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Thursday, February 05, 2004
Attended a library roundtable at the Neurosciences Institute Tuesday. Michael M. Merzenich presented "The Neuroscience of Learning Disabilities." He proposed that many instances of what are diagnoses as genetic learning disabilities may be rather the results of impaired developmental conditions of elementary perceptual information processing neural systems. For instance, because of a noisy environment, a child may not fully master the perfunctory task (at least for most people) of discriminating two successive syllables. This then get transferred up to the higher cognitive processes like comprehension and memory. Relatively simply corrective training has been able to correct the problem in school-age children. Merzenich runs a company that has worked with hundreds of thousands of students with learning impairment. The results he cited were rather astounding. And the same techniques have shown impressive results with elderly in the incipient stages of senility.

The problem, Merzenich quipped, is "crappy signal." I was thinking about Lacan earlier in the evening and this expression captures the problem perfectly. Crappy signal. If you brought up a child reading only Lacan, he'd probably end up autistic.

(I found a wonderful web site featuring a presentation by Merzenich, among other luminaries of the field: Becoming Human: Brain, Mind and Emergence (Stanford University 2003). Unfortunately, speaking of crappy signal, I can't download his presentation.)

I was explaining to a friend who is a researcher at the Institute before the lecture my exasperation with Lacan and my colleagues who lionize him. He recited a story told him by a French neuroscientist with whom he had worked. He took passages of Lacan and rearranged them in various ways -- the sentence sequence, the order of paragraphs -- then gave them to philosophers and humanists of his acquaintance who respected Lacan's work. They could not discriminate the hashes from the originals. When the neuroscientist confronted them with the results, they shrugged : "But of course, zis is the point!"

My hypothesis is that it is the very ambiguity -- the grandiloquent nonsense -- of Lacan's prose that makes him so appealing. It creates an aura of profound insights. More importantly, the abstractions are unfixed -- you cannot find concrete referents for his terms and concepts. Or, rather, you can find too many. Whatever you put your mind to. (Too much kindling.)

The empirical proposition is that reading a passage of prose on a complex subject but clearly written so as to be accessible, reading a passage of incoherent prose (say, deliberately garbled in parts), and reading a passage of someone like Lacan, who even his admirers admit is mostly incomprehensible, will each produce a different cognitive fingerprint. My hypothesis: the first will light up cognitive areas associated with logical comprehension and produce moderate kindling of other areas more closely associated with emotional or spiritual sensation. The second will light up little or nothing. And the third will fire up the emotional registers with limited activity in the logical comprehension centers.

In short, the willing willingly attach their own meaning to Lacan's nullities, generating that subtle buzz of not only comprehension, but ingenious puzzle-solving, even spiritual fulfillment, that makes them feel good within themselves and convinced of Lacan's genius.

I take the notion from Ramachandran's kindling hypothesis, which describes a certain class of epileptics -- temporal lobe epileptics I believe he refers to them as -- who find spiritual profundity in everything they experience. (Ramachandran notes that they also frequently engage in hypergraphia -- obsessively recording the most inane events in elaborate detail -- but I leave that aside.) Although I believe it's probably a different order of kindling, differently situated and differently processed, I suspect an analogous effect when intelligent literate people read or hear Lacan -- primed by his social stature, they make stimulating connections between his meaningless abstractions and their own inchaote notions and this generate a very subtle type of pleasure -- one so subtle that we don't award it any label higher than, say, insight. Upon it rests the whole matchstick castle of contemporary literary theory. People at the other end of the political and cultural spectrum I imagine experience something roughly similar in listening to the platitudes and banalities of George W. Bush giving a speech, or Shwarzeneggar reciting lines at a press conference.

(See Ch. 9 of Ramachandran's book: "God and the Limbic System")