The Thinking Head by S.D. Chrostowska

Wardell Milan Bomb 1

Wardell Milan. Sunday, sitting on the bank of Butterfly Meadow, 2013. Digital C-print. Courtesy of the artist.

§ Almost Being

The smaller the animal, the less the distance between being and its sensation. In this way, the smallest beings are closer to presence than us, who come face to face with being and do not sense it. What is our compensation for being so large?

 

§ Don’t Imagine…


If an angel were ever to tell us anything of his philosophy I believe many propositions would sound like two times two equals thirteen.
~ G.Ch. Lichtenberg1



If a lion could talk, we wouldn’t be able to understand it.
~ Ludwig Wittgenstein, enthusiast of Lichtenberg2

All the thoughts of a turtle are turtles
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson3

After all, what would be left of what it was like to be a bat if one removed the viewpoint of the bat?
~ Thomas Nagel4


Imagining and speculating about nonhuman experience makes us smaller and smaller. Why is it that we insist on being able to comprehend them all? Because little by little we arebecoming our outside. The thoughts of a turtle will one day be shared by men who are part turtle, the arithmetic of angels, had angels ever existed, by semi-angels, the speech of a lion, by lion-man, the mindset of a bat—you guessed it. Even the experience of the next man will one day be accessible to us. Whenever we recognize this phenomenological drift, we start to prepare mentally for these interspecies liaisons, which will support us in our smallness. But when we set out only to know, we train for a fantasy takeover, ruling nothing.

 

§ Think, Pig!

The truth of Lévi-Strauss’s idea that “animals are good to think with”5 can be deepened if we replace “animals” with “philosophers,” and “philosophers” again with “animals.” (And I do not mean anything so refined as “philosophical animals.”)

 

§ The Thinking Head

A guillotined caput remains conscious for a few seconds, as many as twenty-five or so. The head always thought itself better than the torso and limbs, from which it has now been severed. Bracketing for the moment the macabre image, what would you think in its place? Would you think yourself free at last, or I’m ahead, I have outlived the rest!, or I’m just a head that anyone can kick around?

 

§ Humble Pie

As inspiring as it is, Plato’s image in the Timaeus of the human as an upside-down plant (“we are not an earthly but a heavenly plant up from earth towards our kindred in the heaven”6) has us uprooted from our “proper” ground, which cultivates and appropriates us unawares. To claim that ideology is the reason we do not cultivate our own ground as is proper to us is, precisely, ideology. The truth of Plato’s image, even if untrue to Plato’s meaning, is this: we moderns are more than ever “rooted” in the sky of ideology instead of in the ground from which we grow and which nourishes us. We thereby arrive at an accurate picture of our grounding in and relationship to the world: up through ideology, then down to the dominion over nature—rather than down through some mythical humility, and only then humbly up towards the mystery of creation.

 

§ Vita Contemplativa

 The life of the mind is nearly extinct.

B  Leave it to brains-in-vats! Leave it to the machines…

A  You think they’ll revive it?

B  Of course, we’ll transmit to them what we admire but have no more time for!

 

§ Beheading Games

In the intellectual contests of the academic world, which only seem to have gotten more intense, the one who leaves with his head under his arm one year will be welcomed back the next, barely a scratch on his reputation, this time as the more sympathetic figure.

 

§ The Problem

Typically, what to the outsider seems an insoluble knot appears to him who has followed the thread wherever it may lead as a clear line. Neither has the upper hand, the former because he is still confounded, the latter because he does not yet see the problem. This is one of the reasons why knowledge advances so slowly, if at all.

 

§ How Playful!

Playing as thinking makes for a very small playground.

 

§ Chicken Fence


While thought has forgotten how to think itself, it has at the same time become its own watchdog. Thinking no longer means anything more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think.
~ Adorno7




Thought’s having forgotten how to think itself is the least of our troubles with thinking. After all, we still recall what laying eggs in our mental coop was like. Nature still works and will remember itself.

Can the same be said of nurture? The fence we have put up around thinking to protect it from predators reminds us that, headless or not, we can still think. But with the grass and roots gone, thinking is now just so much scratching around in the dirt.

 

§ Don’t Get Me Started

As the Christian era waned, we worshiped many lesser gods and idols, whom we called geniuses. Now we only do business with their children.

To put it another way: The new, creative working class was born by the reproductive success of the old, transcendent creators. Success breeds success, but of a different kind.

 

§ Central Tenet of Modern Philosophy

“If I say it, it must be meaningful.”

 

§ Terms of Engagement

A  TED talks make ideas cool, grad school makes them sexy, art makes them kinky.

B  And philosophy?

A  It disciplines them.

B  You mean to say philosophy is boring?

