Familiarity

The following conversation occurred in our apartment yesterday (paraphrased slightly because, as a teacher of mine  once proclaimed, “I don’t remember what I said; that was two sentences ago”). We were discussing the inability of some students to properly deploy the past perfect.

Me: So how do you teach students to hear when they are supposed to use the past perfect?

Husband: Make them read good literature. [pause] Or watch BBC costume dramas.

The advice at the end of the conversation was as follows: Imagine Obi Wan Kenobi is reading your paper aloud. If a phrase sounds wrong when he says it, change it.

Familiarity breeds comfort. When you hear or read something over and over, it begins to sound ordinary and right. After reading “enough” articles, academicese transforms, in one’s mind, from a strange way to express oneself to the natural structure of certain kinds of communication. The art of writing in high academic is simply the art of having read too many articles and being able to copy it effectively. (This, by the way, is why I usually tell my students not to attempt it. It’s a style that can only be learned through exposure and few undergraduates have been exposed to enough of it to mimic it effectively. Also, it is still not my favorite style of writing even though I have more or less found a way of deploying it in my own textual endeavors that, I hope, does not make me sound too ridiculous.) If (who I am kidding, when) I read Lord of the Rings straight through, I start to write just a bit like Tolkien. After going on a mad-dash through the works of Jane Austen, I find myself borrowing a bit of her style (not enough, unfortunately,–I would love the ability to write as she did).

And that’s just language. It makes sense that we learn language by hearing it; for it to have evolved into the transcendently powerful interhuman communication method that we know it to be, there must be a more effective method of teaching it than by, well, painstakingly teaching it. Fortunately, this is what our brains are good at. We spot patterns and conform to them without quite knowing why. Toddlers learn that “goed” is not the past tense of go when they are exposed to “went”. Given enough exposure, students too will learn the value of deploying “had been” instead of “was”.

This cognitive ability extends beyond the purely linguistic. The brain decides what is correct by examining that which it is exposed to most often and assuming that its presence connotes its correctness.* Which brings me, somewhat circularly, back to books.

I mentioned, in my last post (to which you are all still free to respond), that I think we read differently as adults than as children and that, when we are children, stories feel “more real” to us. My mother said something similar, that she felt that, as a child, she was more likely to read herself in as the protagonist rather than evaluate the protagonist as someone else, who might make different choices than she might make in the same scenario. I think we all read more analytically as adults; we assess the characters as we read rather than afterwards. As children, we are not blindly accepting readers, but we are less likely to stop in the middle and evaluate characters as distinct from ourselves. We inhabit their minds more fully when we are younger.**

And books shape our familiarity just as much as the world does. That which we become familiar with from fiction becomes a part of what we consider “normal” and “right”. So what we read and what we expose ourselves to doesn’t just shape our expectations of what books should be like, but it shapes our expectations for what the world should be like.

This has come up in my life at least four times in the past week, which is either weird or one of the coincidences that really aren’t, but are a product of being attuned to something and then noticing it more…as I said, pattern recognition.

But I want to comment on some of those instances nonetheless:

1) I was reading a post (and, subsequently, the entire comments section) on Tor.com about Historically Authentic Sexism. The argument is, in short, that defending the absence of women (or women relegated entirely to the roles of sexual objects or rape victims…or both) in fantasy novels because, “historically, women have had no part in the power structure and it’s authentic that all they do is give birth and get raped” is ridiculous because a) if you can have dragons, you can have women doing things they didn’t historically do and b) history is a narrative written by men who were not very good at understanding the powerful roles that women did have and who would fairly often leave them out of historical narratives because they assumed they weren’t important. (I’m not saying all historians are evil, sexist monsters, but that in the same way that history is written by the victors, men writing history are not only not good at seeing female contribution, but also invested in downplaying it). The article goes into more depth, but the point, for now, is that if you keep retelling stories where women have no agency, you make people believe that women doing things is weird and the only reason to write a story with female agency is because you have some feminist agenda to make women the center of everything. Women having power (in any sense) feels like a deviation from the norm, rather than a return to what had actually happened. Because we are more familiar with the narrative that says women are powerless, the actual complexity of history feels wrong. This is true of just about all the shallow historical narratives that float around–every single human being in Europe was either white or a slave, gender norms are immutable and were exactly the same everywhere, the entire period in between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance was a dark cesspit of despair, to name just three–and they all disappear with a more in depth examination of the historical documentation. But those in depth understandings are not the stories that circulate and so we find them…unbelievable.

As a corollary to this point, someone in the comments was writing about how important exposure is in helping even young kids understand diversity and shared the following story about her son. (For those unfamiliar with the term, PoC means person of color and refers to someone who is not white. Comment is posted here as is, because I see no reason to correct other peoples’ hastily typed spelling mistakes.)

“I think my son only has two books in which PoC chara’s feature, which is a shame. We live in a town which is predominatly white (changing a bit more recently) and an incidant when he started school really bought home to me his inexperiance with various shades of skin. There is a black skinned boy in his class (just started school). On his way home he pointed out how very, very dark he was. He seemed upset, which concerned me. When I asked him why he told me he thought he must have been attacked by a dragon. Why? Becuase when a dragon attacks you (lots of demonstration and description of dragon) it burns you with its fire breath and your body turns black and you die. Is he a zombie?

I was a bt shocked-needless to say. My son was more familiar with dragons, zombies and the state of burned to death bodies that PoC! That last, btw, I have no idea where it came from. So when we got home I explained melatonin and demonstrated by adding coffee to milk, pointing out that my own skin was much darker than his. (Which he blinked at saying he had not noticed).

