Essay about ‘Bereitschaftspotential’

22 Apr

by Rhea H.Boyden

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Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1964, Hans Helmut Kornhuber, the chief physician at the department of neurology at Freiburg University, and Lüder Deecke, his doctoral student went for lunch in the beautiful and serene garden of the ‘Gasthaus zum Schwanen’ at the foot of the Schlossberg hill in Freiburg. Their discussion over lunch was about their frustration at worldwide attempts thus far to investigate self-initiated action of the brain and the will. They were inspired, no doubt in part, by the fresh mountain air of the Black Forest to push ahead in their research using the primitive (but most advanced for the time) brain imaging tools at the university. After many test cases and a lot of research, the EEG (electroencephalogram) readings showed that there is an electrical signal in the brain that proves we are going to move a body part even before we want to move it. They had discovered the ‘Readiness potential’ or ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and debates on whether or not we have free will continue to today in all disciplines from neuroscience to psychology and philosophy.

Now I am no scientist and my knowledge of neuroscience is limited. I have read articles about Alzheimer’s in an attempt to grasp a basic understanding of the disease which is rapidly stripping my dear mother of all sense and vitality, and I have read some articles in the past week or so to understand the title ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ the latest release by Automating which is the solo project of soundscape artist Sasha Margolis from Melbourne, Australia.

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                                                Lüder Deecke- Bereitschaftspotential Brain Image Scan

I have listened to the piece several times through with my good headphones relishing in Sasha’s sounds once again, with my eyes closed in meditation dozing into a dream world and seeing where it takes me thereafter in my writing. I have thought long and hard about why he has titled this piece ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and what he intends with this title. I have come to the conclusion that it is a heavy and loaded title that has led my thinking and reading to some dead ends and frustration about what to do with all my notes that I have been frantically scribbling trying to make sense of it all from a neuroscientific perspective.

I have decided, therefore to not dwell too much more on the title and have a look at it from a more poetic and philosophical angle, for therein lies my ability to make sense of it. Here I quote Friedrich Nietzsche to send me in a better direction: ‘Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.’

Nietzsche spent much of his time in the same stretch of mountains and woods not far from where Kornhuber and Deecke carried out their work, (more than half a century earlier)  and he found the fresh mountain air and peace most conducive to working in. He would take long walks in the woods stopping to take notes before returning to his room to continue working. Quite apart from his many groundbreaking philosophical ideas and writings, Nietzsche took a great interest in the human body.

I believe one reason I have become so frustrated in trying to write this review is because the title ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ forces me to think I should be writing about the mind, brain and consciousness when what I really want to write about here is the body. Nietzsche believed that what living things sought above all, was to discharge their physical strength. He also believed that knowledge was rooted in the body and that the whole of Western philosophy had a deep misunderstanding of the human body. It is little wonder that Nietzsche took such an interest in the body; he suffered immensely thoughout his life from various ailments, many of which were symptoms of the syphilis he supposedly picked up in a brothel during his student days. It is no coincidence that a large part of his philosophy contends that human suffering is inevitable and indeed, necessary to go though in order to achieve greater goals.

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 Photo of Statue of John Henry by Ken Thomas

This idea of Nietzsche’s that living things seek to dispel their energy makes me think of the core of Sasha’s philosophy behind his work and I quote from his website: ‘Sifting through the sonic waste and discarded technology left by the roadside of a world speeding too fast into the future.’ It makes me think of the men who have been replaced time and time again by machines, rendering their bodies and ability to dispel their physical energy useless, in essence, emasculating them. We do have a lot of waste out there, both physical and sonic and I believe it is the duty of everyone to reuse it all in some useful way. If machines have all but replaced our physical work, then what to do with all the machines once they turn to waste but to turn them into art to provide us consolation as we gaze at these post-industrial wastelands. Sasha deals with found sound in his work, but many others work with found objects; turning industrial artifacts that were not intended for artistic purposes into art to make a point, among other things, about waste.

‘Bereitschaftspotential’ released by Iceage Productions, runs for a little over 20 minutes and it is serious food for thought. To me the opening sounds are entirely industrial and repetitive. It is evocative of a machine turning or a small animal digging, trying desperately to get some job done and then in frustration giving up. I hear an electrical generator trying to start and then failing. This failing is frustrating to the humans who are trying to use this generator perhaps, but the peace they can then enjoy is then ever more appreciated; an appreciation which is then heard in birdsong. Quiet contemplation is to be found in nature and not to the sound of a generator.

The idea of this sound being either an animal or a machine is very exciting to me because there are so many examples in which we can compare an animal or a human to its machine counterpart. One example that immediately springs to mind is the horse. It was largely replaced by the train in the United States as the great railway building projects began there. And as exciting as it was to have all these new railways going across the country, they were built at a great cost in men’s lives.

