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22 February, 2012

Read What You Need

Remember when the literature professor (or English teacher, or weird poet kid next door, or whoever) told you that there was no "One Correct Reading" for any text? You may have heard that everyone might read a single text and have a completely different, valid understanding of what they'd read. Remember when you thought that was bullshit? Come on: a book is a book! It's not like the words change, so how can there possibly be "different readings"? Maybe you never thought that way, but I did, and here's the funny thing: two terms into a Master's degree at the intersection of the social and natural sciences, I'm starting to comprehend what those teachers may have meant.

I know some people might read "Avatar: The Last Airbender" -- excuse me, might "watch" this nuanced and mindfully written exemplar of cartooning that's pitched at kids and good enough for me, too -- from a purely plot-based perspective. Some unusual people in an unusual world do unusual things; it's pretty exciting! Cool beans. Some others among us, perhaps including many who watch as kids, might without noticing absorb lessons that inform what they'll later consider important in life, like how to pay attention to emotions, the importance of self-control, the practice of empathy, or about how to deal with overwhelming problems. Other people, like me, deliberately practice relating situations, images, motivations, interactions, etc. to my own experience. (That scene where Toph has to walk on a bridge of ice? Graduate school.) Metaphors galore. I realize that, although some of those messages seem deliberately written into the plot, I might take different lessons from them than other people; I might miss some things that other folks catch; and, which is especially important in a story where one gets to see multiple viewpoints on some issues, I might find one narrative more salient or more compelling than another, when another viewer or even the writers might find the other point of view more compelling. Other people might completely disagree -- so why would I ever want to characterize any one of these different readings as "right?"

For one thing, because they aren't about the plot in behaviorist terms. I might argue with someone about the motivations we infer from the characters' actions, but we aren't going to disagree on their names, on their dialogue, or on which people got to ride the flying buffalo in the first season. Secondly, this kind of interpretation is a supervenient story. It rests on top of the strict plot, derived from the story's content but not shackled to it: it's at the realm of metaphor. At that level, since I can't know what the author thought (and since there is more than one author, and since the author's views follow from a specific context, etc.), there isn't even the option of having a single canonical reading. Even if there were, there's a more useful basis for judging the worth of a reading. Since that level of reading is not about the author's story but about the reader's application of the story, I'm basing the "rightness" of the reading on something unrelated to the author's intentions. How much does my reading help me understand my own life?

The great thing about what you might call a rich text, like Avatar:TLA or the Bible or the Iliad (see what I did there?), or any basically anything created by a human being, is that it affords a breadth of opportunities for any one person to find the lessons that that person needs at that time and place. Maybe you watch a movie and love the way that two characters interact; the lesson you take away is the triumph of love, let's say. Or, maybe you watch the same movie and can't believe the lengths these characters go in order to preserve their codependent relationship; the lesson you take away is that, when people believe that their one chance at happiness rests on a single, specific person, they will ruin their lives in order to cling to that irrational dream. Whichever narrative youhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif take away from the movie, what do you do next?

My point is that neither of those readings has anything to do with what the director, actors, or anyone involved in the movie intended, and that's awesome. I'm going to be posting some close readings and cultural critiques in the upcoming posts, so it seemed reasonable to put this as a prologue. The plot doesn't matter; what matters is how the text (or movie, or whatever) changes your thinking and your life. This is what I wish my teachers had said explicitly even one time, so that I wouldn't have wasted an essay talking about the evocative use of color in The Great Gatsby. So, which reading is "right"? We can talk with others to get their perspectives, but you're the one who knows your mind best. Read what you need.

19 February, 2012

Q&A

Hey, folks: I'm a student, but I'm going to be getting involved in self-directed research in the coming year. Right now, I'm curious about motivations and what might mediate the difference between intrinsic motivations (which come from where?) and choices for behavior -- for example, if someone becomes aware of the possibility of polyamory and is attracted to many people or likes the idea of carrying on multiple relationships, what are the principal internal and external factors that might influence that person's choice to try polyamory or to stick with monogamy? I'm curious about, for starters, attachment style and sensitivity to scripts for behavior (e.g., religious dogma).

