Society as a Body in Ellison’s The Invisible Man

September 27, 2016
I had discovered unrecognized compulsions of my being—even though I could not answer “yes” to their promptings. I haven’t smoked a reefer since, however; not because they’re illegal, but because to see around corners is enough (that is not unusual if you are invisible). But to hear around them is too much; it inhibits action. And despite Brother Jack and all that sad, lost period of the Brotherhood, I believe in nothing if not in action. Please a definition: A hibernation is a covert preparation for a more overt action. Besides, the drug destroys one’s sense of time completely. If that happened, I might forget to dodge some bright morning and some cluck would run me down with an orange and yellow street car, or a bilious bus! Or I might forget to leave my hole when the moment for action presents itself. (13)

I chose this first passage because I thought his reason for only smoking once was interesting. He explained that it could either get him killed one day from inattention, or insulate him to the point inaction. Both possibilities appear to be two extremes of the same spectrum (a distorted sense of time), much like all the dichotomies Ellison uses repeatedly throughout the book (sun/moon, heat/cold, light/darkness, emotional anger/calculated thought, Bledsoe/Brother Jack, etc.) are on opposite ends of one scale, and bring attention to the separations between black and white. The question that Ellison is posing then is why we swing to the extremes of any situation? I couldn’t help but find similarities with Damasio’s theory of consciousness (that challenges the idea that the mind-body dichotomy is problematic) because he thinks our mind’s ability to acknowledge this division is a direct cause for consciousness emerging at all. Following this, the distinction between black and white does not need to be ignored or eliminated, but the relation needs to be better understood.

I also thought this passage related well to Damasio’s suggestion that maintaining homeostasis is one purpose of consciousness, as we can’t survive in extremes lying outside of a small range. It would seem that Ellison is describing drug use that allows for usually unconscious things to be brought to the front of the conscious mind (like his heightened sensory experience of music allowing him to go beyond sound alone, and finding deeper meanings in the music “few really listen to”). However, he refuses to do it since then because he says for the invisible (the unconscious part of society, if we look at society as a body in entirety) increased sight is enough, whereas increased hearing can be too much. Again, similar to Damasio, Ellison acknowledges that there are limitations to what our bodies or minds can consciously handle.


I picked a second passage because I thought it helped support this idea that the novel describes how certain things that can either strengthen or abuse the mind-body relationship, either by bringing things forward to consciousness or conversely, unhealthily repressing them deeper into our unconscious.

For the boys speak a jived-up transitional language full of country glamour, think transitional thoughts, though perhaps they dream the same old ancient dreams. They were men out of time—unless they found the Brotherhood…The stewards of something uncomfortable, burdensome, which they hated because, living outside the realm of history, there was no one to applaud their value and they themselves failed to understand it. What if Brother Jack were wrong? What if history was a gambler, instead of a force in a laboratory experiment, and the boys his agents, his big surprise! His own revenge? For they were outside, in the dark…with my fallen brother, Tod Clifton (Tod Tod) running and dodging the forces of history instead of making a dominating stand. (441)

This passage is from when the narrator is watching some young men on the subway ride he takes right after witnessing Brother Clifton being shot and killed. I think the passage helps show how trauma and violence can be as mind-altering as drug use. For the first half of the novel, under the influence of Bledsoe and the school, the narrator is constantly in the habit of repressing things that would heighten his awareness (which helps explain his naïveté, which others have mentioned, bordered on the absurd). He maintains a disconnect between the mind and body because of shame. For example, being haunted in dreams by guilt over his grandfather’s “curse”, or suppressing his anger and avoiding physical confrontation unless he thinks there’s a logical benefit (like the battle royal), or even in how he’s careful not to drink in access in front of white folk in case he embarrasses his whole race. Laughter is an important recurrence in the book because it’s always used in the beginning, to hide embarrassment or shame. The narrator is amazed by the end of the book, that his people should be so ashamed of their heritage that they deny something as simple as liking yams or chitterlings. The embarrassed laugh is replaced with a more hysterical laugh in the scene where one of the white Brotherhood members keeps asking the narrator to sing a spiritual for them. The narrator seems to be over the need for shame, however, when the other members joined in the laughing they did it out of embarrassment and guilt for the other man’s behavior.

