Tag Archives: merleau-ponty

Neuroscience and poetics

In my vain efforts to wean myself away from poetry, I’ve spent some time this week thinking about how the brain functions. My motives aren’t exactly pure, being bipolar means that there is something wrong with my brain and I’d like to know a bit more about what it is that might be ‘wrong’. The other motive is that I’ve got a strong interest in research that’s still in an early stage of development- I find the various metaphors and gropings for some level of certainty to be fascinating.
As Jerry Fodor says in this weeks TLS, we simply don’t know how the mind works and the extent of our ignorance is staggering but that doesn’t stop us trying to pass off guesswork as fact. My favourite metaphor of the moment is the ‘attentional blink’ but I’ll get to that shortly.
This week’s New Scientist carries a feature called ’50 ideas to change science’, I was flicking through these when I came across a piece eintitled ‘Top-down processing, our past determines our present’ which appeared to be of interest because of the similar threads that run through the work of Charles Olson and David Jones. This turns out to be a bit wide of the mark but the piece continues- “In truth, we are realising that our experience is closer to a form of augmented reality, in which our brain redraws what it sees to best fit our expectations and memories.”
Isn’t this in effect an extension of the Pound/Eliot project? Isn’t this notion of augmented reality what Prynne is trying to express (I’m thinking of his later work and of the praise he heaps on Merleau-Ponty). I would argue that strong poetry is ideally equipped to play on the margins between perception, knowledge and feeling and that this is a privileged position that should/must be pursued. I’m not saying that we should all endeavour to write ‘like’ Prynne but that poets do need to think more clearly about the notion of ‘pure’ or ‘immediate’ experience and the ways in which these are compromised by our memories of the past.
This isn’t an easy task but there are examples, the way that Olson and Jones move between myth, history and the present, the austerity and resilience of Prynne’s work since 1995, John Matthias on brain function in ‘Trigons’: all of these point to fertile ground.
The other element that I’m waiting for is neuroscience catching up with the work of Alfred North Whitehead on process because it seems to me that progress in this field can only begin to be made by clearing out the Cartesian ‘gunk’ that Olson so delightfully refers to.
So,I’m calling for a poetics that re-thinks both perception and the relationship between substance and process in anticipation that it may begin to tell us ‘how things are’.
‘Attentional blink’ as I understand it, refers to our inability to register a visual stimulus if it is presented less than half a second after the first. I like this primarily because of the way it sounds but I’d like to report a serious case of inverted attentional blink. I’ve recently had another concerted attempt at reading ‘The Unconditional’ by Simon Jarvis. Previous attempts have been thwarted by what I thought was my inability to apply sufficient concentration. Normally I’d have given up months ago but the poem does contain enough good stuff to hold my interest. On this occasion I tried a different strategy which focused on the digressions rather than the narrative thread. This has proved more successful until I realised that I was becoming so absorbed by the extended metaphor that I had forgotten what it was referring to. This pattern repeated itself across many pages of reading and re-reading and I’m still no further forward in making sense of the thing. A clear case of attentional blink in reverse? Perhaps next time I need to be less absorbed….. any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.