Context Context Context

I’m at the tail end of listening to the audio of Mona Lisa Overdrive, the third book in William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy, for the second time in a month or so. Crowing about my enjoyment of audiobooks in general or Cyberpunk in particular aside I find an interesting and more than mildly frustrating thing happening.

Nothing new to anyone. No grand insights here. Just thinking my way around an issue.

I’ve been more or less obsessed with the idea of mental context for the last who knows how long. The weird snapping back and forth between mental states in a way that causes the ideas of the non-current state to be largely inaccessible. Of course that becomes a circular definition. A different mental context is perhaps defined by the inaccessibility of its ideas and, perhaps more importantly, attitudes.

Let’s take a few examples for the sake of concreteness:

  • I sit and write at the cigar lounge. There’s no place else that I write QUITE as fluidly as I do when I’m here. I have a high-top table, a couple good cigars, a bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper, a particular piece of software, a particular laptop, and one of a very few very specific soundtracks. These set up the frame for me to write. So much so that if I have the impulse to write I find myself wanting a cigar.
  • I listen to audiobooks and do some good thinking in my truck. There’s a pleasant synergy of having something going on in my ears while I’m driving that splits my attention in a way that serves those aspects of my neuropsychological make up colloquially known as ADD very well.
  • When I’m in the basement the smell of sawdust or cutting oil grabs my attention and my brain fills with images of cutting steel or planing pine.

Like I said, not exactly rocket surgery.

But what the everloving crap IS that? Because it seems to me that these contexts or frames are greater than the sum of their parts.

Why the hell is it that, for instance, when I start the truck and the audiobook du jour starts playing that associative memory kicks in and puts me RIGHT back where I left off?

More important to me is the same quandary phrased another way: Why the hell do I find myself almost completely unable to access realizations and insights across contexts?

It’s absolutely infuriating. We all experience it. It’s a very matter-of-fact aspect of the human condition. But for something that’s such a deeply intrinsic part of day to day life, I understand it very poorly indeed.

Of particular interest to me, and what precipitated this particular rantlet, is the vague sense, in this context anyway, that I have a lot of really good ideas about character development and motivation, scene building, perspective, and point of view while I’m listening to Gibson that becomes completely inaccessible when I sit down to get some of those points down, even in the roughest of bullet-point outlines. (wow, if that’s not just the king of run-on sentences.)

Across these mental contexts I have vague intimations of thoughts from others, of course. Otherwise each mental context would end up being a completely disassociated personality. There’s a bleed-through of identity and memory. But it’s very much like trying to capture a dream upon waking. Actually I suppose that’s not an analogy at all, just the most stark example of the phenomenon in normal experience.

And it has to be true that we do this because otherwise we’d be in this strange position where everything would be relevant all the time, regardless of our current physical, mental and emotional setting. It stands to reason that it’s a part of evolutionary development.

Now one knee-jerk thought I had, but dismissed was that it’s a function of short-term memory. But that holds no water because, to use a programming metaphor, contexts are “saved” and “restored.” They’re persisted someplace. It’s not that my thoughts about, for instance, the strength of having a non-primary character as the point of view in genre fiction actually go away. They’re sure to be there when I go back and turn the ignition key in the truck and listen for the barest few seconds. So that’s out.


I wonder about the strength of these contexts as related to the questions of identity. If we exist always Within Context, whatever that context may be, then you end up going straight back to Alan Watts who, though erudite and pleasant of voice, was a bit silly in his conclusions, having taken unnecessary leaps in his insistence on boxing everything up.

Of course we’re more than these frames of reference, they’re downstream of the reality of ourselves in a way I can…kind of smell or see in the fog, barely outlined.

A sidebar thought that keeps popping into my head is the way this may relate to my need to listen to or reread the same thing over and over again. Perhaps it isn’t wholly that I’m looking to experience the work in question again, so much as get back to the trains of thought and realizations I had when I listened to it before, which I find otherwise utterly inaccessible, so that I can explore them further. And that’s something that happens. I remember when I listen to this scene or that exactly what I was thinking about the last time I listened to it and I can take those ideas a little bit further, a little bit deeper.

The strength of doing so leads…huh, this is interesting…to trains of thought and ideas I hold strongly enough that they persist outside of those specific frames.

For instance, the brief example above expands as follows: I find Gibson’s use, in Mona Lisa Overdrive, of what appear to be non-primary characters as points of view to be really interesting. You’re watching the characters that had been well established in previous books (Molly, Angie, Bobby, Finn, and even 3Jane) act out from the perspective of someone new. Those characters have enough grounding and background from previous books, and you know more about them than the current narrators. So you get the benefit of their development which enriches the story without that knowledge being part of the awareness of the new narrators, who are part of the story (and interesting in their own right), but are in large part carried along by the events around them. It’s clever.

But it took me a couple readthroughs to get to the point where I was able to bring that observation out of that context and in to this one. I absolutely could not have told you much about that on my last iteration. I just understand it better by virtue of the repetition. And that’s the point.

That’s all learning through repetition is. The strengthening of an idea such that it roots deeply enough that it’s not…context bound?

And it seems suddenly that this dovetails almost perfectly with the frustration I’ve been whining (because let’s call a spade a spade) about writing about the same few topics over and over again? Is THAT just the same thing? Planting myself in the same mental context and exploring the same ideas on repeat until they’re clear and strong enough that I can carry them forward into the rest of my life? It feels like there’s a progression, that I’m taking the topics in tighter and tighter circles month after month. I’m clearly getting SOMEwhere.

Brings me right back to the shadow of the idea I’ve been dancing around: Do we only exist within contexts? Well no because there’s something deeper.

But IS it possible to experience context-free consciousness? Is that what’s referred to as ‘enlightenment’ or ‘ego death’? A moment of “context free existence?”

I warned you up top that I have no grand conclusions to this, only questions.

But I think they’re some interesting ones.

I’m trying to come up with some kind of experiment. But it’s been pretty rough going.

And frankly, there’s no telling if I’m going to remember any of this after I hit publish, contextual relevance being what it is.

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