What Face-Punching and the Star Wars Holiday Special Can Teach Us About Consciousness

I’ve been writing a lot about “cognitive liberty” without exactly saying what it is. At the end of my last post, I defined it as “the right of people to do whatever they like with their own consciousness and to resist attempts to dictate what that consciousness is or should be.” But then what does that squishy Claes Oldenburg baked potato of a word, consciousness, really mean?

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The question of what consciousness is and how it differs from its contents — perceptions, emotions, sensations, thoughts — is one I can’t and don’t want to address in any systematic and conclusive way. Philosophers have pondered such questions for thousands of years to no definite end. You think some guy with a blog is finally going to figure it all out?

For now, I’m going to avoid writing much about what consciousness really is and instead will deal with an informal, vernacular meaning of the word, familiar from the religious and drug contexts where we most often encounter talk of “changing consciousness.” In these contexts, consciousness refers to how we think, perceive, feel, etc., not what we think. I think this distinction is useful, if a little dualistic. It’s a place to start out from, if not the place we’ll end up.

Pay attention to the difference between how your mind works before and after you drink a large quantity of very strong coffee. (Or, if you’re Mormon, Red Bull will work fine.) If you like, you could come up with a simple protocol for a safe and legal experiment in altering your consciousness:

  1. Choose a quiet environment in which you can write with as few distractions as possible.
  2. In an uncaffeinated state, write for 20 minutes on the distinction between consciousness and its contents, paying special attention to your present experience of writing.
  3. Consume enough caffeine that you can easily feel physical effects — trembling fingers, quick pulse, tingling in extremities, whatever your particular body uses to tell you “whoa, that’s a lot of caffeine.”
  4. In this state, write for 20 minutes on the distinction between consciousness and its contents, paying special attention to your present experience of writing.

I can’t tell you what your experience will be, obviously, but I will say that I am pretty sure the things you wrote in steps 2 and 4 will differ from one another. In my own case, I just had my morning coffee and as I write this I am feeling a familiar tingling in my fingertips and slight chill in my feet — a sure sign that I am fully tanked up. Mostly what occurs to me is that the ideas I’m having now as I write are not different from the ideas I had when I first say down with my computer and first cup of morning coffee, but the manner in which they are entraining themselves and finding their way onto the page is different.

This is a way of saying that caffeine affects how you write, not the “content.” It’s not as if there’s something about caffeine that makes you write about homebuilding techniques or the early works of John Donne. But it might encourage you write about the influence of domestic architecture on metaphysical poetry. Caffeine encourages a lateral, ideas-of-reference style of connection between ideas, and it generates a manic enthusiasm that can temporarily overwhelm the inhibiting inner voice that says “wait, that’s a stupid idea for a term paper.” Caffeine is the cocaine of graduate school.

sarahmaeschmidt: On the fifth day of finals, my true love gave to me: five coffee pots. Broke 2,000 notes with this! Wow! Thanks everyone who understands the coffee feelings. I made this during finals a few years ago.

A lot of hideous high-concept TV from the 1970s and early 1980s testifies to the similarity of cocaine and caffeine in this respect. As Nathan Rabin once remarked, The Star Wars Holiday Special seems as if it was “written and directed by a sentient bag of cocaine.”

Not people on cocaine, mind you, but powerful stimulants that somehow came to life, got an agent, and transcribed the entire script on a three-day jag, ranting, like Alfred Molina in Boogie Nights, “The whole thing will take place on the Wookiee planet, right? And it’ll be about Christmas. No, Hanukah. No, Life Day! We’ll make up a holiday just for this. And the Wookiees, we don’t know what they’re saying, but other people do! And Princess Leia will sing a song and Bea Arthur will be there, but she’ll be, like, doing a cabaret number, like, downbeat and creepy and melancholy, and Jefferson Starship will show up—I’ll figure out why later—and there’ll be an erotic interlude involving Diahann Carroll and Chewbacca’s really horny dad, and Luke Skywalker will be there, and Darth Vader, and a cartoon! There will also be a cartoon and did I mention Jefferson Starship? And we’ll get Harvey Korman and Art Carney. Oh, it’ll be—what was I talking about just then?”

However, the line between the “form” and “content” of ideas is very porous. From a Jamesian perspective, an idea isn’t a thing, it’s an experience or process of mentation. An idea is an event. And so to intervene on the process by which that event takes place is to intervene on content. Actually, Rabin’s imagined cocaine monologue demonstrates this principle very well. The peculiar awfulness of the Star Wars Holiday Special lies not in its constituent parts — after all, we liked Leia, Luke, Vader, and Chewbacca when we saw them in Star Wars — but the ways they were put together with other stuff that didn’t fit, like Jefferson Starship and Bea Arthur, and in ways that violated the tone and worldbuilding of the original films. Chewbacca is an idea, but so is giving Chewie a horny Dad named Itchy. Having Itchy put on a hair-drier hood to watch a slinky alien is also an idea. A bad idea. 

