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

Thursday, 28 August 2014

Twenty Months of Perfect Tunes

In the midst of a difficult time replete with heartbreak, existential angst and post-thesis blues I didn't get around to my now-traditional end of year music round up at the end of 2013, so in an attempt to redress this and talk about some of the amazing music that's been around in the last twenty months, here is my extended belated account.

First off, I discovered Firewater earlier this year. As a long-time fan of Cop Shoot Cop since their first album Consumer Revolt, I was aware of Tod A's prowess as a songwriter. After their untimely demise he began Firewater as a vehicle for experimenting with a more traditional yet avant-garde approach to music, mixing klezmer, gypsy and world musics with his trademark black humour and vituperative cynicism. I'd tried to get into the new band but failed dismally because it just didn't make sense to me. After rediscovering the fourth and final CSC album, Release, I tried again and was joyously surprised. Truly unusual music from an immense talent, and surely the greatest lyricist of our generation. The album which has drawn the highest praise (from me) is The Golden Hour, recorded over several months with musicians around Asia (Pakistan, Turkey and Israel included). Full of the energetic sense of freedom and excitement which Tod must have felt during his travels, every song tells of the disappointment and bittersweet irony which many of us have felt during the desolate years of the early 21st century. This poignant combination of uplift, enthusiasm and the bright sun of foreign climes with the tales of disappointment, of one man trying to find a way to be true to himself in a world which isn't geared towards human happiness is what gives the album it's incredible emotional depth. Tod's lyrical power on this album is amazing, as is his gift for melody and songwriting - something which the bile of CSC often masked. Every track is killer, though some took more listens than others to fully appreciate. It's difficult to select two tracks because every one needs to be heard but here are three that are immediately stunning. Right now this is album of the century and I can't get enough of it.

Sadly not every album is as good as this, though The Man on the Burning Tightrope has some fantastic moments.

Such as

Protomartyr get the second place this year. Under Color of Official Right is fucking great. Part Joy Division, part Pixies, but with a distinctive swagger and bite that (probably) only a band from Detroit could muster, they have forged a path which isn't obviously original but is cut through with their own personality. Lyrically the album is gold - Joe Casey has a unique sense of grimy disconsolation which doesn't wallow in self-pity, but externalises the resentment of outsiderdom to a highly literate attack on the shallowness of the world. Their live show is great too - nothing surprising, but they're a tight band firing on all cylinders at the moment, and they're still playing venues small enough to really appreciate them. I love all the parts, but the drummer's a master of tight, precise tattoo, a typical post-punk style but done to perfection in a way that's entirely natural - not just homage to their influences.

When Michael Gira reformed Swans I was slightly dubious, having lost interest in their later output some years earlier. 2012's The Seer had some great moments (and amazing packaging) but ultimately failed to deliver a consistent vision. This year's To Be Kind demonstrates a far more focussed experience, hypnotic and ritualistic with drive and determination, a masculine energy and discipline that characterised Swans' early output but complemented with the experience of life; stripped of the raw aggression, Gira's mature personality shines through to deliver an intense album which sprawls across three discs and two and a half hours without losing any of its captivating power. I don't like the sleeve though.

HTRK returned in 2014 with an album which, at first, I rather disliked; Psychic 9-5 Club is seductively rich and warm, as opposed to the cold dejection of Work (Work, Work) evoking a definite 80s vibe and my first impression was one of a self-confident settling into acceptance; a band trying to assure themselves they had nothing left to prove. But beneath the nondescript warmth there is a beating heart of concentrated vision; a smooth surface which is sensual only because of what it conceals, the blood and muscle which moves beneath it. Blue Sunshine. I saw them play the Southbank as part of the screening of Rowland S. Howard eulogy-documentary Autoluminescent. It was nice to see them, and great to hear their cover of Howard's Dead Radio but in a birghtly lit hall, sitting down made the experience somewhat lacklustre. I'd rather have heard their music in a dimly lit bar, that seems to be its natural home.

Thanks to my friend Ben I discovered the junk metal composer Hal Hutchinson. His career has consisted of refinements of a single artistic concept: the use of metal and machine parts to create an organised chaos of industrial noise which has evolved through dozens of iterations. Each release is very different, some sparse and distorted, some intense and manic. This CD comes in a great package with postcards and an essay explaining his approach and artistic vision.