The link between shame or pride in distinctly “black” things is sometimes highlighted by Ellison with the tom tom drum beating. It seems to reference Langston Hughes article “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain” which also uses the tom tom drum to represent black art. Hughes concluded that the “tom tom laughs and the tom cries” but that neither needs to please black or white people and that black people should be proud of their own art as distinct and not inferior to whitewashed aesthetics. I also think the mountain imagery is interesting when talking about the Founder’s vision (to reach the top of the mountain) but how Bledsoe thought it best to bring people back down to the valley. The conflicting visions for the university references Booker T. Washington’s politics a few times, (which it think is best seen in his “Atlanta Compromise Speech”). I think his politics are also very relevant to the idea of repressing anger, but the post is getting too long.

When the narrator shifts his ideology towards the Brotherhood, he’s overtaken by this idea of unity and that the forceful merging of black and white will solve all the issues of disconnect or “dispossession”. This is where the idea of abusing extremes in the mind-body relation comes up. The same way drugs can distort personal sense of time, the narrator is hired to be an agitator that invokes violence and change when it’s convenient for the Brotherhood. He isn’t disillusioned until this passage where he’s coming to recognize that his political actions negate the individual and that their “transitional thoughts” (vital to the change) are invisible in history in the sense that they’re not recorded. Tying this back to the first passage about falling out of beat with time, the narrator is realizing that he was used by the Brotherhood and that most people are still being left at the margins of society.


Following the bigger analogy of society as a whole body, than the black people (particularly in the South) would be aligned with the body (and being emotionally reactive) that is historically kept apart or under control of the white people, which is aligned with the brain (and deliberate conscious action and thought). This is where Ellison’s constant references to a veil (most likely DuBois’ idea of double consciousness) is useful to compare to Damasio’s description of a veil, or the mind’s ability to unconsciously keep some parts of the mind hidden from other parts. It points to the same blindness and invisibility that Ellison talks about. The narrator is first disillusioned into seeing the veil at all, but maintains his hopefulness that with the Brotherhood, he can help lift the veil for everyone. He feels purpose in moving North and fortunate to be privy to the important discussions of the committee (like transitioning from no self-awareness as a limb, to a conscious position in the brain).

When he’s disillusioned at the end again, it’s because he realizes that the hired members of the Brotherhood, like himself, are abused almost like a mind-altering drug, to induce certain mind-body reactions only under the orders of the committee. Rather than create unified consciousness, where mind and body that transparently communicates (arguably not possible because the unconscious/invisible can’t always be accounted for and controlled) the narrator realizes that the Brotherhood is more interested in the mind maintaining full control of the body in a top down direction, and completely discounts the role of the unconscious or invisible. The Brotherhood incorporates all methods and races for use in “scientifically” controlled experiments, but that doesn’t mean it allows for their individual expression or for a bottom up flow of information where the unconscious informs the conscious.

Damasio And Dehaene towards Descartes and Artificial Intelligence

September 21, 2016

I thought the differences in the scope covered by Damasio and Dehaene to answer the same question of consciousness was very telling. Both claim to disagree with the reductive ideas that come out of Cartesian dualism, namely the implied homunculus, but they have very different attitudes about how much they need to distance themselves from Descartes.

Dehaene is wary of complex questions and says himself he won’t touch convoluted topics like self-consciousness, but instead wants to focus on solvable questions like how the brain creates conscious access. He praises Descartes in the majority of this chapter and hints that Descartes’ immaterial soul was a sort of deus ex machina to resolve how “his mechanical model failed to provide a materialist solution for the higher-level abilities of the human mind” (Dehaene 6). It seems that Dehaene thinks Descartes’ mechanical model was only limited by the science of his time, and that the global neural workspace offers a a more complete materialist model which explains the higher-level abilities that we associate with consciousness. Whether Dehaene actually explains the emergence of consciousness, or if that’s even a relevant question, remains unclear to me. To say that consciousness arises because the raison d’être of the neuronal network is the “massive sharing of pertinent information throughout the brain”, is equally unsatisfying as Descartes saying there must be an immaterial soul responsible for everything he couldn’t explain mechanically (Dehaene 13).