Soon, I'll be talking with a more experienced researcher who's informing her study of polyamory using the lens of attachment style. I have plenty to ask already, but are there any questions you'd like me to ask?

16 February, 2012

Mission (Re)statement

When I began this blog, my plan was to create one more little waystation on the web for folks who were new to polyamory, whether trying it in their own lives or just curious about a friend or neighbor, to get some information. How have other people tried this way of life? Does it work? For whom, and how? Maybe I could warn folks of some common pitfalls and celebrate the potential benefits. I'm sure there's more to say about the basics.

Now, a few things are changing. For one, media outlets big and small are devoting time and attention not only to non-monogamy in general, but also to polyamory in specific. The website Modern Poly exists now, as do the Polyamory Media Association, the Polyamory Leadership Network, and a host of other admirable organizations. It seems like polyamory's time in the spotlight is here. That's not to say that the 101 level information is now or ever will be irrelevant; as new minds hear this word and seek out its meaning and the culture behind it, it'll be important to stay on message, and as long as new human beings are coming of age, we'll need means to learn and to teach each other about ways to live harmoniously with each other. As for this little blog of mine, I'm certainly a work in progress myself, which by definition means that I haven't written all the advice I might -- how could I when I haven't learned it! But, in sum, there are many more places to find information on polyamory than there used to be.

In addition to the proliferation of poly resources, I'm not satisfied with being a one-trick pony. (I'm not satisfied with being a pony, period, but that's mostly because it's damned hard to type with these hooves.) How can I talk about polyamory without talking about its context: about the other normative narratives that constrain sexuality and family formation, like the treatment of heterosexuality as a valorized default; about institutions that control or influence behavior and thought, from legal to religious systems to pop culture; about learning to earn allies by being a good ally to our neighbors, which (in my case) has been a major part of learning what "communication" really entails. It all comes around to be useful in the end, whether it looks directly relevant or not.

All told, while this blog will no longer be strictly an introduction to polyamory, that element will remain, bolstered by explorations of other topics -- sometimes tangentially related, usually closely, and occasionally about as out-there as I can manage without blowing my cover and just posting fan fiction. (But seriously, I have this Hamlet/Faust crossover that will knock your socks off when I finish it. Awww yeah, nothing gets my motor running like existential angst among the over-educated. Rowr.) I may take down some of the early posts that discuss the personal lives of partners past and present, and I may take a perspective much more informed by a broad emphasis on social justice. After all, if I want to be treated with respect, I intend to earn it by treating my neighbors with respect. That means, whenever possible, taking a "shut up and listen" approach ... and then acting on what I've heard, if I get a chance. Maybe you'll be inspired to do similarly; that's up to you! Whatever brings you to Poly-Rhythms, I hope you find something here that helps you figure out how to be more yourself.

Best of luck, and feel free to comment! Sometimes the best part of a blog is crosstalk among the readers. (Yes, do my work for me! Bwahaha!) I'll be busy, so don't expect a lockstep march of a posting schedule, but I have about twelve posts drafted and should be polishing them up for release in the coming weeks. I think it's safe to say:

Broadcats, resumed!


Sit back and enjoy.

06 February, 2012

Real Creatures Part II: People Are More Than Affordances

This picks up from the last post, in which I reviewed the too-little-known subject of affordance psychology and placed it in context with symbolic and physical accounts of reality. Today, to apply it.

What is polyamory? First, I'd ask, what is "polyamory"? It is a string of letters -- symbols -- representing a noise that apes make with our faces, representing a conception of a specific range of human behavior and experience that's in part created as a category by having been named. It is a term that affords the recognition of a certain range of thought and behavior as a coherent category, whereas before that range might have been seen as a collection of disparate individual actions. This gets really interesting when we look at how people react if someone tries to integrate polyamory with existing categories -- for example, marriage.

