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A Thought in the Dark

On Non-Cognitive thought, Looking up at the Night Sky, and New Paradise Laboratories' Hello Blackout!

review by Abraham Burickson

I’m not very good at thinking about the universe, or about the beginning of time, or, for that matter, anything on that scale. I go out at night and look up at the stars and sometimes I get the scale thing. I feel small, like ant-next-to-elephant small. Not small at the actual scale, which is something like almost nothing against almost everything. That I can’t do. Conceptually, I can, but I can’t actually feel myself at my real scale. I’ve watched that Powers of Ten movie, and Cosmos, and even read A Brief History of Time, and they help, but it’s still all in my head and my head is not big enough to contain the universe.

That is, I believe, why I read poetry and seek out jarring art: for a cognitive sneak attack that tricks me into thinking in new ways.

That is, I believe, why I read poetry and seek out jarring art: for a cognitive sneak attack that tricks me into thinking in new ways. It is also why the smart, minimal, dark, rhythmic, unexpected staging of New Paradise Laboratories’Hello Blackout! won’t leave me alone even now, a month after my having seen it. The piece was choreographed to trick me into thinking in a feeling-being-melancholic way about some big ideas.

Considering events on the scale of the universe is at once humbling and wildly arrogant; it’s an ambivalent subject position that necessitates some other approach to the problem. The universe is bigger and more important than I am, and thinking about it is both an obvious necessity for a responsible adult and an attempt to shrink infinity to a level of comprehensibility. So necessary. So impossible. A gobstopper the size of your head can never be consumed. And yet we keep trying. What’s more, how can you ever trust an answer to a big question? An answer is almost as scary as a total lack of answers. It’s a sorry state, and it bodes poorly for an amateur thinker like myself.

Photo Courtesy of New Paradise Laboratories

Photo Courtesy of New Paradise Laboratories

Still, would you rather I just ignored the universe and hoped it went away? There has to be some witchery in this impossible situation.

In their fascinating book A General Theory of Love, the authors lay out the idea of the triune brain – the neocortical, the limbic, and the reptilian[1]. We are three-brained creatures, and each brain has a different intelligence. Most of the “thinking” we do is with the neo-cortical brain. Here we spin a thread of verbal thoughts from the wool of our undifferentiated mental activity. This is the brain that makes thoughts out of information and information out of thoughts. This is say-what-you-mean thinking. This is the mind that can do math, that can read the ingredients on a can of Pepsi, that can analyze the validity of a philosophical argument.

But there is something intuitively unsatisfying about this kind of thinking. In experiments it has been shown that the other brains – the limbic and the reptilian – not only think, but do so much more quickly than the neocortical brain. You knew this in your gut, of course: the heart and the body are smarter than the mind. It’s a frustrating suggestion – these brains are out of our control, off in the dark thinking for us, coming to conclusions for us, offering their understandings at inconvenient moments. [2]

Our best thinking happens in the dark, in the shadowy wrinkles of the gut and we generally have no idea how to interpret its susurrations and dispepsias.

We are, by any measure, in a messy situation. Our best thinking happens in the dark, in the shadowy wrinkles of the gut and we generally have no idea how to interpret its susurrations and dispepsias. Sometimes it seems that this is our entire job – to learn to read it, to translate it, to ping the depths of the other intelligences and present our findings. Perhaps this is why I find myself drawn to art that breaks with explicit meaning, that titillates the comprehension organ and then withholds, coyly refusing direct meaning. I can’t say exactly what the poems I read mean or, when I can, I’m missing the point. I can’t say why a John Cage experiment produces pleasure in atonality. I can’t say why my mind, built to see the symmetrical and clean as healthy and perfect, finds joy in a broken composition, a mal-formed grammar, a meaningless but emphatic gesture. I can say that when I spend too long in the perfect world, the balanced world, the composed world, I feel my understanding of things dimming.

Hello Blackout!, directed by Whit MacLaughlin, is a piece of theater, but not in that neo-cortical, symmetrical way where people stand on stage and speak lines and advance a plot that has a narrative structure. Not in that way where actors memorize and execute a script. Not with words, those endless silver coins of the ordinary thought process. I mean there are words in Hello Blackout! but they seem to be there just to hold the punctuation. Lots of ellipses, commas, line breaks, stacked exclamation marks, excessive and misused hyphenations, and blank pages. Silences full of inarticulable meaning. There is also the total silence of the full blackout, a stage management feat that immediately sets the audience member adrift, casting the mind into outer space, into time before time, into beginningness. Also, there’s a little bit of vertigo. The actors appear and disappear, heads bobbing madly as in a Japanese horror film. The musicians, hogging half the stage, play and are silenced. The big clean yellow corridor lights up and threatens to emit things. Then things do come – chairs, balls, occasionally people. There is a beginningness, a sourcelessness, a sense of things emerging out of the primordial black. A woman’s eyes brighten and she speaks the first words: Holy Tamooli!; a man humps the ground; a woman becomes vaguely animal; the whole of the group devours one of its own. These are primordial actions, emergent from the blackout and the lighted tunnel.

