Your husband takes you out for dinner for no other reason than he loves you (definitely not to get laid). He takes you to an Indian restaurant. He holds the restaurant door open for you, and you’re accosted by a hot odor of curry, peppers, maybe the bathroom in the back. Husband says to Get Over It, Food’s Amazing. And it is.
But the food isn’t the point. The point is the smells; they make you hungry. And you sit down, and when the menus get there you’re still starving but you no longer smell the curry and the pepper and the cologne your husband poured down his shirt.
Your brain has processed these sensations and moved its awareness towards something else.
At work, sitting in your desk chair, you can’t feel your socks on your feet and you aren’t aware of your undershirt until the tag itches. Your mind has processed these sensations and moved on.
Walking down the street, you don’t notice the trees and the neon greens on the undersides of the leaves. You don’t realize the amount of steel used to construct 60 stories of structural integrity that doesn’t topple over; you don’t realize you are moving across the face of a planet that is rotating and revolving around a massive thermo-nuclear ball of fire.
Our minds take in information – about your sensory perceptions, knowledge, emotions, circumstances, memories – processes the information, and moves awareness onto something else.
This is called Habitualization or Over-Automatization. Yes, there are words for everything. The idea of Habitualization comes out of Russian Formalism, a literary school of thought from the early 20th century.
From Viktor Shklovsky’s Art as Technique:
“If we start to examine the general laws of perception, we see that as perception becomes habitual, it becomes automatic. Thus, for example, all of our habits retreat into the area of the unconsciously automatic; if one remembers the sensations of holding a pen or of speaking in a foreign language for the first time and compares that with his feeling at performing the action for the ten thousandth time, he will agree with us.”
Shklovsky goes on to recant an anecdote:
“I was cleaning and, meandering about, approached the divan and couldn’t remember whether or not I had dusted it. Since these movements are habitual and unconscious I could not remember and felt that it was impossible to remember – so that if I had dusted it and forgot – that is, had acted unconsciously, then it was the same as if I had not. If some conscious person had been watching, then the fact could be established. If, however, no one was looking, or looking on unconsciously, if the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been.
“And so life is reckoned as nothing. Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.”
Russian Formalism prescribes Defamiliarization as a way to remove an object or action from Habitualization. From Introduction: Formalisms, by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan:
Defamiliarization means to present “objects or experiences from such an unusual perspective or in such unconventional and self-conscious language that our habitual, ordinary, rote perceptions of those things are disturbed. We are forced to see things that had become automatic and overly-familiar in new ways.”
Art, and specifically literature, was the method of defamiliarizing the habitual, work-a-day, inane, vacuous aspects – every aspect – of existence.
I blame evolution for Habitualization. We can’t stop to appreciate blades of grass each time we pass a field, or pull over the side of a road to gawk amazement at a passing train. We would get nothing done, and we’d all die in rapt amazement of sunshine.
And so our brains perceive only the immediate and the necessary. You see a tree and your brain understands everything the tree can do for you: chop it to make wood for your house, eat its fruit, cool-off in its shade, build your kid a tree-house. The first time you use a typewriter you are amazed by the smooth efficiency of so many minute moving mechanisms, the fluidity of font tapping onto paper – the moments of appreciation dwindle as you type through pages and the object becomes known only by what it can offer.
Habitualization is the process by which we lose appreciation in inverse-proportion to our understanding of what the object (or event or circumstance) can do for us. Habitualization is extrinsic understanding replacing intrinsic appreciation.
When we perceive a thing our brains define the thing by the possibilities it can offer us – we understand its immediate extrinsic value, the value which the object can offer us. We have little need to understand the inherent value of a shrub, or a squirrel, or a cloud, or our neighbor or job or car, little need to understand the value a thing has in-and-of itself.
It is a natural greed and self-centeredness by which we perceive our world. To dismiss the necessity of this would be to dismiss human civilization and the progress of it. (It is possible for us to live indigenously, with constant appreciation, but we wouldn’t have the internet or telescopes or 3D-printing.)
But this extrinsic perception saps the beauty from the world, subordinating all aspects of existence to the promotion of self.
There is no time to awe the 200-year-old oak giant that spreads up and out into the air, down and into the Earth, a massive conduit transferring matter between ground and sky. There is no time to appreciate the ancient glacial behemoths which crept across the continent carving cliffs and valleys and the Beauty of the Badlands; no time to meditate that you are, in fact, on a cart 10 inches over the ground that is rushing at 80 miles an hour across the face of a planet drifting lonesome in perpetual emptiness; no time to love the way your wife sifts through junk-store boxes of yellow newspapers collecting dead accounts of American history.
There is nothing but the self-centered manipulation of existence and not a modicum of beauty left to the desiccated remains of what has been used and left forgotten.
Art, for the Russian Formalist at least, is the refreshment of perception, a mind-soak of the intrinsic beauty each aspect of life has in-and-of itself. Art is defamiliarization; art is forgetting the names and definitions and purposes and uses and just perceiving, truly, what an object is and not what it is for.
From Jim Morrison (Soul Kitchen):
“Well your fingers weave quick minarets
Speak in secret alphabets
I light another cigarette
Learn to forget.
Learn to forget.
Learn to forget.”
“The only ones for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the night stars.”
From every counter-culture punk, beatnik, goth, Merry Prankster and vagabond who refuses to witness existence as a machine of things and people to abuse but instead to empty their heads of manufactured thought-processes and dye hair hot orange, shred their Levi’s, baseball-bat their Honda Accords, paint bodies in neon colors and dance a forgotten understanding of life’s beautiful and purposeless rhythm.
Stay up all night and wait the dawn, standing beneath the Weeping Willow and the clear sunrise across the lake, gazing up and forgetting, consciousness erased, and let your heart succumb to the unrelenting awe of the orange and yellow streaks coming through hair-strands of tree-life that breathe the lake air.
Gaze up at the skyscraper and the glass panels reflecting sunset, your self dwarfed by the immensity of human ingenuity and determination, and again your heart reeling to the bottomless rhythm that this building is one in-and-of itself, and it is beautiful. And so is the parking garage an incomprehensible maze of concrete and shadows, and your neighbor Bill a beauty of model airplanes and soup-kitchen volunteering, and the squirrel in your tree a beautiful survivor of suburban sprawl capable of simple survival on acorns and sticks and the little hollow in your flush-white dogwood.
May your life be a work of art.