Friday, May 17, 2013

The Ghost in the Machine: Speculations on Consciousness (a Sequel)

You’re not in charge.  If free will even exists, it doesn’t share living space with the likes of you.”
~Peter Watts, Blindsight

            This paper carries the nominal qualification of a “sequel.”  A sequel presupposes a prequel, a predecessor; but I admit that my previous post may not initially appear to be a logical antecedent.  This post is a sequel because it derives from thoughts that inspired my previous post, although it does not pursue the topic of techno-capital.  Rather, it shifts its attention from the macro to the micro, and I consider this move paramount and retroactive.  That is, I believe that the argument laid out here is necessary in order to arrive at the argument laid out in “Speculations on Techno-Capital.”
            The conclusion of my first year in graduate study has afforded me plenty of time to read and think about texts that I find personally interesting and valuable.  While Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren is currently occupying the portion of my desk reserved for fiction (I will hopefully make a post on this novel before summer’s end), the portion reserved for nonfiction supports the weighty texts of Deleuze and Guattari, Fredric Jameson, and Nick Land (Žižek’s Less Than Nothing will prove an extended endeavor, I imagine).  In addition to my reading, my spare time has also allowed me to reflect more on my blog posts and the arguments I lay out in them.  In today’s piece, I wish to explore what I consider to be the construction of the human self, and to attempt a redefinition at what we tend to think of as the self.  This redefinition is by no means unique, but is actually the one that, I believe, is currently supported by a growing number of scientific and philosophical resources.  I hope to suggest how this redefinition of the self holds serious consequences for how we perceive our cultural institutions and rituals.
            Contemporary philosophy and critical theory has long pursued the dismantling of the individual, but only recently has the domain of science taken up this pursuit as well.  This is not to say that the philosophers were right and the scientists were wrong.  Science is the domain of epistemology – structures and hierarchies of knowledge, the fitting of natural phenomena into categories and defining them by laws.  Philosophy is the domain of ontology – the pursuit of what makes something what it is, the pursuit of essences.  Only with the height of modernity, and primarily the twentieth century, have essences seen their demise, and this destruction has not arrived without paradox.  Everywhere we look we perceive essences where they do not exist, which first calls up the great correlationist question.[1]  We impose structures and representations where they do not belong, and we do so for our convenience.  We have yet to fully grasp the implications of the fact that the world was not made for us.
            If there is one place where the lingering specter of essence persists most frustratingly, it is in the very seat of the Cartesian cogito: human consciousness, the subject, the “I”, that which makes an individual human being what it is.  Despite deconstruction’s admirable attempt throughout the 1960s and 70s, and neuroscience’s far more convincing experiments in more recent years, the specter of human consciousness refuses to let go, and with good reason: it has been the sanctioning authority of everything from our current cultural institutions to our very history.  Its dissipation would be the deposal of human rights from the pedestal of humanism, the breaking of covenants sacred and secular.  The abandonment of consciousness would appear to be the abandonment of what it means to be human.  For this reason, consciousness holds fast.
            In his novel Blindsight, about which I have written before, Peters Watts contests that consciousness constitutes the entirety of what we think of as the self.  At the conclusion of this existentially terrifying novel, human agency is drained of its power: “Make a conscious choice.  Decide to move your index finger.  Too late!  The electricity’s already halfway down your arm.  Your body began to act a full half-second before your conscious self ‘chose’ to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary – almost an afterthought – to the homunculus behind your eyes” (Watts 301).  The homunculus that Watts refers to is the specter of the Cartesian cogito, the seat of consciousness we might say.  Watts draws on the most recent discoveries and developments in cognitive philosophy and neuroscience in order to make this statement; studies that have revealed that neural action is already occurring, that your brain is already moving, before you decide to consciously act (see Watts’s notes on page 371).  Further recent developments have argued for the reconceptualization of cultural institutions such as health care to be oriented not toward the individual, but toward the community – but not the community you might think.  In his article for The New York Times, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” Michael Pollan argues that the health of the body cannot be reduced to the health of an individual: “Human health should now ‘be thought of as a collective property of the human-associated microbiota,’ as one group of researchers recently concluded in a landmark review article on microbial ecology — that is, as a function of the community, not the individual” (Pollan).  Current studies and investigations are emphasizing, more and more prominently, the nonexistence of the individual and the coexistence of the collective.
            This language will sound disturbingly political to some, and it cannot help but carry such connotations.  Traditional arguments for Marxist political programs did not possess the scientific support emerging in the field today.  Traditional Marxism, as outlined by numerous innovative thinkers and practitioners, calls for a cognitive revolution, something bordering on new age mysticism despite Marxism’s purportedly firm roots in historical materialism.  The utopian project of structuring and implementing a communist society remains steadfastly beholden to metaphysics because it must adhere to the enforcement of a transcendental law, despite the common Marxist admonition of state control and power.  Any enforcement of transcendental law will automatically entail exclusion; this has been the historical case for communism, from Stalinism onward.  It has seemed we needed a cognitive revolution to pull the communist train into the station.
            But communist thought and theory persisted, and it has proved admirably adaptive.  Perhaps most importantly is communism’s (or at least communitarian thought’s) embrace of contemporary scientific trends.  Horkheimer and Adorno put Enlightenment science to the test in their watershed text, The Dialectic of Enlightenment; but today, science is shifting ever more rapidly away from the ideological and toward the explosive, the revolutionary.  That is, science is more radically pushing up against its own boundaries, suggesting possibilities and realities that have been thought unimaginable for centuries.  Now, with the growing inertia of techno-capital and the expanding means of science, we are being shown a picture of “the human” that shatters our previous expectations.
            Not only does consciousness not account for the majority of bodily and mental functions that take place unconsciously in the body; it is also an illusion.  Returning to Watts’s novel, we find a beautifully succinct and disturbing account of consciousness as an evolutionary phenomenon:
Evolution has no foresight.  Complex machinery develops its own agendas.  Brains – cheat.  Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music.  The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art.  Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection.  Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism.  It begins to model the very process of modeling.  It consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations.  Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself.  Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I. (303)

