Toward a Sensuous, Suffering, and Passionate Materialism
The previous article titled “The Revolutionary Passion of Those Who Suffer Most” began by looking to the theoretical framework contained in two of Jenny Marx’s summer 1844 letters to her husband Karl. It then briefly explored the extent to which Engels, Kautsky, and Plekhanov rejected the last decade of Karl Marx’s research on Indigenous societies and communes in Russia, instead centering “dialectical materialism” around more reductionistic notions of “base” and “superstructure.” This is then used to further inform what Wilhelm Reich and Walter Benjamin described as the failures of “vulgar Marxism” against Nazi fascism, in hopes that we stop repeating those mistakes today.
Instead of base and superstructure, the article looked to Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on intersectionality as based on “categories of suffering.” This was then used to re-frame Marxism around how Karl and Jenny both articulated it in 1844, on the felt experience of suffering. Included in this is Karl’s argument that suffering is at the core of our sensuousness and that feeling what we suffer gives rise to passion as our “essential force.” The article then ended by outlining a dialectic of suffering and communal revolution based upon the works of three additional Marxists who all experienced Nazi fascism first-hand; Clara Zetkin, Agnes Heller, and Abram Leon.
The present article continues this line of argument, starting with Erich Fromm on the felt experience of suffering. We then examine Ernst Bloch on Marxism and suffering, using this to re-interpret his own analysis of Marx’s 1841 dissertation. Bloch briefly considered the dissertation through the lens of quantum mechanics, which we expand upon based on his own advice to remain committed to one’s “friends.” Bloch himself was once friends with Walter Benjamin, who killed himself to avoid capture by the Nazis, so the dissertation is re-interpreted by examining the quantum mechanics of sensuousness and the felt experience of suffering itself.
Fromm on Suffering and Affective Crippling
Before turning to Fromm on the felt experience of suffering, it’s important to establish a couple basic points about the false dichotomy between reason and emotion. In his 2022 book, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, theoretical physicist and mathematician Leonard Mlodinow argued that “emotion shapes virtually every thought we have.” As he put in an article in The Atlantic announcing the publication of the book, “emotion isn’t the enemy of reason.”
Turning to neuroscientist Antonio Damasio though, first published in his 1994 book Descartes Error and in numerous books thereafter, the distinction between reason and emotion has more to do with longstanding prejudices than actual science. This is to say that differentiating between reason and emotion in terms of the neural networks in the brain is easier said than done, as it’s all interconnected. But the bigger issue with this false dichotomy is its historical usage as of means of justifying seemingly every system of oppression.
Turning to Columbia University historian William V. Harris in his 2001 book, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity, perpetuating the idea that reason has to control feelings and emotions “was for the most part in the interest of all who benefited from the smooth functioning of the state or the family.” To put it another way, the necessity of a supposedly white, masculine, human “reason” to control the supposed chaos of non-white, feminine, non-male, and less-than-human “emotion” has been used to justify hetero-patriarchy, class oppression, white supremacy, colonialism, conquest, and the domination of nature since the birth of so-called civilization.
Surprisingly, Wilhelm Reich, Walter Benjamin, Clara Zetkin, Agnes Heller, Abram Leon, and Erich Fromm never referenced Marx on feelings, emotions, passion, or suffering. Fromm even once criticized Marx’s insufficiency in this area, while fundamentally missing what he actually wrote. This is despite the fact that Fromm was the first to publish the 1844 manuscripts within the US in his 1961 book, Marx’s Concept of Man. Similar to Reich, Fromm relegated feelings and emotions to a position of supposedly necessary subordination to reason. But like settler LIFE, this too must be abolished.
In his 1955 book, The Sane Society, Fromm argued that Marx “did not sufficiently see the passions and strivings which are rooted in man’s nature, and in the conditions of his existence, and which are in themselves the most powerful driving force for human development.” Marx had actually called passion our “essential force,” while advancing, at least in this one instance and pretty much abandoned thereafter, a more favorable view than Fromm and Reich themselves. Fromm argued they were simply “irrational forces.” For Reich, fascism itself was an “emotional plague.”
In this same book though, Fromm asserted that the “fact of suffering” potentially yielded the “striving to overcome” in a chapter titled “The Road to Sanity.” This was less than twenty pages after his assertion on the necessity of something like the Paris Commune of 1871 and soviets in his chapter on “Various Answers” to the “pathology of normalcy” under capitalism. This also included Marx’s letter to Vera “Zazulich” based upon what was, back then, Fromm’s “personal communications” with someone named “G. Fuchs.”
Though Fromm never made the connection back to this relatedness between suffering and communes as an alternative “practice of life,” it would still find its way into his 1973 book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Just like the “fact of suffering” potentially catalyzing the “striving to overcome,” the very basis of his notion of “biophilia” was “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive.” This passionate striving thus became, to Fromm, “an inherent impulse in man to fight for freedom.” But this freedom is only capable of being sustained through structures “and any structure requires constraint,” he wrote, believing they must be “autonomous – i.e., that it results from the necessities of growth inherent in the structure of the person.”
Fromm himself would advance a bit of vulgarity in this book, specifically where he briefly analyzed what “Marx has demonstrated in his theory of historical development.” As Dunayevskaya put it in her eulogy at Fromm’s funeral, he was “coming closer to Marx.” Fromm summarized, writing that “in the attempt to change and improve social conditions man is constantly limited by the material factors of his environment, such as ecological conditions, climate, technique, geographical situation, and cultural traditions.” He continued, arguing that “hunter-gatherers and early agriculturalists lived in a relatively well-balanced environment that was conducive to generating constructive rather than destructive passions,” unlike a society descending to fascism, as ours is today.