Along very similar lines is a batch of releases from long established noise composer Vertonen. Taking field recordings of industrial machinery as his starting point, Blake Edwards composes unforgiving mechanical symphonies which admit of no apparent human element while being highly intellectually satisfying. Of the three releases, each constricted to one format - CD, tape and vinyl - it's the picture disc which is the most accomplished (but doesn't have a track on Youtube so you're getting one from the CD)

*Update: here's one from the vinyl on Soundcloud*

Possibly the most extreme variant of this kind of thing comes from Ben's own label in Nottingham - Kiks/GFR. Pursuing a singular vision of primitive electronics and found sound, Kiks have several releases on a variety of formats. It's difficult to choose one, but you can listen to most of them on the website or their Bandcamp (the tapes are beautifully packaged though, so check those out).

Bringing slightly more structure to things is Eric Holm's Andoya. Composed from recordings on an outpost in X, the album makes a subdued, lightly clanking icy ambient not unlike Thomas Koner - though with a quiet real-world sensibility that manages to carry the sustained impression of a single person's perspective and artistic intention. It's a very specific vision realised with perfection.

Boduf Songs has a long history behind them but for me were brand new last year. Reading the Boomkat review of Burnt Up On Re-Entry left me curious, but the album itself is a stellar piece of silky black ambient folk with a dark humour and sophistication all of its own. His previous efforts are all very good but this is the magnum opus.

Autechre returned with a deluxe four vinyl album, Exai. As usual with Autchre the first few listens bore little reward but as I've returned to it again and again, each time stripping away another layer of expectations about what an Ae record should be, I've found new elements which have drawn me in. Comparison and value judgment with their previous releases are pointless, it's different and it's good.

I rediscovered Dual, a project I followed when I was a mere kid. Beginning in the industrial duo Spleen, Colin Bradley progressed to more abstract sonic extremes not unlike Robert Hampson's Main. Processed guitar forms the core of the music which retains only the ghostly trace of melody but is nonetheless exquisite. There's not much online now, some sound clips on the website and this track on bandcamp, but a 50 minute live set is available here.

Ben Frost's A U R O R A has thrust him into the limelight this year - an interesting departure into rhythmic and psychedelic territory for him. It's beautiful and harrowing, rich and random. It's a record which speaks of a blinding light split into razor sharp shards. I'm glad to find that recently ambient/noise artists have begun incorporating rhythmic elements into their sound.

Sandra Electronics, the early project of Downwards Records head, Karl O'Connor (aka Regis, and recently joined by Juan Mendez of Silent Servant) have put up a slew of new and archive material. The definitive release is Sessions, available as a cassette only on Minimal Wave. This is music which draws equally on 80s and teen sounds. I'm still unsure as to how much of it dates back to Karl's pre-techno days and how much is new composition - if the former, it really shouldn't have been shelved for two decades. Clunking machine rhythms, snarling analogue synths and Karl's barked vocals amount to a brutal attack on our expectations of electronic pop music. This material confirms the promise which I've always felt Regis' music held but failed to properly express due to the constraints which the dancefloor form dictated.

Samuel Kerridge has delivered several 12s and an album of bleak and grainy, slowed down industrial/techno. Again it's only after several listens that the album has made sense to me - expecting a moody techno LP the off-beat rhythms and oppressive atmospherics left me wanting some kind of energy but now I've discovered the right way of listening to it, I'm hooked - it's great to see a hybrid emerging as a new form of music, one which takes the attitude of industrial/dark ambient and the rhythmic discipline of techno but utlilises them to create something unique.

Existing in the same musical circles is Monica Hits the Ground, a project only two 12s old but which has provided another unique take on brutal atmospheric techno which would be very difficult to dance to - the punding rhythmic power isn't one which takes you by the hips by rather grabs you by the ribs in an attempt to suffocate.

Talbot are on their third release now and I discovered them belatedly. This Estonian duo make a deceptively complex sprawling psychedelic-sludge rock which combines growl and clean singing to great effect. Can't wait for the next release.

Now, Aphex Twin. The new album is a month away, and I'm eagerly expecting great things. I still think that Drukqs is a masterpiece, surpassing his earlier simplistic efforts - great as they have been for the time. I happily participated in the Kickstarter to fund the purchase of Cat033 (yes, even to the extent of buying the blank CDR and digipack to burn the wavs onto), but I appear to be the only person disappointed by the LP. It sounds exactly like the kind of album which would end up unreleased. There is little imagination, though the trademark AFX trappings are there, they aren't realised with the panache that other albums displayed. I have yet to find a single track which I actually think is worthwhile, or even enjoy listening to. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad it's out there and I think the Kickstarter project was a great thing. But musically it's pretty shit.

