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Stony Brook Innovation Center Blog

What CAN'T Be Innovated: The Man Who Wasn't THERE

Jul 13 2016

The most helpful topic for an Innovation Center blog would seem to be examining whether innovativeness can be instilled in people the way installing computer programs enables us to do different things, and if so, how is it downloaded, or learned?  Is there a single Skill Set underpinning all the other attributes that are identifiable in the majority of innovators, short of the few savants floating around, and even there?  Do innovations like the light bulb and Internet arise out of nowhere, or evolve as species do: putting similar things together again and again, and how is that done?  

Your day breaks, your mind aches
There will be times when all the things
She said will fill your head
You won't forget her

And in her eyes, you see nothing
No sign of love behind the tears
Cried for no one
A love that should have lasted years

“For No One” by John Lennon  / Paul McCartney

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All of the king’s horses and all of the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

I’ve referred to books—some might say, hammered at them—with titles like The Virtual Index and How the Modern Age Is Rewiring Your Brain, whose thrust is as self-evident as the truth of the evidence they put forth, BUT … to the best of my recollection, they only go so far in making their case.  As scientists, their hands are tied by data and protocols beyond that and other factual information: institutions and the thousands of legalities (and funding sources) in which they are intertwined and vested.  This is why De Quincey wrote “The Literature of Knowledge and The Literature of Power.”  The truth of situations cannot be revealed by science; survival rates don’t describe the drama of hopes and fears, or lives wasted because people have lost the power to connect fully with those dear to them in their heart of hearts that is lost to them from constant use of superficial communiques on devices, buried under a virtual reality that has supplanted this one.
The mind is not only empirical.  Dreams offer extensive, definitive proof of our ability to imagine specific landscapes and rooms, often with specific people and objects in intricate detail, that we have never set eyes on in real life.  Even awake, we envision how forthcoming events will occur, then after they have, we continue to envision how else they might have occurred and what may come of the event in future.
Far-fetched as it may seem at face value, the often peculiar distortion of reality that we observe in most art considered worthy to display in museums, is an honest attempt to depict how distortedly the overwhelming majority of people experience reality.  Epilepsy doesn’t explain Van Gogh’s Starry Night.  His letters do.
The central UNDERLYING theme of ALL mankind’s works that last, from the Parthenon to … who knows?—maybe this—is that the way reality is put together in it provides a road map for putting it together, yourself.  Learning that is why you are here at the university, on the planet. 
A Third Grade girl threw her arms around me in the hall of a school one day a decade ago.  "What's the MATTER?" I asked.  I'd written down the name of a Schubert piece I was humming in her class a few weeks earlier.  "It's SO sad when you're not here, and I'm the only one who knows the music!" she says.  “That’s why he wrote it,” I told her.  “You can learn to paint how you feel, play the music, yourself, write your own music about that, or tell the whole story.  Then learn how to share what YOU did, so other people can learn from your experience.

Perhaps THE most prevalent theme, or idea, throughout literature, is pretense or disguise.  The symbol of drama is a mask, not a face.  All the world not only is a stage; we are all actors.  The Question is, not just “Who ARE you?” as the Caterpillar poses to Alice in Wonderland, but ARE you THERE at all?  Most of Otto Rank’s (one of Freud’s renowned disciples) book,Beyond Psychology, is devoted to Dostoevsky’s short novel, The Double, about someone being replaced by someone other than himself everywhere, who turns out to be none other than … him now.  A friend had the same feeling soon after getting divorced and going back to the home he bought, most of whose yard he cleared by hand, and had the scars from a detached bicep to remember the whole scenario by, only someone else was mowing his lawn now and checking the mail in his mailbox.  A cousin’s teenage daughters told him, by way of pleading to stop leaving their home for weekends with him, that they could no longer remember him ever being their father, meaning the man who woke them each morning and tucked them in each night and sat at meals with them, despite ten years of dutiful visitations and still having to pay for their college educations from his meagre salary.  More than one Twilight Zone episode explored this phenomenon.  My guess is, we’ve all been, or will be there at some point.  I would guess that most of the 10,000 or so people at Lehman Brothers had the same, “This can’t be happening to me” bewilderment upon learning, the morning after the economic debacle began, that the company vanished right from under their noses the night before, as they carried their personal effects out in boxes.
But those are extreme examples.  I’m more interested in the person text messaging other people when they are with someone or a group, whom they had arranged to be with beforehand, and repeating that when they get to the next venue; who dances around the subject of someone who betrayed them once, ignoring it for propriety’s sake, and seems unable to help keep falling in love, or making it stick: The Person Who Isn’t There. Their world becomes more and more egocentric as they vanish.  They cannot help but lose sight of the larger picture that encompasses others’ points of view and ways of doing things.  They have lost touch with reality altogether and are functionally blind to seeing, for example, that a large, empty, glass beer mug left precariously on the edge of a bathroom sink might easily be knocked off by someone else.  The person whose home it is, who walks barefoot throughout the house all summer, doesn’t exist.  The fact that shards of glass may scatter far beyond the original crash area that was swept up, and be spread even farther when walked on with sandals during the cleanup; that brooms and vacuum cleaners aren’t perfect, anyway, doesn’t matter.  When such situations repeat themselves again and again, causing conflict on up to the day of their departure, real tears well up in their eyes, only … they are tears of rage for being countermanded at every turn by the people refusing to be steamrolled, tears of sorrow for being unappreciated, for no one knowing how much they are loved, without realizing that everything they did gave evidence, to the contrary, of how little they actually did love them. In 1864, Dostoevsky published a novella called Notes from Underground; in other words literally having crawled into a hole, as the expression is known. About fifty years later, Kafka published Metamorphosis, about waking up as a cockroach one morning.  As supreme examples of self-effacement, they transcend to a glorious self-awareness without glorifying it for a moment.  If The People Who Aren’t There had even an inkling that they aren’t, they might similarly save themselves and salvage what is left of their lives.  That is my fond hope here.

“Not to lose time, not to get caught, 
Not to be left behind, not, please! to resemble 
The beasts who repeat themselves, or a thing like water 
Or stone whose conduct can be predicted, these 
Are our common prayer …”
“In Praise of Limestone,” by W.H Auden

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