I am a brain in a jar. Sometimes children tap on my jar, and ask their mothers what I am. Their mothers tell them that I am a brain in a jar. The children then ask what a brain is. And the mothers tell them that a brain is what you use to think. “It’s inside your head,” they say, sometimes tapping on the child’s skull.
Usually the children ask why this brain is in a jar, and not inside someone’s head. Some moms just say, “I don’t know,” and move on, but others try to explain, saying perhaps it once was, but now it is being preserved here in this jar, so that others can learn what a brain looks like. I myself have learned that seeing me seems to make people uncomfortable. From their reactions, I gather that I must look very unusual. But having never seen myself, I wouldn’t know. I probably wouldn’t even know I was a brain in a jar if I didn’t hear the mothers telling their children so.
I am what happens when you put a brain in a jar. I don’t know how long I have been a brain in a jar. It feels like a long time. I think I used to be inside a body. I think sometimes I even have memories: for instance, a pattern of carpet, the sound of a distant train, and a cat drinking milk. I think I used to have more memories, but they are fading now. The fluid I am being preserved in has grown thick and cloudy over time. I feel very soggy, and it’s sometimes hard to think, which is unfortunate since my thoughts are all I have.
Once I thought I heard a mother telling her child that I was a damaged brain in a jar, and that I was on display so people could see what a damaged brain looks like. This frightened me, and I began to wonder if it was true. I also began to wonder how I could even hear the mothers talking, since, being only a brain in a jar, I don’t have ears. It was then that I began to worry that the voices I was hearing weren’t real. And then I got very, very scared.
Sometimes I wonder what you’re thinking about when you see me. Maybe you’re wondering what I’m thinking about. Maybe you’re thinking about your own brain, and what you would do if it was in a jar. Do you think you’d be worried about some over-zealous child tapping on your jar so hard that it falls and shatters on the ground? Wouldn’t it be jarring to lose your jar?!
How would you know where you end and everything else begins?
Diary, Aug 31, 2021: Early morning. A car with no catalytic converter slowly parallel parks outside my window. The driver gets out and urinates right on the street, in plain view of everything. Only minutes later a teenage girl walks by. The car drives off, as loudly as it arrived.
On my way out, I discover two people sprawled out on the floor of the lobby, nearly blocking the entrance. One is digging through a garbage bag, the other is picking her nose. “Good morning,” I say as I step around them. One grunts back, but neither look up at me.
A few blocks away I happen upon a greeting card soaking wet on the ground near some mailboxes. It’s homemade. “Happy Birthday, Amber.” Amber’s friend wishes she could be there to celebrate. “Here are some cards to play drinking games with.” As I continue on I see another birthday note and an opened package on the ground. The gift remnants are scattered on the side of the street for the next couple blocks, and it becomes clear that a thief has stolen Amber’s mail, torn it open, and discarded what wasn’t of value to them.
I get very sad. I think about how we’ve treated each other in the last couple years, and how close to cannibalism we are at this very moment. For a painful, terrifying moment, part of me wishes a real plague would come along and wipe us all off the planet, and do it quick before the billionaires have a chance to get to Mars.
When I enter the woods, I encounter a beautiful little snail slowly making its way across the trail. A year ago, I would’ve transported the creature to safety so it wouldn’t get crushed by some oblivious jogger mom or manbun-wearing hiker bro. Sometimes, if it was a banana slug, I would stand by and wait ten minutes for it to safely cross. But today I leave it in the hands of God, or somebody like God.
On Christmas I went to the movies and, during the excessive barrage of trailers and commercials, I noticed a trend. First the new Batman featured Kurt Cobain’s isolated vocals from “Something in the Way.” Then Morbius had Jim Morrison’s isolated vocals from “People are Strange.” I thought, oh 27 club isolated vocals are “in” this year. Then the trailer for Buzz Lightyear had David Bowie’s isolated vocals from “Starman,” so I thought ok, it’s dead rockstars in general. But then there was a trailer for some stupid murder mystery called Death on the Nile, featuring an a capella version of Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth.” Apparently Hollywood just thinks isolated vocals are spooky and atmospheric. They’re not wrong, it’s just weird how EVERY trailer has it now.
“Isolated vocals for isolated people,” I said out loud as I sat alone in a movie theater on Christmas. Isolation’s on my mind, as it must be for everyone. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how the long-term psychological consequences of the traumatic last two years might manifest in the coming decades. Lately I’ve been reading about Harry Harlow’s mid-20th century experiments, in which monkeys were isolated in a glorified torture device he poetically called “the pit of despair.” Harlow noted that the animals emerged from this extreme isolation in a state of emotional shock characterized by “autistic self-clutching and rocking.” These monkeys were later incapable of group interaction or rearing their children, even leading to attempted filicide in some cases.
Harlow went to unethical lengths to prove something very obvious: social creatures can be destroyed by destroying their social connections. In another sadistic experiment baby monkeys were separated from their mothers and given a substitute “mother” made of wire and cloth. Sometimes it feels like we are the subjects of a similar experiment in isolation. The cell phone is the substitute mom, with instagram even functioning as a recreation of the mother’s gaze (“Mom! Watch me, mom!”). Jasun Horsley (who I’ve only socialized with through a screen) calls this the “Big Mother” theory.
