eye contact and its implications

false mirrorEye contact is a primary interest of mine. It feels like the most raw and deliberate form of human communication. If we think about language as a good enough medium for getting information from one mind to another, that is, adequate for getting an occasional idea across but fundamentally a category shift that only gestures towards rather than captures our intentions, then eye contact represents a method of direct communication.  We rely less on eye contact and more on language for organizing the social world because eye locks are less susceptible to being watered down and ordered in the way that speech can.

In the fascinating Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, the authors explore a student’s insightful leap regarding the notion that people with blue eyes are often considered particularly evolutionarily advantageous. The idea was, roughly speaking, that because blue eyes are lighter, it is easier to detect the size of the person’s pupil (with larger pupils signaling interest) when a person’s eyes are blue rather than brown or green or hazel. Easily detectable interest in others is itself an evolutionary advantage because people are going to be more willing to take the risk of implicating one in a sexual encounter if they can easily detect that person’s interest.

I’m commonly preoccupied by the long-term implications of everyday events. For instance, it’s clear that we can be mistaken about our own intentions. We can be telling ourselves stories about our actions while doing something for reasons that are hidden from our conscious viewing. For example, we might tell ourselves we are attracted to Jane because she has a natural way of relating and she makes us feel good about our weaknesses, but on some unconscious or semi-conscious level, we’re detecting her pupil size and realizing we have a better chance of getting into a reproductive scenario with her than her friend Emily. Or to zoom out, we can tell ourselves stories about why we want to become actors or painters, saying that we want a medium through which to express ourselves, when really what we want is to not die, and one anti-death method that is pleasurable as well as reliable is finding a sexual partner, reproducing and maintaining our genetic line, and success at a creative enterprise is going to increase our chances of successfully playing out this long-term survival strategy.

Every human relationship I’ve had has been maintained by conversation. Of course, there are people with more relational sophistication than me (those who successfully communicate with the deaf or people with cognitive impairments) but much of the time, our everyday interactions run on language. However, people are born and people die over glances that cannot be reduced into sentences. Considering that all human connection depends upon the knowledge that the other is able to understand and react to what we’re trying to get across, and considering that eye contact is a primary means of establishing this fact in everyday interactions, it seems to be a representation of how we can be confused about the primary phenomenon that is creating our life circumstances.

grand-schemes, meta-narratives, et. al

I am often inspired by how much heavy lifting intonations do in conversation. Time and time again it feels appropriate to say that it doesn’t matter what you say as much as how you say it. If you don’t know what i’m talking about, please remember that dogs, to name one example, respond to the intonation in which they are spoken, not the words being pointed at them. Our intonation, body language, historical and situational context, levels and duration of eye contact seem to say more about our inner lives than the language we employ to represent ourselves.

So i’m wondering–what if tomorrow the intonations we’re used to hearing in a calm conversation on a Tuesday morning with a co-worker with whom you have a civil, yet weightless relationship were replaced with the intonation, the timing, and quality of eye contact a neurosurgeon might drop in a hospital waiting room as he’s telling you that the surgery he went into with casual arrogance resulted in your mother being in a coma? what if we went to the gas station and though all we were saying was 20 on 2, it felt identical to the feeling of having something lifted, like the metaphysical transaction that occurs in the confession? What would this shift imply about the importance of language in interactions between people?

Terrence McKenna said that “language is to life what life is to death.” I am a person who has previously attempted to replace living with reading. I’ve prioritized immersing myself in conceptualization at the expense of experiencing, but as I develop a healthier balance between the need to think and understand and the need to simply BE, I’m realizing that no matter how articulate I become, experiencing a paradigm shift is categorically different from reading about one. This might seem obvious to you, it seems obvious to me, but that’s partly the point I’m trying to make: though our relationships and experiences on one level proceed on the basis of the words we exchange, the shining forth of the inner life of the person we’re in relation with is how we interpret our experience, update our models of reality, and know how to proceed. Somehow we outsource our sense of the appropriate thing to say from what is not said. Somehow we know when a person is perceiving us in a way that is out of touch with who we know ourselves to be, when to end a conversation, or when a person could be understood as being “authentic.” So much of our interactions are non-linguistic, yet we try to “download them into language” whenever we attempt to understand their implication.

Part of why “language is to life what life is to death” seems opaque is that death is a state of non-existence, just like language is fundamentally insufficient in capturing reality. After death, the tools we’d employ during life become irrelevant, untouchable, incapable of being drawn upon. Considering the importance of intonation, subtext, body language, etc. What if language is useful only as a rough approximation of what occurs between subjects? What if the reason that I’m constantly looking for meaning in life and existing in a state of scarcity is that  (And I suspect at least one other person knows what i’m talking about here) I’m using a system to establish a meaning for something (life) which is much more expansive and multi-textured than language could ever manage? What if the only appropriate solution to this problem is to step away from my word processor and go be a body?

late-capitalist trips to the present

“For instance, you have become so estranged from your parents by a university degree that you are ashamed of how dumb they are. Reading critical sociologists, you realize this is the common experience of a whole generation of ‘upwardly mobile’ young kids from ‘lower class’ families lacking ‘cultural capital’. And this is when you begin to wonder who has molded your voice, your manners, your face so differently from theirs? Perhaps a strange beast that pertains to no one in particular and who is no one’s responsibility. It is a force to be sure, maybe a habitus.” –Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social

