Thursday, May 13, 2010

Learning to love Skinner


I wouldn't have guessed a year ago that I would be singing the praises of B.F. Skinner and behaviorism. Back in 2007, I had written the study guide for a local production of Martin McDonagh's play The Pillowman and included an article on the psychology of child-rearing. My research took me a little deeper than the popular clich├ęs of rats in mazes and babies in boxes. I knew that Skinner's "air crib" was built for comfort and relaxation, not as an experimental torture chamber for his daughters. Contrary to the sinister popular mythology, both grew up healthy and perfectly sane.

My aversion to Skinner was philosophical and temperamental. What could be more dry and reductive, I thought, than a scrupulous and obsessive focus on physical behavior? What perceptual lens was more likely to blur or destroy the vital distinction between creature and machine?

I'd spent more than a decade practicing, studying, and teaching theatre; I'd devoted myself to the excavation of inner lives. Tangled motives, fevered passions, and impossible dreams: these were my bread, butter, and jam (apricot). Behaviorism waved a dismissive hand at all of it. The men in white coats did their quiet work-- essential fluids out, formaldehyde in-- until the gloriously irreducible mess of human (and animal!) sentience could be contained in neat rows of data. They were undertakers who supplied their own corpses.

But if you want to see true mastery in the art of rubber-gloved bloodletting, you need to read some contemporary theatre criticism. The more theoretical the instruments of analysis, the more sanitary the violence they perform (and the more freakishly unrecognizable the body on the chilled table). By the time I took a new look at behaviorism, I no longer imagined that "the humanities" had any special claim on "humane" modes of curiosity. Whatever tenderness and humility had once characterized their engagement with the ineffable-- well, it had all got effed up, as far as I could see.

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