Saturday, November 26, 2011

Becoming Singular in That Hideous Strength

CS Lewis, That Hideous Strength

“That is the point,” said Frost. “One must guard against supposing that the political and economic dominance of England by the N.I.C.E. is more than a subordinate object: it individuals we are really concerned with. A hard core of individuals really devoted to the cause—that is what we need and are under orders to supply. We have not succeeded so far in bringing many people in—really in..."

“Of course,” said Wither, “nothing is so much to be desired as the greatest possible unity. Any fresh individual brought into that unity would be a source of the most intense satisfaction—to—ah—all concerned. You need not doubt that I would open my arms to receive—to absorb—to assimilate this young man."


I. Ice-burgs in the Oceanic Mind

Following my post on Fragmenting Minds, I wanted to address the benefits and dangers of Defragging a mind, or making it singular.

The benefits are in many ways clear to me during brief vacation to Chicago for Thanksgiving where I get to eat, sleep, and hopefully reset my brain some before returning to work. Fragmenting requires creating walls and distinctions which take much effort to maintain and which ultimately fail. We might loosely think of the efforts of structuralism to hold off deconstruction, or normativity to hold off queerness.

Things relax and we can focus (or not) on singular things. We can thus shake off the strain of stress and complicated mental processes. This simplicity makes thought and work easier, often because it involves simplifying our reading of the environment. This may even be relatively harmless, given we don't need to make any complicated or consequential decisions. Following our "gut" may be dangerous when electing politician, but is less so when electing which glazed doughnut to buy.

The dangers of Defragging however can be illustrated by the complimentary pair of antagonists in CS Lewis's That Hideous Strength: Prof. Frost and Mr Wither. Both have effectively made their minds singular.

The former has sharpened his thought (we are told) to a point, coming as close to a singularity as possible. The latter has broadened his thought (we are told) to be utterly open, becoming as global in his thinking as possible. Both, as is seen, in doing so not only dissolve the distinctions of other bodies, but themselves come as close to 0 as possible in their attempts to become 1. They are either too narrow or too wide to seem to be anything at all.


“Before going on,” said Frost, “I must ask you to be objective. Resentment and fear are both chemical phenomena. Our reactions to one another are chemical phenomena. You must observe these feelings in yourself in an objective manner. Do not let them distract your attention from the facts...Motives are not the causes of action but its by-products. When you have attained real objectivity you will recognize all motives as subjective epiphenomena. You will then have no motives and you will find that you do not need them...”

“And that,” continued Frost, “is why a systematic training in objectivity must be given to you. It is like killing a nerve. That whole system of instinctive preferences, whatever ethical, aesthetic, or logical disguise they wear, is to be simply destroyed...."

He understood the whole business now. Frost was not trying to make him insane; at least not in the sense Mark had hitherto given to the word “insanity”. To sit in the room was the first step towards what Frost called objectivity—the process whereby all specifically human reactions were killed in a man so that he might become fit for the fastidious society of the Macrobes. Higher degrees in the asceticism of anti-nature would doubtless follow.


II. Prof. Frost: the Frozen Mind

Prof. Frost appears to embody the critique that is often made against Modernism: it becomes increasingly focused and narrow in its parameters until next to nothing fits into it.

This form of singularity can be incredibly efficient and justified, as simplistic thinking often can. People like seeing hard decisions made quickly and willfully, hard questions answered easily and with brevity, and things getting done in sensitive and consequential circumstances. But this usually depends on setting values and methods which set up unsustainable ecological conditions and which do great violence to anything that does not fit within the real of valued bodies.

Focus, logic, and objectivity are great. They are however ideologies. That is to say, we may be able to imagine them in the abstract, 1 + 1 = 2, but they are hard to "prove" or much less "use." Without going into the entire history of pre-modern, modern, post-modern critiques of reason, it is enough to say that it may seem pragmatic to give your new step-cousin roller-blades for Christmas, to stay up all night preparing for a meeting, or to try to set up your lonely co-worker Jim with a woman from the mail-room. But then you find out after doing so, that your new cousin is in a wheel-chair, your workplace burned to the ground that night, or that your co-worker prefers to date men.

It is often required that we make decisions and act as one person, but the more diverse things we can be conscious of at once, the better decisions we can make. It may be straining, especially when many important thoughts are operating at once, but we experience the benefits and pleasures of having those "nerves" active. I wrote earlier derogatorily of following your "gut" but your "gut" or emotions or subconscious or however you come to understand the less articulate parts of your consciousness is information as well. 

