Monday, July 22, 2013

Hyper-cognition & empathy in "Alzheimer's horror" movies

While doing research for a talk on Alzheimer's, aliens and the avant-garde, I ran across a phrase that aptly describes our culture's values as "hyper-cognitive." How otherwise could we be living in the age of what Charlie Jane Anders calls "Alzheimer's horror." According to Anders, "it's the ultimate terror: The number of people with Alzheimer's and other age-related dementia will double in the next 20 years . . . And we're starting to get more horrific tales about forgetting, or people losing their personalities."

But if "hyper-cognition" is a must for humans, those who need to be "productive members of society," part of the horror in some Alzheimer's movies is what happens when animals tested with anti-Alzheimer's drugs get too smart for their species. Their intelligence breeds anger, and their anger causes them to lash out at their hyper-cognitive scientific masters. At least this is the case in two movies I watched recently, Deep Blue Sea (1999), and the far better Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). In the first, it's sharks that get too smart, and in the second apes. In both, humans get what's coming to them.

In both films, scientists are on the trail of drugs that will cure Alzheimer's. When these drugs are injected into animal-subjects, the animals get really smart. So smart, in fact, that the central ape in Rise begins to speak rudimentary English. At the end of the film (a clear set-up for the next) he whispers in the ear of James Franco (who else?) that he "is home" in the Redwoods outside of San Francisco, which is reeling from an incredible ape/man battle on the Golden Gate Bridge.

I'm not big on inter-species warfare. In fact, the ape movie lost me when the real action started. I was more taken by early scenes in the movie, where the scientist's father, played by John Lithgow, suffers Alzheimer's. He acts out, like a demented man (or perhaps like an ape in a strange place) by destroying his room, by threatening his caregiver. He wanders in his pajamas, ends up destroying several cars when he tries to drive away, an event that triggers the ape, Caesar's, incarceration in primate prison. But before this happens, a beautiful moment occurs between Alzheimer's sufferer and hyper-cognitive (for an ape) Caesar. It occurs at the dinner table, which is but one of the sites where Alzheimer's manifests itself. One of the primary symptoms is a person's inability to use tools. Alzheimer's sufferers, in other words, become more like apes. People forget how to use their forks and spoons and knives, or they use them in eccentric ways.

At the family table in the movie are the scientist Will (Franco), the chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) and the father, Charles (John Lithgow). Charles cannot handle his fork, approaches his plate tentatively with his instrument held backwards. While making eye contact with Will, Caesar reaches over gently and turns the fork around so that Charles can feed himself. This scene would have been moving were it to take place between human beings, but is perhaps more so when the teacher is a chimpanzee and the student an old man who used to teach piano (he knew how to use his hands, in other words).  The scene is not so much about intelligence or the ability to manipulate tools, however, as it is about empathy. Inter-species empathy is a beautiful thing. I remember when we adopted our daughter, who was three years old at the time, that she would cry at night; our old cat, Jon Stewart (another story, indeed) would approach her as if to console her. It made matters worse, as she was afraid of the cat, but his actions clearly came of fellow-feeling, concern in response to another animal's cries. So it's hardly science fiction alone that makes Caesar an empathetic character. As Lithgow puts it, "There is this tenderness where Caesar is more capable than the old man. And there is a grain of plausibility there."

The plausible, then, is what moves us. While the human being has been reduced to the level of the ape, the ape is the creature that is most humane. The plausible has less to do with cognition than with feeling. If we associate memory with cognition, forgetfulness with low intelligence, then this film gives us access to the felt idea that our hierarchy is mistaken. As Stephen G. Post argued in 1995, "The value of a human being is not diminished by forgetfulness; we must assume equal moral seating and awaken a new beneficence toward those who can no longer remember." He extrapolates from there: "A common philosophical-existential emphasis on the self's 'authenticity,' defined as a consistent set of values and sense of self over an extended period of time, excludes those whose self in increasingly fragmented and scattered."

These films, one better than the other, show us that there is as much horror in hyper-cognition as in low cognition. If the ostensible horror lies in a shark's being too smart, then an able reader of the film can see that a deeper horror lies in the way humans have treated the shark (there's an under-the-surface-animal-rights angle to both these films). The important moment in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in this reading of it, is a lesson for writers of Alzheimer's. As G. Thomas Couser writes in "Paradigms' Cost: Representing Vulnerable Subjects," "the subjects of ethnography must be Other, but should not be othered; they may be represented as different but not alien."

Here is the abstract to the talk I'm working on. I haven't entirely held to it, but the main ideas remain. Catherine Malabou's thinking about Alzheimer's has been especially helpful to me in revising my own ideas about writing Alzheimer's over the last several months.

Alzheimer's, Aliens, and the Cure of the Avant-garde

In What Should We Do With OurBrain?, philosopher Catherine Malabou argues that “any vision of the brain is necessarily political” (52). She distinguishes between “flexibility” and “plasticity,” between an identity favored by capitalism (think “flex-time,” “flexible labor”) and one that resists such flexibility by way of “plasticity.” According to Malabou, “plasticity” (from the French “plastique,” or explosive) is creative, even when it emerges from destruction. “An Alzheimer's patient,” she writes, “is the nemesis of connectionist society, the counter-model of flexibility. He is presented as a disaffiliated person: errant, without memory, asocial, without recourse.” As such, he can be compared to the homeless, illegal immigrants, or unemployed persons. All of these persons are wanderers, border-crossers, and are considered threats to stable notions of national or individual identity. I will discuss the ways in which Malabou's comparison works, in particular how the word “alien” comes to identify, and connect, the world of Alzheimer's with that of science fiction and contemporary American politics. 
I will argue that experimental writing both describes the “flexible” world and in some ways intervenes in it, proposing a “plastic” alternative. By doing critical readings of B.S. Johnson's House Mother Normal and other experimental texts on Alzheimer's, as well as of projects that bring art into Alzheimer's homes, I will show how experimental boundary-crossings not only describe the world of the Alzheimer's sufferer, but permit entry to the “home” by those not privy to the key, or the combination to open the doors themselves. The Alzheimer's home's “flexibility” (many are owned and operated by large corporations) can thus be resisted by the “plasticity” of art. The Alzheimer's patient's perceived rigidity can, then, be seen as (at least) an opening to social plasticity, to a sense of identities as plastic, fluid, wandered unattached to notions of the self that demand its “flexibility.”

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