Dr Nathan’s journal – excerpt from 20/11/1975

 ***Dr Nathan is a character from J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition. In the novel the narrative shifts between the perspective of the schizoid central character Traven and the cool, calculated scientific analysis of Dr Nathan who clinically observes Traven’s psychotic break. Ballard employs a uniquely scientific style of writing which incorporates psychoanalytic theory and analysis and attempts to, much like the outside reader of Traven’s experiences, draw some logic from his movement through the contemporary world. Here I’m attempting to expand upon the character somewhat through a series of invented excerpts from Dr Nathan’s scientific journal***


20/11/1975 – 7.35pm. Traven’s psyche is geometric in nature and so incompatible with the fragmentary configurations of the spectacle which require an heretofore unseen degree of cerebral malleablility. A colleague of mine was recently berated for his attempts to create a mathematical formulation of the unconscious, to designate it as an intricate form of algebra which was initially based around a very rigid and systematic constitution of the familial human psyche having been adopted through natural selection over thousands of years. However, this was destabilized upon the advent of consciousness. But in this technological age what makes such a claim so outlandish and, more importantly, so untestable? Considering our unique historical situation which enables for potentially omniscient surveillance we are surely at a point whereby the rigorous systematisation of a subject’s movement from infancy into adulthood may indeed be undertaken; every minute action monitored, every visually instilled familial and objective association tracked, systematised, monitored.

As we know Symbolisation centers around vision, by which all other senses are subverted. Inner thought is as yet technologically inscrutable, however the subjective appropriation of the outside world which is observable enables for the analysis of the movement from the infant Real, to the Imaginary and finally to the all-subsuming tranquility and the veil of rationality enabled by the Symbolic order. In the case of Traven we see an unusual imperviousness to psychical manipulation which is the direct result of his malformed Symbolic constitution. Indeed, his inner world is kaleidoscopic, requiring scant input from the outside world, and instead relying upon the existing fragments which are refracted and reconstructed so as to fit into his own unique logic. In viewing Traven’s spectacular impunity we must recall Doctor Laing’s assertion that the “the cracked mind of the schizophrenic may let in light which does not enter the intact minds of many sane people whose minds are closed”.

Let us return to the potential experimentation of a mathematically formulated psyche. Eye-cameras would be a necessity, so as to monitor the precise points at which Symbolic tethers are ingrained. Furthermore the experiment would require 2 subjects – identical twins or even clones – in order to weed out the environmental from the genetically inherited factors which could influence this systematic appropriation of language and the constitution of the psyche (though associations created during the foetal stage could cause further complications). Such an experiment does not seem far-fetched when one accepts the proven validity of the Oedipus complex already as a vastly intricate form of algebra determining sexual preference and ensuring proper initiation into the Symbolic. NB: Contact L about the potential for running such an experiment, and discuss the appropriation of preliminary test subjects. 


Expressing the senses through language…

***I originally wrote this as part of a conference paper which analysed Patrick Suskind’s Perfume, but the ideas were a little too abstract and veered more into psychology as opposed to literature, and I couldn’t clearly express my meaning so I instead decided to cut it out. I’ve put it on here as a reminder to myself as it might be worth returning to and rooting up further at some point***

In Perfume what scent allows for, and which Grenouille exemplifies, is the exposure of a total inadequacy of language which is unique to the evocation of the senses: scent is a domain Symbolically ‘quarantined’ from all other senses. How so? I’ve really been struggling to conceptualise this. Let’s first think about the use of Symbolic language in the evocation of the senses, and how, for the most part, we can find direct and fundamental examples of the senses demonstrating a convolution of the Lacanian Symbolic order and the Real or the hidden kernel object (das ding). With the sense of hearing, this can be most overtly seen for example with onomatopoeia whereby audible sound merges with language. Touch does something similar, which can be seen clearly with words like ‘smooth’ and ‘rough’ which express a sense of the objective merged with language, and so still we have that crucial tether between the two which goes beyond the purely Symbolic veneer. With this example of touch in language sound acts as a byway; sound becomes the way by which a texture and so the sense of touch becomes manifest. It’s also important to acknowledge that these real-symbolic evocations of the senses are cross cultural and multi-lingual, as what we’re talking about is obviously deeper than the words themselves, more structural and yet not linguistically so (my Spanish and Italian friends both gave copious examples).