Here’s where his argument took on a more vulgar form. “It was for his very growth in some respects, particularly intellectually, artistically, and scientifically, that man had to create circumstances that crippled him and prevented his growth in other respects, particularly affectively.” Fromm advanced what seemed like the very “historic-philosophical theory of the universal path every people is fated to tread” that Marx rejected late in life. There’s likely no way Fromm could have known this. It was still buried after having been figuratively thrown into the fire after Marx’s death in 1883.
“This was so,” Fromm continued, “because the productive forces were not sufficiently developed to permit the coexistence of both technical and cultural progress and freedom, to permit uncrippled development for all.” It almost seems like Fromm was trying to justify class oppression, hetero-patriarchy, white supremacy, etc. If this were actually the case, then the American Holocaust of the Indigenous was somehow necessary, but this would be a settler socialism or “white man’s burden” Marxism. It was rather, as Marx put it, resulting from nothing more than “the deliberate application of force.” Fromm went on to argue that “Marx’s concept of socialism…was not considered a utopia by him because he believed that at this point of historical evolution the material conditions for its realization were already present,” citing Dunayevskaya.
But Marx argued against this interpretation, at least the part about the development of the productive forces through capitalism being “universally obligatory.” Therefore, what Fromm referred to as “affectively” could be better understood as what potentially emerges from within conditions of vulnerability. Thus the historical possibility of communism has revolved around what Judith Herman referred to as the difficulty of holding traumatic reality in consciousness. It’s not simply dependent on the development of the productive forces like Engels put it as “the part played by labor in the transition from ape to man.” Though this may seem complicated, at a personal level at least, it’s really quite simple.
In a May 2020 article for Toward Freedom called “Community Self-defense, Capitalism, and COVID-19,” an emergency room doctor in Mexico named Mandeep Dhillon wrote of a comrade who had recently died from the virus after trying to get a bed and treatment at 17 different hospitals. “The days to come are days of collective tears. There is a surge of rage through the thick air, a pain shared by so many.” This article expressed a depth of sensuousness, suffering, and passion for revolution. Dhillon wrote on the need for an “Insurgent Love,” ending with this quote from their deceased comrade: “After COVID-19, the class struggle will deepen in every corner of the world, and we’ll be there to keep struggling and destroying this system of death.”
Roughly a year and half later, The Atlantic ran an article late December 2021 by an emergency room physician in NYC. They described seeing more death than when fighting Ebola in West Africa in 2014. By this time, “many health-care workers are already in a dark place,” while staring in the face of a “looming tidal wave of Omicron cases.” As such, they have “limited emotional reserves” and that “Exhaustion has crowded out their usual empathy.”
This “exhaustion” and its impact upon empathy can be understood as a microcosm of what Fromm referred to as circumstances of affective crippling. This crippling entails a banishment of empathy as means of limiting the extent to which one feels the depths of traumatic reality, so that the person may themselves endure within conditions they may otherwise view as beyond their ability to change.
Overall, this is what a colleague of Fromm’s by the name of Karen Horney, another post-Freudian psychoanalyst, referred to in her 1950 book, Neurosis and Self-Growth, as a neurotic “hardening of feelings” in support of the “necessity for survival” in one form or another. Similarly, this is what psychiatrist and anti-psychiatry advocate R. D. Laing meant by “To turn oneself into a stone” as “a way of not being turned into a stone by someone else.” This was in his 1960 book, The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness. He continued, writing “Be thou hard,’ extorts Nietzsche.”
What Laing didn’t note in his critique of “ontological insecurity,” however, was the central role this affective crippling plays in fascism past and present, including their attempts to use Nietzsche’s notion of “Ubermensch” as supposed justification. More broadly, despite the fact that the frameworks Horney or Laing advanced had largely abandoned any sort of materialist or class analysis in favor of the overly existential, they both can add a great deal to what little Fromm actually wrote on suffering and affective crippling. As it relates to sensuousness, suffering, and consciousness though, the theoretical foundation Ernst Bloch established weaves them all together.
Before that though, this notion of affective crippling similarly applies to ruling classes and we can see a perfect example when Marx first wrote on the causes that led to dictatorship under Bonaparte, precursor to Hitler and the Nazis. It was a “feeling of weakness that caused them to recoil from the pure conditions of their own class rule and to yearn for the former more incomplete, more undeveloped and precisely on that account less dangerous forms of this rule.” When threatened by the fact that the socialist “party of the red republic” had just won a majority of seats in parliament, ruling classes dissolved parliament in order to empower Bonaparte to crush the rising left instead.
In addition to this threat of a rising left, economic crisis hit the country that year and “how in the throes of this business panic his trade-crazy brain is tortured,” as Marx put it. Supporting Bonaparte’s violent dictatorship was, for ruling classes, “‘rather an end with terror” against what they were threatened by, not “terror without end” for them. In terms of the threat of rising socialism amidst economic crisis, this is how we, in Marx’s words, “comprehend why the bourgeoisie callously hardens its heart against it,” eventually choosing violent dictatorship. Similarly, days before the Reichstag fire in Germany, Trotsky wrote that “twenty years of collaboration of the Social Democracy with the bourgeoisie have not softened by one iota the hearts of the capitalists.”
