Solus Ipse

I have developed this theme numerous times in this blog, but it bears repeating in light of one of the most popular sit-coms on television that recently closed up shop. I am speaking about “The Big Bang Theory” which had eleven successful years before finally going the way of all old sit-coms: syndication. The question is: why was it so popular? The answer is complex, but part of the explanation has to do with the central character, Sheldon Cooper,  a genius who is a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech. He also has asperger’s syndrome, a condition in which the individual is totally unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He lacks sensitivity and a sense of humor in addition to having no compassion whatever and being socially inept. His behavior ranges from amusing to peculiar, even maddening.

The show also has several other characters including a pretty “dumb blonde” who seems brighter than the other supposedly bright people the show centers around. She may well be at least part of the reason why the show was so popular. In any event, the Sheldon character is most interesting because, as I see it, he is an extension of the way so many of us are becoming: self-absorbed, totally unaware of others around us: solus ipse.

The Sheldon character may have been modeled after the lead in a British sit-com titled “Doc Martin” which centers around a physician in a small village in Cornwall who also has asperger’s syndrome. The difference is that Doc Martin, who also lacks a sense of humor and social skills, is very much aware of others (for the most part they annoy him) — though unaware of the effect his behavior has on others. He is a physician and has a deep and genuine sense of duty to his patients — many of whom would try the patience of a saint! And it is this sense of duty, together with his dawning awareness that he needs to work on his social skills — which must be learned by those suffering from his condition — that makes him a more sympathetic character.

What makes these two characters interesting is that they speak volumes about the fact that so many people are apparently drawn to the two of them. Despite his many strange “tics,” Doc Martin is someone we can identify with and for some strange reason care about. So also, although to a lesser degree, is Sheldon Cooper. I have suggested why this is so, and I will repeat that we care about such fellows because more and more of us are becoming just like them. One thing that many find appealing, I read from the comments others have made, is that they are totally honest: they say exactly what is on their minds. They do not “suffer fools.” And this is true. Both of these characters say exactly what they are thinking despite the fact that in many cases what they say is hurtful to others around them, even those they regard as friends. And both of these characters are similar in refusing to accept any responsibility whatever for the blunders they may commit. Remind you of anyone?

At times, the behavior of such folks as Doc Martin and Sheldon Cooper strikes viewers as sadistic, but this would be so only if they knew they were hurting others whereas these two people do not. If they hurt others, it is collateral damage, something out of the range of their awareness. The question is whether this excuses them. Are we to say “no foul” if those around us are unaware of the effect their behavior has on us and others around us? I think not. These people can be taught how to behave toward others, even if their behavior does not stem from genuine concern. And this is certainly the case for the rest of us who seem increasingly to be trending in their direction. It’s all about awareness and concern for others — and accepting responsibility for our actions.

This is why the trend toward increasing involvement with electronic devices is so disturbing: it encourages a loss of awareness of the real world and other people coupled with a gradual desensitization to the pain of others. It has been shown that it releases dopamine in the brain of users and therefore is addictive, and this is certainly a concern. But as we become increasingly lost in an electronic world in which we talk to machines and they talk back even as they drive our cars, we risk becoming increasingly less aware and less concerned — in a world where a sense of community and the desire to live in common are things that separate us from the wild animals. And from people like Sheldon Cooper and Doc Martin.

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Inverted Consciousness

I wrote this post several years ago in attempt to understand why folks seem to have become lost in the world inside their own heads. It is a topic I had written a book about a few years ago and one that continues to intrigue me. With a few adjustments to the earlier version, here is my attempt to understand the condition known medically as “Asperger’s Syndrome.”

“The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper has it. BBC’s Sherlock Holmes and Doc Martin have it as well. It’s all the rage these days. It’s called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it is defined as follows:

“a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by restricted and repetitive behaviors and activities, and by normal language and cognitive development —called also Asperger’s disorder.”

Actually, “language and cognitive development” is often exceptional. But these folks  have to be taught how to interact with others, because they are not fully aware of the other’s presence — except insofar as the other person accommodates or interferes with the person’s own desires. They seem to be emotionally stunted, lacking a sense of humor and any instinctive reaction to other people’s feelings and the subtle nuances of human behavior.
I wrote a book about the phenomenon years ago before I had ever heard the word. I called it “inverted consciousness” and argued that it is a widespread cultural phenomenon resulting from a fixation on the part of the subject with his or her own experience, an inability to see beyond that experience. For this person “the” world is “my” world. Paintings and music are beautiful or ugly because the subject likes or dislikes them; behavior is right or wrong because it pleases the individual or fails to do so; all opinions are of equal merit — there is no such thing as truth or even expertise. I maintained that there are degrees of this disorder from the extremely inverted consciousness of what I now know is Aspergers down to the occasional or intermittent inversion. It is usually found in men, though I know of a woman or two who have it. My sense of it is that women are more empathetic and compassionate than men as a rule and those qualities do not live comfortably alongside a condition that blinds the person to the fact that there are others in their world — except in so far as the others serve their own purposes. That sounds sexist, but I still think there are important differences between men and women and in this case women are being complimented: Aspergers is very unattractive. However, I apologize in advance to any readers who find this differentiation offensive!
As I say, I do regard the condition as widespread in our culture and took my clue from Ortega y Gasset who noted the symptoms in Europe in the 1930s and wrote about them in describing Mass Man in his classic The Revolt of the Masses. Defining “barbarism” as simply “the failure to take others into account,” Ortega was convinced that Europe was then on the brink of a new barbarism, an age in which people would become more and more removed from one another and “hermetically sealed” within themselves. World War II soon followed, interestingly enough.
Describing this type of person, Ortega said at the time,

“The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for the discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go outside of himself for a moment and transfer himself to his neighbor.”

