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Configurations, Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2008, pp. 269-282 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
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The Cloud of Unknowing
Robert Yarber Penn State University
The author presents a case of self-organizing daimonic mythopoiesis. The spiritual tourist, entheogenic experimenter, and the painter enfold a matrix of inter-developed “sorties” into the allotropic differentials of the autopoietic process. Fieldwork in Mandi, Himashal Pradesh, India provides an introduction to the virtualities of the peripersonal as it manifests in a “darshan” or self-showing of the goddess where the velocity of the psychopomp’s body approaches pure phase-space. The immersive space of the peripersonal is further revealed in the author’s absorption within the wire-frame virtualities of currently available three-dimensional modeling programs. Parallel work is conducted through experimentation with Animita muscaria, a traditional entheogen revered in various cultures. Possibly the ancient Soma of the Vedic scriptures, the mushroom provides occasion for somatic dissociation within which phenomenological data is gathered. Use is made of the phenomenological method of introspection, which more literally becomes a driving inward of the homuncular eye along a trajectory of the cine-somatic gaze through an introjected, intra-corporeal immersive scene. In the conclusion, this ancient “gaze of the clinic” is deemed useful to current research, as corporeality and the politics of peripersonal space enter new technological and juridical frames of reference in relation to agency, identity, and the state.
Configurations, 2008, 16:269–282 © 2009 by The Johns Hopkins University Press and the Society for Literature and Science.
“To this day God is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions and change the course of my life for better or worse.” C. G. Jung1 “It is not the gods which we encounter: even hidden, the gods are only the forms of recognition. What we encounter are the demons, the sign-bearers: powers of the leap, the interval, the intensive, and the instant; powers which cover difference with more difference.” Gilles Deleuze2
I have arrived in Mandi, the capital city of the former kingdom of the same name, located in the Himalayan foothills of Himachal Pradesh, northern India, in the summer of 2000 (Fig. 1). I accompany my friend and guide Ram Alexander,3 of Haridwar on the Ganges and Assisi. We have arrived at the decrepit palace of the hereditary Wazir4 of Mandi and I sleep the night in a spider-infested garden side-room (when I at first enter, flipping on the light, I see furry, black polka-dots moving across the greenish-yellow walls and ceiling) cocooned in my sleeping bag with my face covered in DEET. The next day, we visit assorted temples of the district, as our progress by car north toward Kullu-Manali has been delayed due to road closures, avalanches, and torrential rains. Although confident we can proceed safely, we have been encouraged to stay. Later in the day, the Wazir’s son, a man of age thirty named Raman, the owner of a dry-goods store from whom I have purchased assorted fabrics, invites us to join him that evening for a darshan5 of the goddess. As the sun sets to the clamor of drums, cymbals, and horns through the streets of Mandi, my friend Ram and I move through a medieval maze of alleyways to the designated location, where we meet Raman. Entering a dusty courtyard, I am instructed to remove all leather and place it on a small table at the bottom of a wooden staircase leading
1. C. G. Jung, “Interview,” Good Housekeeping, 1961. 2. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 145. 3. Ram Alexander, ed., Death Must Die (The Diaries of Atmananda) (New Delhi: Indica Publishers, 2000). 4. The office of the Wazir, or council to the king, is hereditary though now largely honorary. 5. A darshan is a showing, a vision.
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Figure 1. Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, India, photo-illustration by Robert Yarber. (Reprinted with the permission of the artist.)
