21. Dec 2019
Domen Ograjenšek: You Make It Hard to Have a Good Time / ŠUM#12
- The Lizard Brain
It takes only two strolls to the kitchen sink, the first to get a glass of water, the second to fix the leaky faucet, to get me tired. And by tired I mean comfortable enough so that the work that I have managed to get done by that time may already seem like a legitimate day’s work, even though legitimate it is often not, since the scope of the work done may very well entail only responding to an email or two. Such is the lure of the groove.
According to Joseph Troncale, M.D., the groove is that comfortable place in my limbic brain that gets me into trouble. It is the part of the brain that would rather strain my eyes on YouTube binges and social media scrolls than to fully experience and face “the emptiness of life, the pain of the moment, and the discomfort of relationships”. In other words, it is the part that drives us to silence the doubts and existential realizations that we face day to day.
According to the same M.D. (“double checking my sources I am not” echoes from within the groove) this furrow or rut is located in the limbic cortex, the neural system that is commonly referred to as the seat of emotion, addiction, #mood and “lots of other mental and emotional processes”. It is considered to be phylogenetically very primitive, which is why many people simply call it the “Lizard Brain”—apparently the limbic system is all that the lizard’s brain is comprised of—and is in charge of “fight, flight, feeding, fear, freezing up, and fornication”.
Whether or not this tidbit is the inspiration behind the popular conspiracy theory of the “lizard people” in charge of the world is hard to tell. Yet the general disregard for our lizard (counter)parts is something that can definitely be tied to both. Nobody seems to like their lizard brains, Joseph Troncale, M.D., even warns of its dangers, and to an extent rightly so. Addiction is no fun. But this disregard for the animal parts or the nature within us reaches further than the seemingly commonsensical wariness of substance abuse and excessive fornication.
[Photoshopped image of Hilary Clinton as a lizard person taking off her humanoid mask, source: https://i.ytimg.com/vi/5HHXP20CtWo/hqdefault.jpg]
Nature in general is something that had had a bad reputation long before biological determination was deemed problematic (due to its links to racial and sexual determinism) and theories of social construction reigned supreme. Its ties to immanence have more often than not positioned it opposite the transcendent flight of ratio and subjectivity, thus making it alien to the true human potential, progress, and prosperity, even when the nature in question was our very own, making us inclined not to trust our affects and rather keep them in check.
As Primož Krašovec notes, this mistrust of the affective dimension has also lead to the mischaracterisation of capitalism, the world of which is considered cold, strategic, and divorced from the unpredictable spirits of our inner selves, even though its flight is filled with exuberance (hype and bubbles) and depression (crashes and crisis). In this regard he touches on the expression of “animal spirits” as the spirits or affects of capital and capitalism that can be found in the writing of Marx and Keynes, where workers’ sociability (in the case of Marx) and spontaneous optimism (or spontaneous urge to action, in the case of Keynes) are constitutive for the functioning of capitalism.
In this regard the idea of the lizard people as people with power, people on the side of capital, is all of the sudden not so crazy anymore. As there is something lizard-ly in ourselves, our brain, it might very well be that there is also something lizard-ly in capitalism, in its (animal) spirits. The limbic system is definitely not something to simply mess around with or disregard.
But nature, especially when considered in relation to our subjectivity and subjectivisation, is also something that has received a certain conceptual re-rendering in feminism, where (as Stacy Alaimo points out) the once mistrusted notion, due to its use as a weapon against minorities and women, is now reconsidered as something that is crucial for addressing the remaining spectral traces of the biological (and with it, racial and sexual) determinism that the social-constructivist feminist theories were not able to fully eliminate—due to their reluctance to engage with matter (leaving it as a fixed, essential material basis that has consequently rendered biological determinism still meaningful).
This re-rendering corresponds with the conceptual underpinning of environmentalism in the past decades, and leads to the notion of the material self that, as Alaimo describes, is quintessentially tied with global economic, industrial, and environmental systems. A self that can no longer differentiate and distance itself from its surroundings (nature as environment) and inner spirits (nature as affects or the lizard brain).
