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Feature: Ansgar Allen - A distended crust

Ansgar Allen

‘What follows is speculation, often far-fetched speculation, which the reader will consider or dismiss according to his individual predilection. It is further an attempt to follow out an idea consistently, out of curiosity to see where it will lead.’[1]

To understand the significance of Bruegel’s The Fall of the Rebel Angels, as well as the origins and destinations of Western ideals in the primitive swamp of undifferentiated perception, it is necessary to return, as they said, with a scalpel in one hand, to the work of Freud, in particular a segment of the fourth chapter of Beyond the Pleasure Principle as well as certain reflections from the fifth.

As Freud writes, they said, the perceptual system is only one part of a broader mechanism. It exists at the border of the mental apparatus, where the mind abuts its exterior.

This borderland region – the seat of consciousness – yields to excitations that come not only from the external world but also those impulses that arise from the mental apparatus within. Located at the border, between external elements and internal energies, perception carries the burden of its position.

It will be seen, they said, quoting Freud, that there is nothing daringly new in these assumptions; we have merely adopted the views on localization held by cerebral anatomy, which locates the ‘seat’ of consciousness in the cerebral cortex—the outermost enveloping layer of the central organ.[2] What remains strange for us, however, is why consciousness should be located on the surface instead of deep within the brain, safely protected by a reptilian exterior.

The perceptual system is characterized by the peculiarity that in it (in contrast to what happens in the other psychical systems) excitatory processes do not leave behind any permanent change in its elements but expire, as it were, in the phenomenon of becoming conscious.[3]

There is no memory in the perceptual apparatus. It is a region that must be passed through by those energies that perturb it.

Let us picture a living organism in its most simplified possible form as an undifferentiated vesicle of a substance that is susceptible to stimulation, they said, quoting Freud.

This organism is not merely susceptible to perturbing forces, like swamp water.

It is not simply contained within itself, like a stuffed pig’s bladder.

The organism exists in the greater sense that it undergoes internal reorganisation in response to the effects of stimulation. It does not simply react or transmit effects. Rather it reorganises each incoming excitation according to its own logic.

This thing may begin as an undifferentiated mass, like the stuffed bladder, but will soon acquire characteristics. After all, it has a surface, and that surface is turned towards the external world. This surface must, as a consequence, soon become differentiated from the rest of the vesicle. It must become an organ for receiving stimuli.[4]

Freud finds his support in early 20th century embryology, and the notion, much derided now – but which we find still persuasive – that the development of the embryo recapitulates the development of early life and subsequent evolution. The embryo is at first a swamp creature – a vesicle – later it becomes a reptile, and only finally does it become something that begins to resemble our own kind. It is not child-in-embryo.

This point of view is entirely mistaken.

If anything, we have an embryo in the child that is never entirely overcome. We must confront the fact of a prehistoric residue in each human, they said, moving the scalpel between fingers.

The central nervous system of the embryo originates from the ectoderm or outer layer. This is important. It means that in certain important respects the grey matter of the cortex remains a derivative of the primitive superficial layer of the organism and may have inherited some of its essential properties.[5]

It would be easy to suppose, then, that as a result of the ceaseless impact of external stimuli on the surface of the vesicle – or swamp life – its substance to a certain depth may have become permanently modified, so that excitatory processes run a different course in it from what they run in the deeper layers. There is now the presence of a crust that would thus be formed. This crust, following extended bombardment by radiation in the swamp, would at last have been so thoroughly ‘baked through’ by stimulation that it would present the most favourable possible conditions for the reception of stimuli and become incapable of any further modification.[6]

Like Bakelite formed of phenol formaldehyde, or some other thermosetting resins, and yet, unlike Bakelite, this crust also functions as a superconductor, baked into submission at the edge of the swamp life organism, a mere undifferentiated mass, electrified, indiscriminately.

In terms of the system of developing perception, this would mean that its elements could undergo no further permanent modification from the passage of excitation, because they had already been modified in the respect in question to the greatest possible extent…

even if they have also reached the point of giving rise to consciousness.[7]

Consciousness appears in this over-run, forgetful layer as a feature of structures bombarded with excitation and left open to its effects.

The mechanisms by which that layer becomes overrun and forgetful are unknown at present, but it might be suggested that, in passing from one element to another, an excitation has to overcome a resistance, and that the diminution of resistance thus effected is what lays down a permanent trace of the excitation.[8]

In the crust, all resistance has been obliterated.