A cautious reader will protest: “There is nothing illusory about this awakening.  It may not be as mystical as philosophical thought in previous centuries, but it is still real.”  I give a gracious nod to that reader, since I too have made the same observation.  However, I wish to explore its ramifications before simply conceding the seemingly obvious point that simply because we experience consciousness it must be real.  Immediately we must recognize the relativism inherent in such a claim.  By the same token, a shaman who witnesses a vision of a fertility goddess is just as correct as the prophet Daniel.  I want to push this understanding further.  Just because we experience consciousness does not mean it is real.  This is too broad.  I would claim that consciousness is virtual, which is still a subcategory of the real.
            So we live in The Matrix.  No, that’s a bad joke; or, a poor analogy.  For the myth of individualism and the power of the human still lurks at the heart of the Matrix franchise like a rotten (and overwrought) core.  The Matrix assumes that the human has been duped and that a false veil has been pulled down over its eyes, concealing it from the truth.  I contest, rather, that we have been duped by no one (except perhaps ourselves); furthermore, the truth does not exist behind some veil that must be pulled away.  The fantasy of a pasteboard mask that must be pierced paints us all as monomaniacal Ahabs, obsessed with our own position and status in the world.  The world, in this scenario, has been made for us, and we strive to understand it.  Consciousness becomes the vessel by which we strive to understand the world; but my consciousness is not your consciousness, is not a black slave’s consciousness, is not an ancient Greek’s consciousness, is not an autistic person’s consciousness.  Consciousness appears to us, falsely, as a transcendental means by which we associate with the world, thus firmly establishing it as something actually/really existing.  Such a position maintains that, should all human beings suddenly vanish from existence, consciousness itself would somehow persist as a reified, transcendent entity.  Through this reasoning, all reality is reduced to nothing more than the conscious perception of reality, leading certain interpreters of Berkeley to conclude “esse est percipi.”  In contrast to this line of reasoning, I claim that consciousness is not transcendental, and this is the primary thrust of my argument:
·         consciousness is immanent;
·         furthermore, consciousness is emergent;
·         and finally, consciousness is collective.
“‘So I am the king!  So the kingdom belongs to me!’  But this me is merely the residual subject that sweeps the circle and concludes a self from its oscillations on the circle.”
~Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