It seems from my experience that when two choices seem equally logical, then following my various feelings can put me in touch with lots of "little" observations or memories. This also fits in with what last post I negatively described as "choosing what you really want." I may want the burger and the hot-dog and the salad but can't eat them all at once, but listening to the various parts of me that just aren't in the mood for meat right now may lead me to selecting what is really the healthier choice. Plus, I may be more likely as a result to enjoy the results. 

Such are the joys and perils of being "Frosty."


"The Deputy Director [i.e. Wither] hardly ever slept. When it became necessary for him to do so, he took a drug, but the necessity was rare, for the mode of consciousness he experienced at most hours of day or night had long ceased to be exactly like what other men call waking. 

The manner and outward attitude which he had adopted half a century ago were now an organisation which functioned almost independently, like a gramophone. While the brain and lips carried on his work, and built up day by day for those around him the vague and formidable personality which they knew so well, his inmost self was free to pursue its own life. A detachment of the spirit not only from the senses but even from the reason was now his. 

Hence he was still, in a sense, awake an hour after Frost had left him. His eyes were not shut. The face had no expression; the real man was far away, suffering, enjoying, or inflicting whatever such souls do suffer, enjoy, or inflict when the cord that binds them to the natural order is stretched out to its utmost."


III. Mr Wither: the Oceanic Mind

Mr. Wither on the other hand appears to embody the critique often waged against many post-modernists, which is that they become relativists, and become so open as to lose any sense of form, position, or decision making ability.

The benefits of this frame of mind are also pretty apparent. Being able to listen without speaking over another or pushing them aside, remaining flexible, at least appearing to be able to accept new persons or new ideas with ease. But these also presume that at some point a response will be given, a position enforced, and acceptance given which effectively denies certain possibilities from becoming realized. If trying to persuade Frost is like running at the point of a sword, then trying to persuade Wither is like running through mist. Nothing really happens, but you might become a bit more disoriented.

Fluidity is great. But this too is ideology. While Frost once again illustrates a kind of fanatic or fundamentalist ideology, Wither illustrates an ideology which never rises to the level of articulate thought. A person who exhibits too oceanic thought in this sense may seem like they are on every ones side, but when push comes to shove, they slip away. It is fair to say "I do not know" or "I cannot say definitively" because totality escapes us as it does Frost, but to presume you do not know anything is deny your vary ability to think (however imperfectly) and your ability to speak (however inarticulately). 

It is often required that we remain open to change and unexpected outcomes, but refusing to move ahead because you cannot know or control all things will lead to either bring about little good for the things you do value (which in the extreme may be all things or effectively nothing) or bring about negative effects by refusing to participate or use the things you are given. Using the example from before, it may be that you are not sure on the ability of your cousin to roller-blade, your business to be there in the morning, or the sexual orientation of your co-worker, but to be too Withered would mean potentially slighting your relative by not giving a gift, being unprepared for a meeting, or leaving your co-worker totally alone when he could use some company.

Gathering further knowledge and view-points is helpful, as is expecting the unexpected, but not acting because it might be a mistake may be more or equal an act of pride as Frost's assertions of self. Both refuse to admit the possibility of failure. Is that not a critical element in the stress of Fragmenting? We fear failure in our thinking and our work. What singularity offers us is a way to ignore the potential for being wrong. This is itself almost an insurance that failures will occur, you just won't be worrying or cognizant of them. You become like Wither, a tool of great violence but with no idea of what he is doing.

Such are the joys and dangers of being "Withered."


"Neither at this stage of the conversation nor at any other did the Deputy Director look much at the face of Frost. But either Frost or Wither—it was difficult to say which—had been gradually moving his chair, so that by this time the two sat with their knees almost touching...

They were now sitting so close together that their faces almost touched, as if they had been lovers about to kiss. Suddenly there was a crash. Who’s Who had fallen off the table, swept on to the floor as, with sudden, swift convulsive movement, the two old men lurched forward towards each other and sat swaying to and fro, locked in an embrace from which each seemed to be struggling to escape.

And as they swayed and scrabbled with hand and nail, there arose, shrill and faint at first, a cackling noise that seemed in the end rather an animal than a senile parody of laughter."


IV. N.I.C.E.: The Meeting of Single Minds

In addition to being another example of CS Lewis attaching queer sexualities and gender identities on his "evil" characters, the meeting of Frost and Wither to form a unified body illustrates that in their extremes the Frost and the Oceanic come together.

As noted, both arise out of a desire to become 1: Frost by becoming a single colonial power and Wither by disappearing into a sort of pantheistic mind (which as articulated earlier, in equating a = b and b=c says that effectively a and c do not exist; all is b). The one becomes narrower and wider until they effectively become 0. With a diversity of things always at work, both methods commits violence against the self and others (in a sense by refusing to acknowledge the ways they coincide and conflict).

