Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Strange Logic of Dreams

Maria Rubinke
Previously I have raised the question of why it is that, given compelling evidence that action is needed, we fail to act. Are we smarter than yeast? Perhaps not. But perhaps the problem is not with our inability to act but, more importantly, with our inability to think. We pay lip service to the power of reason, but by and large we choose to inhabit a fictional realm where we use abstract symbols to point at invisible objects, which we assign to one in the same realm of consciousness. Could it be that each of us inhabits, at the very least, a separate realm of consciousness, and, more radically, many different realms, in effect dreaming several different dreams, never fully waking up from any of them?

Sigmund Freud conveyed the strange logic of dreams with the following joke:

  1. I never borrowed a kettle from you
  2. I returned it to you unbroken
  3. It was already broken when I borrowed it from you.

This “enumeration of inconsistent arguments,” writes Slavoj Žižek in his Violence, “confirms by negation what it endeavors to deny—that I returned your kettle broken.”

Here is an entirely commonplace example: the canonic list of excuses made by a child who neglected to do her homework:

1. I lost it
2. My dog ate it
3. I didn't know it was assigned

A similar triad of counterfactuals seems to recur in many long-running, seemingly insoluble political conflicts. Each counterfactual inhabits a fictional realm of its own (it can be true only in its own parallel universe). The effect of the three disjoint statements taken together is to form a cognitive wedge, which blocks all further rational thought.

Here, for example, is how Žižek casts the way radical Islamists respond to the Holocaust:

  1. The Holocaust did not happen
  2. It did happen, but the Jews deserved it
  3. The Jews did not deserve it, but they have lost the right to complain by doing to the Palestinians what the Nazis did to them

On the other side of the great Arab-Israeli divide, we have a similar triad

  1. There is no God (Israelis are by and large atheists)
  2. We are God's chosen people; God gave Palestine to us
  3. Palestine is ours simply because centuries ago we used to lived there

Please note that I am not bringing this matter up to weigh in on the conflict, but to point out what makes it insoluble: both sides are dreaming not one but several contradictory dreams. No reconciliation is possible unless they awaken, but if they do they will have to abandon their strategic dream-positions and lose any standing they may have had to engage in negotiation. Some day they will awaken, not having noticed when the movie had ended, and their world will be gone.

Closer to home, last year, we were treated to the wonderful spectacle of Occupy Wall Street, with its incoherent “demands” and a lively cacophony of voices. The occupiers demonstrated quite forcefully that they exist, and that they stand apart. It was not a political revolt, but an ontological one: “we are not you.” Thus, making specific demands would have been superfluous. The occupiers could have achieved the same (perhaps even a greater) effect by chanting something rhythmic yet free of meaning:

Blah! Blah! Blah-blah-blah!
Blah! Blah! Blah-blah-blah!

In response, the political chattering classes spewed forth the following triad:

  1. The Occupiers lack specific demands
  2. The Occupiers' demands are unreasonable
  3. Meeting the Occupiers' demands would not solve the problem

They were asleep, you see, and dreaming of an occupation. Some day they will awaken, not having noticed when the movie had ended, and their world will be gone.

In the meantime, sweet dreams to you all!


russell1200 said...

Now let's think logically about this.

Yeast sh_ts alcohol.

If that is their waste product, one can only imagine the sublime level of their thought process. So elevated, in fact, that we are not even able to detect, little less comprehend, it.

So, may I be so humble as to suggest that our thinking at level equivalent with yeast is setting far too high a standard.

Stephen Bach said...

A dream state: maybe this is why so many otherwise or apparently intelligent people do such stupid things when they're behind the wheel of a car: they're really in a dream state. Yeah, the American dream. But for us cyclists it's truly a nightmare.

Malagodi said...

It is interesting that your thought is put forth with the rather 19th century (early 20th century, West meets East) framework of the dreamscape. John Cage, in the late 50's, expressed the culmination of this way of thinking by refering to a centuries old Buddhist question: a monk, upon awaking from a dream asked "Am I a man dreaming I am a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?"