            Michel Foucault once remarked that the twentieth century might one day be thought of as Deleuzian.  I don’t think he was too far off the mark; and if others disagree, I feel that is only because Deleuze’s philosophy has not yet been properly assimilated to the scientific theories it clearly complements.  Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus takes Freudian-Oedipal psychoanalysis as its primary target, and convincingly argues that Oedipal relations do not predate the subject, lurking maliciously in the unconscious.  Oedipus, Deleuze-Guattari claim, is a structural apparatus forced upon the unconscious by psychoanalysis and (more broadly) by capitalist society itself.  Oedipus is a representational, expressive model for something that is unrepresentable and inexpressible.  More specifically, D-G attack what they perceive as a strict individualism (in terms of the ego) inherent in the Oedipal construct.  The Oedipus complex perceives familial dynamics throughout the stratum of social relations and figures, and ignores the fluid motion of desiring-production.  In D-G’s impressive argument, the individual ego, structured within the Oedipal triangle, is dismantled as a historical myth forced upon unconsciously liberated organisms.
            For D-G, the ego, or self, emerges as an effect out of a complex system of colliding drives and desires.  The real consists purely of this interactive surface, and surface is all it is.  On this surface are written the traces of desiring-production, which, in and throughout its own material, performs the activities we typically attribute to conscious egos: “Schizoanalysis methodically dismantles everything in Kant’s thinking that serves to align function with the transcendence of the autonomous subject, reconstructing critique by replacing the syntheses of personal consciousness with the syntheses of impersonal unconscious.  Thought is a function of the real, something that matter can do” (Land 322).  Consciousness is nothing more than an effect of complex interactions of matter; thus, consciousness exists virtually within all matter.  Furthermore, it cannot exceed this virtuality, as will be demonstrated below.  Its manifestation in human beings should not be interpreted as a unique privilege.  It should be recognized as the emergent process of a potentiality testifying to its potentiality.  The illusory component of consciousness is not that it does not exist, but that it mistakes itself as actual.[2]
            This is all well and good; but is consciousness not self-consciousness?  That is, does consciousness not entail consciousness of itself, not as a separate act, but as contained immanently within its own ontology?  In order to make the distinction we wish to make above, then it seems that we must separate consciousness from self-consciousness.  Consciousness only exists virtually, and its awareness of itself emerges as a kind of separate effect whereby consciousness testifies to its own existence.  But consciousness’s existence is its own testimony; this is simply the definition of consciousness.  Where have we gone wrong?  I want to suggest here what will likely be an unanticipated turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein.  In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein explores the strangeness of self-awareness:
The feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain process: how come that this plays no role in reflections of ordinary life?  This idea of a difference in kind is accompanied by slight giddiness – which occurs when we are doing logical tricks. (The same giddiness attacks us when dealing with certain theorems in set theory.)  When does this feeling occur in the present case?  It is when I, for example, turn my attention in a particular way on to my own consciousness and, astonished, say to myself: ‘THIS is supposed to be produced by a process in the brain!’ – as it were clutching my forehead. – But what can it mean to speak of ‘turning my attention on to my own consciousness’? (Wittgenstein 412)[3]

What is Wittgenstein identifying here?  He clearly identifies consciousness as distinct from brain process.  Or does he?  Wittgenstein’s text is infamous for rigorously pursuing all claims into self-refutation; but here we see something truly enlightening.  Consciousness, Wittgenstein means to say, only appears separate from brain processes.  He asks his readers what it means to speak of turning our attentions to our consciousnesses because he sees such an act as redundant, to put it simply.
            Consciousness always has its attention turned toward itself.  Consciousness means self-consciousness.  In his forthcoming review of Žižek’s Less Than Nothing, Robert Pippin elucidates on this point, in reference to German Idealism: “For in perceiving, I am also conscious of perceiving, conscious of myself perceiving.  In believing anything, I am conscious of my believing, of myself committed to a belief.  In acting, I would not be acting, were I not conscious of myself acting” (Pippin 7-8).  Pippin makes explicit what is implicit in Wittgenstein’s text: that consciousness means self-consciousness, and cannot be separated from its own self-consciousness.  Without self-consciousness, consciousness would not be what it is.  Awareness must take its own act of being aware into account.
            How can virtual consciousness take itself into account?  If consciousness exists as a potentiality, it would seem that it could not take its awareness into account since that awareness is not actual; but, as I argued above, consciousness is only ever virtual.  In fact, consciousness is always testifying to its own virtuality.  How can this be?  What we have encountered is a paradox comparable to that of time travel in my previous post; time travel, we concluded, can never be virtual.  Once time travel exists in one time, or in one instance, it exists in all times and instances.  Consciousness, we are saying, is exactly the opposite.  Consciousness is never actual; but this does not appear to make much sense.  I am experiencing consciousness.  Is my consciousness not actual?
            In his book Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett provides an illuminating discussion of how language occurs, which in turn sheds light on his view of consciousness.  Language, Dennett argues, occurs through a kind of feedback loop between interior “content-to-be-expressed” and the eventual linguistic expression:
The back-and-forth process that narrows the distance is a feedback process of sorts, but it is just as possible for the content-to-be-expressed to be adjusted in the direction of some candidate expression, as for the candidate expression to be replaced or edited so better to accommodate the content-to-be-expressed.  In this way, the most accessible or available words and phrases could actually change the content of the experience. (Dennett 247).

