An Encounter with the Improbable: Temple Grandin

temple & the who

Talking to Temple Grandin for this week’s podcast felt improbable. There’s a natural filter or membrane between my activities and that of the mainstream—natural and to some degree inevitable. It has to do with what happens when a person makes the transition from being a little-known operator to a widely recognized one. Most of us (or so I imagine) who struggle to make that transition are aware of how we want more attention, either in terms of quantity or quality, of sheer numbers or the intensity and frequency of feedback from whatever “audience” we do have.

I have to take a pause before finishing the above thought. Every time I write about this subject (that of being a creative person struggling to reach an audience), I find myself getting stuck on the terms. It is as if (& more than “as if”) we lack the language to describe the phenomenon, a phenomenon loosely defined as worldly success and/or celebrity. I think it’s because, and why, we have failed to really understand it. We may have come up with terms like “fame,” “audience,” “established,” and so on in an attempt to map this phenomenon, but, as is so frequently the case with language, we stopped exploring the terrain once we had the map, on the mistaken assumption that, what we had named, we had understood. This may relate to a much larger subject of how language is a means to understanding that has long-since become an end to it. But anyway….

Two nights ago, I watched an interesting documentary about the engineering of the British rock band The Who, called Lambert & Stamp. About half an hour in, Pete Townsend talks about how their managers (Kit Lambert & Chris Stamp) had the visionary idea of using the band’s audience as a way to increase its appeal. They went around giving away free tickets to all the best-dressed, most stylish teenagers they could find. As a result, those early Who concerts were filled with audience members who were better-dressed and more stylish than the band was. Chris Stamp expounds:

“We had this idea, which became known as the 100 Faces Club. We would pick one of these kids and make them official members. . . We never quite knew what made them a  face. They had to dance well, they had to dress weird or well, in some ways show the rebelliousness, the individuality. We weren’t only trying to identify The Who, as such, but their  specific audience through our judgment. We were the guys who were saying ‘This is what we think the Who audience is.’ And we made them a 100 Faces member.”

This created very quickly the sense of a movement—and in fact the Mod movement very much arose from this time period and can be directly linked to the rise of The Who (and their swan song Quadrophenia). Not to get sidetracked into the question of pop cultural social engineering here. Townshend remarks that it wasn’t that they were marketing to the audience: they were marketing the audience:

“You become a mirror to the audience. Kit and Chris watched this happen and started to develop it as a way of harnessing the energy of the audience, which was to empower them, to make them realize how important they actually were. I was really uncomfortable with it, really uncomfortable. . . . They were able to recognize that synergy that was going between the audience. And the only reason that I was into that, spotting that, was again because of art school training, being told by my teachers: ‘Find a patron.’ . . . [The audience is] not just the patrons. They’re the essence. . . . You don’t market to them. You market them.”

temple & mods

The implications of this are multiple. It’s one of those ideas that is psychological & philosophical as well as social, that, to quote my erstwhile colleague Peter Levenda, has “many moving parts.” The one I am zeroing in on here is one I touched on with my piece about, and dialogue with, Jonathan Lethem: that the audience, so-called, is every bit as essential to the creation of “art” as the artists. It is not some faceless mass waiting to receive, at least it is not only that. The case of The Who demonstrates how a creative project, as it moves from margin to mainstream, does so by first assembling the audience (almost literally hand-picking it) that will lift it up to prominence, by including them in that transition from marginality to centrality. There’s much more to explore about this, but I will stop there, because it was actually a digression from my original, unfinished point.

My original unfinished point was that becoming popular, “in demand,” entails not only receiving an increased amount of attention but also having to give it. Being in demand means exactly that: that one’s time, energy, and attention is constantly being solicited by the very people whose attention one has managed to get. So at least I deduce by a simple appliance of logic. You can’t covet or receive attention without being ready to return it. So naturally, the more “established” someone is, the more demands are placed on their attention, the harder it is for those of us on the margins to get it.