But he is incapable of that.
I am not sure what causes this phenomenon, but it does appear to be more and more prevalent. It seems apparent that our current President suffers from the condition to a high degree as well. I suppose our increasingly crowded living conditions together with the almost constant bombardment of images and sounds around us tend to turn our attention inward. In addition, the countless number of electronic toys that seem designed to discourage human interaction must also be considered. I recall vividly the photograph of a group of teenagers sitting in front of Rembrandt’s “Night Watch” texting — totally unaware of the extraordinary painting nearby. Note how all of these devices turn the individual’s attention away from what is around them (he said, sitting alone at his computer).
In any event, I thought what Ortega had to say was a powerful message when I first read it, and I find it even more so today. If we are, indeed, “from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside [ourselves], be it fact or persons,” this is something we need to ponder seriously, since it suggests we are becoming increasingly isolated from one another — like Sheldon. And Sherlock. And Doc Martin — who are all funny up to a point, but also pathetic.

Asperger’s Syndrome

“The Big Bang Theory’s” Sheldon Cooper has it. BBC’s Sherlock and Doc Martin have it as well. It’s all the rage these days. It’s called “Asperger’s Syndrome” and it is defined as follows:

a developmental disorder resembling autism that is characterized by impaired social interaction, by restricted and repetitive behaviors and activities, and by normal language and cognitive development —called also Asperger’s disorder.” Actually, “language and cognitive development” is often exceptional. But these people have to be taught how to interact with others, because they are not fully aware of the others’ presence — except insofar as the other person accommodates or interferes with the person’s own desires. They seem to be emotionally stunted, lacking any reaction to other people’s feelings and the subtle nuances of human behavior.
     I wrote about the phenomenon years ago before I had ever heard the word. I called it “inverted consciousness” and argued that it is a widespread cultural phenomenon resulting from a fixation on the part of the subject with his or her own experience, an inability to see beyond that experience. For this person “the” world is “my” world. Paintings and music are beautiful or ugly because the subject likes or dislikes them; behavior is right or wrong because it pleases the individual or fails to do so; all opinions are of equal merit — there is no such thing as truth or even expertise. I maintained that there are degrees of this disorder from the extremely inverted consciousness of what I now know is Aspergers down to the occasional or intermittent inversion. It is usually found in men, though I know of a woman or two who have it.  My sense of it is that women are more empathetic and compassionate than men as a rule and those qualities do not live comfortably alongside a condition that blinds the person to the fact that there are others in their world — except in so far as the others serve their own purposes. That sounds sexist, but I still think there are important differences between men and women and in this case women are being complimented: this condition is very unattractive. However, I apologize in advance to any readers who find this differentiation offensive!
     As I say, I do regard the condition as widespread in our culture and took my clue from Ortega y Gasset who noted the symptoms in Europe in the 30s and wrote about them in describing Mass Man in his classic The Revolt of the Masses. Defining “barbarism” as simply “the failure to take others into account,” Ortega was convinced that Europe was then on the brink of a new barbarism, an age in which people would become more and more removed from one another and “hermetically sealed” within themselves.  World War II soon followed.
     Describing this type of person, Ortega said at the time, “The innate hermetism of his soul is an obstacle to the necessary condition for the discovery of his insufficiency, namely: a comparison of himself with other beings. To compare himself would mean to go outside of himself for a moment and transfer himself to his neighbor.”  But he is incapable of that.
     I am not sure what causes this phenomenon, but it does appear to be more and more prevalent. I suppose our increasingly crowded living conditions together with the almost constant bombardment of images and sounds around us are causal factors. In addition, the countless number of technical devices that seem designed to discourage human interaction must also be considered. I was recently at a restaurant, for example, and noted the table next to me where three of the five people were texting while they waited to be served — presumably to people elsewhere. But note how all of these technical devices turn the individual’s attention inward (he said, sitting alone at his computer).
     In any event, I thought what Ortega had to say was a powerful message when I first read it, and I find it even more so today. If we are, indeed, “from birth deficient in the faculty of giving attention to what is outside [ourselves], be it fact or persons,” this is something we need to ponder seriously, since it suggests we are becoming increasingly isolated from one another — like Sheldon. And Sherlock. And Doc Martin — who are all funny up to a point, but also pathetic. And we may be more like them than we want to admit.