The Sovereignties of Invention

By: Matthew Battles
November 24, 2009

<em>photo by Mila Zinkova</em>
photo by Mila Zinkova

HE STOOD THERE with the box torn open, with ribbons of packing tape and flaccid little packing-bags strewn about on the table. And in the midst of this mess, the prize — the shiny tool itself, pregnant with a techno-mystical possibility transcending mere size or evident simplicity. Just this: a smooth black box of lucite sheen trailing a cord from which depended two earpieces that were more like some minimally-invasive pieces of diagnostic equipment than an audiophile’s earbuds. He held them up, watched as their pliant, flesh-colored cords untwirled themselves. The ends of them fashioned out of some fashionably late-technology rubber, like silicone but for the porosity, of somewhat shocking length and hooked at the ends. There was in the examination a slight thrill as he imagined how they would feel in his ears with the biomorphic nubs hooking, twisting, urging themselves deeper into the auditory canal. They’re for more than mere listening, these probes. He knew that much. That’s why he ordered the device. The whole package is much more promising, curiosity-piquing, flat-out intriguing, than the latest audio fantasia. This is a tool that goes straight to the heart of the matter.

The need had proceeded the desire, which had only taken form while jogging through the park the week before while ideas ran, as ever, faster than memory could sieve them from the flow. How to catch them? If only there were some technology, some tool, some device for catching the stream of consciousness itself. Like dictation software, only more immediate, less troubled with corporeal vagaries. Try running and speaking into a microphone; between the jarring strides and the ever-quickening roar of the breath, any jogger’s monologue would be software-unintelligible. No, a sip from the stream before it’s embodied, that’s the thing — a bugging of the mind, an eavesdropping on the song of the homunculus himself up there in his cranial habitat cool and removed.

A quick search, a gnomically-worded advertisement to the right of results. Of course — there is a tool for this! Brain-hacking, thy time has come! It was a prospect that only had awaited the necessary reduction in circuit size, the requisite blooming of processing speed. Once upon a time in some mad laboratory there must have been machine-age versions — big as locomotives, only stationary — wired to craniums through god-knows-what steampunk fiendishness of clamps and buckles and screws. But this is the twenty-first century! No need for piercing, unless for purposes of adornment. The trick is simple now — a matter of pure wave, sympathetic resonance, good vibrations. Like barcodes or free broadband wireless, the stream of consciousness was a natural resource, clean and endlessly renewable, which merely awaited the advent of the right tool to pry mind from brain and deliver it to its user.

Instructions were printed in a confusion of languages and scripts on an intricately-folded sheet of onionskin; he tossed it on the table. He knew from the buzz on the tech blogs how the thing worked (or at any rate how it was to be worked; its inner workings, its clusterfuck of byzantine intellectual property and nondisclosure agreements and blackboxed kluges — like the evolved plumbing of the brain itself — were all but irrelevant). At either end were centered two ports for the headset cords: one for input, the other for output. Plugged into the input end, the earprobes would record one’s stream of consciousness, download it onto a precious token of highly purified solid-state memory. Plug into the output end, and one’s own thoughts would come streaming back in the fullness of their inspirational originary glory. The whole of the glossy black case was touch-sensitive, by means of subtle pettings and fingerings, a kind of tuning of the recorded mindstream would be effectuated. No need for instructions, in short; instead of wasting time reading them, he would suit up and head out on a run. Spandex snugged down, sweat-stinking jersey of ceramic-core titanium threaded fabric zipped and velcroed into place, gel-sprung shoes cinched tightly with surgeons’ knots and then — earprobes inserted slowly, twistily, going in cold but quickly warming — out the door.

Running toward the park, he found his thoughts were occupied with the sensations induced by the probes. There was a slight tingling, almost a sleeplike numbing sensation, not altogether unpleasant, where sensation should not arise. And with it, a subtle tugging, or pressure — no, more like a sucking, somewhat akin to a kiss. Noting these phenomena as he rounded the corner and the park swung into view, he realized that he was musing on the device rather than thinking thoughts worthy of its extraordinariness. Would this be the dilemma of the new age to come? Constantly testing one’s ever-more-intimate mental and imaginal exertions against the beauty of the tools we use to extract them? Let it be so, he thought — make it a goad, and not an accusation.

And by degrees his conscious thoughts ran on to more immediate things. Small protestations of ache from the right knee when rounding corners. Windrows of leaves gathered along the park fence, soggy and dank in the shadows of the trees but golden and wind-fluffed in the sun; the smell of diesel exhaust from a far-off mulching machine doing its work over yonder hill; parenthetical shadows of crows on the brightening ground. Dales and rocky embrasures winked among bare trees suggesting little independent kingdoms, micro-states in potentia, haunts and aeries for the mind’s fancies. And here — a flit of inspiration, a connective arc of the mind in motion — a metaphor for the work of artists, the topic of a piece of writing for he was searching for something sufficiently free of banality to serve as a framework or launching stage. And here it was — but what was it? Something about artists seeking out their independent sovereignties of invention. A turn of phrase to conjure with! he thought as he crested a hill and headed into the trees. He hoped he could remember the words until he reached home — but at the thought he felt the kissing sensation freshen in his ears and broke into an open-mouthed, hyperventilated smile. Reassured, he kicked down the backside of the hill and followed his accustomed route round the park and homeward, browsing the standard catalogue of sights and sensations. Thoughts and images arose and receded: dark women pushing light-hued babies in strollers; trickle of sweat cold down the spine; a flicker of headstones through the wrought-iron fence across the road from the park. And so on through the paces of another unhurried run.

