Precisely a week ago, a stop sign at the intersection of Jefferson and Polk was painted green.
Fact: no perpetrator will ever be brought to justice, because no suspect will ever be apprehended, or even identified, because no evidence will ever be analyzed, or even gathered. Instead, an hour from now a member of the Clearlake Police Department will confirm the existence and location of the green stop sign, and late this afternoon Public Works will replace it with a new red one.
The crime was not a case of simple vandalism. Rather, it was part of an experiment by the person who called it in, a local amateur psychologist who is exploring the nature of incongruity. She has long since come to terms with the non-existence of anoetic sentience—it would be impossible for any given human subject to perceive a given stimulus outside the parameters inherent to our physical senses, for example, or in the absence of pre-existing expectations born of one’s interpretation of one’s memories. And she is fascinated by the implications of the notion that all given subjects are subject to directive processes which organize the perceptual field so as to maximize percepts in line with current expectations and minimize percepts inimical to them.
She has learned that if one wishes to remove a given incongruity and thus avoid its consequences, one has only two options. The first involves altering the nature of the stimulus in which the incongruity resides, rendering it more closely in line with a given subject’s expectations. (While such alteration may in fact be necessary in the case of our amateur psychologist—here we speak not of incongruities in general but of the specific bipartite Incongruity central to her life—the thought terrifies her, and she wishes to be very, very sure before beginning.) The second option (with which her life has provided her regular and ongoing experience) involves attempting to alter not the stimulus but the expectations a given subject brings to it, primarily by forcing said subject smack up against a given incongruity over and over until such time as it is recognized as such, is accounted for, and thus ceases to be incongruous at all.
The amateur psychologist lives in the house on the corner that holds the stop sign in question. A week prior to making the call, she mounted a video camera and a radar gun side-by-side on a bicephalous tripod of her own devising, and emplaced the assembly at the right-most window of her living room. She painted the sign early the following morning, and spent each spare moment of the next seven days registering and charting and collating the actions and reactions of each citizen confronted by the color green under circumstances wherein only red could have been expected: how many drivers ran the stop sign without altering their velocity in the slightest, how many slowed (and to what degree) before rolling through, how many came to a full and complete stop before proceeding normally, and how many came to a full and complete stop and then stayed stopped, staring at and/or otherwise engaging with the sign’s greenness.
At the end of those seven days—that is, a few minutes ago—our amateur psychologist made her call to the police.
By the time she returns home from work, the new red sign has been installed. She begins filming and registering and charting and collating once again, revisiting from time to time the Ursprung, her sacred text, the landmark experiment off of which she hopes to branch: Bruner and Postman’s “On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm.”
Their work involved not video cameras and stop signs but tachistoscopes and poker cards. Their subjects’ goal: to identify cards shown at exposures ranging from ten to a thousand milliseconds. The hitch: some of the cards had been altered. There was a red two of clubs, for example, and a black three of hearts.
The four most common reactions to the incongruities were dominance (a perceptual denial of incongruity), compromise (identifying the altered card as a Zwischengegenstand object—say, perceiving a red six of spades as a purple six of hearts), disruption (a radical failure of the subject’s ability to organize perceptions at all), and finally, often under great duress, a true recognition of incongruity. At shorter exposures, the dominance response was nearly universal. Subjects identified the red two of spades as either a red two of hearts (organizing the field in terms of color), or as a black two of spades (privileging form), in both cases rendering incongruity congruous by re-imagining the card in accordance with previous experience. Compromise reactions were less common but more varied: altered red cards were incorrectly reported as brown, or olive drab, or grayish red, or “black but with redness somewhere.” As for disruption, at the shortest exposures the subjects misreported the altered cards with great confidence, but as exposure times lengthened, confidence diminished, with certain subjects unable to remember what color or form or number they had just been shown.
One particularly fascinating response phenomenon, often co-present with either dominance or compromise, was a growing sense that something was very wrong with the stimuli; this sense was generally paired at first with an inability to specify the nature of said wrongness. Some subjects misreported that the card’s pips were upside-down, or malpositioned on the card. Much as in our amateur psychologist's own life, the subjects’ sense of wrongness often provoked them to disruption and violence. However, in other cases it led to a surrendering of the subject’s expectations, and thus to veridical recognition.
At times such recognition came almost instantaneously, but more often it required a gradual weakening of the expectations in question: a red spade was first seen as black, then black with a reddish tint, and so on, before at last being perceived in all its redness. The greatest obstacle to such recognition was the tendency for expectations to fixate once they had received confirmation from preliminary non-altered cards. One subject identified a black three of hearts as a black three of spades forty-four times in a row.
