we think and write about the self. I doubt very much that Monson has read Metzinger and if he has, it does not transfer into the book.

    So if you got the impression that Monson’s an Eliminative Materialist then that’s partly due to a lack of clarity on my part. Apologies :-/

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  3. James Z. permalink
    June 30, 2010 11:14 pm

    Very interesting and thoughtful review. Regarding your follow up comment, I would suggest an updated look at Jaynes…

    “I believe that pretty much all of the neuroscience has since been overturned.” – Quite the opposite, Jaynes’ neurological model has to a large degree been vindicated by brain imaging studies from 1999-present that show a right/left temporal lobe interaction during hallucinations. This is detailed in a book called “Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness” edited by Marcel Kuijsten, along with other new evidence. As far as “obviously false” I would humbly suggest “non-intuitive” or “contrary to mainstream thinking.” To date no aspect of Jaynes’ theory has been disproven.

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  4. July 1, 2010 5:58 am

    Hi James :-)

    You may well be right that I need to take another look at Jaynes. I do seem to remember Dawkins saying that the man was either a genius or a complete nutter (which, somewhat eerily, is also what they say about the bloke who built the building in Ghostbusters).

    That was dismissive of me. At the very least, it’s an interesting idea.

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  5. July 1, 2010 4:51 pm

    James

    Non-intuitive and contrary to mainstream thinking is par for the course in this area. That of itself means nothing.

    And while his theory has not been disproved, neither has mine that Rigel is orbited by seven planets the fifth of which is inhabited by intelligent molluscs. Lack of disproof does not of itself support a theory.

    Temporal lobe induced externalised hallucinations are well known. It’s a big leap though to go from a phenomenon that ocurs in profoundly malfunctioning brains or brains under the effects of magnetic forces not found in nature to assert that such mental states were once the norm. It’s a claim that for me is up there with telepathy or flying saucers. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I am saying it’s extraoardinary and therefore requires extraordinary proof. The lack of internal states in an epic poem, a class of poetry which typically does not include such states in any period, just isn’t that kind of proof.

    Jonathan’s point makes more sense to me, obviously wrong but perhaps useful. That’s an honourable place potentially, most of science after all is built on precisely such foundations.

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  6. James Z permalink
    July 1, 2010 5:36 pm

    Max… All I can say is you’d have to actually read Jaynes to properly understand his arguments, rather than pre-judge them based on a brief summary. As noted by Michael Persinger in the Foreword to the aforementioned “Reflections”: “Reflexive rejection of novel concepts is the antithesis to discovery.” Auditory hallucinations were widespread in nearly all indigenous cultures (see Levy-Bruhl) and are much more common today that is commonly known (due to the stigma of mental illness). There is much, much more evidence, but again you’d have to read Jaynes if you are interested – I can’t possibly summarize it here.

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  7. July 1, 2010 5:45 pm

    That’s fair James, I accept that.

    It’s not actually a novel concept to me as it happens, but of course that doesn’t mean I didn’t reflexively reject it when it was novel :-)

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  8. July 2, 2010 6:44 am

    I think that there is such a thing as a ‘humanities mindset’ and part of that mindset involves drawing a distinction between explanation (giving an accurate account of something’s causal history) and understanding (using theories to generate interesting perspectives on particular events).

    As an explanation of why it is that Homer’s works are different to contemporary fiction, Jaynes’s book is ridiculous. There’s little direct evidence of these kinds of monumental shifts in the nature of human consciousness and Ockham’s razor suggests that if you can explain away the differences by suggesting Homer had a less complex or different Folk Psychology then that’s the less ontologically demanding theory and so most likely the right one. After all, the concept of the paradigm shift has not only been observed, it is well understood.

    But then, one can legitimately ask whether it is the job of the humanities to generate scientifically rigorous theories about the world of books in the first place.

    Unfortunately, I think that the tension between these two goals is present in the Heideggerian concept of Dasein: Heidegger insists that he is not talking about ‘world-views’ but about the nature of the world. Jaynes is simply offering an account of a change in Dasein couched in scientific language. I don’t buy into Dasein as a metaphysical state and so I don’t buy into Jaynes.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable in a sense to compare Jaynes’ work to that of creationists. Yes, there is evidence, yes it looks quite compelling and interesting but, at the end of the day, it is a theory embraced by people who are not interested in explanation as much as in understanding and there’s no denying that Jaynes’ book allows us to gain an interesting understanding of the Homeric Greeks.

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