Damasio is everywhere

I had never heard of Antonio Damasio before this course, but we seem to have set up shop in a neighborhood where we can’t avoid bumping into him at every corner. A big chunk of the Eakins chapter is devoted to him. His “autobiographical self” notion is mentioned in Hustvedt, and his praise is on her back cover; he and Hustvedt apparently even became friends in the course of her research for The Shaking Woman. We’re reading from two of his books next week. Clearly he is the man of the hour.

So far I’m slightly resistant to him, partly because I was underwhelmed by his TED talk. He began with what seemed to me a false premise, the idea that there are lots of people who think we should not investigate the biological underpinnings of consciousness. (Who are these people? Nineteenth-century philosophers freaked out by Darwinism? Present-day religious conservatives? Politicians who want to cut STEM funding? I can’t imagine he meant his fellow neuroscientists, scientists at large, academics, or anyone in the audience for the talk.) He then went on to say not much of anything that seemed all that new to me. Aren’t most people already aware that there’s a distinction between brain and mind, and between mind and self? That the body and mind are tightly coupled? That we should care about the somatic basis of consciousness because we’re curious, and we want to understand our society and culture, and we want to cure Alzheimer’s disease?

Damasio is a guy you apparently have to grapple with if you want to study consciousness from a neurobiological angle, however, so I’m trying to get a handle on him. Fortunately, his ideas as presented in Eakins are more auspicious than those in the TED talk. Damasio’s book title The Feeling of What Happens is expressive of his notion of consciousness in an almost, dare I say it, literary way, and his theory of self makes sense both biologically and as a description of the lived experience of having a mind:

Self is a feeling, specifically “a feeling of knowing,” “a feeling of what happens.” And what does happen? The body responds to its encounters with objects in its environment, and it also responds to its own changing internal states. And self is Damasio’s name for the feeling of awareness or knowing that these events are taking place.” (Eakins, 68)

Or, as Eakins later helpfully rephrases:

From an evolutionary perspective, self is not some abstract philosophical concept but rather a name for a feeling embedded in the physiological processes necessary for survival. Self, then, for Damasio, is first and last of and about the body; to speak of the embodied self would be redundant, for there is no other. (Eakins, 70)

I’m not sure about Damasio’s idea of consciousness as “the movie-in-the-brain,” where there is “the appearance of an owner and observer for the movie within the movie” – doesn’t this privilege the visual (and, to a lesser extent, the auditory) sense too much above the others in describing the formation of consciousness? And does “appearance” mean that the seeming owner is not real, or not really in ownership of the movie? (I’m also not sure that Eakins’ Damasio-inspired notion of “a moviegoer inside the movie he or she is watching” is exactly “mind-bending”: isn’t there an actual, recent movie in which this very thing has been depicted? Probably something in which Michel Gondry and/or Charlie Kaufman was involved? But I can’t remember the details: time to go do the Joe Brainard exercise.)

Most difficult of all, though, is what Eakins calls the “teller-effect” (his coinage, inspired by Damasio’s concepts). As nearly as I can gather, this is the idea that what we experience as the “narrative” of consciousness is in fact generated by pre-narrative and therefore unnarrateable biological processes; an unnarrateable narrative can have no narrator, so there is only the feeling of a narrative and the illusion of an agent telling it. As to how that plays out in the context of an autobiography, I’ve thus far been unable to translate Eakins’ explanation (“It would be the I-narrative about Pokey and not just the Pokey-character it features that would be the true locus of Mary Karr’s reconstruction of her earlier self”) into non-Barthesian language. Guess I’ll leave that task to my double.


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One Response to Damasio is everywhere

  1. Jason Tougaw says:

    This made me laugh. In a way, Damasio is everywhere–but our syllabus may be making that feel even more true than it is. In my opinion, he’s offered the most comprehensive theory of consciousness from a physiological perspective. We’ll read him next week. I think these ideas will start to fall into place for you then.

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