The Weirdness Genera part 1
This is the first of a four part series of blogs on ‘The Weirdness Genera’. My friend Robert King an evolutionary psychologist is currently working on a paper on the universal themes that appear in horror films/stories and their evolutionary significance. I look forward to reading his paper when it is published. However there is an aspect of horror that I have tried to goad him (unsuccessfully) into considering in his paper: the bizarre horrific world as revealed by artists like Kafka and David Lynch. This is a genera which is not easily categorised as horror. In fact I am not sure that the bunch of films/books that I am interested really constitute a genera at all (or are instead a mixture of generas that I am incorrectly lumping together). I am not a critical theorist, or a student of film or literature so my thoughts on this topic will probably make a series of mistakes a critical theorist will gladly point out. So rather than use a series of labels from critical theory I will instead list some of the data I am interested in and what aspects I think they have in common that justifies me in lumping them together. For convenience sake I will call this disparate type of work ‘The Weirdness Genera’.
I am interested in the literature written by Kafka; his ‘The Trial’, ‘The Castle’ and his various short stories, The films and television programmes by David lynch: ‘Mulholland Drive’, ‘Twin Peaks’, ‘Inland Empire’ etc, and television series like, ‘The Twilight Zone’, ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, and ‘The Outer Limits’. The programmes, books and television programmes above fall into a continuum with Lynch and Kafka’s more extreme work having a surreal dream(nightmare) like structure; to programmes like ‘The Twilight Zone’ which in some sense are conventionally narrative with strange unexpected twist at the end. If I were to use one word to describe one characteristic that these works of art share it would be WEIRDNESS hence the name ‘The Weirdness Genera’.
My area of specialty is Analytic Philosophy and Cognitive Science. A cursory glance through both disciplines will reveal that neither discipline is particularly concerned with ‘The Weirdness Genera’. If one wants to study Kafka or Lynch through a philosophical or a psychological lens then one will be more likely to find psychoanalytic interpretations through the followers of Freud and Lacan, and philosophical interpretations through people influenced by continental thinkers like Sartre and Heidegger; or those who merge psychoanalysis and continental philosophy, for example, Zizek. I think that ‘The Weirdness Phenomena’ needs to be addressed by the tools of analytic philosophy and cognitive science if we want to understand them clearly.
Before continuing I should make the obvious but important point that WEIRDNESS is not an objective feature of our environment it is rather how something seems relative to our particular mode of cognition. It is an effect that particular environmental stimuli will have on particular creatures. So in this blog I will be discussing how certain environmental stimuli (films/books/television programmes) seem weird to me and most other people, and my explanation will centre on facts about typical human cognition as well as facts about the structure of ‘The Weirdness Phenomena’.
The most accurate theory of the mind currently available conceives of the mind as an anticipation generator which uses Bayesian modelling to construct and test the anticipations our cognitive models develop (See Clark 2011 and Hurley et al 2011). On this view one of the key features of the mind is its constant mental models it uses to anticipate what will happen next, or what could happen next if state of affairs X occurred. In Hurley et al 2011 they noted that from an evolutionary point of view the costs of constantly generating these anticipations is massive in terms of the energy needed. However since generating successful anticipations will lead to better survival of a particular species then this ability will pay for itself so to speak. Not all of this anticipation generation is done unconsciously. A substantial amount of our thoughts, discussions, daydreams, etc are used to build models of the future. One of evolutions “tricks” to get us to engage in this kind of thinking is to give us pleasure when we root out some inconsistency or problem in our thinking. This is similar to the way that we are programmed by evolution to enjoy sweet things because sweet things typically contain a lot of sugar and are helpful to our survival in certain environments. Hurley et al think that the pleasure we take in rooting out inconsistencies in our mental models is one of the foundations of our ability to find things humorous. This is their famous incongruity resolution hypothesis. I think that their approach suitably modified plays a role in both why enjoy and are freaked out by films etc which have the weirdness factor.
The feelings aroused by the weirdness genera can be understood in terms of frames of expectations and problems of relevance. To consider frames it is useful to consider the following question:
A man and his son were in a car accident. The man died on the way to the hospital, but the boy was rushed into surgery. The surgeon said “I can’t operate, for that’s my son!” How is this possible?
The majority of people when asked this question go through a variety of different solution the first man adopted the boy and the Doctor is his biological father. Surprisingly few people answer consider the possibility the surgeon is the boy’s mother. This is because of the implicit sexist assumption that a surgeon is a man. Typically upon having this pointed out people are amused by their blindness to the obvious answer. It will be my contention that art exhibiting the weirdness phenomena can be explained using the idea of framing.
In my next blog I will use this technique to interpret Kafka’s short stories ‘The Judgement’ and Lynches films ‘Mulholland Drive’ and ‘Inland Empire’. The blog after that will use the method of frames to interpret specific episodes of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and ‘Tales of the Unexpected’, while in my last blog I will compare the framing method with the psychoanalytic and continental philosophy approaches.