Monday, 19 July 2010

Subjective Reality: Where is the real New York?

"We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are" Anais Nin .
"The map is not the territory" Alfred Korzybski.
For months before I visit a new place, I hold within me a sense of what the place will be like like. I imagine what the people will be like and what sights, sounds and smells that I will experience when I arrive. If I visit a new city I might study maps of the road layouts around the hotel where I am going to be staying, watch video reportage from it's streets and imagine the different types of food I will eat. For all of my in depth research, these pre-experience activities can never come close to describing the experience of actually being in the place, it is never the same.  In one hour in New York you will know as much about the "New Yorkness" of New York than you could in a lifetime of study.  I desperately wanted to visit New York when I was a teenager.  The city as it existed in my mind was constructed from a hugely detailed database of images and sounds, friends descriptions, food tastes, films, graphic art, television shows and a hundred other secondary sources.  But a construct is all that it was, and such is all pre-experience understanding in life.  

But which is more real, the visceral sense experience of being alive in New York at that particular minute? Or the extensive knowledge of history and culture that a lifetime of learning about a place can bring? Are they as real as each other?  Is my experience of standing on a New York street any more real that my ad-hoc collection of a priori New York knowledge? I say this because no matter how many times I am waiting to travel, no matter how much i think I know what to expect, experiencing a place first hand has always blown my previous perceptions out of the water. I will always end up saying to myself, "This place is nothing like I expected it to be."

Of course an obvious answer is to say that in order to "know", or to have more authentic understanding of a place or thing it is always better to have both prior knowledge and also direct experience of it.  The trouble with this answer for me is that even though i have now been to New York a number of times, the thing that reminds me of the place the most, that gives me the Proustian rush of a whole body memory of New Yorkness, is listening to this piece of music, Angela by Bob James.  

I heard this song every week whilst growing up in Coventry, years before I ever went to the States, and yet listening to it reminds me of the New York I visited 25 years later.  The theme from Taxi is as much a part of my experience of New York as central park zoo and the smell of side-walk hot dogs. I consciously know that this facet of my New York knowledge relates to a vision of the place that is romanticised and created entirely for TV, but my subconscious doesn't care, it treats the experience of primary source material and secondary fictional source material as being of equal value; In fact it selects the secondary material as being more representative of the thing itself!

Unravelling the spaghetti-like network of thoughts that one has about where our understanding of any particular thing, idea or moral value comes from is practically impossible.  Our views are made up of such a huge web of learning, experience and myth that the best we can hope to do is have an inkling of the stereotypes and predudices that we hold in our minds.    But we don't need to understand where our prejudices and beliefs come from in absolute detail, we only need to know that our views are pretty likely to be best guess assumptions based on a limited number of the total facts available to us at any particular time.  Accept that some of the feelings and beliefs that you hold dear may very well be based on shaky foundations and whenever you feel yourself drifting into a certaintist position think of Ben Goldacre's brilliant phrase and tell yourself "I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that". Taking an interest in this difficult area of self knowledge and identity forces us to ask some very tricky questions about who we are and exactly what it is that we believe to be true.  What is quality? What is moral? What tastes nice? Which music is the best? Is TV bad for kids? What is the best way to bring up my children? Is Israel justified in its policy towards Gaza? Does Homoeopathy work? What is truth?

I believe that Robert Anton Wilson had a sensible idea.  He described himself as a "model agnostic" and believed that one should never regard "one model or map of the universe with total 100% belief or total 100% denial."  He also said, in Cosmic Trigger, that "belief is the death of intelligence".  Sage advice I think.

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