Light, Time, and Gravity (VII)
Imagine being hated.
Dylan despised the phone–almost as much as Dad did.
When I was twelve I would drive our riding lawn-mower a mile or so down Lakeshore Road to the Parson’s, the engine so loud that I wouldn’t hear the whisk of passing cars until they passed me. I mowed their lawn every week through the spring and summer, 3 dollar’s a pop. The thing is, I was always too shy to ask Mrs. Parsons for the money after finishing the lawn, and Dad would ride me about asking. Finally, toward the end of summer, I screwed up my courage and asked her–the outstanding sum was something like 30 dollars, I think. Mrs. Parsons stunned me by saying, no, that I didn’t deserve to be paid because I had never asked. My father was outraged, and that evening he demanded I call the Parsons and ask them if they were the kind of people who cheated little kids. I didn’t want to. I cried, begged Dad to not make me. He grabbed me by the neck and pinned me against the wall beneath the phone–our only one–in the kitchen. He screamed at me to make the call, began whacking me on the head with the receiver when I refused.
I caved. I was a blubbering, snivelling mess. For the life of me I don’t remember what I said–only trying to pitch my hitching, heaving voice over Mom and Dad screaming. Mrs. Parsons paid me in full the next time I saw her.
Dad congratulated me, told me that I had learned a valuable lesson.
So valuable that it pretty much made calling Harley one of the most difficult things Dylan had ever done.
“I just thought, um, you know, if you were ever feeling lonely, that I could come over and watch another, um, movie, you know?”
“Just a thought.”
“Dylan… look…” A long sigh packed with essays of meaning. “There’s just so much… so much you wouldn’t… understand.”
“I can try. I want to try.”
“I gotta go. Look. Please…”
“Please don’t call.”
The phone clattered in the cradle.
I sometimes ask myself where they’ve all gone, the tingling phone conversations, the breathlessness of forcing anxious, inarticulate thought through hair-thin wires. The tickle of pop-song heartbreak in the bottom of your ears. Aging and bloating are so often the very same thing. When you’re young the aperture is so blessedly small that these things can only be monstrously big. Nothing is small or sordid. Significance is the cause of blindness, and not just another symptom.
Things. Things. Things.
I like to think that it understands what Dylan could not, and in my blank wall reveries I spin stories for her, Harley, subtle tales of Bovarian frustration, as well as graphic Penthouse letters. I have so many words now–too many. I look past the turn-of-the-century French circus poster decorating my office wall, and I see her, walking naked beneath the floating fabric of her dress.
My cock feels as young as my heart feels old.
Rachel left me within eighteen months. She had taken a job with the Ministry of Natural Resources counting tree zygotes or something like that. This involved a six week stint up at some research centre somewhere around Ottawa. We were scheduled to talk every Sunday afternoon–nowadays this seems hard to believe, but she had only limited access to a phone. The first Sunday she was all chatty excitement. The second Sunday she was sobbing uncontrollably.
“What’s wrong? Honey?”
“We-we went c-camping…”
I remember spasms of hatred, images of unknown male competitors, the horrified certainty that she had been assaulted or raped. I didn’t so much feel the urge to murder as I felt the impulse aiming me.
“Rachel–Rachel! What happened?”
“I-I was the one who-who was supposed to p-put out the fire…”
“I-I th-thought I had! I really did! I didn’t m-m-mean to!”
“Mean to what?”
“The fire wasn’t ooout,” she bawled. “After we left, it-it… I burned down nine hectares of forest!”
He wasn’t sure what a ‘hectare’ was then, just as I’m not now. Everywhere I look, I see acres.
“Oooold growth!” she keened.
“Oh, Sweetheart, please. It was an accide–!”
“I w-work for the Min-ministry,” she screeched, “and I burned down nine hectares of f-fucking forest! What kind of loser does that?”
So the next Sunday I was deeply concerned, as you might imagine. But she seemed almost annoyingly chipper when I talked to her. I found myself irritated by how little she seemed to need me, let alone care about my meagre attempts to cheer her up. This was when she told me about ‘Jeff,’ and how he had been sooo understanding, sooo helpful.
More spasms of hatred.
“He’s just my friend. God, why are you so insecure all of a sudden?”
I was reading War and Peace at the time,  and I spent the next week absolutely mystified by how much difficulty I was having with Anatole’s seduction of Natasha. Simply reading made me feel like I had a chest-cold.
Then the next Sunday finally rolled around.
I could hear it in her voice: I swear I knew the sum of our conversation even before she completed her first word.