Ernst Bloch on Suffering and Marx’s 1841 Dissertation
In his 2020 book, The Return of Nature: Socialism and Ecology, John Bellamy Foster argued in favor of an “emergentist ecological Marxism.” This was based on the idea that “Marx’s conception” was one “involving the human-sensuous interaction with nature via production” or “the need to satisfy human sensuous needs through appropriation from external nature.” This follows Marx’s own equivocation from his 1841 dissertation onward, as well as the vulgar reductionism that Engels, Kautsky, and Plekhanov advanced after his death. As such, Foster equated human sensuousness with being simply of the senses without regard to the felt experience of suffering, which is a capacity we share, in one form or another, with plants and non-human animals as well.
Without a sensuous, suffering, and passionate materialism, what Marx referred to as “social metabolism” doesn’t actually have a “moving and generating principle,” which means it thus cannot actually be metabolic. As described in the previous article, Marx was clear when he wrote that “To be sensuous is to suffer” and it doesn’t make much sense to fundamentally leave this out. For example, given the present reality of climate catastrophes marching us toward apocalypse, suffering is similarly at the core of our “metabolic rift” with the rest of nature. We are, in the words of the late Ernst Bloch, a “suffering Earth” and it’s time we harnessed that power.
Unlike Walter Benjamin, who took his own life, and Abram Leon, who was murdered in a gas chamber in Auschwitz like Agnes Heller’s father, the German-born Jewish philosopher Ernst Bloch made it out of Europe alive, eventually coming to the US. Given his insufficient allegiance to staying within the bounds of Red Scare Amerikkka though, he wasn’t afforded the opportunities presented to other Jewish refugees who, in contrast, built their careers by “adapting Critical Theory to the American cultural and bureaucratic machine.” As such, after writing what would become three volumes of The Principle of Hope published decades later, he moved back to Germany once the Nazi were defeated.
Bloch never referenced Marx’s brief articulations on feelings, emotions, passions, and suffering either. Despite this though, it found its way into his thinking too. “The Marxist approach,” Bloch wrote in the second volume, “is consciously to make history and no longer to suffer it passively.” That shift, one from passivity to the conscious pursuit of revolution, necessitates what Fromm referred to as “biophilia,” the passionate “striving to overcome.”
In the first volume, Bloch argued that ridding ourselves of the “static concept of being” opens a door to “the real dimension of hope.” This is to a world “full of propensity towards something, tendency towards something, latency of something,” which will eventually result in a “fulfillment of the intending.” As Bloch put it, this “dimension of hope” takes us to “a world which is more adequate for us, without degrading suffering, anxiety, self-alienation, nothingness.”
To put it another way, hope is necessary in order to overcome the potential that also exists within the felt experience of suffering and threat to degrade our revolutionary capacities, like Fromm above on circumstances being affectively crippling. To Bloch though, there was something more deeply integral to the rest of nature itself, a “propensity towards something” that ultimately led to hope. It was an inherent striving, an imminence. This was like Marx on the tendency of the rate of profit to decline and what he therefore regarded as the imminence of revolution, but different.
In his 1959 book, On Karl Marx, Bloch argued that “social revolution will finally remove the darkness of self-alienation from all mankind.” Through this, the growing power of the working class as a class “reaches beyond the radically exploited to all who suffer in common under capitalism.” But this experience of suffering and commonality requires “the most worthy human capacity for comprehension and participation: namely, hope.” University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum addressed the relationship between suffering and hope in her 2001 book, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, quoting Proust: “The hope of being comforted gives him the courage to suffer.”
Bloch devoted a chapter of his book to “Epicurus and Karl Marx.” This was in reference to Marx’s 1841 doctoral dissertation on two pre-Socratic Greek philosophers. It was titled; “The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature.” According to Paul Schafer in his book, The First Writings of Karl Marx, “the dissertation was not published during Marx’s lifetime, though he had planned to do so a couple of times shortly after his graduation, before deciding that the political climate in an increasingly reactionary Prussia would not allow him to pursue the academic career he had been hoping for.”
Unfortunately, Bloch’s chapter was short and he didn’t go into much detail about Marx on Epicurus. We can, however, turn to Nussbaum’s summary from her 1994 book, The Therapy of Desire, for a useful summary. Here we can see similarity to Bloch’s overall thinking about the potential impacts of “degrading suffering.”
“Epicurus is suggesting that we come into the world as healthy creatures, our faculties operating reliably and without blemish. But shortly after this we encounter external forces that corrupt and confuse us. These influences take hold of us: and yet they are not really us. They are not ‘our own feelings,’ but something from the world outside; and they enslave us as time goes on.”
In his dissertation, Marx sided more with Epicurus and Bloch believed this contained a “theory of spontaneity.” Importantly, Democritus (460-370 BCE) was the first, at least in “the west,” to put forth the idea that everything is made up of matter and all matter is made up of atoms. Epicurus agreed, but looked at the world differently. He believed in chance, while Democritus believed everything was ultimately determined by a “network of conditions.” Neither were entirely correct. They needed each other.
Bloch, Quantum Mechanics, and Marx’s Dissertation
In his own brief analysis of Marx’s dissertation, Bloch looked to Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of quantum mechanics and famous for his “uncertainty principle.” To better explain a complicated scientific theorem, we turn to an earlier book by Leonard Mlodinow, one published twelve years prior to Emotional. It was titled The Grand Design and co-authored with the late Stephen Hawking.
What we think of as matter, like any hard surface we walk upon, fundamentally exists in states of uncertainty and probability. “The quantum model of nature,” as Hawking and Mlodinow put it, “encompasses principles that contradict not only our everyday experience but our intuitive concept of reality.” The particles we rely on in our everyday lives exist as probabilistic “wave functions” in conditions of “superposition” where all possibilities simultaneously exist and then this cloud of probability “collapses” into the single objective, particle-based reality we actually experience.
