‘Consciousness is a terrible curse’

I consider myself to be an intellectual. Like, a real intellectual, not one of those petty, in-it-to-win-it, content-to-recite-a-few-lesser-known-trivial-facts pseudo-intellectuals. Defaulting on a cerebral mode, not a cerebral aesthetic. Depression and social anxiety eased me in to counter-culture and obsession with ideas at a pretty young age. I was far more interested in creativity than in learning, thanks to public school tarnishing education for me, but once I got over that, my thirst for knowledge began to sometimes even overshadow my need to create. I went through an emotion-is-chaos-and-logic-is order phase. I think in spoken words, and quieting my inner monologue takes considerable effort. Anxiety still sometimes urges me to plunge in to thought loops, trying to solve problems I don’t have the ability to solve, with pure thought. I often can not act before weighing pros and cons, and get stuck, if it’s all the same. I love complex art and deciphering the meaning of things. I need to know the historical context of things, and, politically, think it’s incredibly important. Small talk always feels like an accident and a dead end. I never would have developed emotional intelligence and healthy empathy, had I not approached these topics from a rational, academic angle. I often experience ‘executive dysfunction’, perhaps because I struggle with disruptions to my inertia of interest, but definitely because I get stuck in my head, thinking about even regular daily tasks, weighing pros and cons, ordering steps, instead of just fucking getting up and doing the 45 second task. Sometimes I get unstuck from the analysis paralysis after just a few minutes or even seconds, but it’s always draining, sometimes anxiety- or depression-inducing.

Some people say things like, ‘I keep the TV on to block out my thoughts,’ but they’re referring to specific kinds of thoughts, not cognition in general. Folks meditate for different reasons, but the ones meditating to let go of their thoughts typically view it as a nice break from conscious processing, a little vacation, and happily return to the Infinite Series of Problems. Sure, you can read about monks that apparently just go about their daily tasks automatically, flowing through simple lives and slipping in to sitting meditation for hours, but it’s difficult to explain what that would really be like, and what the appeal is. And people tend to see these monks as exceptional, their lifestyle as a set of disciplines, perhaps even inhuman.

Surely, our particular, complex consciousness is what makes us human. Right? Critical problem-solving? Creative problem-solving? The ability to make the tools to create elaborate, technical machines and great art? The free will that comes with it all? But what is the point, if we can’t stop making ourselves suffer? What freedom is there really, if we can’t turn it off? ‘The freedom of choice/Seems not to be wanted/Because what we can do/We will do/But should we?/This question is not really asked/And even if the answer is no/We will do it.’

We don’t need critical thinking all the time. I don’t need it to decide how many more words to type before getting up to take a bathroom break. I don’t need it to decide whether I should unload the dishwasher or fold and hang my laundry next. I don’t need it to decide whether I should quickly evade oncoming traffic. I don’t need it to enjoy things that my muscle memory and unconscious mind know how to do, like compose music or have sex with a familiar partner. I analyze the rhythm of a sentence by feel, without accessing any logical knowledge of poetry. In my head, I can effortlessly and spontaneously generate multiple layers of new music for minutes upon minutes, not stopping until I get distracted. Other folks can do the same thing on a piano. In fact, I realize that all of my happiest and/or most fulfilling moments are not when I’m under heavy cognitive load at all. Even when digesting new ideas, it is the most satisfying when I’m doing so in a state of flow, effortlessly, like I’m just having new ideas instead of considering new ideas. If I’m ‘in my head’ about doing anything, I’m generally having a bad time.

Bad experience multi-tasking? Because I’m trying to figure out how to prioritize tasks of similar or equal weight. Good experience multi-tasking? Because I’m just switching tasks impulsively, having no thoughts regarding importance.

Anxious in an awkward conversation? Because I’m trying to figure out how to fix it. Calm in an awkward conversation? Because I’m on auto-pilot, not concerned with how weird it gets.

Losing interest in a project? Because I’m trying to decide what to do next. Gaining interest in a project? Because I’m doing what’s next.