Once home, however, excitement gripped him again. He quickly showered and toweled off, then ran back downstairs to the living room, where the recorder lay sleek as a seal on the coffee table. Slipping the earprobes back into place, he pulled the cord from the input jack, flipped the device around, and slid the jack into the output hole.

Instantly he was in a jacking, hinged world of pain — not so much a world as a room, sleeved in darkness, vaguely connected to a pulsating elsewhere of dim relevance — he was converted to a snapping zither of connective tissues, wracked with dissonant chords of friction and rupture — blighted zones of craze and hollow, torrents of eschatological inflammation. Where were hips, arms, head? Lost in the nothing now beyond this polarity of pain, snapping like a toothless jaw caught in the trap of itself, hungering and hurting —

He found he was lying on the floor, fœtally curled, drenched in fresh cold sweat. The earprobes were still fixed in place, but the recorder lay on the rug just out of grasp. It must have slipped out of his hand when he fell — but how had he fallen, and why? He cast his mind back to a moment before, and felt sick to his stomach. What had gone wrong? Was the device broken? What kind of thought would produce such agony? Slowly he pushed up to a sitting position — and as he did so, a faint ache pinged through his right knee. It was like the faintest recollection — an echo minute but precise — of the astonishing, disembodied pain that had possessed him when he plugged the earprobes into the output.

Still shaky, he rose and went to the table, where the device’s instruction sheet still stood on the points of its pleats in a doglike, hopeful stance. Scanning the words crammed into tiny, tightly-spaced paragraphs in various languages, he found the English and scanned it. “The device picks up signals from the entire cranial network, with many sympathetic fields emanating from throughout the nervous system,” it read. “Thus making it necessary to tune into the desired stream of consciousness. Unconscious thoughts and sensations will interfere with a pure signal.” The instructions went on to describe how subtle movements of the thumb and fingers across the glossy covering of the device would set up electrical fields by which the user could search the synaptic streaming signals. “Without manual contact,” the instructions continued, ” the circuit is not closed and no signal will be detectable.”

He returned to the living room where the device lay on the floor, cord loosely coiled and detached from the device altogether. Sitting cross-legged, he parked the device against the wall, put the earprobes back in place, and slowly inserted the jack into the port again, this time without making contact with the device itself. Then — reassured by the calm that still reigned in his world — he reached out and delicately touched one fingertip to the black glossine.

A trickle of moisture, conducted along the surface tension of a saline layer of water mere molecules deep, made its way from follicle to follicle down the hollow of his back. As it flowed downward it left a trail of water behind, of which he could detect the minutest variations in salinity and specific gravity as the individual water molecules gained the energy for evaporative liftoff. Thrills of pure sensation traveled down the hair shafts, which he could count precisely and instantaneously. A waxy cuticle of oil and epidermal debris seemed to congeal in the flow of sweat, which fanned out into a kind of delta of rills and rivulets among the finer hairs in the small of his back. He pondered those hairs individually and in association; he considered the somewhat-drier hairs beyond the great saline delta, and counted as well the fibers in his shirt where they rubbed and broke the flow of this river of sweat, which rippled and eddied in an endless contemplation of fluid music —

He lifted his finger. The room was dark, his entwined legs frozen, tingling. He felt hungry. How many hours had passed? And yet it had hardly been enough; he had barely begun to trace out the many rivulets, the droplets like lakes erect and individual, the flora that thrived in the waxiness that slathered the epidermis… a lifetime’s study offered itself in what he remembered as a single fleeting sensation, one that barely triggered a conscious thought. And yet he knew now that it had taken place 1.31 miles into his run.

The possibilities suggested by this revelation made his head swim with nausea and hunger. Almost as if searching solid purchase, he dropped his finger back onto the device and pivoted its sensitive pad ever so slightly on its surface. The shadow of a crow danced among blades of grass, plucking them like harp strings, shuttering and releasing rays of light diffracting through chlorophyll and casting spectral rays dissolving into green. A quivering twist of the fingertip brought the percussive life of the ball of his foot swimming to the surface: pressure, release; pressure, release. The slightest upward slide brought the epiglottis into focus as the wind roared past and unnamed muscles strove to marshal and shape the flow of mucus and saliva. At the seizure of a cough — but even the cough opened a door to a world of sensation; he peered in and saw the whole perceptual libraries of triggers and reaction-states and responses — the cough caused him to break contact with the device and quickly regain it in the left auditory nerve, which intently delivered news of a symphony of white noise modulating as the head bobbed washing air in and out of the ear canal, or swiveled left and right changing the whole timbre of the universe —

In the small hours he staggered to the kitchen with the cords dangling around his neck and managed to eat a stick of butter. This was among the last composed and swaddled sensations he ever had. Days later he was found and taken to the hospital emaciated, his face a rictus of contemplation. His family moved him to an institution with stately grounds and simple rooms. He was allowed to keep the device, to which he was devoted; the staff, like the family who soon ceased to visit, could only wonder what strange music it yielded to him. He spent his life in twitching obeisance to the device, which ever afterwards he piloted through the immense interbricolated labyrinths of sensation harvested from that single late-fall jog. There were whole sociologies and psychologies of child-rearing to disentangle among the strollers; untold lives and losses to disinter amidst the graven names and dates of half-glimpsed headstones (and beyond the memories of the departed, the life cycles of lichens on the stones themselves, and the rock’s own stories of sedimentation and upheaval in the deeps of time). But the stream of consciousness itself — the train of thought, that coil of inspired fire — this remained elusive. Whether it lay buried in some vault of percepts, or whether it trickled out in a flickering delta and evaporated, he never discovered. And gradually his mind grew entirely disarticulate; unconcerned with consciousness, identity, and even mere homeostasis; ever more estranged from the sovereignties of invention.