Most shocking about this claim is that one’s interior sensations – typically considered the origin of expressive communication – can be actively altered by the linguistic process.  The linguistic apparatus has a measurable effect on the interior sensations we experience.[4]  The best word to describe this process might be “oscillation”; and indeed, this is the word that Deleuze and Guattari choose to deploy in Anti-Oedipus (although they are not speaking directly of language).  In Dennett’s case, consciousness can be said to be an emergent effect arising partially from this interplay between internal content and expression; but consciousness cannot account for this entire process, since some of it (the active alteration of interior experience, for instance) goes unnoticed by the conscious subject.  Meaning is not derived from a central agent, but partially from unconscious drives and functions within the organism.  This leads Dennett to dismiss the myth of the Central Meaner, Dennett’s version of the Cartesian cogito, the central ego that purportedly pulls the strings and makes conscious decisions. 
            In Anti-Oedipus, a similar oscillation takes place that actively destroys the myth of the individual self, resulting in what D-G identify as the schizophrenic.  Their proposed methodology becomes one of analysis toward the multiplicity that emerges along the surface of desiring-production:
Hence the goal of schizoanalysis: to analyze the specific nature of the libidinal investments in the economic and political spheres, and thereby to show how, in the subject who desires, desire can be made to desire its own repression […] All this happens, not in ideology, but well beneath it.  An unconscious investment of a fascist or reactionary type can exist alongside a conscious revolutionary investment. (D-G 105)

Oedipal analysis, D-G claim, places individualizing and categorizing frames across the fluid network of surface relations.  The unconscious – the seat of liberation – suffers at the hands of traditional psychoanalysis, which instead of assisting the unconscious strives to correct it, even repress it.  What occurs along the surface of desiring-production is not the firm establishment – situation, positioning – of an individual subject, but the oscillation of an organism experiencing a multiplicity of drives.  Desire is not the choice of the subject, nor is it static.  Desire is constantly changing, constantly being changed.  Just as in Dennett’s unique conceptualization of language, D-G’s conceptualization of the self and desire disrupts the myth of the coherent subject.  What consequences does all this have for consciousness?
            Consciousness attempts to place itself despite being constantly displaced.  Consciousness attempts to mean despite its meaning being constitutively altered.  Consciousness attempts to organize itself into a coherent subject despite being continually disorganized by the flows of desire.  All of this is intimately tied up with how consciousness perceives itself (and, as previously noted, consciousness is self-consciousness).  How might we relate consciousness as it perceives itself to consciousness as it really is?
“And where is the thing your self-representation is about?  It is wherever you are (Dennett, 1978b).  And what is this thing?  It’s nothing more than, and nothing less than, your center of narrative gravity.”
~Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained

