Josh Sonnier

One of the most fundamental assumptions made by humans is that the system of symbols they have adopted is sufficient. The learning of children is the invention of a successful system of interpretive tools. These tools aid in the navigation of one’s environment saving time, effort and preventing, in the adult, the myriad missteps for which our younger counterparts are so infamous. Adults simply haven’t the time to rediscover, during subsequent encounters, what a chair is, how it is used, and rederive its similarities and differences with other members of the chaised underworld. All these machinations occurred during childhood, shortly after the first few chair encounters. As an adult, one relies on the chair-symbol almost exclusively. Characteristics of individual chairs are only noticed if they differ radically from this archetype. For example, “someone sitting on it? It’s a chair,” as opposed to “Is that chair made of breakfast cereal? Why is there a shark’s jaw mounted on the seat?”

Let us return for a moment to our friends in the miniature car. The ridiculously arched eyebrows and near fatal put are generally the more understated features of their multicolored faces. To an adult, these features are clearly artificial—an affectation. No actual person has so chromatic and distorted a face. To a child, however, not having clearly established templates for ‘person’ as it differs from ‘person wearing makeup’ or, for that matter, ‘doll’ or ‘action figure,’ the beast dancing perilously close to his cute little face seems to contradict most of the tenets of these separate archetypes. The child will undoubtedly have seen and attempted to interpret hundreds of human faces and bodies before attending the first circus or department store grand opening. The ‘person’ template is, however inchoate, developing more clearly every day. Enter the rainbow wigs. The clown, in whatever form, is a cataclysmic departure from any human physiognomy yet envisioned by the tyke. The more subtly troubling aspects of this phenomenon (the rapid dissolution of a supposed archetype) are overridden by the sheer volume of the clown’s behavior. As the child grows, however, these more gentle seeds of the clown trauma begin to bear fruit—the uncanny response.

An adult of average height and weight has little to fear from a clown, barring those threats that exist between any two humans. The fellow with a seltzer allergy or crippling phobia concerning vaudevillian jibber jabber is clearly excluded form consideration. A clown’s occupation is to entertain, induce laughter, and cast smiles about himself like a farmer casting grain into the fallow earth of the audience. For the most part, this is exactly what happens. The sight of the clown is tied, however, to an event so fundamental that it lies beneath even the realm of ‘things repressed.’ The impact of the hobo makeup and floral pants has long faded, but the setbacks in archetype construction remain. The adult associates the clown, unconsciously, with the damaging of the templates. “I don’t know what it is. Clowns are just creepy.” The clown is a reminder of the tenuous and ultimately naïve construction of the navigational tools one spends a lifetime refining. The uncanny response in exactly this—one's being reminded of the nature perceptive filters.

The construction of this cognitive sextant is an autism. The autistic person, incapable of processing, the manner of the average adult, the sensory impact of his environment, plows his head into the sand of rigid habit. The rituals that keep this person stable, happy, and quiet are clearly a mechanism or filter. The symbols adopted by the ‘intelligent and productive’ adult are no less artificial, however, and the uncanny response is the normal equivalent to the outbursts or elective muting of the autist. In the case of the autist, one feels comfortable asking, “Why don’t they just accept the information they are receiving?” However, the dependence of the everyman on his symbols prevents him from doing likewise.

Some of the clearest examples of this dependence on paradigms and archetypes exist in the sciences. No one actually producing research in the sciences is under the impression that scientific progress occurs in the manner prescribed by Kuhn. For every new idea, there are people denouncing it as not only unreasonable, but impossible. A lucky few of these manage to reap a publication or two from this commentary. Unfortunately, these are often the same folks who, after the idea is proven correct, or at least viable, publish volumes stating that it could not have been otherwise. Lord Kelvin, for example, mocked the notion of atom splitting as “ridiculous fiction.” This clinging to archetypes is not a field-specific phenomena, sadly. It is a function of the human being, as integral as the assumption that the ground underfoot is actually there.


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