Sure, this material self is unpredictable and not perfectly in line with our day to day understanding of ourselves, even though, as demonstrated by Ladelle McWhorter, a complex transformative process like “becoming dirt” can sometimes be sparked by so simple a thing as a single Dorito. However, our lizard brains are already deeply entrenched in the material flux that surrounds them, and distracting them with our doubts and meagre attempts of rationalisation can therefore be as inconsiderate as it is unproductive.
- How to find the groove, or, why to give in?
I once heard that Ariana Grande’s ponytail changes colour, depending on its emotions. And it probably does. It must. No mere extension could bring so many people joy. And joy it brings. Our lizard brain is perhaps protected by its skeletal enclosure, but that does not detach it from the surroundings into which it invests its neural energy.
Just like the toxic bodies of our polluted streams permeate our own bodies, defining its flesh with viscous porosity and making it an expansive membrane rather than a well-rounded self-sufficing entity, so do our affects leave our lizard brain, or better yet, extend it beyond its primary limbic setting. Our emotions and compulsions are not merely a matter of the heart, but are also a matter of dirt and sometimes glitter. Entangled in the rules of interactionist ontology, where social practices and natural phenomena cease to exist as disparate things, they are as much a physical force as a mental one, as much infused with collective imaginaries as with the chemical imbalances of the groove and its surroundings.
So the next time you see Grande’s ponytail, do wish it a pleasant day, emote with it, and perhaps it will emote with you as well. Because absurdity aside, the intersubjective field is drastically changing, and change it must. The planetary ecological crisis brings along a strange temporality where what already is, what must be, what is not, yet what will be, coincides, which creates grounds for a whole new form of sociality and with it an ethics that could actively include nature and matter, given their role in shaping the conditions of our contemporary existence. Alaimo, for instance, speaks of a nearly unrecognisable sort of ethics, one that “demands that we inquire about all of the substances that surround us”, a trans-corporeal ethics that can be able to navigate through “simultaneously material, economic, and cultural systems that are so harmful to the living world and yet so difficult to contest or transform”.
The ethics that is proposed here does not imply hindering our lizard brains, “waking up” and seeing the green piece of heaven that we are actively destroying, but rather seems to take things more or less in the other direction: to give in to the lizard brain, to the limbic system, to the demands of the microflora of the gut, and other animal spirits within us, where our bodies are already in a state of communication, exchange, and most importantly negotiation with the matter that permeates and surrounds them. Which, I admit, sounds bleak and for most of us probably completely counter-intuitive. However, this sense of bleakness could very well be the result of our dedication to the concept of thought and action that still presupposes the idealised potential of “free will”.
Alaimo does speak of this new sort of ethics in the sense of tracing the traffic of toxins in order to breach the PR defenses of corporations that are polluting us and our environment, which implies an active, organised approach that could be seen as the opposite of giving in to the lizard brain—to the place in our brain that compels us to avoid the harsh reality of our existence, the anxieties of the contemporary condition. And to a certain extent it is. But giving in, avoiding the pressures and burdens of the overwhelming sense of reality, does not imply a complete detachment from the responsibilities and symbolic pressures that society imposes upon us (one could only wish). It rather establishes an additional, parallel process of ethical negotiation that includes parties of a different kind (microflora, pollutants, etc.). So rather than a threat to the ethical and political project of our time, it is an indispensable tool that expands the scope of what could be considered a political subject. Long gone should be the days that deem the couch potato an apolitical figure.
Our anxieties and the silly habits that they prompt are not a hindrance, even if they feel like it most of the time. They can be sweet and addictive or excruciating and even dangerous, yet that month spent avoiding people and sleeping 18 hours a day was not a month wasted. The good thing about the lizard brain is that it is a disruptor of timelines, of schedules that we want to keep up with, but fail to. It makes the ticking of the clock slower or faster, turning an hour into an eternity or engulfing whole weeks in fog and confusion. It even disrupts our awareness of space, where one day your small one-bedroom apartment may seem like a world in itself with colonies of ants, stinkbugs and nesting bees, that become your new brethren, whereas the next day the whole planet is already a tiny suffocating dot from which you desperately need to escape.
