Head Dust



Imagine the perplexity of a man outside time and space, who has lost his watch, and his measuring rod, and his tuning fork. I believe, Sir, that it is indeed this state which constitutes death.
(Alfred Jarry - Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll, 'Pataphysician)
We have the misfortune to be born aliens in a world we cannot see, hear, taste, smell, or touch. We come sliding and greasy from one world to the next, naked and useless in our dirty little envelopes of skin. How we got ourselves trapped in these sausages is anybody’s guess, but if we ever knew the reason you may be sure we have forgotten it by the time we get here.
What are we like, we who slip from the mother ship as if sucked out by the space that surrounds us? We do not know. Or rather, we are not really like anything. That comes later. We are born but partly formed (or, if complete, we are very imperfect): blind, deaf, dumb; without nose, hands, feet or tongue; senseless, voiceless, utterly lost and alone. If it were not for the Wonders of Science we would be forever unaware of the world which surrounds us and presses its stimuli upon us. Soon after birth we are whisked away to the hospital basements where green- and white-clad doctors covertly attach a set of prosthetic devices to our rudimental selves, connect the wires, test the circuits, and then return us to our plastic tanks before our absence has been noticed.
How different we are now! No-one comments on our strangeness, but for us the world is sudden and strong. Our senses are how the world chooses to present itself to us. We are awash in stimuli mediated for us by our artificial sensors. We flex our prostheses and wonder for what uses they have been designed. Why these auxiliary components and not others? Why this small bundle of awareness and not all the rest that we are unequipped to reach? We do not pause to consider these stupid questions but bend our efforts towards learning to make use of what we have.

WRITING ABOUT NOT WRITING #2: On the Problem of Detail

When we read fiction we assume that each detail is evidence of the author’s intention. We assume that the author must be using the detail to communicate something that is beyond the detail and that this something is somehow conveyed by the detail or by the accumulation of details (perhaps through metaphor, emotional suggestion or exemplary didaction [1]). If the detail were there only to give evidence of the suchness of itself, merely to describe something which does not exist, it would not be very interesting (and the author’s motives or sanity would perhaps be suspect). In fiction, detail is meaning’s paydirt. [2]

But in actuality (sometimes misleadingly called ‘reality’) we know that details carry no intrinsic meaning, that the contents of the world in which we live are not put there in order to be evidence of the intention of someone beyond them. When our deep ancestors began to think of things as entities they could isolate conceptually and interact with usefully, they accorded them an immanence, a will, a capriciousness or generosity which they sought to influence by practices that became habituated as magic. As the power to control the actual became more concentrated, immanence gave way to transcendence: the details of actuality became a message from a god or gods, a ‘text’, which could be ‘read’ by those who wielded the perceived ability to do so. But of course, it is we who have projected meaning onto the world, just as it is we who differentiate entities in that which is without entities, so either I must say “it is sunny because I am happy” and treat all details as evidence of my own mentality (the tendency towards this extreme is surprisingly widespread, although it is incompatible with sanity if I live in a world that contains more than one mind), or I must say “I am happy because it is sunny” and recognise that the sunniness does not depend on me (though the idea of sunniness might), that the sunniness is not a message from anyone beyond this world, that the sunniness is not an expression of the benignity of the weather or the world towards me, but that sunniness is without meaning or message or emotional colour: it just is.

We accept (most of us) that we live in a world without transcendent control or intrinsic meaning, but why do we still have transcendent literature? Isn’t this regressive? How can we tolerate fictional worlds in which the characters and events are entirely at the whim and mercy of an author? What is the use of a world in which the characters are seen to live and act as if unaware of the author who in fact controls every detail of their lives? [3]

In the world of the fictional character the author and the reader do not exist, and a particular set of details are true. In the world of the author and the reader, the character and the set of details are recognised as fictitious, and yet the world of the fictional character is contained within the world of the author and the reader, and so the world in which the set of details are true and in which the author and the reader do not exist is able to be experienced by the author and the reader [4]. In their little game of “as if” the author and the reader have a dual consciousness, both immersing themselves and observing that into which they cannot be immersed.

