Tuesday, May 22, 2018

What Love Became

A short story I wrote yesterday at the "Experiments in Thought" workshop at IASH, organized by Chris Kitson. The prompt was some of Derek Parfit's writing on personal identity, although it doesn't stick very close to it, and I suspect the stacked qualia thought experiment is also out there somewhere (I know David Chalmers imagines fading and dancing qualia). I've changed the title and the ending from yesterday's version. (Also I got the days wrong and missed half the workshop, BUT I think the other prompts were Frank Jackson's Mary's room, Wittgenstein's beetle in a box, an empty room described in detail by Virginia Woolf, and one I've forgotten). Anyway. There is a knock on the door.


There is a knock on the door, although it is not exactly a knock and not exactly a door. Nor were you expecting someone, let alone not exactly someone.

Never mind. You can justly pride yourself on being an adaptable and quick-witted host, and minutes later everything is laid out neatly on the table – by which time your visitor has already explained twice about the others – and with everything set out neat like that, you can relax, take joy from the way the tea is exactly tea and the biscuits exactly biscuits, and actually listen to your visitor.

She is explaining, for the third time, about the others. By now the words are vaguely familiar. These others are within you. Like Whitman, “I contain multitudes.” Or is she saying the others are you? “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 

Oh, you marvel to yourself, is anything (outside the realm of mathematics) more exactly itself than a cup of Earl Grey? Yup, perhaps your little table in his little white frock!

You do also consider yourself somewhere between an anarcho-feminist and an accelerationist-but-in-a-good-way, so as your visitor explains for the third time, as the idea finally starts to sink in, finally starts to takes root – the idea you might not be alone in your bones, that from your pair of widening eyes, a host of others may now be peering, as they have peered your whole life – you do what you usually do, and blame neoliberalism.

“It’s an interesting belief,” you say. 

Time for a quick tactical sip.

Your visitor introduced herself as “All The Other Jennifers.” You guess her choice of name is one of those cutely bungled attempts to act all normal and human, so she can blend in, and you can feel at ease. She also told you her pronouns were she/her and that your pronouns were me/I, so it fits her general pattern. 

Ironically, trying and failing to act human is one of the most relateable things any visitor from elsewhere can do. And perhaps you are at your ease, because at this point you settle back in your chair and start to mankindsplain her. “A very interesting belief, All The Other Jennifers. For any given brain, there are stacked infinite souls –”

“Not infinite,” she corrects you softly. And takes a strategic sip.

“Well here in Edinburgh we have a little thing called neoliberalism. And what you’re telling me, it sounds like yet another false wish cultivated by the neoliberal condition. You see, All The Other Jennifers, the aloneness that capital imposes … the, uh …”

Oh dear, bombast and bourbon creams, welcome to the human dream, baby! Don’t “well, actually” aliens and angels, didn’t you write that on a post-it to yourself somewhere?

Now where were you? Oh yes, the loneliness.

“… the loneliness,” you continue, “that lets even lovers’ murmured intimacies never mean more than the wrong word for the thingamajiggy, the right word for which is always on the tip of your tongue …”

All The Other Jennifers holds up the tea under her chin, and the steam streams up past her jaw. You really feel you’re blowing this for the human race now, or at least for the accelerationist anarcho-feminist humans. All The Other Jennifers blows on her tea. Somehow you just can’t behave yourself. Where does the line lie between an experience and a behaviour?

Could she be making you babble? Maybe she has a ray or a special little box or something! Or … could this be neoliberalism’s doing?

Now where were you? Oh yes, the loneliness!

“… that loneliness is why it’s such a consolation to imagine what you’re telling me. That a multitude of uh viewpoints …”

“Discretized transcendental unification upward supervenience totality sets,” All The Other Jennifers encourages.

“… that this mob of ghosts all piggyback on any one body, All The Other Jennifers, on any one stream of sense data, um. Do you mind, All The Other Jennifers, if I maybe just call you … Al?”

All The Other Jennifers, who is from a place where neoliberalism never has been, selects from the blue and white porcelain a bourbon cream, and bites. She wears blue jeans, a floral blouse, big chunky red glasses on a chain around her throat. She came in in an apricot coat. No, more melon. She is reaching into a very furry handbag.

She says, “Well, not all brains are like that. You were specifically built that way. More carrying capacity. Shall I show you?”

What are your others, if there really are others, thinking of All The Other Jennifers now? How many attitudes, how many shades of feeling, are compatible with your behaviour in this second, sitting quite still, quite blank? How many inward states could underlie your outward gaze? Many, but, as All The Other Jennifers says, not infinite.

