(Words & pictures by Jasun Horsley; this essay is meant to be read in tandem with today’s podcast with Peter Watts)
“I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Those Who Walk Away
Have you ever had to walk out of a bad movie when you’re sitting in the front row? Or make an escape from an excruciatingly boring social meet-up? Even if you don’t mean it to be, walking out of social situations before they are over is equivalent to making a public statement. To visibly go against the will of the group you are part of is to risk incurring its judgment, and potentially its ire. If and when the shit hits the fan, you have already identified yourself as an eligible scapegoat.
When we enter a movie theater, use public transport, attend a lecture, hang out at bars and clubs, we tend to behave in specific, set ways because we know the “doing” of those social arrangements. Like actors in a theater or football players on a field, we have learned how to maximize the benefits of the institutions by going along with the rules and customs set down by them. It rarely occurs to us to question our behaviors, much less go against them. Like the afore-described “mind,” subscription to institutions (or language) means implicitly going along with the laws that govern them—the grammar of social life—and hence internalizing those laws. We identify with them so totally that they become that which identifies. The matrix has us.
The good news (sort of) is that this indicates just how precarious the hold of the matrix (language) is. What other people do is determined by social institutions backed by religious and political ideologies or value systems. Without these institutions and ideologies, human behavior as we think of it would quickly break down. Yet this idea is fundamentally opposed to the idea of ideologies and institutions, which depend on the belief that they represent human behavior, rather than shape and control it.
In the example of the movie theater, the moment a member of the audience breaks the flow of accepted behavior—walks out before the movie is over—the spell is momentarily broken. The audience members’ attention is diverted from the movie to the rule-breaker, and, by extension, to the reality outside the movie.
They may begin to question their responses to the movie. Maybe they had been thinking about walking out too but suppressed the desire? Or maybe they had been loving the movie and now they are offended that someone else has “disrespected” it, and by extension their own experience. This reaction also takes them out of the movie, hence their resentment; and so on. The other thing that’s indicated by this example is how powerfully impacted our idea of ourselves is, not so much by what others think about us, but what they might think about the things we value—or simply, what we imagine they might think about them. This clearly indicates our own doubts, or rather, a deep-seated but unconscious awareness that the social reality and language-based mental identity which we take as reality—the movie we are lost in—is nothing of the kind.
It’s closer to a rumor that only reached us after millennia of Chinese whispers, but, inexplicably, was handed down in stone.
Dysfunction as Innovation
While talking about his novel Starfish, science fiction author Peter Watts asked a question about who is more likely to make scientific and technological breakthroughs—socially well-adjusted, emotionally healthy types raising families and working day-jobs, or dysfunctional, compulsive types constantly trying to win the approval of parents who never give it, ignoring personal relationships in pursuit of strange and eccentric goals. Watts’ question is rhetorical. It does not take a genius to figure out that it is the compulsive, unsocial types who achieve the most significant breakthroughs.
Starfish takes “the metaphor of the people who are running civilization but who are dysfunctional, and it cranks the dysfunction up, and it cranks their isolation up, and it literally sticks them at the bottom of the ocean with their hands on a kill switch” (running the power grid for North America); then it sees what happens. As Watts sees it:
We build our civilization on the backs of those who are dysfunctionally driven to overachieve, but the entire species also has a venerable history of essentially enslaving each other and forcing people into menial groups. . . . The Rifters [Watts’ term for the series of novels beginning with Starfish] essentially encapsulates all of that and puts them in a high pressure cooker situation and then asks the question, “What happens when they find out how much power they have?” The problem is, they never have any power. No system is going to be stupid enough to give them that kind of power.
It is at this point, Watts says, he had to introduce a microorganism, Behemoth, to give his dysfunctionals “a fighting chance.” I have not read all of Starfish, but I am talking to Watts next week [now last week, you can listen to the conversation here], which is partially (but not entirely) why I shoehorned him into the tail end of this long essay, an essay I actually started some months ago. I am winging it, hoping to somehow incorporate this idea—that the outsiders of any given social group (the ones most likely to be scapegoated) bring the innovations necessary to keep that group evolving and surviving in the face of entropy (i.e., a natural universe with no presiding benevolent intelligence—no Prime Directive—to take care of us)—into a resolution for this current piece. I am not sure if it is going to happen (there are a lot of threads to bind together here), but just trying it makes this piece properly liminal.
Showing is so much more important than telling—especially when what’s being told is how language is a kind of sentient, nonhuman virus or implant that has taken over human consciousness and redirected it towards seemingly undesirable, life-destroying ends. Ain’t it?
Whatever can be thought—or formulated via language—is not to be trusted. If the matrix tells you it has you, don’t believe it. If the matrix (in the form of a drop-dead leather-clad dream chick) tells you it can’t tell you who you are, doubt that too. The way out is not to think the unthinkable; that just turns the abstract into more fodder for language. The way out is to follow unthinkable thoughts back, past the source, to a form of sentience that not only exists without language but that cannot coexist with language—because language has the peculiar effect of banishing such sentience by endlessly defining it (even as undefinable).
