Thursday 20 June 2013

The dementing society


We live in a society of declining intelligence, diminished capacity to store new memories; and which deploys fluent and superficially-plausible confabulation to generate pseudo-explanations of causal links between current events.

Our society is therefore closely analogous to the state of a dementing person.


Confabulation is seen most extravagantly in chronic alcoholics with Korsakoff's syndrome. These people are almost unable to form new memories, and suffer gaps in their long term memories; but are sometimes fluently able to fabricate (i.e. confabulate) superficially-plausible explanations to account for the current situation and answer any questions which may be put to them.

They retain a fair degree of empathic social skills, by which they can (in effect) manipulate other people into giving them the benefit of the doubt for these confabulations - such that presence of dementia may go unnoticed for some time, and the degree of dementia be underestimated.


Something similar may be seen i the dementia of an intelligent person: for example the poet and novelist Robert Graves.

If you follow, chronologically, the many interviews he gave throughout his life (for example in the book Conversations with Robert Graves) or read his short essays - knowing that Graves ended his 90 year life in a state of profound and progressive dementia, one can track the changes back to at least 20 years before his death.

What can be seen are bizarre statements backed by confabulations drawing upon his vast long term memory; a manipulative chumminess or mateyness, and behind that (if video interview evidence is studied) a fatuous quality to his emotions - a disconnect between what he said and the way he said it - a kind of blankness behind the eyes.

There was an absence of critical thinking based upon joined-up analysis; and a reliance upon perseverative and disconnected, slogan-like assertion of conclusions/ obsessions/ maxims arrived-at in earlier life.

Graves's interviewers did not notice or excused this on the basis that Graves was a 'Great Man' - just as we do not notice or excuse similarly senile incoherence on the basis that Harvard, or Oxford, was a 'Great University'; or that The Times of New York or London was a 'Great Newspaper', or the BBC was a 'Great Institution'.


If we thus regard our modern, media-dominated society as if it were a person - then dementia is a close analogy for what we find in the elite, intellectual mass media, universities, legal profession, science, medicine and so on.

The fatuousness of modern 'high brow' intellectual discourse, its shallow incoherence, its use of arbitrary linkages, its dependence upon emotional manipulations and a willingness of the consumer to give the producer the benefit of the doubt... all this is typical of contemporary intellectual discourse.

It is therefore as if the world of elite intellectual discourse was the dementing-remnant of a great and charming creative intellectual like Robert Graves - garrulously recalling bits and pieces from a vast memory, and generating shallow and superficially-appealing or vaguely-plausible ad hoc explanations, connections and associations - relying utterly on the indulgence and goodwill of an audience who are, as it happens, themselves in much the same state.



Luqman said...

An excellent analogy Dr. Charlton, fatuousness and superficiality is the essence of modern intellectual discourse. Others have described it as feminine, which I also agree with. Modern society loves to talk, but never gets to the point. This is most immediately perceptible in the media, where a deluge of pointlessness obfuscates real news at all times. Simple information exchange is blunted by an excess of vapid pointlessness; celebrity babies, rowdy sportsmen, pithy anecdotes pushing a liberal worldview and worst of all... lists. The infatuation with lists in media also seems to me to be a symptom of feminization. 10 Ways To Keep The Man Of Your Dreams! vs. 5 Things We Didn't Know About The 1800s (#1 to #5, they were more racist than previously imagined).

The Wernicke-Korsakoff analogy also holds in that the condition is potentially the result of hedonistic excess.

Arakawa said...

Dementia and incoherence is a good way to cover up evil behind mealy-mouthed hypocrisy.

For instance, if the establishment tore down old buildings wholesale to put up ugly modernist creations, the act might be seen for what it is: the expression of a brutal attack on historical values, much like in the Soviet Union.

Instead, they've long ago switched to doing this kind of stuff:

(Ironically, simultaneously with this article showing how modernist architects don't respect earlier architectural styles, the magazine I linked to publishes a complaint about how people don't respect modernist architecture anymore:

Again, incoherence is just unconscious hypocrisy.)

I already mentioned at one point how the most bemusing act of 'heritage preservation' I've witnessed so far was the retention of the front wall of a church as the doors to a secular residential condominium, complete with a chiseled admonition to "have no other gods before Me".

You can't even plausibly accuse people like this of a coordinated attack on values, because they don't really even know what they're doing themselves, anymore.

Bruce Charlton said...

@A - There certainly are strategically evil people who deliberately try to destroy Good - but they're demented too, channelling unseen forces.

The Resonant Right said...

An excellent piece. I wonder if, unlike dementia, there is not a purposeful element to modern dishonest confabulation/