The Condition: The Eye That Never Blinks

The Condition: The Eye That Never Blinks

by Blake Butler

I’m on the internet again. This is how I begin most days, any day, immediately upon waking pulling the machine against my body. I often sleep with the laptop on the bed beside me waiting, as well the last thing I touched before I stopped and tried to begin drifting off. The strobing eye of my MacBook Pro must be covered so as not to wink and wink its light against my face and keep me up.

I don’t even know what I want to look at most days ending and beginning the day in this way. The first and last things are almost always the same sites. Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Google Reader, turned to in small rotation in between whatever else I try to do. Waking up begins with wading with what has accumulated in feed at each of these electronic locations while I’ve been unconscious however long. Sometimes while I’m dreaming I seem them there too, reading or writing emails to people who may or may not exist inside that fold, status updates culled out of my head and slipped into me the same way they do when I’m awake, though drummed from somewhere in me instead of someone else. Maybe.

The general feeling pervading all these hours of constant silent prodding folds up in everything we do. Each object bathes in the light around it, never quite asleep or all awake. When at rest, the body remains open; while ambulatory, it seems hard to stick to anything for long. I’ve never been able to shake the scene in David Lynch’s Lost Highway where Bill Pullman’s character meets Robert Blake’s character (credited only as “The Mystery Man”) at a party, saying “We’ve met before, haven’t we? At your house, don’t you remember? Of course. As a matter of fact, I’m there right now. At your house. Call me. Dial your number. Go ahead.” Of course, Fred does, dialing a number that we are not given but seems to clearly end in 666, and at the far end the “Mystery Man” (or an instance of him) answers, indeed inside his house, saying, “I told you I was here.”

It seems important that at no point in the movie do we see Robert Blake, in his puffed body, blink. He is always staring, always seeing. He is in many rooms at once. He films Bill Pullman and his soon-to-be-murdered wife while they are sleeping, the act of which will later cause Pullman’s character to become someone wholly else, his identity shapeshifted and taken up to be carried by another actor. Something is always there: a conduit for skewing and erasure, resulting, soon, in the shifting of the inhabitant’s identity, skin, and mind. “In the East, the Far East,” Robert Blake’s person tells Bill Pullman’s character (now embodied by Balthazar Getty) over another phone, “when a person is sentenced to death, they’re sent to a place where they can’t escape, never knowing when an executioner may step up behind them and fire a bullet into the back of their head.”

It seems like it’s gotten harder to talk to people or even be around them sometimes in this dual folding of how the set of waking hours begins and ends. Often at dinner or a bar with friends I’ve newly met or known for fifteen years it’ll end up being all of us sitting around the table on the smaller machine always on our person, whatever brand of phone. We are updating the status about where we are now and with who or for how long and what we mean to do, uploading photos of ourselves sitting there or what we’re about to eat, as if there’s anything anyone could do outside the room in response to that beyond saying, mmm. Or we’re looking at the mobile versions of the same sites again to see again if anything is new again and though it is, because there’s always new there, there isn’t, because it’s hardly ever something you’ll remember beyond the look. The feed exists to feed, and so you eat.

You could say anything to people staring into their machines in this way and they respond often with the same grunt: I hear you making words and I am here too but I don’t know. Because there’s so much more to hear and see you hear and see it less, then it is buried. All words are in the wake of other words. All images are in the mental fat with the others and the skin is getting large. It seems like there is air to walk around in between buildings and people and the woods or whatever else though what isn’t there almost seems there. The machines seem to be breathing.