For those who suffer with anxious-depressive tendencies, this may seem lall too familiar. The deep desire to do one thing perfectly and the despair of doing anything both freeze up the body. Tricks to overcoming episodes of both are likewise similar: do something else. It sounds flippant, but to quote GK Chesterton's critique of rationalism and madness, he notes that usually monomaniacal thought streams cannot be argued out from because they are extraordinarily logical. They simply are very closed loops. Pushing on them or trying to think through them may not be effective because it just pushes things around the circle. The trick, as I said, is to loosen or divert thought out from its path. Get it to do "other" things which may very well not be logical. Get the mind to make mistakes and accept different thoughts at once; such as "mistakes are okay." This is at least one example.

Again, Fragmenting the mind has its strain and Defragging has its perils, but both prove useful in their own ways. Working under a lot of deadlines and also enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with family, I am experiencing both right now. In fact, adding these blog-posts has been a useful way to Fragment and do something different to help get my mind out of its loops; in addition to being an interesting line of thought in its own right.


Monday, November 21, 2011

Fragmenting Minds: Becoming More than One Person

"Action is not done under the full control of consciousness; 
action should be felt as a node, a knot, and conglomerate 
of many surprising sets of agencies"
Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern

"So who is pulling the strings? 
Well, the puppets do in addition to their puppeteers” 
Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social


Some might call it being able to "multi-task" but that move shuts down what I feel to be a complicated and important ability we have to fragment our minds to be able to process different tasks simultaneously or switch from task to task without needing to start again from step 1.

Moving into application season, at the same time as term papers, while managing a list of other professional and personal works, I have become more and more aware that I've needed to be more than one person to get it all done at once. 

As often as I have the benefit to do so, or when something receives the whole of my attention, I can use the fragmented abilities of my mind to receive, organize, and respond to multiple things at once to get the best visual picture of the situation that I can. When listening to a colleague make an astute point, it is helpful to be able to listen to their language (physical and verbal), imagine what they are saying, connect it with past experiences and conversations, then initiate numerous responses at once: 
  1. listening with an initial head-nod, 
  2. a probing question for the next pause in the conversation, 
  3. what is their expected response to that question,
  4. the beginnings of a contribution for several minutes later when a more developed response will be expected, 
  5. potential counter-points to that contribution,
  6. an off-topic joke or personal comment to ease tensions just in case they seem to be anxious about the matter at hand,
  7. some way to incorporate the other person at the table, who has been giving subtle signals of being bored and disengaged but not at a level which requires this task to be raised to a higher level of urgency (yet), 
  8. what meeting do I have next?, 
  9. did I remember to call my mother back?, 
  10. this sitting position is uncomfortable, please shift it.

We all do it. Also, I might add I left out the other subtle dips we might take which can include many of the auto-responses of the body. This was listed in an order which somewhat suggests a hierarchy of thought, with the most attention being given to the higher and less engaged parts of the mind working over the lower. Within a moment however all that can change and it is not a perfect spectrum. Nonetheless, this gives the impression of the powers of the mind when most of it can be put on a single task.

When work piles up, however, which is the usual state of affairs, I find that I am able to designate parts of my thinking to specific tasks and use additional prostheses to my mental work that allow me to "wear many hats at once." The goal of this frame of mind is to give multiple things the benefit of my "100%" effort or my "full attention." The paradox is of course that in fragmenting my mind, it is no longer at 100% in the sense of being one whole thing. But the task still gets the 100% insofar as it gets a whole mind to focus on it. True, usually one mind is at the forefront, able to sit at a computer or work station and get the benefit of being "what I am doing right now." Still the other processes are going on. Even while one task is being worked on, my mind may look like this:

  • ...the grant proposal needs to have language that better reflects the specific backgrounds of the participants and the institution. I made a draft of that earlier, where are my notes...
  • ...the paper on Thomas Coryate needs to address his relations to language more in depth, but so far it has focused on his materiality. Derrida might be useful but might pose some problems...
  • ....the seminar tomorrow has been trending towards disease, but has avoided discussing issues of how bodies might be read as normative versus diseased, or how disease may have been normalized...
  • ... in the meeting tonight will probably end up reviving questions about the impact on the community, be good to look through my notes from two weeks ago to make sure we don't spend time simply regurgitating the same cycle of thought...
The effect of this from the outside is of course the appearance of some disorder, because the multiple notes, tools, computer files that I have open may seem like they are not connected and are just taking up space, but what is going on is the externalization of the thinking process using material aids so as to expand what I can think through by giving some of the tasks of memory or organization to paper or computer agents. 

