Sunday, October 28, 2007

Fog, Part III

When I left off, I said that the most difficult and frustrating problem that I deal with is coping with meta-object fields, object fields designed to help you coordinate action between various object fields. Even further back, I wrote about not being the kwisatz haderach anymore—not being able to be in many places at once and the feeling of reduction in self that results from being able to carry out fewer simultaneous activities. My problems handling meta-object fields are at the very heart of that experience. This is also where my other cognitive damage comes into play. In addition to the short-term recall problem, I also have difficulty suppressing emotion. That always plays into my problems.

A Divided Life

Habermas tells us that under capitalism, our lives are divided into many spheres of action. So much of who we are is how we balance the demands of many different spheres of life. Each comes with its own unique set of symbols, its standards and values. Indeed, often these are converted to a literal discrete setting to give individual setting that help convey the intended effect of a sphere of action. This actually makes a strong difference for managing my illness. You may recall from the first part of this article that object fields that relate to real physical places with objects in them, e.g. my kitchen, are the simplest for me to deal with. If I leave the salad I am chopping to go the refrigerator to fetch the next vegetable and then forget what I am doing, I can glance back at the counter, see the salad, and this will trigger my memory. Purely mental object fields are more difficult, because there are no physical actual objects to which I can refer to trigger my recall. That said, most mental object fields are stored in long-term memory. I can teach you the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, how to write a good persuasive essay or how to speak Arabic because these things are in my long-term memory. My long-term recall seems to be completely normal. I discussed how developing new ideas takes me much longer now because a newly imagined idea is not part of long-term memory. I can’t critique the idea as I write it. I need to write it, look at it, and then criticize it.

Our central problem, according to Habermas, is integrating our lives in order to be fully human and not some mechanized automaton. He talks about the colonization of the lifeworld, a phenomenon in which one of the spheres of action takes over that space in which we imagine ourselves as a human being and where those values that are central to ourselves as an integrated whole. Systems can colonize the lifeworld because they can create an overwhelming reality by presenting a world in which the activity is manifest as the obvious function and goal. The error is mistaking the system for our integrated life. An easy example would be the behavior of German bureaucrats during the Holocaust. German bureaucrats were given commands regarding the slaughter of innocent people, which they carried out. Many did not like it, but they nonetheless obeyed. Habermas argues that this is because of the colonization of their individual lifeworld. They ceased being human beings who were employed as bureaucrats and became bureaucrats who from time to time allowed themselves to encounter others in human relationships. The imperative to be a good bureaucrat and follow orders overrode their human values that told them what they were doing was wrong. Their identity as bureaucrats trumped their identity as humans.

The balancing act that Habermas was concerned with was being able to know when to put aside the technical values of work and pick up those values that make us genuinely human, those values that should serve to integrate our lives. My balancing problem is far less profound and, to be frank, a little embarrassing.

Meta-object Fields

There is a single object field that is never part of long-term memory—the meta-object field. Under capitalism, a person’s meta-object field changes quickly from day to day. It is subject to constant revision. Day-to-day work is not usually done in one sphere at a time. Rather we do a task or two every day in the various different spheres of life in which we are involved. If you want to view each task in a given sphere of life as having a story, a narrative, the meta-object field really has none. It is simply a world of changing lists. Right now, I’m balancing between six or seven:

1. Self-care and maintenance: Washing, eating, doing the laundry etc.

2. Finances: Keeping up with my budget, balancing the checkbook (like that ever happens). This element is by far the most complicated task in my life, see the bit about “Shame” below for more details.

3. Health: I see several physicians and take several medications, many of which have different rules for both when and how I take them and for their renewal at the pharmacy. Moreover, because contemporary illness requires you to see many specialists, the patient must take a highly pro-active stance toward health, constantly integrating the information with which they provide you and asking questions to prompt new strategies. It helps to try to follow, as far as you can, the state of medical research on the illness. Being a patient, ironically, requires dynamism.

4. Teaching: This, of course, is my actual job, in the sense that this is the task for which the university gives me a regular, if paltry salary. This is the professional sphere in which I have the greatest success. Teaching is a very structured object field. Its patterns help impose order on my day. It also is deeply satisfying. Items 1-3, in contrast, have become a colonizing force in my life. These things used to be peripheral. Now they are dominant fixtures in my life that are big enough to shape my identity (see the posting about the saucer).

5. Research: This is the actual process of contributing to knowledge, not funding that process. I’m having a great deal of trouble getting to this. I’ve presented a single paper at a conference. That’s basically it.

6. Searching for funding: Contributing to knowledge needs time away from teaching. Getting this time requires you to prepare applications, a serious endeavor in itself, one that is going to take serious space on my saucer if I’m going to actually get anywhere with it. I missed six grant deadlines last year—a complete and total failure. I’m starting from scratch again this year, and yes, I’m late. We’ll see if I get any out this year.

