More Talk with John Locke

A continuation of a conversation between novelist John Locke and WIRoB reviewer Tom Glenn.

Tom Glenn with Dr. John L. Locke

After Tom Glenn reviewed John L. Locke’s new book, Duels and Duets, (read the review here), Tom posed a series of questions to Dr. Locke which Dr. Locke graciously answered (read those answers here). The exchange so intrigued Tom that he asked Dr. Locke follow-on questions. Those questions and Dr. Locke’s answers are as follows:

I know your field is human communication.  Do you have any comments on the effects of social technology on our personal lives?

Just over ten years ago, when the Internet was still in its ascendancy, I wrote a book called The De-Voicing of Society.  I suggested that unusually heavy use of personal e-mail might be harmful to one’s friendships and sense of well–being.  I later gave a name to what appeared to be some erosion of friendship – Kuala Lumpur syndrome.  I got the name from an old British television program in which a comedian plays the part of a ham radio operator.  Turning the dial to such far-away places as Kuala Lumpur, he repeatedly presses fellow operators for information about the weather and time in various locales but otherwise has little to say.  Still he is wildly enthusiastic about the benefits of ham radio.  “It’s opened up completely new horizons for me,” he tells the television audience, claiming to have “friends from all over the world.”  Then he adds, more reflectively, “None in this country, but all over the world.”  The audience laughs, of course, but I think if an e–version of the program were shown today it might elicit a nervous laugh.  The reason is that you can’t do with these “all over the world” friends the thing you can do with true and mostly local friends.  If they live in New Zealand you can’t borrow a tool, playfully kid around with them, or invite them to your daughter’s wedding.  You may not know if they’re depressed or anxious or sick.  Unless you have Skype, you may not notice if they pass you on the street.  Shallow or one-dimensional associations are a personal problem, but if we reach a point where too many relations are “mediated,” civility and trust may begin to suffer, and societies cannot work without these things.

I know you have spent a great deal of time studying human conversations.  What is the most frequent topic?

Robin Dunbar’s work indicates that the primary topic is gossip, so the answer might seem to be “other people.” But to me the deeper topic – the social business that is being negotiated during conversations – is the relationship between the individuals who are doing the talking.  Years ago, Richard Lewis, a British linguist, wrote that he had attended a Latin-American cocktail party in Caracas with three hundred people in attendance.  No one stopped talking for six hours.  Lewis had the time of his life, he wrote, but later could not remember a single word that was said.  I’ll bet he could remember that he liked certain people more than others, or that he liked himself in their presence.  Information is being exchanged whenever people relate, or even sense each other’s presence, but to use terms coined by the late sociologist Erving Goffman, the best stuff is not the material we “give” to others.  It’s the stuff we “give off.”  This is exclusively about us.

As the previous question suggests, social science is always on the edge of philosophy. Beyond the domain of the provable, what do you believe on the metaphysical side?  What, obviously informed by scientific fact, is your philosophy of life?

I have been toying with the idea that spirituality – or much of what poses for it – frequently derives sustenance from our inability to explain what is going on around us, and in our relationships with others.  In the middle ages, our ancestors invoked “spirits” whenever they felt a need to explain a mysterious event, whether it was a flood or a drought or a fierce storm.  We now understand most of the natural phenomena that once threatened our lives, but we still have very little understanding of life itself.  If we could explain disease and dying, and the various forms of inhumanity, I think we would be less inclined to invoke ethereal “explanations.”  The requisite process, science, is steadily demystifying many of the things we do, and the idea that we only do things for reasons that we understand.  Much of the time we’re in a complete fog about our motives, but acting under the injunction to behave rationally and deliberately, we attempt to account for our actions.  Fortunately, our culture supplies us with an escape clause: “I had an intuition.”  Five centuries ago, our ancestors said that they had “intuitions,” which then meant “spiritual insights.”  Now, free of its spiritual connotations, the word just means an inexplicable feeling of knowing.