It is that part of the brain that best aids the shift from thought informed by shapes and sizes (the geometric thought) to thought informed by connectivity and boundaries (thought of topologic manifolds), which is needed in order to grasp the scope and complexity of planetary changes. The part that skews the concept of identity as something that is distinguished by “location and positionality with respect to a Euclidean grid of identification” in the direction of an identity as a “contingent and contested ongoing material process”, as is necessary for a comprehensive grasp of the problems of intersectionality.
- Curtains: breakdown vs. meltdown, or how to cause a crack in the system
The broken sense of space is thus what could be described as the necessary condition to consider the trans-corporeal dimension of sight that can follow and map the topological manifolds that Barad mentions. It is also the point where things begin to mash and curtains, the most common of drapery, can become a tool of breaking the Euclidean dimension of space.
As the Batagaika crater,  grew from a minor gash in the 1980s to a vast opening that is now clearly visible even on satellite images, it became a phenomenon that would capture the world’s imagination. “Does Batagaika gape and groan / or does it gape and groan within it?”
[Batagaika Crater, source: NASA Earth Observatory]
The “megaslump”—as graphic as it is—is a telling term. It primarily signifies a feature caused by a continuous collapse of the melting permafrost, yet in its secondary connotation, at least one of the possible ones, it captures and outlines a specific topologic happening that could be summarised as a meltdown.
Similarly, as the warming causes the permafrost to melt and thereby erodes the static of the ground, causing it to “slump”, so does the material and symbolic dimension of contemporary society move in a vertical direction. The breakdown might very well be the defining mental occurrence of the early 2000s, filling yellow pages, ending careers, and generally enforcing the rule of stability, balance, and control. So, as the Twin towers fell, so did, almost, Mariah Carey’s career—whispers of a breakdown started circling after an unsuccessful album that had the bad luck of being released on 9/11, followed by an eccentric TV appearance on the MTV show Total Request Live.
In this sense verticality is a considerable pull that charges at the levelness and stability of the ground that it stresses. The fragility of the downward pull, as a queer Epicurean atomic fall of sorts, staggers the surface, rids it of its immanent passive finish and infuses it with agency that bundles together a heterogeneous array of subjectivities—be it of the human sort or not. If one traced it, a genealogy of planetary exhaustion could be formed, shedding some light on why everything seems so “down”.
So when art practices begin to reintroduce elements of cascading drapery, specifically curtains that split the exhibition space vertically, disrupting and dividing it, yet simultaneously also offering it support, pushing against the floor and ceiling that frame it, thus upholding its integrity, the spaces that they occupy also begin to exhibit a character of depression.
The spaces are whole and stable, emphasizing its Euclidian properties: its extensiveness, angularity, the “positionality” of its occupying objects, etc. Yet the aesthetic properties of the curtains that shift from the soft, organic folding of the fabric to the lifeless, seemingly stiff stillness—its aesthetic ambivalence—introduce a certain duality into the otherwise unified spaces, which bends and twists their symbolic constitution, switching their extensive markup for an intensive one.
A similar thing happens with the introduction of horizontal objects-surfaces, patches, spills, where the downward pull flattens the objects, causing them to spread through the space, giving the sense of an unstable, malleable form—an anti-structure, or residue.
The space bends around them. Just like the astronauts faced with the emptiness of the black void of space experience a cognitive shift called the “overview effect” that causes similar symptoms as depression or anxiety, so does the symbolic art space, exhausted and depleted by the expansive normatives of its physical setting, emit a glooming effect, where symbolic form evades the synthesising power of sight and addresses the art viewer more through their moody instabilities (than through any sort of “aesthetic cognitive apparatus”)—more through their limbic system than the eyes as the organ of sight.