This “collapse” or “quantum decoherence” won’t occur, in their words, “unless and until those quantities are measured by an observer.” As they put it, this “is an accurate description of nature.” To put it another way, reality becomes the shared objective one we experience together only as a result of sense perceptions, i.e. sensuousness. Notably, as articulated above, sensuousness is more than simply being of the senses.
Bloch looked to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to better understand Marx on Epicurus regarding the “abstract possibility” for “speculative swirls” of emergent self-consciousness. What Bloch missed though was the role played by the felt experience of suffering and corresponding perception of threat as passionate catalyst for that self-consciousness. Unfortunately, Bloch didn’t follow his own advice at the beginning of the chapter.
Perhaps it had been too difficult for him to “hold” traumatic reality in consciousness. After all, Bloch had been friends with Walter Benjamin, one of in upwards of 7 million Jewish people to have been exterminated in The Holocaust. In Benjamin’s case though, he took his own life after the hope of finally being free of the Nazi threat fell apart at the last minute. Here is Bloch’s guidance:
“A man cannot be judged solely by the company he keeps. This is often true of young people, who are easily influenced. Indeed, even at a later age, the converse is sometimes true: that no man is responsible for his acquaintances. In true love, however, or in true friendship, the encounter is quite different: the relationship is essentially important for both parties, and characteristic of both. Moreover, an opinion, a doctrine, or a book can also become a friend—and in such cases it is irrelevant whether the bearer thereof is still living or long since dead. The person who meets with such a ‘friend,’ and who goes on with it of his own choice, shows quite clearly what he is, and even more, by the way he goes about things, what he may be capable of objectively.”
Therefore, as a friend and comrade with Walter Benjamin, Abram Leon, and countless more, we must examine Marx’s dissertation through the lens of suffering. This will show what we “may be capable of objectively.” With Jenny’s help too, we can arrive at greater clarity regarding the sensuous materialism contained throughout these “depths.”
Marx’s first articulation of self-consciousness, found in his dissertation and predating his familiarity with class and labor, was based on Epicurus and the atom. A lack of self-consciousness, what one could perhaps think of as a version of conformity to settler LIFE, was the atom’s “relative existence” moving only in a “straight line.” In contrast, self-consciousness was understood as the “swerving away from pain and confusion, in ataraxy,” which roughly translates into a state of emotional tranquility free of anxiety.
This “abstract possibility” was distinct from Democritus, who believed in no more than a perfunctory or mechanical “network of conditions” from which everything was determined. These “conditions” were what Marx referred to in his first insistence on the revolutionary potential of the proletariat as “real limitations.”
Marx did not make the connection back to “pain and confusion.” Two pages later, he argued that “Repulsion is the first form of self-consciousness, it corresponds therefore to that self-consciousness which conceives itself as immediate-being, as abstractly individual.” That “repulsion” was away from “pain and confusion” and toward ataraxy, though Marx did not explicitly say so.
What most refer to as Marx’s “materialism” is the idea that everything is made up of matter and only matter exists. Here in the dissertation, however, Marx added a further nuance. “But when I relate myself to myself as to something which is directly another, then my relationship is a material one.” Thus “swerving away from pain and confusion” requires us to experience it ourselves and subsequently recognize the similarity in another being, i.e. our shared sensuousness. As such, our relationship to one another as potentially suffering and threatened beings, whether those beings are humans, other non-human animals, non-animal life, etc., “is a material one.”
“Thus in hearing nature hears itself, in smelling it smells itself, in seeing it sees itself,” as Marx wrote, referring in the next sentence, to “human sensuousness” as “the medium in which natural processes are reflected as in a focus and ignited into the light of appearance.” But it would be far more accurate to say that the true “medium” is the felt experience of suffering and “ignited” in our passionate, figurative hearts. After all, this is what Marx would refer to less than three years later as our “essential force,” one “energetically bent on its object.” To put it another way, we are part of a process of nature-rendered sensuous and, therefore, suffering and passionate, which means fundamentally more than simply of the senses.
The Science of Sensuousness and Quantum Entanglement
Quantum mechanics has advanced considerably since Bloch’s brief examination in 1959. When it comes to quantum entanglement, what Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance,” we can better plumb the depths of our humanity at the intersection of objective interconnections and subjective experience.
Quantum entanglement refers to particles that, once together in some form, are subsequently bound to one another, even when separated by incomprehensibly vast distances across space and time. A change in one will spontaneously result in a corresponding change in the other, including with regards to their spin, polarization, or vibration, as they are non-locally intertwined, part of the same interconnected quantum state or dimension(s). This interconnected quantum state is believed to exist beyond four-dimensional spacetime and may be the only thing fundamental to the universe.
Unfortunately, the science of sensuousness, on the one hand, and quantum entanglement, on the other, have yet to sufficiently meet. So we must examine both sides first to then explore their interrelationship through the felt experience of suffering thereafter. This then allows us to understand the possibility of revolution’s imminence through sensuous entanglement.
Published in the December 2020 issue of a physics review journal called PRX Quantum, NASA reported on their successful experiments with entanglement, what they referred to as “quantum teleportation.” It’s not really teleportation, per se, at least not in the way most people think about it. That said, many scientists still consider it to be what we thought impossible, i.e. faster than light “travel.” But rather than traveling in the commonplace understanding though, it likely occurs beyond four-dimensional spacetime.