Likewise, I have had it often pointed out to me, mostly by room-mates who get to see me in the midst of my writing projects, that I have a tendency to return to topics in the conversation or start new ones with little or no transition (something I of course avoid in public speaking or writing). This post is in fact inspired by one room-mate who informed me about myself by explaining one such topic shift to a friend as "oh, yeah, conversations with M during term paper time is often more like juggling topics than moving through them."

So, scattered brained and absent minded? I don't think so. Usually my brain is pretty organized and pretty present, its just fragmented. I admit it can be a bit jarring at times to jump from thing to thing, and there can be conflicts. I never understood it when people asked "well, okay, but which one of these options do you REALLY want?" I want both AND another AND another option! Parts of my thought push me in one direction while others compete with them. Sometimes there can be a consensus made or a new piece of information brought to light that can subordinate others, but often a decisions means some thought processes win out over others. There is joy, and disappointment, as well as mild-amusement and other reactions from parts of my thought which were less engaged.

Perhaps this came from listening to music, reading, and watching TV all at once as a student, but I doubt most of the people I meet can get through their day and get all their work done without in some way fragmenting their minds. Of course, there are limits for how many times you can divide yourself before things, well, fall apart.

Coming soon:
"Defragging: the Art of the Oceanic Mind"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

No Sign(al): Your Call Cannot Be Completed as Dialed

or, Becoming Static: Can Queer Bodies Network?

"I can't see a thing on the video,
I can't hear a sound on the radio,
in stereo in the Static Age"
Green Day, Static Age

A Second Look at Extra-Personal Communication

You sit across the table from Megan and Katie in a window-side booth of a neighborhood Chicago diner. Megan and you have been going out for a few weeks now (depending on when you count from) but this is the first time you've met one of her really good friends.

The conversation lags in the beginning as your shyness competes with Katie's strangeness and Megan's inexplicable reticence. Then Megan offers that Katie and you both hate the Packers and things pick up; via a shared interest in teasing Megan on her clumsy social skills. From there, Megan watches and smiles over her food until the conversation turns to how you and her met, then it becomes a duet of storytelling with each partner sharing the many little details that the other drops out, now from an established stock of previous tellings, while Katie takes her turn as the bemused audience.

Then suddenly you are alone as Megan and Katie both got up and went to the bathroom together. You absentmindedly eat some more of your fries and stare at a text from a friend asking if you think things are going well.

In the wake of the George Washington University Conference on Composing Disabilities: Writing, Communication, Culture, I have returned to a question I posed i an earlier blog-post on communication and what happens when there is a "Error, Misuse, Failure" Response, a Queer Response, a Response with no Sign(al). As we delve into Queer Materiality this is a pertinent question, both in regards to that which does not manifest into readable/normative signs and that which objects translation into language.

Returning to the scenario I posed: What if Katie suddenly got ill and had to leave before she could articulate her feelings on you? What if your question to your friend via text on how to read a certain exchange is ended by a cell phone dying? What if they never return from the bathroom?

These inquiries  reach back to my inaugural post for this blog, where I quoted Judith Butlers treatment of questions posed to any other. In light of her quote on "the question that does not seek to know" and the need to live with the "unknowability" of the other, we find our scenario has three parts:

  1. Desiring to Know the Other
  2. Telling the Other What it Is Through Our Question
  3. Admitting our Impotence and Accepting the Ineffability of the Other



1. Is Anyone (Out) There?
or, Desiring Responses

The queer as that which sets and defies the limits of epistomology, as the face of the unknowable other, embodies the question: Che vois?

What do we do when we do not receive the desired feedback but our interlocutor remains in sight? What does the graduate student do when their professor stares enigmatically back at them after what had initially felt like an intelligent and daring point but which with every lingering moments feels all the more foolish or pedantic or worse? What do we do when we are faced with the terror of the unresponsive "Che vois?" in OUR body?

Psychoanalysts, such as Slavoj Zizek in the Sublime Object of Ideology, offer that there is an essential lack/nothingness that is at the core of consciousnesses, which propels into language, causing it to desire and to question. These questions perform the role of not only seeking that which would sure up its existence, thus filling the lack and ending the desiring/questioning, but primarily the role of obfuscating that the lacking/questioning is all that exists. We can never get what we want to know, because it does not exist and we cannot stop asking for it, because then we would cease to exist.

