Brain Candy



Where most autotheory centers the life of the mind, Harry Dodge’s new memoir goes a step further, taking the mind as its matter and, to some extent, its form. The book is a brain! A peripheral brain that wonders about machine intelligence, consciousness, and itself. My Meteorite: Or, Without the Random There Can Be No New Thing sifts through a relentless stream of inputs, nestling experiences and ideas to discover what might magnetize what. Roaring with thinking, the text might like to rise up and reassemble itself into animate form.

Organized in loosely connected passages that skitter nonlinearly across Dodge’s life, My Meteorite, the artist’s first book, is webby and reliably weird. The core story, inasmuch as there is one, follows his father’s cognitive decline. Dodge begins with his father’s death, in the spring of 2017, and then backtracks, anxiously documenting his progressive dementia. In part to make sense of this deterioration, Dodge investigates consciousness: He reads the theory and the science, watches films about artificial intelligence, and thinks about patternicity—making patterns out of seemingly random information. “I realize that everything I’m reading about—the function of the neocortex, the structure of redundancy in pattern recognition as we make thoughts, learn how to think—is deteriorating, happening in reverse to him,” he writes.

Dodge considers topics as diverse as Schrödinger’s cat and self-driving cars, and engages with authors like Laurie Weeks, Eduardo Kohn, Theodore Sturgeon, and Fred Moten (who also shows up in one scene). As such, My Meteorite exemplifies the heady swirl of diaristic philosophy we’ve come to call, via Maggie Nelson, autotheory. Nelson popularized the term when describing her 2015 book The Argonauts, in which she positions Dodge, who is her partner, as interlocutor, addressee, and, at one point, collaborator. (Some passages in My Meteorite, about Dodge’s mother’s death, some years before his father’s, were first published in The Argonauts.) Those of us who had ambivalent responses to The Argonauts, uneasy with (I’ll speak for myself) how Nelson wrote about her take on Dodge’s gender identity, have been eager for “Harry’s version.” This book isn’t that, and (refreshingly?) it’s not “about” gender at all.

Instead, My Meteorite explores animacy, intimacy, consciousness—and, yes, brains, of which there are several. Let’s start with Dodge’s own, presented as peculiar, sped-up, excitably exuberant. That’s how he describes his “strange brain,” in doleful contrast to his father’s. In his video work and sculpture (some of which is described here as it’s in progress), this strangeness finds its full expression. He often becomes a nonhuman character in his videos. In Big Bang (Song of the Cosmic Hobo), 2016, he’s a “low-rent automaton” with a cardboard box for a head, smashing IKEA furniture to smithereens in an effort to return matter to a purer state. His sculpture, too, is concerned with materiality and the line between the animate and inanimate: Socks, buckets, glitter, plywood, and nails are fashioned into quizzical anthropomorphic shapes that seem to possess a sense of humor—are they in some sense “alive” as well?

And why—given all the time he spends with these objects, all the feeling he puts into them—don’t they yield the kind of feedback that he gets from other humans? As a kid, Dodge explains, he decided that being an adoptee gave him access to “a vivid sense of interconnectedness, a presumption that I was a child of the universe entangled with and comprised of all things.” As an adult who spends much of his time interacting with objects, not people, he comes to find this sensibility frustratingly blocked. He decides to test a hunch: that “hanging out with other humans—putting myself out there—is the way to crack open a renewed connection to the awesome flows of unexplainable cosmogonic reason, cosmic correspondence.” By embracing the random—by which he means difference, otherness, strangers—he will unleash the coincidences and synchronicities he seeks.

Harry Dodge, Faulty Premise, 2013, gaffer tape, gouache on bristol board, 33 1⁄2 × 28". Courtesy the artist
Harry Dodge, Faulty Premise, 2013, gaffer tape, gouache on bristol board, 33 1⁄2 × 28". Courtesy the artist

My Meteorite is thus a pursuit of the stochastic (randomly determined) and apophenic (pattern-seeking)—two words I learned from reading it. “I call for the random,” Dodge says. “I also pine for (and also just plain observe) pattern.” Recognizing that the propensity to find meaning in random patterns may be seen as a “leaky, shameful, masturbatory fondling of the irrational,” he defends it as “a constituent slice of intelligence itself.” He tests this argument throughout My Meteorite, by documenting his social exchanges and the coincidences they seem to shake loose.