7. Family and social obligations: There are myriad birthdays and holidays to be recalled. Nothing in any of the above spheres reminds you of this. Moreover, failing to recall the events and respond properly is taken as a sign of disrespect. There is no one in my family who I have not unintentionally hurt in the past seven years. It’s all well and good that people need to understand that this is not deliberate, yadda, yadda. It will never happen. This requires too much cognitive discipline around an important symbol. People are simply going to be hurt.

The challenge is to create a scheme of prioritization and then actually use it effectively. Each subfield has its list of “next steps.” My first difficulty is one of contextualization. My ability to contextualize a given context, leave it, flip to another context and recontextualize is very limited. Before the illness, I used to do this unconsciously. Now, I do it with a great deal of effort.

I have many tasks relating to many projects. It would be swell if I could just work on one project at a time. But as you can see, self-care, finances and health are things that I can’t just shove into a corner and ignore. Well, I did for the first several years after I was diagnosed. I lived in utter filth and ate badly. My life was basically whatever I got done in my office and going out with my friends when I got a chance. Well, I’m married now. I can’t live like that anymore. Needless to say, my social life has died. Even with a very loving and helpful partner, I can’t take care of a household, take care of school and get out and see people. My basic social outlet in the fall is I go and see the Packers play with Jenni, mostly because she is kind enough to help structure me to actually get to the bar to see the game.

Well, the trick any busy person uses is to divide and conquer. You prioritize each sphere’s to do list, pick a few items from each list and go from there. But to prioritize them, you really need to track two other sets of information. The first is a relative weighting of how important each next step is in terms of the “big picture.” Which front requires advancement first? What ordering of steps is best for the war? The second is a knowledge of how steps can be “tucked” into the greater scheme of the day. It may be in my best interest to go the library to return a recalled book. Well, I often have other business in areas near the library or in the library itself. If I’m going to the library anyway, I might as well add those steps in so that I can kill two or three birds with one stone. Those other steps may be relatively low priority, but as they have to be done anyway, it makes sense to do them. Creating the day’s “to do” list is a cognitively difficult sorting task. So not only are the mental objects in the meta-object field not there for long enough to ever enter into longer term memory and, as a result, be recalled clearly and instantaneously, they require extensive sorting. Moreover, my lists have to be very specially crafted. Because my recall is bad, my ability to sort items is highly constrained. If there are too many items on the list, I won’t be able to order them.

I can easily spend two hours trying to plan a busy day. This is, of course, ludicrous. But it’s really a very difficult trade-off. If I don’t go through the effort, I will go out and have a very inefficient day with very spotty performance. Maybe things will happen and maybe they won’t. Moreover, I won’t get any “kill two birds with one stone” effects and things will take much longer to do. But sometimes, the sorting is just too fatiguing for me and I just run out and do whatever I can that day, feeling that doing something is better than nothing. Intensive sorting of any sort is highly fatiguing because it is highly taxing for my sclerotic frontal lobes. It also creates an emotion that I find very difficult to accept: confusion. Recall that I can’t suppress emotion worth a damn. Pushing past fatigue and confusion is not particularly easy. Moreover, I really only have twenty good hours and ten shit hours in which I can actively live my life in a week, instead of resting. Sorting takes quality time, not shit time. When school is on, I don’t have any quality time. My finances, in particular, suffer.

Back to Integrating Life

In a sense, our day to day life, while not meaningless, rarely exists as a discrete unit of meaning. Little fragments of the meaningful units happen each day and you put them together in your mind. Routinized life, when it’s good, is like a montage. Story units are the units of meaning. It’s really only in terms of the bigger story that life gets meaningful. Habermas’ bureaucrats live colonized lives. They cannot remember their true selves when they need their integrity the most. They are taking the wrong value cues from the situation. They sign death warrants for genocides because they think as efficient bureaucrats and not compassionate human beings. I remember the right values. The problem is that I have too much life. There are more spheres in my life than my poor eviscerated brain can handle. I am like a computer with a powerful processor, a large hard drive and a pathetic single stick of memory. The only thing I can think of to balance the damned equation is to drop out of school, but I’m fucking ABD and I want my goddamned degree. I haven’t suffered through thirteen years of post-secondary education and two masters degrees to be crushed here.

I used to see the big picture all the time. But to see the big picture, you need lots of short-term memory. I see the smaller parts of the picture quite clearly because I live in those smaller parts long enough for the schema to sink into my long-term memory. The big picture for a grand theory is much harder to put together, but eventually I will know it well enough that it, too, will become long-term memory and I will know it. But the grand schema of a "to do" list will never be long term memory. To do lists change daily. This means I am always going to have a great deal of trouble living with my life divided between many spheres of action. I’m having a dickens of a time getting any applications out because I just can't get out of enough spheres to stay in application land long enough for that schema to become clear. If I can't stay there, I can't get the applications out. I honestly don’t know what to do.

1 comment:

Watsonne said...

I don't know how any person WITHOUT MS gets those damned grant applications out. Those, my friend, are Hell on Earth. I wish I could offer more help, but I think I'm stuck with only being able to sympathize. Maybe I can come up with some better thoughts when my mind is clearer. I have a magical barfing toddler tonight, and although she's asleep I must wait for the washing machine to finish washing The Mess before I can crash.