ADHD and the Metaphor of “Memory Retrieval”

In an article entitled “Looking Differently at ADHD,” Julie Hail Flory reframes so-called attention deficit in terms of “memory retrieval”, or the “failure of active maintenance.”

It happens to us all – you walk to the refrigerator, open the door, then stand there, unable to remember why you went to the kitchen in the first place.

You may call it a brain cramp, but in psychological terms, it’s a “failure of active maintenance,” and it could be a key to decoding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, according to Brad Gibson, a University of Notre Dame associate professor of psychology whose research looks at the link between memory and the disorder in adolescents.

But how compelling would this analysis be without recourse to technological metaphors? What is gained, scientifically speaking, by referring to simple forgetfulness by the cumbersome phrase, “failure of active maintenance”?

Further, if this simple, everyday example is an example of ADHD, then how is ADHD abnormal? How is ADHD a “disorder” if its “symptoms” are so universal? It would seem that institutions and authorities are essential to forming a distinction. (If you forget why you went to the fridge, it’s simple forgetfulness, but if you forget why you raised your hand in class, it’s a “condition”.)

Which is why the technological or computational metaphor is so important. It suggests that the information or knowledge is ‘in there somewhere’, only something is blocking its retrieval. The kind of memory described by Flory is quite literally a computer’s memory, even though, for the same author, what ultimately determines recollection are institutional standards of propriety, educational norms, and industrial metrics.

“What we’re finding is that kids with ADHD tend to retrieve more irrelevant information; so they’re coming up with things, but they’re not really relevant, they’re not the items from the list,” he says. “Right now the challenge is to come up with measures that can accurately assess their weaknesses.”

What, then, constitutes irrelevant information in a memory game? Or, to put it differently, could information considered irrelevant in this game be found relevant in another? The author, however, says nothing of the criteria buttressing this decidedly non-computational judgment, even though, to be sure, the whole argument comes down to this fine distinction.

So, what began, or what ends up seeming like, a distinction between attention and attention deficit really boils down to a hidden, and it would seem largely unquestioned, distinction between relevance and irrelevance, topicality and tangent. What seemed at first to be a matter of retrieval failure has become, in fact, the successful retrieval of improper information, which is a different ‘problem’ altogether. And in this regard, one can’t help but wonder whether a rather limited and unhelpful theory of learning is merely labeling as deficient those who, for whatever reason, learn differently or are less available to the current educational model. Those they say are attention deficient to everything, because of their ‘brains’, might just be attention deficient to them, because of their method.

Neil Levi on Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

Point and Shoot, 2008, by Martha Rosler

It’s a common accusation of the left that politics, liberal and conservative alike, becomes “aestheticized” through persistent suspensions of law anddeclarations of emergencies. But what, exactly, Neil Levi asks, in a timely, subtle paper on Carl Schmitt, is so “aesthetic” about political decisionism, a doctrine still fresh on our lips in the Obama era. The following, well-known quote from Schmitt’s Political Theology sums up this philosophy succinctly:

“The exception is more interesting than the rule. The rule proves nothing; the exception proves everything: It confirms not only the rule but also its existence, which derives only from the exception. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.” (PT, 15)

Richard Wolin, whose interpretation of this passage is widely shared, finds the image of politics promoted here “aesthetic” in spirit, on account of its celebration of “rupture, discontinuity, and shock, which Wolin describes as ‘aesthetic values.’

“Yet Wolin never tells us why Schmitt’s interest in exceptions, hardly unusual in the humanities and social sciences, is ‘quasi-aestheticist,’ never explains why rupture, discontinuity, and shock are especially ‘aesthetic values.’ He takes their status as such for granted and does not ever seem to find it necessary to explain what he means by the term aesthetic.” (Neil Levi, “Carl Schmitt and the Question of the Aesthetic,” New German Critique 34, No. 2 (Summer 2007): 27-43: 35)

But on the other hand, perhaps there is something ‘aesthetic’ about transgression, ‘breaking through the crust’:

“Yet Wolin’s sense that there is something ‘aesthetic’ about Schmitt’s proclamations on the state of exception is understandable. The notion of the extreme has a certain fascination that one might compare to that exerted by certain transgressive works of art. To dwell on the state of exception is obviously to dwell on the more dramatic aspects of political life, on moments that are conflictual and intense. But do these considerations make an interest in the extreme situation quasi-aesthetic?” (35)

Levi indeed observes that Schmitt’s image of transgression “evokes the Russian formalists’ idea of estrangement, or ostranenie“, except that instead of “calling into question […] outmoded moral and political conventions […] Schmitt’s estrangement seems designed rather to give one a sense of the awesome sovereign power authorizing and enforcing the laws that govern everyday behavior. Shklovsky’s estrangement ruptures everyday conventions to change the status quo; Schmitt’s exception works to reinforce it” (Levi “Schmitt” 36). Is this, then, the mode of “aesthetics” critics of Schmitt have in mind when they use the term pejoratively?

It would seem not, in that the more progressive theories with which Schmitt’s is contrasted do “not assume that the aesthetic component of a political idea automatically disqualifies it from the realm of politics proper”. Benjamin’s much-touted remarks in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” are for this reason largely inapplicable here, a fact Levi conveys succinctly when he observes that Benjamin’s point was that, for some — e.g. Marinetti, — war, specifically, was “already a work of art”. “Aestheticization” was thus, for Benjamin, more a “mode of perception” than a component of political theory per se (at least in this instance), although, in a different sense entirely, Schmitt does at times define the political “as anintensity, so that any conflict or opposition, once it attains a certain degree of existential antagonism, becomes political” (Levi “Schmitt” 30), a proposition with which Benjamin would most certainly have agreed.