to the upper room where the darshan is to take place. Being the conscientious spiritual tourist I am, I remove my shoes, belt, and leather wallet full of identification, cash, and credit cards, along with skepticism, cynicism, and any other impediments to my purpose of experiencing without prejudice, as impossible as that may be, the selfshowing of the goddess. Going up the cramped stairway to a low-covered balcony, we are brought, being shown some deference, to the front of a line of local devotees. With Ram, my American friend, and Raman, the heir apparent to the Wazirship of Mandi, I am led into a small room filled with the smoke of incense, the pounding of drums, and the shrill keening of flutes. About twenty of the devotees are squeezed into the chamber, with flute players and drummers standing against the crumbling brick walls. I am seated on the floor facing the back of a curly-haired young man of age twenty or so who is unremarkably dressed in a loose plaid shirt and khaki slacks. I had met him earlier in the day. He is one of the clerks in Raman’s dry-goods store. He sits
facing a wall covered in blackened reposse’, formed into figures and designs of writhing complexity, down which hang, suspended from chains, various figures, fetishes, and censors of smoldering incense. In the middle of this display is a blackened metallic abode, within which stands a small, silver, exquisitely detailed figure of the widemouthed, grinning Kali—multi-armed, with weapons brandished. A chain lies in the young man’s lap, which he lifts and slowly begins to beat across his back in synchronization with the now quieter drumming. The flutes fall silent and the chanting stops as the young man is suddenly wracked by a series of violent paroxysms. These body shocks quickly concentrate upward to his head and neck, which begin to swing from side to side at an ever-accelerating rate. With the head‘s rapid rotation, the long, dripping curls become a darkly pearlescent phase-space, and flesh and bone part ways in a loudly flapping bifurcation of solid and fluid, the distended profile of the face continuing its trajectory east as the skull hurtles west. The distortion of this effect reminds me of the film of the man on the rocket sled, facial musculature pushed backwards in G-force traction6 as, inches before me, the tractor force of this velocity threatens to remove this face from this head. Faster, and a blur of motion is achieved, a sustained visual hum approaching pure virtuality. The limit of endurance being met, the face and head imperceptibly begin to rejoin as the oscillation slows. The concentration of force expands back down into the body, which undergoes a convulsive dehiscence, tailing off to the equipoise of the original position. The chain, which I haven’t particularly noticed, suspends its flailing. As the young man quiets amid the communal exhalation of the assembly, I shift in my crosslegged posture, my knee briefly touching his back. Raman, our interlocutor, rises to stand. Turning to Ram and myself, he asks if we have any questions of the goddess, now manifest in the form of the possessed youth. Glimpsing at Ram, who seems hesitant to speak, and with a hundred different questions demanding address, I summon my strength to ask Kali if it is safe to go on with our journey to its final destination, the Spiti Valley in the far reaches of the Himalayas. The goddess fiercely replies at once in the high falsetto of the young man’s strangely lilting, yet terrifying voice: “Do not go forward. Do not proceed. The raging waters will destroy you. The mountains on top of you will descend.”
6. Lt. Col. John Paul Stapp conducted a series of manned-rocket sled tests during the late 1940s and ’50s, in which broken bones and other injuries were regularly experienced. At the time, he was known as “the fastest man alive.”
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Our prompter Raman now comes to our defense: “But they have come so far, and they have come to you O Devi,7 and they seek your protection. Can you not give them your assurance?” Kali, through the boy, replies again in her fierce yet tremulously sing-song cadence, in Hindi, or English, I cannot recall: “You must take me into your heart, you must walk in my fire. Then I will protect you.” Satisfied by her answer, Raman motions to us and we rise to leave, as others crouch down to take our place. We wedge our way through the crush of shrouded supplicants at the doorway as we make our exit. I walk wobblingly down the staircase, aglow in the light of the darshan, all the while remembering my wallet and its surfeit of worldly documents and legal tender I have left sitting on the table in the courtyard below. I arrive at the table to find my wallet and other items as I left them, thanking Kali for her mercy. The next day, Ram and I continue our journey north along the water-swollen and decomposing roadways toward our next stop, Kullu-Manali, with our final destination being the Ki monastery in the Spiti Valley of what was historically western Tibet, where the Dalai Lama is to perform the Kalachakra Initiation. Having delayed our trip by one day in Mandi, we are now concerned that our plan to take a rarely traveled route through the beautiful deodar-covered slopes of the Rampur Valley will have to be abandoned for a faster one. Do we regret our delay in Mandi, and have we forfeited our discovery of a seldom-seen land of the high Indian Himalayas? That night we repair to the restaurant of the 500-year-old former palace stronghold of Naggar, now a government-run hotel. As we sit ensconced in our booth with a surreptitiously supplied bottle of Johnny Walker, we ponder our squandered possibilities. Suddenly the waiter comes, shaken and greatly upset, to relate to us the news that has just arrived. It has just been reported that the road, the valley with its many villages, and the town that we would have been in this very night had we not lingered in Mandi, have been destroyed by a powerful torrent—a massive floodtide washing away all before it—from out of the steep mountain valleys of Tibet.8 Many lives have been lost.