Didn't like The Knife album. haven't even listened to all of it but I heard was sufficiently terrible to whither any interest in investigating it. Such a shame because Silent Shout was like a revelation to me, a magical surreal pop experience which soundtracked a whole summer. On the new album they seem to have disappeared up their arses entirely. I abused one of Silent Shout's lyrics for the title of this post just to demonstrate my dissatisfaction, that'll learn em.

I'm kind of happy that I got away from the really heavy music that was taking up a lot of my time last year. I still like seeing sludgy metal and powerviolence live but I've lost the taste for it as independent listening. Possibly the stand-out of the last year is Blut Aus Nord's The Work Which Tranforms God, actually a rerelease. As black metal goes it's well-produced and has a nicely gnostic overtone which stands in contrast to the dreary Satanist tropes that the followers of the genre assume.

Nottingham's Nadir put out their first release this year, on tape only. The package is beautiful, worth the money just for that - but the music's good too. These five tracks don't display the advances their live sound has made recently with the addition of an electronic element, but it's still worth checking out (and I expect great things from the next album).

Also still riding high are Bismuth (Tanya of Nadir's other project), who've been garnering rave reviews from the underground for their brand of ethereal volcanic sludge.

Shouldn't go without mentioning The Bug's new album, Angels and Devils. I can't say much about it because my copy only arrived yesterday, but it's good and looks set to be in many end of year charts. I'm glad to see him expanding his palette a little from the dancehall distortion of previous releases under this moniker and for me the first disc, Angels is the better half. I particularly like his collaboration with Liz Harris (Grouper)

Oh and talking of Liz, her collaboration with Jefre Cantu-Ledesma saw a much needed rerelease this year. Could only find the whole album on Youtube, which I'd prefer not to share if given the choice. But here it is.

So yeah. It's been great. Hopefully there's plenty more to come in the next four months so I can do another round up in December. And don't forget to support the artists and buy their stuff if you like it. It's the best way to keep up the flow of great music.

Monday, 25 August 2014


Disappearance is such a powerful word. Complete absence; cease to exist - to vanish. Leaving only a memory, just the incorporeal trace. In Hiding, Mark C Taylor argues that it is the very disappearance of the body which makes it real - only its astonishing absence can inscribe the importance of its (now past) presence. But the past is as corporeal as the present for those who cannot detach themselves from it. Perhaps more so, because its influence is felt, a deadweight, inescapable and unchallengable because of its very, dead, certainty. Whereas the present projects into the future, it is unrealised, unactualised and only to be resolved. The past's shadow is upon us whereas the present's appearance is cast into the future. So, only in retrospect does the present become real - only as past. Only in disappearance does the body gain real - apparent - corporeality.

What use then is disappearance?

Many have claimed that it is only in death that we find Being - in leaving the transitory existence of Becoming, we enter a new state of eternal subsistence. Certainly the concrete presence of the absent implies this. In being not-here, it transcends and solidifies out of the living-death of the corruptible world.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Philosophy of the Body

What is needed is a philosophy of the body. This is not to say a philosophy of matter, or a materialist philosophy. The body is more than matter - encompassing that which is present through the body, the mental, that 'epiphenomenal' which can breach its own boundaries and, overflowing, exercise power over that which gives it birth.

A philosophy of the body, of human physicality, seeks to determine the humanistic aspects of the body; how the body functions in cultures, how physicality can determine and effect (even, affect) our internal and interpersonal realities.

What happens when we scratch this surface? What comes to pass when we open the body for an examination which is transphysical in nature?

In this case the body becomes not just matter, not a concentration of particles, tissue, blood and bone; neither is it a hollow vessel, second to the spirit which moves it. Instead it is the very presence of the internality which exists through it; the medium by which minds interact, through which expression occurs and as which the human being is real. In this case the body is the manifestation of the spirit in action, bloodied, strained and taut or limp, reduced and languid. The body is both unreal and the most real; it's the closest we get to presence of the incorporeal; it's the opaque presentation of the diaphanous, illogically concealing that very - postulated, always postponed - Real which we can never reach.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Reductionism, metaphysical fascism

Really, the main opponent I find myself arguing against time and again is reductionism. A main theme of my thesis was that an other, any subject or object (and for me the terms really are interchangeable), while wholly constituted of the material that composes it, should not be reduced to it; an entity, in order to be an entity rather than an aggregate, must admit of some kind of metaphysical unity.

