Overweening Generalist

Friday, February 3, 2012

Paranoia: A Few Items

Today I was mindstreaming through Webstuff, and every now and then, if you're like me, you approach your computer with some intent: you want to verify a quote, see if you can get a good deal on a used whatsis, return that email you've "been meaning to get to," find out who so-and-so is, check your Facebook while not facing your checkbook, und so weiter. And you find three hours have gone by and somehow you'd read a number of things you probably could not have guessed you'd encounter before you sat down and entered the hive-mind of the Web. Terence McKenna once said that a god is "somebody who knows more than you do about whatever you're dealing with." Sounds like Google to me, but maybe I'm feeling paranoid.

Dr. Olney
Amid this extended yoga of info-flow and effortless, painless lost time, I encountered the story of Dr. Richard K. Olney. He died very recently of ALS/Lou Gehrig's Disease. You know: the Thing Stephen Hawking has. It eats up your nerves that serve your muscles. Your mind stays intact, but your overall deterioration just gets worse and worse until the muscles that keep your lungs going give out.

The thing is: Dr. Olney was one of the world's experts on ALS. And then he got it. Here's an interview with him from 2005, after he diagnosed himself.

Well, the Statistician in me says, "Yea, well, it's creepy but statistically quite plausible, blah blah blah." And while I know that's probably correct, I think a lot - if not most - of us are wired to irrationally respond to the emotional aspect of fear of a dread disease, the emotional and intellectual concentration on that disease as it manifests in fellow humans for many years, and then contracting the disease itself. There's not a scintilla of evidence that ALS is contagious. But our paralogical thinking styles can lead us to entertain ideas about being "intimate" with something very dangerous, which in time devours us.

This reminds me of a well-known phenomena regarding medical students: they are in a sort of intellectual boot camp for years, chronically sleep-deprived, and very intimate with blood, trauma, screaming, violent patients, cadavers and death. And all sorts of hideous, heinous diseases they are forced to read about in their textbooks. And even the staunchest ones are subject to self-diagnosing with a dramatically fatal, if rare disease. They'll have been up for 27 straight hours going to lectures and lab assignments then studying for three tests the next day, glance in the mirror, notice their skin looks splotchy, and immediately diagnose Bokonowski's Disease (I just made that up...I think), rather than think, "I need about nine hour's sleep."

If you get a vicious headache and think, "I have a brain tumor," you probably have a headache that will go away soon. You're stressed out. A tumor? Where do you get that? Catastrophize much?

A "zebra" in medical student lore, is a product of this. When you hear hoofbeats outside your window, we know it makes sense to assume we're hearing a horse. Why would it be a zebra? Because zebras are more dramatic, and when you're stressed out, you "hear zebras" too. And assume tumors, which do exist and do happen to people, but it's not likely you've got one. (Some of us will readily admit this rational thought comes easier at some times rather than others...which sorta feeds into my point.)

It used to be labeled hypochondria, but seems now to be referred to as - at least with regards medical students - nosophobia. But if you're not a medical student, sorry, you're a hypochondriac. Welcome to the club! Now, before you sit down, please go wash your hands...

I wonder about our information-drenched culture and its propensity to heighten our...perceptions. And hear zebras. But zebras do exist...

Whatever we hear: RIP, Dr. Olney. Tough break.

Out-Manchurian Candidating The Manchurian Candidate
What a fantastic, phantasmagorically paranoid film John Frankenheimer made of Richard Condon's 1959 Cold War paranoia book; I liked the book, too. But I read it only after I'd seen Frankenheimer's film about seven times. I think I even saw the remake before I read Condon.
                                           Philip K. Dick, native of Berkeley, California

There's another 1959 work of fiction that isn't as famous, but to me, it's more fantastically paranoid than Condon. It's by Philip K. Dick, and it's called Time Out of Joint. Here's the basic plot, so if you plan to read it, skip ahead, or rather, SPOILER ALERT!:

A guy in 1950s suburban Unistat drinks beer and, oddly, seems to support himself by being a very adept player at a puzzle-game that the local newspaper runs, called "Where Will the Little Green Man Be Next?" He starts to receive unlisted programs on his ham radio. He finds a telephone book that has numbers that aren't normal, aren't supposed to "be." He begins to freak out in suburbia, in an already paranoid Cold War era of bomb shelters in people's back yards, etc. The main character, last name Gumm, begins to believe he's living in some sort of fake world. This is pretty weird, spooky stuff, but I haven't even gotten to the best parts: it turns out it's really 1996, and Earth is at war with someone who has colonized the moon. (Newt Gingrich, trying to realize his first phase of Galactic Triumph, channelling Philip K. Dick? Now who's paranoid?)