And here, in Freud’s anatomy, they said, we begin to understand the limits of our culture.

A culture that valorises consciousness, that seeks to record, describe, and render everything to perception, has its ideal in a form of swamp life, encrusted, over-run with stimulus.

This, they said, is the culture we reject.

According to that culture, consciousness must be expanded, but that expansion amounts to desiccation.

We find the very model of our lamentable cultural ideal in the crust of the vesicle Freud describes. The crust is at once the idealised substance of our culture – a region of pure consciousness – and the principle for its own expansion.

Our culture is not content to remain at the level of its crust. The vesicle, or pig’s bladder, is a thing to be ruptured, our culture teaches, in order to make way for the expanded consciousness of a culture that lays itself flat to be scorched by the sun.

This is visualised in Bruegel’s fish with arms and bird-like feet in the bottom right hand segment of The Fall of the Rebel Angels.

The creature tears its belly apart to reveal further vesicles inside, all of which must become present to consciousness. These vesicles, it is tempting to imagine, sprout legs and tear themselves apart in turn, diminishing in size by progressive disembowelment.

This endless cycle of self-disembowelment ensures that no innards remain that are not rendered conscious, that are not spilled out and laid bare before stimulation, excitation, a scorching sun. The innards are arranged and so beaten down by external energies that they may submit to the high state of transparency that power and knowledge presently demand.

This making conscious, it has to be said, is only a cultural ideal, the full absurdity of which is yet to be felt.

A culture that valorises consciousness is trapped at this primitive level of perception and its attempted desiccation of organs.

But there is more to say of the living vesicle with its receptive cortical layer, Freud writes, and so more to understand when it comes to the specific treatment we have in mind. It turns out that the organism will not endure so much intrusion, even at the limits of its crust.[9] The outermost part of that layer must die to protect the rest, its consciousness obliterated for the survival of the remaining apparatus.

This little fragment of living substance is suspended in the middle of an external world charged with the most powerful energies. The crust must be killed to protect it as the outermost surface ceases to have the structure proper to living matter, becoming to some extent inorganic. Because of this outer shield the energies of the external world are able to pass into the next underlying layers, which have remained living, with only a fragment of their original intensity…

By its death, the outer layer has saved all the deeper ones from a similar fate—unless, that is to say, stimuli reach it which are so strong that they break through the protective shield.[10]

In any case, it turns out that protection against stimuli is almost more important than reception of stimuli for the living organism. The external world must be sampled in small quantities if it is to be endured.[11]

In more highly developed organisms this entire mechanism has withdrawn inside the interior of the body, with only portions of it remaining, the sense organs, the eyes, the tongue, and other appendages that may perhaps be compared with feelers which are all the time making tentative advances towards the external world and then drawing back from it.[12]

Bruegel’s fish no longer tears its belly apart, which is the ideal of a culture that valorises consciousness. Instead, our culture finds its reality in the reptile-faced creature, part-man, in the lower left segment of The Fall of the Rebel Angels. This creature remains securely housed within its exoskeleton, and so no longer disembowelling, though it does still pass gas from the anus, and gorge at the mouth on its foot. The living organism this creature represents is less available to external stimuli, it lives in this more complex form because something of it has died to the outer world. This is admittedly a darker prospect than the high ideal of disembowelment and the obliteration of innards represented by Bruegel’s torn fish. But it is our reality and no longer an ideal. It is the prospect of entrapment within skins that cannot be discarded, that ignore almost everything they receive, and can only leak their own energies and objections through each orifice that, due the pressure, must distort and concentrate each outburst, so that on its passage from the complex innards to the outer world inner complexity becomes a single line of air.

There is still a sensitive cortex that sits immediately within that shield, a material layer that has no way of resisting those energies which pass through it.[13] Protected from without by a barrier of dead matter that only rarely ruptures, this secondary cortex has no equivalent layer of dead organism positioned between itself and the inner regions, and so no internal protection against the excitations that emerge from within the mental apparatus. The hardened layer of dead material arranged along the outside, has the effect, consequently, of trapping the organism within its self, keeping excitations within, for the most part, energies that are no longer able to pass out as easily as they once passed in.

The creature bites its foot in anguish.

