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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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Ego About the House
A couple of further thoughts on the focus of intention - which I should probably have called "focus of intentionality" from the beginning, because I actually meant by it something much more like intentionality in the phenomenological sense than intention in the ordinary English one, with the caveat that I'm not talking about mental states as they really exist but the way in which we (as readers and more generally) impute mental states, real or imagined. I'm still not sure what the best phrase is for this is, but "focus of intentionality" will do for now.

In my first post on this subject I said that "In literature, the usual location for intention is assumed to be the author’s mind", and I suggested that there was frequently a bias in the case of collaborative works, towards identifying one person as the "author" - the director of a film, say - because we feel more comfortable locating the focus of intentionality within a single human mind (even allowing that it may come equipped with points of access for inspiration, collaboration, etc.). In that and the subsequent post I argued that, despite this preference, we (or some of us) may expand the focus of intentionality to far larger groups, perhaps including fandoms.

In fact, imputing a focus of intentionality is a far more general phenomenon, going well beyond artistic production (although only there does it have that interesting dynamic with "black-boxing"). We establish a focus of intentionality whenever we personify, attributing mind to inanimate objects and abstractions, or indeed to groups of people such as pop groups and nations. It seems to come as easily to us as the perception of faces in ceiling cracks, wallpaper and tree stumps. In fact it's very hard not to do it, as I was reminded by the amusing-though-deeply-mired-in-the-hoariest-gender-stereotypes trailer to Pixar's forthcoming Inside Out. Even when talking about the components of mind, we can't help personifying them and attributing to them entire minds of their own.

(I wonder who first came up with that plot idea, by the way? I first encountered it in "The Numskulls", and subsequently in the ejaculation scene in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), but it's hard to believe it's not older.)

The "little people inside our heads" idea runs headlong into the infinite regression of the homunculus fallacy, but it's still very hard to resist, so wedded are we to intentionality in all things. Even Freud realized that personification might be a regrettable aspect of the ego-id-superego division, but all the same his description of their dynamic sounds like a pitch for a 1970s domestic sitcom, with the harrassed ego (probably played by Leonard Rossitter) simultaneously trying to put food on the table, placate his snooty neighbour (Penelope Keith) and control his boisterous children:

The proverb tells us that one cannot serve two masters at once. The poor ego has a still harder time of it; it has to serve three harsh masters, and has to do its best to reconcile the claims and demands of all three. These demands are always divergent and often seem quite incompatible; no wonder that the ego so frequently gives way under its task. The three tyrants are the external world, the super-ego and the id. When one watches the efforts of the ego to satisfy them all, or rather, to obey them all simultaneously, one cannot regret having personified the ego, and established it as a separate being. It feels itself hemmed in on three sides and threatened by three kinds of danger, towards which it reacts by developing anxiety when it is too hard pressed. Having originated in the experiences of the perceptual system, it is designed to represent the demands of the external world, but it also wishes to be a loyal servant of the id, to remain upon good terms with the id, to recommend itself to the id as an object, and to draw the id's libido on to itself. In its attempt to mediate between the id and reality, it is often forced to clothe the commands of the id with its own rationalisations, to gloss over the conflicts between the id and reality, and with diplomatic dishonesty to display a pretended regard for reality, even when the id persists in being stubborn and uncompromising. On the other hand, its every movement is watched by the severe super-ego, which holds up certain norms of behaviour, without regard to any difficulties coming from the id and the external world; and if these norms are not acted up to, it punishes the ego with the feelings of tension which manifest themselves as a sense of inferiority and guilt. In this way, goaded on by the id, hemmed in by the super-ego, and rebuffed by reality, the ego struggles to cope with its economic task of reducing the forces and influences which work in it and upon it to some kind of harmony; and we may well understand how it is that we so often cannot repress the cry: "Life is not easy." When the ego is forced to acknowledge its weakness, it breaks out into anxiety: reality anxiety in face of the external world, normal anxiety in face of the super- ego, and neurotic anxiety in face of the strength of the passions in the id. (‘The Structure of the Unconscious’, from New Introductory Lectures)


I'd watch it.

Lisa Zunshine talks about this from another angle in her book on Theory of Mind, in literature. I think this guesswork, and the pleasure we get out of discussing it, is the fundamental drive behind literature. (Non fiction inclusive, because what is it but fact-collection in order to guess what lay in someone else's mind)

Edited at 2014-12-14 02:34 pm (UTC)

Thanks for the mention of Zunshine's book, which I'd not come across. Probably I should have, but I'm stepping well outside my area of expertise in these posts, which is one reason I'm putting them here where people can (if necessary) tell me I'm talking nonsense and/or reinventing the wheel, but better still direct me to those who have written in the same (or adjoining) areas.

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You're too kind! And I wish, not for the first time, that LJ had a search engine worthy the name. But that was a quotation from this recent post, which is where I started in on the whole "focus of intention" malarkey.

Now of course I'm wondering which the other entry was!

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The ability to search posts is the other reason I like LJ Archive, which is a program that backs up your LJ posts (and comments) to your own computer. Once you have them there, they become handily searchable and then, having found the post you wanted, I can use the calendar to find the online version on LJ itself.

I did get LJ archive at one point, when it seemed that LJ was likely to fall over permanently at any moment, but I've not updated it for years. Thanks for the reminder!