Reverberating Mazes: Exploring Consciousness with Michel Serres
“Let us seek the best way of creating the most feedback loops possible on an unstructured and short itinerary. Mazes provide us with this maximization. Excellent reception, here is the best possible resonator, the beginnings of consciousness.”
—Serres, 2008, p.143
The Problem of Clefts and Consciousness
Michel Serres’ claim here that he has theorized the ‘beginnings of consciousness’ is no small one. Consciousness is phenomenon such that, given its beginnings, its conclusion is a relatively simple task. The ‘hard problem’ is the beginning. It’s the beginning, how subjectivity arises from brute materiality, which presents the cliff face. The fact is the early-modern philosophers have equipped us poorly to think about consciousness. Throughout the post Cartesian period of early empiricism and rationalism, the dualism of subject/object, and with it mind and matter, consciousness and the body, has been squeezed this way and that, like the torturing of a balloon, at times expanding one, then the other, with God more often than not having to intervene to hold terms together, or fix their harmonious relation. Kant solved this somewhat by reframing the question in terms of conditions of possibility, but, as Deleuze notes (2011), this glosses over the question of genesis. Regarding consciousness, it’s this question of genesis, of beginnings, that still plagues us.
The problem of consciousness is nomadic, appearing in many different formulations: the relationship between quantity and quality (or quantitative and qualitative interpretation), the utility of consciousness if philosophical zombies are conceivable, the mind/body problem, the problem of other (and animal and AI) minds, even in the philosophy of language and the question of meaning and reference. Everywhere it introduces a cleft, an insurmountable ravine between two opposed terms. In fact, I’ll characterize it in terms of this cleft itself and posit that: when theorizing the subject’s relation to the world such that knowledge could be possible, one is repeatedly referred to a gap in this or that guise.
On an epistemological level, the gap appears as an obstacle. This is why Kant can remove all conditions of knowledge from the thing-in-itself, but still has to retain it as an opaque pebble, or why Berkeley, after making matter disappear in a puff of ideas, has to bring it back in deified form to leave knowledge possible. On the level of genesis, the gap appears as an immaculate conception. The mind appears to be indivisible: ‘dividing’ it (whatever that could mean) instead multiplies it (‘cut’ my mind in two and then there just two of me) which seems to make its construction from simpler elements miraculous.
Serres encounter this gap or cleft in The Five Senses. His route to it is novel, so even though he at first entertains the idea that the problem is fatal (“The objection destroys both my book and any hope of describing reception” (Serres, 2008, p.140)), the path he has taken has given him the resources to quickly sketch a line-of-flight, arriving at the ‘beginnings of consciousness’.
The Silence of Reception
Serres’ first observation is that reception is, by its very nature, always silent (2008, p.136). Here is a transmitter and here is a receiver. The only way for the transmitter to confirm that the receiver has received the transmission is to ask, thus prompting the receiver to become a transmitter, the transmitter of the confirmation of receipt. This confirmation is not the reception itself, but an additional sign that refers obliquely to the reception. Here already in this simple abstract machine constructed of two transmitter/receivers we already have our cleft, and our epistemological obstacle.
These abstract receiver/transmitters are black boxes: transmissions go in, transmissions come out, but inside is the reception that cannot be examined but for requesting a transmission. The input is translated into an output, and we can create tables of these inputs and outputs, and discover a generalized function to translate from one column to the other, but this function is not the reception, not Nagel’s ‘What it is like to be a…’, but rather a mechanical structure that still sits outside of the black boxes. The two data sets run onto infinity (as we collect more data) but always separated by a cleft.
Note that this issue does not just persist when prodding an other. It is not only the case that we cannot get at the state of reception in an interlocutor but for requesting a transmission back from them, but persists even in our own sensation. Serres points to the claim that all experience is given through language (2008, p.112). This claim will always be irrefutable, because it hinges on the fact that a non-transmitted, pure reception cannot be ‘provided’; provision is a transmission. “The discussion is over as soon as it begins: no-one knows how to say what is given, independently of language” (ibid). The signified conquers the whole of the given, called up by this or that signifier (even terms like ‘thingamajig’, ‘Being’, or ‘je ne sais quoi’), as though the whole of sensation lay waiting in the service of its transmission. In this way we are curiously locked out of our own sensation, “all reception occurs in silence” (2008, p.136).