For the record, I know it’s possible to refer to me as a pretentious lunatic for the above quote, but there’s a set of assumptions within it worth exploring. So

when I’m feeling idle, I’ll go on Wikipedia, find a topic I already know I have interests in, like Jungian analysis or the performance of self in everyday life, and explore the suggested topics at the bottom of the page. I recently decided to read the entry on the hipster. Even though I’ve obviously heard people talk about hipsters and know to associate them with gentrified neighborhoods and over-stated glasses, I’ve never used the term to classify myself or anyone I know. However, after reading that hipsters generally enjoy honoring Lou Reed and reading beat poetry or using knowledge to replace a lack of economic mobility, I realized that my behavior and interests could be roughly associated with this subculture. Interesting how I can be associated with a set of discourses, while I, as a personality, experienced myself just listening to content that felt in alignment with who I believed myself to be.

Although I’ve made aesthetic and financial decisions with an assumption of authenticity, it’s remarkable that I could act in a way that feels like an authentic extension of my “self”, yet still end up acting in line with a set of attitudes in people besides myself. I don’t watch television, I’m not exposed to an overwhelming amount of audio or visual advertising, and I rarely use social media, and yet, even in moments of “authentic self-expression” I’m still reproducing categories that existed before I became a part of them.

I took a literary theory course last fall, and this was really my first introduction of any substance into Marxism, new historicism, psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and some other whimsical [:—-)], complicated and paradigm-shifting ideas. I’m interested in Louis Althusser’s influential idea that ideologies structure subjectivity in a process known as interpolation, or the hailing of a subject into being (who accepts the call) (source: Global Literary Theory: an Anthology). In other words, we are exposed to a discourse, internalize it, and the line between ourselves and the discourse blurs. In “Judging Writing, Judging Selves” Lester Faigley likens this idea to someone yelling, “Hey, you!” in a crowded airport, and nearly everyone turning around as if they were being addressed individually. People are subjected to discourses, appropriate them into their behavior, and act like they are subjects of their actions, not realizing that they are outsourcing their perceptions of themselves to the content they’re exposed to.

One thing that is obvious in the hipster subculture is this interest in appearing inadvertently cool by dressing in a way that suggests you put very little time and attention into your appearance. For example, ever since I’ve become more invested in music, I’ve found myself feeling more “authentic” in over-sized t-shirts, vans and matte black pants. I would describe the feeling of dressing in this way as comfortable and “in-alignment” with how I’d like to perceive myself, yet it’s no secret to me that I’m inclined towards these clothes because I’ve spent many hours watching audiotree live sessions in which talented people give the impression of being un-interested in looking attractive yet manage to seem that way as a function of their lack of attention to their appearance. I’m also thinking about hats that are associated with something clearly not fashionable or interesting like the Michigan sewage company or the American Breeders Association and how the very fact of that these accessories are not worth wearing makes them unconventionally cool. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rqfAfqJ6OLQ). Perhaps people who could be described as hipsters, or those people who appeal to hipsters, are acutely aware of what is considered cool by mainstream standards and take extensive measures to subvert these expectations, whether or not they are conscious of doing so.

I am most fascinated by this idea that hipsters are commonly the ones serving their more financially stable peers in contexts like bars or coffee shops, (Again, this post is essentially my reflecting on the wikipedia entry for the hipster, so excuse my jagged transitional statements) but they use knowledge to compensate for their lack of economic mobility. Although this sounds like a value judgment, I don’t see it that way. This could be because I am not one of those people who can look at the idea of the hipster w the requisite amount of detachment. But it doesn’t seem clear to me that having financial success is better than knowing what you think or understanding history or the environment. Perhaps to invest in gaining cultural capital is to take an economic hit, at least for members of the middle class like me who took out student loans to study literature as opposed to “trust fund hipsters” who turned the money in their pocket into cultural capital. I suppose I’m giving up the potential for economic mobility to turn my middle class thoughts into an articulated understanding of the history and implications of culture. Of course there is a way in which financial stability can prevent premature death from starvation, but if all you have is financial stability, it’s likely that you end up spending all your money on consumerist activities like buying alcohol or being entertained by expensive televisions or amusement parks. At some point extra money no longer contributes to positive emotion.

I’ve had this narrative for a long time about why it’s been better to become verbally fluent and aware of the music and literature that created the culture we currently live inside, and it’s bizarre to think this priority of mine could be shared by an entire subculture. I’ve yet to be associated with many peers who share these priorities, perhaps in part because I grew up in a small rural neighborhood in western NY, and then followed this up with a small, catholic university with a basketball team that attracted most of the students. My history in part produced the conditions of my future. Peers who went to college to study accounting and nursing will be able to work less and be paid more and get more of their sensory and material needs met, and I’ll wiping the sweat off my brow and tearing to shreds the piece of paper on which I’m inscribing their orders of Samuel Adams and crab cakes, knowing all signs collapse into an endless chain of signifiers lacking grounding in any referent. AKA reaffirming initial impressions of my being a pretentious child who got the message by a bunch of practical people that i was spacey and out of touch and prioritized reading and writing over electricity and sensory pleasure, and this is my karma, clear and obvious.