Small Talk in the Worlds of WEIRD and un-WEIRD

“Save oxygen: stamp out small talk.”
Thus Spake Aforista

jpegI seldom agree wholeheartedly with the Postfuturist Sage Aforista, but I’m right on board with this saying. Whenever small talk starts, Pat and I both glaze over and remain in a quasi-catatonic state until the conversation returns to something real. As someone who loves language and works with it every day, I find small talk downright offensive. I once had an English teacher who loathed slang, calling it an “abuse of language.” I actually like slang, and agree with Steven Pinker that it enriches and enlarges language. But small talk is another matter. It does use up precious oxygen, and it clutters up the brain.

Call me a snob if you like. I don’t see it that way. Here’s what I’ve always thought: When human beings lived closer to nature and to each other, surely nobody wasted time on pointless blather. Surely small talk is a sign of language in its decadence; we “civilized” people talk in inanities because we don’t give our brains enough meaningful stuff to think about. We’re mentally just plain lazy.

But Jared Diamond’s new book, The World Until Yesterday, has given me cause to reconsider. Subtitled “What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”, Diamond’s book reflects upon years of fieldwork among people living traditional lifestyles. It is an unsentimental assessment of what we in the world of WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) have to learn from traditional peoples. Diamond points out that small talk was hardly invented by us WEIRD people:

I have been impressed by how much more time New Guineans spend talking with each other than do we Americans and Europeans. They keep up a running commentary on what is happening now, what happened this morning and yesterday, who ate what and when, who urinated when and where, and minute details of who said what about whom or did what to whom. They don’t merely fill the day with talk: from time to time through the night they wake up and resume talking. That makes it difficult for a Westerner like me, accustomed to nights spent in uninterrupted sleep and not punctuated with conversations, to get a good night’s rest in a hut shared with many New Guineans.

So these uncorrupted children of nature are not communicating gems of ancient wisdom; they’re engaged in the idlest possible chat about food and bodily functions and what have you. (Diamond calls it “gossip” because it consists of people talking about other people; I call it “small talk” because it is about trivialities. Let’s just treat the two terms as interchangeable.) What’s more, explains Diamond, small talk serves perfectly valid functions in the non-WEIRD world. In a society lacking in mass media, it is a justly valued form of entertainment; in a community where interdependence is crucial, it is a way to create and sustain social relationships; in a habitat where danger is everywhere, it is a source of precious information about every possible contingency.

But in his review of Diamond’s book, Steven Mithin goes further …

The value of gossip provides one of the best theories for the evolution of language among our hominin ancestors …

I can’t say I much like this possibility. I prefer Julian Jaynes’s idea that the first words were warnings: not nouns or even verbs, but modifiers like “far,” “near,” “slow,” or “fast”—utterances to communicate the proximity of danger and the urgency to do something about it. That idea appeals to me, because it suggests that language has its origins in matters of life and death importance.

But maybe it’s just not so. Maybe primordial language was all about bowel movements, embarrassing physical mishaps, and spur-of-the-moment sexual encounters—a cultural step lower even than People magazine.

Surely none of this justifies the continued use of small talk by our species. As Diamond also points out, we crave salt and carbohydrates because they were once so hard to come by; now that we’ve got them in abundance, such cravings have become hazardous to our health. It seems to me that our craving for small talk is likewise toxic—an adaptation that has long since turned maladaptive, causing the mental equivalents of hypertension and diabetes. If we can cut down on unhealthy substances at the dinner table, can’t we do the same on Facebook and Twitter?


9k=I must admit that I’m fairly obsessed with the ideas of the late psychologist Julian Jaynes. If you’ve been following these posts, I’m sure you’ve noticed. Just about everything that Pat and I write has been influenced by his mind-blowing classic, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Our latest visionary novel Mayan Interface is steeped in his thinking.

I recently finished reading The Julian Jaynes Collection, a splendid new anthology of Jaynesiana edited by Marcel Kuijsten. I found the last half of the book to be a special treat. Consisting of interviews and discussions, it brings me closer to the man himself than I ever hoped to get.

Here’s an exchange that I particularly like. In an interview with Sam Keen, Jaynes says this about the ongoing evolution of human consciousness:

We are still in transition, entering into the gateways of a different kind of mentality.

At the end of the interview, Keen comes back to this point:

It would seem that we are becoming freer. Is history pushing us toward enlightenment, toward waking up from the illusion that we must be blindly obedient to external authorities?

I love Jaynes’s reply:

What interests me is the metaphors you use: freedom, awakening, the passage from darkness to light. You are creating or changing consciousness by metaphors. In my value system, the effect of those metaphors is to strengthen the individual, to change consciousness for the better. But I am mostly aware of what the metaphors are doing. When you ask me what we are becoming, it is like asking me to choose one of a thousand roads. It’s like asking how history is going to end up. To ask for an end or a purpose is to ask for a single path. And consciousness is always open to many possibilities. It is always an adventure.

Pat and I put it this way in an interview with each other:

Our protagonists learn to abdicate certainty and safety. Life is risk. Transformation means never knowing what will happen next—or even what or who you will become. Nothing that’s evolving ever knows exactly where it’s going.

Shared Story

How much are we shaped by stories told by others?

I left that question hanging at the end of my last post. As it happens, the ever-popular neurologist Oliver Sacks touched on it in a recent article. In his 2001 memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Sacks recalled a childhood incident that took place during the London Blitz of 1940-41. Here’s how he described it in his book:

[A]n incendiary bomb, a thermite bomb, fell behind our house and burned with a terrible, white-hot heat. My father had a stirrup pump, and my brothers carried pails of water to him, but water seemed useless against this infernal fire—indeed, made it burn even more furiously. There was a vicious hissing and sputtering when the water hit the white-hot metal, and meanwhile the bomb was melting its own casing and throwing blobs and jets of molten metal in all directions.