It's also been an ongoing conviction that the truths of separate fields of investigation should not and cannot be reduced to each other; while I value science and scientific investigation immensely, I flinch whenever someone tries to explain religious claims in terms of a literal, "scientific" statement about the world(as you may imagine this happens often enough to constitute some kind of nervous tick; it is the error, in my opinion, of people both with and without religious conviction to claim that religious statements can hold the same kind of truth as scientific ones; that religion is principally an attempt at explaining or describing the world). Likewise I don't think biology should be reduced to chemistry or physics, or psychology to biology - or even sociology to psychology. And needless to say, art too has its own domain of value, truths of which are not explainable or even correctly stateable in terms of any other discipline.

I think a mistake that it's easy to make about this is in thinking that these separate domains or magisteria exist side-by-side; that this means religious truth, for example, is equal but complementary to scientific truth, because there is some "spiritual" realm sitting alongside the material. But this is to make the fundamental mistake of judging all meaning by the terms of materialism. There doesn't need to be a "real" realm in which religious truth happens in order for religious truth to be "real" in terms of having value and meaning. Just like psychological claims don't have to be stateable in terms of chemistry in order to be valid. There is a mental "realm" but it's not an objective one in the way we tend to think of the objectively real material world.

Perhaps my main complaint against reductionism is in the drive to totalise. When everything is stateable in a single tongue, according to a single model of reality, the world becomes static; the flat world of particles existing in mechanical relation according to a single overarching narrative or set of rules takes on, for me, a hellish aspect; a metaphysical fascism where value is already determined and even personal interpretation or sensation is not what it is but is only something else articulated into an apparent form. We end up with a cosmos which is nothing but numbers and the relationship between them. Reductionism aggressively roots out and throws away any alternative viewpoints, claiming that a single schema is the absolute truth, and all others are just articulations of the fundamental principle. This is highly unsatisfactory for me. It seems like a kind of death; an autopsy. (I've never been able to settle on just one thing; I can't even pick a favourite musical style, I need to listen to 'em all.) Worse yet a single system of value seems to negate even itself, because on what can that system of value, of meaning, actually ground itself? What gives the ultimate ground of reality its ultimate status? The question is like asking "who made God" or "what came before the Big Bang" I know, and perhaps it demonstrates the same basic misunderstanding of ultimacy (or of "reality"!). But I find the picture of separate realms interlinking and supporting each other much more intellectually pleasing; the idea that different (and even unrelated) systems of understanding the world-we-live-in allows for much greater depth of understanding and a much richer sense of the world; and the world-we-live-in after all isn't the objective material world of science, but a world infused with social, mythical, artistic and religious aspects, none of which exist in the material world which empirical science investigates.

Another aspect of this is in the field of comparative religion. It's been fashionable for a while to say that all religions are the same, that they all teach the same thing or that they're all paths to the same truth. I find this deeply unsatisfactory. What fascinating about religion is just how different they all are. The metaphysics, the soteriology and the system of value and meaning for human life are completely different in, say, Buddhism and Islam. Even in two religions which have deeply influenced each other throughout their history, like Judaism and Christianity, their understanding what it means to be human and how the human relates to the world and to the sphere of divinity (as well as to other humans) is really totally different (this is one of the reasons why Jewish philosophy is so different from typical post-Christian western philosophy). For me, Judaism fascinates me - but I wouldn't claim it's the only or best way of doing religion. I value equally (well, maybe not equally...) the teachings of all religions; these are human endeavours, constructed by humans to answer the specific questions which a group of people faced at a particular time, and subject to an evolutionary trajectory constrained by both the strictures of the initial dogma and the events which subsequent generations endured, altering their interpretations and emphases. Of course, reigions havealways existed in proximity to each other and many have absorbed concepts and traditions from other faiths; the boundaries are always permeable.

But further I think ther must be a means of escaping. No? When one system, one order, becomes too much one needs the possibility of escaping into another; of stepping out of the existing symbolic order and experiencing the world anew, through another. To realise that things don't have to be the way they seem; that redemption can come in various forms, from unexpected places; that the world can actually be turned upside down and reform into new shapes, with new relationships between its parts.