On aliveness, pt 2: To make oneself a rock

by Suspended Reason


At first the jackals ignored him, but then two of them came straying over. He had the conviction that terror, his terror, would doom him and that the first thing he would have to do was make himself into a nonreacting entity: that is, stop thinking and make himself as much like the ground or the trees as he could. He had to stop sending out waves of fear and supplication. It was a process of deidentification, he called it. It soothed him to have this task.

He found it hard to talk about how he got into this deidentified condition. It was a formula, a certain order of images he made himself experience. It was an inner contortion. It had to do with making himself not feel the passage of time. In any case the jackals left him alone.

Mating, Norman Rush

I’m sitting in the sun, writing these lines, keeping still and closing my eyes as a dog and its walker pass my thin strip of meridian grass. If I were to noticeably notice them, I might feel obliged to shuffle my position, or look away, or play at occupation, or smile assuringly their way. But I am not in the mood to make space, or to recursively model. If I am plausibly ignorant of their presence, meditative or napping, then I am provided an excuse for any lapse of manner, any inappropriateness or lack of consideration. How could I be expected to have acted otherwise? And I can register, to the dog and the walker alike, as a non-presence—if I can make myself a rock—then the interaction becomes simpler for everyone.

The thing about rocks is that they don’t change, not based on information you leak. You don’t have to watch yourself, don’t have to watch yourself watching them watching you. Don’t have to micromanage your microemissions, make sacrifices in the name of the rock’s reading. Nothing you say or shout alters the rock. The rock does not change when it is observed. I am not a rock, but I am closer to a rock, and that makes the math simpler.

(All the cultural and literal technologies that make you more rock-like—putting in headphones, averting your eyes, wearing sunglasses, feigning sleep—also expose you to danger. By deafening your senses you are less responsive, less adaptive—you are more vulnerable. There is a way in which becoming more like a rock also operates as a costly signal, to those capable of discerning it.)

Entities in a landscape of play vary in their aliveness—in their sensory bandwidth, and their adaptive range and readiness. To be alive is to be alive to subtleties of alteration in the environment, so that a far-off soundwave can dramatically alter the entity’s behavior. A rock, a corpse—these require significant force to alter their behavior. To be alive is to be sensitive to, and manipulable by, subtle waves. (Sensitive and manipulable: the first entails the latter.) We do not walk on eggshells” (or tiptoe) around the comatose.

When we are around the highly alive, we watch ourselves more closely. The subtlest of lip twitches can end an interaction, if the players are sufficiently attuned.

If we take aliveness as subtle attunement and responsivity—that an alive player is one that can be subtly communicated with, and also as one who will detect the subtlest of unintentional leaks” (that is, cues and tells)—then aliveness must also be something relational. Significant others (long-term romantic partners) and family members are more alive’ to one another than they are to casual acquaintances. Members of the same culture may be said to be more alive to one another than to members of distant cultures. Our intuitive moral weightings may correspond to organisms’ relative aliveness.’

To be a dead player—to be highly predictable. To not respond anti-inductively. To not act to thwart others’ exploitation of you. To not monitor the environment, all its sound and lightwaves, its olfactory particles and ground-tremors, for relevant disturbance.

The dead are inductive: Simple inference of past behavior allows prediction of future behavior. The dead are less context-sensitive, less complex in a complex-systems sense. This is why physics (the study of the dead world) is a nearly exact science, while psychology and sociology remain inexact. Representation is easier when the represented do not respond to representations.

On the one end of our rigorizing pipeline is the living ecosystem, the conspiracy theory viewed from outside: a complex web of highly alive actors, who are intentionally altering and obfuscating their information emissions, and who may only be observed across vast distances of time, space, and mediated indirectness. On the other end are concepts like F=MA, or the rate of gravitational acceleration.

A rock, as it drops from a great height, does not alter its behavior, in response of observers’ understanding, to subvert that understanding. Our apprehension of its drop is mediated only by those robust and constant tools, honed by natural or cultural evolution for stability: the eye, the stopwatch or sand-dial, the measuring rod.