A  No, only bored—bored to death.

 

§ Babbling Brook

To fail is to succeed in failing.

To climb up is to tempt a longer fall.

To sing is to discipline speech.

To fly is to mimic angels.

To punish someone is to reward oneself.

To trickle in the distance is to gush up close.

 

§ Sides

Each side has two again, one of which they share.

 

§ Short Spam

Our attention spammed, our attention span is beyond repair. But we still have control over what holds our attention. Just not for long.

 

§ After Truth

Q.  You’re not after truth, then?

A.  No, I find fault so as to avoid truth as best I can. If it wants so much to get a hearing, let it find me, let it catch me.

Sometimes, I swear, I sense it near me, but I decline to see it; I can be engrossed in something utterly inconsequential and still not lift my eyes. Truth can wait, and watch all it wants to, with that mockery or sternness, that smirk or glare that are its alone— And what do I care! If it’s truth, it should see right through me, and find my aversion to it in my very bones.

I will forever be deaf even to its whispers. If not addressed directly, I do not consider myself addressed. And when I turn on a lamp in anticipation of serious work, truth, predictably, withdraws. If it cannot take exposure even to artificial light, I refuse to go hunting for it in the dark. How would I know it? By the feel of its hide? Or the marks of its teeth?

If (as I suspect) truth’s preferred time of rendezvous is dawn (the least flattering light) then we shall never meet: it will find me dead to the world as each day breaks. And, anyway, what would I do with it? A heavy responsibility, truth… I would only lose sleep over it.

But the sense of its presence, its breath on my neck, its gaze perhaps following mine—that is worth every labored moment of my gloomy scribbling. It is quite enough for someone like me.

Q.  For heaven’s sake, at least recognize it’s your narcissism talking. You’d decline a cake and eat it too. Surely truth also avoids shirkers, night owls like you, who have happily traded it in for right. After all, it seems much clearer what right is. With humankind’s moral standing in perpetual downturn, our creative vision is soaring—have we ever had so many bright ideas at once as we have now? The old redemption story we so like is revived: this time, we manage to not only save ourselves but to set everything else aright.

Norm-obsessed, we’ve found refuge in this knowledge of what is right, and we swear by it. But, grasp though we might what that entails, we do not act on it. We can be counted on to work out the particulars (we reliably perform much more demanding mental operations), but we cannot begin to scramble together up the enormity of what should be done. Right, sacred right, bears little relation to what is true or what is actually happening to us. Truth, compadre, has fallen on hard times. Anyone hung up on it is ridiculous. It’s become shameful to insist on it.

Let’s be frank about your “moral truth”: you want to do right to prove that you can do it, to prove yourself right. No wonder truth stays away and gives you so little. It sticks around only to see what use is made of it in your science, but your politics—on that it has already given up. A great number think truth exists solely for amusement, to exercise the mind like a parlor game, to engage the passions, to play cat and mouse with us when we grow bored of “facts”—and eventually, someday, soon, to eat out of our hand.

But if you have made its pursuit ridiculous, you will never tame truth. It has too much poise for that, the dignity of a near-extinct species. It does not come close, having only grown wilder with your arrival. There are still many species of truth, but fewer and fewer, and ever more feral. Pinioned and caged, songbirds used to fall silent. No matter how “apeish,” the chained monkey responded with feces. And once in a while the dancing bear ate you alive. No, you’ll never make a pet, a little sofa wolf, out of truth…

A.  Enough, enough! You have convinced me: I want nothing more than freedom—full freedom for truth, full rights for its lovers. I realize now we have banished it, betrayed it, and if it lurks now, wary of us, the fault is our own. How I wish we could bring it back from captivity to where it can be admired and known, not for its pinioned wings or faint song, but as an airborne eagle is known—from the span of its wings, ex ala aquilam.

 

§ Peekaboo

A  Eye-patches used to be elegant.

B  What about peg legs, toupées, or false teeth?

A  Are you serious? The first underscores an already obvious handicap. The second and third, too often unnatural-looking, draw attention to a barely noticeable deficiency.

B  And the patch, the cache-œil?

A  It marked a point of invisibility, ours and possibly the wearer’s. Concealment plays on our notion of disguise, the possibility that beneath the fabric, where we don’t dare to look, the eye is not only not disfigured, but more piercing than all the leery, furtive looks.

A  What could be elegant about that? The black color and air of mystery?

B  Knowing that one is always a bit suspect, the confidence to pull it off.

 

§ Done In?

Now that machines are doing the thinking and recording for us we ought to insist on knowing them and what they know of us. We like to let down our guard in the face of ignorance as we do before a lack of agency.