Perhaps we should recognise that any idea we have of our world (‘actuality’ with all its ‘entities’) is also a game of “as if” and that there is something about consciousness which makes us both authors and readers of the world as we think it to be. Perhaps fiction is important to us partly because it exercises that dual consciousness which is appropriate to our existence in a world which we must both observe without being immersed and also be immersed, in which we are entities in a world of entities but must live as if the blind-cane tentativeness of our consciousness were not part of the story.

[1] Neologism for the sake of precision.
[2] Detail does some other things too of course, like calibrate textual time against narrative time, but we'll talk about that some other day perhaps.
[3] If the characters became aware or their fictional nature, or if they came to belive in the author, their world would have begun to collapse.
[4] "There are other worlds, but they are all in this one" - Paul Eluard.


Are you frustrated at not being able to read your i-Pad outdoors or in bright light? Every problem brings its solution and in this case the solution is the i-Hood, a striking velour-touch ‘technohood’ available in four colours and niftily folding into a toggle pouch. Although designed specifically to fit the i-Pad, the i-Hood can be used to shield a wide range of electronic devices, not only from bright light but also from prying eyes and other intrusions. The i-Hood envelops both the head and the device and creates a sealed ‘bio-electronic corridor’ between the two. “We found that users who were more isolated from the distractions of their actual environment had a greatly enhanced experience of their electronic environment,” says Arne Apps, creative director of i-Saw Technologies, the company that developed the i-Hood. “The i-Hood enables the user to completely enter the world of their desires as defined by the applications they have purchased. Apart from eating and excreting, the user is liberated from the troublesome interface with the actual, an interface which, studies have found, often makes people feel awkward, frustrated and dissatisfied. The interface with the actual is deeply disempowering for most people; the electronic interface is at least superficially empowering - I know which I would choose.” If used outdoors, the i-Hood has the added benefit of protecting the user’s face from the effects of the ozone depletion partially caused by the manufacture, transportation and ultimate disposal of the electronic devices it is designed to shield. Apps says the i-Hood will be available world-wide by the end of the month.



Once I was an archaeologist. I learned that the deeper in the ground something is, the older it is (generally speaking). The past is downwards, down towards the centre of the earth, the unreachable core, the beginning of time. Our earthly moments are temporally concentric spheres laid down each over the last. The present lies on the surface of the globe, and the future out into the atmosphere.
Perhaps we want to escape time. Perhaps we are anxious of our mortality. We want to fly above the surface/present and assert our existence in the future/heights. But the inevitable return to earth is the future’s inescapable nostalgia for the present, a force indistinguishable from gravity. The past is always pulling at us, but we can experience what it is like to exist in the future by flying, or, to a lesser extent, by jumping.



Narrative is potentised by telling; plot is potentised by withholding. These dual time-streams flow through most fiction, and indeed through ‘actual’ lives (or at least through our ‘reading’ of these lives).
Our lives have never been so narrated. We cannot walk down the street or go into a shop or call in at a party without narrating it on our cellphones or txting it to someone else. Later we have to blog it all or facebook it all all over again (and look: we took some narrative snapshots too, didn’t we?). We are being smothered by narrative. Nothing is withheld. Smothered? Rather, we are being crippled by the narrative of stepping forward.

If nothing is withheld, what has happened to the plot?



I am going to meet Sylvia Steel at the hard-to-find Richard Famous Gallery, where her new exhibition Mats opened last week. I am a little late. To get into the gallery I have to walk through a shallow tray filled with compressed earth, and then onto a beige mat, now quite thoroughly soiled by the feet of other visitors. About a dozen worn and dirty mats of varying sizes hang on the white walls of the asymmetrical space. I introduce myself to the woman sitting on a sofa in the little niche but it turns out not to be Sylvia Steel. She has hardly finished rolling her eyes when Steel arrives. The other woman (Steel later refers to her as “Bad Penny”) surrenders the sofa, and after a little small-talk I turn on the recording device.