After seven days of filming subject interactions with the new red sign, the amateur psychologist begins cross-referencing her two data sets. Her findings are as follows:
Regardless of whether they encountered the green sign or the red sign, 8% of all drivers blew right through the intersection, 51% slowed substantially before rolling past, and 22% came to a full and complete stop. The remaining 19% not only stopped but remained stationary at the corner for untoward periods of time, and it was only in this final group that the two sets clearly diverged. Faced with the red sign, not a single driver stayed still for any reason other than to shout at children in the back seat. Faced with the green sign, however, almost half remained motionless while staring at the sign itself. The other half went somewhat further, with small but not insignificant percentages proceeding to disembark from their vehicles so as to, in decreasing order of occurrence, (a) spit on the sign; (b) throw rocks at the sign; (c) deface the sign with a permanent felt-tip marker; and (d) deface the sign with eleven shots from a 9mm semi-automatic handgun of undetermined make.
The amateur psychologist bears the marks of a potentially similar sub-subset of subject responses as regards her personal Incongruity: a scar under her chin from when she was thrown against a brick planter in third grade; a loss of sensation in two of the fingers on her left hand from a badly healed wrist fracture in junior high; a deformation of her right cheek from when she was punched repeatedly one midsummer day between her junior and senior years of high school; and the ghost of a bruise just above her left temple from the half-full can of Fresca thrown at her from a passing car as she walked to Brookdale Senior Living a week before beginning the experiment in question.
Though the amateur psychologist believes her findings likely to be of use, they are certainly less than conclusive. Now: does she need conclusive? She does not. But she needs something approaching convincing. She decides to do more experiments, expanding the range of stimuli and altering the micro-contexts as appropriate. For the next month, her free time is employed as follows:
1. Gathering dead leaves from the oak tree in her side yard, painting them the exact dishwater color of the sky, and reaffixing them to the tree in as naturalistic a manner as she is able;
2. Crosswiring the buttons of the town's only elevator;
3. Attempting to swap out the main mirror in the women's restroom at Clearlake Cinema with plain glass;
4. Replacing the ham in a rack of sandwiches at the Valero station on Lakeshore with ham-colored corduroy;
5. Baiting a Have-a-Heart trap with dead mice, catching a crow, bleaching its feathers a variegated gray, and releasing it back into its murder;
6. Dyeing the water of the drinking fountain in the lobby of the Best Western El Grande Inn temporarily the color of blood.
Not all of these experiments were successful. None of the corduroy sandwiches were eaten in her presence; not a single person noticed the painted oak leaves, and she has been banned from Clearlake Cinema. The remaining incongruities, however, provided precisely the confirmation she had been—well, “hoping for” would be the wrong phrase. But dominance, compromise, disruption, and recognition are all documented, in roughly the proportions she had been led to expect, as was violence co-extant with terminal disruption: the crow, for example, dismembered by its fellow crows.
Having thus concluded her research and analysis, she turns to the white board she got on sale at the Rite-Aid and lists her preliminary conclusions:
A. Certain subjects appear congenitally unable to perceive even the most obvious of incongruities, walking away from the drinking fountain with ersatz blood dripping from their whiskers.
B. A small percentage of subjects will take recourse to physical violence, either as unconscious reaction to unregistered incongruity or as conscious reaction to registered incongruity.
C. Even if B were not the case, and even if all subjects (especially family) could be counted on to arrive, through repeated exposure, at a state of recognition and acceptance vis-a-vis any given incongruity, the number of subjects against which her specific Incongruity must be forced is much larger than might seem the case given the replacement rate of the relevant local population.
D. She hasn't even begun to address the internal violence the Incongruity creates in her heart, for she is a subject as well, her own perpetual subject, and not even thirty-eight years of exposure to the Incongruity has led her to acceptance.
E. While exchanging one macro-context for another is possible in theory, and may result in a smaller number of potential future subjects against whom to force her Incongruity, the fact remains that (i.) such a scenario is not currently viable, as she cannot leave Clearlake until her father’s condition improves, which it is unlikely to do, and (ii.) any given new macro-context could end up being worse.
F. While changing the nature of the stimulus will in her case only replace one Incongruity with Another, all research indicates that the new Incongruity will likely be less obvious and thus less troubling to future subjects with whom she comes in contact.
G. Even should F turn out not to be the case, changing the stimulus in the specific manner she is planning will in theory remove the specific internal element referenced in D, thus diminishing, albeit to an unknown degree, the frequency and intensity of her sensations of alienage and anxiety and fraudulence and fear and shame.
H. Her three months of required counseling were completed last week, and the resulting letter of recommendation will be available this afternoon; her first appointment with the endocrinologist is tomorrow morning.
I. There are no relevant surgeons to be found locally, but there are several in the Bay Area, and one only ninety minutes away in Santa Rosa; he's gotten great reviews, sounded very nice over the phone, complimented her on planning so far ahead and promised her that the way she was feeling was totally normal under the circumstances.
J. Her boss at Clearlake Bowl has promised that he will give her as much time off as she needs.
K. The primary remaining obstacles are her fears of the needle and the knife.