Recently I was at Dreams, Hallucinations and the Imagination, a conference organised by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for the Study of Perceptual Experience. Dreams and like experiences are an interest of mine generally, clinically and personally (if you follow) at some point I would like to blog about this fascinating meeting more, especially from my perspective as an interested party but not part of a specific sleep/consciousness/philosophy of mind group.
One of the most memorable presentations was the last, from Jarod Gott, a neuroscientist from Melbourne with the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour . He gave a bracing and no-sacred-cows-untouched talk entitled “Neural correlates of “synthetic” perception: Towards a common statespace model for dreams, hallucination and imagination”
I may not have entirely expected, reading through the various papers by conference speakers I could find online on the way to the airport, that Gott has written a piece for Quilette on dating in the age of Tinder. It made me quite glad to be too old and too married to have any familiarity with Tinder itself. One of Gott’s asides (which I have highlighted in bold below) made me wonder something about writing in the world today:
Now you are cooking with gas! Expect several days of intimate, evocative and tantalising back-and-forth, conversations running into the early hours of the morning, a reliable hit of dopamine at the peering at of one’s lock screen. You organise a face to face, a real live date—and the anxiety hits infinity, as this person who you have finally clicked with, will suddenly become real. So you meet up, and you can’t even recognise them. To make matters worse, you never actually do. Their digital persona is more familiar than anything physical existence can do justice to, and you fade out of each other’s lives, wondering who that imposter actually was, and how they got that other person—the one who you really felt something for—to type all those sweet and lovely messages. The hollow feeling grows profound, as you slowly realise, that you never will get to find out and that maybe, just maybe, you have actually lost your mind.It took some serious contemplation, to untangle why I was repeating this cycle. In part, I can attribute my recently improved skills as a writer, in building an entertaining and beguiling narrative, and pulling somebody haplessly into it. Maybe I am just too good at this? No. It’s something else entirely. I revisited my best encounters, ones that became lasting and rewarding friendships, relationships or anything in between. What pattern did these follow? I can say for certain—these addictive, high-frequency textual exchanges, giving one’s phone a poker-machine like quality—came at the tail end of months of physical intimacy, if they came at all. We existed, perhaps, in a much more tribal state. Every waking moment together, where it was at all practicable; no zero-sum playing of games, no existential desire to weed out deal-breaking traits and experiences, like landmines in a Cambodian rice field, lest they blow up under your tread, leaving you gamed by some malevolent sentient other. When you fall in love the way that you do when you travel, the world has a way of contracting and such details fade into irrelevancy. When you scour the Internet for mates using Tinder, the world has a way of expanding—and nobody is ever good enough, and nobody, ever, can be trusted: to be all they appear to be; to be who they say.
In the context of his piece, Gott dismisses the impact of his “recently improved skills as a writer”, but these two sentences got me thinking about how writing has become more and more about presentation of a kind of self. It is sometimes claimed we live in a golden age of writing, that the net result of email/social media/SMS is an explosion in the written word, albeit writ on the water that is the Internet.
Whatever the truth of that, the impulse of much more of the writing we do is to present a certain sense of the selfl and . The internet is a powerful agent of Girardian mimeticism, and one wonders if “improved writing skills” are a powerful agent of imposing conformity.
And one wonders if writing-as-presentation-of-a-self makes Literature (deliberate big L) more inclined to solipsism, more virtue-signally, less interested in the world and others and more focused on Thinly Disguised Autobiography (or Thinly Disguised What I Wish Was Autobiography)