Actor-Networkers, such as Bruno Latour in Resembling the Social and Aramis, or the Love of Technology, offers that it is movement that sustains existence, so that questioning insofar as it is a velocity in the ecology towards other things continues the chain of causation. Looking at the question not in terms of consciousness but in terms of materiality, Latour nonetheless provides an answer by suggesting that while acts like questions may sometimes have reciprocity effects like answers, they need not. Still, the question itself is an effect of things entering the node of the body and bringing about the inquiry, so even if it is not an ANSWER, there is a response of things returning back to questioner, but they merely serve to perpetuate or divert the questioning.
    In this case, it is the QUESTION which is the primary ANSWER.


    “Chaos is the ultimate muteness that forces speech to go faster and faster,
    trying to catch the suffering in the words”
    Arthur Frank, the Wounded Storyteller



    2. The Persistent Ringer
    or, Normifying Responses

    Another answer is that we create an-other ecology which will feed-back an answer in the place of the silent, distant or inarticulate body.

    In his book, Phantoms in the Brain, V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D. puts his study and theories of the brain, and phantom limbs in particular, into accessible narratives for a lay audience. He explains how one of the most common phantom pains that patients complain of having is the sensation of having the absent fingers clenched, digging deep, nails penetrating, into the absent palm. Ramachandran suggests that this is the result of signals (little emissions of nervous energy) out from the brain towards the location of the severed hand, where it would typically would continue until the nervous system twitched slightly into the gripping position, possibly making contact with the skin. This twitch, however small, sends feedback information of the resistance and locations of the muscles (among other minute information) and with the loop complete the signals remain minor.

    What happens when the hand is absent however is that in some cases the signal from the brain (in the form of energetic-material) does NOT feed-back and thus the signals become stronger and stronger, searching for a high enough intesntity in which the hand would twitch and send back an impulse (if it was there). With no response but with the persistant mapping of a hand in existence, the brain creates a smaller secondary circuit of impulses which registering the intensity of the impulse for the hand to twitch/squeeze makes the logical connection that this force MUST be incredibly now, to the point of a hand (if it was there) to be digging its nails deeply into the palm, and thus produces that corresponding experience.

    With no return messengers, the kingdom assumes (i.e. creates a secondary, personal feed-back loop to provide it self with the information it is not getting, or not recognizing from outside) they must be fighting an intense battle on the front lines and require further aid.

    With no sign from their god, daemon, spirit, etc, the devotees commit themselves to an ever deeper self-sacrifice before the altar.

    With no reply of love from the beautiful Olivia, Orsino assumes that his arbiter Cesario must not have effectively transmitted the minds of the would be lovers; he "will not be so answered." He will continue in his self-languishing and to lecture his messengers to be all the more vigilant and crafty as he sends them off again.

    In this case, the QUESTION short-circuits into a reiterated intensification of SELF.

    "Queer does not have a relation of exteriority 
    to that with which it comes into contact...
    If orientation is about making the strange familiar 
    through the extention of bodies into space, 
    then disorientation occurs when that extention fails."
    Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology 


    " --- "

    3. No Sign(al),
    or, Queering Responses

    Like NASA pointing arrays of satellites towards the sky, often we must simply wait listening to the static noise, hoping either for something to translate into recognizable signs or for us to somehow discover a new language in the inarticulate sounds.

    At some point we must face the reality of the Other, that is, the reality of transformation: what we transmit may not come back to us in the same form. Katie, or our arm, may no longer be there, but that does not necessarily mean that no-thing is there. To assume that simply because we do not and perhaps cannot understand what it going on does not mean that no-thing speaks back or no-thing exists; to assume that is not only insanely arrogant, it runs contrary to our very experience of discovery and wonder.

    What might the queer answer sound like?

    Moving Messages

    • A shout or a call across the table will have very different responses than one made across the room, across the street, from a moving car, from a moving planet, across a swirling galaxy and beyond. Our call will shift as it leaves us, and even if all we here is an echo, it may not sound like our voices and we may not be alive to hear it. If we do receive a response, transportation may radically warp the message so as to duck the sign(al) out of our patterns for understanding.
    Mixed Messages
    • Like anyone who has ever listened to themselves shout in front of a vast, multidimensional space, the echo often comes back as a chorus of voices and baring the mark of a multiplicity of objects. The voices together make a new message and may contain in, like a hole or silence, that which can be carried but not articulated into signification.
    Changing Messages
    • Things, including language, are dynamic and will constantly suggest other forms, temporalities, places, languages as they churn in and out of our recognizable sight. Like Graham Harman's retreating objects, things have an interiority of which we can only perceive the external performance. Our strongest vision can never make a thing transparent to our sight and our greatest code crackers can never fix into language that which is not of language.
    In this case, the QUESTION becomes not a question, but a MYSTERY.

    ANSWERING our initial QUESTION: Yes, Queer Bodies can network but they Transform the Network in the Process.