Participation vs. Deconstruction
‘Until the lion learns how to write, every story will glorify the hunter’ – African proverb
Humans can exercise two types of attention – wide , characteristic of the right hemisphere of the brain, or narrow and focused, characteristic of the left.
The wide kind of attention is participatory and contextual. It is a ‘gestalt’, a pattern of being-there. An organised whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts. Imagine motherhood; the attitudes and inner dispositions of a mother towards her child. It does not exclude focused attention, but it is more than that, involving a bodily participation in the role of ‘mother’, in which every part of her being, from the bio-chemical levels (secretion of prolactin, oxytocin derived from loving relationships) to moral instincts (she is a carer and a fair educator), from intellectual research on how to raise a child, to immediate shifts in focus when the child is in danger, or emotional adjustments to their immediate situation. If the child manifests love and gratitude, the mother reacts with compassion and warmth; if the child learns a new behaviour, the mother reacts with joy and encouragement. We can understand this graceful dance, this constellation of attitudes and affects as part of the unified ‘motherhood’ gestalt. Exerting the wide attention required for motherhood is a participatory act; it demands constant action and adjustment.
The other type of attention – the narrow, focused kind, is associated with abstract, theoretical knowledge. Instead of plunging with one’s entire being into the object it explores, narrow attention keeps its distance from it. It resists the impulse to empathise, to mimic and interact, and it does the opposite – it attempts to strip the object of its numinous traits, and retain only its essential, repeatable characteristics. It ends up creating an entire map of labels, abstractions and links between them.
In ‘The Gay Science’, Nietzsche hypothesised that analytical thought (the kind involved in focused attention) first originated in the cultivation of life-denying tendencies – the impulse to doubt, to negate, to collect and to dissolve. Imagine a group of hominins trying to figure out ways to defend their tribe from a pack of sabre tooth leopards. Life-affirming tendencies would have involved, in their case, a courageous, fearless attitude of facing the sabres with mere wooden sticks and stones; of joining in the heroic fight until the threat is defeated. Brave, no doubt, but many would have fallen in the effort. Life-denying tendencies, in that context, would have involved flight from the threat. The impulse to doubt every appearance of safety, and presume that behind every bush a predator is lurking in the shadow. The impulse to negate every norm of the tribe, to seek better tools and weapons than the ones of the ancestors, to deceive and become more cunning. The impulse to collect food, flee from challenges and survive at any cost. Finally, the impulse to dissolve and disect every item, organic or inorganic, in order to ‘figure out’ its components. You get why the most heroic and risk taking members of the tribe would have thought of all these impulses as feeble and cowardly. The ‘virgin’ toolmaker was certainly weaker than the ‘chad’ hunter, but he also had a better chance of dying old and writing history in ways that glorified his own life style.
Nietzsche and Jung regarded analytical thought as a sort of poison that prevents one from living life to the fullest. As humans shun participatory, contextual gestalt experiences that give life meaning, but also present a certain uncertainty and unpredictability, they find refuge in the analytical, narrow focus of the left hemisphere, always matching and comparing abstract concepts. As their bodies atrophy from lack of muscular activity, they discover new tools and technological augmentations – literally dead appendages that make up for the loss in courage, vitality and muscular mass. Moreover, these crutches allow them to accumulate more and extend further into space than the healthiest, most heroic member of the tribe. Intuition tells us, however, that this trade off is Faustian and cannot continue ad infinitum; beyond a certain point the atrophy and paralysis caused by the poison of analytical thought might outweight its benefits.
We have talked about ‘motherhood’ as an example of wide attention, characteristic of the right hemisphere. There are obviously countless other types of ‘gestalt’ experiences that can engage one’s body and mind to their fullest. Think of Romantic love, with its endless nuances, its shifts in context, its numinous character. Think of the experience of witnessing or creating art, in its multitude of forms. And finally, think of the religious experience in its proper sense. What all these states have in common is a mental and bodily disposition that involves the wide attention of which only the right hemisphere is capable. They require an opening towards something greater, beyond one’s immediate pleasure. They are inter-relational, involving the encounter of something other, transcending the goals of the planning, calculating ego. The extension or binding of one’s person with an outer pattern; the dance between different entities forming it; like in an orchestra. Everyone agrees that opening oneself to the beyond in this way is wholesome and worthwhile; we celebrate the union of two souls into the bond of matrimony. We celebrate the new life that emerges from this interraction. We applaud the skillful collaboration of different minds, resulting in patterns of enduring beauty like musical compositions or architecture of outstanding quality.