7. The goddess. 8. On August 1, 2000, a sudden cloudburst over the Tibetan border joined a torrent from the faraway origin of the Sutlej River on Mt. Kailash—the abode of Shiva—causing devastating floods and landslides along the length of the Sutlej in Himachal Pradesh, India. The frequency of devastating floods in the region can be accounted for by the steady deforestation of the hillsides, the attempted modification of the river flow through public works, and the yearly northward advance of the monsoon line due to global warming. See R. S. Pirta, email@example.com.
“Jai Kali! Jai Mahati Devi!”
The Spiritual Tourist The spiritual tourist and the “entheogenic”9 dabbler may be subject to similar types of suspicion. The spiritual tourist is accused of superficiality by both the devotee and the unbeliever. The psychonaut practicing with “secret substances” using “special means” may be dismissed by the more endocrinally endowed, unadulterated mystic, as well as by the scientist, the psychologist, the politician, and the cop, and viewed as a decadent ministrant of false consciousness seeking escape from the “Real World.” Reality, of course, includes these substances and the brains that have been altered by them since the dawn of consciousness. Brains require data to ascertain reality as a projection of their own neural activity. Special means using secret substances ensure a wider spectrum of phenomena within which to calibrate an advantageous setting for a particular brain. These calibrations must be reset from time to time, as circumstances and curiosity dictate. Secret substances and ritual manifestations alike are tools “readyto-hand.” As the frayage of postmodern identities allows de-territorializing drifts across cultural boundaries, giving postmodern subjects access to cultural tools and techniques not always desired by “modern” subjects indigenous to their own transitional cultures, one is forced to cross boundaries, stepping outside one’s hereditary cultural identity, just to hold one’s place in the disorganized global flow of the multitude,10 always carrying a stamped certificate of dissimilitude should one find one’s self in too chokingly familiar a surrounding. Virtual Worlds Upon my return to the States, I throw myself into a spiritual regimen fueled by my experiences in Mandi and at Ki. Balancing this
9. Debate exists concerning the suitability of the term “entheogen(ic),” or “god-containing,” for any of a class of vegetable materials, the ingestion of which is known to temporarily induce radical sensory and conceptual brain-state changes, especially as used in the fields of ethno-botany and religious studies. See Valentina Paulovna Wasson and R. Gordon Wasson, Mushrooms, Russia, and History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1957); Jonathan Ott, Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, Their Plant Sources and History, 2nd ed. (Kennewick, WA: Natural Products Company, 1996); Huston Smith, Cleansing the Doors of Perception (New York, Jeremy R. Tarcher/Putnam, 2000). 10. On the theory of the multitude and its place in global transformation, see Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin, 2004).
