Head Dust



"Ultimately, it does not matter whether the Suriv-Suriv exist or not; what matters is whether or not they are valid."
- Ludo Neizvestny (introduction to the second edition of Rachel Alter’s The Road Has No Shadow)

Of all the strange activities practised by humans, a species for whom the practice of strange activities is so characteristic as to be almost an identifying trait, the reading of fiction is perhaps the strangest.

What are we doing when we do it? What happens to us when we use the micromuscles of our eyes to drag our attention along line after line and page after page of permuted sequences of the same limited collection of marks (dark ink peppering pale paper, mutable crystals on a glass screen, black fire written on white fire, or whatever)? Someone has caused the artefact which assumes our attention to be inoculated with something that authorises the arrangement of the marks but cannot be isolated even with the aid of a mass spectrometer, an electron microscope or a pair of digital tweezers. But there is something we catch from text if we are susceptible to it, something that springs from somewhere, somehow, if we can read, some insidious thing, something that for convenience we could call story [1] .

It is a common error to think that something new can be put in to your mind by reading, to think that reading is just one of the many ways in which new information can enter the mind through the senses. Although it is true that we use our eyes to receive the stimuli necessary for reading, we are only able to read stimuli with which we are already familiar. Reading is possible only if we are seeing what we already know. If we come across something new, something we do not recognise, we are unable to read it.

Nothing new enters the mind when reading, and yet reading is the most profound way we have of having new experience. This new experience (new ideas, new feelings, new information, new understanding) can only come from elements that pre-exist in the reader’s mind [2] . Reading can only stimulate pre-existing elements into consciousness and combine these elements into new experience. Rather than providing input, reading provokes associations. The text passes over the reader’s mind like a harrow, snagging stuff from below the surface (stuff with verbal hooks corresponding to the verbal hooks of the harrow, or stuff sufficiently entangled with the stuff that has the verbal hooks), exposing new patterns in pre-existing material. The story is what lies exposed to consciousness after the text has passed over the mind.

Reading can provide nothing that, in theory, could not be achieved purely through imagination or reflection, though this realisation is less interesting than it may seem. There is an infinitude of possible ways in which pre-existing mental elements may be associated, almost all of them worthless, and our lives are too short to experience more than a tiny few of them. You could say that each of us has every possible story inside us in potentia, but this is no more profound than saying that every possible story exists in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (if only we could get the words in the right order). Reading allows the private contents of the reader’s mind to be selected and arranged from without. Nothing new enters through the eyes, the only external connection pertinent to reading [3] , and yet the reader’s mind is connected, by reading, to a putative other mind we speculatively call the author’s. The words are all we have, yet as we get the words in the right order we get so much more than the words. We get a specific experience induced by the author purely through the sequencing of these familiar patterns of contrasting tone. All the elements of text must be familiar to us for us to read them, but their sequence, and our cumulative response to them as we follow that sequence, is what enables the unfamiliar experience we have called story. Text is its own measure of time, and to read is to submit to a fixed supplementary external measure of time [4] . Reading requires that our experiential time be calibrated by another: the author.

The author is implied by the text. Someone has caused the text to be sequenced so that it selects and draws into consciousness (and thus into time) the elements of story. The same circuits in the brain are activated whether we do or perceive something, imagine (or remember) doing or perceiving it, or read about doing or perceiving it. The particularity (or otherwise) of that thing, and our consciousness of it, are neurologically the same in each case. When we perceive something, our sense organs receive a mass of stimuli from whatever it is we perceive. But the sense organs perceive no differentiated entities; they cannot be said to perceive at all: they receive indiscriminately the kinds of input for which they have evolved an aptitude. There are no differentiated entities in actuality: the thingness of things is merely an aspect of a story we tell ourselves, an instinctual grammatical construction prerequisite to conscious thought [5] . Before we receive it into consciousness, we automatically filter, separate, select, group, entify and label the input until it is small enough and tidy enough for us to perceive something of what we call actuality without being overwhelmed by what it is really like [6] . When we imagine (or remember) something, the details coalesce from the multifarious contents of our mind, selected by that function which bundles our awareness (intentionally or unintentionally, deliberately or helplessly), a function we may be fundamentally certain of even though we cannot be certain what (if anything) performs it [7] . When we read about something, the filtering, separating, selecting, grouping, entifying and labelling of the actual or fictive reality we are reading about has already been done for us by the author. The author has a unique position: the author uses the text to select the details of our awareness for us, the kind of thing that we usually like to think is very personal to ourselves. The author is the reader’s second self.

The reader surrenders to this surrogate self in order to achieve new experience from their own mind. The experience is one of the infinitude of possible inherent stories, but selected and given authority by another. The reader achieves an experience correlative with the experience of that other, the author. Authority is the quality an author provides to the story effected by their text. Text implies a commonality of experience among all possible readers (including all possible future readers): a potentially infinite corroboration.

Using text as a means of authorising experience is significantly more effective than other methods, such as film, which attempt to communicate through the senses. The images induced in reading come from the reader’s mind by personal response to the text and are more likely to provide the experience intended by the author than the supplementary actuality constructed by a film director and then subjected by the viewer to the same filtering, separating, selecting, grouping, entifying and labelling process as other external stimuli. Reading is an entirely internal process, so when, for instance, an author describes a character as “beautiful”, all possible readers experience the same pattern of neurological excitement, regardless of how different their individual ideas of “beautiful” may be. The film director cannot be sure that all viewers will find their chosen actor to be “beautiful”, and in desperation usually employs cliché [8] to attempt to invoke a similar response from as wide a swathe of similar viewers as possible [9] . As a means of authorising experience, film retains many of the impediments of unprocessed actuality because it still requires processing to attain the consciousness of the viewer, and because it necessarily includes an often vast amount of extraneous detail which the viewer may fix upon in unpredictable and unauthorised ways [10] .

