Outsider Inside Out

On Perdido Street Station and the flow of reading…

For anyone who has read China Miéville’s fiction, it can almost feel like a cliché to talk about his portrayal of the outsider and those outside of “polite society.”  It is in many ways a mandatory manifestation of his personal politics, to the point that it becomes a meta-theme among his collected works, whatever their subject matter.  In his visions of strange and often horror-inducing things, the only thing that can redeem someone is their lack of participation in any part of ordinary society.  Their outsider status is like a step down the path towards a kind of half-possible redemption.

The idea of the outsider from “polite society” is, of course, a staple in most speculative fiction.  It is a trope that echoes through fantasy, with nearly every protagonist somehow cut off from the approval and embrace of the people, institutions, and world around them in some form or fashion.  Where that drives the plot is, of course, where variation runs the gamut.  Some stories feature the quest to create normality and to find a place in the world – this is particularly a trope of bildungsroman/coming-of-age stories.  Others rely on the outsider status as a kind of savior figure requirement – one could even argue that this is a feature of religious belief in the idea of Jesus’ being a prophet in his own town that could never be appreciated by it, Gautama Buddha becoming a castaway from his royal birthplace, or the idea of Mohammed wandering off into the desert, a failed merchant of Mecca, and returning wild-eyed and filled with bloodlust to build an empire out of the synergy of Abrahamic and traditional South Arabian religious and cultural products.

I find myself often identifying with this outsider trope, to the degree that when I come across a protagonist like, say, Quentin Coldwater of The Magicians I am initially unsure if I can sympathize enough with him to inveigle myself into his upbringing among the comfortable world of elite northeastern education and tradition.  But even he, despite his social and intellectual success, is inevitably cast as an outsider almost unto himself.  Reconciling that feeling of alienation becomes critical to developing characters and plots, whether revolutionary or reactionary in their natures.

Something that differentiates authors of speculative fiction especially is their portrayal of an understanding of what it feels like to be an outsider, the longing for approval and acceptance, the bitter embrace of the self for what it is, or the redemptive reconciliation of finding a place in the world.  I posit that this most often comes from the way that authors often picture themselves – not integral to their worlds, but rather in many ways exiles from whatever notion of normality pervades the times and places they inhabit.  What authors, then, do differently is instead of simply rebelling, destroying, reforming, or effecting control and change, is to tell stories that soothe that desire through the intellectual comfort of words.  Most fantasy offers at least a glimmer of hope, even Miéville’s dark and largely unrelenting works designed to unsettle and evoke a desire to fix a broken system.

Chasing those glimmers of hope has been a passion of mine as a reader since I was very small.  At this point, thirty-one years into my life, I read almost compulsively.  When I stop reading and have to consider my own place within the world and “the system” and nearly any sociopolitical landscape, I find that I am dissatisfied and frustrated by the way that no matter what frame I choose to look through, I can never quite climb through that frame and find a pattern of life that feels gratifying and meaningful.  I know I am not alone in that sense.

So, instead, like the gamblers in Addiction by Design, I seek out the flow-state of speed-reading, where the words blur together into images like Muybridge kinetic photograpy spun at a rate that blurs the individual shots too much to be clear, but enough to be discernable.  I devour books, slide across the lumpy lines of letters like a slug escaping the sun of social disavowal and a sense of near-constant dislocation from my surroundings.  This flow state of reading and consuming books instead of merely reading them slowly and thoughtfully has been both rewarding and disturbing by turns.  Sometimes it leads me to miss details and mis-remember things from non-fiction or fiction alike.  Other times it means that I can comprehend the feelings and intentions of the works more acutely than if I were to read out loud, approaching each word as a separate symbol demanding detailed decoding.  I often wonder what it feels like for other people to read books, or to read my own words, and I know that that gets into ideas of qualia and perception and individuality, and passes out of the realm of vocabulary and precise words and into art, poetry, and empathy.

What has always driven me to imagine and create things is a desire to share that way that I experience things like music, good writing, and ideas with other people.  I want to show them the good parts of my mind and explore the wild vistas of my dreams and imaginings.  On the one hand, it feels quite selfish. On the other, it feels very generous.  It underlies a lot of the way that I spend days overanalyzing how others interact with me, or I with them, in hopes that I have somehow managed to find common ground with their own perspective or experience.

I was speaking with one of my coworkers today about this whole topic.  I brought up how I experience film and how it generates, mysteriously, this kind of heightened sensation of the world around me from sounds to textures to the edges of objects.  My mind becomes a cinemtographer of reality for a few minutes or hours, and I enjoy reality much more than when I am slogging through an ordinary day of work or listless boredom on a day off.  Sometimes good books, read intensely, can generate that same heightened perception, and I imagine that it has to do with sets of neurotransmitters that people attempt to harness through illicit drug use.  But what frustrated me was that I had a very limited ability to explain the sensation in a way that made sense to him through shared experience, and he did not find that he had ever experienced that sensation himself, at least in a way that lined up with my choices of words to describe it.  All the more reason to keep writing, I suppose, to reifne my ability to express things that seem at first blush to be inexpressible and weird, outsider thoughts from an outsider to every community he has moved amidst.

The Zone of Control

Or how I apparently do not have a true addiction to flow states…

Today I finished reading Addiction by Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll. As a work of anthropology, it was larded with a lot of references to French post-structuralists and various other academic conceits that seemed extraneous to the meat of the research, but overall it was a phenomenal work of what amounts to extremely long form journalism. What I found very interesting about it, applicable to my own life, was the concept of “the zone” that machine gambling addicts seek. Schüll did a very good job of capturing these people’s pursuit of a state of losing control over larger things and thus pursuing micro-control situations of repetitive, costly gambling sessions.

What applied to me, albeit not at the level of a pathological addiction, was that I can find myself in that same sort of flow state while playing a video game like Civilization V, or reading a particularly captivating book. I find that lately, being here in Qatar, I have been all too happy to more or less black out the rest of the world, including work and other people. I find myself wanting to become absorbed in something that makes me feel as though I have some control over my time and thoughts as a compensation for the sense of lack of control that pervades most of my waking hours.

Writing a full reaction to the book would take more time than I have tonight, but that flow state, and the concept of “the zone” really do accurately capture the sense of trying to nullify existence in a world that feels increasingly without meaning or the ability to alter ones circumstances in any meaningful way without breaking strictures imposed both internally an externally by the expectations and power of others around you. This concept, as Schüll attributes it, developed as a formal construct in the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is very popular in the worlds of high technology, gaming, sports, and the arts. What is particularly useful about this concept is that it gives a simple description for a very complex psychological/neurological state that is morally neutral – one can be in a flow state of abject self-destruction or brilliant creativity but the overall principle remains the same.

Another concept that sprang to mind almost immediately after reading Schüll’s description of gambling addicts and their “zone” was the prescient description of soma, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It has become something of a cliché to refer to that work when discussing the contemporary world, but I do find it a very useful referent, since we read it in ninth grade and I find that even people with a solid basic education are familiar enough with the high points to use it as a shorthand for many otherwise complex sociological and political concepts. But in a world where the World State controls all life, much as seemingly impersonal, interlocking institutions increasingly control our own, the need for escape from all responsibilities and cares, and an illusion of having the choice to do so, were critical both in Schüll’s Las Vegas and in the world of Lenina Crowne.