Physicist David Wineland won a Nobel Prize in 2012 based upon years of research into entangled ions. His tests maxed out the equipment at 10,000 times the speed of light and he’s not the only one. Some believe that this “teleportation” occurs via what Stephen Hawking first referred to as a “wormhole” between black holes, something scientists are now attempting to test in the lab with mini black holes. The idea that quantum entanglement occurs through something akin to a wormhole beyond four-dimensional spacetime was first proposed by physicists Leonard Susskind at Harvard and Juan Maldadena at Princeton in 2015. Actual black holes aren’t necessary though.
In 2021, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to researchers who discovered the specific ion pathways in the brain that are responsible for the human sense of touch and spatial awareness or proprioception, what’s sometimes referred to as our “sixth sense.” These ionic channels are membrane proteins, “switches” called Piezo1 and Piezo2, which activate by letting individual ions in and subsequently release an electrical pulse informing what one of the researchers referred to as a “spectrum of pleasant touch to noxious to painful.”
However, he continued, “the identity of these ion channels that account for acute pain is still unknown,” referring to the distinction between a pinch or sense of external threat versus what a person would feel as a result of being shot by a gun. Other researchers argue that these Piezo proteins are responsible for a broader range of pain feelings, most bodily systems in fact, including metabolism, while others argue more broadly that “we are at the beginning of the Piezo era of biological discovery.”
As for the same institute where researchers first identified these Piezo proteins, they also discovered that these highly unique and specialized proteins play an essential role not only throughout human and non-human animal life, but also allow plants to sense critical details about soil to optimize their root growth. Molecular geneticist Johnjoe McFadden and theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili are among a growing wave of scientists heralding what they referred to as “the coming age of quantum biology” in their 2014 book, Life on the Edge.
Quantum entanglement is also believed to be central to plant photosynthesis, bird navigation, and all the human senses. As Marx put it, “in hearing nature hears itself, in smelling it smells itself, in seeing it sees itself,” which may only occur as a result of sensuous entanglement occurring at the quantum level. All this certainly adds new meaning to Fromm’s notion of “biophilia” and the passionate “striving to overcome.”
Scientists are divided on what many refer to as our “quantum brain,” which would be like a quantum computer in terms of processing information through particles existing as an entangled “wave function” in “superposition” prior to “collapse.” This could be thought of as like the psychoanalytic distinction between unconscious and conscious thought, but more complex. Scientists are far from certain because, unlike quantum computing, plants, non-human animals, and humans don’t exist at or near absolute zero temperature in an otherwise vacuum environment, which is what many believe to be required to maintain “superposition” of all possible outcomes before “quantum decoherence” as “collapse.”
That said, some physicists and neuroscientists believe this type of quantum processing in the brain could occur within calcium phosphate clusters called “Posner molecules,” which may protect states of superposition from decoherence. Though no one has yet proven this quantum processing takes place in the brain, the origin of the research itself was based on anti-depressant medication working differently depending on the differing spins of neutrons in different lithium isotopes used. We will examine an alternate framework of quantum consciousness shortly.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Medical School, including the chair of its Anesthesiology Department named George A. Mashour, have shown that various anesthetic drugs work by interfering with entangled photons that are somehow involved in neuron signal processing. Researchers published a 2017 article in a journal called Frontiers in Bioscience Landmark on the potential that these “biophotons” operate within the brain as “optical communication channels,” which would explain how anesthetic drugs induce unconsciousness and hinder memory formation, by disentangling photons. They’ve confirmed this occurrence in mice already.
Mashour and colleagues at UofM’s Center for Consciousness Science delved further into “What Happens in the Brain During Unconsciousness,” using anesthesia as a basis for scientific investigation. In a 2018 article in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, they used multichannel electroencephalogram (EEG) to better understand the impact of anesthetics on reducing what’s known in “integrated information theory” as the degree of “integrated information in a physical system,” which refers to, in this case, the human brain. As the authors put it, they were using “EEG as a correlate of consciousness,” which they expanded upon in another study published in eLife that explored which parts of the brain recovered after deep anesthesia. The capacity to perceive threat recovered among the earliest of our conscious capabilities.
Back in a 2008 article by Mashour in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association called “Toward a General Theory of Unconscious Processes in Psychoanalysis and Anesthesiology,” he referred to it as a “disintegration of cognitive activity” or “cognitive unbinding.” Notably, though unsurprisingly, Mashour didn’t look to any of the Jewish figures who experienced Nazi fascism first-hand and used psychoanalysis to explain what Marxism could otherwise not. After all, the substantially more conservative American Psychoanalytic Association had systematically excluded them while they were alive too.
Mashour’s perspective was formed around Wilfred Bion, whose psychoanalytic framework was contained within what Clara Zetkin referred to as the “rotten ground of the bourgeois social system.” Mashour followed Bion’s thinking, in this case relating the function of the unconscious to the purpose of general anesthesia. The unconscious is thus “affective in nature,” that “both in the analytic and the anesthetic manifestations, unconscious processes can be characterized by a common structure of cognitive unbinding and a common function of affective relief.” As Mashour also put it, “one could consider the administration of an anesthetic a preemptive attack on the links that would result in intolerable pain and psychological trauma.”
Mashour expanded his 2008 attempt at a theory of the unconsciousness in a 2011 article for Consciousness and Cognition titled “Schizophrenia, dissociation, and consciousness.” He, like Judith Herman, recognized that trauma was at the root of these “disorders,” which he then argued “could be related to underlying disruptions of connectivity patterns and neural integration.” And, like Herman, the origin of his framework on trauma can be traced back to Pierre Janet, who worked under Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpetriere hospital and asylum in Paris.