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intense process of spiritual awakening with the requirements of being a “householder” and father prove increasingly difficult. As I puzzle over the direction my interests might take in the light of my recent experiences, I set about exploring the virtual realms of the wire-frame universe one finds available in various digital threedimensional-modeling programs.11 Surrendering totally, I fall into this world as into an abyss and spend nights in a classic fugue state, driven by sensory-motor ecstasy to mesh with these illumined virtualities. I know that the ghosts of Piero and Uccello12 lurk in the cobwebs of these electronic vectors and rays. As thumbnail renderings of worlds of my creation flicker across the computer screen in a kaleidoscopic array of possibilities, I occasionally stir myself from my reverie to hit “save” with the cursor so as to preserve at least a trace from the parade of images flowing by. Slowly over the weeks a vision emerges. A series of compositions form themselves around an initial premonition of the coming catastrophe, the shock and awe of Bush’s invasion of Iraq. I draw a parallel of this harrowing premonition with the recollection of the Manson gang’s dune-buggy forays into Death Valley in search of the entrance to the netherworld, making vivid the desert scene as a precinct of saints and prophets, mad and disastrous campaigns, and as the graveyard of many an invading emperor. I set about printing out dozens of renderings of the new beings that are coming alive in my wire-frame incubator, denizens of a desert of the infinite plane. The prints serve as templates for the series of paintings that result: “Sortie: The Demonological Survey.” A sortie can be defined as a setting forth, a venturing out, a reconnoitering, an engagement that as an event is glancing, improvisational, and open to indefinite outcome. It is often answered by a counter-sortie. The Cine-Somatic Eye Decamping from the mental barrens of this conceptual terrain, I occasionally go forth into the woods surrounding my home in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. There in profusion are found spread through the lichen, moss, and rotting stumps of the forest floor chanterelles, black trumpets, and angel wings—mushrooms galore for the table. Amanitas become an interest, the magnificent Caesar’s
11. Bryce and Poser are landscaping and figure-modeling digital-design tools. 12. Italian painters Piero della Francesca (1420?–92) and Paulo Uccello (1397–1475). Uccello is criticized by Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Painters for having squandered the success of his early career and many important commissions in the solitary later pursuit of his obsession, perspective. Exquisite “wire-frame” drawings remain from this period.
mushroom (Amanita caesarea)—the captivating Death Angel—and especially the Amanita muscaria,13 or Fly Agaric, reputedly the Soma of ancient Vedic scripture.14 With the family away one weekend, I return from a mushroom foray and decide to make a bowl of a “secret substance” I call Black Cloud, the ingredients of which include dried Amanita muscaria and Salvia divinorum,15 two of Gordon Wasson’s16 ethnological pharmacopoeia. My bowl full and packed, I lean back to inhale the Black Cloud, which I might well have called “the cloud of unknowing.” Opening my eyes for a moment, I see a large brown furry thing crawling across my floor. Having a magnifying glass at hand, I raise it to peer at the brazen interloper. It is a Carolina Wolf Spider, and she is dragging behind her a placental sac of spiderlings who, on emerging, are crawling up on their mother’s back in rustic frolic. I retrieve a teacup with which to remove this future colony of spiders from the interior of my home, and while viewing through the magnifying glass I examine for one last time the laboring mother. Crouching to within an inch of her, I stare into her eight black eyes. Within them I gaze into the abyss of the Other. Whatever interspecific bond one can make with a spider, I make. Our understanding of each other is somatic. Then, carefully, holding a playing card to the floor, I move the carnivalesque brood into the teacup and transport it outside. Sitting back down, I relax into a calm expectancy as the “cloud” descends through my peripheral nervous system. My attention becomes centered on the flexor-extensor paths of my right hand, which though nearly still, becomes a Bergsonian cascade of micropositions. Actual and virtual finger contractions mirror each other
13. A blood-red mushroom with white veil remnants found throughout Eurasia, and the western United States. In the northeastern United States, the yellow-skinned Amanita muscaria var. formosa is reported to have varying levels of psycho-activity depending on locale, time of season foraged, and age of development; ingestion of raw specimens can cause a muscarinic reaction; drying or cooking specimens converts ibotenic acid into psychotropic muscimol. Ingestion can cause delirium and the loss of motor coordination; the periphery of the perceived body image becomes a-positional and de-realized as distinctions of inner and outer collapse; also, induced, inadvertent bellowing and shouting can occur. These involuntary broadcasts become enunciatory ejaculations of sound—the somaticized word. 14. Identified by R. Gordon Wasson, Soma, Divine Mushroom of Immortality (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968), a view supported by Doniger O’Flaherty, as reported by Wasson in “The Soma of the Rig-Veda: What Was It?” Journal of the American Oriental Society 41:2 (1971). 15. A Mexican entheogenic plant of the mint family identified by R. Gordon Wasson in “Notes on the Present Status of Ololiuhqui and Other Hallucinogens of Mexico,” Botanical Museum Leaflets 20 (1963): 161–193.
