attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: consciousness

The stoic as pessimist

The Stoics held that thought was the cause of all suffering, while others like the Buddha, Schopenhauer, Zapffe, Cioran (the whole pessimist gamut) held otherwise. Life itself, existence in this form, this conscious modality, is the cause of all suffering. This is the veil of tears. This is the thesis that seduces many into a subjectivist nihilism, or a resignation. This is the first, the only, noble truth. And from whence does its nobility spring? Are we to think that because it fell from the Buddah’s lips that it is noble? No. It’s nobility is not that of the highborn or the superior, it is the nobile of ‘gnobilis’, the knowable. It is what we come to know. It is the irrevocable knowledge that precedes the writings of any and all traditions, that precedes the production of a system of notation to inscribe meanings on page, on rock, on skin. It is knowledge that precedes even the birth of meaning, and which survives it in death. It is noble because it is always and everywhere the first knowledge; it is what life necessarily comes to know. The neonate’s primitive scream; the President’s tears after gunshots in an elementary school, and the children who ran to hide; the battle fields, the urban squalor, the inherited evolutionary itch to fight, to flee, to erect dwelling and cower (in comfort admittedly) from the elements. Suffering is what life comes to know irrevocably.

Some would say the function of art, and all aesthetics maybe, is to deliver us from suffering- to provide a salvic operation on what we have discounted as our ‘soul’. Beauty is born to soothe us, to raise us above the murk and mess and mulch of darkness, pain, and the compacted rot of corpses we call our history, our present. And I won’t dispute that. What do I know that those greater minds didn’t?

But the Stoics. They refused to characterise existence as suffering. We suffer to the extent that we acquiesce to the events that we take as the external source of our suffering. Writ large: we suffer because we don’t know how to be indifferent to the fact of life, to living. It was this that allowed them, or at least some of their contemporary interpreters, to make the illegitimate move of thinking that life is, in the words of one such modern Stoic, ‘amazing, incredible, wonderful’.

But then, it’s undeniable that beauty is produced by suffering. This isn’t to say that all who suffer produce beauty (and nor is it to say that beauty transforms  suffering- the beautiful and the merely pretty don’t necessarily coincide). It is simply to say that suffering appears necessary for the beautiful to emerge in conscious life.

So what have we said? That life is suffering. That the living suffer. That suffering is the fertilizer of the production of beauty. That the beautiful might elevate us, however fleetingly, from our condition. So don’t we have sufficient ground to say with the contemporary Stoic, who is surely exceeding his ancient Masters, that life is amazing, incredible, wonderful. In short, beautiful. Beauty, after all, is not opposed to ugliness but to the bland.

The pessimist  can find in life, in death as idea and as materiality (as corpse), some beauty. Likewise the pessimist need not be viewed as the dour and miserable or the cold and distant. The pessimist is overwhelmed sometimes by the world, not just in its aspect as source of suffering but also as source of beauty- because that is the same.


Embodied cognition and choreography

Beasts of the burden of death

I am late in recieving the news that on  July 7, 2012 a series of neuro-experts from the field of cognitive studies gathered together in order to announce that

The absence of a neocortex does not appear to preclude an organism from
experiencing affective states. Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the
neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with
the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that
humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-
human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also
possess these neurological substrates.

That consciousness is not confined to humanity won’t shock most people (any pet owner for instance will be entirely unsuprised). This declaration is important though in that it marks that the evolution of consciousness, with all its affective states, is nothing unique to human animals as a peice of scientific truth. From now on, those who speak of conscious beings can’t confine themselves in all good faith to speaking about that mammal that builds cathedrals and crafts pop songs. If ti is the case, as I contend in agreement with the pessimists, that consciousness is a disease, an aberration that was once a useful adaptation which, in developing surplus to environmental needs and in part thanks to its guiding ability in humans to help sculpt environment and be sculpted through it in return, then we must acknowledge our fellowship with other mammalian, avian and cephalopod life. The question of suffering is no longer theoretical, as the animal studies have always maintained, and it is undeniable now that such nonhuman lives be recognised as suffering lives. Again, for a good deal of people this is not a revelation.

