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Ghostlier Demarcations

By Steven Felicelli.

Ghostlier Demarcations

Everything could actually collapse: from trees to stars, from stars to laws, from physical laws to logical laws; and this not by virtue of some superior law whereby everything is denied to perish, but by virtue of [its] absence
—Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay On The Necessity Of Contingency (Translated by Ray Brassier)

…what our senses will allow, this had to take precedence…
—Don Delillo, Zero K

Oh, blessed rage for order, pale Ramon
—Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West


The J—- family of Orlando, Florida is out for a walk in the park. A——, the middle child, suddenly begins to rise like a weather balloon. Up, up, up and continues her ascent through the atmosphere, out the exosphere, until finally her little body is adrift in deep space.

The above scene describes something that actually happened, according to the family’s mother, Z—— J—-. The rest of the family insists that A—— died of leukemia. The latter is the recorded cause of death—leukemia being a biological phenomenon doctors can fathom and diagnose.

Grief can make you say and do some crazy shit, yes, but perhaps it can also prevent you from perceiving or acknowledging crazy shit. For example, for argument’s sake, let’s say A—— had actually escaped the earth’s gravity. How would the rest of the family confabulate it into coherence? Leukemia, perhaps.

T—– F—— of Mount Prospect, Illinois has two arms, but insists he has just the one. If you were to take hold of his left arm and say, “T—–, I am grasping your left arm,” he would correct you: “No, that is my grandfather’s leg you’re holding.” What the arm did to offend T—– is a mystery, but he is clearly trying to deny its existence. Or perhaps his grandfather’s leg has been grafted to his shoulder or spontaneously regenerated there? How and/or why the latter might occur seems to disqualify the hypothesis, but it could just as well beg the question. What if some bizarre biological phenomenon or, more to the point, some lack thereof, brought about this strange state of affairs? Would our brains allow us to discern the anomaly or would we (most of us) continue to see what ought to be there? And why do we feel more sure than the person who proprioceives the anomaly?

If the brain can convince someone his right arm is his grandfather’s leg or make a mother believe her child has floated off into deep space, what can’t it confabulate? What won’t it when push comes to shove? And where is the line drawn between perception and confabulation? At what point will the brain allow the organism to apprehend what’s really happening (insofar as anything is)?

The ostensibly unlimited reach of the brain’s confabulatory capacity ought to at least give us pause. In the same respect that Pierre Janet (via Freud) undermined the Delphic oracle’s admonition (Know thyself) with ‘the subconscious’, neuropathology has called into question the universal laws of physics. (Berkeley laughing himself awake from Kant’s dogmatic hypnosis.)

The world we know is shaped, outlined and organised by our neural circuitry. Oh, blessed rage for order, pale Ramon. The noumenon (what is independent of the mind) is a mere notion, imperceptible as is. What we perceive is never more than a neural construct. For example, Jonah Lehrer on Cézanne:

Our most elemental level of sensation is replete with contradiction and confusion. The cells of the visual cortex, flooded by rumors of light, see lines extending in every possible direction. Angles intersect, brushstrokes disagree, and surfaces are hopelessly blurred together. The world is still formless, nothing but a collage of chromatic blocks. But this ambiguity is an essential part of the seeing process, as it leaves space for our subjective interpretations. Our human brain is designed so that reality cannot resolve itself. Before we can make sense of Cézanne’s abstract landscape, the mind must intervene.

The noumenal universe may be far stranger than we know or could even imagine. A—— may be off in deep space or perhaps space is not all that deep and she’s landed softly on a spongy planet nearby. Or perhaps the sky is an artist’s rendering from a lost civilisation. Or an ocean in which A—— has drowned. Etc., etc. There’s good reason to believe that if there were no laws of physics—we’d invent them. (In a vast, conspiratorial folie à tous.)

Okay, perhaps the above are actual possibilities rather than inane concepts for speculative fiction. So what? If we can’t know one way or another, how have we qualified Kant’s impenetrable noumenon?

Could there be a perceptual override (via narcotics, brain ‘damage’, psychosis, etc.)? A lifting of the neurochemical veil (see Delillo’s Zero K)? Could there be such a thing as an immediate impression (veering into theology)? And would we necessarily diagnose such an impression: ‘hallucination’? Much madness is divinest sense may be a free-thinker’s cliché, but there is mounting evidence to support the claim.

The laws of physics may be inviolable, but this comforting fact is at least problematised by the brain’s blessed rage for order. If there were neither categories nor laws and the world was a purely contingent chaos of color, shape, affect and idea, would our brains abide this free-for-all and let us all go mad?  The answer is an irrefutable no, it wouldn’t. The brain shapes, orders and tames sensory data. That is what it does. Consider Roald Nasgaard on Neo-expressionism:

If Neo-Expressionist painting distrusts centralized, hierarchic, ideologically closed systems, it is not as if the artists resign themselves forever to chaos. As important as their destruction of hierarchized order is their urge to speak with precision, to reconstitute an order (even if it is only where you find it), because such structure is an inescapable human quest. This order, like meaning, like the self, is also only a human construct, provisionally useful and bearing with it nothing of the absolute.

And given its confabulatory prowess (that is not my wife, it is a hat), the brain could prop a fallen sky or transform dragons into less daunting pelicans by dint of synaptic redirection and we’d be none the wiser.

So then why would bad things ever seem to happen? (A neural theodicy emerges.) Why don’t we simply customise the world via confabulation? (Some of us seem to be doing just that these days.) If the brain can do as it pleases, why does it not do only as it pleases? (Is it beginning to?) Perhaps because the rage is not for pleasure/satisfaction, but order—the former unattainable or at least meaningless without the latter. So long as it does not exceed the bounds of category, law etc., it can displease or distress, if only to engender a binary good to placate the lost souls of earth.

Trumpians and jihadists (the far right—oft mistaken as opposing ideologies) may be an extreme case of confabulatory hypertrophy, but with the advent of social media and proliferation of ‘news’ outlets, the dizzying array of alternative realities we have to choose from has resulted in a kind of species vertigo. The rage for order seems to be dis-integrating into a rage for subjective omnipotence. The choose-your-own-narrative internet and broken law of excluded middle (via deconstruction and quantum physics) have ushered in an increasingly disembodied age of effective solipsism, where ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ are transcended by a nothing-is-but-thinking-makes-it-so. What are, will be, the ultimate consequences (condemnations) of this new freedom? How is the function of confabulation evolving in the face of environmental Armageddon, techno-capitalist tyranny, nuclear chicken played by psychotic imbeciles and a global race war?

Will each return to her or his own Platonic cave, browsing virtual shadows into oblivion? Ramon Fernandez, tell me if you know…


Steven Felicelli

Steven Felicelli is the author of two novels (Notes Toward a Monograph of the Moment/Six Gallery Press, White/Purgatorio Press) and book reviews appearing in/at The Rumpus, The Millions, The Collagist, Necessary Fiction, Minor Literature(s), Rain Taxi, Berfrois and The Critical Flame. He was born in Chicago and currently lives in the Bay Area with his wife and their three children. 

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 27th, 2018.