In a sense we can read this section of The Five Senses as Serres dealing with a problem that was prefigured by certain innovative moves he took in regards to another problem earlier, in The Origin of Language. It may be fruitful to examine this problem’s genealogy to grasp Serres’ solution.
The Silence of The Organs
In The Origin of Language Serres asks a simple question: why are we not deafened by the sound of our bodies? All of the cells and molecules and proteins are humming and whirring but, for the most part, we are not aware of any of these processes that make us up. This problem may seem incidental to our purposes, but often arises to be dealt with in any attempt to overcome the cleft between subject and object. The minimal function of the cleft in the first place is to account for the epistemological obstacle: why is our knowledge limited, what is error? The early moderns introduced the cleft to answer this: we are aware only of our representations that picture the world more or less accurately. When we try to dissolve the distinction between subject and object it returns: if my consciousness is coextensive with my body, which is coextensive with my local situation, which is coextensive with the global situation, why is that global situation not apparent in each and every moment of consciousness? Why, when I look at the world, do I not see the centre of the sun, insofar as the centre of the sun, what is transpiring there, is directly entangled with all of these visual experiences here, elicited by the photons from that origin bombarding everything around me? The epistemological obstacle, if it is not going to be accounted for by a problematic split between things-in-themselves and appearances, needs to be accounted for in some way. Serres’ way of formulating this problem is to look down into the molecular and cellular activity within our bodies, rather than across the reaches of space, but the issue is the same — what selects the data of the given from the (near) infinite available data?
“We are submerged to our neck, to our eyes, to our hair, in a furiously raging ocean. We are the voice of this hurricane, this thermal howl, and we do not even know it. It exists but it goes unperceived. … The observer observes nothing, or almost nothing.” (Serres, 1982, p.77)
It is almost as if we are an instrument, a violin for example, being furiously played but we hear no music, instead we hear only the cars passing by the in street and hum of the fluorescent light, despite our entire (wooden) bodies vibrating harmonically with this music that escapes us, which we then need an entire scientific-medical enterprise to intuit indirectly via other machines and theories.
Information Theory and Noise
Serres quickly repaints the problem in the terms of information theory. It’s these terms that persist in his phrasing of the wider problem in The Five Senses as one of reception and transmission. The body is composed of innumerably many interlocking systems. These systems are highly organized — on the molecular level, for example, our hydrogen does not suddenly escape us, wandering off to some other corner of the universe. On the cellular level cells ‘work’, replicate and repair — our bones self-heal, but don’t begin growing at right angles, or into Fibonacci spiralled shells. Cancers and other catastrophic pathological processes are the exception that prove the rule: our cells don’t conceive, any more than our hydrogen atoms, the wider organization of which they are a constituent part, which their properties and activity produce, yet nonetheless, and for the most part, work in meticulous organization to produce the continued highly complex structure of the body.
In terms of an information system, the body is overflowing with signals: hospitals full of equipment and expertise barely scratch the surface for an indirect and low-resolution image of all this information. With the signals is noise, the interior of the body, at any level of description (even the atomic-molecular) is not a smooth, homogenous desert like space: each of its myriad processes creates byproducts and refuse and, for the purposes of each particular process, its byproduct crowds around it. Rising up through the layers of complexity, this noisome waste should accumulate; even at a modest level of organization of sub-processes, it should already make all functioning impossible.
Take for example a crowded room full of conversation. Each conversation creates its din that has a negative effect on the smooth functioning of all the others. Furthermore, each conversation produces a pure waste product: reverberation and refraction — sound waves flying over their targets and bouncing around the room. Given the rising levels of noise, each conversation’s channel gets narrower and narrower, crowded in on all sides, more prone to error, requiring more and more redundancy (‘what?’, ‘pardon?’, hand gestures and facial expression). The signal is increased, amplified against the rising background noise, producing more byproduct. Eventually all conversation becomes impossible. The immense amount of noise in all of the channels erodes the signals; each conversation rises to peak redundancy with all of its error checking “What? What? What?”