But it prompts certain questions. That human and nonhuman lives share ‘primal affective qualia’ tends towards asking after the emotional life of nonhumans. I wonder at the idea of activities of practical necessity, like nest building, being or becoming (at least in possibility) a way of coping, a way of surviving. It makes me want to think of the maybe not so remote possibility of a cephalopod ethics and a form of life, a particular coalition against death, arising in an animal less evolutionarily biased toward developing an ocularcentric culture. Is it the case that more or less developed (from whose perspective?) nonhuman cultures abound around us, cultures that are radically nothing like our own. I remember being present at a horse being euthanised (he had a neurological problem that meant he had gradually become unable to swallow) and how in the blaze of the high Andalucian sun the vet had depressed a peice of plastic and a poison had inocuously flowed into the circulatory system of that horse. He stood upright for a moment, seized and then fell. He lay dead as the vet cut into his throat to examine the mechanics of the problem, a biological engineeer examining a poorly constructed machine, as the lorry backed up on the blood stained dust to whinch and carry the corpse away. The other horses, gathered in a lower paddock of soft sand transported from beaches, had stood in a silent circle. At the time I had wondered if they knew what death was, what it failed to mean, whether they were huddled in fear or a more blunt sense that this wasn’t normal, wasn’t right. Do nonhuman animals shudder at abjection? Might the activity of ants building colonies be aesthetic as well as pragmatic? Is it possible to imagine a psychiatry for nonhuman lives? Why not? After all, psychiatry deals with problems with living…and the problem is living itself.

Of course the scientists haven’t declared that these other animals have this kind of consciousness. There isn’t any reason to think that sharing the material substrate for consciousness means developing the same form of consciousness. That said, what it does do is show the unhuman nature of consciousness. Thomas Ligotti in The conspiracy against the human race (p.79):

One would think that nature was trying to kill us off or get us to suicide ourselves once the blunder of consciousness came upon us. What was nature thinking? We tried to anthropomorphize it, to romanticize it, to let it into our hearts.

We would have to generalise this state of affairs to those nonhuman animal lives that this declaration has deemed to share consciousness with us. Consciousness exists across the old distinction of nature/culture, of animal/man, and obliterates that mark. If specuations about existential horses or artist ants and a psychiatry for octopus seem ridiculous it is perhaps only because of the desire to keep the anthropic machine productive of that cleavage between man and beast. The point of such speculation is to go against the idea that we again find expressed in Ligotti that aside from man, who is the conscious animal, ‘[f]or the rest of earth’s organisms, existence is relatively uncomplicated. They live- they reproduce- they stop living’ (p.8). The idea of a psychiatry for nonhumans is silly (even though the use of psychopharmacology to prove the existence of the substrates of consciousness is in a direct and banal sense the everyday practice of psychiatry). Ligotti’s insistence that it is only we humans that can grasp life and death- his rearticulation of the problem of Dasein– has the power of an intuitive truth for us. Yet this intuition is the very product of our consciousness without any material evidential support; it is precisely the superstition that scientific truth either confirms or denies. If we are going to stay faithful to Ligotti’s line then we have to extend it to humans as well…why not? We too are uncomplicated animals who live, reproduce and stop living. This is factually accurate, even if it seems to us to leave a lot out of the picture…how dare this idea not delight in the complexity of my mood swings during football matches, my fear that if I ask that question in that auditorium I’ll look like a moron. Even Ligotti can’t allow for the notion that these intricacies of character and life story (that I once sat next to Kevin Keegan at a wedding and that he gave me a garish pink tie that for some reason I still keep hold of) are irrelevant differences that make no difference. That would be nihilistic.

So we have that option. And it is powerful. Or, we have the option to believe that other animals don’t live utterly uncomplicated lives. That is the Cartesian picture of the soft machine. But if nonhumans have consciousness then it is at least possible that they too can enjoy all the glory of Daseinification; of being beings that fail to cope, that fail to survive. Yet that these are nonhuman animals that in some instances have no relation to the kind of being that Heidegger describes in Being and Time means that we ought to be cautious to run to familiar themes. In the end Heidegger seeks to domesticate death. The domestication of death renders the concept of death sterile and clean or personal and possessive, small and somehow intimate. Death domesticated is death as it is concieved in the romance of existentialism. It is my death…full of pomp and sense and purpose. That consciousness is unhuman means that death is never mine alone, that the thought of death is never the thought of my death.

The question of whether those horses in the sand paddock understood death, whether they were existentialists, is a nonsense in precisely the same way that asking whether we understand death is nonsense. Making meaning out of death is precisely what we do in order to domesticate it. What is to understand? Isn’t that why we have psychiatry, clinical psychology, rituals of grief and mourning…why we make arbitrary decision about what lives are injurable and mournable? It is because there is no meaning that meaning has to be made…even though its absence haunts its presence. Marc Bekoff, ‘the emotional lives of animals’ here

Sea lion mothers wail when watching their babies being eaten by killer whales. People have reported dolphins struggling to save a dead calf by pushing its body to the surface of the water. Chimpanzees and elephants grieve the loss of family and friends, and gorillas hold wakes for the dead. Donna Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo, witnessed a wake for a female gorilla, Babs, who had died of cancer at Boston’s Franklin Park Zoo. She says the gorilla’s longtime mate howled and banged his chest; picked up a piece of celery, Babs’ favorite food; put it in her hand; and tried to get her to wake up.