When the marriage equality movements began (first, shaking off the anti-miscegenation laws; now, working against the identification of marriage with traditional sex and gender constraints; just now beginning, the attempt to have the legal system recognize that dyadic marriage is only one type of marriage), it made big waves. People don't just treat this as a civil rights issue, a religious issue, or a personal issue. One SFU professor's study with two colleagues at Purdue suggests that support for same-sex marriage (as opposed to civil unions) is mediated by a phenomenon in which some heterosexual folks feel that their own identities are threatened by the possibility of redefining marriage.

Why would the actions of other people threaten one's identity in this way? Because redefining marriage threatens the categories that certain groups have constructed and through which some of us filter and understand our worlds. Restructuring the categories through which we interact with and experience the world entails restructuring the hooks between physical reality and symbolic reality -- I might want to argue that it means learning to see a different set of affordances. Changing the definition of marriage necessarily means, for some people, changing not only their idea of but their experience of both sex and gender in fundamental ways. That's not a small thing! It's a hugely important thing, though, especially when those symbolic categories don't actually reflect natural categories. Still, some people insist that we'll have to pull their categories from their cold, dead hands.

Where else is affordance psychology relevant to oppression? It seems to me that it's highly relevant to sexual objectification.

Not all affordances are equally salient at any given moment, for any given person. We are motivated by internal factors, and affordances are signals that something or someone is relevant to those internal motivations; so, when one motivation is more pressing than another, that influences one's primary experience of the world. Some people will have trouble eating food if there's a face on it, but other people might hardly notice while they scarf the thing down. Some people can't seem to help noticing attractive passers-by, while other people are busy checking whether it's safe to cross the street. You might notice, similarly, that looking at something that offers the possibility of satisfying a desire makes that desire more salient: have you ever not noticed your hunger until you smelled food, or not noticed that you were horny until you saw someone attractive? When one affordance is more salient than another, there's a reason.

I noticed the other night, while spending time with a friend I've gotten to know over the past several months, that my eyes kept wandering to her lips. It used to be the case that I felt great friendly affection toward this person and also thought, "It's interesting that sexual interest doesn't enter the picture at all. I wonder whether that'll change over time, as it has for other friends." Well, funny story: after having come to invest emotionally in this person, I started to perceive the opportunity latent in those lips for the good feelings I get from being kissed. To me, it seems that a change in my emotional landscape made one affordance float closer to the top of my awareness.

The bodies of the people around us afford all sorts of possibilities. I'd like to argue that, when we get distracted by attractive people, we're perceiving the opportunities that their bodies offer for the feelings we enjoy. It's important to emphasize that an affordance is a perceived physical opportunity: I am not say that I could just lean over and take advantage of a human being's body without permission. Sometimes perception of these physical possibilities is like with my friend: a possibility gradually comes to light because I have gotten invested, and that internal factor mediates which affordances I perceive. Other times, it's more obviously objectifying. You can imagine where that train of thought leads. In particular, imagine a young person whose sexual desires have just kicked in. Suddenly, assuming this person knows how sex works, certain parts of other people become WAY more salient.

So, how does this affordance-based argument highlight the fact that arguments like, "You should have seen what she was wearing, she was asking for it!" are total bullshit? Humans have highly recursive neural architecture. What does that mean? It means that we can think about what we're thinking about. Ultimately, it means that we can -- within limits, and with practice! -- learn to use our own thoughts to regulate the feelings we experience and which guide our behavior. A responsible person learns to act respectfully and to regulate overwhelming parts of one's emotions so that personhood becomes the most noticeable feature of the people around us; if that's a problem for you, I recommend training yourself to notice emotional displays on peoples' faces, because expressions are affordances for empathy.