He has also sinced realised that Africans are black and he adores everything about africa (they do have the best animals after all). ” (Comment #124)

Familiarity. I imagine this child has not encountered very many dragons or zombies in his daily life, but the stories he heard and saw about them made a part of his cognitive world view. Most adults probably wouldn’t reach for quite that fantastical a response, but we do still explain things through our own lens of familiarity. My first explanation for a woman wearing a hat is that she is married and it still takes me a moment to remind myself that that explanation is only true within a very constrained set of circumstances. But I am familiar with it.

2) The previous example was either slightly depressing or a call to arms. I prefer to think of it as the latter, as a reminder that the rules that govern our expectations and our experiences are not immutable. That we can effect change by writing new narratives and telling different stories.

But that still leaves the question of what happens to the other narratives? What do we do with the stories we once told, but whose implications are no longer something with which we want to be associated? Obviously, I am not advocating the blanket removal of everything that does not exactly agree with the stories we wished we could tell (I’ve seen societies that do that and they are scary) nor do I think that banning things is a good idea. But then where does that leave us?

Over the weekend, my sister brought up the book Cinderella Ate my Daughter and what it says about the culture of ultra-femininity marketed to young girls. This almost immediately became a discussion about the Disney princesses as role models and we covered the usual ground of the movie princesses versus the princess marketing, the mid 20th century princesses versus the 1990s princesses, what the messages in the movies actually are (and I ended up in the strange position of arguing for the Little Mermaid as a feminist work, which is not a stance I usually take. To quote: “either Ariel is a free-thinking young woman who bravely rejects racism to forge her own destiny and create a lasting peace between two cultures or she’s an idealized anti-feminist icon, complete with Barbie-doll figure and shell bikini, completely willing to throw away her family, her culture, and her own voice for the sake of a man she’s never even met” (Ana Mardoll)).

The point I ended up making (and, yes, it’s disingenuous to continue the argument in a forum where I am sole arbiter of content, but it’s not like my sister will be reading this anyway) is that it’s a mistake to police content based entirely on what you yourself are reading out of it. Because my reading of Belle as a powerless victim whose one act of agency is the traditional feminine sacrifice for a man does not annihilate your reading of her as an outcast who is not afraid to be different and who uses her love of learning to claim a place for herself beyond a society that has no place for someone like her. There is no real Belle. There is no real Ariel. There is even no real Cinderella. There is only the message you read from it.

And, yes, there is something of a larger cultural issue with happily ever after achievable only through marriage and the idea of “the prince” as the ultimate achievement in life, but I don’t think the response should be to ban Disney movies from a child’s collection of media.

Now, of course, would be the time to offer what I think a response could be. I’m not entirely sure I have one. I think that one of the things you can do is question these assumptions when you notice yourself or others complicit in them. Ask why things must be so. Basically, I am arguing for literary critique in all its powerful forms, for an awareness of what we read.

And, as a corollary to that, rewrite the stories. Own these stories by retelling them. I am not the first to argue for fanfiction as a form of literary critique, but it’s an incredibly powerful vehicle for changing narratives and shaping familiar experiences. Which, I suppose, brings me back to my earlier point. Write new stories. Tell new narratives. When thinking about young children, play imaginary games with them and invite them to tell new stories. Play “what if” games. Let them ask “why” and encourage them to hold on to the impulse to ask “but why should I believe you?” (Except, perhaps, when sending them to bed.) When thinking about those of us who no longer read like children, play these imaginary games anyway.  Choose to read or retell stories in such a way that makes you familiar with the experiences you value and draws attention to the kind of normality you seek to pursue. Stories need not agree with you on all counts, but being able to recognize where a story is using familiar cultural tropes to say something with which you disagree goes a long way towards preventing you from swallowing it. Once you know the difference between “you’re” and “your”, a thousand typos will not be enough to make it appear right.

The flip side of “You are what you choose” is  “Choose again and change.”***

~~~

* Yes, this is one of the cardinal sins of neuroscience–speaking about the brain as if it “decides” or “assumes” the way that humans who possess brains decide and assume. It doesn’t quite make sense to speak about the brain this way, but we don’t really have the language to discuss what is going on outside the realm of conscious experience, so we co-opt the language of the conscious mind to describe the unconscious. If you’re interested in this whole idea of the brain making decisions heuristically, without our consciousness of it, I recommend Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. He doesn’t dwell on this phenomenon is particular, but his larger description of how the brain works is interesting.

**Grand sweeping statements based on very little data are our specialty here. But I have reason to believe I am not alone in this evaluation of readerly shift.  While attending an event last year, I was part of a conversation about the inability of recapturing our first, naive readings of our favorite books from when we were younger and how differently one reads Middlemarch (which was the presenter’s favorite book as a teenager) now as opposed to then. I am willing to concede, however, that this might be less an argument about the relationship between age and reading and more one about the difference between how we read before and after we are trained to critically assess what we read. Is this what we sacrifice for the skills to read analytically?

***A quote from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Mirror Dance.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Familiarity

  1. Abba

    As always, enjoyed the post. Maybe something is in the air. Reading familiarity breached the non-fiction world on Sunday in the NYT; Ross Douthat (“How to Read in 2013”) advised readers to leave their political comfort zones and subscribe to a magazine from the other end of his/her position on the political spectrum.

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