The Alien Thing I AM: On Peter Watts Blindsight

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I see it for the first time since some beaten bloody friend on a childhood battlefield convinced me to throw my own point of view away. – Peter Watts, Blindsight

Most of us go through life never questioning the truth or untruth of our perspective onto reality or ourselves. We merrily believe that we exist and that’s enough. Sure, everyone lives, breaths, smells, hears, sees – and, we all have this feeling that there is this subtle continuity, something that from day to day remains; even after all the objects that enter and leave our conscious mind we sense this something that is essential about our lives, something distinct and different; and, most of all permanent: the sense of Self, our identity – our meaning and purpose, our memories and connections to a body and its relations with others, our sociality. But what is this thing after all? This Self we so believe in and never even question, but assume that everyone around us has as well. Is it real? Are just a packet of memories that resolve themselves through redundancy and recursive iterations of information seem to provide us the illusion of a unified identity through time, when indeed there is actually nothing at all there, nothing. Just an illusory vacuum filled with strange thoughts that appear from nowhere and soon drift off into that vast emptiness surrounding us on all sides.

And that raises again the question: What after all is consciousness? There’s a whole history of questions surrounding this in both philosophy and the sciences, and don’t forget all those authors among the drift of literature and the other arts. One can lose oneself in the literature surrounding the subject of Self and Identity. In fact one can see people who defend it, and those who tell us it’s all a great lie, that the Self has no Identity because there is no Self or Subject there at all. It’s just an illusion of your senses, the way evolution evolved you to work the environment within which you exist and against which you struggle to sustain your life – the natural world.

Reading Peter Watt’s novel Blindsight a world where genetic enhancement is normal while those who refuse the wonders of this scientific way of improvement seem to be relegated to the subhuman world of Darwinian throwbacks. In the opening Prologue we come upon Siri, a young man whose epileptic fits caused his parents in the late twenty-second century to have a radical hemispherectomy performed on their son. As Siri says of it: “half the brain thrown out with yesterday’s krill, the remaining half press-ganged into double duty”.1 But what happens after such a procedure? As Siri himself describes it:

It turned out okay, obviously. The brain’s a very flexible piece of meat; it took some doing, but it adapted. I adapted. Still. Think of all that must have been squeezed out, deformed, reshaped by the time the renovations were through. You could argue that I’m a different person than the one who used to occupy this body. (p. 2)

Because of this genetic predisposition and the surgery Siri like his friend Pag were part of the old normalcy, unenhanced and natural.

When we first meet Siri he is living somewhere on the deserts of Oregon. He seems to be a biologist of sorts and lives more or less as a hermit studying the various flora and fauna of the region for genetic disorders and anomalies. He begins to recount his youth. He remembers a long ago fight in which his friend Pag was the victim of a pack of boys who were genetically altered and improved, and who see both Siri and Pag as rejects or subhuman beasts – there being a sort of new species racism not based on skin color but on whether one is enhanced or not. So that those children whose parents refuse through religious or moral reasons to have enhancement therapies performed are ridiculed and ostracized.

We discover Pag being beaten up by several enhanced boys for being a normal, and his friend Siri standing of in the distance, emotionless yet curious as to his friends predicament. Siri feels no moral or emotional need to step in and help his friend. It’s as if whatever they removed from his brain had also removed any sense of moral or emotional registry, any sense of right and wrong. As Siri tells us:

In the end, propaganda worked where empathy failed. Back then I didn’t so much think as observe, didn’t deduce so much as remember— and what I remembered was a thousand inspirational stories lauding anyone who ever stuck up for the underdog. (p. 2)

Siri decides enough is enough and picks up two large rocks and proceeds to bash in the heads of every boy he can reach. As he bashes one boy in the face he’ll remember later: “I remember wondering why I didn’t take any satisfaction from that sound, why it meant nothing beyond the fact I had one less opponent to worry about.” This sense that he is missing something, that he should be feeling something but that even the feeling of satisfaction upon hitting an enemy was gone and that this act of violence meant nothing, nothing at all.

One of the boys who is lucky enough to escape Siri’s affectless justice hollers as he retreats: “Fucking zombie!” over his shoulder as he disappeared around the corner. (p. 2)

Siri no longer has any form of emotional or normative relation to his self, no sense of connection to that which would bind or check him from performing such aggressive and lethal attacks upon the children around him. Afterwards his friend Pag just stares at him like he is a ghost. Siri turns to his friend trying to explain:

“I was trying to help.” I didn’t understand why he couldn’t see that.

“You’re, you’re not the same,” Pag said from a safe distance. “You’re not even Siri anymore.”

“I am too. Don’t be a fuckwad.”

“They cut out your brain!”

“Only half. For the ep—”

“I know, for the epilepsy! You think I don’t know? But you were in that half— or, like, part of you was …” He struggled with the words, with the concept behind them.

