Text and Context
Perhaps one of the simplest ways of understanding the relationship between the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere of the brain and the mode of attention of the left-hemisphere of the brain as described by Iain McGilchrist in The Master and his Emisssary, is in terms of context and text, respectively. Or, we may say quite equally, it is the relationship between foreground and background effects or perceptions equally. “Text” and “context” can stand in for anything, really — for example, the individual and the collective, or the specimen and the species, the genome and the environment, or the individual and the universe. The ultimate context of any text, or any one “thing” as such, is finally the universe itself.
It is in this sense that McGilchrist speaks of the brain as “asymmetrical”. The mode of attention of the right-hemisphere is perception of the context (the holistic), and the context is ultimately the cosmos itself — the whole shebang. The mode of attention of the left-hemisphere is the narrow focus on the text, the particulars or details. Herein lies the specific meaning of Nietzsche’s reference (boast perhaps) to his “unique ability” to switch between foreground and background perspectives, but which, if he had known more neuroanatomy, he might have realised was the ability to shift between the different modes of attention of the brain hemispheres.
Text and context, or foreground and background, are evidently not separate issues. They are mutually related. An example of the relationship was Carl Sagan’s famous recipe for apple pie: “first, create a universe”. The apple pie is as text (or detail or particular) only in its relationship to the context, which is the universe.
This is, then, the gist of McGilchrist’s concern about the dysfunctionality of the divided brain. The dominance of the second attention of the left-hemisphere is achieved only at the expense of the overall context provided by the perceptions of the first attention of the right-hemisphere. This narrowing of focus that sees only “details and more details, and more details about those details” as Jill Bolte-Taylor expressed it, soon has no context in which those details have any overall intelligibility — no coherence. This too narrow focus on text is what Gebser means by “deficient perspectivisation”. It’s the failure to properly relate the text to the context, or what I have called earlier, the “point-of-view” to “the overview”.
Point of view and overview therefore relate to one another as text to context. And thanks to Mr. McGilchrist’s neurodynamics, we see that these are issues of right- and left-brain modes of perception. They function differently precisely in order to provide a full-picture view of reality in the marriage of text and context. So, the suppression of context must result in a completely distorted picture of reality. And this is that peculiar relationship between the whole and the mere totality of things.
We can, for the same reasons, plug in Castaneda’s “nagual” where we read “context” and the “tonal” where we read “text”. They aren’t really separate and yet they perform different and necessary functions. The nagual is implicit in the tonal just as context is implicit in the text. This is what Gebser refers to as “latency”, or equivalently also what McGichrist refers to as the “implicit” and the “explicit”, and one can trace this relationship even into Aristotle’s distinction between the “potential” and the “actual”. These are optional terms only for the implicit (or latent) and the explicit (or manifest). And the only thing that distinguishes them as potentiality or actuality, or as contextual and textual, really, is the mode of attention of the two hemispheres of the brain. Potens and actus, the implicit or the explicit, aren’t properties or characteristics of “things” but are really affairs of perception. For someone like Blake, the relationship between the potens and the actus, or the latent and the manifest, was reversed — what we call “the actual” was the unreal, and what we call the “latent” or the implicit was the manifest and explicit — the universe in a grain of sand, heaven in a wild flower, eternity in the hour, and so on. The infinite was present in the finite.
For similar reasons, we can plug in “genome” where we read “text” and “environment” where we read “context”. But just where do you draw the line around environment? What are its boundaries? Any such boundary is only a definition provided by the mode of perception of the left-hemisphere — somewhat arbitrary because the genome’s real context or environment is the cosmos itself, and the genome exists only in terms of being as if in a constant conversation with this cosmos — the finite form as if in constant dialogue with the infinite. The left hemisphere’s mode of attention, however, deliberately and willfully isolates the genome from that context, and brackets off that context completely. It suppresses the context which is provided by the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention, which is not a “perspective” at all. Gebser refers to this as the aperspectival.
Text and context are simply metaphors themselves, the terms of a literate mind to stand in for the meanings of the manifest or the latent, the visible or the invisible, the actual or the potential, the explicit or the implicit — even more cogently, perhaps, for the tonal and the nagual, and for the second attention and the first attention. They are more affairs of perception than existent things.