Notice What You Don’t Notice

“Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition.” – David Dunning

“I wanted to learn, but I needed help… we can’t learn anything without one another’s help.” – Mary Rutigliano

In the midst of our first day of class, while we contemplated our initial introduction to Steve Prince’s work, Professor McCoy urged us to “Notice what you don’t notice.” This suggestion, especially in relation to its seeming paradoxicality, caught my attention (I noticed haha); how am I supposed to notice what I don’t notice if I haven’t noticed it in the first place?  Looking back down to the print I had been considering, I became overwhelmed by the seemingly endless potentialities — after all, how deep does the practice of (not) noticing go? I scratched out a couple of notes on line (as Lytton Smith’s class on Friday showed, there’s much left unnoticed about the concept of the line), meaning in patterns, and historical and narrational context.  And while these aspects were a beginning, I had a feeling there was a far more expansive connotation to noticing that which I didn’t notice.  There are, of course, those things which you will notice that you have previously not noticed as soon as you determine that you should notice that which you have not noticed (Did you catch that?); and then there is the meaning behind this type of (not)icing. But further than this, there are those things which you have not noticed and will not notice, simply because they don’t even register; and then there is the meaning behind this different type of aspect of (not)icing.

As I write this, I’m realizing what a negative reaction I initially had toward not being able to notice all aspects of Prince’s pieces; I was overwhelmed, partially frustrated by the fact that I was unaware of aspects of Prince’s works, but more overwhelmed by the inevitability of this lack of awareness.  After all, there’s no realistic way that I could possibly notice everything about Prince’s art, but the idea that there was something that I could leave unnoticed connotated, in my brain, the idea that I was missing something.  This, of course, clearly, obviously relates to Brian Resnick’s article on the concept of intellectual humility; that I would feel that not being able to notice everything is a failure is reflective of an urge toward perfectionism inherent in my academic pursuits.  That too has to be noticed (now we are seeing how deeply this suggestion has wormed its way into my brain). In order to embark on the necessary journey of delving into my own (our own) ignorance, I have to first accept the reality of my own ignorance.

In another course I’m taking this semester (Dr. Paku’s Literary Representations in Disability Studies), we’ve begun discussing the concept of Theory of Mind, a concept from the field of cognitive science that explores, in short, how we attribute mental states (emotions, thoughts, ideas) onto ourselves and others using learned social and cognitive frameworks.  Our attribution of mental states on others, however, does not exist detached from the rest of the world, that is, it is not a fixed cause and result; theory of mind exists within a learned framework, attached to our cultural, personal and emotional surroundings.  Take, for example, Lisa Zunshine’s example of a person raising their hand and vigorously waving it in a classroom: to us, this is a clear signifier that this person has something to say.  However, to someone who has not functioned within the framework of academia and is unfamiliar with the learned social cues of this group, they may think that this person is pointing at the light or the ceiling, or raising their hand to go to the bathroom (if they are in middle school).  Beyond this, however, a person unfamiliar with the idea that someone raising their hand could possibly indicate an emotional or mental state may simply think that this person is having some sort of spasm, or perhaps their arm is being controlled by an invisible string. The point is, we do not notice these cognitive frameworks that define how we interpret the actions of others into emotional and mental states.  It is barely possible for us to be aware of such entangled and deeply embodied frameworks because we are conditioned within these frameworks.  Thus, there are things about the world which we — you, me — cannot notice.

Despite my initially overwhelmed response, the comment continued to fascinate me, enough so that I etched it onto the cover of my ever-present and only occasionally remembered notebook.  Notice what you don’t notice.  How do you do that? What is the meaning behind it?  I went into every event, every reading in the past two weeks with this concept leading my thoughts.

The course epigraphs include Dionne Brand’s statement that, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice.” Of course, I’d argue that we should also notice that we don’t notice, and notice why we don’t notice.



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