Postcards and Thought-Fictions
In October 2013 I received a postcard sent from Bangalore, India. To this day, it remains a mystery to me. The sender’s cursive is expansive and lovely, and seems familiar. But try as I might, I cannot make out the signature underneath the salutation (“With best wishes”) that would identify the sender. Three five-rupee stamps depict scenes from Jayadeva’s epic poem, the Geetagovinda. The stamps form an upper border over the handwriting that, curiously, appears in three colors of ink: pink (for “AIR mail”); light blue (for “With best wishes – [and the sender’s name, presumably] – 21/10 [something illegible] Rd – B’lore”); and dark blue for my name and address. This side of the postcard is, for me, a delightful little enigma. The provenance of the card seems just beyond my reach, as if merely one more autographical clue would reveal the sender to be an old friend or teacher, someone whom I know.
The mystery only increases when I consider what is printed on the other side of the postcard. It is a flow chart with text in seven colors. The heading states, “M = ER2“. This equation is written out in the following line as “Memory = Emotion x Rhyme x Rhythm”. Surrounding these four words are terms and phrases such as “Cerebellum Basal Ganglia”, “Sub-conscious or implicit memory”, and “Five senses”. These various pronouncements are entangled in a web of arrows and text boxes that refer to chemicals (“Dopamine”, “Oxytocin”, “Serotonin”, and “Endorphins”) and areas of the brain. Elsewhere on the card appear statements like “Music is in the genes”, “Amygdala & Accumbens (ventral striatum) (Musical emotion)”, and “Lights upto [sic] Fear & Music on scans”. Near the bottom, the postcard declares that “Reticular formation may be the prime mover of ‘Consciousness’ ‘Arousal’ and ‘Emotion’ because of its many connections especially to the Automatic & Endocrine systems. It is the great ‘Unifier’ as is ‘Music’.”
This thicket of interlocking branches and arrows makes any of my interpretations provisional at best. The postcard would seem to claim that music stimulates the areas of the brain that regulate memory and affective response. The visual surfeit is pleasantly esoteric for my taste, but its quirks notwithstanding, the postcard contends that music is a measurable stimulus, a phenomenon that exerts quantifiable effects on the human brain. A brief internet search indicates that the text draws from the writings of an M.R. Shetty, who published a few books of poetry and rhyming couplets.1 It may be that the sender is himself M.R. Shetty, but I will probably never know for certain. I also do not know why I was sent this postcard. So most of what could be known about this communication will remain unknowable to me. What I do know is that I find myself disagreeing with the postcard’s message. Music is more complicated than the flow chart lets on, because so much of music’s affect depends on acculturation, education, and environment, variables that are challenging enough to describe on their own, let alone as they interact with cognitive phenomena. Still, the message of the postcard is hard for me to discount entirely. If its purpose is to convince readers that music affects our emotions, that music can trigger and aid memory, then despite knowing otherwise, I believe what this postcard says. We can all think of examples in our personal lives that would support such a claim. And if the postcard’s pseudo-scientific rhetoric strikes me as tenuous, it doesn’t matter, for I have accepted this message as a beautiful fiction, an untruth I believe in order to approach the considerably more difficult questions of how music affects our emotions and cognition, and why it does so in a manner that is distinct for each listener.
Other disciplines are marked by these same fault-lines separating science from the arts and humanities. Aesthetics acknowledges that music can trigger memory and induce affective response, but its claims are often transcendental (meaning applicable to all listeners, or all listeners of a particular type) and bypass issues of physiology, cognition, or culture. At its weakest, aesthetics behaves like the stereotype some non-philosophers have conceived of it: elitist and effete, based on armchair speculation. Neuroscience, on the other hand, sets out to explain empirically how music affects cognition, but its focus on cerebral function runs the risk of overlooking the effects of culture, history, economics, politics, and (especially!) aesthetics. At its least convincing, neuroscience reduces listening to input and output streams connected to the black box that is the mind, which itself is reduced to a particularly complex computer. My mysterious postcard deploys a peculiar assemblage of esoteric aesthetics and neuroscience. Although I know that ‘M=ER2‘ is mathematically incoherent since the postcard defines ‘R’ as two distinct variables, I can nonetheless momentarily indulge in this thought-fiction to go where the rival disciplines of aesthetics and neuroscience are unable to follow.
