Beating the Bounds

It was the holidays. Family was gathered. They were clumped together in small groups in adjoining rooms. Where the father stood with his eldest son in the kitchen, the view was open into the main areas of the upstairs. The rest of the family milled about or were seated, many of them in conversations that overlapped across the open space. The mood was appropriately festive.

Everything seemed fine. There was laughter and smiles. Looking into the living room, the father saw his young granddaughter using pens and markers to draw a picture. The paper was sitting on an expensive ornamental rug. Having warned about this previously, he made a critical comment to his son, the father of the girl. That is how it began. The son didn’t respond, but the daughter-in-law did.

The daughter-in-law, who always heard everything anyone else said, typically became defensive of her daughter. The father, who usually avoided confrontation, didn’t back off this time. It wasn’t long before she was yelling. The granddaughter, sitting on the floor at her mother’s feet, was apparently oblivious to all that was happening; or else used to ignoring her mother’s tirades.

The child’s appearance of equanimity would not last long. The mother was now fuming mad. Glaring at her father-in-law, she grabbed her daughter by the wrist, yanked her up, and screamed, “You’re traumatizing her!” The girl, indeed, began crying. If she was not traumatized then, she would over her childhood learn to be traumatized. It was an important lesson to be internalized. It was a rite of passage into adulthood.

As the child’s head is hit at each boundary marker in the feudal custom of beating the bounds, egoic individuality also has to be imprinted through pain and suffering, abuse and fear. The most important point is not only that the boundaries of self must not be forgotten but that they must be associated with the earliest experiences of being hurt by those who are supposed to protect and care for the child.

Self-consciousness is defined by betrayal. The first demarcation to be established between self and other is the separation between child and mother. Then the child too can become an individual, if at first with the help of a favorite blankie or teddy bear. Then the proper social order will be ensured, the social order where everyone is alone, even when together. The greatest threat to society is the child who grows up never learning this. But this child did learn.

Now the holidays can continue. The incident will slip away, just something that happened. To keep the peace, a covenant of silence will seal the shared memory. Later in life, the child won’t recall what happened and no one will tell her about it. All she will have is a gnawing sense of anxiety, of mistrust. To help her fit into this society of other damaged individuals, she will go to therapy, take her meds, and keep her head down. Buried in the unconscious, a child still sits on the rug lost in drawing.

7 thoughts on “Beating the Bounds

  1. Having been a member of at least 4 families (I have been married thrice) I can see from the recounting of this event that the issue could easily have been prevented with a little care by one or both parties. The underlying antagonism didn’t allow for this, is what I see. Your take on the effects created in the child are instructive.

    • Yes. Such incidents could be prevented. But such is life. The background thought to this post is how different are many traditional communities. David Lancy and Michaeleen Doucleff have written books about parenting and child development, based on ethnography and personal observations of small rural populations that have maintained traditional lifestyles.

      The one thing they seem to particularly avoid is conflict, aggression, anger, etc. Children generally aren’t told what to do, and adults wouldn’t fight about children. This really stood out with the Piraha seemingly without a trace of trauma, mood disorders, suicide, and such. It’s occurred to me that maybe trauma is inherent to Jaynesian consciousness, as authoritarianism is the shadow of individualism.

      The rigidly-bounded egoic self with a division between inner and outer does not develop naturally in the child. It has to be socially constructed, enforced, and maintained. But what we were wondering about here is how does that process begin, how does that original porous self open to world get closed off. For modern WEIRDos, there is a powerful change that happens in childhood that is not observed among hunter-gatherers, indigenous farmers, etc.

      It doesn’t always have to happen as dramatically as portrayed above, but one might suspect that it often does. Even simply giving a kid a pacifier as a replacement of the human warmth of a breast is probably traumatizing, in this sense. It replaces the human with a cold unfeeling object. This is what is called a transitional object. In most societies, children aren’t given transitional objects. The Western ideal of self-soothing is a recent invention.

      Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation

      The Breast To Rule Them All

      Nature, Nurture, Torture

    • It’s all an interesting topic. One can sense we underestimate the pervasiveness and power of trauma in our society. The very social structure, such as high inequality, can be shown as traumatizing. Just look at the data on high inequality societies with high rates of mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, violent crime, etc.

      So, it wouldn’t even necessarily require a single traumatic incident. Research has clarified that actually chronic stress, even if at a low level, can be more traumatizing than a single major traumatic event such as rape. Based on this understanding, it could be argued that we live in one of the more stressful and traumatizing of societies, besides countries caught up mass instability, oppression, and violence.

      Many poor countries with low inequality tend to exhibit less of these indicators of stress in terms of social and psychological problems. There is more to it than the shit life syndrome that harms the impoverished. In a high inequality society, even the wealthy are worse off. It’s the total context of our society. But that context is precisely what causes people to more likely to act as described in this post.

    • In the collection Discussions With Julian Jaynes, there was a talk Brian J. McVeigh had with him. McVeigh was a student of Jaynes and is still the leading Jaynesian scholar. They were talking about society, maybe in terms of problems or where it was heading.

      They both agreed that (Jaynesian) ‘consciousness’ needs to be strengthened. McVeigh reinforced this again view in an interview he gave for the more recent collection edited by Marcel Kuijsten, Conversations on Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind.