So, Serres’ question now becomes ‘what happens to all of this noise in the body?’ Why are we not drowning in it? How is silence possible? It should be accumulating on an epic scale (imagine a whole building composed of rooms filled with conversations with all of their doors and windows open).
The solutions come from a (then) recent theoretical innovation in information theory. Noise is non-repeating, non-redundant, incompressible signal. As it enters a channel between sender and receiver, it corrodes the information laden signal that is being transmitted between them. Had we been, in the above example, recording an interview, the recording would be useless. The desired signal (the questions and answers) would be shot through with the ‘wall of noise’ created both by the other conversations, and accumulated reverberations. Because the noise is non-repeating and incompressible, the only way we could recover the signal would be to have another recording of the exact identical noise (i.e. a recording of the room at that time and place) to subtract, but insofar as that recording would also feature our interview (and its myriad reverberations) the situation is hopeless. In this situation noise is a kind of ‘junk’ that corrodes and destroys structure (repeating and compressible signal) and information.
However, and this is the theoretical innovation, if we leave behind our poor noise saturated sender and receiver, and turn our focus to their general situation, this noise, previously junk, can then become signal itself. Say we are the proprietor of the venue in question, and we worry that the impossibility of conversation for our patrons is driving them away, we also have a penchant for automation. We could count the patrons as they come in, and thus open up new rooms at some given number of patrons to distribute them, however this is an indirect measure (larger parties will perhaps be louder than smaller ones, for example) and if we focus on these sender-receivers walking in and their signals our calculations soon become quite complex (especially considering how the rising amplitude was auto-catalytic). Much simpler is we install decibel meters in the rooms, and then open new rooms when they read a certain level. Now the decibel meters are receiving the level of noise in a room, captured indiscriminately, and sending signals to doors in the venue, opening up new spaces for patrons to distribute to, effectively manipulating and channelling noise around the venue. The din of the rooms proves no impediment to this ‘higher-level’ sender-receiver system, and in fact is being converted in this system from unrepeatable, incompressible noise into repeatable compressible (i.e. clean and structured) signal (a simple decibel reading).
Or, to return to the body, heat is a major byproduct of cellular processes, and plays the role of ‘noise’ in physical systems. At a certain temperature the ‘work’ of the cells becomes eroded, at a higher temperature still the molecules break down. But in the normal functioning of a body, heat is generated which, from the perspective of the systems producing this heat, works like the errant reverberations in our above example. However, the body monitors its own heat, and reacts at certain thresholds — controlling, for one, perspiration. The glands, and the system they form a part of, are reading fluctuating heat levels, which for metabolic and other processes are ‘junk’, as a clean signal rising and falling. Thus, Serres theorizes the body as a series of layered systems reading the layer beneath them, like a set of Russian dolls.
“In a certain sense, the next level functions as a rectifier, in particular, as a rectifier of noise. What was once an obstacle to all messages is reversed and added to the information.” (Serres, 1982, p.78)
At each level, noise is translated into a signal and incorporated into a process that produces its own noise which is then taken as a signal for a still more global process, up and up to ‘us’. I don’t hear the noise of my gut and digestion until the processes occurring in there cross a threshold that triggers a system, which itself crosses a threshold, triggering another, until my stomach contracts and I feel a pang of hunger.
Each layer is, in a sense, ambivalent to the vicissitudes of the layer below it. Our decibel-controlled door opening system does not pay attention to each individual conversation, or separate out the noise from the signal occurring in the room — it has no way of knowing what is desirable signal and what is deleterious noise within the conversations of the patrons. It just sums the entirety of the local situation, and extracts from it a fluctuating signal.