AS: How did you get the idea for Mats?
SS: There is a corner dairy near where I live. One day I was waiting at the counter and I looked down and saw the most incredibly worn and dirty mat…
AS: Is that mat in the exhibition?
SS: Yes, it’s the first one you see when you come in. Anyway, I looked down and saw this incredibly worn and, I must say, rather dirty mat, and I thought how so many people have been standing on the mat - but not seeing it - when they have been waiting to get something they wanted from the counter. The rather sordid mat was the locale in which they were intent on their desires. I thought, maybe there is some sort of perpendicularity between desire and actuality.
AS: We are focused on what is ahead of us and don’t look down at where we actually are?
SS: Yes. Our attention is on the desired thing or destination – now I’m talking about the entrance mats, too – and not on the dirty mat, the here-and-now, the dirty mat where everyone else who had the same desire also stood or walked. There is a – I don’t know – a communality, I suppose, between all the people who walk on the mat and dirty it and wear it out when approaching the same desire, or similar desires. The dirt and wear is the only cumulative mark of the community of that specific desire.
AS: Do you think we all have basically the same desires?
SS: Well, yes, I do, mostly, but that’s not what this is about. What I’m interested in is the communities created by various specific desires and evidenced by the cumulative trace of this community.
AS: The dirt and the wear?
SS: That’s it.
AS: Do you think we are aware of these communities of desire?
SS: Mostly not. We don’t think about it. We are intent on our own desires, that is, on ourselves, and we are usually separated from the other desirers by the passage of time.
AS: We can’t all be standing on the same spot at the same time.
SS: Yes. And the gaze is to the front, towards the thing or destination desired, towards what is not yet. The gaze is to the front and not downwards – perpendicular – towards the actual present location of the desirer in the spot dirtied by the desires of others.
AS: Do you think people would be resistant to seeing this?
SS: Yes! Our whole culture is predicated on avoiding looking at this. We have even evolved eyes that are not only on our fronts but right near the top of our bodies, bodies which have evolved an upright stance precisely to cast our attention out in front – we are frighteningly aspirational animals – and not down and below. To look down and below we have to bend our bodies forwards, which undoes our structural evolution, if you like. We are mentally and physically programmed to deny the dirt, but, of course, the dirt is where we are, and what we are.
AS: And the wear too?
SS: Absolutely. We are even more wear than dirt.
AS: Do you think all this, this looking up and away, is a bad thing?
SS: I’m not really interested in making judgements about it, more in observing it. I must say though, I am strongly drawn to wear and dirt and what they mean and how they connect us is different ways. I think a lot of our problems are caused by aspirational behaviours, but then, a lot of what I enjoy and think is worthwhile is the result of exactly these sorts of aspirational behaviours. Ambivalence sharpens my observation, perhaps…
AS: Tell me about the other mats in the exhibition. Where did they come from?
SS: Well, first I got the mat from the corner dairy. I offered the owner another mat the same, a new one, for the worn and dirty one, and he accepted.
AS: So you went the streets crying ‘New mats for old’?
SS: Well, yes, that’s basically it. I’ve got mats from a bank, an art gallery, the municipal baths, a creche, an airport, three shops, a sleazy stairwell, a couple of private homes, my own front doormat…
AS: Did you have any trouble?
SS: Some refusals. I got strange looks pretty much everywhere, but if you tell people you’re doing something as art you can get away with just about anything. I didn’t tell them I was going to label the mats with their origins in the exhibition, so there might yet be a bit of trouble. Only if I get noticed though, which is unlikely.
AS: Tell me about the photographs in the catalogue.
SS: There are photographs of what you would be seeing if you were standing on the mats and, of course, not looking at the mats. The photographs are the horizons of desires, if you like. At first I was going to put the photographs on the floor of the gallery, about where you would stand to look at the mats, a simple inversion of the perpendicular arrangement of the pair, to encourage the viewer to consider the relationship between the two, between where we stand and what we desire, but it just didn’t seem to work in the gallery, I don’t know, it seemed too forced, perhaps, so I just had them in the catalogue in small alongside the documentation of the mats themselves.
AS: And the works are for sale!
SS: Yes. They weren’t going to be for sale, and Richard [Famous] was teasing me about this so I thought I will make them for sale - they’re very well priced too, I might say - and maybe someone will buy one and put it on their floor and it won’t be art any more, just a dirt old mat…
AS: And begin to accumulate the dirt and wear of new desires?
SS: Yes! The trace of old desires overlaid or augmented or obliterated by the new. It’s worth thinking about!