Back in real life, though, here's the problem. If one grows up in such a way that treating people as sexual opportunities is celebrated by one's peers, one might never see a reason to learn those emotion regulation skills. One might go on through life for years, or forever, seeing certain people in terms of the sexual possibilities they offer. That would lead to a profoundly messed up society. Let me rephrase that: our society is profoundly messed up right now. Do I blame pornographers, do I blame salacious music videos, do I blame women in short skirts? Hell no. I blame systems of complacency and callousness: I blame failures of self-education and empathy. For sure, I blame our participation in cultures that marginalize or dehumanize some people and teach others that it's acceptable not to self-educate and not to empathize with those marginalized people. We humans are capable of watching something exploitative and recognizing it as such, and if watching sexy people is a goal, we're also capable of making sexy videos in a respectful way that emphasizes the humanity of the participants. Rather than blaming humans for human motivations, I suggest that what needs to change is anything that contributes to a lack of respect and empathy -- and I say this while recognizing that some individuals have serious trouble processing emotions (affordances are relative to an individual agent's perceptual and processing abilities, remember) and recognizing that people with such differences can be seriously respectful nonetheless, which highlights the irresponsibility of neurotypical folks who have the wired-for-emotion-recognition advantage and still contribute to disrespectful, dehumanizing systems.

People are more than opportunities for personal gratification. If affordance psychology is correct, then we perceive the physical world through the medium of the action opportunities it holds for us -- but we also have symbolic reality and recursive neural architecture at our service, allowing us to work up from direct perception to a more complex experience of the world. Likewise, we have the ability to self-monitor and to make judgments about how to deal with what we feel. We can and must take responsibility for our motivations and choices. If we care at all about the agency of other humans, about respecting individual freedom, about the experiences of other people, or even about wanting our lives to be our own business, then we have to learn to see ALL people as complete people.

Well, I'm I-blame-the-kyriarchy'd out for today, but I have a three-part post in the works that'll delve into category construction and identity politics. Reading it in light of affordance psychology might even be useful, and I hope you'll enjoy/be completely enraged by it.

03 February, 2012

Real Creatures in a Symbolic World: Part I

Today, I'd like to revisit affordance psychology. I promise this will pay off: stick with me and I'll feed you I-blame-the-*archy cookies.

First, definitions. These will start at a basic level but stack up and level up into an illuminating whole. What does "affordance" mean in this context?

Affordance psychology, or its evolved form ecological psychology, is a school of thought with its roots in basic perception research. An affordance is way to conceptualize perception. Affordance psychology argues that we don't directly perceive just any arbitrary energy (touch, sight, hearing) or chemistry (taste, smell), but that we directly perceive (PDF) features of our environment in terms of opportunities for action. This is both a perceptual and an evolutionary theory. The idea is that our perceptual faculties give us opportunities to notice a certain subset of the information available in our environments, and a subset of that subset is useful information: colors that covary with the ripeness of fruit is a good one; humans faces have certain common shapes, and infant responses to similar shapes demonstrate how those common patterns draw their attention; and, as we learn to interact with our environments, we learn things like what visual experiences correlate with grippability (e.g., the shape of a handle), with sharp or dangerous objects, and so on.

It's important to emphasize that, in this theory, our primary perception is of affordances (rather than of physical reality in its real form, as energy). Have you ever looked at the mouth of an animal that scared you and felt a physical reaction, like a shrinking back, or looked at a pest you can't stand and felt your skin crawl? I have, and to me, the experience seems consistent with the idea that we are perceiving possibilities for action: the mouth's possibility for biting me, the pest's possibility for getting all up in my grill with its icky business. In sum, affordances are the hooks that allow subjective experience to connect with the real world. Our understanding of what we perceive as objects, as members of categories, as agents, as persons, is a higher-level process that occurs after we string the affordances together and assemble them on the symbolic level.