Dehaene avoids any terms that might imply dualism or a phenomenal consciousness apart from the brain, but Damasio seems to welcome them. He doesn’t find it problematic to specify a body apart from the brain because their relationship, or more specifically, the “body and brain bond“, is what creates the mind or allows the emergence of consciousness (Self 21).


Another difference that stood out to me was their writing style. Damasio likes to be what he might think is lyrical, and doesn’t mind if his wording isn’t scientifically correct, whereas Dehaene keeps his writing style easily comprehensible (as I assume he thinks his neurological model is). Following the simplified idea of the mind as a machine, Dehaene is optimistic about creating AI once science and theoretical math can fully support this neurological model. I think the fact that his global neuronal workspace (which is essentially an information sharing network between specialized brain systems) is reminiscent of the Internet shows how Dehaene sees the brain as a complex computer. Dehaene is comfortable with saying “I believe that consciousness reduces to what the workspace does” (Dehaene 168). Following that logic, it makes sense that he thinks it’s only a matter of time that we can build a computer capable of information sharing like a human brain and therefore, will have conscious access, or true consciousness according to him. Interestingly, I think that IBM’s AI technology called Watson is already very close to conscious access, but it’s still very far from what most of us consider consciousness.

Recently Watson “created” a movie trailer (for Morgan, a horror-thriller movie about AI) after hours of collecting data on what images and sounds invoke specific emotions in humans (the quotes because it still needed humans to turn the collected scenes into a narrative). I included a link for anyone who’s interested in the details. The video below has a short explanation about the process and the actual trailer.


I find it funny that Dehaene doesn’t mind reductiveness for the sake of moving forward with AI because he thinks more technology will simplify the question. In contrast, Damasio embraces the complexity, but wonders if people in simpler times had a clearer perspective than us. In the part about how the mind can both uncover and hide things from our consciousness, Damasio says our mind can act as a screen or veil that prevents parts of the mind from sensing what happens elsewhere. Then he takes an almost pastoral attitude and wonders if his cognitive theory (that our expanded consciousness has a symbiotic relationship with the foundational and biological protoself it evolved from) was more apparent “in earlier times when there was no veil…long before electronic media and jet travel…before the empire, and ahead of the city-state. It must have been easier to sense the life within…lucky humans would have perceived in an instant that all of their amusing antics were about life and that underneath every image of the outside world, there stood the ongoing image of their living bodies” (Feeling 29).

Conversation between Hustvedt and Gilman

September 13, 2016

I chose the conversation, but I changed it slightly to a conversation between Hustvedt and Gilman, rather than Gilman’s narrator (though they do discuss Gilman’s story). The scenario is that Hustvedt has a dream one night about interviewing Gilman, during the time that she’s writing her book The Shaking Woman. Like a lot of dreams, it’s possibly a recurrent one, and there are oddities that go unnoticed by Hustvedt, like how the interview is taking place through a mirror.


—Hello Mrs. Gilman, so glad we could speak today. I thought we could begin the discussion with how your story was partially autobiographical. The woman of your story dealt with a misdiagnosis of what we’d likely recognize today as postpartum psychosis. It’d be difficult to say whether it would fall under an organic or non-organic cause, but what’s your opinion of it?

—My opinion on the cause? That doesn’t very much matter. I only know that the prescribed cure exacerbated it. In my opinion, this preoccupation of yours with “correct” diagnosis is pointless. Doctors would have advised the rest cure to my illness regardless of what they named it. I didn’t write the story to diagnose women like me, but to save them from experiencing complete breakdown under prescribed rest like I did. I may not understand the disease fully, but I know the cure.

—Interesting. And how interesting that the cure, for you, was writing. Or exercising one’s mental capacities through fiction.