The Earthians know Gumm has for some reason the uncanny ability to predict the next hostile bombing by the moon colonists, and he's become sympathetic to the moon colonists while still living on Earth. So the military-industrial complex creates a fake environment and drugs him and provides him with the newspaper puzzles in order to obtain the knowledge about the next bombings.

Let that scenario sink in before we move on.

Freudian Riff on Paranoia
Freud seemed, to lil' ol' me, to overintellectualize paranoia - which is funny in itself to me, because I see the hyperextended thought processes in a really good paranoid narrative as being a byproduct of something akin to too much analysis - but anyhoo: Freud's explanatory schema for paranoia, short version, goes something like this: somebody becomes fixated on something. Then aspects of the fixation are seen as somehow threatening, so the fixation becomes repressed. It stews in the unconscious, bringing out the juices of emotion there, but remains repressed. Then some sort of rupture occurs, and the emotions are reconstructed as an external perception and projected onto some object or event. "What was abolished internally returns from without." I forget if Freud was using cocaine at the time of this insight/formulation, or if he was maybe a bit overly spooked by Daniel Paul Schreber. What am I? A Freud expert? Let's move on...

Robert Sapolsky Anecdote
I've learned a lot from Prof. Sapolsky of Stanford, and in his book The Trouble With Testosterone there's a joke about diagnosing the paranoid schizophreniac. It goes like this:

Doctor (to patient): What do apples, bananas, and oranges have in common?

Patient: They're all wired for sound.

It's funny, aye. But if you've had a loved one who was a paranoid schizo, it's far, far too familiar. I had a brother who was a victim of this disease. The only thing I can think of that could be worse would be seeing your loved one dwindle away to Alzheimer's.

As a result of studying Sapolsky and a few others in his field, I've come to see almost all diseases on a continuum. I'm pretty weird, but somehow my other brother and I did not become full-blown like our brother did. Why? I really don't know. But it's safe to say: even if your genes are almost the "same," it's genes PLUS environment PLUS accidents/chance.

When we're talking paranoia, let's always be aware it's on a continuum. When I caught myself today thinking about Dr. Olney somehow "contracting" ALS from his thought-environment, I quickly dismissed the idea. Because I can, and with justifiable "reasons" that the majority of the more thoughtful and assumed "normal" population would accept. (Still...does that warrant justification? Oops!...) There are others who can't. They might not be able to shake the notion that Olney caught ALS via thought-beams emanating from the patients...Oy and ugh and sigh.

Fruitful Use of Paranoia: Hamlet, J.S. Mill, and Chomsky

Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?

Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.

Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.

Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.

Hamlet: Or like a whale?

Polonius: Very like a whale.

In Randy Allen Harris's terrific work on late 20th century linguistics, The Linguistics Wars, Harris writes about how Noam Chomsky seems to use paranoia fruitfully, and something along the lines of what John Stuart Mill meant when he said, "Both teachers and learners go to sleep at the post, when there is no enemy in the field." Harris surmises that "isolation and embattlement" have been psychological motivation for Chomsky's work as a linguist. When previous brilliant students have broken with him, he's held his ground, but used some of their ideas.

The gist of the Hamlet analogy with Chomsky is that he's so creative as a thinker you can substitute Chomsky for Hamletlanguage or mind for cloud, and a rapidly changing core of bright and dedicated linguists for Polonius. 

And Noam's linguistic models have changed into weasels and whales. But, as Harris argues, this is how science tends to go. Aristotle and Ptolemy said the Earth was the center of the cosmos, and their followers agreed. Copernicus said Earth revolved around the sun, and his followers agreed. Why?

