Empty Mirror Article


Raskolnikov and the Peanut: Mirror Neurons & the Arcane Art of Writing

Piece I wrote in 2010 that was published at Reality Sandwich and in Spanish at Pijama Surf. This is a shorter but beefier, revised version that I had been trying to get accepted by mainstream sites like The Believer and Rumpus (no dice; undiscerning assholes all!). Then on a whim I sent it to a new, Beat-oriented site I found before Christmas, Empty Mirror, and they took it. One thing that’s pleasing about revisiting this piece (one of many, I have to say, this piece kicks some serious ass) is how it quotes the poet Arthur Machado: same poet Jefe talks about to the Counselor while gently letting him know his life is over.


5 thoughts on “Empty Mirror Article

  1. I have a few random thoughts in response to this essay. Here is an attempt to organize them.

    The first is a question about the extent to which language captures the totality of the experience inside the brain. In the 21st Century we tend to believe that it does (or at least does so enough), but there are contradictions in the way that we assume language works and in the way we respond to language. You seem to be saying that bare verbal language offers just enough to communicate very directly, without offering the comforting deceptions made available through nonverbal communication, modifiers that soften the impact of language, which would be sharper if conveyed just by bare words alone. Hence internet flame wars.

    This prompted me to think of a recent interaction I had online, where I was trying to propose a somewhat controversial opinion but maintain a tone of reasonable openness to feedback and discussion. What happened was I guess predictable: lots of flame, lots of animosity. At the end, I wondered whether I had failed to communicate. However, perhaps in reality I communicated too much? Perhaps people understood where my true symapthies lay, even while I believed I was trying to create a bridge towards mutual understanding, perhaps somewhat deceptively? And yet, in reality, my symapthies on the subject were and are very layered, potentially self-contradicting, and informed by many different conflicting past experiences. These might have been communicated by body language had that been an available channel. In other words, my attempts to “deceive” may actually have been more faithful to the layered nature of the actual psychic material underlying the apparent message than the actual words I used, which just scratched the surface.

    I personally think that at best, language is holographic: it may reproduce the entire picture, but the picture is low-fidelity without the nonverbal parts.

    I am reminded of the areas of my life that rely on nonverbal communication. I’ve done some performing arts, where the nonverbals are key. In particular, there is nothing more nonverbal than being a lone dancer onstage, having to communicate an experience entirely through use of ones body alone (along with the accompanying music and sound effects). I teach material that is somewhat dry and technical, and so I rely on the nonverbal “energetic” communication to carry the audience’s attention, and to soften the impact of telling somebody that their answer was incorrect.

    And so I also wonder how much language is performative. Everything I write is a performance, even this blog comment. It’s a habit acquired from a job in which I am judged by publication record, and also a reaction to some spectacular mistakes I made in my youth when I mistook writing (in a professional setting, i.e. email) for more intimate emotional communication. So, in other words, my writing is very self conscious. Maybe that’s why I do not find it particularly liberating.

    A thought about DNA as language: we are accustomed to thinking of the genetic code as being a “code”, with a four-letter alphabet giving rise to a dictionary of codons corresponding to amino acids, but there are other layers that have less analogy with language. Intronic DNA never gets used to make protein, and large sections of the genome never get transcribed at all, yet they are still important for regulation (e.g. transcription factor binding sites). The letters themselves have modifiers; e.g. the “C” of cytosine can have a methyl group added to its ring, and this alters the genomic context that is used to regulate the expression of the downstream gene or ncRNA. Thus, 5-methylcytosine perhaps could be thought of as the analog of an emoticon. Also, the spatial arrangement of DNA matters, and corresponds to the dance performed by the histones around which DNA is spooled. More nonverbal communication….

  2. I personally think that at best, language is holographic: it may reproduce the entire picture, but the picture is low-fidelity without the nonverbal parts.

    Yes but what determines whether the nonverbal parts are carried? The assumption that, if it is only written text, there is no nonverbal element is what I challenged in the piece. An alternative reading is that how present we are when we speak or write, how embodied the expression is, seen or unseen, determines how much charge there is in it (nonverbal content).

    To refer to the example you cite, is it possible your participation in the online discussion may have triggered hostile responses not because you were hiding a more radical agenda (being deceptive) but because what you were embodying was an awareness (or knowing) about the subject which itself was threatening to those who had merely strong beliefs to the contrary?

  3. I think it’s hard to separate an author’s presence and embodiment from an author’s skill. It takes a certain amount of writing skill to be able to communicate presence of lack thereof.

    The issues of subtext and context are another matter. Whether or not I was fully embodying any awareness of a certain subject matter, the social context is that it is not acceptable even to talk about that particular subject. At least not in that forum. Since the subject matter concerned the relative privilege of a particular (large) segment of society, it is interesting to note the taboo in presenting evidence that certain members who are generally considered to be oppressed may in fact enjoy freedoms not available to their supposed oppressors (whether or not the evidence is ultimately convincing when considered in a larger social context). The topic of course is complex and layered (a fact that I admitted early on in the discussions, although my communication was imperfect around that admission); however, the fact that opening up the discussion at all could generate such hostility is … informative … both about the subject and the forum in which it was raised.

    In any case, it might be that the ability to transmit nonverbal information is commensurate with writing skill. It helps to be aware of, and make use of, different linguistic registers. (I use a particular register here, but I don’t use it everywhere online.) Within a register, it helps to be able to select specific words and know their connotations, some registers have a larger vocabulary than others, and some registers with smaller vocabularies nevertheless have the ability to convey emotional states that are impossible in registers with larger vocabularies.

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