This allows Serres to move (seemingly) orthogonally into psychoanalysis: the conscious’ relationship to the unconscious is like that of our decibel metering system to the conversations, or our sweat glands to our metabolic activity. Freud imagined a total account of the mind where the unconscious, in its deepest regions and extension, simply just was metabolic processes exercising various drive pressures that were then expressed in this or that way in consciousness and action. What Serres wagers is that this information theoretic approach can provide the much-needed translations and gradations between the levels. Furthermore, the entire psychoanalytic interpretive procedure can be read as one more translative layer, collecting noise from consciousness itself. The “noise” here being repression which introduces gaps and distortions into consciousness, generating the accumulation of anxiety (as with phobias), and ticks (such as Freudian slips).
“Each level of information functions as an unconscious for the global level bordering it, as a closed or relatively isolated system in relationship to which the noise-information couple, when it crosses the edge, is reversed and which the subsequent system decodes or deciphers.” (Serres, 1982, p.80)
However, a kind of promiscuous pan-psychism emerges here: if consciousness is ‘merely’ one more translation from an underlying ‘unconscious’ signal-noise couplet, a black box reading noise levels from another, which in turn reads from another, then owing to the reception problem, there is no reason not to believe that each black box, right down to the molecular, ‘receives’ in a conscious way. In explaining the epistemological obstacle of our not being able to ‘hear’ our bodies in terms of these nestled series of black boxes, Serres introduces the new epistemological obstacle of the reception problem to the fore (perhaps water is conscious, how to know?), then needing to resolve it in The Five Senses.
The Ear — Maze — Feedback
Serres uses an objecting interlocuter to introduce the problem with his own, earlier, view:
“Objection. We observers may know and understand information transmitted by the box, its output, just as we might understand its input. How might we understand or know what occurs in the vicinity of that input-threshold? The box does of course receive, but what are we to make of that reception? We must receive it — yet the reception itself is not transmitted. We must therefore be located inside the supposedly closed box, the walls of which must as a consequence be moved. But whenever we talk about reception, the same irrepressible logic reasserts itself.” (Serres, 2008, p.139).
Serres writes that this objection “destroys both my book and any hope of describing reception” (ibid, p.140). Remember that this problem of reception dogs us even within our own, first personal experience. Not only is the body of an other (or their brain) a black box where I can observe only inputs and outputs, but not their reception and translation but for a hypothesized, inductive function I establish to describe this externally observed pattern, but even in attempting to describe my own immediate experience, the given, I can do nothing but translate it into a transmission, an output, be it a memory or a sentence or an artwork. Thus, I create a language to describe how the given is received and then translated into language, but this is yet another, smaller, black box placed next to the first, and the problem repeats. Everything is opaque and reception is never grasped. We never see what we see.
This issue can be seen often in quickly phrased descriptions of mental processes given in terms of neurology. We have a smoothly functioning causal account of signals and chemicals and impulses travelling through a biological matrix, and then, often, the account becomes frustrated at the final step: the activities in the biological register are then, we are told, ‘converted to consciousness’, i.e. received. Now, we know that this or that region, structure or system within the brain or nervous system or sense organs is related to this or that feature of consciousness — damage here or there will remove them one by one. However, we gather this information from monitoring outputs and inputs, flicking the switches and turning the dials on the black boxes, knowing it, or they, receive but we’re unable to access that reception. Once we have fully mapped all of the functions of translation from the inputs to the outputs, the question of the ‘emergence’ of consciousness still remains. “Either there is a private dimension, in which case there are no objective messages; or the latter are in fact in circulation, in which case there is no private dimension.” (Serres, 2008, p.139) We either pursue a materialist account, and never find consciousness, or we pursue a phenomenological account, and sweep Berkeley’s God under the rug with the epoché. Everywhere the cleft between two incommensurable series.