(A consideration of Otto's and Inga's adventures first described in Andy Clark's and David J. Chalmers's paper 'The Extended Mind' (1998). A review by Jerry Fodor of Clark's Supersizing the Mind (Oxford, 2008) appeared on 12.2.2009 in London Review of Books 31:3)

Otto wants to go to the museum. He has the address written in his notebook, which he cutely calls his 'external memory' and therefore considers is part of his mind. He wants to go to the museum with his friend Toto, and it is in fact Toto who looks in the notebook and retrieves the address from Otto's memory. They aren't too worried about just whose mind the notebook is and they set off together. They see a road sign which says 'To the Museum'. Otto is very pleased that this sign is part of his mind too, reminding him of the way to the museum, and soon he recognises the museum, just as he remembered it (after all it is part of his mind). The museum is Otto's external memory of it, reminding him what it is like. In addition, because the museum is there to want to go to, in Toto's external mind there is no distinction between the want and the thing that is wanted, for the want is stored in the thing. So Otto and Toto (if a distinction can be made between them) conclude that everything is mind (mind that thinks itself, perhaps), even though by making a universal statement they (literally) drain it of all meaning, making the idea of mind (as distinct from something else) a nonsense.

Inga also wants to go to the museum. She has the address in her 'internal memory', but her friend Agnes, who also wants to go to the museum, can't access it and has to ask Inga. As they walk along, consult a map, see the road sign, see the address written on the museum gate and then see the museum itself. Inga realises that her memory of the museum's address belongs more to the museum, supposing it actually exists, than to the part of her that is conscious of the address and of the memory of the address (if such a distinction can in fact be made). Following her Contracted Mind Thesis (CMT) Inga smallifies her mind to a nonextensive and contentless awareness moving (presumably) through a universe of impressions where there are only secondary distinctions between the address and the memory of it, between the museum and the memory of it, between Agnes and Inga's feelings for Agnes, between what is seen and the sight of it. It's all 'out there', thinks Inga, whatever it is is beyond me. My mind is my awareness only, not what I am aware of. Inga has gone as far as Otto, but in the other direction. Poor Inga! Well, at least she is left with a mind of her own, even if she is more lonely.



I know you are shy, so I do not look at you. I just rest my hand on you and look at something else. My hand rests softly on you, so that I may guide your little dance with the minimum of force, my hand on your small back. Who would have thought that one so small and shy as you would know my wishes so completely, would be sensitive to every tremble of my finger, would command for me the world I cannot reach? I shield you, but from what? From my glance, from the glance of others? Between my fingers I glance at you, at your colourless colour, at the lines that define your buttocks upon which my fingers rest, at your tail – so long a tail that I cannot see its end though I look in its direction. If I remove my hand will you run away? No: you need me. I know you need me to guide you, to give you life, to make the ball in your belly roll. And I need you. I need you to know my thoughts, to exert my will, to join me to the world beyond. You are shy. I do not look at you, but before my eye I see your little hand, your little arrow, your little I, moving as my hand moves you.