Most “famous” (I use quotes so much because, as I say, our language isn’t really adequate for this phenomenon, perhaps because it is so relatively new—what does famous mean, after all? It’s a statement that is so relative that it is effectively meaningless unless we apply it to the extreme ends of the spectrum, i.e., Jesus is famous, your cat is not (though mine is)). Anyway, where was I? Most “famous” people aren’t reachable online; at best they have a Twitter account, but unless you can get them to follow you then the only way to reach out is by tweeting them publically, which in my experience almost always gets ignored (Matthew Modine responds, but even he ignored my suggestion of doing a podcast). So that simplifies things for me. If a person who is relatively famous has a means to reach them online, this signals they are relatively undefended, not buffered by middlemen, and therefore still somewhat human. Cory Doctorow has a contact email at his site and he responded right away to my email invite. Guy Maddin doesn’t have a contact email, but he just exudes marginality so I made an extra effort and eventually he did get my message, wrote back to me, and was very open and warm. With Temple Grandin, because she works in the industry and is a public speaker, she has contact info at her site and I heard back through her assistant (though it seemed to be a message from Grandin) quite promptly.

Although I wasn’t necessarily more nervous speaking to her because she was a “celebrity,” I did feel more pressure because it felt like there was more at stake. Not at stake for me personally in terms of doing a good job and taking a step or two up the social ladder; but in terms of a responsibility to use the potentially increased signal (a larger audience) to address things that might need to be addressed, ways in which Grandin might be influencing people with too broad a brush stroke, for example (such as by advocating ABA treatment, or defending slaughterhouses).

I suppose this in turn relates to how the defendedness of public figures tends to increase in proportion to how high their profile becomes. (Which is why I said that Lethem had more to lose by doing the Liminalist podcast than I did.) With great power comes great responsibility; power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Part of the responsibility of power is to be aware of the corrupting influence of power. The larger part, maybe, is to counteract that influence by using one’s power responsibly, to serve others and not merely one’s own unconscious drives. The problem with this is that, since the drives are unconscious, “serving others” can just as easily be a means to feed those drives as being openly self-serving—as in the cases of power-mad philanthropists or seeming do-gooders and social reformers such as Mother Theresa, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or, for that matter, my grandfather, none of whom I am personally persuaded were serving agendas separate from those of the social engineers (who seem to be driven by philanthropic ideals also).

My experience talking to Temple Grandin was that she was very much herself. While I found some of her arguments and rationales a bit simplistic, they were pleasantly so, and felt genuine and not assumed. As my wife commented after hearing the first podcast, “There’s nothing about her that’s not improbable.” At the risk of using circular logic, the fact she so readily agreed to be on my podcast—even while I’m fairly sure it relates to a desire for publicity—suggests that she is operating within the power-sphere of the dominant culture in an improbably guileless and non-defended fashion. She struck me as a very childlike personality, and that is rare in any sphere. Most people at her level of the game would have been a lot more cautious and guarded about entering into such an unknown forum. They would have asked more questions and wanted to ensure that it was strategically, politically “safe” and advantageous before agreeing. Not so with Temple. For whatever reasons, once she heard I wanted to talk to her, pretty much the next thing I knew, she was on the other end of my line.

I’m not entirely sure where this line of inquiry is going, besides being a commentary to accompany the podcast. Maybe with part two it will reveal itself.

Comments from my as-yet-undefined “audience” are welcome.

23 thoughts on “An Encounter with the Improbable: Temple Grandin

  1. Thanks for all your great work. Of course I don’t always agree with your points of view, however I feel that our philosophies are more similar than not at a fundement level, so to speak.
    I am not autistic. I was blessed with ADHD. I’m 39 now. When I was a kid they had no idea what do do with me. I recall being brought to many little rooms where “specialist” would run me through chimpanzee style test. End results always being the same; “well he ain’t stupid,” was what my young brain would interpret their assessment to mean.
    I consider myself very lucky that I was not medicated. My ADHD has shown me marvels of reality. It has allowed me to not fit in, so as to find my own unique path. My energy now is tamed down with a long standing yoga practice, running my own orchard/landscaping company, and always doing something physical while my head flys around everywhere. Maybe medication helps some people if done right. Admittingly I self medicate with marijuana dayly.
    Lastly the idea of choosing maps over the terrain. Isn’t it all maps. Maps from the smallest terrain to the largest, to the undescribable. Maps of maps of maps….I’ve been in a state of maplessness once for 3 straight days after a bad flu. Without maps the terrain becomes nothing. Literally.
    Thanks again!

  2. speaking of the great work

    We can deduce Communion to
    With a stick comes a twist
    with a twist comes a miss!

    stick: God’s telephone

    twist: A siren’s call!

    Stick or Twist
    (the choice is yours!)
    Hit or Miss…
    (what’s mine is yours)

    Drugs are bad… mmkay

  3. JH’s map analogy analogous-ness…
    post-post I made the connection…
    our phone rings: Roof Restoration.

    Looking up the word analogous-ness
    ADVERTISEMENT Roof Repair omfgbbq!