Herman at least acknowledged the broader class oppressive and patriarchal context. That asylum locked away, in her words, “the most wretched of the Parisian proletariat: beggars, prostitutes, and the insane.” These male psychiatrists like Charcot, Janet, Freud, and others “saw themselves as benevolent rescuers, uplifting women from their degraded condition.” She also rightly pointed out that these men “never for a moment envisioned a condition of social equality between women and men.” So their supposedly “enlightened view” was also one against “the admission of women in higher education or the professions” at the same time as they “adamantly opposed female suffrage.”
Unfortunately, Herman’s perspective would constitute what historian Carolyn J. Eichner referred to as “existing within the boundaries of bourgeois liberalism,” what she goes on to describe as “bourgeois, or republican, feminism.” In her 2004 book, Surmounting the Barricades, Eichner examined the role of women, their “revolutionary passions,” their socialist feminisms, and the Paris Commune of 1871. Roughly a year after Charcot began his work at the Salpetriere on what was, at that time, still called “hysteria,” the Commune forcefully shut the asylum down, everyone was freed, and he had to discontinue his work.
While Charcot was forced to discontinue his study of women who’d been imprisoned at this asylum, countless other women, as Eichner put it, “possessed the will to ‘surmount the barricades’ circumscribing women’s lives, whether the economic, political, and social barricades of gender and class, or the literal barricades of a street-fought civil war.” Charcot, Janet, and the rest of these supposed scientists recognized that trauma was at the core of what Mashour would go on to refer to as dissociation and schizophrenia, but they entirely failed to go beyond the bounds of this bourgeois society. The fundamentally horrific reality that was exposed and overthrown by the Paris Commune was thus annihilated by violence after constituting a seventy-two day victory for mental health.
Therefore, if, as Mashour argued, the unconscious is affective and cognitive unbinding serves a similar purpose to help us survive traumatic conditions we may otherwise be unable to absent revolution, any such experimentation is compromised by the inability to establish actual objective control. For instance, to what extent were those conditions of dissociation and schizophrenia at the Salpetriere caused by the very systems of oppression that forced women into that asylum and allowed men like Janet and Charcot to be in their positions of supposedly caretaking doctors? Those like Janet and Charcot would have actually sustained the cognitive unbinding.
Today, how can we be scientifically sure that surmounting the figurative and/or literal barricades, as Eichner put it, isn’t the path to mental health? Indeed, those like Fromm built such things into his framework, so Mashour and others actually assume the “pathology of normalcy” Fromm rejected and call it objective science today. This does not mean, however, that their work has to be thrown out. It just has to be re-interpreted past the “fetish” that Ernest Becker would have seen it as, that we must see beyond the systems of oppression that sustain these “hordes of busy scientists.”
Henry Strapp’s Theory of Quantum Consciousness
Rather than searching for the specific molecules responsible for quantum calculations in states of superposition within the brain, a theoretical physicist named Henry Strapp proposed a different framework back in 2007. In his article, “Quantum Approaches to Consciousness,” which was published in The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, he proposed that we view the entire brain as “an expanding cloudlike structure in a high-dimensional space.” This begins like a pure “wave function” then goes from unconscious to conscious thought through a process like the “collapse,” “integration,” or “binding” together of systems within the brain.
His point was that the brain does not necessarily have to maintain superposition, at least not in the same way as a quantum computer. Given the quantum nature of what constitutes the brain itself and remains at the core of its processes, it exists as a whole in a form of superposition anyway. For example, there are roughly 100 billion neurons in the brain with about 100 trillion existing connections, which is 1015. This is roughly the same number as there are stars in the Milky Way galaxy. As far as possible synaptic connections between those same 100 billion neurons, that’s more than the likely 1024 stars that are in the universe.
“It is evident that a scientific approach to brain dynamics must in principle,” Strapp argued, “use quantum theory in order to deal properly with brain processes that depend heavily on chemical and ionic processes.” He would refer to these as “ion dynamics” a few sentences later and then “ion channels” closer to the end. Importantly, this was fourteen years before researchers would win a Nobel Price for identifying the specific ion channels in the brain responsible for the sense of spatial awareness or “sixth sense” and the “spectrum of pleasant touch to noxious to painful.”
To Strapp, what ultimately emerges as consciousness goes from the superposition of all simultaneous possibilities (greater than 1024 at least) that then collapses into a definitive “course of action.” This then operates based upon “quantum mechanical rules” amounting to “quantum jumps that, on the psychological side,” are “new experiences.” These “jumps” could be thought of as cognitive binding or integration, whether conscious thought itself or experiences “associated with a newly chosen course of action” more specifically. The experiences themselves become part of “the stream of consciousness of the human agent” who “actualize brain states that contain the neural correlates of those experiences.” What’s more, and we will explore this in the next article, we can actually see this occur using EEG.
As for those “quantum jumps,” we can think of this in terms of Neils Bohr on the electron, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. In 1913, he was the first to posit that electrons, at least in particle form, could only exist at certain orbits around an atom’s nucleus. The difference between each orbit corresponds exactly to different multiples of what’s known as Planck’s Constant, a specific unit or “quanta” of energy. It’s movement between orbits is referred to as a “jump.”
In the case of its jump to a lower energy state, this results in the emission of a photon equal to one of those quantas. Similarly, the more energy the electron has, the higher its orbit and it jumps to that higher orbit by absorbing surrounding energy. But the higher the energy level, the more unstable it can be. As articulated in what’s known as Schrodinger’s equation, this is because, in his words, “The rate of change of a wave function is proportional to the energy of the quantum system.”