This is an interesting way of looking at things, but somewhat quaint. In the later 20th century, the conceptualization changed in accordance to our Western technology, specifically the cinema and more recently emphasizing the camera itself. This kind of vision was popularly promulgated by William Burroughs and reached its epitome in The Matrix. The essential setting is that 'reality' as it is perceived is a projection by a technology controlled by an unseen masters.

This vision, in my opinion, in turn is being replaced by a vision of reality as described by the distributed collective snapshot. In this analogy, the individual is not trapped in an irrational dream, nor is a mindless manipulated slave of propaganda and advertising (as in Burroughs and Orwell), but constrained and strictly limited by the perspective of his or her lens (frame of sensory reference).

Here's my little essay on this subject, which is by no means fleshed out or complete.

I'd be interested in your response.

Black said...

Memes gain popularity once they are familiar to people.
Unfamiliar things are treated with hostility and suspicion.
Thinking outside the box is unfamiliar and popular.

Andy Brown said...

I'm taking part in a human civilization that is self-destructing in a blind and stupid and absurd way.

Fighting against that makes you look stupid and absurd.

I don't want to be stupid and absurd, so 'll do both, but each somewhat badly.

Nothing I do matters.

James said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff said...

Your haiku is all messed up.

Stanislav Datskovskiy said...

We are quite different from yeast in one important way: yeast had never invented war.

GFranke said...


1. We still have more than enough oil to last a long time and it doesn't cause global warming

2. We can achieve energy independence and save the environment by investing in alternative energy

3. Better loot the system while we still can

Dale Asberry said...

This sounds much like G.I. Gurdjieff and his student P.D. Ouspensky or possibly Julian Jaynes.

Dispatch said...

that was beautiful.

theblamee1 said...

The Occupy movement elected to not present a leadership structure because of real past experience and accurate historical memory. During the 1960s movement, any leadership was co-opted by the symbols of the movement. Drugs, sex and rock 'n roll became absorbed by ever-present counter-counter cultural forces, by the likes of "Rolling Stone" and celebrities like Jane Fonda. The merchandising of the movement, with everything from posters, to Tie-dyed T-shirts to paraphernalia, insinuated themselves into what was going on. Free Love fell to the massacre that was The Monterey Pop Concert and the debauchery of violence that was the Hells Angels. The thing with movements is that the establishment always finds a way in. This lesson of "here comes the new boss, same as the old boss" was not lost on the Occupy movement.

Where ever there is money to be made there is a dream to be destroyed. My country practically invented the idea. Our whole culture has been one long process of submitting whatever makes life palatable to marketing, until one has submitted to despair. The United States does not have a culture but a collective memory of all that has been either taken or stolen, used and and used up. There are some who might say that the boomer generation's dreams of making a better world, in as much as their dreams to fix a country run by a bunch of ruling "tight-a**es, has been an experience of revenge carried out upon a whole generation – who were only guilty of looking for real and meaningful change – by an establishment that "has no shame." We have seen the destruction of a whole future that the boomers hoped to build, using the tools of cheap energy, plentiful jobs, an imagination worthy of sending men to the moon and bring them back to a submission to the dream imagery of reality, with the assassinations of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, and so many others. My generation dreamed, but was not allowed to wake up to a future created out of what their dreams might have made. All awakenings were forces of control inflicted upon them, forces like globalization, out-sourcing, in-sourcing, under-funded public and private old-age pension plans, the ghetto-ization of a whole economy.

I once spoke to a member of the generation now representing the Occupy movement. When I wished them better luck with the success of their movement than my generation had had with theirs, his reply was: "The only way my generation will ever see the light of day is when your generation is cold and in the grave." Perhaps to this dreamer, the light of day will wake this dreamer from the only rightful dream this country has left – its own total and complete destruction and death.

Patrick said...

In spite of our large brain cerebrums, I think we are still primarily creatures of our outer senses. And, like all primates, we rely most heavily on sight.

People who live closest to the vagaries of nature, ironically (ironic because we tend to see them as less sophisticated), are perhaps best able to think about the future and make the necessary fallback plans. They know firsthand the possible need for migration, storing food and seeds, etc.