—Naturally, for me, yes. Because I’m a writer. For others though, I’d say that the cure is whichever work stimulates and offers them purpose.

—Fascinating. But back to this idea of fiction. Wouldn’t you agree that we can look at your story as establishing a tripartite of sorts, not unlike Freud’s? Much like how the ego acts as mediator between the id and superego, it would seem your fictional story acts as the mediator between the illnesses of your narrator and your own. Could this shed some light on why writing provided you with relief?

—Oh yeah, fascinating. Look, before we take a trip down the fascinating road of mediation and projection. Again. Why don’t we talk about you projecting a better dress next time? Our hideous rooms are identical down to the furniture and this ghastly wallpaper, why stop at the clothes? I’m indulging the psychobabble of your century, aren’t I? Why do I have to keep this corset and you get to sit there in whatever you fell asleep in? The irony would be comical, if I weren’t so offended. Have I contributed nothing to society? Meet me halfway here, Siri.

—So I’m glad you bring up projection, let’s get to that next. Again, I think Freud—

—Would have called me hysterical?

—Well yes, that is probably true at one point in his career, but new research in neuroscience offers much that can support some of Freud’s ideas, like the complicated relation between literature and consciousness. I think if we could get Freud’s input he would have some insight into why you had to create a fictional psychosis patient, outside of yourself, in order to approach and deal with your illness.

—Externalizing. Really? (tapping on the mirror’s glass) Could you be more heavy-handed? I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s an empty house. Dear daddy Freud isn’t in the audience tonight. It’s just us. Talk to me, as forward as you can be.

—All right…Charlotte. Speaking of heavy-handedness, would you care to explain the symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper?

—Hostile honesty, I see. That’s perfectly all right. All honesty is welcomed here. That’s a great question, Siri. The dramatics were for literary effectiveness. In order to help women who could not recognize their own dilemma, I employed eccentricities. I find that the stronger the emotions, the more likely that they can break though the fictional constructs we use to rationalize away valid but inconvenient emotions. How’s that for psychobabble? But really, don’t you agree? It seems so. I mean your wallpaper’s not as dizzying as mine, but it still is a rather sickly shade of yellow, isn’t it? I suppose my story did what I wanted, no?

—You mean has it saved woman from the rest cure? Undoubtedly, yes. I recall an article from 1913, written by you actually, about how you received letters—

—No dear, I meant…Let’s try this again. Why did you remember your car accident as a surreal experience to be recounted later? Curious, isn’t it? Not being able to turn off the writerly part of your mind. Oh don’t look so flustered, it’s perfectly natural. It’s our work as writers, dear. We should embrace our flair for the dramatic.

—You’re mistaken. I wasn’t being an opportunist and I wasn’t trying to fictionalize my accident for reader appeal. The accident was real and an opportunity to better understand my shaking. That’s the real purpose of the book after all, to help others understand themselves better. And it’s a non-fiction, you’re forgetting.

—Don’t be silly. When did I say those things had to be separate? What’s so wrong with a fictional bent? And can we quit pathologizing the pathos for a moment? I don’t hide behind my metaphors. Sure there is no real wallpaper, but I still am the woman trapped in the wall. Just like you’re a writer and “the shaking woman”.

—No, see don’t air-quote at me. You’re missing the point here. I am a writer and a researcher, but I am not the shaking woman. I’m a woman who sometimes, for reasons not entirely—

—I’m sorry, a woman who sometimes does what?


—So, the shaking woman, yes? Yes…we’ve finally arrived! Repeat it after me now. We are Siri Hustvedt…

—I am Siri Hustvedt?

—Don’t sound so unsure now. And we are writers…

—I am a writer.

—Good. And we are…?

—And I am…the shaking woman?

—Yes! Exactly. Oh my, aren’t you a fast learner? But what a great start to that entirely non-fictional book of yours though. (Starting to write quickly in her notebook). What are you staring at me for now? Get to your computer, we have work to do.