However, Serres has one advantage. In this section (chapter 2) of The Five Senses he is not lost in the visual, the eye and its object beyond the window, but asking his questions of the ear, and hearing:
“The same logic dogs us: the ear needs a more central ear to hear what is transmitted by the three others, outer, middle and inner, which hear each other, each in turn. The hearing centre. Which centre? Move the partition. Partition after partition, black box after black box — this is a projection of the abstract receiver.” (Serres, 2008, p.143)
Serres, in searching for the ‘final ear’ that could do the hearing stumbles across the first ear, the ones on the sides of our heads. His narrative point of departure for this chapter of The Five Senses, is his sitting at the amphitheatre at Epidaurus. Greek amphitheatres are famously designed for their acoustical properties, amplifying the dialogue taking place on the stage. Serres likens the architectural form of the amphitheatre to an ear on the Earth, visible from airplanes. Here a particular structure for focusing sound, much like the twisted cartilage of the ear itself. Sound waves, spreading out in all directions, immediately filling any space they are present in, through being refracted and reverberated, are altered, attenuated, doubled up (amplified), given timbre and texture (a form of noise). In fact, hearing, and its attendant aesthetics, depends upon this ‘routing’ of sound through spaces, this filtering. The perfectly flat and infinite cartesian plane is perfectly silent, an anechoic wasteland. Sound requires a complex and organic space, a chaos of refractions and reverberations to gain its intelligibility.
Owing to how refraction changes the character of sound, it is impossible to ‘sample’ this character without thereby contributing to the refraction, by being oneself another point of dampening and refraction within the space populated by the sound. Furthermore, at its lower ‘audible’ frequencies, hearing opens out onto touch. The deepest bass is felt through the skin as much as it is heard through the ear. This means that even though sound seems to be the best candidate metaphor (or case) for the abstract model of a sender and receiver of signals, with the perils of noise in the channel, this very metaphor/case problematizes the simplistic sketch of these virtual nodes trading signals along transmission lines.
Instead, the audible suggests the image of a maze. The proliferation of a sound traverses all of the angles of a space, doubles back on itself, twists and turns through nooks and crannies, and finally through the twisted surface of the ear and into another maze in the auditory canal.
“Mazes maximize feedback. They provide a very long path within a short distance and construct the best possible matrix for completing a cycle. The best possible method for all kinds of reception, they are often to be found in sensation, whose problems they solve clearly.” (Serres, 2008, p.143)
How clearly do mazes solve the problems of sensation and reception? Where previously Serres was dealing with black boxes with their inputs and outputs (introduced to explain the ‘silence’ of the body), proliferating endlessly, now the boxes are opened up and folded out, crumpled and textured. The system of translation from one layer to another is not a jump across a cleft, there are not endless closed systems punctuated by void across which they communicate, but a single endlessly folded labyrinthine system.
A given maze will provide character to a signal that passes through it, owing to the layering of feedback and refraction, the resulting signal is smeared across time when it arrives at a given point, echoes of itself following indistinguishably on its heels contributing to its particular texture, and its signal-noise ratio. ‘Reverberation’ is just a quick echo. The sound is combined with a (slightly uniquely dampened) shadow of itself displaced by a minimum of time, with a fraction less energy. The shadow is followed by another, and so on and on, to produce a tail. All of these ‘shadows’ arrive nearly instantaneously, but each of them has taken their own path through the space of their diffusion (hence the minimally different times of their arrivals). We should remember that the propagation of refraction patterns, this ‘shadowing’, is of sufficient detail and complexity to allow bats to fly through a forest and pluck insects out of the air mid-flight.
The sound that reaches across the buildings and onto the next street from a night club appears as an inarticulate dronish noise, arriving as it does to the listener by myriad paths of different lengths. As we traverse the nocturnal maze created by the buildings and streets that this night club noise fills, the sound changes character.
Then, here, on this corner, we construct another maze, a tube going vertically up, its internal angles imitating the forms of cones and amphitheatres to focus the particular din at this very point to create resonance. And over there, on the side of that building, construct another maze jutting out, another resonating overtone tube, stitched to this vertically climbing maze we have built here on the corner. Perch an egg-shaped chamber where the two new mazes intersect for them to open out into, climb up a ladder into the egg, and listen to this new music, like holding a shell up to your ear and hearing the ambient sound transformed by the spirals. Over there, in the club, a concentrated fury of loud structure and organization is unfurling, which creates a disorganized droning din through the city as its byproduct, as it traverses the city-maze. But up here in our bipedal egg with each pulse of that drone a couplet of resonating overtones emerge.