    Who’s your head-of-the-corner now!

  4. but regard the podcast

    Talking shop: Politics
    auti=good worker bees.

    this statement is true
    ya can’t stop progress
    this statement is true
    pleasure-seeking = bad
    this statement is true
    pleasure slaves = good
    this statement is true
    what’s bad = learning.
    this statement is true
    what’s good = knowing.
    this statement is true
    fool: made wise of all

    Bottom-up thinking …

    Describe the universe:

    What’s underlying math
    & predictable movement
    is slave beehaviour…

    Pyramid ends with you.

  5. Jason my friend, i know you don’t know me, but you’re gonna have to just trust me when I say I know you are absolutely right about that.
    I want to rephrase my comment about medicating with marijuana. My use is purely due to my appreciation of the stoned perspective. Not as a treatment for anything other than soberism. Not to be confused with people who use it medicinally. Not to be confused with Temple Grandins use of medication. I also find it very interesting the differences and similarities between an autistic personality type such as Temple Grandins way of thinking, and my own way of thinking from an ADHD personality type.
    She said that she can’t think in abstractions- Almost all my thinking is in abstractions. Her memories are replayed like a movie- My memories are islands of images floating on feelings. She finds solace in physical activity- I can’t stop doing shit. She had to create a mental to do, to don’t do list. I also had to create a, to do, to don’t do list (abstractly of course.)
    Her list was developed early on. Mine came about in my late teens. I unconsciously realized (as I moved all over the place with my unstable mother (so also there’s that)) that the reasons people would really like me at first, at new schools, to the point of even being quite popular, and soon turn to despise me, was because I was seemed so approachable and full of energy and fun lovin at first. Then at some point soon when people realized I never turned off, and that actually I was kinda weird mixed with the weird shit I’d inevitably eventually say (turns out most people don’t like when other people say weird shit. Go figure) that, to do, for me was to recognize when to shut off, and to, not do, say weird shit.

  6. I also realized listening back how TG & i were like opposite types & that I am an abstract thinker. I enjoyed our conversation even tho (tho also partly because) in a way we didnt really get anywhere. Each new question I felt like I had to go back to the drawing board, because our ways of seeing were so utterly different. But then the medium of the conversation became the message: this is what neurodiversity looks and sounds like.

    Round peg, meet square hole.

    • Great self-observation. Great comment . I enjoyed listening to “opposite type” neuro-diverse creatures engaging each other too.

  7. Standing a top my virtual soapbox again, I wish to say a little more about ADHD and autism.
    I understand that the ADHD is an acronym for a group of words that when vocalized present a certain set of ideas and assumptions. The same with the word autism. One assumption is that it is a sort of defect, or perhaps something that should not be. Although I felt that there was something wrong with me when I was younger, I have long since dropped those feelings. I would say myself, and assume others like me, are, just as everyone else, a certain kind of human. I notice all the time that there are certain types of people who are similar beyond superficials (race, gender, nationality, etc.) Why right now there seems to be a lot more people who fit the ADHD autism molds has many possible reasons.
    That said I think it is important to bring up Temple Grandins medicating. She said her self that her anxiety was due to a physical condition, not her autism. Yet she seems to sale it as if she is medicating her autism. She’s not. She is medicating her physical condition ( I think it was hormonal?) that is causing anxiety. Her “control” of her “autism” was because of the coping skills she learned early on, her “to do list”

  8. “My use is purely due to my appreciation of the stoned perspective. Not as a treatment for anything other than soberism.”

    Making soberism in your view a form of affliction. Since this is particular to you (as well as millions of other people, but not to millions of others), then isn’t it fair to say that you are treating/combatting something via marijuana just as TG is dealing with her own physical condition?

    Had Mz Grandin been more receptive to my view of things – or more reflective of it – i might have got into how physical conditions relate to psychic ones and can’t be separated from them, just as physical trauma effects the psyche and emotional or psychological trauma affects the body. (Words again making a distinction where maybe none exists).

    I have my own theory about marijuana use. Is it a daily ritual?

