Saturday, 12 December 2015

Surrealism and Kabbalah: Yves Tanguy's Endless Space (1938)

The Tel Aviv Museum of Modern Art has an impressive collection of surrealist art. One that caught my attention today was this piece by Yves Tanguy

Tanguy is an old favourite of mine. Along with Kay Sage he created some of the strangest abstract landscapes which are intriguing and evocative while also being very cold to the touch. This piece is titled Endless Space, which is translated into Hebrew as חלל אינסופי. Ein Sof (אין סוף) is a term used by (though I don't think they originally coined it) the Kabbalists, to describe the highest unknowable peak of divinity: it translates literally as "without end". For the Kabbalists this was something like the internal essence of God, and stood in paradoxical distinction-from and unity-with the humanistic expression of God's personality, known through the Name YHWH (and it is this latter potency which is expressed in and as the individual qualities of the sefirotic tree).

The Hebrew Sof has, to our ears, echoes of the Greek Sofia: Wisdom, who in one Gnostic myth helped instigate the faulty creation by the hands of the lesser god (through, if I remember rightly, her lust for knowledge of the true God). Ein Sof then appears as that which stands before Wisdom's perceptive attempts to direct thought into a manageable form. In Hebrew "wisdom" is Chokhmah, the second sefirah which stands parallel to Binah (understanding).

In Tanguy's piece, shapes which are at once concrete, admitting some kind of form or spatial solidity, and yet appearing to await form, still not pressed into a shape which fits the contours of human thought, stand as spectators; they seem to be watching the arena for the real action; the arena itself is simply a shadowy depression in the landscape and all we can find there are perhaps two pebbles. The emptiness itself is what creates the impression of endlessness; without specific objects to provide distinction and measurement we cannot tell a millimetre from a light year. Is there also a hint of gravitational pull, the penumbra of a black hole which warps and wraps time and space around itself?

Without End, without beginning; before wisdom and understanding began their process of incubating thought, gestating particularised forms for a comprehensible world; but also that primal chaos which is at the heart of everything, the raw formless nature which precipitates identity, drawing qualities like a cloak around itself.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

parasitic ideologies (musings from the World Press Photo exhibition)

There's an excellent exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall (Southbank, London) at the moment. This year's World Press Photo competition collects several individual photographs and sets (termed in the exhibition  "stories"), including carnivorous plants (and the post-carnivorous which now live in harmony with animals, swapping housing for nutrient-rich droppings - this one also deserves its own link), the effects on orangutans of palm-oil farming in Indonesia, environmental degradation and its concealment in China, the Gezi park protests in Istanbul, the aftermath of the 2014 Gaza war, Eritrean wedding festivities in Israel, the Russian offensive in Ukraine, a transgender community being aided by Sunni groups in Indonesia, the Nigerian schoolgirl abduction, development in Mongolia, and an American community of sexual offenders.

What I found the most captivating was Anand Varma's images depicting that subclass of parasites which actively take control of their host, manipulating it into patterns of behaviour which are necessary for the parasite to continue its own life cycle. Usually these lead to the death of the host, for example in the case of the nematode which, entering ants through the bird droppings they collect, turns its abdomen bright red like a ripe berry, while influencing the ant to walk with its rear end raised - thus making it more apparent to the birds which will eat it, under the impression that it is a tasty little berry. The nematode can only complete its life cycle and reproduce while in the gut of these birds.

There are many more examples, and I've read about them also in the pages of New Scientist. The most famous, and perhaps concerning, is the   virus which is present in cat feces and serves to influence mice to behave in an unnaturally brave/careless manner, so making them more likely to get eaten by said cat. Some people have speculated that the virus could also be influencing humans who live with cats and are exposed to their feces through a litter tray.

This has made me think about the role that a metaphysical kind of virus can play in the human world. Ideologies such as communism, fascism, religious concepts, and the like, cannot survive outside the human world; they require us in order to reproduce themselves and spread their evolving progeny. An idea such as life after death, or metaphysical salvation must emerge in the context of consciousness. But once it has emerged, once it has become a species of idea or way of looking at the world, it can influence the life and behaviour of some individuals, encouraging them towards attention-attracting lifestyles and preaching which then spread rapidly through a population (think of how quickly Buddha's ideas regarding life and social order spread through India and then the Asian continent). Such ideas may affect our brains but they are not necessarily passed on in our genes; rather they pass horizontally, infecting those we come into contact with, taking control of their behaviour in a way that will, if the idea-virus is to be succesful, similarly influence other people to change their behaviour. The idea can even evolve, incorporating new data into itself from each host, experimenting with new mutant forms, only the most effective of which will survive in any given environment. And so we see how the Japanese form of Buddhism is radically different from the prior Indian, geared as it is towards the way of life and cultural nuances of the Japanese it encountered.

Crucially, there is nothing in this process which necessarily leads to a positive outcome for the human hosts; all that is required is that the behaviour of the host successfully influences others to adopt the idea or a mutation of it. And so we see this in some forms (the most obvious at the moment being Jihadism), which actively drive some adherents towards suicide. Jihadism of course is not the only such case, and it can be argued that the host themselves, under the influence of the ideology, is in a state of bliss regarding their behaviour; much as the Orthodox Christian monk makes themselves incapable of reproducing their own genetic lineage (surely a tragically unnatural outcome for the host), while preserving and aiding the ideology; or, the Indian Aghori ascetics, who remove themselves completely from normal society in order to pursue their devotion on an individual basis, replicating in some way Agamben's homer sacer, the "sacred" man who is condemned and judged to have placed themselves outside society and therefore whose murder is unpunishable; anyone may at any time kill them without consequences.

This way of looking at metaphysical postulates, and how they can take on a life of their own which then turns back and alters both individual consciousness and society, is something I find fascinating, and I've been working out some of the implications in recent publications. 

The progressive evolution of these ideological viruses is something we would be wise to contemplate. They are not self-aware enough to keep enough humans alive to preserve themselves entirely. They can influence us in ways that might be devastating for human civilisation. As well as the political instabilities threatened by Jihadism, the Christian American right-wing seems intent on a game of chicken with climate change, which some have managed to incorporate into their own doctrine of apocalypse and redemption; but the outcomes will affect us all.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Some thoughts about Paris, the history of Western-Middle Eastern relations and the role of nation states

Two things to share, first of all; one long and one short.