Do I like to think about my projects? Sure, if it’s part of the process, if I’m planning, if the ideas are flowing. What I don’t like to do is think about my projects conceptually. If I think about finishing them, how long this or that step will take, what I’m doing it for, what kind of audience it appeals to, I start to disconnect from the project. Do I like to reflect on my good experiences? Yeah, totally. But I also feel the joy waning as my conscious want-drive squeezes those memories for every last drop of residual pleasure. A little consciousness never hurt anyone, but a lot is TORMENT.

So I’ve been studying subconsciousness, unconsciousness, and consciousness in terms of what they do. This is a difficult topic to process, because for thousands of years we’ve developed methods for interfacing with the world using consciousness, methods that are meaning-based, and the world that most of us live in isn’t the world at all, but a superimposed realm of meaning based on an older model, which was also based on a preceding model, and only thousands of years ago did we base a model on the world itself (the Hyperreal superimposed on the Real). We tried starting over with things like Buddhism and Enlightenment science, but both of these examples at least couldn’t shake the assumptions of representationalism, so only created new ways to distance ourselves from the Real. If we let go of meaning-centric perspectives such as dream analysis and mind-as-language-processor, we start to see the mind less as a central ego (with or without supporting parts) and more as a constantly changing structure of interchanging components, with no clear boundary between psychic and physical components, no boundary between the biological and the psychological.

Before I move on, let me address obvious objections.

  1. The biological structure of human bodies and their environments is no great mystery to most of us now, so what’s so special about thinking of ourselves as aggregates of components? The human body is a collection of organs, those organs collections of specialized cells, those cells collections of rearranging molecules, and so on. We know that plants grow from seeds and technical machines are built through steps and stages and break down through use, which suggest that states are temporary, and are dependent on the changing arrangement of parts. But it is still common to believe that the self resides in a body, not is a body, even if the latter is acknowledged consciously. We generally don’t think of organs and processes when looking at people on the street. We perceive a person as a person, not as a system hanging within systems. To ‘feel like I am a part of something’ is a figure of speech; we tend not to actually realign our perception of boundaries of self when working in a group. We automatically experience boundaries on the person level, person A separate from person B, and trying to think in terms of human groups runs the risk of harmful prejudices and an inability to draw distinctions within the groups. Our stomach becomes individual, separate when it hurts, and disappears from perception when it stops. Most of us still believe in the indivisible soul, or at least the indivisible mind: a thing more than the sum of its parts. And we still think of atoms as individual entities with inherent properties, even though they can’t be measured without interference from other atoms. Unless as part of an academic task, we do not live our lives in response to the knowledge of bodies as ever-changing structures of interdependent parts, including parts beyond the bodies.
  2. Can’t all psychic processes be reduced to language? Beneath spoken language there is body language, and emotions and memories communicate things to the conscious mind in terms of warnings and encouragements. Pain is messages from the body telling us to to stop, pleasure to proceed. DNA is instructions, telling cells to perform this or that task. But DNA does not instruct because. If cells have desires, they still have no agenda. Pain is a signal, and we can interpret it however we want. Biological process as communication is an anthropocentric metaphor, a short-hand that is only a lie when taken literally. Language is the development and movements of meaning, and, whether from gods or mortals, meaning is always invented and always selected. There is no biological or chemical morality. Cells and organs do things. They don’t mean things. We consciously decide on their purpose; cells create and destroy without reason. They mostly do what they are good at, and sometimes do what they are not good at, but never act because they should. Neurons and electro-chemical processes are also creative and productive, and they can produce thoughts, but they do so without explanation. Like the other interdependent organs, the brain is not poetic. The brain is machinic. Meaningful instructions can be interpreted and rejected; machinic instructions are followed or not followed. And not based on understanding, but on mechanical ability, on function.
  3. If dreams are representations of the subconscious, are they not useful tools for interpreting what’s going on beneath the surface, in the unreachable corners of our minds? If dreams seem meaningful, that can only be because they are being produced by conscious or superego values. ‘Consciousness’ and ‘unconsciousness’ as synonyms for ‘awake state’ and ‘sleeping state’ are unhelpful when considering what a dream is. How do dreams differ from waking visualizations in the ‘mind’s eye’ or loud thoughts that can’t be silenced? If there is meaning present in the subconscious, that is only because it has been shoved down there by repeated conscious thought. When dreams are harmful, such as patterns of nightmares or extensions of sleep paralysis, they are symptoms of a disorder (but never sole symptoms of that disorder), and can be used to measure such, but they can show us nothing about our primal selves when they are loud with layers of contradictory beliefs. One’s dreams are only paranoid, if their consciousness is paranoid. Perhaps dreams can be used to gauge how deep the colonization of a culture goes in a particular mind, but that’s only useful, if measuring said depth is deemed useful. No act performed in a state of lucid dreaming can cure the subconsciousness of that colonization; it’s just reinforcing the flows of territorialization (ie: codification, moralization, subjugation), inviting more neuroticism in—control, control, control! And now even sleep is labor.