Your hypothesis — that the difference in speech between men and women is biological — aside, I’ve worked in a number of different languages and sense a distinction between men and women built into the language itself, often to the detriment of women. I know that’s cultural rather than biological, but I feel it, too, imposes a barrier between the sexes. Do you see that? How do we overcome bias endemic to the very language we speak?

Languages do prime us to notice certain things, but most of us keep our own counsel.  Otherwise you could not have noticed that your mind and linguistic knowledge are occasionally at odds with each other.  I think a partial solution is to treat words as fossils left behind by previous generations.  We mostly do this anyway.  When we hear words like “horsepower” we rarely think about the work done by horses.  If we are sensitive to each other’s feelings, I think we can look beyond what our languages – or the ancients who designed them – seem to want us to think.  If the “–man” in “human” means nothing, it need not signify anything in mailman, chairman, and all the other gendered forms.

Some linguists believe that without language, we humans essentially couldn’t think. As a musician, I know I sometimes think in music without recourse to words. As an athlete and veteran, I have experienced thinking nonverbally with my body. How do you respond?

In the previous century, an electrical engineer named Benjamin Lee Whorf declared that our ability to think, or to think about certain things, is heavily determined by the language(s) we know.  Essentially the idea was that if we can talk about something effortlessly, it is also easier for us to think about that thing.  There is a little evidence for this, but only a little.  The tricky thing here is that we still come into this world with minds that seem to expect that things will have names.  Helen Keller was surprised that water had a name when Annie Sullivan fingerspelled W–A–T–E–R in her wet hand, but she was not very surprised.  There’s an interesting book about “A man with no words.”  This congenitally deaf man never learned to sign or speak, but he was still able to organize his experiences and draw meaning from them.  His world was not total chaos.  People without words still have the “verbally expectant” mind of a human, and they evidently invent some sort of internal system that enables them to perceive, classify, and organize their experience.  Years ago, a psychologist named Hans Kurath found that congenitally deaf children with no spoken or signed language still go through the normal stages of cognitive development.

Mystics have told me that the clearest work of the mind occurs in the meditative state where we think without the input of the senses and specifically without language. Does that sound rational to you?

It might be interesting to ask some mystics if we can scan their brains.  In the last few years, an information processing system was discovered – completely by accident. It’s called the default–mode network (DMN).  Even in their idle moments, monkeys display increases in cortical activity in areas of the brain that make up the DMN, but this network is silent when they are attending to external stimulation.  There are indications that in evolution the DMN was largely conserved.  A similar system is activated in our species during moments of self-reflection.  Whether “meditation” in some formal sense alters this is a good question.

According to one of your answers in the previous set of questions, “We [men] tend not to consult our intuitions . . .” I infer that we men could benefit from depending more on our intuition. I gather that the intuition is, at least in part, innate and biological. Give me a stronger sense of your understanding of the intuition. Is it the same as the unconscious that Freud talks about?

“As you go through life,” Norman Mailer once wrote, “you observe everyone, wittingly and unwittingly.  Out of the corner of your eye, you glimpse someone in a restaurant who represents a particular menace or possibility, potentially a friend or a foe – and the unconscious goes to work on that.  It needs very little evidence to put together a comprehensive portrait, because, presumably, it has already done most of that labor.”  Mailer was definitely onto something.  We have lots of under-the-radar perceptions about others and our mind is always ready to do the labor.  The current thinking in cognitive science is that we are too flooded with stimulation to process more than a fraction of it consciously, so we cannot know that we are picking up things about the environment, much less what these things actually are.  This is especially true if there is some primary activity that occupies our minds.  In conversation the focus is on words and intended meanings but we are simultaneously bathed in collateral activity, from eye movements and postural shifts to vocal emotions, facial expressions, and dynamic changes in skin coloration.  And if that’s not enough, while all this is going on the olfactory system happily chugs along, offering subliminal clues to sex hormones and other endocrine system activity.  Because of all of this input, we are in a near-constant state of thinking we know something with nothing more than the crudest of hunches as to what it is.  The system that Freud had in mind could in principle be brought to conscious awareness, but not this stuff.  Our intuitions are the evidence – perhaps the only folk evidence – that it’s in there at all.

I want this book: Politics & Prose OR

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