Robert Anton Wilson and Paranoia
In an interview with Michael Taft early in the 21st century, Wilson said that this childhood polio was behind the realization that all of his fictional characters have: that the universe is out to get them; they must find a way out of this horrifying mental state. As Wilson himself did.

This was a man who, as a Mad Scientist doing psychological experimentation on himself from roughly the period 1962-1976 to see how plastic and malleable the mind, his mind, was, had plenty of acquaintance with paranoia. At the end of the experiment his daughter was brutally murdered, and Wilson's experiments had nothing to do with the random act of violence. But, for him, it would, it seems, be very easy to fall prey to a debilitating, spiraling paranoia because of all the non-Aristotelian "logical" things that happened to him in his 14 year self-experiment.. He didn't. And I think the reasons why he didn't had to do with part of the 14 year mind change self-experiment, which always contained what he'd learned diligently studying logic, scientific experimentation and skepticism, philosophy, psychology, General Semantics and linguistics, and various forms of yoga and psychotherapies. He could do very deep Thelemic magick and psychedelic drugs, and write thick novels and read for many hours alone Finnegans Wake and Pound's Cantos and still keep it together.

A good place to start for a RAW neophyte interested in paranoia and how if manifests and how to deal with it would be Cosmic Trigger Vol 1

Of paranoia: he basically saw it as "a losing script." The paranoid will perceive phenomena in a confirmatory biased way madly; this cycle feeds upon itself and is no way to be happy, to put it mildly. Further, he used mythology to model paranoia as a Chapel Perilous in which one must be armed with inner tools - especially an educated skepticism or wide-ranging agnosticism - in which to make it outside the walls.

CAVEAT LECTOR (let the Reader beware): If you want to experiment with this, read as many conspiracy theories as you can for six months. Steep yourself in the deepest and most interesting - and possibly plausible? - conspiracy ideas and just keep reading, listening to conspiracy talk, reading more...you WILL become paranoid. It's highly likely you'll find yourself in your own Chapel Perilous. It is highly advised that the reader be well-practiced in breathing techniques, literary deconstruction, and some form of linguistics. But far better: an agnosticism towards just about everything.

            This is one of the last known photos of the mysterious Thomas Pynchon, born in 1937.

Pynchon's "Proverbs For Paranoids"
Here's a list, from Gravity's Rainbow. My favorite has always been, "If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers."


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

Didn't RAW say that he learned to live with paranoia in the 1960s in the peace movement? Everyone had to assume they had government infiltrators among them.

The surrealists adopted paranoia as a kind of literary technique:


michael said...

Yes, he did. There's a lot that can be written on the subject RAW/paranoia.

He had seen the paranoia in the political action groups he'd been involved with, was one of the early writers on plainclothes cops/FBI worming their way into activist groups and fomenting paranoia as a divide and conquer strategy. RAW used Game Theory: don't be involved in any action you don't believe in, and don't talk too much to people you're not sure of, but smile, be cordial, know your rights, assume people think YOU'RE the cop/FBI, and refuse to let the cops get you all riled up, which is easier said than done.

Once you realize they'll plant drugs on you to knock you off balance, the ante's been upped.

I picture RAW, at one point, "making" a cop and talking to him about how the cops are on the wrong side of history on this one; it's in the best interests of them, their children, and "America" for them to not try to sabotage this (sit-in, peace march, whatever). RAW remembers being a talkative little kid, and that elders said he could "talk the judge down off the bench," so just imagine a cop...

PQ said...

Some great stuff here.

Tom, since you brought up the paranoiac-critical method, I want to mention that this method was actually devised by Salvador Dali. He saw paranoia not necessarily as a "fear that the world is out to get you" but considered the ontological implications of it. I wrote an essay on the paranoaic critical method in conjuction with James Joyce, here is an epilogue I wrote that delves into Dali's paranoiac theories:

This is very relevant to RAW's work because, after composing the aforementioned essay and studying Dali's theories, I realized they perfectly align with RAW's descriptions of REAL reality, i.e. that the universe is a giant Gestalt blob. I plan on revising my piece with lots of stuff from RAW and his ideas on quantum physics (Dali describes paranoia as the underlying energy responsible for the creation of ourselves and everything around us).