Sunday, April 02, 2006

Thank You for Your Concern

Let me just pull this out from the Comments section of the previous post: the way I suppose film theory injures your ability to experience a film, I think law school will do something disturbing to the way you think.
First of all, I should clarify: I didn't study film theory. I studied film production. In my experience, film theory is deeply flawed, mainly because it is largely written by film theorists, who tend to be both ignorant of and uninterested in the realities of filmmaking, film viewing, psychology, history, and common sense. "High theory" criticism is often nonsensical and almost always unreadable; if it does turn out make sense under the pointless layers of jargon and obfuscation, it's usually because it's saying something fairly obvious. Film theory. Yuck. (Yes, there are critics who have useful and interesting insights, whose theorizing is informed by practice or research, and who can express their ideas clearly. You know who you are. I hope you do. Get your own blog.)

Secondly, I really don't think that study, knowledge, and increased sophistication "injure" one's capacity for appreciation. I think, if anything, they increase it.

Richard Feynman somewhere wrote about how annoyed he was when friends assumed he could no longer enjoy the simple pleasures of the world, because his understanding of them was so sophisticated. He felt that his enjoyment was heightened, not lessened - that deeper understanding meant deeper appreciation. I happen to agree. I think a sophisticated appreciation of... whatever... generally enhances whatever "sense of wonder" there might otherwise have been. Changes it, yes, probably, and some might lament the change. I'm not one of them. In other words, I would argue strongly against describing the change as "injury."

When I studied cinematography, it literally changed the way I looked at the world. I would see things, not as themselves, but as the light on their surfaces. It was only a little knowledge - I was no great shakes as a cinematographer by the end of the class - but it opened up a very different experience of the world. It increased, not decreased, my sense of wonder and enjoyment in what I was looking at. With sound - which has become my specialty - the quality of attention that I pay to sounds in my environment is very different from what most people can muster, and because I have learned a certain way of listening, my experience is much richer and more interesting than it used to be. As for losing a sense of wonder... do you ever find yourself listening to construction noise, or cars driving past, or a humming refrigerator, as if the noise was music? Sometimes I do. I never did before I went to film school.

Without embracing anything like a "strong verion" of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I will say there's no question that certain habits of mind (including linguistic constructs) can alter your experience of the world. They can also, of course, alter the experience others have of you. Law school stories abound. Scott Turow, in One-L, talks about how, in the midst of his first year at Harvard Law School, he began arguing like a lawyer - not just to win, but to destroy the other side's argument - when he would have a disagreement with his wife. There are stories in that vein about the early MIT hackers - the ones who were hacking model trains before computers were invented. It's not so much that they began thinking like the computers they were learning to program - say, rather, they developed a marked and annoying tendency to treat everything as if it were a programming problem. In particular, I remember a story about one hacker who was married: his wife would ask him if he'd "like to take out the garbage" and he had become such a literalist that he would just answer "no" - because, while he would have been perfectly willing to do it if she had just asked him, her literal request for information elicited nothing more than... a one or a zero.

Not surprising that law students, forced to integrate massive amounts of new information and new ways of approaching problems, can have difficulty working out the boundaries within which their burgeoning skills should operate. And for some, I suppose, the change could be permanent and bad. I've worked with a lot of lawyers, and some of them were - how can I say this delicately?... some of them were not very nice people. Whether they were that way before, or whether they were changed by law school, I can't say, but I suspect the profession tends to attract, reward, and reinforce certain types of personality - the type, for instance, that is pathologically self-confident; but also the type that is interested in how civilization works (or fails), the type that is interested in ideas, the type that likes to stick it to the man...

But anyway, learning to "think like a lawyer" doesn't mean losing other ways of thinking, any more than learning to drive a car means you can no longer ride a bike. And, as for myself, I'm too old to be mentally disturbed by law school. According to current research, my brain is pretty well stuck the way it is.


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