“Look…” spoken in that angry-to-better-be-cruel tone. “I don’t know how to say this so I’m just going to say it. Jeff and I, well… we want…”
Rachel had always been a curiously tactless person, forever mystified by the violent responses that her ‘just saying’ this or that seemed to provoke.
“We want to… you know, sleep with each other.”
Just like that. Boom.
It was as if she were hanging in some other dimension, dangling from some phone company thread: I couldn’t grab her, shake her, hug her knees and weep. I couldn’t frighten her with the ferocity of my outrage. All she had to do was let slip the receiver and snip, she would be gone forever.
All I had were pleas, arguments… theories…
About Jeff. About her. How he was playing on her vulnerabilities (because he was). How he would happily let her grenade her marriage, fuck her for the brief remainder of their contractual term, then unceremoniously dump her after the mission was done (as he did).
All I had was the truth. They, on the other hand, had biology. Aside from her quaint scruples, her need to be ‘honest’ about her desires, everybody knew what was going to happen. That was what made it so fraught.
There was no call the following Sunday.
It’s a funny thing, finding yourself stranded with the belongings of an unfaithful wife. You would think you would hate them, all these little behavioural residues. The shoes piled beside the door. The belts hanging in the closet. All the prints that you hated but she adored…
A starfish? What the fuck was she thinking?
But you don’t.
It’s like you wake up in this space where everything has gone wrong, and there’s nothing to do but soak it all in, absorb all the cutting edges. You feel incarcerated by the hanging of things. All the possessions lying fallow according to this or that unactualized project. You feel pious with outrage, abject with shame. You feel mystified by the sheer impossibility of it all. You begin packing because the apartment seems so stupid, as if someone had paused the movie for so long it had become pointless to watch the end.
You just need to change the channel.
Meanwhile this primeval conviction undulates on the reefs just below, a poisonous anemone rooted and waving across the low boundaries of your awareness, the knowledge that some other man is fucking the woman you (Now, suddenly) love with the same reckless urgency as you once did in those first days… That she’s crying out, convulsing about some other man’s cock.
You actually feel it in your chest: the momentary mashing of his glans, the bread-soft pop of insertion, the swallowing glide.
So you begin packing, trying not to think of the ghost fucking your heart. You go slow. You itemize, not so much out of reluctance to be done, but because your confusion seems to require an answering fastidiousness. It’s painstaking business cleaning up after disasters. Debris becomes holy.
This was when I found an old sheet fading into cadaverous grey about the edges, upon which someone had typed the following:
Everything has a cause.
A –> B –> C
A= outer event
B= inner event
C= this very thought Now!!!!!!
My first thought was one of pity. Poor fool…
But for all its sincerity, this preemptive interpretation simply made matters worse. I was in pain, you see, genuine anguish. So why not think of myself as a kind of spontaneous output?
Or even better, why not look at her as a kind mechanism running through an ancient reproductive program? Rachel’s eyes, which had always seemed so luminous and emotive in the Now, dulled to painted marbles in my memory. Her beauty became premeditated, cynical, something contrived to evoke certain responses, like the way Disney characters exploit infantile facial characteristics to trigger parental and familial instincts.
A doll, I thought. I’ve been betrayed by a doll.
She wasn’t even fucking real… Christ.
I remember sitting down to wrestle with the breathlessness of the thought. A, I thought. B… C…
This was when the car swerved and hit me.
You see, for the first time I realized that this stupid formula was what I had been pursuing all along, from fucking Lacan to Derrida to Deleuze to… whoever it is you pretend to ‘get’ this intellectual quarter.
It thinks, therefore I was.
Only expressed in the clumsy common sense of a 14 year-old, banging thoughts away on his first typewriter.
And I finally realized that Dylan and I had been typing the same fucking thing all along. We had literally kept typing the same self-immolating thought through decades of apparent ‘revelation.’  Ever since I was fourteen…
It. Me. Nobody.
Running me down and backing up, again and again. 
 It is this…
 It is continuous with the world as described by science.
 It iterates. Iterates without interval. Thus the illusion of this…
I look for him in the mirror… Almost every morning.
Of course the brain can’t recognize itself. Of course the brain can’t interpret its own processes the way it interprets environmental processes. Since the thalamocortical system is hardwired to the rest of the brain it simply cannot ‘gain perspective’ on itself, which is to say, sample its neurological environment the variable way it can its ecological.
But there’s bigger problems. There’s process assymmetry, the fact that whatever recursive processing the brain develops will simply add to the load of ‘blind processing.’ Growing a second brain to keep track of the mammalian first simply increases the amount of brain that goes untracked. And then there’s the developmental fact that human consciousness is so young in evolutionary terms.
Of course consciousness is an exercise in misrecognition.