“And now you’re different. It’s like, your mom and dad murdered you—”

“My mom and dad,” I said, suddenly quiet, “saved my life. I would have died.”

“I think you did die,” said my best and only friend.

“I think Siri died, they scooped him out and threw him away and you’re some whole other kid that just, just grew back out of what was left. You’re not the same. Ever since. You’re not the same.” (p. 2)

This sense that Siri’s personality, his identity in the eyes of the other, his friend Pag causes a rupture in their friendship from that day forward. As Siri remembers this as well as the all the years of his youth he offers an observation on his predicament:

So I survived that and a million other childhood experiences. I grew up and I got along. I learned to fit in. I observed, recorded, derived the algorithms and mimicked appropriate behaviors. Not much of it was … heartfelt, I guess the word is. I had friends and enemies, like everyone else. I chose them by running through checklists of behaviors and circumstances compiled from years of observation. (p. 2)

This sense of distancing, of being more like a computer than a human, of one who observes, records, derives algorithms and mimics behaviors rather than doing them naturally; this, and this alone separates him out from both his friend and the enhanced ones around him. Isolated and affectless he lives a life among others more like an alien being. As he says at the end of the prologue:

I may have grown up distant but I grew up objective, and I have Robert Paglino to thank for that. His seminal observation set everything in motion. It led me into Synthesis, fated me to our disastrous encounter with the scramblers, spared me the worse fate befalling Earth. Or the better one, I suppose, depending on your point of view. Point of view matters: I see that now, blind, talking to myself, trapped in a coffin falling past the edge of the solar system. I see it for the first time since some beaten bloody friend on a childhood battlefield convinced me to throw my own point of view away.

He may have been wrong. I may have been. But that, that distance— that chronic sense of being an alien among your own kind— it’s not entirely a bad thing. (p. 2)

It’s this sense of being objective – of no longer having a first-person singular point of view, of seeing himself in the third-person singular as a thing rather than a person, as a alien among humans; or as the alien thing I AM.

The book is about alien contact and Siri being entirely alien to himself and others becomes a pivotal entity within the First Contact scenario of the book. I was reminded of Alphonos Lingis’s book The First-Person Singular where he reminds us:

“To make contact with another is to break through that person’s integrity, nature, independence, autonomy – to violate him or her. Contact takes place when we risk ourselves, each of us putting ourself and the other in the region of death and nothingness. Those who go make contact with fanatics, psychotics, and terrorists find that something outside the imperative of the law – strange powers, demonic, cosmic – that we do not understand the rules in them. Antipsychiatrists who go live with psychotics, the doctors without borders and reporters without borders, pro bono lawyers defending the perpetrators of abject crimes find that they violate those they seek to help and expose themselves to being violated, outraged, wounded by them.”

This sense that there are those among us that are alien, and alien to themselves, that they play by other rules than we do – unnatural and alien rules of an order outside the known, a violent and demoniac world outside reason and the normative give and take of sociality. Leaves us anxious and fearful. But what about those who are this thing, this alien other? Reading Lingis’s paragraph one gets the feeling that all these who have tried to make contact with this alieness, this inhuman core of our own humanity have all failed, failed to touch that core and reveal anything, anything at all. That there truly is no way of contacting such alieness until we contact it in ourselves. And to do that would be to leave behind our own point-of-view, our own affects, our own biases – to become other ourselves, to become psychotics and sociopaths – creatures cut off from our beliefs, our emotions, our desires. To live lives like computers and algorithms based on pure observation, recording and mimicking the behavior of those around us rather than just doing it – whatever “it” is we assume to be natural and innate. What is it that is missing here? What it this strange “it” that the psychotics and sociopaths are missing? What really is this sense of an emotional Self? Is it a part of the brain – as Peter Watt’s suggests, that can be cut out turning a normal human into a sort of living zombie, an affectless creature wholly constructed according to computer algorithms and reasoning powers of observation, but devoid of all affective relations? What are our affects and desires anyway? Is it our emotions that make us human, or this combination of emotion/reason?

We love to dichotomize it into conscious/unconscious as if that could tell us anything. We have these fictional psychologies of observation that bring us “theatres of the mind”, else “productive unconscious” – or a thousands and one other linguistic, neuroscientific, or philosophical notions of what it is. Even now we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars of tax-payer money to map the brain itself to discover how the mind works, and if we can command and control its operations thereby using such knowledge for good or ill. Where will this lead us? One can only guess from how technologies have been used by governments and corporations in the past. It doesn’t bode well for humankind either way…

Either way enjoy Watt’s novel… it tries to show how an alien among us, one of our own makes contact with another alien species not our own. An interesting concept and fictional portrayal of what it means to communicate with the inhuman other even if it is the alien thing I AM. Maybe after all we are nothing more than the stories we tell ourselves on a lonely voyage into elsewhere… When someone asks: Who are you? Begin by saying: no one and everyone… then tell them the story of your life.

  1. Watts, Peter (2006-10-03). Blindsight. Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.

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