Therefore, as it relates to “quantum jumps” as cognitive integration or binding, the brain’s formation of neural networks depends on energy entering into the system. But maintaining higher levels of energy can also be difficult, if not potentially destabilizing, which most certainly also holds true for a person. This is where entanglement comes into play because it potentially allows an electron, person, ion, etc. to maintain higher energy levels while mitigating against its associated instability.
To further explain his views, Strapp provided a critical analysis of John von Neumann, considered among the originators of quantum mechanics, specifically its “Copenhagen” school of thought. Through a three step process, Neumann “converted” quantum theory “into a form in which the entire physical universe, including the brain of each agent, is represented in one basic quantum state, which is called the state of the universe.” As we will explore in the next article, we have to subsequently examine the role played by the felt experience of suffering as unique to each of us within what Kim TallBear referred to as the broader relational web of life.
For Strapp, the first process is a “free choice,” one “controlled in practice by the conscious intentions of the experimenter/participant,” what he otherwise referred to as “the thoughts, ideas, and feelings of the agent.” The second process is that which is caused by or results from this choice. We can think of it like a wave function that, if left unchecked, would spread throughout the universe, affecting everything. It “generates a continuous infinity,” in Strapp’s words. This then results in the third process, that of “Nature’s answer” to the first process, collapsing the emergent infinite possibilities of the second process into the realm of classical physics that we experience. It is not simply that we passively experience it though. This is because, remember, we cause the collapse from wave function to particle-based reality with our sensuous experience of it in the first place.
Strapp pointed out that von Neumann et al failed to attribute any sort of “causal origins” to the first process, or to human beings generally, as in we supposedly lack conscious thought or action. In contrast, Strapp went on, “if willful effort can control the rate at which a sequence of similar Process 1 events occur,” then “by virtue of the quantum laws themselves,” this sequence from the first to third process would “hold a particular pattern of neurological activity in place, against the physical forces that would, both in the absence of such pairs, and also in classical physics, tend quickly to disrupt it.”
This is what he referred to as the “mathematical and logical foundation of a pragmatic quantum approach to neuropsychology.” Overall, he pointed out, this entire three-part process approach “is completely compatible with there being very strong interactions between the brain and its environment.” Similar to difficulties associated with electrons maintaining high levels of energy without becoming unstable, our quantum entanglement with one another makes it easier to hold traumatic reality in consciousness. “Conscious experiences,” Strapp concludes, “have a quality of ‘feelingness’ about them,” which is how we can get back to the beginning of this exploration.
To Feel What We Suffer is Quantum Consciousness
“To be sensuous is to suffer,” Marx wrote in 1844, adding that “Man as an objective, sensuous being, is therefore a suffering being – and because he feels what he suffers, a passionate being,” referring to passion as “the essential force of man energetically bent on its object.” This allows us to reinterpret Strapp’s approach to quantum consciousness through the lens of a sensuous, suffering, and passionate materialism.
Strapp argued in both his 2007 article and his 2017 book, Quantum Theory and Free Will, that single ions flow through ion channels in the brain, which he believed to be “a source of dynamical uncertainty.” Because we feel what we suffer, those ions may well be the origin of our inter-personal entanglement. After all, they are central to the felt experience of suffering in the first place. As for passion, this “essential force” may act to “energetically” entangle us with one another, helping to sustain us in struggle. In terms of Strapp’s argument about a continuous “rate” of collapsing a probabilistic reality into the objective one we experience together, this would similarly require sensuousness and passion, which would be the “causal origins” of “Process 1.”
In addition to passion in 1844, it turns out that Marx also briefly mentioned what Strapp called the “willful effort” at the core of our quantum consciousness. At the end of his 1841 dissertation, Marx briefly outlined “a psychological law,” referring to “the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself.” In his words, it “turns into practical energy, and, leaving the shadowy empire of Amenthes as will, turns itself against the reality of the world existing without it.” This “shadowy empire” was a mythological Egyptian land of the dead. Therefore, this “law” was that of human life striving as “practical energy,” the power of human will.
Though Marx was in no way referring to quantum mechanics, the world existing without this human “practical energy” would be one existing as “wave function,” nothing more than probabilities in superposition, without sensuousness collapsing it into the objective reality we experience. Passion as the “essential force” ultimately “energetically bent on its object” would be an accurate way to describe Strapp’s three processes. Reality becomes one of definitive objects only through sensuousness. It is as Fromm put it, that the “fact of suffering” yields the “striving to overcome,” which we can refer to as the inter-personal sensuous entanglement of our quantum consciousness.
Going back to Agnes Heller’s 1979 analysis in A Theory of Feelings, her “phenomenology of feelings” was historical and anthropological at the same time. Like Fromm, it contained a bit of vulgarity, while advancing something quite similar to the affective crippling he briefly discussed. “If we disregard the primitive cultures basically dependent on natural factors,” which is not an accurate way to describe them, Heller then goes on to write that “then we can say that the more obfuscated the social relations in a given era, the more difficult it is to know what is dangerous and what is not.”
Additionally, “the more the individual feels himself threatened by social forces functioning independently of his selection and decision, the more frequent and general anxiety becomes.” Like an electron at a high orbit, this “general anxiety” is an inherently unstable condition. When the felt experience of suffering leads to someone seeing past those “obfuscated social relations,” this is what Heller viewed as its conversion into pain. This process of conversion is sensuous entanglement and revolutionary passion. However, this anxiety can also inhibit this process of cognitive binding. Though Bloch never articulated it in this way, it would similarly be the origin of what he referred to as “degrading suffering, anxiety, self-alienation, nothingness,” which is to say that the sensuous entanglement of quantum consciousness can also be inhibited or broken by violence, threat, and hopelessness.