The problem is that for us this misrecognition is the baseline, the only frame of reference we possess.
I’m not accusing you of being a fiction for nothing.
Given this, we should expect comparative increases in human self-knowledge to take the form of a series of ‘seeings through,’ a setting aside of more superficial understandings. The question is simply one of how far this process will take us from ourselves…
This is the joke at the heart of the comedy called transhumanism: the blithe faith that the truth of humanistic principles transcends our parochial humanity, that the integration of man and technology will lead to anything more than angelic monsters…
If you set aside all the theoretical claims that have no hope of finding arbitration, all the myriad philosophical ‘revolutions’ and ‘circumventions,’ then the most honest thing you can say about this… is that it’s all in your head–which in turn is all in your head.
The question, the missing question, is simply: what is it about the structure of the brain that explains how the head can be in our head. How come this… can only be grasped as that from the standpoint of another occluded this…
Why does consciousness possess an ‘occluded frame structure’?
The thalamocortical system suffers from what might be called ‘recursive encapsulation.’
When we process our brain the way neuroscientists do, through our ancient and powerful environmental circuitry, the information horizon of the thalamocortical system is all but invisible. We just see process stacked on processes, with nothing to suggest why only a fraction of them seem to be involved in the production of experience. When we process our brain through our young and ill-equipped experiential circuitry, the information horizon becomes all powerful. We see trees, rather than trees causing us to see trees. Things like words and people seem to hang outside the causal circuit of the surrounding world. Our wants and decisions seem to arise ex nihilo. The list goes on.
Say someday, using various structural and functional criteria, we are able to map thalamocortical information horizons in the brain, so that we can reliably predict whether this or that neurophysiological process lies within the pale of possible awareness or not. Say that we are able to plot the flexible boundaries of consciousness.
Now here’s the problem. When we look at our map through our environmental circuitry, the way neuroscientists do, we see process continuity, which is to say, we see both sides of the boundary. We see, in other words, the very thing that utterly drops out of experience: the functional provenance of the information taken up by the thalamocortical system.
The functionality of the thalamocortical system simply cannot be taken up as a datum within that system–as a matter of principle, thanks to process asymmetry, the fact that recursive processing simply adds to the blind processing load. But apart from the generation problem–the question as to why recursive processing should give rise to something as peculiar (from a scientific perspective) as consciousness at all–this suggests that consciousness as we experience it can only be explained away.
Why? Because recursive encapsulation insures that experience is a concatenation of fragmentary kluges, gerrymandered ways that the thalamocortical system makes due with its necessarily limited recursive access. Purpose, meaning, morality, and so on, are simply on-the-spot fixes, reliable because of their broader functional role, yet misapprehensions all the same.
Which means, in some bizarre way, that we are impervious to theoretical knowledge.
Why can’t I make sense of my life?
Because the very experience of comprehension is a form of misapprehension.
Sounds impossible, I know.
It could be the case that what counts as comprehension for the brain and what counts as comprehension for experience are different animals entirely.
Say your brain ‘gets’ my brain is some deep sense, but all you experience (encapsulated as you are) is a fractional sliver of this concordance, perhaps accompanied by a ‘feeling of understanding.’ Since your conscious comprehension is systematically related to your brain’s occluded comprehension, then, no matter how distorted or fragmentary your conscious comprehension may be, it will get things ‘right’ if your brain gets things right. Since your conscious comprehension is your baseline for comprehension period, your understanding will seem exhaustive.
The confusion will only arise when you try to ‘get behind’ this understanding, when your thalamocortical system gropes for resources that lay beyond its information horizon.
This is when you begin to confabulate…
This is why confusion and controversy drag down our every attempt to get behind intentionality.
This is why intentionality ‘works,’ even though there is no such thing.
This is why intentionality will never be ‘eliminated’ or ‘reduced.’
This is why my life makes as little sense as yours.
In the humanities we have grown comfortable with the notion that we are little more than fragments, that consciousness is the froth on the deep, dark pint of the unconscious. We have grown comfortable with the notion of meanings and morals and intentions and choices operating outside of our volition. The fragmentary self, the ‘decentred post-modern subject,’ is pretty much an article of faith among us.
But note the inconsistency: we assume fragmentary subjects, only to blithely assume that the experiential staples that comprise it–meanings and morals and intentions and so on–are wholes. They are not.
That’s the craziest thing about this…
It doesn’t exist.
Consciousness is simply a fraction of the brain turned inside out.
The ‘for world’ of consciousness is an artifact of the thalamocortical system’s inability to process its neurophysiological from. There is no such world.
And we’re trapped in it.
Meaning is simply the shape of our abjection.