It's the same with other perceivable things: sound, for instance. A word is an affordance because our evolved ability to distinguish nuances among sounds and to form associations between a sound and an experience or concept allows us to pair sound with thought, forming language. Language, in other words, is a system of affordances. Words are conceptual affordances: they help us to become conscious of categories and to have a common reference point on which we can rely when communicating. Through consistent covariation between a weird noise that we make with our bodies (or a gesture, or a string of printed symbols, or a code) and a concept, whether it's as simple a concept as "apple", as general as "fruit", or as abstract as "original sin", that percept comes to afford us an opportunity for action -- it takes on symbolic value. You'll see this understanding-through-labeling at work everywhere.

Cultural labels are based on affordances, too. Thomas King, in the printed version of his Massey Lectures, recalls a story from Genesis in which, having created the creatures of the world, God has Adam name them. Sounds like busy work to keep the kid happy, right? King, upon reflection, disagrees: naming is a meaningful act because it creates a set of categories that will influence how we discuss the things we've just categorized (or failed to categorize). If we have no name to afford us the chance to discuss a thing, that makes communicating about it not impossible, but difficult. George Orwell knew this when he wrote about Newspeak; Sapir and Whorf intuited that something along these lines might be true, but they conceptualized it in a way that didn't pan out; people who use identity politics use names for political leverage. The project of Adamic naming continues today.

There is a reality to named categories to the extent that the experience of the categories is a real thing. There's also necessarily a disconnect between the symbol's being real and the signified-thing's being real: take, for example, the concept of race, which breaks down along lines that might seem reasonable to folks who haven't investigated the situation in depth but which turn out to be ultimately arbitrary, as far as biology is concerned. Likewise with gender: many cultures draw the lines of gender in different places, having non-binary gender roles or essentializing in a way that simply does not reflect strict natural categories. It becomes clear that there are several senses in which one might mean "real", and that there can be conflict among them: reductionist reality, the reality of physics, is one to which humans do not have direct sensory access but which we can infer through careful experimentation; symbolic reality is our subjective experience of the world, and while that experience may not be directly reflective of physical (reductionist) reality, the experience itself is real; and then there is pragmatic reality, the reality of affordances -- of taking a gamble on coherent covariation -- the sense of reality in which one knows that the sun will come up tomorrow not because one has studied astrophysics and planetary motion but because the sun has come up every day before. Affordances exist at the tenuous, correlation-based link between symbolic and reductionist reality.

Symbolic reality can rest comfortably on top of affordances, but by the time we get to that level of distance from the physical world, our terms might not bear much resemblance to physical reality. That's especially true because, for the vast majority of human history, we have had a toolset for exploring reality that's limited mostly to our own senses and our inferential ability. For example, let's say that a person with the urges of a psychologist is born in the early Christian era -- a few centuries after Jesus died. That person might watch hir neighbors, friends, and self struggle with their priorities, make choices that they didn't really want to make, and cause each other pain when all they want is to be happy. It's as if they weren't themselves -- and, importantly, the idea that one was temporarily not oneself (and that one thus won't do the same thing later on) can facilitate forgiveness. That person might take a label from the available terms and say, "The thing that influenced you is called 'demon'. When you learn how to control your emotions and refrain from lashing out at people you love and who love you, you're 'inviting Christ into your heart'." Having terms to talk about these phenomena can be an important part of engaging with them in the first place, and although I might use labels like "irrationality", "emotional disregulation", or "neurochemical feedback loop", the result might be equivalent.1

Does this have anything to do with polyamory? Yes, sort of, in that it has something to do with everything. All that, in time.

Next post, part II: fun with labels and affordance psychology on objectification. Plus, those cookies I promised.

1: There are consequences that follow from either categorization, of course. With some branches of Christianity, as with many other systems of value, has come dogma, literalism, evangelism, and absolutism. With reductionism, one can risk a crisis of meaning and one requires a huge amount of detailed education. Other systems have other drawbacks. I'll save that digression for a later post, however.