The age of despair: reaping the whirlwind of western support for extremist violence (Counterpunch)

Bitter Lake (Adam Curtis' dramatic feature-length analysis of the west's intervention in Afghanistan and what this tells us about imperialism and social narratives) - iPlayer link

I have sympathy with the Counterpunch article; it is certainly the case that Western powers have done much to manipulate, control and overthrow governments in the Middle East if they were not favourable to our interests (and of course not just in the Middle East). It is worth noting however, these nations were not pre-existing stable entities; at the end of the first world war, Sykes-Picot carved up the region which had been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for centuries; there is little reason to think that stable nations would have emerged from there (the western construct of nation states is predicated on individualist universalism which developed in our culture over centuries, and isn't so far native to this region with strong traditions of tribalism), or that, left to their own devices, the evolution into stability would have been free of bloodshed (the creation of social order never is). However, in this region the West has found itself increasingly on the wrong side and apparently making choices which guaranteed its people the beneficial use of resources from those lands without having the foresight to grasp what the social effect of their lack of concern for human life in those countries would be: a similar lack of concern for western life by the people whose lives and environments have become hellish. When America and the UK overthrew the democratic revolution in Iran, installing instead the very power we now find so reprehensible, the governments and agencies seemingly thought only of immediate fiscal benefits to our nations and populations; but as the human tragedy has spread across and  out of the Middle East during the 20th century we increasingly see Western civilians - who benefited from material gains mostly without knowing the cost at which they came - bearing the effects of our governments' choices.

There is something to say here about the nature of nation states. Some commentators have remarked that this underscores the need for more powerful state forces, to monitor and protect civilians (omniscience is a requirement of omnipotence, after all; I find it interesting that in a West largely irreligious now we find still the comfort/despair of absent freedom under the watchful eye of Government, where freedom is still only the freedom to be what you are allowed - and is certainly more a freedom-to than a freedom-from); I get this. Authority is an important part of human nature, and having authority to respect and to exert discipline is important for the stability of social order. Anarchy as a system is practicable only on the (very) small scale. It is the duty of nation states to protect their people, and sometimes the people have to feel the pressure of that happening. But we also need to problematise the nation state. It is this very function which has allowed governments to manipulate other societies in order to get the best deal for the people of their own; in the competition which seems necessary between these meta-individuals, there will always be the more- and the less-powerful; and the former will take advantage of the latter in order to maintain their privilege. Does it have to be this way? If we international politics takes its lead from the same source which conditions human group-action, then probably yes. So we should always be willing to challenge the increasing power of a state, because the executive control and decision-making apparatus of (national/individual) consciousness has to be 99% organically determined by the needs of the constituents lest it forget what connects it to the body it controls. But, what happens when states themselves are internally disintegrating due to conflicting identities and narratives within the population? Then we find the kind of brutal repression of non-conforming groups which we ourselves criticise those less-than-democracies for.

And still, the refugees of collapsing countries, destroyed by internal tensions developed as brutal dictators are supported by America and Europe and then removed under the smokescreen of "human rights" without consideration of human nature, flood into Europe - a place which attempts to offer universal rights and freedom to all, as long as you are inside the borders or hold one of our passports. The children of these refugees, realising that the prejudice they face in free Europe is another side of the knife which cut their parents from their homeland, are likely also to consider how they will deal with their place in society - by exacting violent revenge on the citizens who pretend not to know the cost of their freedoms and lifestyles?

And what now will the West do? If it is Daesh, the Islamic State, behind it (as we must suspect), a larger offensive will soon be underway. And what then of the civilians of this region, who welcomed the simple certainty which IS brought to a region collapsing into chaos, the law and stability necessary to human social life even if they are sometimes too harsh for comfort? Will they welcome this stable if oppressive government being removed? Or will they also fight to protect themselves against those who first protected Hussein then killed him and handed Iraq to the lions? If IS is destroyed, what worse force will take its place?

I still do not think this is anything to do with religion, or with Islam. It's to do with the simple mechanical effects of coming from or witnessing regions which have been socially devastated; of bearing scars which can no longer heal; of having witnessed the black void which stands on the brink of society, always threatening to engulf it and make us animals again. The biggest individual killer of the 20th century wasn't Islam, it was Soviet Communism (clocking up some 65 million deaths, most from within the Soviet Union's own population - an attempt to instill the national-intellectual homogeny required for a united state, a means of cleansing the narrative), although communism didn't match fascism for its sheer disgust with human life. Now, I wonder, if we seek explanations for what happens in terrorist attacks such as those in Paris, why do we not for Nazi Germany, for example? The nationalist fervour, the xenophobia and the rise of Nazism are something of a direct result of the crippling of German economy after the first world war - hatred never comes from a vacuum, it must serve a purpose in alleviating a greater suffering.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Three thoughts

Three thoughts occurred to me in quick succession today.

It's not so much about choices; there really are very few choices we make. We are guided, shepherded, into behaviours, funnelled into opinions. Whether by neural pathways or social pressures or simply the apparent logical necessity of one idea following another, of evading cognitive dissonance. The internal logic, whether physical or psychic, is oftentimes impossible to escape. But it feels like free will (and this isn't an argument for determinism as much as it is an argument for self-awareness; a call to be aware of the choices we don't make, and the opportunity for breaking our habits). Personality feels like something we own; like a choice of behaviours we make. In fact it is something more like a cage from which we cannot escape, or an opaque, striated net through which our being takes form; the most prominent features we possess are already carved into our external presence, and we assume that it is "us" that makes them so. In fact, it makes us.

Much, so much, has changed in our ways of life in the last century. And we have forgotten very quickly what life used to be like. We - those of us living since the Second World War - are the first generations ever to have not had an overriding concern with acquiring food. This to us now seems unbelievable: food is a natural resource, it simply grows from the ground around us (or even more simply - we are surrounded with opportunities to buy food in shops. The shelves are never empty. How could this change?). How could acquiring and assuring food be a problem? The system of global colonial-capitalism locates us inside a bubble almost at breaking point, but one beyond which we can see no horizon. Food is grown and sold to us; our gardens and natural areas grow plants, we can buy seeds easily for our own use. But if a shift were to occur in how global civilisation operates these finely tuned trade routes can cease to exist and communities will find themselves once more at the mercy of nature - a nature now more violent, more unpredictable, more prone to chaotic and destructive events than pre-industrial society survived.

