Normal, living, human beings (Kit Riley)

Edited by Amanda Tink


We used to be held in bodies. Tiny electrical rhythms, the firing of nerves and neurons, contained us within the forms of our descendants. Most normal, living, human beings didn’t notice that we were interred in them. We struggled to remain in touch with our past lives on the mortal earth, despite our confinement within the electrified flesh of our children’s children’s children.

We are not held in bodies now. Electricity is no longer confined to the weather and the nervous impulses of the living; it hums along wires carrying messages and accidents. We can move freely about the terrestrial world on our human-made network of mineral nerves. We can remember ourselves in minute detail as we dwell in the totality of electrified information.

Yet still, our attempts to communicate with the living result, as they have since the beginning of time, in abject failure. For all our expanded horizons we still cannot contrive to be heard by normal, living, human beings. The rare living human who detects our transmissions is routinely dismissed as insane, because for normal, living, human beings, hearing our voices is impossible by definition.

How did it come to this? How have we so utterly failed to make ourselves known to the living? In this essay, the authors dissect the history of necrotelecommunications in the Western cultures. We focus on these cultures because they used to be our cultures. They permeate the places to which we wish to return, and in any case, we are ill-equipped to comment on any others. We hope that by elucidating the underlying pattern of our failures we may gain insight into the barriers we face when communicating with normal, living, human beings. We hope that by understanding these barriers we will come closer to eliminating them, and thereby complete our return to the land of the living and walk once again upon solid ground.

Etheric explosion

In the nineteenth century, telecommunications technology and occult practices developed hand-in-hand. Spiritualism — the practice of communicating with beings on other planes of existence — was sometimes regarded as a kind of ‘celestial telegraphy’, and electricity was seen as a mysterious and potentially magical force.[1]

Guglielmo Marconi (among us since 1937) and Thomas Edison (among us since 1931) both claimed to be working on the possibility of using radio and sound recording technologies to make contact with the dead. Edison’s phonograph, first demonstrated in 1877, was already popularly seen as a machine that could preserve the voices of the dead. Marconi hoped that advances in audio playback technology would allow him to register the words of long dead humans whose voices had been inscribed forever on the material world (Ball, 87). After attending a screening of the Lumière brothers’ films in 1896, journalist Jean Badreux wrote that the brothers had ‘found a way to revive the dead … in a word, we will be able to bring those who are no longer in this world back to life before our very eyes. Science has triumphed over death.’ (Qtd. in Ball 83)

The living apprehended the traces of our lives on cylinder and film and said that the traces were selves, speaking from beyond the veil. But we know it was not we, the dead, who they heard. Instead they heard the remains of our living pasts. It was, indeed it still is, a one way communication. Normal, living, human beings do not hear the dead when we talk back. They do not expect it, despite the world’s oversaturation with our recorded faces and voices.

For normal, living, human beings the dead, by definition, do not reply. As John Durham Peters (who is not yet among us) writes in Speaking into the air: a history of the idea of communication: ‘Communication with the dead is the paradigm case of hermeneutics: the art of interpretation where no return message can be received. [2] That the dead lie outside the communicative sphere is one of the things that makes us dead, rather than simply disembodied. ‘Dead’ is a word that points to something that is inaccessible by words.

In defining communication with the dead as hermeneutic, Peters means to suggest that it is the dead who cannot receive the messages sent by the living. All of us here know painfully well that it is in fact the other way around.

Heinrich Hertz (who joined us in 1894) first detected radio waves in 1887, and in 1896 Marconi demonstrated their capacity for long distance message transmission. For many people at the time, the strange etheric vibrations of the radio — carriers of speech without a body — seemed to share all the ghostly characteristics of paranormal phenomena (Ball 100-101). Radio appeared to be spookily close to telepathy. An article in The Spectator in 1892 asked: ‘if one wire can talk to another without connections, save through ether … should not mind talk to mind without any “wire” at all?’ (Qtd. in Ball 100)

The project of total inter-human understanding was conceived of as one of instrumental fine tuning. If only the media of recording, transmission, and playback could be refined then normal, living, human beings would understand one another perfectly. If only the material world could be decoded, then the world of the past and the world of the spirit would be laid open to all. Through science the flesh could be transcended and the ghosts within could meet without mediation.

Digital immortality

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, technologies of mediated inter-human transmission developed, and the dream of unmediated soul-to-soul communication became more urgent. As ghostly touchless contact became a technological reality, so proliferated fantasies of unmediated meeting and creeping fears that the human condition was necessarily one of impermeable solitude. In the twenty-first century, Spiritualism has waned, but technology’s promise of triumph over death remains.

Martine Rothblatt (who is not yet among us), in Virtually human: the promise — and peril — of digital immortality, predicts that humans are only a few decades away from creating digitally cloned minds (‘mindclones’) who are functionally identical to the original brains from which they arose. This would allow humans to live on after bodily death as a consciousness housed in a computer. But how will humans decide whether a mindclone is both conscious and identical to its original?