We see restaurants full of people, grocery stores full, plenty of gasoline at the stations, on and on, and most just can't get their heads around the idea that things may not always be this way, and that, indeed, there are undercurrents of profound change. Where? We don't SEE anything like that!

And unlike the people I described in the previous paragraph, most of us haven't, or even know anyone who has, experienced a time when all of our modern conveniences weren't taken for granted. So there's no cultural memory that things change & bad times come and go.

kleymo said...

kleymo said...

What is this? Well, at ClubOrlov comparisons are made between "that place" and "this place." In "that place" while everything was falling apart some of the most wonderful, powerful music was being created.

There was a message there that was getting out. People hungered for the truth more than food sometimes.

What about "this place?" Who is hungering for the truth here?

Anyway, this is Yanka Dyagileva (bio in English - )

Yanka performing:

Lyrics in Russian:

Нm Em Нm Em
Не догонишь - не поймаешь, не догнал - не воровали,
Нm G Em Нm
Без труда не выбьешь зубы, не продашь, не нае.ешь...
Нm Em G
Эту песню не задушишь, не убьешь,
Эту песню не задушишь, не убьешь.

Нm G
Дом горит - козел не видит,
Дом горит - козел не знает,
Нm Em
Что козлом на свет родился
Нm Em
За козла и отвечать.

Em Нm Em Нm
Гори-гори ясно, чтобы не погасло,
Гори-гори ясно, чтобы не погасло!

На дороге я валялась, грязь слезами разбавляла:
Разорвали нову юбку, да заткнули ею рот.
Славься великий рабочий народ,
Непобедимый, могучий народ!

Дом горит - козел не видит,
Он напился и подрался,
Он не помнит, кто кого
Козлом впервые обозвал.

Гори-гори ясно, чтобы не погасло,
Гори-гори ясно, чтобы не погасло!

Лейся, песня, на просторе, залетай в печные трубы,
Рожки-ножки черным домом по красавице-земле.
Солнышко смеется громким красным смехом,
Гори-гори ясно, чтобы не погасло!

Google Translation if you want one easy to do. If you do, a "goat" is a not nice name for a person. The untranslated words are verbs that are much more descriptive varients on our pale, pathetic "f" word.

pansceptic said...

theblamee1, I would like to roll out my theory regarding one good reason the counterculture ran out of steam.

I propose that much of the revulsion regarding the dominant culture was a result of the widespread availability of high purity LSD. LSD has the effect in the brain of shutting off all of the filters and gates that ordinarily protect us from being overwhelmed by a flood of perception from all the senses simultaneously. Once experienced, this flood makes it viscerally obvious how narrowly our ordinary consciousness filters perceptions.

Unfortunately, the benevolent attitude regarding drugs by the counterculture (partially due to the low physical risk profiles of LSD and pot) led to the penetration of heroin and methamphetamine, first into Haight-Ashbury, and later more widely.

Based on current availability, it appears that the machine is much more tolerant of "recreational" drugs such as alcohol, pot, and even cocaine than it is of consciousness expanding drugs.

I'll allow that another factor in the disappearance of consciousness expanding drugs is the severe cognitive dissonance that occurs when one returns from a widened perception, to the narrowness of the matrix. Conversely, some hunter-gatherer cultures have used consciousness expanding drugs for centuries, probably because returning to their less insane day-to-day reality provokes little of the shock and disgust inhabitants of industrial society feel when returning to the matrix.

theblamee1 said...

@pansceptic. And I would stipulate that the establishment co-opted the drug scene by replacing the good stuff with poison, making the return to the shock and disgust of industrial society seem like salvation. Again, manipulating the dream to resemble, and even become, the nightmare. Again, where ever there is money to be made there is a dream to be destroyed, especially if part of that dream is the hope of an expanded consciousness.

Peter said...

Couldn't agree more with this. For years I have noticed a similar logic in the arguments against global warming:
1. There is no warming
2. It's a natural cycle

Intelligent people have made both claims to me, sometimes in the same paragraph, seemingly blind to the paradox that their statements are contradictory. It has made me wonder at the ability of humans to actually think through anything rationally.