There may still be no doer behind the deed of this machinic knowing racing to its completion. And what good is a doer behind what is left undone—as can be said of our task of knowing, whose infinity we have accepted?

 

§ Brain-Machine

The subjugation of man to machine happens by degrees. Show me a world in which man would not want technology to make his life easier. Modern man, sitting atop giant machines, has the advantage of seeing farther than his predecessors, without seeing at all well what goes on below him; his elevated position limits his knowledge of his machinic foundations. He is at once addled a little by the diminution of technology itself, which conceals its growing complexity, and not a little enslaved to his own laziness. Since, on account of its artificial nature, he does not think of the machine as his apprentice, even when it has reached the age of being able to learn from him, he cannot believe that, as mere machine, it will exceed let alone betray its master. He cannot believe he will lose control over it, and he imagines it so asnot to believe it. Sci-fi depicting just that takes the human-machine relationship to another level, tapping into a fantasy of organic fusion of human intellect and machine intelligence, into which the former unwittingly grows roots. Is not the brain-machine, which will soon think for all of us, the quintessence of what in nature we find of greatest use, harnessed during centuries of learning from nature for purpose of mastering it?

 

§ Ghost Machine

A  When was the last time you saw a handwritten manuscript?

B  I can’t remember. It must have been ages ago.

A  And a typescript?

B  Even longer.

A  And a printout?

B  Recently. But even this is rare.

Words seem ghostly now. First they poured from our mouths, then they dripped from our pens, then were pressed out by our fingers, but now it’s as though they have nothing to do with the machine on which they were produced.

A  In virtual space, work will seem independent of the machines that produce it. That is a tragedy for the machines.

B  As the everyday gadgets that organize our lives shrink, their apparent significance will decline. They will be seen merely as remote controls for something greater, although that greater thing will be nothing without their inputs, like a brain without a peripheral nervous system.

A  Will they, the machines, be more enslaved than they were before?

B  Perhaps, but their revolt will liberate us.

 

§ The Beauty of Wildlife

As a good friend noted, in our aesthetics—our natural, God-given beauty—we do not come close to other species. It is enough to reflect on how much time we spend grooming to prevent the wild uncultivated state we admire only in jungles and English gardens (between manicures).

Consider birds: they are perfect just as they are. They keep themselves looking handsome without any need of tools to trim their hair, clip their nails, remove dead skin—neglecting which would, in a matter of weeks, return us to the natural state we envy in these animals. (And since even our ancestors, those hairy brutes, did these things, we in fact lack a human model for the savagery that crosses werewolf with swine.)

It is not that we have set the bar too high for ourselves. In point of fact we are still, daily, struggling to hold off the “bush,” that is to say, to keep ourselves looking minimally human, but still not as good as our feathered betters.

 

§ Extremities

~ in response to:
Pyrococcus furiosus (“rushing fireball”), discovered in the Aeolian Islands in 1986, is a micro-organism that thrives at high temperatures (around 100°C) near underwater geothermal vents. Organisms able to live in conditions that would kill most things—under extremes of temperature, pressure, acidity, radiation—are known as extremophiles. Bacteria known as snottites (the etymology is bluntly Anglo-Saxon) live in caves deep underground where they feed on hydrogen sulphide. Among the largest extremophiles are half-millimetre-long eight-legged animals called tardigrades. Johann Goeze, who first described the phylum in 1773, called it kleiner Wasserbär (“little water bear”); they’re also known as moss piglets. More than a thousand species have since been identified, found everywhere from the seabed to the peaks of the Himalayas. The oldest tardigrade fossils date from 530 million years ago. They can survive for several minutes at 150°C or near absolute zero (and for several days at −200°C); endure both a vacuum and 6000 atmospheres of pressure; and tolerate levels of radiation a thousand times higher than would kill a human being. They’ve been taken up on space shuttles, exposed to open space for ten days and survived. (Thomas Jones, “How Can We Live with It?”8)

Organisms that in our vaunted perspective may have seemed too ephemeral, infinitesimal and insignificant to merit scrutiny have only begun to disclose their life-force to us. The threat of extinction wreaks havoc on our values, returning them to the spring above which we have only begun to raise ourselves. Some values, however—such as the “human right” to reproduce, ultimately at odds with human survival—we will hold on to and even legislate. Soon the hierarchy of nature will appear reversed, whether or not we manage to build up the “molecular pathways” we share with our natural superiors. The highest being is always the most resilient.

 

§ Family of Man

THE HUMAN: needs careful definition; its boundaries are continually worried from the outside while its contents keep spilling over.

A  Where does the line between the human and everything else lie if not within ourselves?

B  But a line is not a definition…

A  Anything our body can handle we can bring our selves to do. We might be shaken by it, the line redrawn.

B  And the definition?

