Meaning Fetishism

Three Pound Brain

War of the Worlds vintage poster

He sits back on his haunches, looking at the bills and coins in his hand. He looks from the bag to Clayton and back again, suddenly shaken and terribly shocked. –Barre Lyndon, The War of the Worlds, Scene 268.

The 1953 version of The War of the Worlds has a wonderful scene where a well-dressed man offers a bag of money to board a Pacific-Tech truck fleeing Los Angeles, only to be violently rebuffed by more rugged souls. And so he’s left, perplexed and dismayed, to await his doom wondering how money, the long-time source of his power over others, suddenly possesses no power at all.

Money offers a paradigmatic example of the confusion of differential or relational properties with intrinsic properties. Given the reliability of a system, information pertaining to the system need not be known to master the capacities belonging to some element within the system. An…

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5 responses to “Meaning Fetishism

  1. Catching up with some of the good stuff you’ve brought to our very limited powers of attention. I started writing this comment in the “reblog this post” box for some reason so some of it acts as my slant on what Scott has said. Rather instructive is the connection between Scott and Richard Bentall that isn’t chased up below:

    Scott’s theoretical musings on heuristics here combines the practicality of cognition as an ensemble of specific problem solving mechanisms occupying their niche- so to speak- in a problem ecology (animism) with an externalising/objectifying slant of the kind of attribution theory that experimental psychologist Richard Bentall uses to explore experiences coded as psychosis. He does so with the concept of ‘intrinsic efficacy’ which in this context seems to be of his own coinage. Here intrinsic efficacy refers to the way the low-res, situated and comparative improvisational operations of human cognition reduces from explanations of systems to attributions of quasi-agency to aspects of systems. In Bentall’s cognitive psychology this is a central process of psychotic thinking- ‘jumping to conclusions’. Scott’s example for all this is money, but we could just as easily think about this in terms of animism and perhaps place it at the start of all spooky superstitious thought. Scott concludes by stating that we have a series of ‘meaning fetishes’- which render meaning as a kind of efficacious pragmatic jumping-to-conclusions. Maybe this is what distinguishes the sane from the psychotic if such a distinction can be maintained: that the psychotic jumps out of conclusions or into too many conclusions…or that what constitutes “efficacious” within the psychotic phenomenology is that bit too alien for most linear-types to accept.

    I am familiar with ‘intrinsic efficacy’ from discussions of pharmacodynamics where it has a different meaning to that given it here. Pharmacodynamics is the study of what a drug does to a body and is thus a relational study not just of the drug or the body but of a particular pole of their interaction (pharmacokinetics explores the reverse). Pharmacodynamics is a kind of transcorporeal study of what particular substances do to particular substances and thus takes the latter, the human body, as a biochemical mechanism in its coupling with the drug and therefore can be viewed from both a reductionist angle (focussing on the body alone) or the machinic. All contemporary pharmacological theories of drug action work with some basic assumption of receptor-occupancy in which the exogenous chemicals bind to given receptor sites and thereby activate a given (series of) endogenous reactions. For example, valium, a benzodiazepine, binds to a highly specific locality on the neurotransmitter GABAa’s receptor thereby inhibiting GABA producing all kinds of effects including disinhibition, muscular and psychological relaxation and, in high doses, respiratory depressions (it is also thought long-term use can cause Alzheimer’s dementia) leading to death.

    Here ‘intrinsic efficacy’ refers to the capacity for the drug to produce a given (series of) effect(s). In other words the pharmacodynamic picture of this kind of efficacy- which should not be confused with therapeutic efficacy- is a way of talking about how the material interaction of two bodies that emphasises their coupling to functional effects. What the drug does is what the effects of the interaction between this particular drug and this particular body of this particular age, hepatic function, body mass, drug tolerance, and so on, are. The drug does something to the body: in a sense, if this isn’t too much of a stretch to be admitted, it makes it jump to certain conclusions.

    If there is a material or naturalistic account of meaning possible, or at the very least, as I share Scott’s drive for a naturalistic explanatory elimination (Darwinian nihilism) whilst a recognition of retaining the need for a functional account of coping that maximises our capacities for such coping (short of becoming David Roden’s posthumans), I wonder if it mightn’t be found in this accidental slippage from heuristics of efficacy to material chemical efficacy. As long as the sense of meaning, or the sense of the need for a sense of meaning- even if meaning itself is hallucinatory- binds us to the world in some way then it too may serve to increase our ability to cope.

    • passed this along to RSB so hopefully he can engage this more fully, my sense in general is that the search for meaning is the kind of fly-bottle that Wittgenstein was hoping to free us from, fittingly for this discussion perhaps a kind of bewitchment by grammar.

      • You know how I feel. We are nostalgics for meaning. The sense of it will never leave us even after we have seen through it- thus, along other local problems, we have the rise of ISIS and other such barbarisms. It is the thirst for meaning, not the thirst for annihilation, that drives us into the arms of every destructive irrationality.

      • hmm, not sure if you are strictly talking meaning here or more satisfaction/powers.
        we may be on the precipice of some kantian rabbit-hole here.

    • And I seem to be catching up on your catching up. Thanks for this, arranjames – I absolutely love these cross-disciplinary convergences. And thanks, as always, to dmf, for helping my inner kitten chase the right laser pointer from time to time! Which of Bentall’s works is most concerned with the role source-monitoring plays in psychosis? Schizoid disorders could be analogized as losing the ability to match different tools to different problems. And it suggests that the work being done by Gigerenzer and the ABC Research Group might provide a new paradigm, or at least a suggestive input, for understanding psychosis.

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