The rate at which we are degrading the environment ("sawing off the branch we are sitting on" as one climate scientist put it) and the predictions of scientists regarding the medium-term future for our species and planet have made almost no impression on the majority of people. Governments half-heartedly pursue half-baked schemes to reduce carbon emissions but whatever good intentions exist are scuppered by more pressing short-term needs to stay near the top of the civilisation-food chain. At some point in the 21st century, the populace will experience a shock akin to Seth Brundle's son Martin: in the film The Fly 2, Martin is unceremoniously told there is nothing that can be done to prevent his - increasingly rapid - mutation into another form of "life" (to put it kindly - his genetic inheritance is 50% fly, and it is about to assert its dominance). But the injections, they help me - he protests. The injections were just water, Martin. Just for your peace of mind.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Music again

not so long since the last music post, so i guess there won't be much to include in this one. how was 2014 for the world of the aural arts? pretty decent.

I've been aware for a couple of years of Ilyas Ahmed, a Pakistani-born American who makes a blurry, woozy guitar-voice folk music not unlike Grouper. But it was only recently I invested in a couple of his albums. They're really good.

The Grouper album has been hailed like a revelation in many circles. I like it too, and it's grown on me since the first unimpressed listening. It's nice to know that after all this time music can still creep up on me. Strangely I think my favourite is the instrumental drifty closer, Made of Air. To be fair though, I think I prefer her guitar-based earlier stuff; the idea of an album all on piano was pretty nice, but I'm not sure it's amazing. When PJ Harvey did the same thing, she made something really special but this doesn't reach those heights. Maybe it's not a fair comparison - White Chalk really is something else, completely unlike Polly or anyone else's music before or since. Ruins is pretty much Grouper on a piano. Pretty, muffled, hazy, Liz Harris making Grouper songs on a piano.

Dalglish is a man who's been plugging away for many years now; but this year saw one of his best releases for a long time. The new Canadian label Ge-Stell began their existence with a beautifully presented, clear vinyl in a screen-printed PVC sleeve. In this case the package fits the music so perfectly I have no qualms about it. The music is crystalline, organic, beautiful, rich and complex, sophisticated and unlike anything else. This is really an artist coming into his own, and realising the potential for the sound he's been developing intently for the past years. It's futuristic electronic music with vision and emotion. Unwisely, I'm tempted to label it 'post-glitch'. It puts most music to shame, that which is rushed out without any sensitivity, without an  artistic approach or believing that simple passion can replace hard graft. Excellent work from someone highly underrated but who will be remembered as one of the 21st century's great composers.

Dalglish live set from earlier this year (now enabled for download!)

Thom Yorke's second solo album was unexpectedly released, as a deluxe vinyl and download. It's good - not as good as The Eraser, which was surely one of the last decade's five best albums. But it's good. It has those same Yorkey skittery beats, melodies which get more intense the more you listen to them, despite first appearing quite plain. Something Thom does which I really like is sudden injections of the sinister into otherwise passive tracks. This is most obvious on opener A Brain in a Bottle. The titles are pretty weird; "There is no ice (for my drink)"? And his mumbly singing, authentic as is possible with no hint of rock n roll stardom, is disarming as always.

Aphex Twin. Well y'know, what to say about this. Let's just skip to the music, none of the hype needs repeating again. It's good. It's not amazing, and RDJ himself described it as a pop album. No surprises, no extreme degrees of anything but it's highly accomplished and skillful electronic music aimed at the heart as much as the feet. I've got to say, though...the limited edition thing pissed me off. We as fans paid through the nose for a triple vinyl edition, and then Warp have the gumption to dangle a limited package with a bonus track in front of us and price it at £250, available only to those finding the golden ticket in their chocolate bar. After two or more people bid the Caustic Window LP up to $46K they knew they could get away with whatever they wanted with this. It looked like a nice package, kind of like owning a piece of art over and above the music. But it's like rubbing the average fan's nose in their limited pay packet. What's your game Mr James? Oh yeah, making music and occasionally taking time to selling it to us.

So yeah, The Bug's Angels and Devils. I'm actually quite surprised this garnered so much acclaim. It's good and he's developing his sound but as an album I don't feel it really hangs together so well, and there are a couple of tracks which really rub me up the wrong way. I knew I'd prefer the Angels half to the Devils and I wasn't wrong. Some great material on the first but there's not much on the second disc for me. Was surprised to find that Death Grips actually worked out the best of the latter - plus I think the depth and detail on this track is more than the others. Can't stand Function, I really don't like those cheesy horns There's something really distinctive about Kevin's sound - the pressure of it. There's no let up, and even in the mysterious downtempo tracks everything's so compressed there's no room for subtlety. It can get quite wearing after a while (but I'm sure it's amazing live for the same reasons). Love the Grouper colab, likewise Copeland's. What pissed me off most? Well a month or two after the LP dropped he released a double 12 featuring six tracks - two from the LP, and two new tracks plus two instrumentals. I wanted the new tracks, especially the second collaboration with Liz Harris which matches the one on the LP in original brilliance but no way am I going to shell out £15 for two tracks. Seriously, why - after a double 180g album on which everything sounds heavy as fuck - do you need to make a double vinyl single with repeats of two of the same cuts? My answer: it's the deluxe thing. Make things massive, expansive and luxurious and people, especially the vinyl buying music geeks, will throw money at you. That's been writ large this year and most of the time I've fallen for it too. (Note: I didn't with The Bug's Exit; I just bought the two MP3s I wanted) Annoying. OK, music fans have always been commodified and sold whatever crap could be mustered, usually by the most respectable and serious artists and labels (I'm looking at you, Mute. Don't think I have forgotten the whole 2-part CDsingle was your idea first, introduced by Nitzer Ebb of all people). Sure, it's nice to have something beautiful, a triple gatefold vinyl with a foldout poster and a 12x12 glossy booklet with lyrics hand written by the singer's mom and clear vinyl pressed with the band's piss and hair in it (yes, that bit actually happened this year). I'm not saying it isn't. But it's not about the music anymore. It's about commodity and the scarcity-created illusion of need and false-value, tagged on to your favourite band's name and music which doesn't sound much different downloaded as a FLAC from Bandcamp; only much less wasteful and a quarter the price. Why do we do it? Why do cool bands do it to us? This still confuses me. When did underground authenticity fall from distributing your sounds to whoever would hear, via any medium, to extravagant deluxe limited editions of ever more bizarre character? Of course, it hasn't...the real underground still just make their music and put it out there however they can, with or without physical release of packaging. The worst offenders are the middle ground, the successful alternative musicians. Here are some egregious examples from my collection this year.