The way in which these experiences lead to a whole larger than the sum of its parts involves hormetic stress – the good kind of stress which takes you outside of your comfort zone and exposes you to small, manageable doses of novelty which stimulate your creative capacity and the abilty to form new and unexpected mental connections. In Zero HP Lovecraft’s words:
“Regardless of its character, personal growth is exclusively hormetic: it comes about in response to trauma. Aside: the way you nurture someone is to hurt them in small ways while protecting them, keeping them in the hormetic zone. That’s partly how you know my proffered understanding of love is superior; the definition of love that fetishizes choice is a narrow, contracted spirituality. Love must be kind of binding, and freedom must be an unbinding.”
We thus notice that the activities characteristic to the right hemisphere and its wide type of attention involve a kind of binding together. Unrelated thoughts find sudden correlations; strangers are brought together in new commitments; the atomised individuals that used to ramble in all directions like white noise, suddenly join the dance, forming a beautiful fractalic pattern. In Jonathan Haidt’s terms, ‘morality binds and blinds’; it brings us together in the newly formed pattern, while making us blind to the chaos beyond. In Aquinas’s metaphysics, ‘the many’ are brought together in ‘the one’. In the right hemisphere’s worldview, existence is structured hierarchically, like a mountain; at the base lies chaos, becoming and contingency; at the top lies eternal being and qualities of lingering significance. After a certain threshold, truth, goodness and beauty become interchangeable, because they refer to the same unified Reality. The more you advance towards the summit, the more real your experience gets. Our memory reflects this hierarchy in the way in which it prioritises past events from our life. The higher a memory ranked on the ladder, the harder it is to forget it.
These things are difficult to put into words because, as McGilchrist noticed, at a superficial glance the left hemisphere is much better with language. Furthermore, one of its main functions is to inhibit and override the activity in the right hemisphere.
“Since the left hemisphere actually inhibits the breadth of attention that the right hemisphere brings to bear, creativity can increase after a left hemisphere stroke, and not just in sensory qualities but […] in ‘numerous intellectual and affective components’. […]
In general abstract concepts and words, along with complex syntax, are left-hemisphere-dependent. But, once again, the right hemisphere’s language inferiority depends to a significant degree on positive inhibition by the left hemisphere. If the left hemisphere is sufficiently distracted, or incapacitated, the right hemisphere turns out to have a more extensive vocabulary, including long, unusual and non-imageable words.”
Thus, our inability to express deeper truths in precise terms is not necessarily a proof of our lack of knowledge; most often it is the result of the subversion and inhibition coming from the left hemisphere. One should learn to think in images, not just in words.
As we have said, the focused attention of the left hemisphere is not contextual and participatory, but more akin to the poison of doubting, negating, collecting and dissolving. When possessed by this mindset, people withdraw from the world into the safety of their mental categories. A dead realm composed of post-hoc constructs, whose goal is to help us better predict our chances of surviving and accomplishing our goals. The results of focused attention are not the attainment of truth and elevation, but the purely pragmatic maximisation of goal-oriented behaviour. The refinement of tools and dead appendages that allow us to exploit the outer world. In this mindset, all individuals can only be self-centred and self-serving; every form of binding and reaching out is met with deep mistrust; every participatory interaction is suspected of ulterior motives and mercilessly deconstructed. The only moral value exalted by the left hemisphere is utility, which cannot be dissociated from momentary pleasure.
When one loses their faith, when they become disenchanted with a certain community or movement, often a mental withdrawal parallels the physical one; the left hemisphere is shocked by the perceived injustice and thus inhibits the wide attention of the right hemisphere. The analytical mind takes over with its doubting, negating, collecting and dissolving. Like a sharp razor, its sole purpose becomes the deconstruction of what was once held sacred. The focused attention is employed in noticing inconsistencies, discrepancies, hidden motives. Instead of seeing the big picture, we zoom in and revert to noticing only atoms. Haidt’s diagnosis of the WEIRD demographics, with its intolerance of binding values comes to mind:
“The WEIRDer you are, the more you see a world full of separate objects, rather than relationships.”
The mere act of ‘binding together’ is demonised as a sort of tyranical, exploitative bondage or enslavement of the unwilling individuals; of the many by the few. Everything is mapped out in zero sum interactions where there are only winners and losers.
