He’d been shot in the head. It was within his head that the bullet was lodged. But what if events had played out differently, he thought. His skull could so easily have been the surface of the wall that had lain within the bullet’s trajectory only moments before. As he thought about it further, it seemed that this exchange had already happened, or would happen, anyway. It became clear to him that his body could effortlessly become the fabric of the wall; or the dust that hid within the right-angles of the room; or the brittle flecks already drying on his forehead. His body should have been the one thing he could trust. But none of its atoms seemed to remain in the same place for long. His own rare flesh shared some of its self-organising habits with foreign accretions of matter. Like grains of sand sculpted by indifferent agency into magnificent dunes, or tiny ripples, in the desert.
As his mind wandered, the hardness of the floor became more insistent and disagreeable to his flesh. He thought about others, both in the future and the past, who would share, or who had shared, his predicament. He remembered a photograph of a corpse lying in the desert. The sky that framed the unfortunate victim was a solid sheet of black ink. He looked up. For a moment he saw his body become the rectangular slate of desert sky that was wedged into the ceiling.
He studied the dead man. He’d fallen on his front so his shattered face was half buried in the sand.
He’d been shot twice – in the back, and in the head. He stooped low to peer at what was left of the man’s face. His remaining good eye was still open and the eyeball slumped down to hover just above the concrete floor. Its sticky surface attracted the eddies of fine dust that skimmed the ground. From this vantage point he could see only a narrow bar of desert between ground and horizon. Thousands of undulations of sand, rippling out for miles, were all accounted for within the narrow strip that was apparent to his oblique point of view.
A wall, a grain of dust, a speck of blood, a white ceiling, a desert sky or another corpse – he realised that his body could simultaneously take on the identity of all these things. His mind roved capriciously over his body’s infinite array of available proxies. A pot of glue, the ink from a pen, a dirty dishcloth, a piece of string, a woolen blanket pulled over a grisly scene, his own tattered khaki shirt. But his newly found proficiency was still more marvelous. Not only could he willfully become any object, but all of the objects’ attendant processes and the forces between them were open for him to inhabit too. He could become the tension that supported tiny particles on the liquid surface of his own eye; the movement of dust stirred up by his nervous footsteps; the chemical reaction that had occurred when the primer in the cartridge ignited; or the drying of ink on a magazine page.
His body could easily become each and every object, event, process, entity – a sheet of paper, a bad joke, a chemical reaction, a decisive event, the split second branching of time that separates life from death. His body’s seeming emancipation allowed it to achieve equivalence with even the most intangible and transient of things. He no longer apprehended notions and ideas as though they were laid out for him to consider from a high vantage point. He was no longer required to consider and compare each one and so choose between them, but instead they were all integral parts of himself. Theories and ideas, rapidly changing trends in thinking and behaviour – both the good and the bad – were hardening crystals, replicating and expanding to fill his being. Broken symmetry, the aestheticisation of violence, the empty promises of tolerance, the verification of existence through consumption, the necessity of crime, the cold comfort of determinism, the illusion of personal narrative – they were all part of him. His body was a paradox: a thing that only existed by virtue of its boundaries, but was scraped bare of them. It had become both porous to, and interchangeable with, the vertiginous abundance of concepts that developed around and within him.
As he stared at the decaying surface of the dead man’s eyeball, he imagined the formless viscera that he had hitherto called his own, separate flesh, shrinking to become an insignificant bead of matter. Furthermore, it was not just his body that had been eviscerated by its very interchangeability, but his own consciousness had become malleable too. There was a limit to the mental space that he could attribute to himself with certainty, and it became ever smaller. It contracted until it was even less than a singular event – not even a dimensionless, piercing instance. He came to realise that consciousness was not something that he could call his own, but was one and the same as the entire world.
Objects, bodies, events, processes, theories and ideas were interchangeable with one-another. All these things had equivalent agency, but most incredible of all, they were all able to speak. All these things had voices, and they all spoke within him.
And even worse than that, they all spoke at the same volume. As he crouched awkwardly beside the still body of the man, he could hear the voice of his own fear as loudly as that of the gun that had been used to kill him. Or that of the encrusted shape that still clung to his forehead, and the voices of the beads of perspiration that it mingled with – as well as the voice of the event itself. Slowly and deliberately he reached out his hand, until his fingers lightly grasped the grey blanket that had been pulled over the scene. As he did this, he was simultaneously aware of the heavy thickness of the wool, and of the contents of his thoughts as he considered what had happened to the man and what it could mean. Both the blanket, and his own ideas about the event, seemed equally important in its aftermath, and sought to be represented accordingly. From the humblest object to the most fleeting and unstable idea, each thing was able to elucidate its own theory of itself.
His own ideas were theories about himself, and about other things as well, but they were also theories about other theories. And even these theories could speak to represent themselves. Just as everything else spoke within him, his own thoughts were not just doing the work of thinking whatever idea he was thinking, but they were all speaking for themselves as well. They explained away the mysteries surrounding their provenance, and convinced him that they were his and his alone. As his own thoughts deliberately suppressed their identities and purposes, he experienced a constant layering of meaning and a troubling resonance within which he was unable to distinguish any authentic frequency.
He kept his body close to the ground where the wind was less harsh. Light particles of sand whirled on the surface of the man’s skin. The weight of decay had caused slight hollows to appear in his flesh, and the tiny, whirling grains momentarily accumulated in them, and then went shooting off again as they were picked up by the breeze. As he peered at the man he tried to concentrate equally on the voices of the blanket, grains, skin and flesh beside him, and the voices of his own thoughts. But no sooner had he had time to latch on to one voice than another had eaten it up and taken its place. The voices speaking within him constantly redistributed themselves around the virtual surface of his mind. They emerged in a dizzying chain of events that had misrepresentation and approximation at every turn.
The dissonance inside his own body reflected the fragmented culpability of his cells and their constituent molecules, and every other object or idea that he had ever encountered. The voices of all these things had prevented his direct apprehension of them. And he knew now that if all of these thoughts, ideas, objects and events could speak for themselves, it was indeed true that speech was invented in order to conceal meaning. All these things could willfully hide their own intelligibility from him, just as he could his from himself.
This text was performed as a reading as part of Whoever you are at Numberthirtyfive, New York and at Cabin:Codex, Centrespace, DCA, Dundee