The show itself tracks from the initial nothing – the blackout in the title into which we are cast when the play begins – and through the emergence of consciousness. Soon a family is formed, with a king, a father, children, and intimations of murder. These are played out in the costumes and choreography and in gestures that recall both myth and the Bible.

And it’s funny. But what are we laughing at? The absurdities of the random presence of anything at all in the universe? We laugh, which is a special kind of three-brain thinking, and at the same time we struggle for comprehension. We struggle for narrative. We try to define, as I just did in the last paragraph, what is going on. We feel good when we succeed. We feel smart. There is a little glossary in the program which offers a window onto the thinking. It’s a timid offering, a maybe, defining (among other things) matter and probability and, importantly, Speculative Realism. We know these latter two are the source material and now we understand them a little and can layer them onto what we’re seeing. We float in incomprehension and feeling. Ideas weave into the work and out, and then there is the blackout, which is meaningful because it is a real and new experience. It’s a thing like an eclipse in that you can imagine it perfectly but when you are in it you have to just be in it because it is totally other. It is a Hamlet moment, a floating whisper: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Following the show there was a talkback, or something like it. It was explained that the performance was an effort to make theater not out of narrative but out of philosophy. There were large dice on the floor and a couple of philosophy professors milling about, one of whom explained contingency to us, as well as Speculative Realism. Then followed a disjointed conversation with the public. It was a conversation beside the point. It was about philosophy, but what is philosophy about? Not, I think, about figuring something out. In my recollection in college there were a lot of Latin words bandied about and argument for the sake of argument, none of which was concerned with truth so much as winning. Philosophy isn’t about that either. When I teach philosophy (due, most likely, to some sort of administrative oversight at my university) my students keep coming back to two things: 1) There is an ache in the soul somewhere that drives us to try to move from the incomprehensibility of our lives to something entirely new, and 2) We never figure it out, but we do arrive at moments of deep pleasure wherein an old habit of thinking breaks and the mind reels. This is an expansion of the world, and it registers an idea outside the mind, somewhere in the feelings, or somewhere in the body, or somewhere in between.

 “If you were interested in chance,” someone says at the talkback, “why didn’t you cut up the script and scatter it randomly into a different order every night?” Pained looks pass over the faces of the company. It’s not just that the director had only minutes ago explained why they didn’t do that, but that that wasn’t the point. That was thinking about chance neocortically. That was thinking as plays are supposed to do, with two actors on stage arguing loudly at one another.

Instead, on stage, Matteo the actor tries to explain a phenomenon called “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” whereby scale warps to make faraway things look small or nearby things look large. He struggles to explain himself, drawing lines in the air and then following them to the back of the stage and off. It’s awkward. It’s a failure. We understand it somehow, though he had failed to explain it. The idea dribbles away and so does he, and this is in the primordial stagespace the company has created. We cannot make sense of it intellectually, so we move on to where we fully get it, in the feeling, in the body, in the rhythms of failure. These tie into those starting blocks: contingency, chance, the idea that nothing is causally guaranteed, that the emergence of consciousness was as random and uncertain as anything else. It ties in, also, to the idea that the world does not exist as a consequence of our actions. It is neither for us nor against us. Indifference is an idea understood best in the feelings. Failure, too. Effort happens in the body, for the most part, and as Matteo escapes offstage we have witnessed a thought. In the rhythms of his speech and the distances his body travels, we have thought it with him.

The director seeds the room, I am told, with ideas, and then leaves them there, spending days exploring

Among the many things I don’t understand is how New Paradise Laboratories makes its work. I know MacLaughlin has his company read philosophy and talk with high frequency traders and look at art. I know, also, that none of that is reference as they devise their work. The director seeds the room, I am told, with ideas, and then leaves them there, spending days exploring, instead, gesture and exclamation. At first, when sitting in on rehearsals, I was confused. What had happened to all those ideas? Halfway through my second day a declaration emerged: “Cheese and Crackers!” It was the first utterance, evidence of the emergence of consciousness. I had been doodling in my notebook, thinking loosely about MacLaughlin’s musings the day before about how when consciousness emerged there was no one around to see it, and it might not have even made a sound. Such an abstraction, but something in the man broke with the idea, some presupposition about how things are and how they should be, a moment of wild humility amid the wild arrogance of thinking about such a thing as the emergence of consciousness. There was feeling-thought in it, which is, I realized at that moment, a kind of thought that implies connections between ideas far from the topic at hand. Cheese and Crackers!, declared the actress, opening her eyes with a kind of incredulity, and that was it. Cheese and Crackers!: life is here. Now what? That was the communicated form of MacLaughlin’s feeling about consciousness, which, when it arose, could only declare its presence with an outrage born from its unexpected and unheralded emergence and the lack of real expletives for it to breathe into.

 

[1] Lewis, Amini, and Lannon, A General Theory of Love, Random House, New York, 2000, p22-31.

[2] The idea is echoed in the philosophy of G.I. Gurdjieff, whose suggestion that we are three-brained beings is accompanied by a lament that the three brains rarely work well together. An idea the authors of A General Theory do not necessarily dispute. The two agree, as well, that the neo-cortical brain is a much slower and more neurotic thinking than the thinking of the limbic brain.