The degree of pleasure one takes in this experiment will likely correspond to the degree of giddy thrill one finds in synchronicity. One of Dodge’s longer anecdotes leads up to the realization that he’s been randomly listening to a recording of a show he actually attended, and he hears something that overturns his interpretation of that evening years ago. AND THEN: The day after writing this, he sees the lead singer of the band (she’s unnamed, but I’m pretty sure it’s Beth Ditto from Gossip) on the cover of the New York Times’ entertainment section. WHOA—I think? I can’t decide how impressed I am by this sequence, but that’s part of Dodge’s game: He incites us to wonder when and how patterns become meaningful.

All this is, to some extent, a ruse, a device to make a pattern out of Dodge’s ruminations. It might get trying if the writing weren’t so viciously, animatedly good. “I slip through, smell smoke, vomit, sweat,” he writes as the show begins to come back to him. “Not a wormhole exactly, because it’s full—more like a connecting rod. A fat decade-long snake of time, a cylindrical thing fat and quaggy, spanning hundreds of yards, now matting down grass in a meadow made of time. I am hearing her speak. The time-snake’s mouth is speaking. Did anyone see Harry Dodge perform?

Dodge exults in language, taking it seriously (albeit playfully) as a medium and correcting misperceptions about his relationship to it. “What’s it like,” some readers of The Argonauts have asked him, he writes, “for someone so uncomfortable with language to have a writer for a partner?” The query is based on Nelson’s rendering of a conversation they had early in their relationship, about the potential inadequacy of language to capture fluidity—“or anything really,” recalls Dodge in My Meteorite. “We take sides in the first part of her book,” he goes on, “but through the book the binary unravels. This polarity is calcified in the book for the sake of navigability, it makes a legible conceptual spine, I guess, it works. It’s social—which is one of the boons of language—but not exactly factual.” My Meteorite exhibits assurance—if not exactly comfort—with language: a voracious, vivacious wordiness that frequently sent me to the dictionary. Watch me use ranunculaceous in a sentence. One day. I’ll catch you off guard.

One last brain, which arrives via eBay: the titular meteorite, purportedly from the Campo del Cielo, said to have been found in 1527. It is dark gray, metallic, with “deep pits lined in black: gooey tortuous crevices.” It gleams with alien intent. “Things started to happen,” Dodge reports. “Unbelievable things happened.” A tantalizing tease: He never explains what he means by “unbelievable.” It’s as though he thought to drum up suspense, manufacture momentum, then thought better of it. The meteorite is a frequent and always captivating presence that—my first instinct was to type “who”—“insists” Dodge write this book. But he has already suggested the book was occasioned by his father’s death a year later, and these two threads don’t really touch. Am I taking these pretexts too literally? They may be social, not factual, in nature.

There’s a restless feeling throughout, as though the text wants to stretch beyond the obligations of cohesion. Later, Dodge dreams he has seen the words “I’M SRY FER THIS TARIBLE BRANE KLAPS” on floating pieces of cardboard. At first read, it seems a clear expression of anxiety about his father’s decline. Two days later, he learns that brane is not necessarily a misspelling of brain, but a word for the membranes of parallel worlds we can’t see. Is the brane collapse that between art and reality? Life and death? The human and the cosmic? Or is it the book itself, shimmering enigmatically as its threads strain for connection?

Enter love, woven like interlace into the gaps. Where Nelson pivoted us toward intimacy at a time of new queer optimism, Dodge courts it, expansively defined, in a moment of renewed pessimism. My Meteorite is committed to love, and charged with it, too—affirming what artist Fiona Connor says in response to Dodge’s ongoing inquiry. “I don’t understand why,” he ponders, by way of explaining his social experiment, “if a sculpture is a hunk of molecules and people are hunks of molecules, why hanging out for days on end wrestling with a hunk of aluminum yields different results, no results, doesn’t create a magix. Isn’t it all relating?”

“They both feed back,” she tells him. “It’s metabolism. These sculptures release that magic over years, maybe a lifetime. Humans, I would think, re-render it in the course of a day, or even, like this, a conversation!” I can’t say I followed all its threads, but Dodge’s mystical intimacy quest feeds back steadily and sustains.

Megan Milks is a writer living in Brooklyn.