Young Gods' underrated late career album Second Nature got a deluxe picture disc reissue. In a tote bag. With a signed film still, a postcard, and a dried flower. What does this add (apart from £15 on the asking price?) Well they fit with the visual theme I suppose. This is one of the best things they've done in my opinion. Strange, glistening, passionate, entrancing, still with melodies, rhythmic pace and unusual, processed sounds. There's nothing else like it. Is it worth buying a reissue of it? Well, it's nice, it looks great and it's good that a forgotten and excellent album can still get some extra exposure, but I was disappointed to rediscover how noisy picture discs are. Disappointing in these days of hi fidelity audio. If you want it to listen to, probably better off with a second hand CD.

Circle Takes the Square reissued - twice! - their debut As The Roots Undo. It's welcome, for many. The original has been OOP for years and the new versions are beautiful. The first was a tour edition (in 2 colour variations, in silk screened gatefold; the second was a lovely white black splatter vinyl (or brown) in a full colour triple gatefold. Yes, I caved and bought them both. Idiot. It's a nice to thing to have and of course the music is awesome but it's still just a fucking reissue of music which is available from Bandcamp for pay-what-you-want. Life was so much simpler (and cheaper) when for a few precious years I just bought CDs.

:zoviet*france made an album with Fossil Aerosol Mining Project which drew some attention, mostly for its packaging - a 12x24 sheet of distressed and laser etched steel, folded around two 180g vinyls. It comes with some detritus collected from an American warehouse in the 80s (which turned out to be...two 12"x12" sheets of corrugated card cut from random product boxes which house the records inside the steel and a tiny scrap of carpet stapled inside one of those pieces!) The surprise? It's actually very good to listen to. Warm and ambient, quite lush and with an organic hint of melody - it's an album which stands up quite apart from the concept, yet the concept works to make it better, more tactile and more emotionally appealing.

There was a new album from Blut Aus Nord, last year's black metal discovery. Memoria Vetusta III: Saturnian Poetry. This is pretty nice, very accomplished and it has a rich, complex feel while being quite organic. The production's pretty tight. To be fair (is it just me?) it doesn't evil like this kind of thing used to. Maybe this is low on the Satanic index, more on the pagan vibe. Maybe it's difficult to still sound evil when you're in the third installment of a multilayered concept album. Maybe there's something about trying to make a whole album sound fully intense so that the lack of dynamic renders everything as background fuzz, which is certainly the case here. The packaging is beautiful, a gatefold with a 12x12 booklet attached inside.

Scott Walker and Sunn 0))) made a massive noise in both literal and metaphorical senses with their collaborative LP Soused. Happily, I drew the line at this and bought the £9 CD instead of the £25 double 180g vinyl gatefold. Again, it's, well it's good. It's interesting and it's original. It's not great. It might even be very good. Even with the enormous density of the sound, there's sparse times and there's subtlety (though not tons of it). I like Scott's vocals on this, they're weird and it's not a style I normally like - this eccentric, all-over the register thing grates on my nerves a little but he does it well here and it fits with the concept in a way I wouldn't have expected. No compromises, and this odd pairing works well.

So who has been making real underground, no frills music? Well, Lea Cummings (aka Kylie Minoise) had a great tape out on Kiks/Girlfriend. Two deep, meditative, beat-based soundworlds not unlike a more minimal-droney Seefeel. Very simple, very good. Kiks' tapes are simple and effective, just a yellow layout with black and white graphic. I like that style. On the same label, WASPS's Accelerone Curves tape comes in a bag with a single piece of card, not even a case. Nice.

HTRK put out a three track CD of blurry refixes from their LP. It's good, not entirely sure what the point of it is (it's not a single, it's self-released, it's all it just something they did in an afternoon and thought fans might like? is it just a money-making gambit?) but it's not expensive, even when posted from Australia.

The Ugandan Methods/Prurient colab paid off well - I wasn't sure I'd like this but I think the oppressive synthwork Dominic brings complements Regis and Ancient Methods' tight, bruised beats. There's always been more to Regis than techno, and this collaboration shows a nice development from what he's been doing recently.

Knifed Out Of Existence seems to be making some waves. I've seen him play a couple of times and I prefer his recordings - live it's just a bludgeoning noise scream fest but recorded there's a lot of grainy subtlety and clicky clanky rhythms. All his releases are pay-what-you-want on Bandcamp if you're not into physical or just want to check em out.

And actually - due I think to Ben's influence - I've come to a deeper appreciation of the brutal end of noise than I had before. I always liked the idea but I didn't really get how to listen to it before.  Aesthetically it really appeals to me at the moment. I'm enjoying a lot the emotional simplicity of it, which adds to the intensity of the music. Also I've got to see the underground/ outsider thing has grown on me a lot more recently in the midst of becoming more aware of the massive commercialisation of some of the music I love. S.T.A.B. Electronics are a project I know little about, one guy I think but making some unusual, taut and captivating sounds. The LP Instrument for Operating on Mutant Women is really good. Something I like about this is that it isn't just white noise - there's a lot of grainy fuzz and vocal samples, as well as some sickness-induced modulated synth sounds that are more pummelling than pure noise.

I'd really like to be able to talk next about Puce Mary's Persona LP which has got more acclaim than most noise releases could expect - but I'm still waiting for my copy to arrive >:(.

I also picked up some tapes by Bagman which are nicely extreme.

After the original CDRs these were rereleased last year by Crucial Blast. I found them through the UK label Reverse Records UK, a relatively new but interesting venture putting out noise and power electronics. Their emphasis is on packaging, which is very sophisticated compared to a lot of noise/pe which goes for an extremely underground style. They retain the gruesome/extreme imagery though, which makes for an interesting combination. I got some other stuff, the best of which is a DVD called Transgressive Collective - a collection of tracks released by RR and some unreleased, with videos created by label boss Keith Mitchell. While I have no time for videos accompanying commercial music, I think the artistic merging of audio and visual has a lot of exciting possibilities, only some of which have so far been explored. Keith does it well here and I've enjoyed the pieces as a whole.

I will say, these vids again remind me of our old video for Blaque Meat for which we cut up some old footage of Hermann Nitsch actions. Which is a nice springboard to say that I uploaded some old DisinVectant tracks to YouTube.

