essay for Makhzin edited by Ghalaya Saadawi, Mirene Arsanios and Iman Mersal
It is the contention of many philosophies, regardless of their location, that when a state of ‘no thought’ is achieved, there is the end of time—an inner time— and with it, the process of becoming ends too. This is akin to being One with consciousness. It also means the end of identity: when the subject does not identify with being Harsha or Sandhya, or whomever. This positive emptiness is what thought tries to achieve through introspection, by stopping itself in its tracks in order to effectively destroy itself. When moving alongside thought in real time has been mastered, it is possible to stop thought itself: to be able to reach a point where the subject severs itself from its constructed identity.
What constitutes the ability to think of thinking? The “catching oneself” in the act of knowing is the re-affirmation of the humanness of the human. To catch oneself from time to time isn’t enough: we want to be eternally caught. But we are also afraid of being in a state of the eternally caught. It is thus this pull of oppositional needs that sets the human apart from other forms of being. As much as we want to be human, we also do not want to be merely human.
In our continuous striving to find a working definition of the human, we largely construct three categories: the human, technology and the natural ‘everything else’. Are we all three? Two? Only human? The Virtual Reality (VR) Goat Simulator formalizes this quest through technological abundance. Nothing is lost here: the subject can choose to be a techno-goat-human, reminding itself that it was once less human and hence more animal, retaining its techno-human sensibilities.
I am reminded of an old story about a newly-wed couple and their male companion. They were passing through a forest infamous for its dacoity. As expected, the dacoits descended upon them and in the ensuing battle, the two men got their heads chopped off. The newly-wed bride was distraught. She pleaded to the gods for help. One particular god appeared before her and assured her that the two men would live. As the bride dried her tears, the god went on to attach the heads back onto the bodies, except they were now interchanged: the wrong head went to the wrong body. Who was the groom now? The one with the head or the one with the body? After much debate, it was settled that the groom resided in the head.
In this situation, the ‘I’—the subject—remains intact. It was, after all, the head that contained the mind, and the mind was all there was to the human. But this is perhaps too convenient an explanation. Of course, the ‘I’ doesn’t reside anywhere—within the body, or without. It is not a unique, essential, invariant entity like a spirit or a soul. The self is simply an experiential construct that disintegrates completely when we fall into a coma or a dreamless sleep.
Let us try to unpack the conditions that bring about the construction of identity, the generic experience of it, the waning of agency, and its subsequent reaffirmation. Are these created by the subject to keep itself at bay? Is it a reaction to the big data explosion, or a combination of political, societal and technological forces that render the subject helpless? It follows: Are we losing our collective willingness to reason? That is, are we no longer willing to see the operation of construction, disintegration and affirmation at work as a self-sustaining loop? Instead, are we allowing ourselves to be content with what can pass off as the will to reason (the irreducible individual as the basis for thought)? Or, is it the desperation of being unable to reasonably decode the very operation at play? The construction of “community”, and therefore of the
“individual”, suddenly seems much larger than otherwise thought.
The subject has always prided itself on its uniqueness. What happens when a sustained lack of autonomy and the yearning for subjective agency come together? The melting of this singular uniqueness (first as agency, and then slowly as idea) and the simultaneous creation of a digital identity, have created in us a peculiar sense of agency: a generally anonymous, but highly subjective, digital being persistently looking for a positive form of engagement with itself; looking to create meaning using itself.
The conviction that with the widespread use of the internet a better form of democracy will be brought about has been discarded, is being discarded. There is, in its place, a helplessness in the face of dense oligarchies. Nostalgia for an old kind of subject–subject interaction and subject–government interaction can also be seen. Sayings such as “We are like drops individually, but like an ocean collectively,” begs the question of whether putting the body/ies out there is as effective a form of protest now as it once was.
One intention could be to allow for a systematic reduction of the human into the status of an object, but retain the object’s subjectivity by forming a relationship between the knower and what is known. To us sapient beings who are aware of having a conscious state, aware of the feeling of the feeling, our consciousness is the ability to not attend to many things in order to capitalize on our actions and direct them. The aim is to focus attention away from a centre and redirect it to its peripheries. Consciousness is making itself conscious of being aware of consciousness.
While this can be construed as an act of “inwardness”, it is perhaps more useful to see it as a balancing act between how we see ourselves and what modern science tells us about ourselves.
Rather than understanding this as an exercise in self-reflexivity, we must seriously consider whether a demystifying experience can be extracted from the confines of a purely subjective logic, and allow for it to aid the process of reason. If perception of experience is to be reasoned with, there must be a way in which it enters our range of knowledge and understanding as an object available in thought, corresponding to the external world.
More and more, imagination, creativity and the individual—spaces that were once understood as infinite, and once relied upon for their association with the infinite—are now being reconfigured in their relation to finite categories: the fields of constraint within which they exist, and which allow them to create themselves. These spaces can now be quantified and measured as algorithms. It seems that there is a drive to measure the extent to which the infinite operates. Is the play now being transferred onto that space between the subject actualised through data, and the subject as ontic? If so, should they still be seen as two separate categories?
With the increasing reality of data as information, data as knowledge, and data as proof, there is also a simultaneous reaction to this trend: the subject finds it difficult to comprehend “where” something is happening. What do I think anymore, if nothing is in my hands? Instead of turning to the endless “sayings”, lines from fortune cookies, various gurus telling us to “live freely”, and purposeful organics to give us the impression that thinking is underway and that meaning is being made, I would like to suggest a working realignment: to find a better mode of engagement, we need to find a better way of experiencing ourselves and our relationship to what the external is.  Meaning, we see things, we experience, we identify and are identified with, and we also believe these are inseparable from each other in such a way that to divorce one from the other would create an abyss within our very understanding of ourselves. However, can we also see that these experiences of, which form the base for our identity, are not open-ended, but allude to the idea that they cannot be accounted for. Their status as being open is their very function.We have to consider extracting and demystifying experience from within the confines of irreducible singularities, and allow for it to aid the process of reason.
1-Many philosophies (Buddhism, Sufism, some strands of Hinduism among others) seek total transcendence, i.e. being One with consciousness; where the thinker is the thought. There is a slowing down of time when observation and transformation occurs along with the thought in real time. To morph is to change forms, shape and structure from the inside-out, and from the outside-in, simultaneously. Where attention is given to the flux, a spotlight is cast on the movement of thought, in pursuing the image that arises, and embodying that image. Like the job of the amateur scientist, the job of watching oneself in the process of flux is to watch what happens in between thoughts and in between movements, between the inner and the outer and the elaborate mimicry that is played out within their relations.
2-(Part of this text was produced in collaboration with Misha Stroj titled “Every Meaning Happens For A Reason”, and part is from an on-going project titled “How Would We Know It If We Couldn’t Feel It”.)
3-Brassier quoting Sellars, Nihil Unbound.