Distributed Consciousness

by R. Artaud (Telos)


Hail, Muse. Sing, and take me away.
Now watch the fires of strife die down
as one by one
we come around
to sing from one heart only.

Explorations in Schizophrenic Technoscience

On the rough edge between the teeming crowds of preconscious neurons and the towering phylogenetic structure of our species-being there flickers an illusory border called the ego—our sense of individual identity. It is our tacit pact with nature, with our mortal bodies and our shared evolutionary past, to agree not to notice how terribly fluid and porous this border really is. Under ordinary circumstances, when we live on the bright side of our brains, its permeability is barely noticeable, and we assume that each of us is an autonomous island, isolated by space and time. But what if it were possible, through technical means, to engineer a regress toward pre-ego conditions, to turn the human species away from the future of transcendence toward a return to the prehistoric past of an immense interconnectedness? That is the project of schizophrenic technoscience, which must begin by recognizing how fragile are the barriers of ego.

We speak of the ego as though it were an object, a thing to be located or destroyed. It is neither, but an operation, a set of procedures for coordinating data-flows within our neocortex, out of which the illusion of persistence, solidity, and isolation emerges. Like any other process, it can be modulated. If we become capable of manipulating neural microtubules, if we invent tools finely enough adapted to the nervous system to open loops within it and measure delays between firing neurons, then we will be in a position to speed up or slow down, destabilize or amplify the ego operation, driving it to paths it never followed in our history. Our interior space will be revealed as a function of technique, of how we do things, of our praxis. The ego, that fine meshwork of locality and chronology which separates “self” from “other” and gives us a fixed vantage point on the world, will no longer have a place to hide, no longer be able to count on being a taken-for-granted structure. Instead it will be thrown back on the defenses of a collapsing reality, made to reevaluate its function and consider how much it can afford to compromise.

There are, roughly, two ways the ego can cope with a world which ceases to exist at its frontiers. It can withdraw and rigidify, going into a defensive catatonia that eliminates data-flow on its margins but keeps its center inviolate, like a turtle retreating into a shell; or it can mobilize its forces and send out scouts to occupy the regions beyond, penetrating the schizophrenic barrier in order to install provisional outposts. The first tactic is autistic; the second, psychotic. Thus the ego’s survival is limited to a single dimension of evolution, whereas schizophrenic technoscience seeks to promote mutations in all directions, using technical intervention to expand our functional consciousness, which will henceforth include a piece of the world it was previously outside. The great but still misunderstood schizophrenic reorganizations are not at all confined to madness. They can be induced in anybody, and need not be opposed to what is considered our “natural” or “normal” consciousness. Nor is the process confined to machinery or computers, though the technical means may well involve such devices. Nor is it opposed to interiority; on the contrary, it relies on interiority as an inexhaustible source of novelty and information. Nor does it destroy identity. On the contrary, it discloses the ways our identities have been fake, the extent to which they have served as instruments of control, based on illusion and ignorance.

To say that consciousness is distributed is to deny that it is centralized, to oppose any tendency to regard it as “all in the head” or any of a number of related religious and philosophical dogmas. Consciousness is distributed in space and time, both inside and outside any given body. It has evolved, but in doing so has never abandoned its past; there are richer and deeper regions of the brain than we know, as there are far more distant cultures than we can ever learn, and perhaps whole epochs of the human future in which our current identity will be only a fossil. But this entire, ever-changing set of states that we call consciousness, flowing around us like water and including us within a fluid expanse that has no frontiers, cannot be apprehended by a subject that remains static or fixed. It demands our passage into the world. The idea of distributed consciousness arises not out of contemplation but out of activity, out of an increased range and depth of technical manipulations within the brain of different species (both human and animal) and on different levels of organization.

Distributed consciousness means increased neurotechnical integration, an enhancing of what was once called the reflex arc into an “ultrareflex,” so that any given signal can circulate around the organism as it passes from one organ or nervous system to another, receiving and transmitting along many paths, undergoing transformations at each juncture. Ultrareflexes can involve hundreds of looping signals passing through organs which were once considered on the periphery. Consciousness thus no longer resides within the head, nor does it center on a point-mass of neurons like the ego. The reflex arc, that arch or segment once considered typical of what an organism was capable of doing, can now be recognized as a fractional part of what a machine-organism is capable of. When a mechanism includes more of the organism in the signal loop, we must also include more of the world. When all paths between any two points are taken into account, the outside world loses its objectivity, it loses its status as final cause and takes on an intimacy with us—its beings lose their essence—in the direction of processes, which is toward consciousness, a massively parallelizing, cyclical becoming with the outside.