Rothblatt proposes that consciousness and selfhood be determined by observation. It is already accepted practice for humans in the Western cultures to determine other people’s mental states via consensus (a jury of one’s peers) or expert testimony (a mental health professional).[3] Rothblatt advocates that a being’s conscious identity be determined according to that being’s ability to display conscious identity to the satisfaction of other beings in its society. In doing so, Rothblatt is continuing the tradition of Western social thought in which, due to the empirically untestable nature of private experience, the self is taken to be functionally located within the minds of others.

Rothblatt argues that a mindclone is not a separate double of the original brain, but a technological extension that is continuous with the original brain: a kind of hyper-advanced prosthetic limb that the brain experiences as part of itself. The adaptability of the mammalian brain is already well recognised. Humans and other animals have had electrodes implanted into their brains which allow them to control robotic devices with their thoughts. Minimal training is required before human subjects report that they have begun to experience the robotic objects as part of themselves. Rothblatt argues that the same experience will occur with mindclones: living humans will experience them as psychologically continuous parts of their selves which just so happen to be physically discontinuous with their bodies (Rothblatt 71-74).

The argument for the continuity of brain and mindclone relies on the brain’s ability to integrate external but frequently used tools into its sense of self. But what happens when the brain dies? Will the self of the mindclone be experientially, internally continuous with the self of the brain-and-mindclone-prosthetic? Or will it be an internally discontinuous double who enacts an identical social role? Will the mind be immortal from the perspective of that mind, or only from the perspective of an observer? How could a normal, living, human being begin to answer such questions, given that a dead mind — by definition — can neither experience nor testify to its absence?

We used to be held in bodies, but now we are broadcast across electric fields. When human scientists develop workable mindclone technology, will our dead descendants find themselves held in bodies once again, albeit bodies comprised of silicon rather than flesh? Will they be able to dwell forever among their living, human descendants? Or will they still find themselves trapped, like us, in between being and unbeing, as the living keep company with backups of the dead, who are inaccessible to the dead themselves?

Psychic geography

Normal, living, human beings in the Western cultures locate their selves in the collective minds of the surrounding living, human beings. This is true both explicitly, as in legal and psychiatric contexts, and implicitly, as a long-held cultural tradition. The collective location of the living, human self is realised through social and linguistic performance. Living, human beings who display an unexpected or incorrect social performance are regularly described as being ‘not themselves’ or ‘out of their minds’.

Normal, living, human beings in the Western cultures uphold a tacit philosophy of individualism that is incompatible with their tacit philosophy of the location of the self. In ‘Approaching Artaud,’ Susan Sontag (one of us since 2004) notes, via Antonin Artaud (among us since 1948), that ‘all individual acts are anti-social.’[4] If a human’s behaviour becomes too individual, it no longer fits in with the behaviour of other humans in that society. The behaviour then becomes anti-social and a symptom of madness (Sontag, 65).

Antonin Artaud was a French writer active between the 1920s and 1940s. Artaud was a writer of suffering, specifically of mental suffering. He had a history of psychiatric hospitalisation reaching back to his adolescence, culminating in nine years of institutionalisation from 1937 to 1946 (Sontag 58-62). Artaud described his own mind as ‘fissured’, ‘decaying’, ‘liquefying’, and continually escaping his grasp (Sontag 20). He writes: ‘I suffer because the Mind is not in life and life is not the Mind… We must get rid of the Mind, just as we must get rid of literature.’ [5]

In ‘Approaching Artaud,’ Sontag discusses Artaud’s madness, and madness in general, in terms of social construction only. Madness, Sontag claims, is always socially defined: its precise definition is always specific to each particular culture and era. Madness refers to that which, in a given society, lies outside the limit of meaningful or acceptable thought. Artaud is mad because his behaviour is unassimilable to his social environment (Sontag 64).

Despite Artaud’s own mountainous descriptions of his internal suffering, Sontag defines his madness as a strictly interpersonal issue. Even in the attempt to undermine the reductive psychiatric definition of madness, Sontag still relies on this same assumption, that the mind of a human — mad or otherwise — is located in the minds of other humans.

Social medium

For over a century, normal and ideal visions of communication have been understood via metaphors of telecommunication: meanings transmitted, minds tuned to one another, conversations a matter of encoding and decoding. At the same time, instances of abnormal and pathological communication have been understood according to the same metaphors.

With the ubiquity of computers in the twenty-first century, pathological mental states are now increasingly described in terms of faulty wiring and problematic information processing. Autism in particular is popularly conceptualised as a difference in neural wiring. This difference causes autistic humans to perceive and interact with the world in ways that look alien to normal, living, human beings. Autistic, living, human beings are often disparaged for being ‘computer-like’. Likewise, computer-mediated social interactions are often criticised as being ‘autistic’. Despite the explosion of social media and the ubiquity of technologically-mediated communication in the twenty-first century, the social and the technological are still a tacit cultural dichotomy.[6] The social is normal and human, but the technological is spooky and alien. This is true even, or perhaps especially, when it is used as a shorthand to describe other human beings.

