Cryptomnesia and the Presidential Election

Last week, I watched the presidential debate with friends at a local tavern. It was interesting to see a large group of other people reacting to the debate, especially considering I think the room was politically mixed (although possibly leaning liberal.) The tavern played the debate over the speakers, so the room was mostly quiet. For the first half, however, there was a video game machine near my table that was still plugged in and playing music. It had a sort of futuristic sound and it made me feel like I was watching the debate in an alternate universe.

One thing I discussed with my friend Kristina during last week’s debate (we could only stand to listen intermittently) was the way that some people respond to the candidates by saying they can’t tell them apart. Kristina had a student tell her that she found Romney and Obama to be so much alike she couldn’t decide between them and would not be voting. I’ve seen similair sentiments on Facebook and Twitter amidst calls for direct support of one candidate or the other.

It may well be that the candidates are more alike politically than they say. However, it also seems problematic to me to say that there are no discernible differences between them. Calling them “indistinguishable” seems like it might mask anxieties about the tangible and intangible ways that these candidates are wildly different. It makes sense to me that despite their differences, Romney and Obama might “feel alike” as we experience them through access to debates, newspaper coverage, and dialogue with other voters. Anxiety over specific forms of health coverage for women, for instance, might lead one’s experience even of two very disparate positions on the subject to feel alike.

The historical use of the term “cryptomnesia” provides a possible way of teasing out the distinction between feeling alike and being alike in regard to specific policies, positions, and actions. For those of you that haven’t been forced to listen to my dissertation spiel, cryptomnesia is a term that was developed in 1899 by a psychologist seeking to explain the experiences of Spiritualist mediums. This psychologist, Théodore Flournoy, argued that mediums who reported contact with the spirit realms were actually experiencing hidden memories from their own normal lives taken out of context. So, instead of remembering doing the dishes, you’d report contact with a watery planet dotted with mountains that look suspiciously like leftovers. That’s not a real example, but I sort of like it. As another example, Flournoy argued that a Martian language spoken by a medium he observed was actually her creative reimagining of the experience of learning lots of languages as a child.

So what do aliens and dishes have to do with the differences between Obama and Romney? Well, Flournoy was really anxious to show that all of this strange Spiritualist stuff could be contained by the scientific method. He was looking for sameness, because being able to say that aliens were really just the same thing as language learning — cryptomnesia — meant that there was nothing at all to be anxious about. His analysis is compelling, but for me, it doesn’t totally account for the way in which that seemingly mundane memory has reappeared as truly alien. I would argue (and I do) that what Flournoy was actually identifying when he called something cryptomnesia was an instance where something that looked very much the same, such as a spirit experience that seemed to mimic the real world, actually felt totally different. So, a medium experiencing a childhood memory as a trip to an alien planet might actually have been grappling with the way that the memory itself felt alien in adulthood. The differences add really important information. Arguing that the candidates are actually completely the same feels to me like ignoring the aliens, er, elephants in the room. There are differences there that are important.

I wonder if they way that these two candidates “feel alike” for some people might be a way of containing anxieties about just how polarized two people can actually be. The anxieties, hopes, and other visceral, felt reactions we have to the candidates might sometimes combine to make them “feel” indistinguishable from one another. I think it is a shame if this felt “sameness” keeps someone from voting at all. However, I do think that there tends to be a bias in the way people talk about elections that suggests that simply looking at the issues or determining your vote based on facts is the only real way to vote effectively. I think that this is also too extreme and leads fact-checkers and others to overstate the extent to which candidate’s positions are clear and direct. I wonder if making room for the felt experience of the candidates during the election process might invite a more nuanced understanding of how the candidates “feel” into the discussion. I wonder if saying they are indistinguishable is another way of saying that there is no room to feel anything about them at all. I’m not sure exactly how this could be redressed, beyond noting that feelings about the candidates might provide legitimate information. Perhaps you could let me know more about how experience the debates in particular as a way of distinguishing the candidates or not.

Photo: “Election 2012” CC-licensed via Flickr by League of Women Voters of California

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