Discover more from Raids on the Unspeakable
Alone over the ocean, I saw it with a different eye
> A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with.
A great shambling mutant, silent and serene. Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millenia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.1
Our origin was an inversion of the ordinary way, that we stand as islands against the laws of thermodynamics; it is war and strife alone which assure our continuance. The first forms had their simple means of this, mere irritability by which they adapted their functioning to the environment. The principle of life is scarcity, hence are we directed to the future by a rumbling stomach or madly outward as a starving fiend. This relation with the environment—striving for existence—is in its peculiarity, life.
A stone is merely worn away by the world opposed, what differentiates life is that it opposes of its own beyond the merely passive. This activity entails a leaning into the gradients of decay, that in exertion we first consume ourselves in order to consume another. There need then be some tactics for this warring, that the organism must be adapted to its environment; it is here that receptivity comes to mediate between life and its end— that an end in the sense alike as aim and death, the ordinary flow of things from which we are ever only borrowed.
The simplest forms of this adaptation are by way of mere irritability, and here I borrow a term; that this is the form of receptivity common among creatures of a homogenous medium.2 We imagine these first forms of life reacting to the diffusion of a nutrient, of an acid—each indicates a proper response, a path viable for further life and carved over time by the death of alternatives.
This carving in time gives rise to newer and more complex forms, a topic which is of immense interest but not ours today, and we come eventually to a world in which the medium assumes a secondary state. Man and beast exist alike within the same, but the various media that encompass us—air, water, whatever—are taken now as carriers of signals rather than instantiating the signal in their own right. We can imagine this as following the development of multicellular life, that food now came packaged; thus we come to orient ourselves instead to objects existing in an external environment.
The second stage, again with borrowed terminology, is that of sensitivity; it is this which Leontiev argues must be explained. We know this in ourselves, but the trouble is in inferring the existence of such a subjectivity in others—whether animals, plants, even men. There are further gradations within this form, complexities that need be known before we can even speak; still we could hardly start here.
Take the simple sea urchin, for this creature exists as a contrary to our own idea and experience of sensitivity. There they are not a person whole but rather in Uexkull’s terms a ‘reflex republic’—that they are constituted as unity in their activity only by a material wholeness, but the regulation of their activity, what we might think mind, operates according to wholly independent arcs: spines, fangs, tube-feet and so on. He quips thus to explain the difference: “when a dog runs, the animal moves its legs; when a sea urchin runs, the legs move the animal.”3
This seems an intermediate stage in development of receptivity, between irritability and what we might call sensitivity proper; still the sea urchin is oriented towards objects in the environment, their enemy the starfish calls forth a lunging assault. The movement here, however, has no point at which it is integrated—hence properly we cannot consider the thing a mind, at least in any sense subjectively recognisable.
Of course, this might be thought ordinary enough for such an unusual and distant creature. Take now instead a mother hen; while avian yet she is a far-sight closer to our own and consciousness in our ordinary understanding, now consider this:
If a chick is tied to a peg by one leg, it peeps loudly. This distress call makes the mother hen run immediately in the direction of the sound with ruffled plumage, even if the chick is invisible. As soon as she catches sight of the chick, she begins to peck furiously at an imaginary antagonist. But if the fettered chick is set before the mother hen’s eyes under a glass bell, so that she can see it but not hear its distress call, she is not in the least disturbed by the sight of him.
There seems some absence of what we ought expect, that the sound and sight are separate in a way unexpected according to our understanding of sensitivity. The fact seems better explained on a model according with that of the sea urchin, that there is as yet not an integration of the various arcs; with each sensory modality, or so we might consider them, a mere bundle of arcs wrought of a specialised thread. There are eyes here, yes—but is there sight?
Something tangential of relevance is found, accepting here another leap, in damage to the primary visual cortex; and this in macaques, yes, but alike it seems in humans. The specifics are this: that there is apparent blindness, that their reports indicate a total absence of sight; yet when they respond by force-choice, either this or that, to questions concerning presentations within this blindness then their success far exceeds what ought be expected of chance. Hence the name it is given: blindsight.
There are two pathways, it seems, or so one theory goes, that route from eyes through to the brain: the retino-geniculo-striate and the retino-tecto-pulvinar-extrastriate pathways. Now here the names are not so important, what matters is the phylogenetic priority of this pair; that the latter is much more ancient than the former, that when the latter is impaired then blindsight is absent as with sight. The sense seems then that there is some stream which runs below the reflective pool that we call consciousness, that there is a movement in the deep which yet serves adequate to the purposes of bare survival; for blindsight need not impair movement in one’s environs.
What then does it impair, and what is the purpose of this puddle which takes up all our eyes? This the question why of phylogeny, recapitulated in ontogeny, and an open question itself; that it seems at some point the mere arcs strengthen into streams and converge, at least partially, upon this reflective pool—and perhaps it is here that the secret is shown, that there is something in this essential for the reflective aspect by which man is so elevated above the animals.4
Yet this is perhaps an improper metaphor, for we find alike this capacity in those that have only ever lived in the land of silence and darkness. Deaf-blindness does not impair access to this particular reflective surface, though they may never have known such a thing in their ordinary waking. The fact that this is so further suggests the nature of this particular feat, that it is a general integration of the sensory, not necessarily grounded in sight, nor perhaps even in our heads; it is a miracle of some strange sort, and yet we hardly even know what it is.5
“If I am successfully understood, my listener will have acquired the benefit that his life will have been made significantly more difficult for him than ever before, and therefore I will not urge anyone to accept this invitation.”
Here at McCarthy’s end, some days before dead, and considering his writing of the Judge; an opening perhaps for our own inquiry, not the Judge himself but what he rides and feeds upon: life.
Leontiev, The Development of Mind.
Uexküll, A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men.
These cases of blindsight see an impairment in complex recognitions; that they may be able to perceive a triangle, for instance, but struggle to discern whether it is this way up or that.
We might note also that the why is equivalent to the how taken from another angle, that we need understand how there might have been some snag upon which evolution pulled this into being—what did it take hold of first, what force carried this into completion?
There are those who would take the fact of this miracle as their point of departure, that not knowing how to explain it they thus take this as their foundation.