Here we have our ‘translations’, our inputs and outputs, our signal-noise couplets, but this entire set of interlocking systems is ‘open’ and transparent.
So, the egg-shaped chamber receives and amalgamates the signals ‘translated’ by the two mazes that capture different textures of noise from the more ‘global’ city maze. But we will look for the ‘moment’ of reception in vain. There is no privileged geometric point that can be said to be the ‘receiver’ of the signal, the signal itself is subtly different at all different points of the egg, and as we draw closer to the portals down into the refracting mazes leading out to the city, the signal devolves back into the noise, until we walk through the streets and to the night club, the source of the noise, and now hear music — quite different from the music our egg ‘created’. The maze structure gives us endless translations, some of these being more ‘critical’ or rapid than others (inflection points and bottle necks), but the relation of signal and noise, of transmitter and receiver, is always and everywhere interrelated and wholly relative to where we are investigating. A selected observer’s “position changes only the relationship between noise and information.” (Serres, 1982, p.83) That window pane on the building facing the night club receives and transmits, makes its tiny mark on the noise’s passage through the maze at the same time as it is impacted by noise arriving at it in its role as one the endless termini of this endless system of mazes. Leibniz’s perceiving monads, which reflect all of the others.
“Let us seek the best way of creating the most feedback loops possible on an unstructured and short itinerary. Mazes provide us with this maximization. Excellent reception, here is the best possible resonator, the beginnings of consciousness.” (Serres, 2008, p.143)
Noise — Coda
What then is ‘the beginnings of consciousness’ in this system of layered interlocking mazes? To get at this we need to dig back into Serres’ most general metaphysical motifs. In Genesis, Serres describes the ‘strata’ of reality in genetic terms. What precedes things are not physical laws of a universal type, some rational structure through which the material of the world is exuded and conditioned, for these laws already presuppose a degree of structure in the material they condition. Instead, Serres put flux, chaos, and noise as the primordial ancestor of structure. Noise, being non-redundant and un-repeating becomes a plenum of maximum possibility and novelty. Owing to this, noise, despite being senseless and unstructured, is never uniform, allowing eddies, ripples and whirlpools to form and disperse. What is needful for structure to emerge is for a minimum of repetition within one of these sites of flux, an echo:
“When a fluctuation appears or forms, it is never a beginning, not a sowing, it is just one of the myriads, of noise, indistinguishable, incapable of differentiation. It is a sowing only if it is or has an echo.” (Serres, 1996, p.118)
This may occur through a chance collision or just emerge naturally in the chaos cycling back on itself for a moment. Perhaps it flitters out, or perhaps it echoes further. The echo, this reverberation, in creating repetition introduces a small localized instance of redundancy into the noise, the beginnings of structure, a turbulence: “These are the first of the forms of order: redundancy, repetition, echo, imitation.” (Serres, 1996, p.69) A turbulence within a flow is already a rudimentary, evolving maze.
A consequence of this picture is that a given system of order, including the law like regularities that may obtain within (and define/characterize) them, are everywhere and always localized situations, even if they repeat seemingly universally. For example, given this picture it is not surprising that a grand unifying theory in physics has remained elusive; there may just be different local conditions in different regions of a global turbulence, with ‘graded’ mid-regions in which multiple sets of laws can be applied (as is the case as we ‘scale down’ from galaxies to particles). However, what is important for our purposes here is how the notion of the ‘diverted path’ (turbulence/mazes) and echoes and reverberation (repetition, redundancy) form the central explanatory resources in Serres’ metaphysics, from the formation of molecules to the effects of the curvature of cartilage of the ear.
