Levi’s latest post on consciousness is melancholy in its weighting towards a lost past. It is as if he has something specific in mind, and yet it is as if that specificity readily loosens itself to dissolve into the generality of… vagueness, a general sense…noia or ennui- that delicate and pristine longing for longing itself.
‘We always fail to be our past’, write Levi, as though there were some particular moment he had in mind, although the mood of this statement worries us with a more abstract implication; we always fail and so there is no particular moment, but each moment and therefore any moment. We are an imperceptible sliding away from ourselves. Inch by inch we disappear in our own intimacy, our own familiarity, our own… too up closeness.
The past weighs on us. It pulls us back. “Who I am?” morphs into the traitorous “who have I been?” and blots out the light of “who might I be?”. Indeed this tripartite partitioning of time endlessly repeats itself no matter what clever theories we hold and no matter what our sciences might tell us. Here we are in a vanishing present that is pulled apart by the downward plummet of the past and the urgent escape velocity of the future. We are leaden with the past. The mistakes we have made and the sins we have been unable to forgive ourselves. So much of our projections for the future are little more than attempts to redeem the ruins of our own past. Why do I keep reading philosophy? Why keep writing? It would be a lie to pretend that it had nothing to do with being captured by a projection of tomorrow that belongs to my yesterday.
I think of Stirner: “because of I was a fool yesterday does not mean I must be a fool today”. But of course it does. I cannot escape the fool I was yesterday. Even if it is true that as a subject I am unable to live anywhere but in an eternal present I am still weighted and marked. I still orbit the same invisible cosmic scars in my own dismal cosmology. I may change my mind but I cannot choose to change it: it will change as today’s chain of yesterday’s decides it until the chain gets lost, swallowed whole by some past that belongs neither to me nor to my species.
Consciousness is non-identical. It does not coincide with itself. It is torn. We can say that consciousness, viewed from the “inside”, is nothing more than this being-torn, this incapacity to ever become a unified and singular coherence. This is why wisdom and the goal of life in so many great philosophical systems has been a vision of integrity, atraxia, apathia, a cessation of the will-to-life or enlightenment. It is the desire to fall back into the quiescence of the inorganic and primary unconscious matter of atoms or flux or emptiness.
Consciousness is what prevents us from coinciding not only with ourselves but with the natural world that we are nonetheless apart of. We are not other than this natural world and yet we feel ourselves to be so. We and this awful consciousness that divides us from ourselves are nothing but a specific organization of matter- a biological confluence that has been laid down in the material-information patterning of genes we inherited through that long blind and fundamentally directionless, purposeless, idiotic process of evolution.
We could say that consciousness is an accident but it is more accurate to say that it is merely there, completely uselessly like some light switch in an old house that doesn’t seem to be wired up to anything. It’s just there. We are just there. We stand out and feel the distance from that not-us we name “the environment”.
Consciousness is thus the point of non-identification of the body with the world; it is the sight of this original rupture that does not exist anywhere except in the neuro-survival tool-kit that generates it. The body and the world minus consciousness might be in a perfect state of feedback, in a genuine eternal present of the time enjoyed by philosopher’s cow out standing in philosopher’s fields.
The brain tries to model the world to maximize its effectiveness and consciousness appears as the result: it just is this model of the world that it itself is not. Here the existentialism of Sartre blends into the neurophilosophy of Metzinger, who would conclude that ‘consciousness is the presence of a world’- where that world is understood as will-less and as neurocognitive representation.
And there is worse to come. Though it is true that
We are caught in our signifiers, in what we have said. Yet we somehow can’t be them.
there is much worse to be said. If consciousness is an integrated set of symptoms arising from neural processes of representation aiming at nothing more than the efficacious action of an organism with a short shelf life, then we can expect it to degrade sooner than we’d like. Of course for Levi this is expressed in the regret that he will never be as dazzling as he was (never write like that again) and I share that sense, although having achieved much less- another symptom, the need to map and track achievements against the others.
The worse that is to come which is worse still than a simple cessation of consciousness is the neurodegenerative dissolution of its underpinnings. The gaps and the elisions open up. We escape our signifier and our past. We escape the capacity for signification. The chain of signifiers and the whole refinery where the links are smelted is degraded beyond a memory where memory is lost. Though through the decline we might hold on. We can still feel the failures and shifts. We can sense the gaps. We might know something is wrong but not know what.
The final horror of consciousness is its erosion in smooth and unnoticed unspooling or in the abrupt tremors of vascular explosions. We forget. We fall out of the “prison-house of language” into a new and more dreadful silent abattoir where every face is a stranger who leers out to threaten us. We forget what it is to eat. This isn’t just the disappearance of consciousness in the closure of the divorce it itself instituted into the order of experience. It is the erosion of experience. The erosion of everything human.
In some cases it is a peaceful process but in most it is an anxiety ridden descent into a cruel and jarring world of abjection and absolute disorientation. An animality of sheer and permanent terror. And in this state, shuttered away from the others who cannot bear to view us, to change our soiled bedclothes and spoon feed us our mashed food, those same others keep us alive with the cruel expectation of dignity.
Consciousness is a device for registering need, desire, want; it is a machine that records pain and tracks sorrow; it binds us tight to a past we can’t reclaim and a future we rarely really want or are capable of living up to.
It is a torture device, from beginning to end: From the first shrill shriek of need emanating from the neonate to the last wheeze or cough or cry. It is an assault in being given and it is a deprivation when it is taken away without our acquiescence.
In reblogging Levi’s post, Dirk has asked whether we can ever grasp what Levi beautifully calls the “perpetual disadequation” of our being the kind of being who knows the kind of being it is not, and if we cannot whether it matters.
Of course the only answer is that it does not and cannot matter to anyone or anything but the thing that fails to grasp itself. In generating the sense of mattering or not mattering the consciousness that asks the question of whether or not it matters stares blank and blindly down at itself, trying to catch itself as it jumps over its own shadow, a transparency attempting to make itself opaque and continuously failing, necessarily failing.
For whom does it matter if it matters? For the thing that cannot tell whether or not it matters; the thing that can only dimly registered the dull discomfort of not knowing whether or not it matters and to whom it could or would matter to begin with.
If “the human phenomena” is composed of nothing but “densely coiled” spirals of illusion- as horror writer Thomas Ligotti has suggested- then the question is asked by a moment of this recussive spiralling of illusion: the voice heard by a schizophrenic stops for a moment to ask whether it is a voice in the head of schizophrenic, and in a voice only it can here.
I will end as Levi began- with a couple of favourite quotations, and thus by leaning on a past that is not mine and which I could never even hope to emulate, supposing hope were a currency to trade in and that emulation was anything but betrayal.
Consciousness is much more than the thorn, it is the dagger in the flesh.
- EM Cioran.
In ancient China, before it was used as a number zero was treated and signified by an empty space. With this in mind, perhaps the identification of zero with consciousness should be read as more of as wish- Zero as the dream escape.