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Two peripheral (?) observations

While reading Damasio and Noë, I noticed in passing a couple of details that might not, in the end, have any relevance for their work at large, but that were striking enough to make me wonder.

In his TED talk and again in Self Comes to Mind, Damasio attributes a statement to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “His was a great sin who first invented consciousness.” In Self Comes to Mind, Damasio comments: “I can understand why he [i.e., Fitzgerald] said so, but his condemnation is only half the story, appropriate for moments of discouragement with the imperfections of nature that conscious minds expose so nakedly.” (p. 20) At the time I watched the TED talk, this struck me as a rather odd thing for Fitzgerald to have said: while Fitzgerald was an alcoholic who no doubt had his share of moments of discouragement with the imperfections of nature, he would also have been perfectly aware that human literature and his own career were entirely dependent on consciousness for their existence. I wondered in what context Fitzgerald might have made such a statement. As it turns out, he didn’t: those words were spoken by a character in Fitzgerald’s short story “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” as Damasio’s own citation makes clear. Statements made by an author’s character are entirely distinct from statements made by the author himself, and it struck me as sloppy, to say the least, for Damasio to conflate the two – particularly given his insistence that readers respect fine distinctions of role in his own work: distinctions between the proto and core selves, say, or the self-as-subject vs. the self-as-object.

In Out of Our Heads, meanwhile, Noë spends a lot of time discussing both real and hypothetical cases of persistent vegetative state and locked-in syndrome, two conditions in which the victims experience a horrifying loss of control over both their physical bodies and their communicative abilities. Noë’s first mentions of these conditions occur on page 14 and 15, respectively, where he describes the cases of two real-life women with PVS and locked-in syndrome. In the next few pages, Noë speculates about these conditions by positing theoretical patients in theoretical situations, and by page 27 I had noticed that these theoretical patients, too, were in every case women. Another real-life case, Terri Schiavo: an unpleasant flashback to the Bush years, and yet another woman. When Noë got to discussing the phantom limb phenomenon, again his theoretical patient was a she. I appreciate 21st-century scholars’ attempts to compensate for the historical exclusion of women from the ranks of scientific and medical study, but why were all of these particular patients women? I started to wonder if there were something natural or comfortable for Noë about associating loss of limbs or bodily autonomy with women.

I don’t mean to suggest, based on this scanty evidence, that Damasio’s scholarship is untrustworthy or that Noë has a problem with women. But I do think both of these examples are reminders that every scholar has blind spots, and that we as readers need to look out for them.

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2 Responses to Two peripheral (?) observations

  1. Jason Tougaw says:

    Those are really interesting details to notice. I think the TED talk format leads to a lot of over-simplification of the kind you point out with Damasio’s citation of Fitzgerald. It’s a good example of how genre shapes ideas. I don’t know what to make of Noë’s focus on women with regard to neurological injury and illness.

  2. I think Liz brings up a great point about attribution and it made me think about the creative process in terms of writing regarding a writer’s thoughts and how they write fictional characters (objective/subjective), especially in terms of dialogue and personality, but also to the larger point of world building (creating scenes, interactions between characters, and plot lines/morals). Where do these ideas/words they put to paper as alternate (examples of) reality come from… are they at all partly attributable to the writer beyond their use of certain words or descriptions of events to create a scene? These ideas obviously open up discussions regarding the accountability of language and styles of writing (argumentative/persuasive/instructive nonfiction, all manner of fiction, satire, etc.), as well as in relation to the writer’s intentions, among other things.

    Damasio’s work discussed how the self as object and self as subject are layered, right? I wonder if his conflating the quote and the attribute is just a coincidence… maybe he wasn’t even thinking to separate the two as part of his presentation (meaning, maybe that sentence was not entirely planned and was just from memory? I’m not sure if he was reading from a script or PowerPoint slides at times — maybe he had a slide prepped with the quote on it, but maybe not). Either way, it’s interesting to know the sourcing! Especially in a world where accurate attributes and proper credits seem to be (unfortunately) going out of style.

    To your other point, I didn’t get the feeling that Noe was using too many examples of women related to illness/debilitation. In reading your post, though, I did assume the subjects which we’re reading might historically make reference to women as examples more than men… so that his text is a continuation of that kind of usage in some sense.

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