Construction of Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia commenced in 1870 and the work was treacherous for the many men working on this project. They would have welcomed today’s tunnel drilling equipment (and dynamite). At least one hundred men died digging the tunnel, many of them black men. There is a legend about a certain John Henry who has been immortalised in a ballad performed by many singers including Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. He worked on the railroad and was a ‘steel driving man’ and proud of it. One day however, a salesman came to town boasting that a steam-powered drill could outdrill any of the men. A race began, machine against man and John Henry won, beating the steam drill, but he eventually collapses when his body can take it no longer and dies leaving behind his wife Polly Ann and a baby. There is a constant beating of a drum in ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ which to me is the steady march of the working man before he collapses. To repeat Nietzsche’s quote: ‘Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.’ Is this the battle of good and evil between man’s body and the uses and abuses of the machine?

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 Photo of Thomas Bayrle Exhibit at Documenta 13 by Erin Reilly

A couple years ago at the Documenta Contemporary art show I was standing with a friend observing an exhibit by German artist Thomas Bayrle. It was a pumping piston, and as we both stared at it she suddenly said: ‘It’s so sexual’. I had to agree with her. Bayrle says that he believes machines are a reflection of the body and he draws inspiration for his artwork from the precision of machines and engineering. Indeed, what can we do but work artistically with all these wasteful things we have created? Bayrle’s was only one of many exhibits at Documenta that provoked commentary on the effect of machines and waste on our bodies and the environment. In our post-industrial society many men have been left unemployed by the subsequent collapse of many of the machines that once sought to replace them. For the first time in history women hold more jobs and more college degrees in the United States than men and the implications of this are serious indeed for those who still believe in and strive for traditional family structure. A whole reshuffling of gender roles continues to happen and many men and women suffer from confusion and anxiety at what role they should play and a general frustration at modern dating rituals and body image. I know that one of my biggest sources of solace is to get lost in reading and writing and collaborating on meaningful projects with others. In doing so I can escape from the fact that I am nearly 39 years old and single, and have not necessarily fullfilled a certain role that a large part of society expects of me by this age. Thankfully I have an open-minded family who let me do whatever I want and are supportive and don’t judge me, but many women, and men too, suffer from not fullfilling certain expectations; especially when it comes to getting married and having children.

Most of the time I enjoy my solitude and only rarely do I get lonely. The constant barrage of city noise, human noise and industrial noise is hard to escape, and I relish it when I can get away from it. There is a lovely part in ‘Bereitschaftpotential’ that seems to me to be the sound of engines being swallowed by birdsong which again says that nature is triumphant over industrial noise. It signals a retreat into nature where we can again listen to our bodies and give them the peace and rejuvenation that they need. For without a healthy body it is very hard to have a healthy and clear mind to produce new poetry, songs and stories. Indeed, there is a burst of birdsong in ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ which is evidence to me that the willful person or animal has happily found peace again amongst the elements. The piece ends very abruptly leaving you suddenly staring into an abyss of silence which is quite uncomfortable. As much as we humans seek silence, its suddenness and completeness can be disconcerting. Nietzsche also said: ‘if you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’

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Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Walter Kaufman 1882 (Princeton Archive)

I have spent considerable time gazing into an abyss and thinking about ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and in the final analysis I can say that it has inspired me to think of our bodies, machines, animals, birds, walking in the woods, new creativity and then I think repeatedly about the horse. 2014 is the year of the horse in the Chinese calendar and it is a great year to gallop ahead into new adventure and take some risk. As I mentioned earlier, it was the horse’s body that was replaced by machines. 2014 is also exactly one hundred years since the outbreak of World War One which showed the disasterous consequences of cavalry warfare mixed with modern machine guns. Again: Bodies against machines! And to conclude it must be pointed out that Nietzsche, in his madness, finally broke down and embraced a horse that had collapsed on the streets of Turin in January 1889 before he then went completely mad and was commited to a sanitorium. There have been various speculations as to what was going through Nietzsche’s mind at the time, but I like to believe the assumption that it was the philosopher who was most skeptical of showing compassion for human suffering finally showing it for himself (he loathed self-pity) and for one of the most beautiful of animals, in a vain hope that both their bodies can have the will to survive against the machines and noise that drive them both mad.

Featured image is artwork by Ieva Arcadia accompanying  ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ released by Iceage Productions (courtesy of Sasha Margolis).

Link to listen to and purchase ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ by Automating on Bandcamp: https://iceageproductions.bandcamp.com/album/bereitschaftspotential

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