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in a cine-somatic montage. Pierre Janet’s “‘Reality function,’ the consciousness of certain displacements of our members,”17 is anamorphically occluded by Bergson’s “consciousness of incipient movements,”18 and the images of these prehensile segmentations, both actual (actually achieved) and virtual (incipient with the possibility of achievement, or having been achieved, recollected as memory of achievement), are superimposed as images of durational flux. This micrological segmentation, observed in inner vision as a luminously colored X-ray, becomes a chromatic ballet mecanique. The epidermal limit is effaced in a hypostatic blur. Plunging deeply into the Soma, I become “the eye in the flesh”— I am the cine-somatic eye. Before me floats in aqueous green light a histological slab, seen in three-quarter planar view, a living specimen of membranous vasculature, an image of the “plane of immanence.”19 The eye in the flesh does not occupy the occipital cavity, but acquires motility within this supporting fluid of visceral light. The homuncular eye20 penetrates the fluid hydraulics of this matrix in perfect osmosis, and thereby dissolves (Fig. 2). Self-Organization and the Daimonic Consequent to my researches into wire-frame and Soma, a new understanding of the trajectory of my work as a painter shapes itself. Ideas regarding the self-organization of systems, as discussed in the work of biologists such as Stuart Kaufman and Francisco Varela and cosmologists such as Lee Smolin, are bringing us back to what might be called, paraphrasing Varela, a “re-enchantment of the concrete.”21 Contemporary science makes a place, narrow to be sure, for a kind of speculation regarding materiality that in some respects parallels ancient thought. The clay in the ground isn’t just sitting there, it is doing something: self-organizing, in an “errant and even ‘delirious’ distribution.”22 And it may perhaps be aware, on some incredibly
16. R. Gordon Wasson (1898–1986), international banker, amateur botanist, and author. 17. Pierre Janet, French psychologist (1859–1947), cited in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Structure of Behavior, trans. Alden Fisher (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), p. 163. 18. Henri Bergson, French philosopher (1859–1941), cited in ibid., p. 163. 19. For remarks on Deleuze’s “plane of immanence,” see Alain Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamor of Being,” trans. Louise Burchill (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999). 20. For more on the homuncular eye, see Robert Yarber, “Suspension of Disbelief: The Body of the Painter in the Face of the Virtual,” Art & Design 48 (1996): 64–71. 21. Francisco Varela, “The Reenchantment of the Concrete,” in Zone 6: Incorporations, ed. Jonathan Crary and Sanford Kwinter (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 1992), pp. 320–338. 22. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (above, n. 2), p. 36.
Figure 2. “Eye Cave,” by Robert Yarber. Ink on paper (2004). (Reprinted with the permission of the artist.)
primitive level, of what it is doing. With the potency of such a mineralogical panic exerting itself—“Oh deathly quiet pandemonium!”23— the idea of the daimonic,24 or nonhuman though conscious entity— comes to mind. The paintings comprising “Sortie: The Demonological Survey,” beginning in late 2000, present desert settings serving as staging grounds for the deployment of various “entities” inspired by meditation upon the ancient “elementals,” or daimonic beings, of Hellenistic and Indian myth in their nature as loci of natural and social power relations (Fig. 3). The demonology of the late antique period
23. Friedrich Nietzsche, Dionysosdithyramben. The word panic, derived from the name of the god of nature, Pan, is perhaps related linguistically to the ancient Vedic Soma: “Since the ancient Eurasian word for Amanita muscaria, pangk, and ancient words for inebriation in Finno-Uralic languages such as pagal derive from the same root (the literal meaning of pagal is ‘bemushroomed)’” (Wasson, as cited in Ott, Pharmacotheon [above, n. 9]), the association of pangk (Soma) and panic seems reasonable. 24. The daimonic, “that which binds the body to the soul”—i.e., tutelary genius, following Homer in the Iliad—is used throughout the writings of the Neoplatonists. The
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Figure 3. “The Triumph of Polyphemus,” by Robert Yarber. Oil on linen (2004). (Reprinted with the permission of the artist.)
