Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Non-Rational Mind

Originally posted on May 26, 2011

Reading a book  (A Perfect Fit, by Jenna Weissman Joselit) about fashion changes in clothing (mainly women’s) in the period of the late 19th through the early 20th century: I’m impressed with the symbolic power of dressing smart, the boundaries of femininity, modesty, and the depths of feeling evoked by those who felt these changes to be liberating—and that could be taken either way: Much-needed liberation from long and heavy skirts that picked up the muck from streets and tight corsets that really were painfully limiting; or too-much liberation at the edge of becoming a “libertine.”

This in turn reminds me of another theme I’ve been opening to recently: What was considered “myth” blurs into the often deep feelings associated with social customs, religion, family relations, and other elements; with the popular culture and its heroes and villains—and with celebrity, we often love to find an edge of scandal associated with people with whom we’re fascinated—; with the deceptive depth of common things around the house, collections, garages, pet names for pets and beloved others; in legends of neighborhoods; and so forth. There are mythic elements in how people get their names, with parents, with how folks change their names, how they feel about their names.

I’ve been thinking about a related theme: illusion. Again, I started with the more obvious forms of optical illusions and in reading about this phenomenon quickly found myself learning about illusions of all the senses; how magicians and salespeople build on illusions; and, mainly, how these blur into a far broader range of mental illusions that arise from basic tendencies to make meaning, experience oneself as valued or competent, and other dynamics. These overlap with myth and social custom, with “common sense”—which is often really just the reigning sentiment. (Consider that a good deal of what others call prejudice seems to be common sense within certain sub-groups.)

I’m envisioning a category that has been under-recognized: “non-rational mind.”. I don’t think it is captured by Freud’s concept of the “unconscious.” It’s far to pervasive and overlaps with stuff people brag about, not realizing that it’s not rational. (Popular slogans and clichés fit here.) As a category it stands out because it brings into the foreground what many treated as a background —the ratio of reason to unreason. Much of public discourse in the last few hundred years has treated human behavior—economic, political, social, intellectual, aesthetic, etc.—as a matter of mainly reason, but I’ve become increasingly impressed with the reverse: By far people operate with just enough reason not to drive their cars into trees, not to bump into each other while walking, but little more.

I’m impressed with the illusion of compensation: If I can do a few things and feel in control and clever and conscious, that should stand as evidence that I am okay, a grown-up, deserving of social status. I deserve to be paid a good salary. I deserve respect for adequacy. But in fact, this is all illusory: In some ways, it’s a little bit true, but it also masks the roles in which one is not so mature or skilled or wise. I am impressed with the degree to which people can operate at levels of marginal competence, caught up in myth and distractions, and more, they often have almost no exercise of thought or critical thinking, float along in a cloud of platitudes and popular sayings, and still feel coherent and alert. In other words, a little consciousness can mask a lot of semi- or un-consciousness.

A variation is that a bit of idealism, in feeling upright, moral, kindly disposed to some, allied with certain values, can obscure any awareness that one’s actual behavior is richly hypocritical. There may be categories of cheating, disguised sadism, exploitation, fraud, rationalized as “business is business” or through other acts of mental compartment-alization. People who believe themselves upright conveniently avoid recognizing their secret sexual perversions or peccadillos. How could I be so bad if I’m so good?

In a more sophisticated fashion, intellectuals can build complex theories based on mistaken, faulty, or fragile basic assumptions. It’s as if there’s a self–righteous demand that others overlook the leap of faith at this more basic level and be impressed with the elegant and elaborate intellectual maneuvers that explain it. Any gesture towards challenging the basic assumptions are met with an emotional rather than a rational response. This is almost universal in realms of theology, politics, economics, and education, and common in other intellectual endeavors.

(This last is crucial because we at present live in an era of shifting rather fundamental paradigms of how we think and what we value, and basic assumptions themselves need to be challenged!)

So, what’s it all about? Perhaps we may never be able to know for sure! Perhaps the cosmos is way too complex, and even the social, economic, political, and other realities we live in are also too complex for any single master theory to be able to adequately encompass or address. Many ideas seem to be in a state of provisional usefulness in some contexts, yet those contexts are being stretched or expanded and the ideas then questioned: Are they still useful in a wider or changing context? Do the ideas need modification, revision, or even revolution? Perhaps new frameworks need to be devised to encompass the new, broader context as well as the old idea.

This seems to be what’s happening in my mind lately as I consider the themes of myth, illusion, culture change, paradigm shift, and so forth. It’s exciting, bracing, humbling. I’m by no means sure I’m right as I explore and speculate. It’s fun to think about (for me)—though I’m aware now that most folks don’t enjoy this kind of mental dancing. But some do.

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