This is a metaphor for something else. Also a metaphor—a social and not a literary one—is the emergence of an innovative, dysfunctional sub-species within the human race—what I call neuro-deviants, shame on me—who are the inverse of those technologies (such as language) that appear to be here to save us, but which are really designed to further entrap us. They are the inverse in that they appear to be the problem, when actually they are a solution, one that’s only effective exactly insofar as it is beyond our comprehension.
(Peter Watts & friend. Adapted from an original photograph by Maria Nygård)
Where No Borg Can Go
When a society or an individual enters into a liminal space, one thing that kicks in—that always kicks in when the unknown appears—is that old survival mechanism of fight or flight (and feed and fuck). As Watts has pointed out, consciousness as we experience it is really a trick of Nature that’s geared not towards apprehending reality but only to surviving it. Denial and distortion is a fundamental part of survival, i.e., to existing at a purely physical level.
Language, lofty language, from Holy Books to idea-driven sci-fi novels to weird liminalist essays—poses as an attempt to transcend physicality and ascend into some mental realm of abstraction. Really, it came about as one more, one final, the ultimate, survival strategy, as a way to cognate death (name it) and God, Eternity, and all the other abstractions of the final concreteness, without having to be annihilated by those realities. A buffer that inserted itself between organic consciousness and its environment and that has whispered ever since, “Relax. Ye shall be as Gods.”
If our perception is fatally crippled by the organic drive to survive, it follows that the only way to perceive reality as it is, is to relinquish that drive to survive. To become increasingly dysfunctional is the only way for truly radical innovation (evolution) to occur.
This may be why Girard was so hung up on Christ: the example of turning the other cheek and of not resisting violence to Girard was the only cure for mimetic violence. Only when we no longer fear what the other may do to us, can we let go of the crazed impulse to do it to them first. Only when we cease to struggle to survive and experience the paralyzing mortality of the organism, without sublimating the fear into language-based fantasy constructs of divinity, can that which innovates—that microorganism that’s even smaller than thought-language—rise Leviathan-like from the depths of the psyche and transform that which we thought we were, into that which we have always been.
Only, if this is true, then there is no need for this to happen, ever. That which always was will continue to be, regardless of any illusory matrices of thought-language-control which are built, demiurgically, around or on top of it. In such a version of events, this essay is as real as the imagined person who wrote it; and as the ones imagining themselves to be reading it.
I wonder if this relates to why I experience periods of deep depression and stagnation following (and preceding) longer periods of well-being and activity? When I am depressed, I tend not to want to do much besides eat food and lie around and watch TV shows or read good books. When I am “up,” I get busy pursuing my interests, write books, make podcasts, go for walks, have sex, and so on—in a word, I am productive. Nature, like capitalism, wants us to be productive, so it (like the matrix) endeavors to keep us happy, just not so happy that we rest on our laurels and stop producing.
The chicken and the egg of a positive outlook and positive action is difficult, if not impossible, to turn into cause and effect, however. Does being productive put me in a happier frame of mind (by keeping my death-awareness at bay), or does being content naturally lead to more positive activities? Bees don’t make honey because they are happy, nor are they happy because they make honey. But it’s just about ontologically feasible to suggest that bees are happy (or at least free from existential misery) and that they do make honey. (Apparently, the root of all our existential problems lies in that one word, “because,” and in its even more aggressive twin, why?)
In a similar way, dysfunction relates to dissatisfaction: they are mutually dependent on one another. (The only kind of unhappy bee is one that isn’t “working.”) And if innovation relates to dysfunction, it also relates, in a similar or even identical manner, to dissatisfaction. The less an individual is able to function within society—to receive the social implant of language and identity—the less satisfied they will be on the terms which define the idea of satisfaction to begin with (as London School of Economics alumni Mick Jagger so loudly lamented)—and consequently, the more innovative.
This would seem to suggest that depression, which is obviously closer on the human emotional spectrum to dissatisfaction than it is to satisfaction, is a necessary element to innovation, even though—or perhaps precisely because?—it leads to periods of intense inactivity or sloth.
The indication of this—I mean what it indicates to me, or maybe I am just innovating beyond my limits—is that both depression and innovation relate to a non-biological drive in the human organism, a prime directive that has little—maybe even nothing at all—to do with individual survival. Depression, dissatisfaction, and dysfunction all entail some form of letting go of social drives, and even some biological ones, since very depressed people are known to stop eating. As a result of or congruent with this letting go of social drives, a deeper and more mysterious drive to express emerges: one that pertains to hitherto unknown potentials, both at a physical and a conceptual—I dare not call it spiritual—level.
Simply put (he says, though actually I have no idea if I can phrase it at all, never mind simply), there may be something in the human organism that inspires it to move according to nonphysical, non-survival based cues, something that can be exploited by society as a means to keep it going (assimilated by the Borg to increase expanding), but which is not created or even engendered by society. This mysterious x-element appears to belong to another form of consciousness and agenda altogether. It is—metaphorically speaking as always—a microorganism so tiny that it effectively escapes the rule of matter and of language entirely—and therefore is not bound by time, either.
It is—or could be, if we let it—a veritable Behemoth waiting at the wings of thought, waiting to subsume us and then, once animated or incarnated, to boldly go where neither Starship nor Borg can ever follow.
And that, as they say, is all he wrote.
For the full 4-part essay, click here.