On a related, and somewhat personal note, no one in my family called on Christmas. But I don’t take that personally anymore. My alcoholic-recluse Dad hasn’t even had a phone since 2008. Later in the day, I did get a text from my sister: “Merry Christmas Gibby.” And finally my Mom texted, but only after I texted her first. It’s funny how an actual phone call is tantamount to an act of violence these days. Would Alexander Graham Bell be surprised to know that we walk around with his invention on our person, but live in terror of it ringing? Anyway, I don’t take it personally. No one calls anyone. And my family members don’t call each other either. We’re a family that’s not family anymore. Maybe this relates to a larger breakdown in which the alienation of self-reliance and individualism has reduced the family to a collection of individuals with weakened bonds…
So I spent Christmas at the movies, formerly a space for communal bonding, where I noticed something else amongst the ads before the feature: a bizarre commercial featuring Matt Damon walking through a kind of virtual museum of exploration and conquest, as he waxes philosophic about winners and losers. In the first exhibit a lone explorer walks away from his galleon, then we see a lone climber on a treacherous mountain, and then what appears to be a single Wright brother flying his plane. Only when we get to the fourth exhibit, featuring a club full of young, gender-neutral “mere mortals just like you and me” as Damon puts it, do we see any kind of group. By this point, I’m thinking, What the fuck is Good Will Hunting selling? Finally he comes upon one last exhibit featuring a multi-ethnic group of astronauts, symbolizing tomorrow’s brand of intersectional imperialism. “Fortune favors the brave,” Damon says as we look out over Mars and a logo appears for crypto dot com. That’s the big reveal: Matt’s selling crypto.
In my still-unpublished book Notes from the Uncanny Valley, I ask, “Is bitcoin a decentralized virtual currency for a utopian future? Or a Ponzi scheme for a dystopian present?” If I were a gambling man, I’d bet on the latter. But I can’t afford to gamble. As the fine print at the end of the commercial reads, “Trading cryptocurrencies carries risks such as price volatility and market risks. Before deciding to trade cryptocurrencies, consider your risk appetite.” The phrase “Risk Appetite” is a funny one, since one might be hungry for food but not have the appetite for risk needed to afford food in a digital economy.
There’s a cruelty to Damon’s cringey commercial coming at the end of a year where a billionaire space race played out before billions struggling to get back to work and rebuild some semblance of normal. This year also saw SpaceX’s Elon Musk hosting Saturday Night Live, an event some felt was a ploy to boost Dogecoin (also worth noting that during his monologue he came out as Aspergerian). And then the year ended with Musk getting a stupid hair cut for his Time Magazine Person of the Year photo shoot (looked a bit like Gary Oldman in The Fifth Element (the future’s always full of stupid haircuts)).
No doubt related, the Netflix Christmas release Don’t Look Up, while not as clever satire as Network and not as funny as Dr. Strangelove, did have a very amusing character in Peter Isherwood, a creepy tech billionaire no one is allowed to make eye-contact with. Isherwood bears a striking resemblance to transhumanist and Heaven’s Gate cult leader Marshall Applewhite, who blasted off the old-fashioned way. I have a feeling as Jeff Bezos’s costly struggle to live forever gets more absurd, and Musk’s antics on the way to Mars become more erratic, and more and more rich and powerful people are exposed as sexual predators, audiences are going to love hating characters like this.
What can we make of the massive efforts being made to change the shape of the collective hallucination that is money? The idea is that it only works if enough people get on board. There were once rumblings that the average Joe investing in crypto signaled the coming of the bubble-burst, but now this is being encouraged. Another scenario might be that the bubble just continues to inflate, pushing hyper individuals like Musk and Damon higher and higher, until it pops, shooting them into space, and leaving everyone else here on Earth to rot. So, do you have what it takes? Damon asks. Are you brave enough to invest in crypto?
By the time all this, and more, plays out, the long term effects of lockdown isolation will be inescapable for the fully grown pajamas-and-limited-eye-contact generation. It seems likely that the ability for community-function will be seriously diminished by then. It already is… I think of those pop songs stripped of their communal creation, no longer a cohesive, collaborative group statement, now just expressions of alienated hyper-individualism. And I think of those poor monkeys. And I think of my poor broken family.
I also think of this excerpt from my book (Did I mention, it’s still unpublished?):
What have humans been running from all this time? What were those early splits in Africa and the middle east really about? It’s as if the fall from Eden never ended, we’ve just been gaining velocity the whole time, desperately trying to outrun the weight of our own history. In recovery circles there’s something called the geographical solution, where one attempts to escape their addiction problems by changing locations. But of course, everywhere you go, you’re always there. Dissociation must be the original geographic cure: the mind’s way of running away from itself.
Cut to me alone in a movie theater on Christmas. “I saw a film today oh boy,” sings John Lennon, alone and ghostly without the music.
Coming to a Plato’s Cave-In near you.
**I hope you’ve enjoyed my contribution to the confessional economy. Sharing is daring, and I hope fortune favors my bravery. Please like, share, comment, message, review, and subscribe. If I don’t get validation, I may start posting thirst traps.**
Audio gets fuzzy at times from the 20—40 min marks. If you can’t tolerate it, just skip ahead. Despite technical difficulties interrupting the natural conversation flow, we managed to make a good connection. We’re investigating a lot of the same territory in our work and have a similar appreciation for paradoxical inversions and acrobatic associations. Michaelangelo gets it, and, as you’ll hear in the hilarious intro, he does a pretty good impression of me. Or rather, he does a good parody of my parody of myself 😉