Articulations and Erections
To string this all together we begin from the premise that everywhere and always we ‘sense’ the noise of the world. Immersed within it, we’re surrounded by it and its turbulent flow turning around on itself in repeating fluxions creating forms, order, structure, mazes. The noise always wins, we march ever onwards to heat death and entropy, but on our small planet in this corner of the (mostly empty, unstructured) universe the noise is whipped into a complex turbulence resulting in myriad maze structures. These mazes, feeding up and into one another, form the Russian doll structure of translating layers, except there are not void spaces or clefts between the shells, but a smooth development of articulations, resonances, and refinements — the translations are not opaque inputs and outputs, but occur as the maze is traversed, with critical resonant bottlenecks that are nonetheless traversable and porous.
What, then, is conscious experience? It is not an echo of an object across a cleft in a different substance or substratum, introducing all of our epistemological and metaphysical obstacles and hard problems, but the further articulation of the turbulence that is the object and its local situation (of which our bodies are a part), an inseparable reverberation caught up in a folded metropolis of resonating mazes (us). Consciousness, then, is not a substance, substratum, or ‘context’. It exists where ever this articulation is pressed beyond a threshold of refraction. Serres’ model at one point for describing sensation is, playfully, the erection:
“an erection describes the everyday, local and global phenomenon of sensation. This partition appears from out of its white nothingness, like Venus above the roiling sea, enlarges, exists, acts, grows like a bud, or sleeps while waiting for the next feast. I feel, therefore a slab of me is erected. The construction of the body is the result of a number of erections.” (Serres, 2008, p.231)
The erection, the flaring and swelling up of the periphery. Consciousness exists at these pressed peripheries, being inflated. At the beginning of The Five Senses, Serres describes touching his lip with his middle finger: “Consciousness resides in this contact” (p.22). In this contact object collides with object, at every layer, right down to the molecular and right up to the neurochemical (and semiotic), a chain of interlocking mazes refract noise. Layer after layer after layer the noise is translated and reproduced — the flux of the world erects a tower of articulation, and a tiny soul/mind/spirit/consciousness flares into existence “from out of its white nothingness”.
This, then, accounts also for the opacity of others. Despite standing face to face, each of us are a labyrinthine ziggurat standing erect, the noise of the world in a turbulence articulating itself to heights of resonance. The shortest route to the present articulation that is your conscious experience is, for me, down through the mazes into the molecular and back up at the point you occupy, repeating impossibly the baroque complexity of the labyrinth that is you, layer by layer. At this point I would be you, and the effort would have been for nil, trying as I was to make myself coincide with the local situation that is you. The best we can do is scale up, and trade signals from the highest (and most abstracted) points of our local organization. Semaphore from the summit. Speak.
What is language in this picture? Language forms the most rarefied and abstracted set of mazes perched atop the entire structure. The issue is, and this can be read as the central issue of The Five Senses, that it is at this highly rarefied and abstracted plateau that “I” sits and is articulated from the noise beneath it. But as our world becomes coated in language, and its particular local order and structure, the world is articulated more and more through that which in us that speaks. That which in us that speaks, says ‘I’, talks about the weather and the politics and what it sees, can’t descend out of its own mazes into the mazes of sensation any more than the noise of our metabolism can make an entry into our aural awareness; maybe sometimes, but only in the most inarticulate and destructive terms. The Five Senses, then, works as a kind of corrective, examining the entry points onto language of sensation, the deeper mazes. Who can read the first chapter without being prompted to touch their own lip and feeling this little consciousness flare into being? These contacts, implicating far more of the tower of mazes that form the world and us in it, contain more proof of existence then any declarative use of the “I am” of the Cogito.
“This is the first cogito, more deeply buried although more visible than the thinking cogito. I feel, I have felt; I have seen, heard, tasted, smelt; I have touched; I touch, I enclose myself in my pavilion of skin; it burns with languages, I speak; I speak about myself, about my loneliness and the nostalgia of lost senses, I mourn the lost paradise, I regret the loss of that to which I was giving myself or of what was given to me.” (Serres, 2008, p.58)
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