I once happened upon what seemed to be a magpie funeral service. A magpie had been hit by a car. Four of his flock mates stood around him silently and pecked gently at his body. One, then another, flew off and brought back pine needles and twigs and laid them by his body. They all stood vigil for a time, nodded their heads, and flew off.

What is new in the declaration isn’t what it declares but that it has been declared by this group of people as such, that it is a declaration- with all the linguistic-political tones and shades that that brings.

All of this begs a question. Let me rehearse some conclusions already reached on this blog. Being alive is a problem because it is generative of suffering. Consciousness is a problem because it is through consciousness that we come to suffer. All life on earth faces extinction (entropy, solar catastrophe etc), and many species, including our own, face extinction due to climate change (for one example among many, see here). It is better that we do not continue procreating (the anti-natalist proposition) and that our projects for the future- whatever political orientation we prefer- must involve the self-management of extinction, a kind of palliative care of the planet. Given these conditions what possible animal rights emerge? What animal politics? Would practices of conservation not paradoxically become modes of prolonging the suffering of conscious beings? Or would it be the opposite tyhat conservationism becomes an ethical injunction…that we extend a kind of protection of nonhuman lives from pets and zoo animals to those in the wild?

Of course, that nonhuman animals have consciousness isn’t really established by this declaration. The authors do not define consciousness at all, and they also posit proof of consciousness in the form of an assertion regarding what they consider to be the ‘material substrates’ of that consciousness, but it is glaringly obvious that a substrate of a thing is not that thing entire. They also state that this substrate, already conflated with the thing, is generative of the thing without explaining how. Thus, they posit a physical material that somehow produces a nonphysical thing…as if there were some ghost in the Cartesian machine.

Alva Noë and ‘the space of access’

Alva Noe visits Google’s San Francisco, CA office to discuss his book “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.” This event took place on April 16, 2009, as part of the Authors@Google series.

The notion that consciousness is confined to the brain, like software in a computer, has dominated science and philosophy for close to two centuries. Yet, according to this incisive review of contemporary neuroscience from Berkeley philosopher Nöe, the analogy is deeply flawed. In eight illuminating, mercifully jargon-free chapters, he defines what scientists really know about consciousness and makes a strong case that mind and awareness are processes that arise during a dynamic dance with the observers surroundings. Nöe begins with a sharp critique of scientists, such as DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, who insist that nothing but neurons determines our daily perceptions and sense of self. He then examines studies of human and animal behavior that demonstrate an inextricable link between identity and environment. Nöe regrettably limits his treatise by ignoring considerable research from transpersonal psychology suggesting that consciousness transcends physicality altogether. Still, the resulting book is an invaluable contribution to cognitive science and the branch of self-reflective philosophy extending back to Descartes famous maxim, I think, therefore I am.

From an interview in Third Culture:

We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically matter of just a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.

A much better image is that of the dancer. A dancer is locked into an environment, responsive to music, responsive to a partner. The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us.


And with that a question that has been bothering me. Among all the new realists, the new materialists and so on, with the eternally repeated Spinoza quote that we know not what a body can do, why is dance- which physically, materially wants to know what a (human) body can do- so neglected by philosophy?


For a long time it was the end of history. People coped with this by reinvigorating the past or making a virtue of the banality of living in the present or, at it’s most inane extreme, ‘the moment’. Others still claimed to live for a future that couldn’t arrive. History didn’t end. It woke up. It went on. Today it isn’t possible to live some imagined history or in the temporality of the Instant and instantaneous. Every temporality that isn’t that of a future already occurred and occurring are anaemic. Today it is only possible to live after the event. History continues but it is now headed to one place: the Catastrophe, imagined on whatever scale you want. Psychically, it has already happened. Here we are then in the nihilistic wastes of history that have not yet come. The present is vampiric on a future that has ended and casts its shadow back on to us. The objective nihilism of the world: everything that is, is debris. Today we are the self-conscious wreckage of all things come apart. It is in this sense alone that we are post-Catastrophic, that we live after the future as nobodies nowhere, embodied and here and now.


In a previous post I made a slip of the tongue. I wrote that Cosmos is absurd. What I had meant to write was that Cosmos (the assemblage of all that exists; the material set of all sets, if you like) is ambivalent.

Cosmos is ambivalent. This ambivalence is a feature of all our meaning production, or of our consciousness that our meanings are produced and therefore that they seem to lack any foundations; it is a feature of the ontological Illusion, the way in which even as Cosmos presents itself it does so only by remaining occluded; ambivalence is a feature of all things, in all times, in all places. It is the abyss that gives itself concretely as things, including ourselves.