  9. Yes daily. As for sober-ism being an infliction, that’s just my humor. Sure addiction does play a part, but mostly I just enjoy it (I enjoy many things by the way.) I never smoke to make me feel better, in the sense of changing my mood from bad to good. In fact I make it a point to not smoke if I am in a shitty mood, and only smoke after I go through whatever is happening that’s making me shitty. On top of that I’m taking the risk of amplifying any shittyness into a veritable shit storm by getting high.
    My marijuana use is also not done in a bubble. It is just another piece of the mosaic that is my lived experience ( sorry for the dramatics. None the less.)

    I have heard you riff on marijuana use, and your personal relation to it. Personally I have dropped any notions of marijuana or acid or anything the likes getting anyone closer or farther away from the ever elusive “higher self” or even that there are any such distinctions as higher and lower self outside conjecture. Pretty sure there is no up and down in this here infinite void. Waka! Waka!
    Marijuana and the others, and everything else we do, and come in contact with, by choice or other, will hinder or nurture us depending on things having little to do with those substances, or things around and in us.
    I have actually done experiments on myself. Conclusion; I am myself when on marijuana, also off. The only difference being the immediate depth of the stoned perspective. Also the tendency to get drawn into things deeper than if i was not stoned (this is where my addiction comes is. Addiction to a state of mind. Again not in a negative sense of getting from bad head to good head, but instead moving to where I want to be because I like it) Other than that, my political, emotional, philosophical notions stand strong. If new information comes along that changes any of those things, and if I am keen enough to see, I will change, but certainly not because I’m stoned or not.
    I guess the problem is when a thing is changed, used , or projected ideas upon, having only to do with an idea or plan, and losing the awareness, or thread, of the original things thingness.
    With regards to weed, any idea that it helps some sort of awakening, or hinders, I would say, is fundamentally erroneous.
    I would also say lazy thinking. An unconscious projection of human cultural and personal values, having little to nothing to do with the plant itself.
    Sorry if I’m rambling. But what do you expect I have ADHD. I could do this forever….
    As for Mz Grandin ( and I could have mis-remembered (I was high when listened to the show 😉 ) I thought she was an advocate for medicating autistic kids, but that her personal medicating was for an issue other than her autism.

  10. I am calling out what Grandin said in the sense that she is a public figure who effects public opinion, particularly with regards to autism.

  11. Ah sorry, not buying it. You’re a public figure too, advocating the use of marijuana because you “enjoy” it.

    I enjoy potato chips too; that doesn’t mean I don’t know they are a mild form of poison and wish I could just quit the damn things. & chips are nothing compared to marijuana, which does untold harm to the nervous system, harm that is easy to ignore when the use is constant, because it’s an anesthetic that puts the body in a dissociated state similar to suspended animation.

    The other thing about marijuana, obviously related, is the sort of cognitive and perceptual magnification/distortion it causes. When I used to smoke pot, everything became so much more meaningful and profound that it was like the whole Universe was talking to me. There wasn’t even a shred of doubt while I was in those states that what I was seeing was real because it felt so much MORE real than the unstoned state. Only now, after several years off the weed, it’s easy to see, inescapable really, that none of those countless epiphanies counted for much, or, to be honest, for anything at all. All that leaves is the harm I did to my body.

    What I know now is that what’s really meaningful and of value isn’t in these inflated, grandiose and drug-induced (dissociative) visions of cosmic potential, but in developing a sober attention to the very smallest, subtlest signal in the body, a signal that’s completely flooded out by drug use, even while it seems as tho it’s being magnified, because drugs are toxins that render the body insensate. My best guess here is that they are a form of trauma reenactment that triggers the psyche’s primary defense mechanism, allowing awareness to go into nonspatial realms of being where nothing is real, an infinite void where nothing is up or down. (Back to the safety of the womb/mother’s psyche, woohoo; and marijauna is a female plant, right?)

    This is not to say that some people don’t NEED drugs to survive psychologically, at least for a time, because their trauma is too great to process. Maybe. It shouldn’t be ruled out anyway. I used to be much more hardline about prescription drugs but the truth is I don’t know what any individual needs to get through their day. But recognizing a drug-dependency is one thing; advocating the drug as ipso facto harmless (because needed) using marijuana-fueled relativistic anti-logic is something else

    That’s my story & I’m sticking to it..

  12. Your absolutely right. Thank you for your insight and honesty.
    I was thinking about it today and wondering what my actual addiction is. It is not for the plant or the chemicals, but for the liminal state it produces. I like being in weird head spaces while interacting in the “mundane.”
    I wonder your views on the increased sensitivity to music while under the influence of marijuana, and its ability to make some musicians better than they would be otherwise.