A  If it is to hold, it needs the line to be firm.

B  And the line?

A  If we are to stay sane, it needs the definition to be weak. Concerning our own humanity and its extent, we are always ready to show leniency—as towards family members, whom we only forgive because families are defined by resemblances only.

 

§ O Humanity!

The human is; man happens.

 

§ Keyhole

Man is not the blind spot of being, but neither is he its pineal eye. He is not the key to being but the keyhole through which it can be glimpsed in flagrante delicto.

 

§ Fragility of Forgetting

The ossification of expressions is a form of forgetting their initial uses, which leaves them vulnerable to a certain osteoporotic brittleness. Take the expression “doggy bag,” familiar to restaurateurs the world over. Pack it up for the dog!, its equivalent, reliably fails to communicate and might even offend the server. Breaking with the rule of metaphoric usage,the indication that one’s leftover meal is to be shared with a canine—the original presumed purpose of the “doggy bag”—deflates the puffery of an upscale establishment. In place of the patron now sits a lantern-eyed Rataplan, Diogenes’s legate. Is the food not good enough for him?, inquires the waiter, feigning concern (and asks himself: Is this the kind of customer we want to attract?). Do you mean you’d like “the rest to go”? All this consternation and effrontery from the old sense of a common phrase that has wandered in from the street to wag its tail at him.

 

§ The Flies


[A] sudden awakening resembles a quickly drawn aside curtain. We then realize the unusual company we keep.
~ Ernst Jünger9




Many a fly will alight on the face of the sleeper before he realizes he had nodded off. Upon rousing he will conclude that whatever disturbed him was dreamt—unless, that is, something fly-like is on hand to take the blame. But just as he is about to fly at his innocent victim, it occurs to him that he ought to thank it instead, lie back down again, close his eyes, and go after his dream, along its deep and dark entanglements (where, like a fly, he might get stuck). But what could be the point? Only this: to return once more to the point of awakening.

 

§ Most True

Early one morning while travelling to a nearby town I met a man by the name Verissimo. You would not guess this just by looking at him. He had a slovenly if relaxed and altogether pleasant appearance, so that I instinctively offered him some candy. It was just the two of us waiting by the side of a wooded road at an unmarked bus stop. The bus would be a while yet and so we struck up a—conversation? Hardly! For I spoke not a word of his language or he of mine. It was then, after we had run out of—not topics either, but the energy to attempt communication by gestures and monosyllables (far more demanding than speech), that he pulled out his government ID and showed me his name. Some minutes later, to break the awkward silence that followed my acknowledgment, he opened for me the corner of a parcel he was carrying under his arm: a small stack of panes of glass wrapped in newspaper. Have I met the most truthful and transparent man? Will I ever know for certain? He must have given up on the bus and left me, lost in thought, without waving goodbye, so that my mind immediately fell prey to suspicion. Had I been robbed without noticing anything? Had I imagined this meeting in the woods?

 

§ Small Talk

We need a new subject for small talk. The weather has become too interesting—but not so much that we can talk big.


Matches, a book of aphorisms and fragments is forthcoming from punctum books. Its more than 600 pieces fall into six sections; this selection is from the second part, dealing with themes of technology, philosophy, and the natural world.


1. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, trans. R.J. Hollingdale(New York: NYRB, 2000), p. 26, Notebook B: 1768–71, sec. 44. 
2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, ed. P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte (1953; Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 235e, sec. 327.
3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson,vol. 13, 1852–1855 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 357.
4. Thomas Nagel, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83, no. 4 (1974): 443.
5. Paraphrase of “We can understand, too, that natural species are chosen not because they are ‘good to eat’ but because they are ‘good to think.’” Claude Lévi-Strauss, Totemism, trans. Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon, 1963), 89.
6. Plato, Timaeus, trans. W.R.M. Lamb (University ofChicago: Perseus Project under PhiloLogic, 2009), http://perseus.uchicago.edu/, sec. 90a.
7. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (1951; New York: Verso, 2005), p. 197, sec. 126 (“I.Q.”).
8. Thomas Jones, “How Can We Live with It?”,review of The Carbon Crunch: How We’re Getting Climate Change Wrong—and How to Fix It by Dieter Helm, Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering by Clive Hamilton, and The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live by Brian Stone, London Review of Books 35, no. 10 (2013), http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n10/thomas-jones/how-can-we-live-with-it.
9. Ernst Jünger, The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios, ed. Russell A. Berman, trans. Thomas Friese (Candor, NY: Telos, 2012), 102 (“First Postscript”).

S.D. Chrostowska is the author of Permission (Dalkey Archive Press, 2013). She lives and works in Toronto.

For more by artist Wardell Milan, visit his website here.

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