These energies are regulated as much as can be to reduce the need to bite, and so here originates the great violence of the organism toward its inner workings, a creature that seeks to organise and dull the mechanism within.

To escape this prison, attempts were made to return to a swamp-like state of mind, with a multiplication of the sense organs so as to allow greater penetration from outside, and a multiplication of release organs, the anus and the mouth, to increase emissions, as well as limbs to give expression to inner excitations that were not satisfied by wind and noise but sought to render plastic what wind and noise will not penetrate, by blows, for instance, inflicted by the fleshy parts that, in the attendant pain, also served to multiply excitations intruding from the exterior. This was combined with lengthy periods in water, so that the hardened exterior that was almost inorganic, but still organic enough to become sodden might become pliable, and eventually like jelly, with each organism beginning to merge with the ones adjacent, although these attempts also failed due to the complexity of the organisms concerned, and the difficulty, for that reason, of not only merging exterior body parts within the confines of a collective swamp, but also of combining the perceptive consciousness of each, where shared pain, of liquefaction, was not considered sufficient and clearly did not count as the full integration of the mental apparatus. Unfortunately, when consulting all other beings depicted in The Fall of the Rebel Angels, another, more appropriate model could not be found.

Many creatures were attempted, some by extended surgery, but all would prove insufficient. Only the bloated fish in the top right quarter of Bruegel’s masterpiece brought some satisfaction, as a model, but this, it was suspected, occurred due to its expression and situation being profoundly misinterpreted, where the black eyes and gaping mouth did not suggest, as was hoped, that the organism was about to explode and so become undifferentiated from its surroundings, but that it had reached the limits of its own development, and could not expand any further.

Although the instincts represent an urge inherent in all organic life to restore an earlier state of things, namely, primordial death, this return is impossible.[14] It would entail winding back the history of the planet, since in the last resort, what has left its mark on the development of organisms must be the history of the earth we live in and of its relation to the sun.[15]

And so, when the aim of all life is death,[16] and the drive of all organic existence is to return to the inorganic state that preceded it, this aim can only be expressed uniquely.

The living organism does not degenerate by the same route that inorganic became organic, traced backwards. Despite the urge of the instincts, this tendency to become inorganic is not achieved as a return to primordial death, and, by extension, it cannot be achieved by the winding back of the orbit of the earth and its creation out of celestial collision that, reversed, would be an explosion of rock into space.

Instead, what we are left with is the fact that the organism wishes to die only in its own fashion. The organism, as it becomes complex, is constrained to make ever more complicated détours before reaching its aim of death.[17]

Bruegel’s disembowelled fish is merely an ideal, the figure with a foot in its mouth is our present reality, and the bloated creature in the top right segment is a false prophecy. The exoskeleton cannot be removed, we discover, even if it becomes a thin distended skin. The vesicle cannot be recreated and then torn to pieces.

To save perception from its turmoil, the sensitive cortex will be peeled out, and the skin and bone around it toughened with lead. This more adequate shield will prevent another sensitive region merely reforming what was just removed. The mental apparatus would suffer, without shielding, from the kind of bombardment that the undifferentiated mass first experienced when it faced the world without protection.[18]


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Ansgar Allen is the author, most recently, of Wretch (Schism) and Cynicism (MIT Press). He is based in Sheffield, UK.




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[1] Freud, S. (2001 [1920]) ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ in J. Strachey (Ed.) The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works. Volume XVIII. London: Vintage, 24. [2] Ibid. 24. [3] Ibid. 25. [4] Ibid. 26. [5] Ibid. 26. [6] Ibid. 26. [7] Ibid. 26 [8] Ibid. 26. [9] Ibid. 27. [10] Ibid. 27. [11] Ibid. 27. [12] Ibid. 28. [13] Ibid. 28. [14] Ibid. 36. [15] Ibid. 38. [16] Ibid. 36. [17] Ibid. 39. [18] [Editor’s note: the above manuscript was retrieved from a lead-lined box in a small clearing in the forest just outside T_______. The box was empty with the exception of the three hand-written pages, the pasted images, a reprint of The Fall of the Rebel Angels and a copy of Beyond the Pleasure Principle torn from Volume XVIII of the Vintage edition. It also contained a small piece of solid material, as yet unidentified. Analysis of the handwriting has proved inconclusive. The author remains unknown.]