      It’s easy to understand why they’d make this argument. In some ways, one could see authoritarianism and other problems as a failure of consciousness. But one can equally wonder that maybe such things are built into consciousness itself, a potential conundrum not explored by any of the Jaynesian scholars.

      If true, more cowbell might not save us. It’s just a thought that has been lingering in the mind for years now. Sometimes there is a sense that maybe Jaynesian consciousness, in reaching it’s peak, is coming closer to its endpoint. After all, it was precisely the success of the bicameral-minded societies that spelled their doom.

      That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If our present civilizational project has reached it’s final culmination, that simply opens up humanity to new possibilities, as it did with the Bronze Age collapse. It doesn’t even have to mean we will collapse. We could learn a lesson from the past and, instead, actively and intentionally (maybe even consciously) seek transformtaion.

  2. Your continuing responses are instructive, thanks. I am somehow reminded of an incident a few years ago. I was walking down a street in Stockholm (where I live), away from where I had just had a haircut. It was around noontime. As I was about to circle around a gathering of women who were happily engaging with each other outside a restaurant, one of them stopped me to ask a question. This was a party to celebrate the upcoming wedding of this woman. She was stopping passersby to ask advice on the subject of marriage, as sort of a game to entertain her friends, and possibly to learn something. I paused and said, with seriousness (that is, with a feeling of responsibility), she was asking a person who had been married three times. Then, immediately, I went into a relaxed state and without internal dialog, said “be kind to each other.”

    • All of us within Jaynesian consciousness have divided psyches. A message of kindness appeared in the Axial Age, following the Bronze Age collapse. But the reason is because it had then become necessary to tell people to do the right thing. There was no archaic authorization to maintain a communal identity of shared good.

      That change emerged out of brutal authoritarianism, as never before seen. For the prior millennia of civilization, there is no evidence of high inequality, stratified hierarchy, centralized power, expansive imperialism, written laws, court systems, policing, standing armies, long-distance warfare, mass incarceration, genocidal slaughter, etc.

      It was in response to humanity’s newly discovered capacity for cruelty and atrocity that the Axial Age prophets needed to remind people of kindness. The Piraha, on the other hand, are more likely to be kind as a default without any need for Jaynesian consciousness to think about moral choices as imagined alternatives.

      Ever since the bicameral-minded civilizations disappeared, the twin spirits of Jaynesian consciousness have been in an endless struggle of authorization over the psyche. The one voice speaks in the guise of wisdom, in telling us to be kind and such. But it is inseparable from it’s twin with dark impulses, the wound of an aching loss of bicameral voices.

      That is why we have an interest in traditional non-WEIRD cultures. In learning about them, we can gain a hint of another way of being and relating. Those books on parenting and child development tell us a lot about humanity in general. It’s fascinating to peak into a world that has been lost to the living memory of Western society.

      Like you, we share a concern for kindness. But what if there is a way of instilling kindness, not as a moral choice but as communal identity? What if humanity wasn’t constantly fighting against it’s own worst impulses? Maybe there is a way to make peace with our own psyche. And maybe that would begin in how children are raised.

      The problem is all of the modern world is built on the fractured Jaynesian consciousness. This is why we’ve been trapped in a historical cycle flipping back and forth between egalitarianism and authoritarianism. What is being suggested here would be a threat to the entire social order, the entire system of power, the very seat of authorization.

      This is built into our cultural identities, liberal and conservative, left and right. It’s hard not to be pulled into that dynamic, whichever side claims authorization of one’s mind. No doubt ours is a great civilization. We achieve great accomplishments and we commit great harm. But what, if instead of being great, we simply aspired to being good?

      Not as a life philosophy, moral theology, or whatever. What if we could have a basically good society such that people weren’t forced to be good through laws, threats, and punishments; where people didn’t even need to be told to be kind? At their best, the Axial Age prophets, were invoking the collective memory of something else, a moral force within the psyche.

    • Of course, much of our thinking here has nothing directly to do with any of your comments. We’re just explaining the background to the above post. As you might’ve noticed from the most recent post following this one (a post we started writing before this one), our mind has been on similar thoughts, specifically the issue of individual ‘consciousness’.

      But our take here is biased, as always, however attached we are to our bias. Besides decades of severe depression having warped our mind, one of our earliest intellectual influences was Derrick Jensen. He saw modern Western civilization as having been built on mass trauma, a conspiracy of silence, a splintered psyche, and the victimization cycle (what others call ‘Wetiko’).

      That has informed our thinking ever since, for good or ill. So, even as we’re inspired by the Axial Age message, in its various guises, we continue to feel some trepidation about the dilemma to which the Axial Age prophets were responding. A problem was created that we don’t know how to undo. Though we have been meaning to write about the psycho-spiritual jujitsu offered by the early wisdom teachers, from Buddha to Jesus.

      Anyway, telling people to be kind is wonderful advice. And we agree whole heartedly, far from being dismissive. Yet that is just another way of saying don’t be authoritarian, don’t be a social dominator, don’t be a dark personality, don’t be evil, don’t be an asshole — it’s easier said than done. Unless we understand the conditions that cause such psycho-social maladaptive mentalities and behaviors, there is little hope of changing them.

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