Finally, I rediscovered in the last few days the Von Archives releases I bought a while back. Von are doing some really interesting things in the audio-visual realm, and with a distinctive brand identity which I find very pleasing (every release is packaged in a grainy black and white portrait photograph which adds a degree of austere seriousness to everything). I only have two, and the best of these is Z'Ev's Eyear which contains four experiments where the audio track was played through various media and the resulting movement videoed.

That's all folks. See you again next year!

obligatory Charlie Hebdo post

I had no intention of writing about the Charlie Hebdo massacre until very recently (like, twenty minutes ago). In the beginning, I heard about it and didn't pay it much mind. Terrorism is a fact of life now. It's not the first terrorist attack in France, it's not unexpected, it wasn't even a particularly high loss of life. Days later two thousand (TWO THOUSAND) were slaughtered in Nigeria with a similar motive. In this case the victims were public figures, part of the establishment media in France, and doubtless the air of familiarity that carries has made people feel this more acutely than they otherwise would.

The second reason I didn't intend to write was because I didn't have a simple opinion about it, unlike most who have raised their voices. In fact it would be fair to say I didn't have an opinion at all until I started reading other peoples' and thinking "yeah you have a point there". So I wavered a lot and did some mulling and I think there's some things which I still haven't heard anyone say. I'm going to say those, along with some things that have already been said.

Let's get it clear: there's no absolutes in this. It's deceptively easy to invoke certain principles which our culture believes in an say that trumps all else. Free speech is an important principle and it's one that underpins liberal democracy - meaning Western European culture. But despite what many people say, in life our free speech is always subject to the censure of common sense. If I insult someone, mock them and make a fool of them, then they may turn violent. I have a legal right to do it, and short of slander I can say whatever I want to and about other people. But then I expect certain consequences if I go about it in the wrong way. If the victim responds violently then they have broken the law and may be punished, but me in hospital and them in prison doesn't seem a victory for anyone. For that reason, most of us do not exercise the extremes of free speech which we defend.

Charlie Hebdo did; knowing that it's a very sensitive subject they published cartoons mocking religions and religious beliefs. Islam wasn't the only religion they mocked - they also got their claws into Judaism and Christianity. They did this knowing - let's be honest - that they would face at most some mild criticism from conservative members of the latter two. It's an accepted part of our culture to offer criticism and outright mockery to religion, as much as it is to politics. It's in of the secular west's holy cows. The right to satire. Most of us believe it firmly. I'm certainly one of them. Some humour makes me uncomfortable but I deal with it. It's part of living in a freeish country, with all the benefits that entails. What is the difference between mocking Islam and mocking Christianity? Well, effectively none. And especially for those of us without religious faith, the post-religious in the West, all religious are equally archaic and distanced from our intellectual milieu as to be fitting targets. But secularism is located within a particular religious setting. It is not by accident that the secular world is basically synonymous with Christendom: It is essentially a post-Christian phenomenon - the secular world is the latest incarnation of Christendom. It is the stage that happens in our culture after the specific religious belief of Christianity is filtered out, but still our metaphysics, our cultural presumptions and intellectual baggage remain. We, in the West, the majority of us have grown up as Christian whether we practice or not - it is encoded in our culture. We know the gist of the New Testament, we know the festivals, we know the creation story and the basic soteriology of Christianity. In mocking Christianity we are mocking our own history. Judaism now is assimilated with varying degrees of comfort, to the extent that it too can be considered a part of the religious establishment of the West. Islam is not. It is still a religion - or better, a culture - which is outside the commonly conceived essence of Europe and the West.* It is not at all unusual for Western culture to hold fast the value of critique, of poking things even if it hurts as an objective value applicable to all, but then to reserve the harshest poking for that which is alien to it; the defense "hey, I do this to myself too" doesn't really cut it. Just because I punch myself in the face doesn't mean everyone else should let me do it to them.

*A large part of this is because it has external homelands where Muslims reside and from where they emigrate; Judaism does not have this to such a degree, the tiny state of Israel still being a nation effectively of refugees from other tragedies. Secondly, becasue Jewish life has been part of Europe for centuries.

There is a kind of cultural imperialism in the belief that satire is just fine, it can be pointed wherever we like and everyone should accept the insults. But then what is multiculturalism about? If Muslims live in the West, shouldn't they accept Western values as westerners would when leaving elsewhere? Yes. Simple answer. Just like immigrants to Britain should indeed learn English. It's bad for everyone if people don't attempt to integrate and grin and bear the challenges that brings to some degree. Part of living in these countries is accepting that people don't take religion too seriously, and will often take the piss quite cruelly.

Does freedom of speech mean the right to offend? Does it include hate speech? Does it include the right to incite others to violence? These are the difficult questions which free speech brings. Clearly if we're going to hold to some kind of free-speech principle we need to know exactly how far that freedom goes. There is a point at which ridicule does actually become psychological aggression. And while it is very easy for the mainstream of society to say "it's just words", words are experienced very differently by those who are oppressed by the mainstream, locked out of the warm embrace of social acceptance. It's all words to begin with, but words represent and help to form a social reality of discrimination and prejudice. Would it be different if the terrorists had targeted the offices of the Front National?

Now this makes it seem as if Muslims don't have self-control; autonomy. Everyone is essentially responsible for their own actions. It is never acceptable to say "they made me"; provocation can be an influence, but never a cause. It is worth reciting this: Jews in Europe and the Middle East (i.e., under Christianity and under Islam), in the face of centuries of oppression far worse than Muslims now face, never countenanced violent response. There has also been little evidence of retribution from Christian minorities in the Middle East who have faced severe (read: genocidal) difficulties. The black American civial rights movement had little truck with violence except in self-defence. The Roma have not committed a single act of terrorism. Oppression does not necessitate violence. People choose their own response, with a large helping hand from the peer pressure and way they interpret the culture they align with.