The difference between actuality and text is primarily one of exclusion. All the details in text are clues to what the text is ‘about’ (the authorised experience). Actuality has an infinity of details that are not clues to what actuality is ‘about’ because actuality is not ‘about’ anything (actuality is unauthorised, though we are the authors of our experience of it). When we read a text we receive exactly and only the clues that provide us with the experience that the author wishes us to have. We may agglomerate more details to our experience of the text but this is beyond the business of reading. The question of whether or not Pip in Great Expectations has all the fingers on his left hand cannot be answered by reading. If we imagine him having all his fingers we are indulging in an act of projection just as unauthorised as if we imagine him not having all his fingers. This kind of projection is not reading, though we probably all indulge in it to some extent as we read. Really, the text is all we have.

If we read a text about matters of fact we may seek further details from actuality itself or from other texts or other authorities. A text about matters of fact can be endlessly supplemented, verified and doubted. It can be false. The ‘actual’ is inherently uncertain [11] . With fiction there is no actual referent to which the text refers. There is only the text. Fiction cannot be false because it does not pretend to be true. Fiction has a certainty that matters of fact can never achieve.

Fiction is a system of references without referents, a system of non-truths that aren’t lies, a mode of knowledge that is concerned neither with matters of fact nor with abstract and self-evident nonreferential truths (if there are indeed such things). Fiction is concerned with how our references relate to each other rather than with how they relate to supposed actual referents. Fiction calibrates and develops experiences and correlates them across a reading population, providing experiential consistency despite individual difference. By surrendering, temporarily, the patterning of our experience to a surrogate external authority, we can know what it is like to be someone else, and gain the empathy, understanding and flexibility which deepen and enhance our interactions with others, provide us with contexts for novel actual experiences, and allow us to project our intentions with subtlety and precision. Reading fiction multiplies possibilities and allows us to test them without commitment or risk. The surrogate experiences provided by reading fiction allow us to accrue many more, and more varied, experiences than we could ever have, or would ever want to have, in actuality [12] , and to draw benefits from these surrogate experiences just as we draw them from actual experiences. When we read fiction we ingrain patterns of comprehension which we apply to actuality as well, benefiting both the individual reader and the rest of the species with whom the individual is enmeshed by reading.

The reader’s experience is a shared experience in a way that other experiences are not. Fiction is an especially human faculty that allows both the individual and the species a fluid and opportunistic interplay with social and other environments that are new, changing or complex. Fiction has developed out of the need to not only quickly adapt to such environments but also adapt those environments to ourselves by narrating our possible interactions with them in precise and communicable ways. Fiction is an engine of narrative mutation that compresses aeons of divergent possibility between the pages of accessible supplementary time. When we read fiction we are enhancing the diversity of the cultural genome as it jigs about in the evolutionary mill. Reading fiction, perhaps the strangest of our strange practices but perhaps also one of our most central, allows us to absorb much of the impact of time upon our species. Fiction postpones our extinction.
(July 2009)

[1] What I mean by story is the basic grammatical relation between our idea of things (space) and our idea of action (time).
[2] For the purposes of this essay we shall employ the standard ‘hamper’ model of conceptually extensive personal minds without assuming it to be anything other than a useful thinking-tool.
[3] For Braille readers this neutral connection is provided through the fingertips. Of course, something similar to all this occurs when we listen to spoken words, but spoken words are temporally and qualitatively bound to the actual in a way that ‘input-neutral’ text is not.
[4] We might call this ‘narrative’.
[5] If we reach out (or in) to our world in a grammatical way, what else could we end up with but story?
[6] You could say that we are the unconscious authors of whatever we are aware of, and the conscious readers. You could almost even also say that we perceive only entities that already lie within our minds, provoked into consciousness by recognised learned patterns of stimuli, but we will not pursue this because this essay is about how reading (particularly reading fiction) is different from other sorts of things, not about how it is in fact the same.
[7] Verbs are certain; nouns are always uncertain. Nouns are just convenient shorthand for commonly associated adjectives. The so-called ‘self’ cannot be a noun for it has no determining adjectives; it can only be a verb.
[8] More romantically called ‘archetype’.
[9] Is the assumption of a clichéed viewer a necessary condescension of film-making, or just a prevalent laziness? Designers of so-called ‘virtual realities’ in the so-called ‘new media’ seem even more dependent on the propagation of clichés in their attempt to evoke specific experiences in their receivers. Reading allows experience to be communicated without cliché because it does not depend on trying to force its way through the entifying and labelling filters with which a viewer processes sensory input. Reading’s reality is usefully pre-packaged. The author does not depend upon the (unpredictable, unreliable) reader to do this for them. Across a population, experience is likely to be more similar in readers than in viewers, where the extraneous particulars all come from outside the viewer’s mind and the viewer must make of them what they will.
[10] The authority of film lies primarily in its manipulation of experiential time.
[11] This essay concerns matters of fact (albeit in a conjectural way). In writing it I have struggled with different uncertainties, insecurities and vulnerabilities from the uncertainties, insecurities and vulnerabilities I struggle with when writing fiction. Who am I to assert matters of fact merely on my own authority? Matters of fact seem to require a certain degree of belief, which I am not sure I am capable of, whereas fiction requires a suspension of disbelief, which seems to me a far preferable approach (and not just to fiction).
[12] Fiction relieves us of exactly as much as it gives us.

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