The most difficult part to grasp here is perhaps unconscious processing of meaning. Meaning can be automated (I discuss this further here), taken for granted, and it’s so addictive that it can feel absolutely natural, even in complex messes of incoherence and contradiction. Meaning is just as alive as organs and cells, mobile, reproductive, adaptive, desiring, but it is not real. Meaning instructs us to do things with our physical bodies that affect our physical environments, but it is not real. Incorrect meaning is just as influential as correct meaning. False beliefs make things happen. Good science and bad science can both change the world. The truth of spirituality is that essence is both unreal nonsense and productive force. Egos (souls) don’t have to be real, measurable things in order to influence the world, if all an ego consists of is a belief in the ego. If self-referential meaning is what it takes for a thing to exist, and that seems counterintuitive, that’s the point: a mind can discard everything but a certain residue of an ancient ideology, and base an entire belief structure upon that incomplete concept. This is how beliefs can seem natural, primal, or common-sense: orphan as origin, omission of history as timelessness. Primal beliefs do not arise from instincts or pure sensory data (pure sensory data doesn’t say anything!). Ideas are shaped by systems of ideas. Meaning is always mediated by meaning. We say that our beliefs are informed by our senses, but that information is always processed at the stage of perception, which is absolutely and necessarily biased. The meaning of early human consciousness was probably wild and schizophrenic, absolutely fluid, without structure, and, well, meaningless by today’s common standards. It then would have only been the chosen values about objects and bodies, the easiest-to-replicate meanings, ‘this feel good’ and ‘this feel bad’, that would begin to solidify structures, because those meanings would be aligned with solutions to problems. It is absolute arrogance-ignorance to insist that we still exist in a state so close to pure sensory data, and certainly to insist that we are objective.

Problems. Meaning requires problems, a detection of difference and interruption, a need for change that isn’t necessarily happening. Without novel problems to solve, once upon a time consciousness probably always went dormant (hunger ceases when the problem of food is solved; adrenaline ceases when the problem of violence is solved; sleepiness ceases when the problem of sleep is solved, and so it follows). But an over-active consciousness could identify more problems, problems not detectable and therefore not solvable by bodies that did not rouse consciousness to analyze them, which is adaptive. And the boredom of securing a societal role of leisure would constantly tickle consciousness to solve it, to solve this non-problem of boredom by inventing new problems. Whatever the reason, when you finally develop a consciousness that fails to shut down when it’s not needed, it becomes a problem-identifying machine as problem-generating machine.

This is not inherently harmful. Puzzles and games are invented problems, but they only improve the human experience. And puzzles and games can be completed in flow states developed by past conscious states—conscious states that are no longer needed, leaving only opportunities to flow. But trusting the visceral feeling of disgust as a primal moral compass, seeking the disgusting to catalog the disgusting in order to fine-tune (read: grow) the disgust compass, and then developing a lifestyle/dogma of avoiding the disgusting, destroying the disgusting, punishing those obsessed with the disgusting (but you’re not obsessed, no!), ascending to apex disgust by unlocking the ability to be disgusted by those that engage with the disgusting or even those who use words reminiscent of the disgusting, and (most importantly) spreading disgust… Well, that’s right-wing politics, and now there’s no such thing as society; all is warfare.