As a pertinent example, let’s consider the seventy-two days of the Paris Commune. Where did that reality go? To most, it has simply never existed, like the Pittsburgh Commune six years later. Now, try imagining, to whatever extent possible, what it could have been like to be one of the women imprisoned in the asylum, struggling against the cognitive unbinding of a fundamentally traumatic reality where those who held power over you denied the existence of the systems of oppression that caused your pain in the first place. Considering what Herman referred to as the “central dialectic of psychological trauma,” wouldn’t banishing that pain from consciousness, thus rending it into suffering in Heller’s framework, be necessary to endure such harsh conditions?
Now, try to imagine being freed from that prison, finding yourself in an emergent communal world. Those systems of oppression were thus brought out in the open, at least to a fundamentally greater extent in that particular time and place. In a quantum sense, the nature of reality fundamentally changed. It was no longer the reality of a dictatorial regime enforcing horrific conditions of hetero-patriarchy and class oppression. But in order to sustain that new reality, it took a passionate uprising to defend against monarchical forces seeking a return to an even harsher reality.
That passionate defense was not just in support of the Paris Commune against the threat of being violently destroyed and the restoration of a brutal dictatorship. Their “revolutionary passions,” as Eichner put it, amounted to the same “willful effort” as the “causal origins” of the three processes that Henry Strapp outlined at the core of our quantum consciousness. It’s what sustained the “rate” of quantum decoherence, thus forcing into existence the objective reality of the commune itself, while communal systems became similarly central to the social reproduction of those “revolutionary passions” and thus the objective nature of the Paris Commune itself.
Today, just as yesterday, our enemies not only seek our defeat, but the annihilation of our capacity to conceive of or imagine an alternative. Their power is fundamentally based on ensuring the perpetuation of cognitive unbinding and the disorders that result from not dealing with trauma. Turning to Sikivu Hutchinson’s writing on trauma and anti-Blackness shortly after the murder of George Floyd, she spoke of “Black girls’ mental health in the pandemic” as being in “an era when many of us might feel we are drowning, slowly going insane with rage.” Similarly, writing in Vox on the affect of police violence as a “health crisis for Black families,” Nylah Burton argued that not fighting for justice risks death by despair.
As for the Paris Commune and the women freed from the asylum, there is a chance that some of them may have potentially ended up back in that prison after the commune was defeated. The inherently traumatic reality of experiencing those systems of oppression would be thus denied yet again, in favor of the rotten hetero-patriarchal ground of the bourgeois social system enforced through brutal dictatorship. Whereas what had been “revolutionary passions” sustaining a sufficient “rate” among countless people creating the reality of the Paris Commune, that subsequently re-imprisoned woman was fundamentally isolated. She would have therefore lacked an “alliance that affirms and protects,” as Herman put it.
Thus, her capacity for holding traumatic reality in consciousness, recognizing the systems of oppression for what they were, fighting for herself with “willful effort” at the level of quantum consciousness and revolutionary passion for both figurative and literal barricades in the asylum, became fundamentally harder. Though it may be difficult for those who have never been involuntarily institutionalized, try to imagine staying “sane” and “whole” then. Alas, “insanity” until death seems far better. Regardless, banishing the trauma from consciousness through cognitive unbinding might be all that stands between survival and “going insane with rage.” This brings us back to Clara Zetkin on the need to bring forth “the entire noble inner substance of communism,” now against resurgent fascism today as crises threaten to engulf us. Its “substance” is necessary to sustain our quantum consciousness, strengthening our entanglement and resultant passion on the path of hopeful imminent communal revolution, which is the subject of the following article.
- Leonard Mlodinow, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking, (New York: Pantheon Books, 2022). P. 304-305. ↑
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- Ibid, 259. ↑
- Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1973). P. 365. ↑
- Ibid, 199. ↑
- Raya Dunayevskaya, “In Memoriam” in The Dunayevskaya-Marcuse-Fromm Correspondence, Edited by Kevin B. Anderson and Russell Rockwell, (New York: Lexington Books, 2012). P. 237. ↑
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- Ibid, 66. ↑
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- Ibid, 38. ↑
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- Ibid, 153. ↑
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- Ibid, 117. ↑
- Ibid, 135. ↑
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- Carolyn J. Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004). P. 9. ↑
- Ibid, IX and 1. ↑
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- Eichner, Surmounting the Barricades, IX. ↑
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- Henry Strapp, “Quantum Approaches to Consciousness” in The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). P. 889 and 903. ↑
- Ibid, 889. ↑
- Sean Carroll, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, (London: Oneworld Publications, 2019). P. 30. ↑
- Ibid, 896. ↑
- Ibid, 896-897. ↑
- Ibid, 899. ↑
- Ibid, 902. ↑
- Ibid, 905. ↑
- Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, 155. ↑
- Henry P. Strapp, Quantum Theory and Free Will: How Mental Intentions Translate Into Bodily Actions, (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing AG, 2017). P. 13. ↑
- Schafer, The First Writings of Karl Marx, 149. ↑
- Agnes Heller, A Theory of Feelings, 79. ↑
- Sikivu Hutchinson, “Trauma, Anti-Blackness and Going Insane with Rage,” LA Progressive, May 28th, 2020. https://www.laprogressive.com/racism/going-insane ↑
- Nylah Burton, “Police violence is a health crisis for Black families. Marquis Jefferson is the latest to die of a broken heart,” Vox, November 12th, 2019. https://www.vox.com/first-person/2019/11/12/20961357/marquis-jefferson-black-family-heart ↑
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