This shift in spatial constitution of the exhibition space supports a redefinition of the art viewer that would reflect the changes that sway us away from sight as the condition of a proper art experience. Yes, the eyes are still in play, we still “look” at the artworks, yet their reception is not visual, but rather moody or limbic. This makes art viewing not so much an act of free will, but of compulsion, and the art viewer more an art lizard than a viewer of any sorts. We flick our forked tongues, sense the familiarity or unfamiliarity of spatial anxieties, moods, and compulsions, sense friendly or unfriendly fellow lizards, and then: fight or flight. At least figuratively.
A redefinition of this sort would entangle the art viewer in intensive topological complexities that correspond better to impersonal happenings on the planetary scale and make them responsible on the level where, as said before, they already act as multiplicities—in constant exchange and negotiation with the bodies that surround and permeate them.
Yet still, there is only so much that a curtain or two can do. And the exhibition space as a lizard-ly extension of the groove establishes only the primary conditions for the alignment with topological manifolds. If one were to trace the genealogy of planetary exhaustion, one would have to follow spatial queer-ing in its complementary chemical, financial, and libidinal underpinnings. Something that challenges and evades symbolic articulation and brings into play personal bodily investment and risk—a challenge, more so than scepticism or critique.
Domen Ograjenšek is a writer, art critic, and curator. He holds a degree in philosophy from the University in Ljubljana and is currently a PhD candidate at the Institute for Cultural Studies and Art Theory at the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna.
 Troncale, Joseph, “Your Lizard Brain”, Psychology Today, 22/04/2014, available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/where-addiction-meets-your-brain/201404/your-lizard-brain.
 KRAŠOVEC, Primož, “Kapitalizem in čustva”, in: Bauer, Marko, Škufca, Andrej (eds.), Šum #9, Ljubljana, 2018, pp. 1151–1173.
 Ibid., p. 1152.
 MARX, Karl, Capital, A Critique of Political Economy, Volume One, London and New York, 1976, pp. 443–447.
 Keynes, John Maynard, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, San Diego, New York, London, 1964, pp. 161–163.
 ALAIMO, Stacy, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 2010, pp. 4–6.
 Tuana, Nancy, “Fleshing Gender, Sexting the Body: Refiguring the Sex/Gender Distinction”, in: Southern Journal of Philosophy 35, 1996, pp. 53–71.
 ALAIMO, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, p. 19.
 “‘Nope,’ I thought, ‘can’t feed that crap to my dirt.’ I threw the crumbs in the trash and reached for that one last chip. It was halfway to my mouth before I was struck by what I’d just said. I looked out the kitchen window at my garden, my trenches, my dirt, and then my gaze turned downward toward my Dorito-stained hand. Dirt and flesh. Suddenly it occurred to me that, for all their differences, these two things I was looking at were cousins—not close cousins, but cousins, several deviations once removed. I haven’t purchased a bag of Doritos since.” (MCWHORTER, Ladelle, Bodies and Pleasures: Foucault and the Politics of Sexual Normalization, Bloomington, 1999, p. 167)
 TUANA, Nancy, “Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Hurricane Katrina”, in: ALAIMO, Stacy, HEKMAN, Susan J. (eds.), Material Feminisms, Bloomington, 2007, pp. 188–213.
 ALAIMO, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, p. 14.
 Ibid., p. 18.
 BARAD, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham and London, 2007, p. 451.
 Ibid., p. 240.
 “The Batagaika crater is located in the eastern Siberian taiga, and is caused by a geological phenomenon called a ‘megaslump’—a feature caused by the collapse of melting permafrost that has been growing steadily since the 1980s.” (PAPPAS, Stephanie, “Growing Siberian Crater Seen by Satellite”, Live Sicence, 02/05/2017, available at: https://www.livescience.com/58922-growing-siberia-crater-seen-from-space.html.)
 I first came across the geologic phenomenon in a poem.
 PRAH, Uroš, “Batagaika”, in: Udor, Ljubljana, 2019.
 Hanging curtains, draping synthetic fabrics and silicone strips that vertically fold with a still tension of the gravitational pull. They form a clean line, completely still, as if only imitating the falling material (its organic folds), while all along they’re an artificial self-supporting structure—simple, yet ambiguous.