So we can refine our starting-point, which was to say that a drug alters our consciousness by altering how we form ideas and not what ideas we form. Clearly what we mean by “consciousness” in this case is a faculty for forming ideas, and as the faculty changes so necessarily do the ideas as well.

Ideas so formed might in turn change the faculty for forming them. Indeed, anyone who has ever studied a musical instrument on a high level has experienced this. You practice in order to play a difficult scales etude, and your struggles with its peculiar challenges cause you to play scales differently. Here, playing scales is an item of content and one’s overall practice is the form or faculty by which that content is realized. But as you progress in your studies, the work you put in on the etude might cause you to pay closer attention on how to practice scales — or for that matter how to practice anything. In other words, a given item of practice, a specific piece of “content,” causes you to start paying attention to how you pay attention. “Content,” in this case, determines consciousness.

Now, it is possible for a musician to practice the scales etude and thereby improve her scales, but without this practice reflecting back onto the more abstract question of how one pays attention to attention — i.e., onto questions of practice as such. It is possible to remain on the “content” level without messing with questions of “consciousness.” However, it is not possible to contemplate the faculty by which individual practice decisions are made without there being occasions for contemplation. (Etudes, sonatas, pop song standards, etc.) Conscious reflection on the level of practice itself — “consciousness” or “awareness,” in the loose and offhand way I’ve been developing these terms — is a higher order of contemplation than reflection on an item within practice, insofar as it includes and transcends the latter, whereas the opposite is not true.

(Warning: caffeine-fueled association ahead!)

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I’m a long-time fan of boxing and, more recently, mixed martial arts. Don’t judge. Anyway, there’s a podcast I listen to called Heavy Hands, which bills itself as “the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.” I recommend it highly to anyone interested in the technical aspects of martial arts, particularly the striking (punching and kicking) side of it.

In the most recent episode, the hosts answer a question about which present-day fighters are the best at adapting mid-fight to whatever their opponents are showing them. The question becomes one of tactics and strategy, tactics being understood as moment-to-moment decision-making and strategy being the decision-making that plays out over the whole course of the fight. Tactics pertain to the battle, strategy to the war. That’s how I usually understand the distinction, anyway. But then Connor Ruebusch puts it in a different and at first counterintuitive light (starting at about 9:20):

In our parlance, strategy is concerned with the question why — why should I be doing this, why should I stop him from doing this — and tactics is concerned with the question how, how do I do this, how do I get him to fall for this, how do I set up this trap … Strategies need tactics, but tactics aren’t necessarily part of a wise strategy. So for a strategically-minded fighter like Jon Jones or Georges St-Pierre, all of the tactics they employ (hand-fighting in the clinch, closing the distance, smothering, keeping the opponent on the end of a jab) are typically in service of a large, clearly-defined strategy …

Recall the rough rule-of-thumb distinction we started with, between an idea as what we think and consciousness as how we think. Notice that it is analogous to what Ruebusch is saying here, contrasting the “how” of tactics (what should I do right now?) to the “why” of strategy (what ends do specific adjustments serve?). It also mirrors the distinction I made between an item of practice (the etude) and practice per se. In each of these homologous paired terms, the second term (consciousness, strategy, practice) refers a higher function that needs to include the lower-order items (ideas, tactics, etudes). In each pairing, the higher-order function includes or embraces a lower-order item. In each pairing, the lower-order items of thinking, fighting, or playing music can be cultivated or pursued on their own without conscious reflection on or dialogue with the higher-order function. But to reflect on them in the context of the higher-order function is to attain greater power, to “take it to the next level.”

Long story short, and to get back to where we started: intervening on the level of so-called consciousness is a powerful intervention indeed.

What I need to do next time is to contemplate how these distinctions play out in the academic humanities. Very briefly, I will argue that we in academia are deeply unsettled by the prospect of intervening on the level of higher-order functioning. Or, if you like, on the level of consciousness. Which is one reason why academic research on psychedelia is taboo even today. [Note, added later: I never did write about this stuff; I took it in a somewhat different direction. I should stop trying to say what I’m going to do next at the ends of my blog posts.]

I realize that this statement is not altogether clear on its own, so you’ll have to hang on until my next post to see what I really mean by it.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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