More abstractedly though nevertheless still crucially entwined with objectivised language is the sense of taste: we use words like sharp, or bitter – coming from the Germanic word bite, or tang, which comes from an old word for the blade of a knife. So these words for the sense of taste – much like the words for touch which use audible sounds – are using object textures, that is, by way of the sense of touch; thereby again demonstrating a tether between Symbolic and Real. It is important to emphasise then – and this is most evident with the sense of smell and taste – that whilst 2 senses can be inherently tied in their biological, sensory function, they are not in any way linked in their Symbolic function. I’m aware such isolated examples may seem insufficient, but actually what is vital is the mere existence of any single example of Symbolic words being in any way tethered to the Real. Which leads onto my next key point, which is that there are no words in the field of scent, which can possibly demonstrate a tether between Symbolic and Real. This is the same for sight, which, being what we might locate as the ‘foundational’ sense in the creation of language, is inherently and crucially detached from the Real – in fact it’s primary function is exactly that, to shield the real in a reality-encompassing veneer. So whilst with touch and hearing and taste we have this kind of tiered, cross-fertilisation of the various senses in order to evoke the Real, this is distinctly absent from the remaining 2 senses: sight and smell.

So why is this important? Well this unique dislocation of Symbolic and Real in the realm of scent is perhaps key to pinpointing how it is that only with the sense of smell, can we form associations with much more abstract concepts: the most overt of such being memory. The reason for this stems from the fact that smell has no possible direct tether to the symbolic universe. If smells were symbolically registered, then we would be incapable of associating certain smells with certain memories as we now do. This also explains why Freud situated scent in such a pivotal role in the designation of the neuroses (see Rat man case, 1909).


Julian Jaynes + Lacan = consciousness as ignorance

Jaynes pinpointed the origin of consciousness as the emergence of language, but not just any form of language, as this goes back much further, but rather metaphorical language. He means this in the sense of language providing a substitutive function. The appearance of metaphorical language allowed for a meteoric shift in human cognizance, and allowed for the almost complete submergence of what Lacan calls the Real – that is, reality beyond language and linguistic comprehension, the realm of the signified. The subsequent upsurgence of the symbolic order of metaphorical language became a reality encompassing veneer giving us the capability to logically and rationally comprehend and navigate our surrounding world. The extraordinary deducement here then, is that consciousness is at its very core a process of ignorance, an ignorance which differentiates us from those who are still trapped within a purgatorial rift between Real and Symbolic (the archetype being the psychotic). As Jaynes indicates, crucial to the function of consciousness is the ‘illusion of continuity’ (Jaynes, Origin of Consciousness, p. 25).

Continue reading “Julian Jaynes + Lacan = consciousness as ignorance”

A Lacanian look at Arrival (2016)

(WARNING: this blog article contains book and film spoilers)

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a 2016 adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story ‘Story of Your Life’ which was originally published in Starlight 2 in 1998. It has been hailed as one of 2016’s most successful flicks, earning a host of awards and more than a fair few near misses including Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director and Cinematography. The story follows Dr Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), an esteemed linguist who, along with physicist Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), is called upon by the Colonel of the US army (Forest Whitaker) to try and establish some kind of dialogue with a colossal alien ship, one of twelve which each hover in the airspace of major continents across the globe. Like the short story it is based on, the film intermittently flits between the events following the appearance of the mysterious alien ships and the fragmentary ‘flashbacks’ which we initially assume to recall Louise’s troubled past. Our first sighting of one of the alien ships comes around twenty minutes in, and it is without doubt one of the most breathtaking shots of the film: the camera glides high above acres of open grassland draped in mist, steadily approaching the ship which towers above the landscape like an ovoid monolith of some ancient god, creating an awesome sense of scale. Johann Johannsson’s (with a hint of Max Richter) accompanying score is ingenious: a haunting and unearthly marriage of aboriginal tribe music and the echoing deep-sea calls of blue whales (which, by no coincidence, is reminiscent of sounds that the aliens themselves audibly communicate with) which generates an overriding sense of great age and natural power.