Lyricism and Being a Genius vs Having a Genius

September 6, 2016

I enjoyed Professor Chu’s definition at first glance simply because it’s a very lyrical definition, but after reading it again one small point bothered me. Specifying that the attributes of the lyrical poem can be seen in Anglophone poetry since the Renaissance confused me because she goes on to say that the lyric voice transcends ordinary time. It’s strange that the same lyric poems that are “inhabited by situations and tableaux transcending ordinary temporality” are built upon the conventions set forth in a very exact time and place, the Renaissance (or possibly earlier Professor Chu does admit). I like that she hints it to having earlier origins because this reminds me a lot of the author Elizabeth Gilbert’s (Eat, Pray, Love) TED talk regarding creativity. I linked it below because it’s funny while making good points about the creative experience.

Gilbert suggests that we regress to an attitude from ancient Greece and Rome and that (for the sake of creative types keeping their sanity) we reject the current idea, put forth since the Renaissance and rational humanistic thought, that man is the center of the entire creative world. Rather than be the genius that creates, we should think of ourselves as having a genius that speaks through us (much like the divine Muses idea, though she uses the terms daemon and genius). She favors this idea because she thinks creative people need a psychological construct to protect themselves from the expectations of their own work. This way of thinking returns the mystery back into creativity and allows writers to continue working without becoming suicidal alcoholics. It really is an entertaining talk!

She again points to a need to stray from the popular Western model when she references Moorish dancers from hundreds of years ago. They held a similar belief when a dancer sometimes, without intentionally changing anything from their regular performance, suddenly became transcendent and possessed by a divine spirit. I think this is important because it points to how we can find lyricism across genres/mediums and cultures. If a lyric voice speaks from beyond an ordinary human sense of time, it only makes sense that the medium can also surpass ordinary language.

This is why I tried to find moments of lyricism within the show Sense8. It could be interesting to embrace Gilbert’s attitude and watch the show as a message from a consciousness apart from the directors, and that it traveled through time and simply arrived at the Wachowskis who let it filter through their lens. I agreed with the commentators in the posted video that there is something very novelesque about the show (and many Netflix shows). We have entered a new age of TV being easily accessible to everyone at their own time and convenience, where wider story arcs are easily digestible, much like the serial form of a Dickens’ novels (as was also mentioned in the video).

The first part of Professor Chu’s definition that reminded me of the show was the phrase a “constellation of interrelated attributes”. This paints a distinct picture resembling a network of neurons, which can also mirror how the directors work in the first two episodes to intricately weave together the seemingly, unrelated main characters. Their relation is not apparent yet, beyond the fact that they can somehow communicate without superficially “touching”, much like synapses that don’t actually come in contact with each other. I can’t help but think in this metaphor that the blonde woman then is the brain that houses these individual neurons. I’m not sure what it means then that she is trying to reach them or that they are becoming aware of each other. I suppose their awareness is something like becoming a sentient being or accepting that a lot of what our brain directs in our bodies, happens unconsciously. As far as the woman trying to communicate with her own “brain”, I imagine it’s like an intense form of mediation to reach the depths of her own mind, which might explain some of her anguish.

The second part of the show that is most lyrical to me is Naveen Andrew’s character. I agree with the commentator that says he speaks in riddles. However, I don’t see this as a negative because riddles are effective lyrical devices. The poems of John Donne that we read this week for example, both read like puzzles of a sort. The challenge though, to understand a perplexing voice from beyond, is exactly what engages the audience. The fact that the show uses constant flashbacks and Andrews isn’t constrained by time and place when he wants to use his voice makes him look like the narrator set apart from his subject. The show feels much like a lyric poem, with bold images that contrast each other and an occasional narrator that uses his voice to guide our eye, even though we each ultimately will see different things in the same work.


David Lodge’s Thinks…

September 3, 2016

I think it’s clear that Lodge’s novel can easily fall under Roth’s definition of a reductive neuronovel, but it actually follows Ortega and Vidal’s definition as well. The question becomes which view does Lodge prescribe to? I believe Lodge intended to resolve the rivalry between the simplistic dichotomies at the end of the novel, with Helen’s ambivalence towards Ralph showing the same ambivalence that Ortega and Vidal describe in their article.