Is there a problem in Islam? Certainly. In Islam right now there is a huge problem. Terrorism - both within Islamic states and non-Islamic - is becoming synonymous with Islam. And it's particularly telling that this response occurs not just towards oppressive Western countries, but also within Islamic and African countries (though by no means all of them). Muslims are hardly an oppressed minority in Nigeria or Pakistan. This wasn't always the case - Islamic civilisation was for a long time much more peaceful and tolerant than Christendom. And let's be very honest - in terms of violence, in terms of numbers killed, the amount of Muslims which the modern West has killed either directly - through invasion, war, drones - or indirectly - through propping up dictatorships, quashing democratic revolutions, carrying out proxy wars - is far far more than the amount of Westerners Muslims have killed. It's a different kind of violence: either a war carried out where civilians are collateral damage, a war that is against a state often also abusive towards its citizens (and often helped into power by Western funds); or the subtle violence of sweatshops, natural resource plundering, all for the protection of Western interests and the quality of life in Europe. My point is, the West also has a problem. And it's a massive one. The urge to hold on to power, power for some, for the "free" people of the West, means subjugating and controlling those of the East who may otherwise pursue their own interests and privelige their own rights and freedoms over ours. Or at the very least compromise our total agency in the world, our right to do and say whatever we feel, with an alternative viewpoint, an Other which faces us as an equal. So, let's not kid ourselves. Western culture and Western governments have no more respect for life than Islamic ones do. Human lives are always collateral in the grand scheme of politics, a machine which chews up souls in a way nature could only imagine.

But there's no easy answers to this. There never are, are there? When we have to find a way of dealing with human relations its so attractive to say that one principle trumps all others. But we're all trying to live in this world together. If I want to do something and feel like I have every right to do something, it's still the case that I am not the final arbiter. I morally ought to think about other peoples' feelings and about how other people might interpret what I say.

Saturday, 20 December 2014

The visual field and ideas about consciousness

First post for a while and it's a long one. Starts off talking about a recent New Scientist article, its implications for the nature of perception and consciousness and then goes off into waffle about politics and protest.

There's a particularly interesting article by Laura Spinney in an October edition of New Scientist which I've only just got around to reading (as I lay in my freezing bed this morning, bemoaning how little time and energy I currently have for the intellectual pursuits I love). On the website the article is behind a pay wall, so I've copied it below in the hope that if readers find it really fascinating they'll take out a subscription, or maybe just buy a copy of NS every so often.

The article is nominally about "inversion-goggle" experiments, and how we construct our visual field. I'd read about these experiments while studying psychology as a teenager. In the classical studies, an experimenter donned goggles which inverted his (yes, his) vision - both horizontally and vertically. After several days of confusion and fraught interaction with the world, the experimenter typically would report a flipping of the visual field such that suddenly the world was the right way up again. All's well (until he removes the googles, and it takes his brain another few days to reinvert his vision).

Contemporary versions of this experiment, informed by developments in the philosophy of mind and cognition, have provoked different interpretations. The experimenters (still he, as far as I could tell from this article) now find that a single flip of the visual field never occurs; rather, there is a gradual but incremental adaptation to the new way that one must interact with the world the eyes describe. Certain functions adapt quicker than others and there is a fragmenting of vision such that some objects and processes appear "right-way" up at the same time as others are inverted.

This has provoked some commentary about the nature of consciousness and the problems with the Cartesian model of a single internal representation of the world which the subject uses to navigate their way around the real world outside them.

Someone unmentioned in the article but who immediately sprang to mind for me, is Daniel Dennett who developed a fragmentary, process-based model of consciousness in Consciousness Explained. In this text Dennett uses many scientific studies to build a theory that consciousness is effectively textual (that's my wording, he never says that); our interpretation of the world is a construct based around what we expect to be the case based on the best evidence to hand at the time - and one which is constantly being rewritten. For Dennett there is no Cartesian theatre of conscious awareness (and no corresponding subconscious) - rather we are constantly in the process of adding tiny fragments of information into a bigger picture which is never complete. In one example, he cites a study where two consecutively blinking lights centimetres apart appear, to the observer, to be one light moving between different points; such movement never happens, but the brain constructs it because it expects such a pattern of information to imply movement. Dennett asks, what would happen if we paused the subject's brain inbetween the two flashes? Would they be experiencing the light half-way between the two points, as they later remember having done? No: that movement was only retrospectively written into the experience, there was never a qualia of that movement. Dozens of other examples bolster his (very convincing) argument for such a revisionary textual model of consciousness over the traditional panoramic one where the subjective world is presented as a photograph in which the subject can wonder, where facts and detail remain the same regardless of the focus of attention.*

*It is common knowledge in memory studies now that memory is not a matter of accessing stable recordings of events encoded in our brains, but rather a reimagining every time the memory is accessed; we effectively rewrite the memory each time we think it, reconstructing it along with the associations and interpretations it comes to have as we grow and learn more about the world and ourselves.

Spinney goes on to describe a theory oc perception called "enactivism". This holds that "thinking and feeling arise in the dynamic interaction between an organism and its environment" and therefore "your subjective experience of being is created by your awareness of the myriad different ways your self interacts with the world as you move around an explore it." This has striking implications for consciousness because it means that the senses, and the kind of body, through which we interact with the world, determine the structures and patterns of our thought. This is important because it suggests - in fact requires - that thought has to be located subjectively within the parameters of particularity. Most interestingly, it means that other lifeforms will have different structures of thought which are to varying degrees unlike our own. Of course, life on earth is as far as we know all variations on a single theme which developed millions of years ago, sharing an environment who's nature has certain strict boundaries; but life, or thought, is not necessarily constrained to earth or the kinds of environment it provides; again, not mentioned in the article is one of my recurrent ponderings, that any kind of computer-based intelligence, even though designed by us, would evolve ways of thinking that were unimaginable to us; based on their experience, their specific modes of embodiment, and their relationship with the world (which included their relationship with humans, whatever format that might take). But the main conclusion, that consciousness cannot be reduced to a single process or substance, is well-supported by the argument and evidence and one I in particular find easy to accept.

Before I post the article, there is something related to all this which I think is important to bring forward. In these times of tension, violence, repression and intrastate conflict, there has very much been a marking of lines and separation in sides: who supports the police in their actions to "protect" society, even though they may sometimes make mistakes; who supports the protestors in places like Ferguson, and chant All Cops Are Bastards; who supports Israel's use of force to protect its civilian population and who supports the Palestinian struggle attempting to release itself from this grip. These two (four?) situations, extremely contentious and cause of many arguments, are, to me, part of a bigger issue which will long continue to blight our world - that social roles are effectively determined, once a dynamic begins to take shape then behaviour becomes almost impossible to vary. The famous Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated that a single group of students, arbitrarily divided into prisoners and guards, would very quickly develop the kind of behaviours which we see in the real world and likewise relationships to each other: the guards become authoritarian and abusive, the prisoners become either passive victims and collaborators, or aggressively rebellious. There is a dynamic where if you give someone a uniform and a weapon and tell them it is their job to protect society, they will dehumanise anyone they see as acting against them: these are the troublemakers, the ones who are threatening peaceful civilisation (even if they are just selling cigarettes); for those victimised by the police, it is rather the police who are dehumanised in their eyes, becoming tools of repression, essentially violent and stupid. No one is right in their views - in the process of dehumanisation we see not the complexity of human judgment, the structures which determine our thoguht processes and conclusions, we see only the end-result, the us and them and, working back from that, we project some monstrous kind of beliefs, some un-empathisable wickedness which has led "them" to act in such a way, a way which to us is inconceivable because our own experiences - our own environment which helps to structure our thought - cannot possibly lead to that view of reality.