Ambivalence is the name for the sense that Cosmos- or world as we call our experience of it- refuses to be pinned down to any particular ontological system. Ambivalence is what marks the impossibility of systematic philosophy and also the partial truth that is found in all systematic thought. Ambivalence is thus both ontological condition and epistemological concept. It is, therefore, like a fragment; complete unto itself but denying any possibility to ever being finally finished.

I wish to make a transfer

How can you exact an account of an instance of transference? How can you isolate an occasion when a human interaction you found yourself in was caught within it? Transference is the mechanism that prevents me from experiencing you in your horrific singularity, stops me from an acute realisation of the existential distance between our two consciousness or, at least, between the experience of being two consciousnesses. We are alike in physiology, neurological archiecture, in our historical and cultural inheritance and, by and large, are formed and found within more or less the same political predicaments. True, details change. True, I experience differently from you in infinitesimal and infinite ways. Those details loom vast and form what is unrepeatable in each heart, each mind…they are the wounds and scars on the bodies that mark us as distinct. What if I experienced your singularity each and every time I encountered you? What if I experienced every quirk and idiosyncratic divergence from some imaginary norm of individuality? If I could perceieve you as that particular cluster of horrors, miseries and fading joys with each and every encounter? Would we want to look each other in the eyes? It’s a game only lovers can play, and there is a reason that polygamy either fails or exists on a purely formal or carnal footing. What if I saw the monstrosity that lurks in each passer-by? What if the sadist appeared in every friend? The cowering beast afraid of its own death in my parents? The insatiable lust in the eyes of every adolescent? The screams of existential agony or the heights of laughter in every volcanic burst of joy?

Such a life would be overwhelming. How would one possibly respond to the daemonic influx of emotion?

Transference is a haunting. Our attachments repeat older attachments. Even if impoverished or traumatic, or just happily banal, this haunting makes them familiar. It reduced our interactions to a manageable scale. We impoverish each other through this haunting but it is an impoverishment that makes it possible to bear one another. More than that, it makes it possible to set one person aside and raise them above the rest: ‘I love you’ translated as ‘I want to witness all your joy, all your monstrosity, all your humanity…to share in it and share my own with you’. Such a wonder can only emerge because of transference. In this Freud might even have been wrong. Authentic love might only be possible when transference fails.

Transference reduces things to easy patterns. It is a chaoid, a pattern, a stereotype or cliche. Thus it is also found in culture, literature, art, politics and the rest of our sublimating prostheses for making life bearable, liveable. It is a stabilising influence. Is it any wonder philosophers can write peons to deterritorialising flows? But they always reterritorialise. Every destruction, every disintegration, every torture, death or decomposition. Like matter, such things are incapable of not having form.

Maybe the purposes we thirst for and convince ourselves of (all and everyone of us, the avowed pessimists and nihilists the same as the most cheerful optimists), despite the evident purposelessness of everything, originates alongside our earliest cliches.

And of love? Maybe that is our best response in the face of our awareness of purposelessness. After all, no one is a utilitarian about falling in love.


This is how it is when you miss someone who is away for a brief time. And it is a foreshadow of when, for whatever reason, it finally comes to an end. It feels strange to think that the best possible of such ends is a far off death, strange to think in those terms at all. And I hear the echoes of those thinkers who have advised to pay attention to impermanence, to conjure in the imagination grim portraits of the silence that will come. I try it but find it too hard. It isn’t hard because I can’t imagine it but because I can. The millions of accidental things that, having happened, have no choice but to have happened; fate operating in retrospection. The millions of things that could bring the distance back on itself, cancelling out the distinction between now and the time of inevitability. I’d rather every star burn up, every life wither. It is a strange emotion that we call love; to everything but it’s inspiration it conceals a brutality, a terrible violence. I am noticing the time now. 02:39. I have been writing all night and I’m tired. In the morning I will write more and still be tired. In the interstice my consciousness will evaporate and I will have the tranquillity of a Zeno or a Buddha, never remembering my sleeping dreams. I re-read what I have written here and note that I still haven’t quite captured what I mean. Language always seems to fail inside of its successes.


Life, it appears, is always taken as a given rather than as a monumentally purposeless achievement. Because it is purposeless. What may have purpose, if only in an illusory form which is cancelled by death, is a life. But a life may be that of the city, of the place of work, of an individual, of a relationship, an afternoon. For us who bear consciousness each must be the work of a permanent fashioning.


Is it possible to think of someone electing a dementia? To decide to be unburdened of consciousness? No. Heroism is only found in books written by those afraid to live.