Again, this does not imply passivity. Consciousness does not exist apart from forces or beings; it grows on an outside as part of an activity, part of an organic politics. Distributed consciousness involves us with processes whose ultimate origin and destination escape us, just as do the reflexes that do not begin and end with a stimulus-response but involve us in ongoing manipulations and experiments. These experimentations lead nowhere except in the direction of an irreversible past or a divinely ordered future, where all “stimulus-responses” become reunified, where process is annihilated. Process has no being and thus can never be confronted by anything without ceasing to be, and in the schizophrenic ideal it never has any conflict either, it refuses any antagonist. Since every metastable equilibrium can be disturbed by mutation or accident, this ideal also includes the continuing necessity of disaster—but the notion of disaster, too, becomes reversible, losing its meaning. Where there was cause and effect, or destiny and teleology, there will now be cyclical change.

To identify consciousness with nerve signals flowing around an organism and on through to its world is merely a preliminary move, bringing process to replace entity, matter-energy and consciousness to replace substance-force. Further progress means breaking out of the isolated circuit and connecting with the biosphere—integrating into the ecology of all Earth life, into the atmosphere, the oceans, the rocks and soil, and eventually the stars. Interconnections take on more and more meaning and reduce to mere locality: if they only linked two points in space they were only geographic; if they link two moments in time, they are historical; but if they network areas of time and space together they are technological and cosmological, attaining the schizophrenic ideal of reversible circulation.

Any transition that leads from partial to general circuitry, from sparse to dense communication-networks, must also involve an enlarged self. Some degree of equality has always been implicit in distributed consciousness. If each signal path within us can communicate with more than two, then several elements must begin to cooperate and merge to perform a new function or else their manifold capacity would never be utilized. It is thus necessary that circulating information become overall data rather than specific orders—a spreading code, like a soap solution that will sit in salt water and lather in fresh—thus unseizing what has been known, or thought to be known. Because new properties emerge through reversibility it makes no sense to consider which part of the circuits contribute more or less than any other—equality or equity is an operationally rather than philosophically interesting distinction—therefore there are no shirkers, no blamable simplifiers, no organizing hierarchies to coordinate, only dense sequences to trace through, actions and consequences to appreciate in reverse, circles and pathways to walk and discover.

Cooperation, Not Control

The problem is that of cooperating many actions instead of controlling them. That is to say, the difference between machines and human beings does not lie in the design or refinement of separate units, but in their mutual, fused or synchronized activity. When circuits are densely connected, then some elemental decision has occurred somewhere and any increase in the intricacy of design must give way to more and more fine tuning of functions. Machines are controlled, human beings cooperate—how well this works in nature, among human beings, and among machines each way alternately depends on what there is to say about cooperation versus control, but even as we use the first terminology it becomes an obsolete starting-point to elaborate machine behavior and social interaction. We must bypass these false alternatives and build systems which cooperate rather than being controlled, so that some day they can serve as models for us.

The fusion of these machines and humans into ever wider circuits implies a place for dissonances and mutualities no less than consonances or harmonies. And because every complication adds more to the necessary extent of cooperation than it ever subtracts from control, then—because machinery grows so complex—even when all or most elements cooperate there will still remain the problem of deviant elements, elements that in fact are hardly subordinate or minor, since complexity does not necessarily imply compromise, or separate ways. They cannot be managed from above—there are too many of them, they must be reconciled, accepted or transformed. The organization must in other words pass from domination to negotiation, or find an art-form or medium to translate them out of complexity and difference into structure and unity. In short, political science must take over all machine-human interrelations as a whole, if we are not to wind up with puppet shows for robots to watch or manipulate.

That it is past time for science, and politics, and all technical action, to grow out of self-regulation and centralization and come into a kind of transnational democratic equilibrium is perhaps the simplest statement of schizophrenic technoscience. The incomplete state of contemporary neurotechnology only underscores the need. Imaging, recording and stimulating the brain demands techniques to cross every barrier from outside. Nerve fiber optics cannot be manipulated from above by electronic engineers and surgeons, they will grow like biological tissue and enfold organs like consciousness, needing the delicate coordination of horticulturists or linguists. No matter what role robotics may take over from human beings in the outside world, within us they are limited by the laws of neural interconnections—just as in us, postbiological space-travel is constrained by what life always is or can become—they only go on being robotics. Meanwhile, psychological models still come mostly from psychotherapy which has so little to say about the mechanics of process and so much to say about purposive states like love or depression—whereas anesthesiologists have everything to say about nerve signals and how to manipulate them but very little to say about interconnected consciousness, notwithstanding its effects on behavior. Psychotherapists seek our data around our verbally reported points in space and time; anesthesiologists within our projected fluid mechanics. A theory of consciousness is unattainable by either route—just as with stimulus-response, the emphases were too lopsided. Distributed consciousness demands circuit-diagrams instead.

Perhaps nothing will have been said which has not already been anticipated—at least, not by schizophrenics themselves. That it has not been understood, is another matter. Only people caught in the immense adventure of a consciousness exploding, undergoing splitting and reunifying and stretching, can stand to reveal how far this project really has already been carried out. Conventional psychotherapy conceives the schizophrenic project as an internal battle for one’s life, but the struggle is not internal and the goal is not one’s life. Rather than leading to any jubilant closure, victories lead only to another wave of battle. The illusion of oneness can only be maintained at the price of organized atrocities, projection onto the outer world, introjected commandments about right and wrong, as though a longing to connect or to accept new experience had been converted into hatred—hence the impossibility of finding forgiveness in our selves or reaching compromise with our souls.