I have often heard it said (and this says more about the people I listen to than anything else) that white society doesn't understand the struggles of that black (or other minority) groups have to go through; likewise that men don't understand how much pressure there is on women in our culture. This is true; so is the opposite, however (and this isn't a prelude to some horrific kind of meninism). It's very difficult to step outside our own shoes. In these examples the oppressed groups are focussed on, and rightly so. But it's also the case that in debates about things like Ferguson, in questions about police violence, in discussions about Israel-Palestine, we have to see that there are two sides both of which are inhabited by human beings, but in which there are clear and distinct social roles which play out regardless of the individuals in those places. "How can people do this?" It is often asked - but only by people who've never been in that situation. How can police attack an unarmed protestor? How can kids riot instead of going to school? How can the IDF bomb schools? How can Hamas hide weapons in schools? How can Bin Laden attack the WTC? How can America and Russia use Afghanistan as a battlefield for their proxy war? How can other people make the choices they do? These very one-sided narratives always serve to dehumanise the other, to not recognise that through different life experiences different conclusions about what is to be prioritised are reached; that in the power dynamics of the human world, where you sit in the scale of entitlement has serious consequences for your understanding of the world and its social structures as liberating or oppressive; to be celebrated or fought. Whether the protestor is a menace or a freedom fighter depends already on your own location in regard to them.

The point I'm getting at in this last section is that it's very easy to see politics in monolithic terms - that there is a factual answer about how the world should be, and about right and wrong. But if we can stem our arrogance and begin to believe that other alternative viewpoints are just as logical, just as human, then we go a long way towards resolving disputes. If protestors and police can both understand that the others are human beings making difficult decisions based around their experiences, maybe there's a way for empathy and compassion to enter their actions too. Admitting that the internal world is constructed and not an objective representation is a step towards that.

A MAN walks confidently towards an open gate but instead of going straight through he raises his knee very high as if he were stepping over a low wall. He strides forward, reaching out to shake a friend's hand. But again he misjudges, and his friend draws back in alarm to avoid being punched in the nose.

This is Innsbruck, Austria, in the 1950s, and no, the man hasn't been drinking too much schnapps. He is psychologist Ivo Kohler, and he is wearing a pair of goggles with a built-in mirror that turns his world upside down. In a grainy black-and-white film that records his stumblings, the eternally surprised Kohler dives to catch a child's balloon drifting skywards and turns a teacup upside down against a stream of water being poured from above.

Kohler is just one in a long line of researchers who have used inverting goggles to try to understand how we see. The latest to pass through the looking glass is a young philosopher called Jan Degenaar. For him, however, the experiment is not simply an exploration of vision. By stepping outside his normal perception of the world and seeing it in a different way, he thinks he has gained an insight into the so-called hard problem of consciousness – how to explain the feeling of sensation. How do our brains turn a set of signals into the redness of a rose, the softness of velvet, the pungency of raw onion, and all the rest? His experience supports a new theory about consciousness – that it is not merely in the mind, but extends beyond the boundary of the body. The idea is not just weird and esoteric, if correct it has ramifications in fields ranging from animal consciousness to robotics.

Degenaar's foray into the hard problem of consciousness began with an interest in visual perception. Orthodox understanding of how this works dates back to the 16th century and French philosopher René Descartes, who suggested that our brains construct an internal model of the world, which we then view like a cinema playing inside our heads. Degenaar is among a growing number of researchers who question this interpretation. In 2011, while studying for a PhD at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, he was reading descriptions of experiments with inverting goggles when he noticed something interesting. While some experimenters described the mental image of the world flipping, others related how they learned to adapt their behaviour to the inverted image. Intrigued by the discrepancy, he decided to try the experiment for himself.

Degenaar's goggles flipped the left and right sides of space by placing a right-angled prism in front of each eye. He wore them for an average of 4 hours a day for 31 days – earlier experiments having shown that you can adapt without wearing them all the time. With objects on his left now appearing on his right and vice versa, he immediately experienced a major conflict between the feedback from his visual system and other sensory input, especially touch. He became as clumsy as Kohler. Initially, however, the most disturbing aspect of the experience was his sense of visual instability. Each time he moved his head, the scene rushed past him and he couldn't track anything in it. On the first day, the nausea this induced was so intense that he vomited.

The visual instability gradually eased and had vanished entirely by day 13. At that point, Degenaar could move his head while keeping his gaze fixed and see objects where he expected to see them. If he kept his head still, however, he had to think hard about which way to move his eyes to bring an object into the centre of his vision from the periphery. Other skills returned at different rates. Unable to orient a knife correctly with respect to a tomato on day 1, for example, he managed to cook a simple meal three days later. He developed strategies for walking that involved turning his head in the direction he wanted to go in. At first his path zigzagged but it gradually straightened out, and on day 15 he was able to walk home from the university, armed with a white stick – though it took him an hour rather than the usual 30 minutes (Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, vol 13, p 373).

This piecemeal adaptation has been reported by others. American psychologist George Stratton was a pioneer of inverting glasses in the late 19th century. With one eye covered, he strapped a contraption over the other, inverting the world left-right and up-down. He reported that different elements of the scene "righted" themselves at different times and in different contexts. In the 1960s, a volunteer working with psychologist James Taylor at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, got quite good at riding a bike around the campus wearing left-right inverting glasses. However, even when he could easily navigate between buildings, writing on signs on those buildings still appeared reversed, only becoming legible after he had practised reading with the goggles.

Illusion of reality

Everyone agrees that describing inversion effects to people who have never experienced them is extremely difficult, and researchers argue over the meaning of past accounts. In Stratton's case, for example, what was "righted" could have been either his visual experience, or his behavioural response to it. What is consistent in most reports, though, is the incremental nature of the adaptation. For Degenaar and his former mentor, Erik Myin at the University of Antwerp in Belgium, it represents a nail in the coffin of the Cartesian model of vision.