To understand what Ortega and Vidal meant by ambivalence towards the cerebral self, I thought their use of Michael Sayeau’s opinion was helpful. They quote him as welcoming neuronarratives because “while neurocapitalism busily reduces our horizons of happiness…it also brings with it a set of potentially constructive contradictions for artists and writers to attempt to solve” (332). From what I took away from the article, the term neurocapitalism can refer to how economic gains drive the research in neurology. For example, wanting to know how the brain functions so we can know what makes the most productive minds/people (as seen in the novel with the funding Ralph’s department originally had). Pursuing neurological research for such quantifiable gains can obviously chip away at the value of unquantifiable happiness and self-fulfillment. I think Sayeau is suggesting, however, that this same force can drive writers in the opposite direction, to confront and attempt to solve the contradictions between what’s materially productive and what’s psychologically fulfilling.

I think Ortega and Vidal latch on to the word “attempt” and take Sayeau’s idea further in regards to what this means for academia. The benefit to academeia is that the there can be infinite attempts at these answers. The very solipsism Roth criticizes is actually indifference towards finding a definitive answer. They welcome the ambiguity and confusion of “apparent neurological solipsism” as a retort to neurocapitalism. Rather than approach the mind-body problem as a puzzle that needs to be solved (for example, by following a trajectory of questions like: How does the brain process reading one text? How can the brain fastest process this text? Whose process is flawed according to this definition? etc), they support the opposing idea that personhood is phenomenological and not simply equal to brainhood.

Similarly, I don’t think Ortega and Vidal prescribe to the idea that “neurologizing” will bring the humanities back to “the concrete material body that was obliterated from post-structuralism’s ‘essentially textual space’” (329). Instead, neuronarratives can prove consciousness to be similarly intertextual and they will come to show that artists and writers were privy to some ideas long before science could prove them. This is similar to Helen’s attitude by the end of the novel, despite feeling threatened by science (much like Roth) earlier in the novel. As a novelist himself, we can assume that Lodge is partial to an attitude like Ortega and Vidal toward literature and academia. This helps explain why the novel reads more as a thought exercise for other writers rather than a narrative for the casual reader.

Helen’s final speech at the conference, and Ralph’s smug reaction to it, are very telling of where Lodge stands in this argument. I can’t help but compare their rivalry to the debate between atheists and theists. Trying to fit the atheists/theist dichotomy under the other clear ones in the novel (masculinity, the sciences, physiological, vs femininity, the humanities, psychological) proved to be a little difficult and is the only time the novel appears to challenge stereotypes. In the religion debate, atheists say that the burden of proof rests on theists because logically, atheists can’t be asked to provide proof for the non-existence of something, and so theists must prove their claim. Following the novel’s dichotomies, Ralph as the atheist doesn’t need to disprove Helen’s idea of the “soul”; the responsibility would be hers to prove it does exist. However, in her speech, Helen admits to having no hard proof for what she only feels to be true. Interestingly though, she explains in her speech how she’s no longer threatened by science and might even look forward to interdisciplinary work to come. Much like Ortega and Vidal, she believes that any eventual breakthroughs in science will support her ideas.

I read Ralph’s reaction as smug because he tells Helen her speech was exactly as he had expected and hoped for. He seems happy to disprove Helen’s silly notion of the Soul with time and science (with the same conviction of a religious fanatic awaiting Judgment Day, one could argue). Conversely, Helen openly admits to having no answers and no longer feels responsible to prove the non-existence of the “cerebral self”. The novel makes a surprising switch of stereotypes, of yet unsupported claims coming from the sciences, rather than the humanities.

In this way, Lodge’s neuronovel makes the claim that the responsibility to prove the superiority of mind or body doesn’t rest on the humanities (because it likely doesn’t exist), but that science can continue to search for it if it wishes to prove that it does exist. This doesn’t discount the value of neuronarratives or similar soft or “folk science”, but means that they’re equally valid until science can prove otherwise.

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