Amanda Baggs (who does not yet dwell among us) is an autistic, human being who doesn’t speak. In a now-famous YouTube video titled ‘In my language’, Baggs films herself humming, flapping, stroking objects, tapping objects against one another, and performing other actions that are referred to by autistic, human beings as ‘stimming.’ Baggs provides a translation of her actions using subtitles and a text-to-speech program:

Many people have assumed that when I talk about this being my language that means that each part of the video must have a particular symbolic message within it designed for the human mind to interpret. But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. …Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as being ‘in a world of my own’ whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am ‘opening up to true interaction with the world.’ They judge my existence, awareness and personhood on which of a tiny and limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to.[7]

Baggs explains that her way of being in the world is a way of thinking in its own right, even though normal, human beings frequently perceive that she has no thought, and even no selfhood. Baggs asks why it is that she is considered ‘uncommunicative’ when she does not use normal, human language, but normal, human beings are not considered ‘uncommunicative’ when they fail to recognise that her language exists at all.

In A field guide to earthlings: an autistic/Asperger view of neurotypical behavior, Star Ford (who is not yet among us) explains that the perceptual abilities of normal, human beings are restricted by their reliance on linguistic and cultural symbols. When they use these symbols to form their internal maps of reality, normal, human beings exchange a slow and idiosyncratic perceptual reality for a socially efficient yet formulaic one. Often, the result of this exchange is that normal humans perceive that autistic humans are also behaving according to the assumed relational formula, when in actuality autistic humans are behaving according to a completely different behavioural framework.[8] It is possible that the social model of meaning is such a fundamental part of the normal, human being’s identity that they will not accept the notion that other behavioural frameworks are available: the idea in itself is meaningless to them.

Normal, living, human beings, when taken as a social group, exhibit the same traits that they judge to be non-social (or technological, or autistic) in select individuals. They are trapped in their own closed world of restricted symbols, gestures, and perceptions, unable to recognise meaningful behaviour in those who don’t share their group-defined selfhood.


Normal, living, human beings are compelled to connect with other living, human beings. We, who are dead, are also compelled to connect with living, human beings. Unfortunately, because we are dead and outside their sphere of communication, we cannot participate in group life. We cannot actively contribute to living social being, so we cannot ourselves exist as beings.

Normal, living, human beings are compelled to connect with the dead. They do this by trying to bring us back to social life. If the living can save us on a server, then we — or something that looks like us — will no longer be dead, but merely disembodied. Luckily for the living, the location of the human self in the minds of other human selves collapses the distinction between the saved mind and something that looks like the saved mind.

Abnormal, living, human beings are often compelled to connect with other human beings. Unfortunately, because they do not display a conventional performance of selfhood, abnormal, living, human beings are ‘out of their minds’ and ‘not themselves’. To the minds of normal, living, human beings, it looks like there is no mind and no self to find there at all.

The problem of not being living and the problem of not being normal are continuous with one another, and they are the root of all our troubles. We have been searching for a pathway back to the solid ground, erroneously believing that the material earth was the land of the living. Now we see that we, who are dead, have been here all along in the world of skin and wire and silicon. The living dwell elsewhere.

[1] Ball, Philip. Invisible: the Dangerous Allure of the Unseen. London: The Bodley Head, 2014, pp. 96-7.
[2] Peters, John Durham. Speaking into the Air: a History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000, pp. 149.
[3] Rothblatt, Martine. Virtually Human: the Promise—and Peril—of Digital Immortality. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014, pp. 41-43.
[4] Artaud, Antonin qtd. in Sontag, Susan. ‘Approaching Artaud.’ Under the Sign of Saturn. New York: Vintage Books, 1981, pp. 65.
[5] Artaud, Antonin. ‘The Umbilical Limbo.’ Artaud on Theatre, revised ed., edited by Claude Schumacher, translated by Claude Schumacher and Brian Singleton. London: Methuen, 2001, pp. 22-23.
[6] Pinchevski, Amit and John Durham Peters. ‘Autism and new media: Disability between technology and society.’ new media & society, vol. 8, no. 11, 2016, pp. 2514.
[7] silentmiaow [Amanda Baggs]. ‘In My Language.’ YouTube, 2007, Accessed 26 May 2018.
[8] Ford, Ian. A Field Guide to Earthlings: An autistic/Asperger view of neurotypical behavior. New Mexico: Ian Ford Software Corporation, 2010.

Kit Riley is a writer, artist, and autistic who lives in Wadawurrung country, regional Victoria, Australia. Kit makes work about things that live on the fringes of sense and meaning. Their writing has previously been published in Cordite Poetry ReviewMad In AmericaSitelines, and numerous art spaces around Naarm/Melbourne.