For about two years I barely wrote. Indeed, during this time I barely read as well. You can even date this shift on the blog. Prior to this shift I was writing about a blog post a day and then suddenly there was a precipitous drop where I would go days and weeks without writing anything. To be sure, I would write posts and articles here and there, but something had changed. Words began to look strange. It became painful to compose sentences. Each one was a labor. I became obsessed with what I called “connectivity”. I was unable to produce sentences that would generate or lead to other sentences. I no longer had a sense of the lay of the land, of what the entire article I was writing would ultimately say or argue. While my writing has always been riddled with omitted words, slips of the pen, and grammatical abominations, these now multiplied to an entirely new degree.
Worst of all, there was no longer any music or jazz to my writing. In the past when I wrote I would enter a state akin to how a crystal grows where a single sentence, just the right sentence, would branch out in all directions ratifying itself, creating patterns, growing into the body of a text. It was musical and pervaded by an intense concentration where everything about me would disappear and there was just a highway of writing stretching off into the distance. Now that was all gone. There was just dissonance and the road was riddled with potholes.
In the case of reading, my capacity to concentrate was gone. It took great effort to sustain my attention beyond three to five pages and everything I read felt like tasteless ashes. I could no longer understand why I had gotten so obsessed with the works of various philosophers and theorists, and the enthusiasm I saw in others came to look like vanity in the sense outlined by Ecclesiastes. Theory and philosophy began to look like a sort of decadence, a sort of masturbation. Gone also was my memory. I have never had a great memory, but now things were much worse. I would immediately forget films I just saw, books I read, things I needed to do. It was as if my mind had become a sort of crease or edge of time without any depth or dimension to it. I had become a pure surface of consciousness that had achieved a sort of terrible Zen enlightenment, existing in a mental space characterized solely by a Now without dimension; a dimensionless now.
This state was terrible and I cannot say for sure that it is gone. I don’t know that I had been aware of it before, but writing had been at the core of my identity, of who I was. I had aspired to write since I was about nine years of age and words had always come easy. Those periods where writing dries up as it always does on occasion were relatively brief. When the snow thawed, the earth would grow green again. This was different. This was a desert. This was a post-apocalyptic world where everything was brown and grey, where the sky was filled with dark clouds, where there were only ruined buildings with hollow, empty eyes for windows and where all the trees were black and dead. Sentences would try to rise up like dying crows singing weary, resigned songs but nothing else would come. I had become the walking dead. With the extinction of writing came the extinction of any meaning in the world and the extinction of my self.
During this period I tied myself up in knots trying to understand what had happened to me. I had gone through a major life transition; a transition that radically improved my life, but where things had nonetheless changed dramatically. Had writing been dependent on the cartography of that previous life? But I had written when living in different cartographies. Perhaps my unconscious was punishing me in some way or perhaps my unconscious believed that I could have one life or the other, but not both. Had I simply lost my desire as a result of the vicious “theory wars” surrounding SR and OOO that were an intense emotional drain and which certainly generated a deep weariness and cynicism in response to the ugliness of some of the charges thrown about? Had I damaged my brain in some way or had a reached the end of my creative life? After all, we’re told that mathematicians do their best work when young and it’s suggested that mind loses its plasticity at a certain point. Maybe it was like this with writing for me. Was it that I had become busier than I’d ever been and that I had more life than I’d ever had? I obsessed endlessly over these things looking for an answer, any answer.
Things began to change a couple months ago. Things began to change a couple months ago. Writing began to return like the slowly beating and then accelerating alien message in the film Contact. What changed, I wonder? Had I encountered a bifurcation point as a result of some articles and talks I had to write? Had I entered a new basin of attraction? Had my unconscious made some decision? Had I told myself that I had had enough of this?
One thing that changed was that I ceased taking an anti-depressant that I’d begun taking right before I stopped writing. I am not sure why I am writing this post, nor what I hope to say with it. Maybe it’s simply to write something, anything. Nonetheless, it fills me with shame and makes me feel very vulnerable. Are these really the sorts of things I want strangers knowing? I do not know whether it was the buproprion that brought about these things, nor do I wish to denounce psychotropics. At certain points in my life they’ve helped me tremendously and they seem to have helped many others as well.
The point here is not that this drug caused my writers block, but rather that I don’t know. I don’t know. I do not know whether it was the agency of the letter in my unconscious, whether it was changes in life circumstances, whether it was weariness due to the endless wars that arose around and within SR, whether it was this drug, or whether it was some combination of these things. I don’t know.
And that seems to be how it is with materiality. Spinoza says that the order and connection of ideas (mind) is the same as the order and connection of things (brain). Our being lies in regions 4 and 5, in that point of overlap between the material and the agent, or between the material, the symbolic, and the agent. We are our brains, yet there’s a very real sense in which our brains are entirely foreign to us. The order and connection of ideas and things might be the same, but we only have access to the domain of ideas, of our thoughts.
Anyone who has been a serious smoker will be familiar with this. When you are in the grips of a terrible nicotine fit you don’t register the chemical chaos that’s afoot in your brain. No, the irritation that you experience at everything in the world seems caused by those things in the world, not your brain. It’s the car that seems to be driving too close that is the cause of your ire, not your brain. Just as the things themselves would appear to be shades of blue if we wore blue tinted glasses, the things themselves appear to be assaulting and menacing us. We are our brains, yet our brains are foreign to us. We don’t know whether these states are caused by completely non-cognitive, asignifying brain states, or whether they result from our thoughts. Regardless of the source, we experience these states and thoughts identically. In either case, we experience them as our own. We can tell ourselves that our irritability results from the lack of nicotine in our system and that might help us to exercise restraint, but nonetheless we still experience that irritation as arising from malicious and annoying actions of others.
Lacan said that the question haunting the unconscious of the obsessional is “am I alive or am I dead?” Neurology forces this question upon us in a very different way. Confronted with the possibility that in certain instances it is completely non-cognitive processes that are calling the shots in our thought and affectivity, we wonder whether what we take to be our most intimate self and agency isn’t a phantom or ghost with no ontological substantiality of its own. Perhaps we are ghosts dreaming of being selves or agents such that all of our agency is chimerical. I realize that I hear express myself poorly because I speak as if there is one domain, thought, and another domain, neural activity, thereby implying a sort of dualism. However, if Spinoza is right, there are no thoughts that aren’t neural (which is quite different than suggesting neural determinism or reductionism). The question really is whether there is a sort of freedom of thought, whether this hunk of grey matter can wire and rewire itself, or whether it’s just an incredibly complex and sophisticated turning of gears akin to what takes place in a wind-up toy?
I do not know. What I do find interesting in all of this is that even where I am suspicious that some non-cognitive agency might have been at work within me, I still subjectivize that experience. I experience myself as being responsible for that experience, that way of thinking, as in the case of my writers block, even where I suspect it resulted from the buproprion (or maybe I’m just fleeing from my unconscious). What can it mean that we take responsibility for some state within ourselves, even where it wasn’t our “self” that was the causative agent? Here, already, seems the suggestion of a sort of freedom or transcendence similar to what the Stoics (and Sartre) described, where there is indeed a facticity to our being but we can elect to take up a stance with respect to these things.