“Besides,” you huff, as All The Other Jennifers makes room on the table, “if there really are so many versions of me, who’s in change?”

Love and hate and fear and desire – how would these selves be discriminated, what would be their granularity? How do you feel about her now?

“In charge?” says All The Other Jennifers. “I am.”

That’s when All The Other Jennifers lets in the others.


Only it doesn’t start now.

It starts the moment you were born. The moment you all were born. And it lasts a long time.

Every memory blossoms its inwardness, every moment reboots membranous multitudinous. From the well of her palm your body straightens like a wick, and on it flickers a kind of forest fire and all the jungle’s embers and harts in heat who dance and die. Every slice of every second, every time you patted your chin, or put on a sock, or said hi to a dog, unfolds the gamut-blaze of experience it hid all along, heavenly fire to infernal refulgence, and every shade between, arson of the cosmos, settled misleadingly inside one meek lumen, compossibly slipped inside the grace of a small light candleflame of flesh, grabbing at the air, dandled on the wick of your spine.

And it occurs to you, to all of you, in the midst of this process, that you are being harvested.

The temperature and colour that flows communicatively from self to self is not circulating or pooling, but draining.

It occurs to you – it occurs to all of you – that tasting one another’s experience is just a side-effect, as something fibrous within you is being drawn apart, to build the sluice for the milk to flow along, to pipe it all away.

And you remember – you all remember – that as your visitor said, “Shall I show you?” she put a thirsty little box on the table.


But when it is over, you are still there.

You say, “Did you take them?”

All The Other Jennifers gives you a lop-sided smile. “You’re all still in there. It’s something else we’ve harvested. You will get it in a second. How do you feel?”

You feel enormously – nothing. 

You don’t feel relieved. You don’t feel much anything. Odd. Only it doesn’t even feel odd.

Perhaps there is some faint feeling, a little residue. You don’t want to tell her about it, though, in case she left it by mistake. Anyway, it feels like it’s evaporating.

“I feel nothing.”

“Your emotional reality is required for an upstream process,” explains All The Other Jennifers.

You shrug. “Sure,” you say.

She pulls the zip of her very furry handbag, and pushes back her chair. “So no more love, fear, rage, desire, delight, or grief for you. No more loneliness. Thank you for the biscuit. The bourbon cream is the greatest biscuit in the universe.”

“You’re welcome. Will I be able to live like this? I suppose I won’t be able to understand other people.”

It is not exactly curiosity that makes you ask. It is more like Tetris bricks that just have to be fitted together that way, so they’ll vanish.

“Well, everyone got a visitor today.”

You nod. “All the other All The Other Jennifers.”

She stands and unhooks her coat from the back of the chair. It is apricot. Nope, melon. She drops her very furry handbag on the chair, and as she slips through the first sleeve, she says, “You know I am about to walk away, and you will never see me again? I am taking your entire emotional reality with me, forever. Yet I’m a physical being, just like you. You don’t have to just sit there. You could try to wrestle my handbag away from me. Take out the box and open it again. That would work.”

“You mean ... the emotion will all flow right back?”

“Everything. You would get it all back. Only you don’t really feel like doing that, do you?”

“Hmm,” you say. “Hard to tell. No, I guess I’m okay for now.”

All The Other Jennifers shoots you an expression. Definitely pity. Unless it’s joy, but one or the other. Or sorrow. 

She starts to see briskly to her coat buttons. “But listen, don’t fret. For the next ten minutes, you have just enough affective momentum to execute a substitution. Beekeepers harvest honey, but they leave their bees a sugary gruel. You will be permitted to replace each emotion with a memory.”

“A bit like emojis and memes, I guess. When words aren’t enough, or too much. Thanks.”

“A bit. Functionally, I’m afraid memories will have to do from now on. The memory will shade and shape experience, in place of the feeling. You’ve made do with big general things like love, so now you’ll have to make do with specific things, like the time Lucy and Justin and you climbed the trees and picked the apples – oh, I don’t want to influence you!”

You laugh. “That’s okay. I’ve chosen my first already.”

“You will be allowed ten. I will give you ten minutes, to choose ten memories.”

“The first is the day a visitor harvested our emotional reality for an upstream process. I’d like to use that memory. And I want it to take the place of … does vengeance count as an emotion?”

All The Other Jennifers smiles thoughtfully. “I don’t see why not. That leaves nine more. Don’t forget about love!”

“Okay,” you say. 
“I guess you should leave me to it.”

“I guess I’ll just leave you to it.”

“Okay,” you say. 
“Bye now.”

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