I developed the system/concept I call “particulate stimulation” as, I hope, a practical tool for fiction writers – a way to understand the internal mechanisms of fiction’s interaction with the reader – but I believe these concepts are applicable to all the arts and to serious criticism as well (since I have yet to encounter a critical strategy that approaches the arts in this way).
In short, the concept rests on the notion that the primary, irreducible value in fiction (or in any experience of the arts) is in the direct stimulation of the reader (viewer, audience, etc.) that breaks down the barrier between self and other. This is an essentially irrational, gut-level act, so the irrational and the gut-level understanding of fiction (and other arts) is favored as a primary value. I call this value “primary” and “irreducible” because it is the first value to consider – whether or not it is the greatest value is up to the individual – and it is the one value that remains once other values are eliminated. If one were to ask “Is this piece of fiction (etc) good?” and “Why is it good?” one might name a large number of possible values, but if one were to say “Without this value, could this be good?” or “In the history of fiction (or art), has an example of a good work existed without this value?” and eliminate values in this manner one by one, the only one remaining would be stimulation. For example, values such as meaning, reflection of philosophical/social concepts, or universal model of behavior might be cited as a story’s source of value, but could a story be valuable without any of these? Yes, of course it could. However, could a story be valuable devoid of stimulation? Unlikely. So, in the practical sense of optimizing this irreducible value, the writer then considers them secondary. The role of meaning or social reflection, for example, becomes a secondary function to how these factors optimize stimulation.
The writer must also understand how the drive toward stimulation and the irrational breakdown in barriers between self and other meets the contradictory drive to eliminate stimulation (I simplify these forces below as “The Gut” and “The Mind”). To load a story with excessive emotions or completely irrational oddities, for example, might meet with the mind’s resistance to emotions and oddities, including the complex array of mental mechanisms designed for this resistance (such as subordination and categorization). To optimize the stimulation, the writer must strategically recognize these mechanisms for resistance and craft accordingly – to evade the gatekeepers, in other words.
This concept was designed to compensate for the massive deficiencies in my own creative writing education in which teachers would rely on superficial truisms or false universals without the capacity to explain or justify them. It was like teaching a cooking class by naming all the pots and pans but giving no clear understanding of flavors and the interaction between flavors. Following clichés like “show, don’t tell” might make a story more snappy, but why? I never got a good explanation, so I had to come up with one of my own: concrete imagery engages the gut while abstract narration engages the mind.
That being said, here is a simplified list of various factors to consider in understanding Particulate Stimulation:
The Mind: Designed to eliminate stimulation (e.g. danger, discomfort, etc.) through:
- Subordination (creating a hierarchy to organize the chaos)
- Abstraction (elevation into the undying ideal)
- Turning the irrational into symbols/metaphors
- Categorization/Separation (favoring the safe over the dangerous)
- Resolution of mystery
The Gut: Seeks stimulation (food, sex, mortal danger, etc.) by eliminating barriers between self and other (leading the reader to vicarious experiences):
- Gratification of physical needs (food, sex, etc.)
- Unresolved mystery
- Happy feelings (to a lesser extent)
Comfort/Discomfort: Though the mind seeks elimination of stimulation, one type of stimulation it accepts is comfort.
The Mind: Comforting stimulators:
- Brief bursts of stimulation:
- Conflict resolution
- Mystery resolution
- Fulfillment of desires
- Catharsis (the false notion that art exists solely to eliminate stimulation)
- Function often as coda to end a story
- Often mistaken as the main point of the story
The Gut: Discomforting stimulators:
- More sustained source of stimulation throughout a story
- A majority of the value is in optimizing discomfort
- But also doing so without the mind rejecting the text (in its need for comfort)
- Favors abstraction.
- Concrete imagery is subordinate to abstract ideas.
- Images stand in for or “mean” something
- Parataxis: The juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated image without a directly stated connection.
- Dislocation (the surrealist version of parataxis): Disconnected images dislocate the viewer/reader from the present world, create a dreamlike effect
The Mind: A character:
- Stands in as a universal model
- Represents the human condition
- Learns a lesson so we can learn a lesson
- Leads to vicarious catharsis
- Resolves paradoxes.
- Driven by irrational desire
- Full of unresolved paradox
- “Negative Capability”: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”—John Keats
- Mechanical Repetition:
- Copies must be exact to eliminate possibility of failure/danger
- This creates a diminishing return as stimulation reduces with each copy)
- Organic Repetition:
- Another stimulating irrational paradox: both unique and of a pattern
- Repetition of some patterns while remaining individual (as with any living being) indicates the presence of life without overt mental control
- The rule of threes: 2 occurrences might be coincidences and 4 verges on mechanical repetition, so 3 indicates the presence of life.
- The most pleasing music has been historically based on a 3 part pattern