This is not to say the object by its own nature demands participation. Brian Eno’s Music For Airports, when actually played aloud as sound installation in Stansted Airport in the UK, elicited almost no commotion among travelers beyond occasional brief curiosity: still strung up in forward motion, moving on. “Soothed but suspect,” read the liner notes to the Flaming Lips’s eight-song album Zaireeeka, where to hear each song in full you must play all four discs at once, allowing into the experience of the music both acts of error or intentional manipulation (such as messing up the timing of starting all the discs together at the same time, or choosing to play only two of the discs, so on). “In a state of suspended anticipation. The listener could hear an exaggerated dimension of sound where sometimes reverb comes before a sound occurs, other times it’s delayed… Where a melody that’s pleasant and uplifting, upon being slightly shifted, becomes dissonant and interruptive… Where crescendos miss their cues either late or early or both… making music that purposely destroys its own momentum…” Indeed, the listening experience of Zaireeka contains some sense of strobing, of rooms growing or shrinking in size, of containment and the contained. In this same creation spirit, one might think of Captain Beefheart recording layers for his records with headphones off so as to not know for certain how the tracking lined up in the arrangement. I don’t need to go at length about John Cage’s 4’33”, for sure, wherein the composition is not the composition but the air on, in and around the scent of which it sits. Even more apt might be his ORGAN2/ASLSP As Slow aS Possible, which is currently being performed as the longest piece of music ever, over a period of 639 years in the church of St. Burchardi in Halberstadt, Germany, wherein no living person will hear the both the beginning and the end, except perhaps generationally, except the organ, and the air.

Behind all of this endless thinking, the circling of a mind that can not disregard itself, there must be a running bead, fueled by various somethings, that weighs heavy on the waking state. Because most likely, for the majority of people, it is not simply the brain itself that creates these encampments. There is something behind them. There is a pulse: an obsession, or series of obsessions, that sits at the center of a consciousness that can’t turn off, if at times a definitive factor to such things as lost sleep.

ob⋅ses⋅sion [uhb-seshuhn] noun

1. the domination of one’s thoughts or feelings by a
persistent idea, image, desire, etc.
2. the idea, image, desire, feeling, etc., itself.
3. the state of being obsessed.
4. the act of obsessing.

1505–15; < L obsessiōn– (s. of obsessiō) blockade, siege, equiv. to obsess(us)

Here the name at once invokes the state, the act, and the object of the act all at the same time, as if the obsessor and the obsessee are not mututally exclusive, but a duality contained in one mode, wrought from the same stripe. Obsession has also been used as a title or a brand name for books, films, a TV series, a band, a record label, albums, songs, board games, video games, a pornstar, a telescope, and a perfume. Even the transcribed lyrics to Mariah Carey’s single “Obsessed” seem to, probably accidentally, exhibit some of the bizarre weight of the state’s encampment:

“I was like, why are you so obsessed with me?
So oh, oh, oh, oh, so oh, oh oh, oh
So oh, oh, oh, oh, so oh, oh oh, oh
So oh, oh, oh, oh, so oh, oh oh, oh
So oh, oh, oh, oh, so oh, oh oh, oh

All those holes as little portals, mouths to slinking tubes shaped like the S’s, the h’s little rooms where one might stop and lay or turn around. Carried as well are the groundpoints of what might separate obsession from mere fascination: routine and repetition, semi-inexplicable expanse, a guttural want, nonsensical or nameless, some simultaneous founding in the exquisite and the mundane. It would seem then that the objects or cues at the center of these obsessions — however they manifest themselves in the individuals, and to what degree — must be significantly responsible for occupying some disruption of the clean working of the brain — helping common thoughtflow from one of simple input/output and into ways of mania would require an inordinate kind of aura — an attraction wrought in the sublime, somewhere between the wanting and the having, the skin of something unnameable in frame.

It seems too late for any of this to be stopped. Even making aimed attempts to avoid these machinations and the silent spread seems bent against a thing that continues with or without you to be growing in no glow. If we promise not to look online in front of others, we’re waiting for the moment the other becomes consumed. If I put the computer on the far side of my apartment so as to let it know we won’t be sharing the sheets together tonight I can see the light of its eye still there winking, even if I cover the light with a book or make it face the wall. And in the book are words and through the wall are all the other people.

Previously: Existential Googling, Personality Seepage

Blake Butler’s most recent book is Nothing: A Portrait of Insomnia. He lives in Atlanta and edits HTMLGIANT .