Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Bats and transit (variation about games)

(Niklas Nenzén)

It is always good to imagine the world from the viewpoint of fellow organisms. A famous one is to see the world from a bat's view. A philosopher even wrote a book about it. Indeed, philosophers' "thought experiments" are typically crude reveries. A biologist may say something else about the probable forms of life experience of a bat and the phenomenology of batness. The bat is, as we know, seeing the world primarily from a nightly, aerial, swiftly and erratically turning and flapping, standpoint, with the landscape and its parts painted for the hearing sense by echoes. This is a very vivid and accurate view, but not only does it play at high speed, it is also extremely demanding as it requires the instantaneous processing of a vast amount of complex information at every moment. No rest until hanging upside down in some hideout.

For this very complex processing of information, bats need a well-developed neural system and brain. But if we assume brainpower is identical with intelligence we go wrong. When basic orientation is such an immensely complex task, there is actually very little capacity left for problem-solving, flexibility, sociality and other things we associate with intelligence. In human terms, bats are brainy yet remain rather stupid.

Next place to start: I really enjoy how time stands still in travelling. The long waiting, spent on board the vehicles themselves as well as in the different terminals, is not really waiting but spending time outside time, which is good for nothing, and therefore very favourable for revery, for non-directed reflection, for unexpected discovery. My friend Riyota Kasamatsu once wrote an essay saluting the surrealist potential of this "transit time", as connected to the watchword of "worthlessness" which was popular at the time.

Indeed and inevitably, the lack of access to the tools of conventional productive work, whichever they are in the situation of each person, creates a certain void, a void that tends to get filled. There are no immediate practical tasks for the mind (unless it indeed impractically gets stuck in the mode of paranoid worries and repetition-obsession). It is not work, it is not productive side activities, it is not useful leisure, the reproduction of labor force.

With no practical tasks at hand, with the mind in several respects vacant, we enter absentmindedness, which is a state of availability. This is where thought gets its opportunity to play freely, including taking a rest, leaving the stage open for various other modes of movement of the mind. This is an area where automatism, obsessive imagery and vivid revery sometimes play havoc, and sometimes just have their little stand in some corner and the limelight remains unoccupied. This is a state which has a great potentiality to focus on the unknown, and even more which is actually focused on potentiality; the mind is available for something to happen, and it might or might not.

This is why I typically prefer to travel alone – so as not to have to spend this whole time playing out normal social interactions. Unless one is busy with socialising with a companion, there will also typically emerge potentially interesting interactions with strangers. Potentially, not necessarily; it is all about availability. Of course, I try to avoid the entertainment with which ideological forces struggle to fill this void with advertising, indoctrination and numb relaxation of all kinds. For everyday transports I regrettably often fall into a practical need of utilising transport time for something useful, but at least whenever I am on something considered a journey, I very often avoid picking up self-chosen entertainment like novels, or picking up a laptop to do some regular work of one or the other kind. Yet there is no need to stick to any of these preferences as rules, because all these entertainments and conventional tasks will produce a certain boredom or just feeling of inadequacy, and the "withdrawal" into availability will eventually be spontaneously preferred.

It was quite refreshing to see a lot of the old fantasies about this "transit time" confirmed from an unexpected angle in Olga Tukarczuk's very readable novel Bieguini 2007 (eng Runners, sw Löparna).

From this viewpoint it is remarkable to see the large amounts of people nowadays spending all such free time playing little games on their phones. A certain amount of travellers in every waiting area, in every train car, will be busy filling their time with such desperate filling out the void and avoiding the potentialities that void might contain. (And I'm not primarily complaining about new technologies, I was just as irritated with the widespread habit of reading the newspaper while travelling, long before mobile phones with games came.) So with such games, typically of the simple kinds, a lot of people make sure to stay out of boredom by rapid repetitive action, cognitively demanding but intellectually dull. Games, the crude ethologists and neurologists say, are an advanced type of behavior, keeping motoric-sensorial-neural systems vigilant, good practice for hunting and for escaping predators.

But in the framework of contemporary human society, it would seem that these one-person high-speed no-thought games are much more characterised by their role as generalised entertainment, fulfilling the function of fending off thought, availability and potentiality. Indeed a lot of people in this society are in a fragile state, and know or suspect that any undirected thought might easily get stuck in repeating worries, problems, shortcomings, traumatic experiences, and lead to depression or nervous breakdown. For a lot of people, massive entertainment (be it TV, newspapers on the morning train, mobile phone games etc) is simply selfmedication against severe depression. Of course, the same entertaining noise that keep obsessive repetition away also keeps away any serious enquiry of one's desires (what one really wants to do), any serious reflection over one's situation (are there things that are in fact intolerable, and need to change, sometimes even with means already at hand) as well as any play of imagination that might constitute an inner counterpoint to depression.

There is a lot of important dynamics waiting in boredom. Because boredom is not about boredom, but only about the absence of desperate measures for entertainment. It is about facing the unscheduled, useless and sometimes extremely useful, it is about letting the mind go, and see it wander off, and discover beautiful stuff, or not.

This is not a question of denouncing modern digital gameplaying on the whole. That would not only be vain and pointless but also beyond my knowledge. Furthermore, apparently, there is also a vast sphere of ambitious games, more similar to actual playing, involving inventiveness, imagination, complexity, interpretation as well as eclectic and new mythologies, poetically suggestive graphics, and often actually entailing the development of entirely new skills, new ways of moving, new circumscriptions of the subjective unit, new utilities of the spirit, and therefore slightly altered bodily existence and individual existence. I don't know, but it seems to represent an analogy to the altered states in poetry. Of course such games tend to become obsessive and probably often outcompete most of the things that makes life itself an exciting game, but this is a delicate question, and not at all my subject here. I'm talking only about those trivial games available as apps on people's mobile phones, with which they are "killing time" unless there is any other entertainment around; making themselves permanently unavailable-occupied, extinguishing absentmindedness and potentiality along with threatening introspection, overview and boredom. The mind is constantly busy solving perfectly trivial problems. There is an incredible capacity, there is even an immense activity going on, but all this capacity is kept busy with this one particular activity and nothing is left for anything else. Just like bats! But still without the excitment of flying, of catching insects, and of experiencing the night...

Mattias Forshage

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