Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The opposite of torture

I've been doing some random reading to try to work out what makes a good story, in impro and in life, and bought Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning on impulse from a bookshop.

I'm far from expert in psychology, but this book's 200 pages gripped me as Bruner explained exactly where he feels the Cognitive Science revolution went wrong, and where it could and should be going.

Bruner blames the power of the computational metaphor for the new science's seduction - "very early on, for example, emphasis began shifting from 'meaning' to 'information', from the construction of meaning to the processing of information." By contrast, he seeks to rehabilitate folk-psychology and culture as an appropriate level for understanding humans. He argues that it is impossible to understand human psychology independently of the culture in we live, and have indeed evolved to live; that our culture provides the values and categories by which we explain the meaning of our acts and words; that folk psychology deals with the "beliefs, desires, intentions and commitments" that most scientific psychology dismisses, and that folk psychology uses narrative for "resolving conflicts, for explicating differences, and renegotiating communal values".

He illustrates this with a case study in which the Goodhertzes, a blue-collar family from a Brooklyn neighbourhood, were invited to talk about themselves. What emerges is a narrative about narratives - a desciption of how the Goodhertzes pride themselves on eating together round "the big round table" at least once a week, how anything can be discussed there, and the stories they tell that express and embody the difference between the intimacy, trust, mutual aid, forgiveness and openness within the family against the harsher values and "street smarts" required for success in "the real world".

Although the book is written as a work of persuasion it is studded with notes and references that outline a wealth of follow-up reading. One fascinating if somber note is to Elaine Scarry's "The Body in Pain", which describes the power of pain, as in torture, to obliterate our connection with the personal-cultural world and to wipe out the context that gives direction to our hopes and strivings - in a way, to render humans in reality as simple as most scientific psychology models them.

This made me wonder what would be the opposite of torture? Up to now I'd have assumed pure pleasure, but on reflection being a lab rat with electrodes stimulating the pleasure centres of the brain could be almost as ruthlessly coercive. So where can I find a more personal, cultural opposite of torture? Perhaps in the details and the meanings of everyday life, like the way I feel looking at the black plastic herb pots on the window-sill of our Brixton kitchen. My lovely Hungarian mother-in-law, Maria, gave us some paprikas, home-grown in Pápoc. Éva planted some of the seeds, watered and cared for them, and now we have green wisps stretching innocently towards the tower blocks of the Loughborough Estate, several bearing buds and one tipped with an as-yet pale red item which will eventually, all being well, ripen into a tongue-scaldingly hot paprika. Is this an opposite of torture in a Jerome Bruner sense? I think so, I hope so.

No comments: