Part One of this piece can be read here
Text and images by Jasun Horsley
A dozen eyewitnesses to the same event supply different details, at times radically conflicting. The police officer on the case shakes his head in frustration and curses them all. But what if all of those witnesses are faithfully reporting their perceptions?
In Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the same story is told from several different points of view; while the main elements remain consistent, the overall meaning is drastically different each time—as different as hero and villain. In the 2012 documentary Room 237, several different people’s interpretations of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining are juxtaposed, each completely different from the others. If the descriptions focused exclusively on the most subjective aspects of the viewing experience, we might even think we were hearing about different movies. Does this mean there’s a version of The Shining for every person who sees it? Or does it mean there’s no separate artifact-movie at all, only the interface of consciousness with something ultimately unknowable?
For human beings, narrative is like water for fish—we flounder and die without it. It’s how we make the unknowable seem knowable, and finally known. If we speak/hear the same narrative for long enough, it becomes all we can know. Yet the opportunity for escape from the prison of consensual perception is always there. It’s in the fact that, whenever we reform the narrative to incorporate a newly discovered anomaly—some dissonant element—we have the opportunity to see how we are always creating narratives out of data and how there is no narrative outside of what we create. We are the narrators of every story. And there are no separate categories for fiction and non-fiction.
Consensual perception is a self-reinforcing model of reality: what can’t be perceived does not exist, and what we agree doesn’t exist, can’t be perceived.
One current example of this is the common, kneejerk use of the term “conspiracy theory.” The term is applied to any kind of perception—including firsthand experience—that threatens to uncomfortably extend the parameters of what is “known”—i.e., agreed to be real. Recently, for example, the British Prime Minister called self-identified victims of systematized child sexual abuse “conspiracy theorists.” Yet, as the post-Jimmy-Savile explosion of high-level pedophilia and corruption continues to show on a daily basis—and despite high-level non-denial denials—yesterday’s conspiracy theory is tomorrow’s evening news.
Blind resistance to changing the narrative is natural enough. Introducing an incongruent element into the narrative (as in the fictional genre of transrealism) transforms the narrative because the new element changes all the other elements by creating a new context. At this point, the unthinkable becomes unavoidable.
The alternative to this is to slightly adjust the narrative (e.g., talk about “conspiracy theories”) to deal with the incongruities, adapting to accommodate them rather than throwing out the narrative. This latter is by definition impossible because of our dependence on narrative to function. In a similar way, recognizing that the institutions we depend on to survive are corrupt to the core is likewise impossible—as impossible as for a child to see an abusive caregiver as “bad”—because, without that support, we are quite helpless. Instead, we talk about conspiracy theories, or, if we know too much to pretend, about social reform. We get busy discussing ways of saving the barrel from all those putrid apples.
This entails forgetting everything we know about apples, barrels, and putrefaction—in other words, another, more advanced form of denial.
Moving away from such uncomfortably concrete imagery, let’s get back to the safe ground (or waters) of the abstract.
It is via the inception of learned language (socialization) that we cease to perceive directly through the senses and begin to experience indirectly, via the interpretation system (the narrative) of “mind.” Life becomes a movie in which we don’t even have a walk-in part, because we are now a paying audience member.
Yet perception predates consensus (and society), and perception will continue long after the consensus has been transformed or broken down completely. This is because narratives aren’t built out of perceptions but out of words ~ perceptions being both nonlinear and multi-directional.
Pause a second and observe how much you are perceiving through your body in this moment. Try and make a narrative out of it. You can’t, because pure perception doesn’t lend itself to narratives. Only a thought-based interpretation of our perceptions does.
The idea that we can trust our perceptions stems from the suspension of disbelief in the narrative. It’s on this that the existence of a functioning social identity depends. This is the real imaginary friend, the so-called mind, or ego-self.
The mind is a word-based construct. At a preconscious (or at least preverbal) level, we’ve agreed that it has the ability to correctly interpret perceptual data and hence to experience objective reality—as opposed to, you know, delusional, imaginary, wholly subjective “reality” (kids’ stuff!). But does it?
This belief both stems from and is constantly reinforced by our allegiance to the collective agreement that says, in order to get along, we better at least pretend to agree on “what’s what” and what’s not. This is known as “group think.” At a more primal level, it’s all about safety in numbers.
We reason among ourselves that the dominant narrative must be the correct one, for otherwise it would not be dominant. If we have to ignore evidence that shows otherwise, we will ignore it. If we support one another in our delusions, they become “common sense.” That sheet running across the living room floor doesn’t prove there’s an invisible agency beneath it. Not at all. It’s probably just one of the kids having fun. There are no kids? Well then, one of the animals! Uncomfortable anomalies are easy to ignore. We avoid discomfort instinctively, without even having to think about it. It takes a conscious decision to question the narrative, but none at all to accept it. So we stop thinking about anything that threatens the narrative without ever having to make any decision to do so. It “just happens.”
We agree to suspend disbelief and then we agree to forget ever having done so.
A manufactured consensus depends on manufactured consent.
The way to escape consensual perception is simple. It’s also seemingly impossible within the terms of consensual perception. But here it is: Cease giving consent.
The interpretation system/perceptual filter which we think of as ourselves—our thought-based, constructed identity-self—is illusory. Far from being our amigo, this original imaginary friend is more like a once-needed ally turned adversary. It has become our prison guard.
The option of relinquishing this illusion and returning to the natural state of pure perception is always open. All it requires is everything: a shifting of focus away from the elements of perception (the outside world and the values that tell us what’s perceptually correct), and a focusing inward—on the act of perceiving itself.
Simply put—and here’s where quantum physics comes crashing into the realm of psychology and everything else—either we recognize that our interpreting mind-self is a completely unreliable narrator of a fictional narrative; or, we admit that everything we think we know is wrong. Either way, we are up invisible creek without an imaginary paddle.
Pure bodily perception means knowing the blueness of the sky for what it is. Maybe it’s something objectively real, something we can all agree on, or maybe it isn’t. But either way we won’t get to talk about it. We won’t even get to think about it.
All we will get is to be lost in the blue.