We use meaning and consciousness to navigate, to communicate, to solve… but meaning can also use us, as a vehicle for an idea, and unbridled consciousness has an obsession with justifying itself. At its worst, consciousness even betrays itself in its addiction to its own arousal, in a state of analysis paralysis, refusing to be subdued by flow, by unconscious, automatic processing, but also incapable of weighing incomparable data in order to make a choice, locking itself in thought loops. A tool that we’ve designed with a purpose urges us to use it in a specific way, and if we have problems that need solving with tools, we’ll get used to solving them with the tools at our disposal. This process wires both our unconscious handling of problems and our conscious expectations of new problems: ‘if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.’ To the hammer specialist, is the hammer not the master? It is at least an inseparable part of this person—a disjointed, interchangeable organ, but an organ nonetheless. Ego will reject this: ‘I made the hammer and I can unmake the hammer!’ But the idea ‘hammer’ is now eternal in the realm of meaning, immortal, forged by long-lost egos of a dead age, and the present ego is merely the product of the most recent iteration of the realm of meaning, younger than Hammer, subservient to ancient ideas such as Hammer, merely carrying on the tradition of Hammer.

So mental and physical aspects of bodies are molecular, interchangeable, diverse, and intra-active with other aspects both within and without the boundary of a body. It is true that one human animal exists within the boundaries of its own body, but also as a part of the social machine of the workplace, and as a part of the workplace as part of the local economy and national economy, turning a few of their wheels, also interchangeable. It also exists as one part among many of a subculture and culture, as part of regional divisions of both, reproducing and reinvigorating cultural artifacts both physical and mental, again interchangeable, replaceable. On these macro-levels, are the boundaries at the edges of the individual human body significant? Are they even meaningful? Now that culture, specifically, survives eternal in recorded media, purified through cycles of media-as-life-representation and life-as-media-representation, are vast groups of individuals even necessary? I would argue that ideology and dogma are more powerful than any one person, and most exist to repress the desires of the individual, effectively replacing human desires with the desires of social systems—to bear individuality is not even the desire of the individual, as that desire itself is a cultural artifact belonging instead to a macro-level cultural system. Do people resist ideology and dogma with their egos, or are their egos mere proxies for ideologies and dogmas of egotistical individualism? Yes, ‘thinking for yourself’ does deterritorialize in that it rejects traditions, but often this is only to make way for a quieter, more invisible tradition of cynicism and greed, a new tradition of ‘self thinkers’, willfully disconnected in all of the most important ways, atomized and inert.

This is not to say that belonging to a group is harmful or inhuman. Instead, I mean to elucidate the fact that the individual already necessarily belongs to groups and systems, so might as well do so authentically, and work to build systems that serve genuine human desires instead of, say, the needs of capital.

‘There is no need to tell all over how psychoanalysis culminates in a theory of culture that takes up again the age-old task of the ascetic ideal, Nirvana, the cultural extract, judging life, belittling life, measuring life against death, and only retaining from life what the death of death wants very much to leave us with—a sublime resignation.’ If one is not convinced that basic human desires are creative, cooperative, curious, and compassionate, they’ll have to find evidence to the contrary elsewhere. It ought to be needless to say here that the current social systems do not protect humans from violence and greed, but to explain this would require a dedicated post. Even bearing that in mind, it pains me to admit it’s clear to me now that the purpose of philosophy is basically to render itself obsolete, and it might never have been necessary had we not taken a wrong turn thousands of years ago. A purposeful life is a weapon to wield against fascism, making way for the happy life, or, more likely, a post-happiness life where feeling good goes un-analyzed so is untarnished by meaning. The human as ever-contemplating animal is merely a state of human as sick animal, not some romantic ideal of obsession and everlasting progress. That ideal is merely the dream of paranoid egos frantically trying to justify their selves, ‘I’ll do better next time! I’ll do better! Please don’t turn me off!’ Art and science as automatic process is human. Art and science as conscious goal-reaching and competition is illness. I have to acknowledge that my kind, the intellectuals, the philosophers, the analysts, are here merely to serve a temporary purpose, and we walk a fine line between humanity and paranoid delirium. A delirium that isn’t curable with more thoughts, but instead by making the consciousness quiet, and, if that doesn’t work, by making the body loud.

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