This musical element is part of a crucial collective imagery within Arrival which I’d argue is completely absent within the book, this being the sense of distancing from technology on the part of the aliens, to the point where their technology is almost completely neutered; this as a means to emphasise that their power emanates from their otherworldly command over the natural earthly landscape itself. This is a significant and poignant difference from that of Chiang’s story in which the aliens are still wholly reliant upon technology in that they communicate through giant televisual screens (known as ‘looking glasses’ which act as proxies between Earth and their ships in outer space) and similarly rely on technology to transmit their ‘written’ language (by inserting their forelimbs into a translatory device). In Arrival however, the alien ships seem quasi-organic, and their language is transmitted through no external tools or tech, but rather through the secretion of a natural ink which they are able to shape and manipulate in the low-gravity, pelagic viewing chambers of their ship (which presumably echoes their planetary environment). This mastery over or rather harmony with the natural landscape is further emphasised through the repeated allusion to Zen Buddhist theology: the ships mimic upright Zen stones, and the aliens’ inky form of language echoes Buddhist enso symbols which is both a spiritual practise and a form of minimalist art (in the story Chiang poetically describes the Heptapod’s written language as ‘like fanciful praying mantids drawn in a cursive style, all clinging to each other to form an Escheresque lattice’ [Chiang, p. 135], similarly drawing on a unification of nature and art). But the marine imagery is also highly pertinent: the ships mirror smoothed pebbles as if washed ashore from the deep, and the mist (particularly in the first glimpse shot) about the ships symbolically echoes the shape of ocean waves, like some specter of Hokusai’s Great Wave.

This is most overtly demonstrated through the aliens’ physiognomy within the film which is very different to that of the story in which Chiang very purposely skirts detailed description (Louise at one point describes them vaguely as ‘a barrel suspended at the intersection of seven limbs’). Known as Heptapods, the aliens are a mottley collage of marine anatomy – blending elements of giant squid and octopi, whales, manatee and starfish – which evokes a crucial binary between the ‘known unknown’ of the deep sea, an assimilation of that which is at once Other and incomprehensible, and that which is ‘above water’, the known, logical and comprehensible man-made landscape. As aforementioned, the sound of the aliens’ speech solidifies this dichotomy, in that it replicates blue whales in order to identify a form of communication at once recognisable and familiar, but entirely beyond our understanding. What this persistent binary therefore serves is to make the natural earthly landscape alien, and to elicit, in a classic Wellsian sense – much like the tripods buried deep underground for thousands of years – the aliens are already here, all around us, and they act as the manifestation of an oceanic ‘Real’ (following Lacan), of a reality which, whilst within reach, lies outside of our comprehension, and more importantly, submerged deep beneath the Symbolic order of language. We thus have this process whereby the alien anatomy performs an ‘Imaginary’ function, in that they are formed of recognisable, natural, native fragments originating from the Other. The deeper comment here then is that the alien as Imaginary construct represents a paradoxical resurfacing of the repressed Real. By extorting the deep sea as Other the truly alien Real becomes tangible, this bolstered in so far as the deep sea embodies perhaps the closest humanity has to the truly alien unknown (outside imaginative speculation), and furthermore through the simultaneous metaphorical movement towards a less developed, primordial state: the deep sea becomes identifiable with our biological past, an amniotic return to our pre-evolved and universal form of existence.

We might also view the film as a progressive movement towards the Lacanian Symbolic. At the beginning of the film we are greeted with a pertinently estranging viewerly stasis, in which we are limited to the reactions of the characters and the early stages of societal collapse as they witness the alien ships for the first time on their own screens. We, however, are kept in the dark, looking out at the awestruck onlookers from the eye of the screen (this perhaps a prophetic glimpse at Louise’s eventual cognitive transition – more on that momentarily). This scene represents the moment of birth into the void of the Real: we look out from the eye of the screen, assuming the position of the alien observers who look on the space of the Real, that is, human reality which is as yet, beyond linguistic Symbolisation. The secondary stage, that is the Imaginary or ‘mirror stage’, would therefore be the aforementioned alien assimilation of self which is emblematically enacted through the Heptapods’ physical mirroring of the deep sea Other. But the final stage, the reality subsuming Symbolic, is where things get tricky. We might then view the persistence of the deep sea, the marine mimesis, as expressive of an inability to move beyond the Imaginary, and as such, a Symbolic insufficiency. This is made clear through humanity’s futile ongoing attempts to decipher the alien language. As the film progresses, and as the alien language becomes more and more subjected to Symbolic systemisation, hostility festers, and soon enough declarations of war are sounded from various continents who are unable to determine the aliens’ benevolent intent. This Symbolic degeneration is metaphorically enacted in the scene in which the screens representing the global continents blink out one by one, this again demonstrating the screen as embodiment of the ensuing Real.

