Friday, October 5, 2012

Daniel Dennet's "Multiple Drafts model," the Cartesian Theater, and Musil's Narrative

I am reading Daniel C. Dennett's book Consciousness Explained (1991) and just came across a passage explaining what Dennet calls the "Multiple Drafts Model" as an alternative to the persistent (even if unconscious or supposedly overthrown) model of a Cartesian Theater, which presupposes a central consciousness within the brain to which all input is directed and within which all input is processed. Dennett's model is similar to my mapping of Musil's novel as an infinite proliferation of de-centered circle worlds without a center, and it seems fitting that he uses the metaphor of fiction often in his book, and, in this passage, the metaphor of drafting, editing, selecting, narrating, and streams of contents, if not of consciousness. Speaking of the non-linear, de-centralized editorial processes that occur when the brain receives input, he writes:

 "These editorial processes occur over large fractions of a second, during which time various additions, incorporations, emendations, and overwritings of content can occur, in various orders. ..What we actually experience is a product of many processes of interpretation--editorial processes, in effect.  They take in relatively raw and one-sided representations, and yield collated, revised, enhanced representations, and they take place in the streams of activity occurring in various parts of the brain.  This much is recognized by virtually all theories of perception, but now we are poised for the novel feature of the Multiple Drafts model: Feature detections or discriminations only have to be made once. That is, once a particular, 'observation' of some feature has been made, by a specialized, localized portion of the brain, the information content thus fixed does not have to be sent somewhere else to be rediscriminated by some 'master' discriminator. . . These spatially and temporally distributed content-fixations on the brain are precisely locatable in both space and time, but their onsets do not mark the onset of consciousness of their content. It is always an open question whether any particular content thus discriminated will eventually appear as an element in conscious experience [or, in Musil, as a part of the published text!], and it is a confusion, as we shall see, to ask when it becomes consciousness. These distributed content-discriminations yield, over the course of time, something rather like a narrative stream or sequence, which can be thought of as subject to continual editing by many processes distributed around in the brain, and continuing indefinitely into the future. This stream of contents is only rather like a narrative because of its multiplicity[but awfully like a Musil narrative precisely because of this multiplicity!]; at any point in time there are multiple 'drafts' of narrative fragments at various stages of editing in various places in the brain" (113).

Where, then, we might ask, if there is no central node in the pineal gland as proposed by Descartes, where then is the author? Does this mean he really is dead? I would propose that Dennett's model suggests that consciousness is not undermined or negated by its lack of central node, but that it is dispersed, simultaneous, much more complex than we once thought; but that this does not mean that we are unconscious. It would follow then that there is an author inside of each of us, but that this author looks and acts differently than we have imagined for centuries, and that Musil's novel has shown us most clearly how this author/consciousness operates. Dennet continues: "Most important, the Multiple Drafts model avoids the tempting mistake of supposing that there must be a single narrative (the 'final' or 'published' draft, you might say) that is canonical---that is the actual stream of consciousness of the subject, whether or not the experimenter (or even the subject) can gain access to it" (113).  And while the skepticism about whether or not the subject (author) or the experimenter (the reader) can gain access to the internal stream of consciousness (meaning or intent of the author?), it seems to me at least that Dennett's new model of consciousness is a modernist novelist.