I use the term “thought-fiction” purposefully to refer to a concept that serves a purpose even though it is known to be untrue. When we are enthralled by a beautiful sky at dusk, for instance, we tend to think of sunsets as the moment when the sun slowly descends behind the western horizon. No matter our level of education or age, it is easy to conceive of a sunset as the product of the sun’s, rather than Earth’s, movement because we cannot feel Earth’s rotation. Sunsets stand at the junction of what we know to be true and that which we believe out of habit or convenience. Our ordinary, unreflected experience of sunsets amounts to a convention we know to be contrary to fact, yet that concurs with the way we perceive our planet. In jurisprudence, there is a term to describe such situations. “Legal fictions” are statements made in legal proceedings that are acknowledged as false, but are not intended to deceive.2 Legal fictions can be as non-descript as a “metaphorical way of expressing the truth”3, or more purposively, can be “false statements recognized as having utility”.4 Among the most infamous of recent legal fictions is the 2010 Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which found that the First Amendment prohibits restrictions on the money that nonprofit corporations spend on election advertising.5 Implicit (though never stated) in this ruling is the concept of corporate personhood, a legal fiction dating back to the nineteenth century that permits courts to treat corporations as persons.6 The Citizens United ruling found that personhood entails protection under the First Amendment, and that limiting the amount a corporation can spend on election publicity amounts to limiting a (corporate) person’s right to free expression.
The legal fiction of corporate personhood is certainly controversial, but should not give the impression that all legal fictions are cynical means to ends. A more loving legal fiction is that of adoption, since the adopted child is issued a new birth certificate that indicates only the adoptive parents. This fiction, of erasing any record of biological parents, places all rights and responsibilities with the adoptive parents. Legal fictions undergird much of modern life, amounting to crutches with which courts can approach complex issues.7 We sometimes acknowledge these fictions as metaphors, and at other times, we simply accept them as truth. At such moments, the fiction resembles philosophy, a way of making sense of a baffling world. The fictions common in courtrooms are by no means the only sort of thought-fictions. Most of us have acted at one time or another as if we were the center of the universe, or would live forever, or enjoyed complete control over our lives. Most of us entertain these and other innumerable fictions. We may even momentarily forget what we know, at which point the thought-fiction becomes myth or ideology or delusion. As David Foster Wallace put it, “a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded”.8 But as much as fictions may permeate human cognition in general, they are especially prevalent, indeed unavoidable and indispensable, in our ways of thinking about music. They are the conditions for the possibility of musical thought, which is an obvious nod to Kant’s conditions for the possibility of experience. Kant explained that anything that appears to consciousness does so through the conditions of space and time. I argue here that anything that we presume to know about pop music presents itself to us through thought-fictions. There is no way around them.
1 M.R. Shetty, Rhyming English Couplets (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2012); Shetty, Encyclopedia of Quotable Couplets (New Delhi: Pentagon Press, 2005); Shetty, Domestic Creatures: Poems (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
2 Lon L. Fuller, Legal Fictions (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1967), 1–6.
3 Fuller, Legal Fictions, 10.
4 Fuller, Legal Fictions, 9.
5 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 310 (2010).
6 In the 1888 decision Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment (which mandates equal protection under the law to all US citizens) applied to corporations as well as natural persons. Pembina Consolidated Silver Mining Co. v. Pennsylvania, 125 U.S. 181 (1888).
7 Eric Posner, “Stop Fussing Over Personhood: Laws Treat Corporations (and Chimpanzees) As Persons Because It’s a Useful – and Often Essential – Legal Fiction”, Slate (11 December 2013).
8 David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 33.