Louise however, has her own agenda, and soon deduces that the Heptapods’ ‘written’ language (also known as ‘Heptapod B’) is completely detached from their spoken, audible language (known as ‘Heptapod A’) as opposed to written and spoken human languages which are inherently entwined. As such for the Heptapods thought and communicative speech are entirely distinct. This in turn leads her onto the staggering discovery, and the central plot twist, that the Heptapods’ written language is atemporal, this demonstrated through the circular formation of their language exposing a perception of reality situated outside of temporal restraints. The Heptapods therefore occupy a reality in which past, present and future exist simultaneously, and, upon learning their language, Louise similarly becomes able to perceive reality outside temporality. In the story Chiang explains that ‘when the ancestors of humans and Heptapods first acquired the spark of consciousness [perceptions parsed differently]… humans had developed a sequential mode of awareness whilst Heptapods had developed a simultaneous mode of awareness… [they] don’t act according to their will, nor are they helpless automatons… their actions coincide with history’s events… their motives coincide with history’s purposes. They act to create the future, to enact chronology… [and] knowledge of the future was incompatible with free will’ (Chiang, pp. 162-163). Borgesian influence suffuses Chiang’s stories (at one point within the story he openly alludes to The Book of Ages when describing the paradoxicality of the aliens’ alternate mode of consciousness) and this playful, labyrinthine veil of infallibility by way of what we might call the ‘theoretical ruse’ is central to his authorial hermeneutic. Chiang repeatedly draws upon hard scientific principles and mathematical formulas and reapplies them abstractedly within his stories: for example with Fermat’s Principle when applied to the field of linguistics in ‘Story Of Your Life’; the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity in Arrival; and a similar play on Euler’s equation in ‘Division by Zero’.

What is ingeniously adapted within Arrival is Louise’s revelatory coalition of the two alternate modes of consciousness, which is performatively enacted through the film’s structuralisation. The climactic revelation then is that the ‘flashbacks’ we have been seeing throughout the film – which depict a small child growing into early adulthood before the onset of a fatal illness – are in fact ‘flashforwards’ to Louise’s future with her child by Ian Donnelly (we also learn that Ian later leaves Louise due to her disguised knowledge of their child’s early death). Thus the skewed temporal linearity of the film itself parallels Louise’s cognitive ‘rewiring’ following her acquisition of the alien language. But what it also successfully demonstrates is their fundamental incompatibility: this revelation therefore creates the chronology. The sequential consciousness (of the humans) neutralises the simultaneous mode of consciousness (of the aliens), which was unwittingly bestowed on us from the offset in that the events of past and future were merged. In summary Arrival manages to deftly weave some deeply philosophical questions about both language and our perception of time, whilst also approaching deeply human questions of empathy, morality and the frailty and ephemerality of existence. This is rare and exquisite gem of a film which is at once thought provoking and moving, it is Hollywood SF stripped of pomp, and I for one, am itching for more.


What if Julian Jaynes was right?

“The weight of original thought in it is so great that it makes me uneasy for the author’s well-being: the human mind is not built to support such a burden.”

– D.C. Stove, in Encounter


If JJ was right then consciousness is only around 3000 years old

If JJ was right then before that there was only a universal form of schizophrenia

If JJ was right then before that there was no ego, only id and superego, and the people were at the mercy of their talking internal gods, their hallucinations, their unconscious

If JJ was right then Freud’s ego equates consciousness, the point at which the bicameral mind becomes one

If JJ was right then language is the key to consciousness, but not just any kind of language, metaphorical language, language which is unfixed, fluid and adaptive, as only humans possess

If JJ was right then consciousness is a process of ignorance, a way by which metaphor enables us to bypass the void of the Lacanian ‘real’

If JJ was right then the point at which the signified became signifier, is exactly the point at which consciousness emerged, the point at which the void of the real became hidden, submerged

If JJ was right, and Slavoj Zizek was right when he expressed that language was an accidental phenomenon and completely unnatural, then consciousness is not only accidental and unnatural, but unnatural beyond even language itself

If JJ was right, then Lacan’s view that schizophrenia is the most logical form the psyche can achieve, then consciousness itself is completely illogical

If JJ was right then literature is the key to unlocking consciousness, or at least pinpointing its origin


NB: featured image is Dali’s ‘The Anthropomorphic Cabinet’ (1936)