With the more polemical understandings of “aestheticization” out of the way, Levi then turns to Schmitt’s own views on the matter, noting in passing that, “As it happens, Schmitt takes great pains to encourage his readers not to think about politics as aesthetic. What is ultimately so interesting, even amusing, about the charge of aestheticization against Schmitt is that it targets precisely those situations that Schmitt himself thinks distinguish the political from the aesthetic” (Levi “Schmitt” 37). Schmitt in fact spends a great deal of time trying to separate the latter from the former. “The aesthetic,” Levi observes, “functions as a kind of disturbing presence that Schmitt repeatedly disavows” (Levi “Schmitt” 37).

Linking this phenomena to “contemporary diatribes against postmodern irony, especially during the soul-searching that took place in the United States for a few weeks after September 11, 2001” (39), Levi then proceeds to enumerate Schmitt’s identification of “aesthetics” with decadent European bourgeoisie “arts and entertainment”, which for Schmitt categorically functions as the fundamental obstacle to the political. Though Schmitt, and perhaps decisionism in general, does view the arts as a purely negative force, they are nonetheless seen as a powerful and inextricable force acting on, or within, political forces. For Schmitt, the dominance of an “aesthetic perception” announces and prepares political defeat.

“Schmitt sees the aesthetic as the existential negation of the political in two apparently contradictory ways. On the one hand, he suggests that the dominance of aesthetic perception is a precursor to destruction of the Lebensform, to political defeat: “Everywhere in political history the incapacity or the unwillingness to make [the] distinction [between friend and enemy] is a symptom of the political end” (The Concept of the Political, 68). For example, before the Revolution the Russian bourgeoisie romanticized the Russian peasant, he says, while “a relativistic bourgeoisie in a confused Europe searched all sorts of exotic cultures for the purpose of making them an object of its aesthetic consumption” (CP, 68). For Schmitt, romanticization and exoticization of the other are modes of aestheticization. Aesthetic consumption, he thinks, is a condition, like [page] consumption proper, with fatal consequences. It negates political perception—negates, that is, the ability to recognize a mortal threat when one sees it.” (Levi “Schmitt” 38–39)

This final point, which concludes Levi’s piece, points to the limits of the “aestheticization” hypothesis — in several ways. For one, it shows how explicitly-militant political doctrines like Schmitt’s must in the end rely upon a paradoxical relation between aesthetic forms and political disavowals thereof. The bourgeoise romanticiziation of the Russian peasant, much like, say, contemporary American exoticizations of the Middle East, was a form of enmity, not a distraction from it. Indeed, in light of the extensive work on cultural mechanisms of colonial control, represented most forcefully by Said’sOrientalism, Schmitt’s opposing of “romanticization” to “enemy” seems symptomatic of his own clearly militant (not to mention proto-Nazi) political doctrine. Levi’s paper serves to highlight this important distinction, and in the process re-focuses attention away from the aesthetic image summoned up by political discourses to the cultural role of art and aesthetics assigned bythose theories, which is something else entirely.

The Art of the Commercial Break

Now that I’ve switched from Comcast to AT&T, and seem to only watch pre-recorded programs off the DVR, I’ve become a little more attuned to the importance of the commercial break. We may say we hate it, but when it’s gone, or artificially eliminated rather, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something important is missing. And sure enough, in  two new studies reviewed by The New York Times, researchers who study consumer behavior argue that, in fact, “interrupting an experience, whether dreary or pleasant, can make it significantly more intense”.

“The punch line is that commercials make TV programs more enjoyable to watch. Even bad commercials,” said Leif Nelson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of California, San Diego, and a co-author of the new research. “When I tell people this, they just kind of stare at me, in disbelief. The findings are simultaneously implausible and empirically coherent.”

Whether or not Nelson’s findings are intuitive on some level — our anticipation for the commercial break to end does, after all, reinforce its existence — it’s the interpretation that really matters. Now, one could of course read these results as evidence of some ‘deep’ psychological function that thrives on “interruption”, which seems to be Nelson’s perspective, but even if this is the case, generally speaking, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the TV drama itself is written for commercial breaks — which is to say, the commercial’s interruption is less random and disruptive than strategic and productive.

As a matter of fact, every guide to writing for TV spends considerable time discussing how to account for the commercial break in the structure of the plot and timing of events. (Which perhaps explains why the researchers found little variation in results across all kinds of content. In this regard, the interruption is hardly an interruption.) So, technically speaking, the commercial break itself is built into, on a deeper level than otherwise suggested, the story it’s supposed to ‘interrupt’.

In this guide, for instance, Evan Smith devotes a chapter to negotiating the distinction between ‘dramatic structure’ and ‘broadcast format’. The tension between them — irreconcilable, to be sure — in many ways reproduces the familiar struggle between commercial conditions and artistic endeavors (–which despite their presumed animosity must ultimately come together). As Smith puts it, rather succinctly:

“Here is where things get confusing. The timing of commercial breaks does not necessarily coincide with the transitions between threedramatic acts in a typical episode.” (99)

As TV watchers, we know this intuitively. How many times have we seen an old movie written in anticipation of its eventual consignment to TV, only to find that the commercial break structure they expected has since changed? The awkward flash-fades to black peppered throughout (almost unnoticeably), followed by cuts to a resumed action that the writers clearly wanted us to have to anticipate, are in this regard strange, archaeological signs of a former age, not evidence of a permanent, evolutionary form of ‘interruption’.

It’s this kind of subtle, almost meaningless, dissonance that reveals just how conventional, and non-interruptive, the commercial break really is. There’s an art to it, after all. So much so that it’s practically a credit and a compliment to the writers that their work is now attributed to our brains instead of theirs.