As questioning, doubting individuals, we’ve all been here at some point in our lives; most likely during the phase of teenage rebellion. We have no problem admitting that certain systems are more poisonous than others, and that in certain cases it’s better to stay away than to join the merry-go-round. However, we can also understand that participation in a higher whole is not the culprit here; the ways of being-in-the-world facilitated by the right hemisphere are not some fallen, sinful state, but quite the contrary – the higher gift given to humanity; the place where we can grow and exert our highest faculties. The focused attention of the left brain must be employed with discipline and moderation, knowing that it tends to inhibit other forms of knowledge and degrade into a feedback loop of confirmation bias.
However, it turns out that in quite a few cases, those who have left a group become so possessed by the drive to deconstruct and expose injustices, that their debunking brain takes over for the rest of their life. McGilchrist makes a convincing case that this can take place even at the level of entire civilisations, not just individuals, and that we are currently living through an extreme form of censorship and intolerance driven by the tyranical focused attention of the left brain. Was your group so horribly monstrous, so heinous to you, that you can find no place for gratitude and nostalgia for the good times? If you were part of a dysfunctional sect, let’s say I believe you. But when the act of deconstruction goes beyond said group, generalising and catastrophising to nothing less than your entire culture and civilisation, like in the case of woke activists; or the entirety of mankind, like in the case of certain environmental activists – something may have gone terribly wrong in your mind.
What I find fascinating is that as a society, we have shunned gestalt experiences and the wide attention of the right hemisphere to such lengths, that they have been all but relegated to the unconscious sphere of our minds. People can read this entire text and completely fail to resonate, because they’ve been in the goal-oriented focused attention mode for their entire lives. Even when playing or relaxing, their activity never leaves the domain of the left hemisphere, amounting only to an addiction to dopamine; to strategy games involving accumulating resources and maximising speed.
You meet priests or pastors whose entire theological notions are mapped out in the left brain’s categories; who shun and deconstruct every notion of ‘sacred’, ‘hierarchy’ or ‘binding together’, reducing religion to a set of abstract principles and claiming that every life experience that does not conform to them is vain and futile. If they are of the Evangelical variety, they often back this claim with endless Pauline quotes about salvation through faith and faith alone. The following quote from McGilchrist’s book should concern everyone caught up in this endeavour:
“The destruction of the sacerdotal power of the Church was a goal of the French Revolution, as it had been of the Reformation. The Reformation, however, had not been nakedly, explicitly secular: it had purported to replace a corrupt religion with a purified one. All the same its effect had been to transfer power from the sacerdotal base of the Catholic Church to the state, an essential part of the relentless process of secularisation, in the broadest sense – by which I mean the re-presentation of human experience in purely rationalistic terms, necessary exclusive of the Other, and the insistence that all questions concerning morality and human welfare can and should be settled within those terms – which I would see as the agenda of the left hemisphere”.
For God’s sake, stop reducing everything to abstract principles , utility and ‘the hedonic treadmill’. The purpose of the flower IS the flower. The child at play is engaged in activity for its own sake, not for some calculated ulterior motive. If instead of seeking a gestalt and a participation in something greater, you keep engaging in deboonking, doubting, negating, collecting and dissolving, ask yourself whether you truly possess the poison of analysis, rather than IT possessing you? Can you stop the analytical mind for at least 10 minutes? Can you stop arguing against imaginary foes for a day? Can you stop checking social media feeds, the fluctuation of crypto and retweets for at least a week without feeling miserable?
I am aware that words are not the most effective route of convincing anyone to change their views; that the very nature of written text or spoken word predisposes one towards the narrow, focused attention of the left hemisphere. Thus, I will only add one last piece of advice: if you have decided to seek a gestalt, to participate in something higher and beyond your own vendetta, to seek The One rather than The Many, keep in mind this is not a quest for some Theory of Everything; some exhaustive theorem or philosophical model that will magically unite all conceptual structures in your head that have so far remained unsolved. The One is not perfect doctrine, but perfect togetherness. Not the obssessive application of a single criterion to all areas of life, but the integration of all our faculties into a coherent whole; not so much abstract thinking, but perceiving. Not being carried away by goal-oriented reasoning, but being aware of it while remaining detached from it. The two hemispheres have very different definitions for the same terms. Always follow the master and do not let yourself be fooled by the equivocations of the spiteful usurper.