You Have No Core and It's Good

Sometimes, something happens that seems to cut to the core. All your bullshit, your prattling and preening, your neuroses and needs become irrelevant as the sublimity of the occasion washes them all away like so much sand. It's as if all this — clothes, posturing, iPhones, email, "Game of Thrones" — were mere jelly protecting the vulnerable, sensitive inner core. And when something intense happens, it slices clear through that outer layer to hit the never center of being. 

Isn't this how we imagine the brain? It's "grey matter," not only different from everything else (so is my spleen, after all, not to mention my odd baby toe toenails) but it's different for a reason: it's the core of how we work and who we are, all mysterious and protected by skull and gunk.

But let's suppose, for a moment, that there is no core, co center to my being. I am a style of going, a way of distributing not only the world and people and ideas but this absurd frame of my mine: I am a posture, comportment, and gait at once visible and invisible.

There is no one spot, not even my brain (and certainly not my soul). Now, I know that the brain is an essential component of keeping these bodies and cognition of ours working. But, as Henri Bergson says, this is not because the brain is made of mystical matter but because it's a switchboard. It's a central node, yes, but within a distributed field. It's not mystical but productive. In its way, the brain is rather banal.

This figuring of the brain shifts the very manner of how we constitute being in the world. The brain ( not even the pineal gland) is not the home of your most secret, special, divine self. That's because there is no home to this secret, special, divine self. You are — we all are — teeming, swirling, more or less undulating bodies. We ooze, marble, fold, pleat, thread, fray, condense. We are infinitely complex systems bound by limits at once visible and invisible. 

You are not somewhere in your body. You are of your body. Your self is everywhere — in your belly and butt, in your knees and nape, in your pubes and nostrils and teeth. You wear all of you. And without this, you're not naked. You're not even dead. You are nothing.

In his great essay on history, Foucault argues against the very notion of an historical origin, as if he beginning of an epoch could be singularly defined, as if an epoch were not itself made of multiple epochs across vastly different time periods. When you look to the origin, Foucault writes (more or less), you don't find a singular point: you find "the dissension of other things."

I love that figure — you reach for one thing and discover this whole complex, moving web of....stuff. In fact, I love this phrase — the dissension of other things — so much it was the title of my undergraduate thesis I wrote 23 years ago. And I still remember it vividly. But not because it penetrated my core but because it helped realign the system that I am.

Which is to say, just because there is no core, doesn't mean you don't get worked over by events in the world. Rather than penetrating per se, these events are thorough: they permeate multiple flows — of your appetite, sexuality, thought, vision.

And sometimes the very constitution of your system is worked over. That is, rather than simply different stuff flowing through the pipes — sushi rather than hamburgers — or even the pipes themselves changing, say, from steel to copper, the very means of movement change: things no longer flow but ooze. Sometimes, something happens that is so extreme that your very make up is fundamentally recast.

No doubt, this all seems rather pedantic. Who cares if I say something "cut to my core" vs. "my system was recast"?

Well, let's imagine that something terrible happens and someone close to you dies. This is not just someone you liked but someone who was essential to your very way of going; they were constitutive of the system that is you. Picture all your flows — your desires, needs, tics, thoughts, speeds, anxieties — streaming through you. Some of these streams don't just flow through you but flow through others — a lover, a friend, a sibling. When this person is gone, your whole system needs to realign, recalibrate, be reengineered.

Now, this terrible thing leaves you reeling. It's all you can think about. Still, you find there are moments when you're laughing at "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or lost in the delirium of a new flirtation at the bar. Suddenly, you get aware of yourself and feel a little guilty. Shouldn't I be sad? Didn't this event affect me so much that it cut to me core?

Or, alternately, you find it impossible to do anything. You are overwhelmed. How can I possibly brush my teeth, eat, joke, listen to music, do anything as frivolous as get loaded at the bar ever again? After all, I've been cut to my core!

Well, you haven't been cut to your core. You system has been sent awry. But, as you are a system that is a complex of intersecting threads, parts of you are not affected. This is neither good nor bad; it doesn't mean you're too sensitive or insensitive. Such is the very way of human becoming: we are made of different flows of different speeds and intensities. 

We are not selves with some deep inner core. We are systems that need tending to, alignment and realignment. We are not selves. We are ways of going, with an emphasis on the "s."

This is the only way I know of to make sense of living everyday with sublime tragedy. Of brushing my teeth, sleeping, and eating while, at the same time, someone close to me is suffering horribly. I don't want to ignore that suffering. Nor do I want to wither away from lack of food and sleep. And so I set about the arduous task of configuring my system so that these two things — the everyday and sublime horror — can flow simultaneously without effacing each other. 

The figures we use to make sense of this life matter. Forget the core. You have no core. Engineer your system. 


mistah charley, ph.d. said...

this seems similar to some discussions i've read of anatta, the buddhist concept of non-self

we were talking about this at the mbsr course i've been attending - one participant is an elderly woman - in what way is she, and is she not, the "same person" she was when she was ten?

time flies like an arrow - fruit flies like a banana

Daniel Coffeen said...

Mista Charley: Thanks for piping in. I'll look into anatta. But one thing that interests me here, which may or may not be Buddhist, is the engineering aspect of maintaining one's self-in-the-world. I really see it as a kind of elaborate plumbing problem.

Anonymous said...

we are ways of going

cut to the core,
none so deep that in the scope of possible doom we serve the sentence of oblivion,
none so sweet that wit's wisdom forfeits her flower,
the darker fields of ambient storms still nourish the vital gardens she keeps
guarded under eyelids heavy from the drench of duty and divinity,
elysian orbits keep on their precarious cosmic march
for us all to reap the sustained theater of collective hope
can no fault line move us any longer, no apocalyptic harbinger, no morbid mythos,
for we found irony in their play of code and a secret fount of power in irony,
our exuberance clamors outward with the force of a thousand ontologies,
how we even ache to swallow a concept of poison that would cure us of ourselves,
that we might engineer our most fragile experiments in selfhood
to bask in the joyful contagion of that which does not kill us

Daniel Coffeen said...

Spaciality, wowzer. I assume this is yours? I love this; I'm a fan of purple prose and this fills the mouth (and more) so sumptuously and thoroughly. Thank you.

roca de carioca said...

I see William Gibson's phrase, "going nodal," like I see your description of Foucault's "dissension of things" paired with Bergson's "central node switchboard." Going nodal, as I remember it at least, happens in the conflux of intertwinings of character/event threads; it is the unfolding-view (happening?) of the knotting of the threads. It's a surreal negotiation of the dissension of things.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I like this phrase quite a bit. I read it two ways. One is a node that moves so is constantly distributing different things. This is strange for we tend to think of a node as a fixed point in a series of network exchanges. Going nodal would put that fixed point in motion.

But I also read it as transforming oneself into a node — going nodal as in going, say, crazy. What was once a thruway or deadend is not a node going in multiple directions.

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