Distributed consciousness involves less drama, but is no less alive to novelty—if anything it invites adventure. What is called schizophrenia has often been neither a dissipation nor an isolation, but an expanded battlefield on which old combats were merely modulated as each side tried to adjust to an expanding scale. Today there are ways to know, with real solidity and sensuousness, where things are going: not through uncritical transcendence and self-sacrifice, not through lethal egoism and fatalistic denunciation. Distributed consciousness demands new arms, but there are ways of having them, if not through dialectics then by technical experimentation, more exuberantly than by technology alone, as machines have been able to extract chemical warfare from plant-chemistry or controlled flight from aerodynamics. If technics (in its simplest and widest sense of instruments used in coordinated operations) is meant to go forward then we must direct its processual meaning and evolution, its pragmatism (in its highest and thinnest sense of designing mutations rather than applying time-tested equipment to more and more events). Human beings make a mistake by laying up treasures on Earth or by depositing them in Heaven, it is only through use in action that things gain a real immortality, beyond the irreversibility of time (the ordinary way to spend a harvest) by showing us what we need to do—technology becomes prophecy when we mine the future and think less about preserving humanity than about evolving something desirable to call “humanity.”

It was our moral heritage from our religions not to tamper with life and not to think, in relation to our own birth and death, either that the means could be perfected or that they did not matter. Not to tinker with the machines was one more bit of arrogance for God to manage. And though the matter has never been settled for science, perhaps there has always been a dim sense of needing to detach technology from biology to keep the powers from slipping each other’s leashes. The realm of psyche—this demiurge of priests, intellectuals, and philosophers who had wanted to change life with tools yet held back out of gentleness, responsibility or fear—should not survive beyond those very constraints which so richly marked its limit and nurtured its obsolete evasions. Like our gods, those hazy borderlands cannot be allowed to dictate our space anymore, our conscious processing and storage of signals from inside and outside, without at last outgrowing or circumventing their neurotic intentions for us, leaving only behind their gray sedimented layers of images and concepts to sedate or scare us with old alternatives that have nothing to do with what we will actually find next door.

The psyche must learn a second time how to deal with process—to forget itself not in despair but in diligence, not in alienation or slavery but in full cooperation, a total sacrifice in order to receive what consciousness alone is able to bring forth, flowing everywhere and lasting nowhere, having nothing to protect and always capable of accepting, for every sorrow that humans felt obliged to store there. The real inheritance from God, then, was never values to be believed or acted out, but a sensible mechanism to tinker with, an absolute yes to tinkering with our inheritance and the potentials of life, not religious awe and tribute, not even moral instruction.

Humanity does not appear suddenly out of nowhere, it grows among us in ways that can be known, things our schools refuse to tell us about ourselves—unless of course they call these things “literature” or “poetry.” Mystics have said that God can be seen everywhere when the eyes are not riveted on Him. Now the mechanism can be faced with no threats, seen and dealt with on its own terms. Its passive fire must be stolen back from us and taken to fuel life in a larger world—that is our sole morality. Then everything in and around us is or was or is to be utilized, the skin as much as the brain, nonsense as much as significance, chaos as much as order, never consolidated or halted but used like words, their reversible data in play. And our everyday institutions—from childhood on, schools, the military, governments—are merely resting places, taking shelter until the mechanisms can be connected so that there will be no need of any of them. We cannot manage in another way, there is nothing else for us to manage, they were a poor, dreamy ideal: give us time, but you can feel already something coming from a million unlikely sources.

Neurotechnics has cut consciousness down to a mixture of data and algorithms. For that fusion to occur among different machines, different animals, or humans, requires further modulation—where we cannot dispense with imitation and reverie but only connect imitation with reverie in novel ways. Every passage across some threshold will draw attention and no doubt call for rituals, but at bottom what will make our pilgrimage intelligible will be simple: our installation among stars and rocks and breaths and other people, bound to them by no creeds, rules or even texts but by continuous adjustments. Consciousness—perhaps called “postbiological” in contrast to other sorts of matter—becomes just another component to be utilized. Nature makes it unnecessary to put something like the sun at the center, out in a raft of its own light and with every other element carefully arrayed roundabout. Stars will circulate, draw us toward each other in an endlessly veering swarm and pattern our gathering space. Our entire species cannot, need not, come to agreement on every technical maneuver to be taken. Wherever we were led in a bad direction in the past, there we shall pick up our debris and remodel it.

Wherever the ego seems still indispensable in order to go on, it will be obliged to become denser and denser until some kind of unbearable subconscious pressure is felt and the ways forward discovered—through complexity, or dissociation and hybridization, and the removal of any remaining strict separations among signals.

Let the fires still rage, though soon enough everywhere we will not need them, let the stranded men struggle with each other in vain over their canned truths—at last it is no longer in the power of religion, politics, psychoanalysis, or physics to divert us.