serves as a kind of speculative physics. Neoplatonic philosophers struggle to define the makeup and nature of the daimonic.25 There are, for the Hellenes, beneficent demons and evil ones. Manipulations according to set ritual practices, often involving complicated physical tasks as well as flesh sacrifice, will ensure the service of this or that demon. Porphyry cautions against the nourishment of the “humidity” of demons: “These are beings rejoicing at ‘drink offerings and the odor of fat,’ by which their pneumatic and bodily parts
daimon often refers to the individual “genius” of a person, although it can also refer to the daimon of a place or thing, such as that inhabiting Proclus’s heliotrope. The demon, on the contrary, as is found in Christian literature, usually bears the connotation of an evil, rather than a neutral being. Proper usage is therefore as indeterminate as the many opposing views regarding the beneficence, neutrality and malevolence of demons. 25. “The daimons of Iamblichus may be likened to ‘laws of nature’”; see Gregory Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul (University Park: Penn State Press, 1995), p. 195.
are fattened.”26 Demons are therefore seen to be more or less embodied, if very ethereally, in the basic constituents of matter. They are, moreover, not so much willful imps as they are instrumentalities, albeit conscious and desiring ones, subject to causal relations in accord with the rest of nature:
With respect to their powers, those of daimones must be defined as fecundating, for they oversee nature and the binding of souls into bodies.27 (Fig. 4) Such a distribution is demonic rather than divine, since it is a peculiarity of demons to operate in the intervals between the gods’ fields of action, as it is to leap over the barriers or the enclosures, thereby confounding the barriers between boundaries. Oedipus’ chorus cries, “What demon has leapt further than the longest leap?”28
Mythopoiesis, or the becoming or “bringing into being” of myth, closely parallels what Varela describes as autopoiesis, or the auto-construction of the self. The daimonic elementals serve as talismanic concentrators of the allotropic (interior but alien) forces of the self, which function as the anterior dimension necessary for the disequilibrium of the autopoietic process. They are emissaries of the nonhuman that abide in the heart of the human:
What is neither individual or personal are . . . emissions of singularities in so far as they occur on an unconscious surface and possess a mobile, immanent principle of auto-unification through a nomadic distribution, radically distinct from fixed and sedentary distributions as conditions of syntheses of consciousness.29
The self (body/soma), as constructed in this matrix of associations, is ultimately revealed as the membra disjecta of the dispersed, anamorphic flesh of the Blakean polypus, scattered over the Deleuzian plane of immanence. The Sortie paintings might therefore be seen as fetishistic reifications marking the desire for stasis in this chao-errency30 of the autopoietic process, functioning, in a fashion,
26. Christian philosopher Calcidius follows Porphyry in using humidity as a descriptor of the thickened and dense (obesum corpus) daimonic body that shares “an excessive partnership with matter”; see J. Den Boeft, Calcidius on Demons (Leiden: Brill, 1977), pp. 3, 41. 27. Iamblichus, De Mysteriis, cited in Shaw, Theurgy and the Soul (above, n. 25), p. 133. 28. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (above, n. 2), p. 37. 29. Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin Boundas, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 102 (emphasis in original). 30. Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (above, n. 2), p. 57.
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Figure 4. “Encosmic Hearer,” by Robert Yarber. Oil on linen (2004). (Reprinted with the permission of the artist.)
as a burlesque31 of the Freudian death drive. This would mark their failure. Ideally, as talismanic operators, they generate morphogenetic change in their environments. Although apparently not far removed from the phantasms of today’s popular culture as found in computer games and horror movies, they are intended to suggest an efficacy beyond the aesthetic (Fig. 5).
31. Ibid., p. 17: “The death instinct must be understood in relation to masks and costumes.”
Figure 5. “Eye Propagator,” by Robert Yarber. Oil on linen (2004). (Reprinted with the permission of the artist.)
The gods are attributes, accidents arisen out of chaos. Across allotments of attributes, the masks of the divine and the abject are exchanged in silence, a quiet pandemonium. The dice are thrown, the wager made. Through quiet perturbation, painting propagates its errant species in molecular distribution, across the aetheric vellum. Should it enter the brain, through the eye in the flesh, a signum, signature, or chip implant might lodge to form a new disjunctive synthesis, a post of the outside, a somatogenesis of a new flesh—an exchange of the mask of the state body for the mask of a god.
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