Humans can't handle long term planning. No, that's not right. People can plan long term for their retirement, for their family, for their children's education. Even nations can think ahead and launch massive long term projects. But not now. Why not now? Why are we, as a society, choosing to continue to party when the enemy is at the gates? Sounds like denial. I don't know, it's hard to understand such a view from the outside. Or am I really on the outside? Aye, conundrums.

Dmitry Orlov said...

Peter -

The global warming triad is:

1. There is no global warming
2. There is global warming but it is part of a natural cycle and not caused by burning fossil fuels
3. There is global warming and it is anthropogenic, but it is too expensive and inconvenient to mitigate

Compare with:

1. My house isn't on fire
2. My house is on fire but I didn't start it
3. My house is on fire but it is too expensive and inconvenient to extinguish

If that's how we thought about our own lives, we'd all be dead by now. But global warming is about all of our lives. What's going on with our heads?

Malagodi said...

So is the complaint here that human beings, both individually and collectively, are illogical?

Or is the complaint here that everyone else who disagrees with us is stupid?

Let's put aside the latter for now as behavior that we ourselves, being mature adults, would not engage in. Right?

So if it is the former then I think we could admit to saying nothing surprising here.

I recently heard a report of a neuroscientist who, after much expensive research, came to the scientifically verifiable conclusion that the human brain has not evolved to think logically, it has evolved to tell stories. Duh. But as Science has proved it, now we know.

Seriously, the basic premise of this post is that people are behaving illogically as if in a dream and if only they would wake up, they would see the world objectively, as we do. This is only slightly different that what the Buddha said 2500 years ago, that we should not rely on the strange stories that our minds make up, but should awake to the existence that is what it is. But he did not say some people are deluded, he said we all are deluded.

But this dream state/awake state model is only one way of conceptualizing the problem, which is one of agreement. Your reality does not seem to agree with my reality. All of the science of physics and much of the endeavor of modern art in the later 20th century was about this problem.

To put it simply, Science says the answer to a problem depends on the perspective of the observer and the instruments used to examine the phenomenon. The Surrealist and DADA artists say that 'reality' is as absurd as your dreams, and we can show you. The collage creates a vision unbound by conventional time and space.

In the 21st century reality is crowd-sourced via the distributed snapshot.

"Everyone says what THEY do is right" says the poet John Giorno. Simple but accurate.

Giorno also addresses the other possibility that I laid out earlier. It is a poetic observation that I try to keep in mind constantly as I deal with my human colleagues:
"Everyone I know is just like me.
They're stupid."

Anonymous said...