            It was stated earlier that consciousness as it is cannot be separated from consciousness as it perceives itself; but now we are making a claim that requires us to postpone the unity so as to better understand the relation.  What kind of quagmire have we haphazardly stumbled into?  Let us be very clear here so as to avoid confusion:
·         Consciousness is a myth; not consciousness as it really is (a virtual property of matter itself), but consciousness as it is perceived by itself
·         Consciousness as it really is exists as a virtual material fact
·         Consciousness as perceived by itself is mythologized because of the fact that consciousness entails self-consciousness
·         Consciousness is always virtual – and never actual – because it can only ever exist in our perception of it
Consciousness, by its very definition, can only exist in its own self-perception.  Consciousness never exists unaware of itself; if so, then it would not be consciousness.  If we dare to oppose esse est percipi, then we must acknowledge that it works both ways: material things subsist ontologically without our necessarily perceiving them; and just because we do perceive something does not mean that it exists.[5]  Or, put more correctly, it does not really exist in the way that we perceive it.  A plant sits on my windowsill.  It exists absent of my perception of it as it actually is; but it also exists virtually (this I can imagine) as a larger plant in the future, and thus a watered plant, or as a dead plant, if I am a particularly poor gardener.  Its larger appearance and its death are not actual, but this does not mean they are not real.
            Consciousness constructs a virtual self, which is its imagistic manifestation.  This self, and this consciousness, are not actual.  Consciousness emerges from a feedback process, or oscillation, of desires and sensations along the surface of matter.  Upon its emergence – a new state of matter itself – it perceives itself as constitutive.  It expresses itself as central.  But it is never more than an emergent effect of matter.  Its paradox appears as an inverse of the paradox of time travel.  Time travel, once coming into existence, must have always been in existence – it is never virtual, but only actual.  Consciousness, because part of its definition is to perceive itself, can never possess actuality.  Consciousness, as reliant upon its own self-awareness in order to exist, is always virtual.
            What of the collectivity of consciousness?  This must be granted as the final concession to a self that is an illusion.  I do not intend this statement as a comparison to Jung’s mystical collective unconscious.  Consciousness, as an effect of flows and desires across a surface of matter, is never isolated to a solitary individual or organism.  Consciousness is a property of matter itself.  You do not have consciousness.  You do not possess it.  Consciousness makes you.  If anything, you belong to it.  Deleuze and Guattari make an important observation in this respect when they comment on the false conception of objects as property: “Partial objects [i.e. objects of desire] now seem to be taken from people, rather than from the nonpersonal flows that pass from one person to another.  The reason is that persons are derived from abstract quantities, instead of from flows.  Instead of a connective appropriation, partial objects become the possessions of a person and, when required, the property of another person” (D-G 71).  The mythology of consciousness constructs itself in a way that perceives its desires as personal and individual.  For D-G, the Oedipal apparatus is yet another consequence of the individualistic ideology; one that divides, situates, and identifies.  In contrast, D-G call upon their readers to recognize the impersonality of desire and productive flows, just as Dennett calls upon his readers to acknowledge the flow of meaning, meaning as something borrowed and as something affected by the collective influence of language.
            As stated earlier, the politics of this post will likely overwhelm, discourage, and perhaps offend some readers.  However, I am not arguing for a reinforcement of these views, for the destruction of the individual, or for the political implementation of measures to collectivize or programs to socialize.  I am suggesting a direction that modern science, technology, and philosophy is headed.  I do not believe this direction is wrong, flawed, or bound to result in destruction.  I believe that as science and technology further develop the decay of the individual, societies and cultures will change of their own accord.  I do not believe these findings or discoveries are incorrect, and I believe they will contribute (provided they are allowed to continue) to the burgeoning of a prosperous future world.

Works Cited
DeLanda, Manuel. “Emergence, Causality, Realism.” The Speculative Turn: Continental    Materialism and Realism. Eds. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, Graham Harman. Melbourne:, 2011. 381-392. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Rober      Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. New York: Penguin Group, 2009. Print.

Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. New York: Back Bay Books, 1991. Print.

Land, Nick. “Machinic Desire.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. New York:      Sequence Press, 2011. 319-344. Print.

Pippin, Robert. “‘Back to Hegel’?: On Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing.” Forthcoming in            Meditations. Available for download at “Robert B. Pippin: Evelyn Stefansson Nef         Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago.”

Pollan, Michael. “Some of My Best Friends are Germs.” The New York Times. 15 May 2013.        Web. 16 May 2013.

Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tom Doherty Associates LLC., 2006. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Trans./Eds.            P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Print.

[1] See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Trans. Ray Brassier, London: Continuum, 2011.
[2] I am drawing here on a distinction made by Deleuze in Difference and Repetition, and quoted by Manuel DeLanda in his essay “Emergence, Causality, Realism”: “The virtual is not opposed to the real, but to the actual.  The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual […] Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object – as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it is plunged as though into an objective dimension” (qtd. in DeLanda 390).
[3] This reference to Wittgenstein’s texts includes the number of the statement, or aphorism, rather than the page number.
[4] This claim might lead to larger suggestion – although I do not have the space or the expertise to pursue it here – that bodily sensations do not translate perfectly from speaking to non-speaking beings.  It would be incorrect to speak of fear in early, pre-linguistic hominids as the same, or even similar, to fear in modern, speaking humans.
[5] We must not interpret this claim as a misguided concession to esse est percipi.  Many things – chairs, light bulbs, trees, mountains, etc. – do not require their perception by conscious organisms in order to exist.  The claim I am making, rather, is that consciousness emerges as a unique entity in that it does require its perception by itself in order to exist.  The reason for this, again, is that consciousness is self-consciousness.

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