Not surprisingly, the incident was seared on Sacks’s memory in fearsome detail. But after his memoir was published, Sacks found out something alarming. He hadn’t been at home during the time of the firebombing. He had learned about it via a letter from his brother—a letter so vivid that the incident eventually became, for him, indistinguishable from a true memory.

Sacks’s error prompted him to consider how our memories can be altered by written accounts, photographs, verbal narratives, and countless other sources. He realized that “source confusion” leads not only to “fallibilities, frailties, and imperfections” of memory, but to “great flexibility and creativity”:

It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge. This sort of sharing and participation, this communion, would not be possible if all our knowledge, our memories, were tagged and identified, seen as private, exclusively ours. Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Devoted as we are to the topic of Story (with a capital S), and also to collaboration, Pat and I might put it this way:

Consciousness itself is an act of collaborative storytelling.

So to return to my question, “How much are we shaped by stories told by others?” The answer would seem to be, “Enormously.” And all of our lives are richer for it. As the late psychologist Julian Jaynes pithily put it,

We are all subjects, one of another.

Bureaucratic Mummies

1491-coverI’m currently reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, by Charles C. Mann. If you haven’t read it, it’s absolutely breathtaking. It not only shatters the hoary belief in a sparsely populated pre-Columbian America, but also demonstrates that the “New World” stumbled upon by Columbus and subsequent Europeans was anything but “new.” State-of-the art research suggests, as Mann puts it, that “people were thriving from Alaska to Chile while much of northern Europe was still empty of mankind and its works.” Indeed, the Peruvian ruins of Aspero, currently under excavation, may turn out to be the site of “the world’s oldest city—the place where human civilization began.” Think about that for a minute!

One passage from Mann’s book that especially fascinates me has to do with Inka mummies:

When the Inka [ruler] died his panaqa [royal lineage] mummified his body. Because the Inka was believed to be an immortal deity, his mummy was treated, logically enough, as if it were still living. Soon after arriving in Qosqo, Pizarro’s companion Miguel Estete saw a parade of defunct emperors. They were brought out on litters, “seated on their thrones and surrounded by pages and women with flywhisks in their hands, who ministered to them with as much respect as if they had been alive.”

“Logically enough,” indeed. And it seems that these mummified emperors were hardly “defunct”:

… [A]s Pedro Pizarro [cousin of conquistador Francisco Pizarro] realized, “the greater part of the people, treasure, expenses, and vices … were under the control of the dead.” The mummies spoke through female mediums who represented the panaqa’s surviving courtiers or their descendants. With almost a dozen immortal emperors jostling for position.… Inka society had a serious mummy problem.

In today’s parlance, it was government gridlock at its most exasperating. Worst of all, the mummies actually quarreled with one another, promoting different claimants to the Inka throne and provoking actual civil wars. What on earth was going on in such a culture? The possibilities seem stark:

  • The Inka’s bureaucracy of mummies represented nothing more than superstitious ancestor-worship gotten way out of hand.
  • “Talking mummies” were simply an elaborate con devised by an arrogant ruling class to lord it over a gullible populace.

Perhaps I’m just not cynical enough to accept these scenarios, which strike me as unworthy of what was then one of the most advanced cultures on the planet. And it doesn’t seem to me that Mann is settling for them either. A third possibility strikes me as more plausible:

  • The minds of the Inka were different from our own.

What I mean to suggest—“logically enough”—is that the mummies were heard to speak, and that they actually did wield civic authority; superstition, obfuscation, and gullibility had nothing to do with the issue.

I’m sure that the late psychologist Julian Jaynes, author of the extraordinary 1979 book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, would have much of interest to say about Inka mummies. I suspect that he would have found in their authority vestiges of the bicameral mind—a mentality that, according to Jaynes, preceded modern consciousness. Because people of ancient civilizations lacked a centralized, self-reflective sense of identity, they relied on auditory hallucinations to direct their decisions. These hallucinations were the original “gods.”

This idea has always been controversial, to say the least—as have Jaynes’s other stunning hypotheses about language, hypnosis, schizophrenia, literature, human history, and cognition in general. But ongoing discoveries in archeology, anthropology, and neuroscience seem to support Jaynesian thinking more and more, as editor Marcel Kuijsten reveals in his invaluable 2006 anthology Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness: Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited.

When Pat and I discovered Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness back in the 1980s, it thoroughly blew our minds. I suspect that every single novel we’ve written together has reflected Jaynes’s ideas in some way. This is especially true of our latest book, Mayan Interface, which is at least partly a rumination on the “collapse” of the Classic Maya, the end of an age of magnificent monuments to gods and father-mothers. Why did it happen? One astute reviewer stated one of our story’s overarching questions quite nicely: “When God or gods fail, is it the fault of the deity or the worshipers?”

The question pertains to the bureaucratic mummies of the Inka, the Mayan collapse, and the precarious state of our own civilization—and it is much more than a question of belief. Mayan Interface opens with a quote from Morris Berman’s book Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West:

Certain cognitive shifts can occur in a civilization that are so profound that there seems to be almost no mental continuity between one epoch and the next.… It is not merely a question of conflicting theories that is at issue here; rather, what is actually seen, felt, and experienced in the world is radically different.

What Pat and I seek to explore in Mayan Interface is the ever-evolving, ever-changing quality of being human. We put no stock in the current school of thought that holds human nature to be fixed and unchanging. Oscar Wilde expressed our viewpoint perfectly in his great 1891 essay The Soul of Man Under Socialism:

Oscar_Wilde_by_Napoleon_Sarony_(1821-1896)_Number_18_b.jpegThe only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it. The systems that fail are those that rely on the permanency of human nature, and not on its growth and development.