Title: The Jet-Propelled Couch
My presentation is about the Jet-Propelled Couch, as taken from Robert M. Linder’s book The Fifty Minute Hour. First I’ll mention the bio of the protagonist Kirk, and I’ll ask what causes the alienation of self. I’ll then discuss Kirk’s ability to move between worlds, and ask how we can share our worlds with others. Finally I’ll address the danger of new worlds as totalising structures, and to do this I’ll refer to Reza’s text Unidentified Gliding Object from Hypersonic Hyperstitics, as well as a short story from Borges.
So in the Jet Propelled Couch, Linder tells the story of a patient referred to as Kirk Allen; a CIA operative who believes he is in fact two selves (causing his boss a lot of grief). One of Kirk’s selves, which he understands as a fake self, is a brilliant physicist working for the CIA in the States, and the other - his true self - is an intergalactic ruler in a distant universe.
As Linder tells it, Kirk’s upbringing had much to do with the development of his second self. He was the only white child on a small Hawaiian island, his parents had little time for him; and the one local woman who properly reared him was taken away from him suddenly. All of this resulted in a sense of distance growing between Kirk and the rest of the world. He then found in reading his only way of apprehending the world. So his upbringing set the appropriate conditions, but the untethering of the self truly begins for Kirk when he reads a book in which the protagonist shares his own name. He finds the contents of this book to perfectly match the events of his own, until-then forgotten life. Suddenly he knows with great certainty that what he’s reading is his own biography.
Inevitable or desirable?
Later on, Kirk gets completely overwhelmed by the advances of a colleague, and this is when he first gains direct experience of being his intergalactic self. Linder thus describes this othering of the self as a defensive psychic maneuver. And this is something I’m slightly unclear on: I’m not sure whether to read this alienation of the self as something that we all necessarily experience or as something to aspire to. Is it the inevitable result of the unshakeable global perspective of old being replaced with a repere mobile, or mobile frame of reference (And here I’m quoting from Reza’s text on page 1642). Or is this untethering of self something that can only be achieved under certain circumstances? Either way, in Kirk’s story we can find some guidelines for how to best recognise ourselves as alien, and in doing so construct new worlds and new ways of knowing. This alienation should be seen not as a response to any particular trauma, but as a positive means for becoming a world-builder.
Oscillating between worlds
So Kirk has built his own multiverse, but what’s even more peculiar is that he has the ability to switch in and out of this multiverse. He can, to some degree, control when or how he oscillates between one world and another. And not only is this a core factor in Linder accepting Kirk as a patient, but it seems to me to be the core of a healthy madness.
Simply switching between worlds is not enough however; the ultimate goal of this moving back and forth should be to reconfigure the world beyond us. One delves into their personal multiverse in order to come back out equipped with new means to impact reality. In your text Reza you discuss language, specifically toy-predicates, in similar terms. You talk about using language to create world-versions; new iterations of reality that are not radically disconnected from the old world. And retaining this link between old and new worlds struck me as essential. To reformulate the world usefully, one must remain somewhat connected to that world. In Kirk’s case, we see what happens when our multiple worlds are radically disconnected. The very creation of his new world is posited on its extreme distance from the old. He uses this multiverse to shy away from reality; as a reaction to old-world traumas. So while Kirk may be able to switch between worlds, he is unable to bridge the gap between them. Oscillating between worlds is one thing, but the true challenge is returning to the old world and bringing your fresh new multiverse with you.
Sharing your world
How does one share their new worlds then? For Kirk, the multiverse crumbles when it is shared with Linder. In Linder’s own words a delusion such as Kirk’s has room in it only for one person at a time. When another person invades the delusion, the original occupant finds himself literally forced to give way. One thing Kirk does manage to do is bring forth his maps of the multiverse, these artifacts that hint at another world - but even these are not enough to make his multiverse something collective. And this brings us back to language, one core quality of which is its shareability. Language allows us to reconfigure reality, but surely we need shareable language to build shareable realities. It is not enough to adapt one’s personal lexicon alone, you need others to share that lexicon with you.
In northern Australia, a number of aboriginal languages exist that are without words to describe egocentric directions. These languages rely exclusively on cardinal directions instead. To tell someone to make space in the car, using these languages you might tell them to “move a bit to the east”. Speaking in this way therefore requires knowing where the cardinal directions are at every moment. This gives the people who speak these languages an almost superhuman sense of orientation. In this example we see how profoundly language can shape understandings of self and of reality.
The threat of totality
The issue is that when you start compelling others to use your language and to share your world view, you quickly arrive at totalitarianism. This brings us to Borges, who’s short story Tlon Uqbar Orbis Tertius, is a warning against the dangers of totalising other worlds. For those who don’t know it, the story is about the planet Tlon, which the narrator is made aware of through a mistype in his encyclopedia.
The world of Tlon is both fictional and utterly totalising. Its histories and languages steadily come to replace all others. And here we’re given another hint at what makes a healthy madness: in any newly built reality, there must always remain the possibility of things being otherwise. Annihilation at the hands of any totalising structure can be avoided so long as one can say: “and yet.” And herein lies the beauty of the toy-predicate; a playful form of language in which possibilities multiply endlessly. The example you give Reza for those unfamiliar is a new word for the colour of emeralds, as in instead of calling them green, we might call them green up until a certain point, and then blue thereafter - so grue. With this approach we get the multiverse, we get worlds in the plural. It means each newly created world contains within it the kernel of one world more. To be mad and yet retain your individual identity another world is never enough, what you need is a multiverse.