"There is no internal image in the brain, and nothing flips," says Degenaar. The real nature of visual perception is quite different, he says. At any given time we see only a tiny portion of the visual scene – the part our eyes are actively exploring. The impression we have of gazing out on a unified visual world is mere illusion, he believes, arising from the knowledge that we would see another portion of the scene if we were to move our eyes there. It's our active, if partial, sampling of the scene that gives it the quality of reality. In his view, adaptation to inverting glasses involves learning a new set of relationships between our movements and the changes in sensory input they now generate. It therefore depends on how much a person has practised a certain action, which could explain the staged return of consistent, accurate visual judgement. "You start to see vision not as one capacity, but as a set of interrelated capacities," says Myin.

One person who agrees with this interpretation is Kevin O'Regan, who is based, ironically, at Paris Descartes University in France, and in whose lab Degenaar works. "Seeing involves actively interacting with the world," he says. There is no Cartesian cinema playing inside our heads, just a mass of different interactions between our senses and our environment. "Saying that we have the impression of a coherent visual field is simply an abbreviated way of saying that we are comfortable with all the ways that we visually interact with the world." He gives an example the rest of us might just be able to relate to: shaving or putting on make-up in a mirror isn't easy the first time you do it, but with practice you get better. You reach out with your razor or mascara wand to the right place on your face, and you do so automatically, without telling yourself to do the opposite of what feels right.

O'Regan's model is not simply about vision, it encompasses all forms of perception. A decade ago, when he began talking about his "sensorimotor theory of perception", it was highly controversial. Today, enactivism – as variants of it are collectively called – is gaining in popularity. Enactivists believe that thinking and feeling arise in the dynamic interaction between an organism and its environment. Thus an organism "enacts" a world. And this insight might help crack one of the biggest mysteries of all – the hard problem of consciousness. In O'Regan's model, your subjective experience of being is created by your awareness of the myriad different ways your self interacts with the world as you move around and explore it.

If O'Regan is correct, the particular senses with which you explore the world shape your subjective feeling of being. And that's where inverting goggles come in. Degenaar had an insight into the hard problem of consciousness around day 30 of his experiment. Until then, he had found that coordinating his movements with what he saw required effort, and he had begun to worry that he would only ever be able to compensate for his impairment, never really adapt to it. That changed when he suddenly noticed that objects appeared to be where they actually were. In his write-up of the experiment, he describes what happened next: "A few moments later, when I had not moved my head for a while, I fell back in the other way of experiencing the visual field again, so that the objects once again appeared to be in places where they were not actually located. But when I continued looking around again, by slowly moving my head, I could now see objects where they were." In other words, he now had access to two perceptual worlds, whereas most of us spend our whole lives trapped inside one.

Previous goggle-wearers have described a stage where they saw two versions of the same object, one more ghostly than the other, though with time the ghostly one became more substantial until it replaced the first. Degenaar's experience was slightly different: his two "percepts" were rivals. He compares this bi-stable state to what people experience when they look at an ambiguous image such as the Necker cube or duck/rabbit illusion. "It can't be described as the flipping of an image," he says. "It's more like a gestalt switch." He was seeing the same objects, and nothing had moved, but the raw feel of seeing had changed. The reason, he thinks, is that his sensorimotor engagement with the world – the bodily act of seeing – had also been transformed.

Enactivism hasn't won everybody over. One sceptic is Colin Klein, a philosopher at the Australian National University in Canberra. While impressed by Degenaar's descriptive powers, he says they still leave room for different interpretations. The perceptual breakthrough he recorded on day 30, for instance, could have been the result of his brain learning to extract information from an inverted internal image – in the same way that a trained sonographer can decode an ultrasound image that appears to a patient as meaningless black and white splodges. "In one sense they are seeing the same image, but one is seeing it with expert knowledge and one isn't," says Klein.

Jesse Prinz, a philosopher at the City University of New York, expresses similar reservations. When you look in a mirror, he says, "You know the image is reversed, but you develop the skills to cope with a world that has been turned backwards."

Both Klein and Prinz cite a study from 1999 that circumvents the problem of describing what it feels like to experience visual inversion. David Linden, then at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany, and colleagues, tested four wearers of up-down inverting goggles on a simple visual trick that involved showing them discs drawn on a flat, grey background and shaded vertically from white to black. Normally, observers assume that the discs are lit from above, and see those that are white at the top as convex and those that are black at the top as concave (see Illustration). Linden's volunteers made this assumption too, but when they put the glasses on they reported that the discs they had originally seen as convex were now concave and vice versa. What's more, this interpretation persisted throughout the 10-day experiment, despite the fact that they adapted behaviourally to the glasses (Perception, vol 28, p 469).
For Klein and Prinz, this is clear evidence for a picture model of vision. The internal image is inverted by the goggles and does not adapt or flip; rather, behaviour adapts to the inverted image. For Degenaar and O'Regan, it merely demonstrates that vision can be fragmented until a person relearns all the ways in which they can interact visually with their environment.

The two interpretations have different implications. A robot built on the picture model would passively register a photo-like image of the world, while a sensorimotor robot would learn to see the world by actively exploring it. More fundamentally, if the sensorimotor approach is correct, a newborn baby might have to learn consciousness. And the quality of another species' consciousness might differ radically from our own, given that it explores the world with different senses, such as eyes on the side of its head or the ability to echolocate or sense magnetic fields.

O'Regan's ultimate goal is to understand how the brain mediates these sensorimotor interactions to create phenomenological experience: how, for example, it generates a feeling of redness across all the different conditions in which a red object can be observed. At root, he thinks, raw feel springs from something elementary and predictable – the laws of physics – but understanding how it does so could give us an insight into what it means to be human. Imagery, symbolism, metaphor and language – the things that set our species apart – are, after all, grounded in sensory experience.

The debate over the hard problem continues, and we surely haven't seen the last of inversion goggles. Degenaar would like to repeat his experiment with a group of volunteers, having them describe their visual experiences while observers simultaneously record changes in their behaviour. So look out for people trying to spoon soup into their foreheads, or throwing themselves to the ground in an attempt to stand up straight. They will be doing it in a good cause.

This article appeared in print under the headline "Goggle eyed"

Laura Spinney is based in Lausanne, Switzerland