Another wonderfully thought provoking post D.O.! It's so refreshing to find a forum where you can discuss matters such as these without being condemned for “negativity” or it's more literate and subversive sibling “cynicism.” It's crucial for the maintenance of our illusion of democracy, that we consider ourselves and our actions to be the product of reason. Who can justify anything on the grounds of being unreasonable? The fact that that is precisely the standard by which the world operates is a horrible fact that no one wants to discuss. Elites know this but would never dare say so in any public forum. Their own irrationality and brute stupidity is deemed logical and righteous because “none dare call it treason.” Non-elites generally have no investment in looking in a mirror and reflecting on how misinformed and deluded they are about so many things.
Your notion of a kind of cluster of dream states is quite apt. I'd like to offer another angle that uses “stories” as the unit of measurement. A few years back, when I was committing the grave logistical error of pursuing a graduate degree in the humanities, I came across a professor of folklore. I asked her what was the modern role of the folklorist, we don't have “folklore” anymore right? That stuff went away with the advent of modern science, soap operas, and People magazine, I reasoned. Her response went something like this: “What is folklore?” I answered “Stories.” “Right, people telling each other stories, trying to explain themselves and their world, trying to place themselves within a narrative context, a kind of meta story they tell themselves about themselves.” “Yes, that seems right.” I answered. Then she blew my mind.
“People STILL tell themselves stories. The subject matter has changed considerably but the way people interact with the world is still primarily through stories. They tell themselves stories about the world that fit their preconceptions, their biases, their comfort zones. I study how people do that today and how they integrate the information the receive from the world.”
I was floored. It seemed to explain why people act the way they do. People take in information and make decisions but the process is not some computer like process of comparing 0's and 1's or truth/non-truth statements. Rather, we can imagine a kind of jellylike, squishing cluster of stories squirming about in our minds. Each story is a collection of truths, untruths, misconceptions, preconceptions, emotional over reactions and cold calculations, hard wired limitations and freely generated choices, a real casserole of mental artifacts.
Not all stories are created equal however. Our minds are more than stories, it seems, we do have reflective capabilities. We tell ourselves stories about ourselves and some of us retell those stories over and over until we think they mimic our perceptions of reality We can examine our stories, think about them and most importantly of all think about our thinking of stories. This whole notion really flipped a switch in my head. Most folks don't reflect on how they arrive at what they believe. They just believe it, their set of stories, muddled with all manner of inconsistencies and hobgoblins, serves as their basis for truth.
I think many people are aware that there are serious problems but they either have stories that won't allow for the idea of a serious collapse or stories that automatically assume someone somewhere will discover some cure all for the long litany of troubles we face. Not to mention stories that tend to condemn those who whine and bitch and point out the widening cracks in things all around us. U.S. “culture”, and therefore our stories, seems particularly warped by propaganda from a variety of elites who have no interest in heralding the collapse of their own power. On top of all of that, we have a particularly nasty strain of anti-intellectualism which advocates for simple thoughts, lots of action, and disdain for taking a second to think something through.

Ian said...

Great post as usual by Mr. Orlov, but the dichotomy of the Arab/Israeli conflict doesn't work, because the first one is the non-Palestinian Arab population about Israel, while the second triad was the Israeli position about Palestine. The correct partner to Israel's is that of actual Palestinians:

1. This is our land because we live here and you are taking it through violence.
2. The holocaust is no justification for taking our land with violence.
3. It is appropriate to respond to an unjustified and violent occupation with violence.

You may disagree with any or all of those premises, but they are logically consistent. The non-Palestinian Arabs are being irrational (or poly-rational?) but the people getting killed and having their homes taken are pretty well justified to think "that's bad."

On a slightly different topic, speaking of the whole poly-rational idea, are you aware of what philosophers call "paraconsistent logic"? It's logical systems that allow for the kind of mutual impossibilities you're referring to. They're good at describing the kind of dream logic we use when we think, but unfortunately for the future of society are pretty bad at describing the material world we live in.

Jamey Hecht said...

Hi Dmitry
While I loved the brilliant first 75% of "The Strange Logic of Dreams," I find it disingenuous to assert that no demands have been articulated by the Occupy movement. That's silly.

Maybe the denial-triad here would be:
1. There are no demands.
2. There are too many demands.
3. The demands are impossible anyway.

STOP said...

Hi D,
Just heard you on the lifeboat hour recorded last night. I wondered if you were aware of this study:

I run a website regarding environmental issues and I'm always wondering how it is people do not react more to what's happening. This study by Yale is interesting in that regard and may add to your own investigations in the matter.

Don Stewart said...

I suspect that people use dream thinking when they are confronted by a predicament as opposed to a problem. Since the predicament cannot be solved, but must be adapted to, people have to tinker with a whole bunch of stories about themselves and the way the world works. That takes time and is painful. So, at least in the short term, they will tend to use some of the stories out of their grab bag which seem to make the predicament fit (even badly) into their world view.

Don Stewart

My donkey said...

What the world needs now (besides love) is a global blackout lasting more than 3 days. It would have no effect on half the rural population of Africa but it would put things in perspective for the rest of us.

Anonymous said...

I've found Zizek very interesting of late,

Like Zizek's guide to the End Times

Anonymous said...

A friend from Africa once said, "Americans are manichaeists, no?" He's right, we're All or nothing, black or white, for us or against us, either/or thinkers. You've boiled down the tricks of the priests of culture to their essence: add a third option and the average American stops thinking. Brilliant stuff!