    • Actually I am only kind of interested in your ideas about marijuana’s musical influence. What I am really interested in is the idea you brushed upon during the interview with Temple Grandin on the effects language has, once implanted, on a nervous system.
      I know Rudolph Steiner talk a good deal about it. Dimitry Orlov mentioned in one of his blog post, how certain groups of gypsies (maybe all I can’t remember) would not teach their children to read until they were around 10. They felt it had a negative effect on the child’s psyche, and ability to connect to the world directly if taught too young.
      Off topic but similar, did you catch the kunstlercast on artificial light and its effects on biological beings?
      Again I appreciate you insights a great deal.

  13. towards the end of my codependent affair with marijuana, I used it a couple of times to work on a script, or even just to think about a script i was working on; I was astounded by how much it “improved” the work, how i could see connections, subtexts, potentialities that had been invisible to me before. That would seem to refute my above claim that my pot-epiphanies never amounted to anything, except that those scripts never amounted to anything either (to date); also, I can’t swear they were improved by marijuana (tho my bet is still that they were). But if they were, I have to say now, somewhat begrudgingly, “So what?”

    The idea that art is a measure of my worth as a human being, spiritual progress or authenticity, is another (pot-fueled) idea that I am growing out of, painfully.

    Re: the other question, I did catch that Kunstler podcast and thought it was a great premise, sort of pulling the rug out from all the conspiracy theories and social engineering complaints: you want to blame something, how about electricity! Credible too.

    At first pass I’d say the gypsies were onto something. What’s the big hurry to learn reading and writing for a kid except to accelerate socialization? Course I loved books as a kid & started writing pretty early on. But again, that doesn’t mean it was a positive thing per se, tho I think it was a much needed refuge.

  14. poor Temple has spent so much of her life as the teacher she seems to have forgotten how to be the student. she did make me laugh several times tho.

  15. The thing that stands out to me, as a side effect of marijuana, is not feelings or ideas of grandiose, or the physical side effects, but its effects on my dreams.
    When I do take hiatus from the smoke, I do have a remarkable change in the vividness and retention of dreams.
    Like you I was a disciple of Castaneda’s brilliant works of fiction ( which now I can say (talk about liminality.)) And like you I also had a time of “being the one”. Hmm…wonder if there is any correlation with Castanedas work and feelings of grandiosity. I did always feel better off then people who are unfamiliar with his work. In some ways I guess I still do. This could be a great conversation, but I digress.
    I have a notion of why weed effects dream states. I would be interested to hear your take if you have one.
    Too bad you live so far away, I’d invite you over to our farm for weed brownies.

  16. I seems marijuana and any other psychoactive substance, medicinal or otherwise, could be seen similar to Castanedas allies.
    Allies being helpers in awareness expansion.
    Then of course one becomes addicted to the “higher awareness” and interdependent on the relationship.

    • I think there are two things (at least) occurring: one is what I already wrote about, how weed puts the body to sleep, makes it insensate, so then actual sleep would be that much deeper and more comatose, hence less dream-filled (just a guess). The other, also a guess, is that since weed shifts one’s assemblage point (using CC terms now, with some reservations but what the hell) over to “the left side” (right side of the brain), when stoned one is dreaming awake ie, using up the dreaming attention, hence has less of it for actual dreaming (tho also less need to dream).

      I agree that weed and other psychotropic substances (and even the other sort, like cocaine) relate to some sort of plant intelligence that “possesses” the user and becomes possessive of him or her, their psyche, hence the parallel with mother-bondage. Ick. I had this relationship with salvia divinorum. No thanks.

      At this point I distrust all power plants (power corrupts, etc, literally in this case – i got half a dozen cavities after a period of SD use), so while I am grateful for the hypothetical invite, and try never to say never, I am confident when I say that my brownie eating days are over.

      where is your farm anyway?

      • We live a few miles outside Drain Oregon. Small rural town of a 1000ish range.
        But yeah the shifting of the assemblage point is an excellent idea.
        I don’t recall which book of Castanedas, Don Juan said something about what is really going on with, I think it was schizophrenia in a person, is that what is really happening is an erratic assemblage point.
        This has obvious overlapping implications with regards to autism, ADHD, etc.
        Say what one will about Castaneda, but he was very smart, a great researcher and a masterful writer.
        So I have no problem using his work as reference. Especially with people who are familiar with his work.

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