“First came the temple, then the city.”

“Landscape is memory, and memory in turn compresses to become the rich black seam that underlies our territory.”
~Alan Moore, Coal Country, from Spirits of Place

Sense of place. This place I live in is my home, where I spent much of my childhood. No matter how far I stray, I’ve always returned here. It’s the place I know. In fact, I know it so well that I can conjure images in my mind of buildings, fountains, and streets that no longer exist and, in some cases, disappeared long before I was born. The human world is built out of memory, personal and shared.

This is easy to forget, at least for many of us in modern society. We are constantly on the move. I lived in four states before I even made it to high school and this is not unusual for an American. It was all the leaving and returning that more fully imprinted this place onto my brain matter, seeping deep down into my sense of self. That is what makes me different than so many others. I daily see the haunts of my childhood and regularly visit with my childhood friend.

For all of that, my sense of place is superficial. Many indigenous societies have a profound grounding in and knowledge of the world around them. In some cases, this communal experience goes back millennia. There are indigenous people who are still telling stories that accurately describe what their immediate environment looked like during the Ice Age. Now that is a sense of place, a collective memory more ancient than even the most faint traces of Western Civilization.

Lynne Kelly, maybe more than any other author I’ve recently read, has provoked my intellect and imagination. I first came across her in reading Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. It’s about mnemonic traditions in indigenous cultures, which she initially explored through her study of Australian Aborigines. I’ve yet to finish it, as it is one of those books that is so interesting that I keep going back to it, sampling passages as they catch my fancy. She has a more recent book on the topic, The Memory Code, where she gives more detail about how these mnemonic systems work and she further delves into their significance.

It is fascinating, to say the least. What is shown in those two books explains so much about what it means to be human in the world, not just what it means to live in an indigenous tribe. And various aspects resonate far and wide, not just landscape and sense of place but: the city as social construction, temples as mnemonic devices, songlines as symbolic conflation, state-dependent and context-dependent memory, revolution of mind preceding revolution of social order, radical imagination and moral imagination, embodied experience and extended mind, etc. It speaks to the interconnection of natural resources and hunting techniques, tool-making and structure-building, relations and culture, mythology and rituals, language and symbolism, song and dance, space and accoustics, knowledge and history, astronomical observation and astrotheology, calendars and and natural cycles, and much else.

Looking at an even more basic level, I was reading Mark Changizi’s Harnessed. He argues that (p. 11), “Speech and music culturally evolved over time to be simulacra of nature.” That reminded me of Lynne Kelly’s description of how indigenous people would use vocal techniques and musical instruments to mimic natural sounds, as a way of communicating and passing on complex knowledge of the world. Changizi’s argument is based on the observation that “human speech sounds like solid-object physical events” and that “music sounds like humans moving and behaving (usually expressively)” (p. 19). Certain sounds give information about what is going on in the immediate environment, specifically sounds related to action and movement. This sound-based information processing would make for an optimal basis of language formation. This is given support from evidence that Kelly describes in her own books.

This also touches upon the intimate relationship language has to music, dance, and gesture. Language is inseparable from our experience of being in the world, involving multiple senses or even synaesthesia. The overlapping of sensory experience may have been more common to earlier societies. Research has shown that synaesthetes have better capacity for memory: “spatial sequence synesthetes have a built-in and automatic mnemonic reference” (Wikipedia). That is relevant considering that memory is central to oral societies, as Kelly demonstrates. And the preliterate memory systems are immensely vast, potentially incorporating the equivalent of thousands of pages of info. Knowledge and memory isn’t just in the mind but within the entire sense of self, sense of community, and sense of place.

Let me explain the quote used in the title of this post: “First came the temple, then the city.” It comes from Klaus Schmidt who led the excavation of Göbekli Tepe. The discovery of this archaeological site has overturned prior assumptions about the archaic human societies. It’s the earliest known example of permanent structures and they were built before the development of agriculture. That requires some explaining. The only domesticated animal these people had was the dog and so they had no beasts of burden to help haul the large stones. They hadn’t even yet developed the making of pottery. Their tool use and technical skills were limited with no prior stone masonry and probably not much specialization. These structures seem to have come out of nowhere.

Most perplexing is that there is a telling lack of evidence that this was a human settlement. It appears to have been a meeting place. Schmidt theorized that it was for communal rituals and so would have been the first temple complex. Julian Jaynes made similar arguments about early societies, in speculating that the first houses were built for the gods. This would have meant a place to store the mummified corpse or skull of a once revered leader, either having been considered divine during his life or having become deified in death, the worship of the leader maintained through visceral memory of his voice, at least until that memory faded. Only later did humans settle down to build their own houses and from this formed a priestly class. That then required the development of farming to support the population.

In whatever variation of this theory, civilization as settled lifestyle began from ancestral worship and a cult of the dead. This interpretation is supported by the dead buried under floor/benches in Jericho and Catal Hayak and cremated human remains at Stonehenge. Further excavation needs to be done at Göbekli Tepe, but some evidence already points in this direction. The temple complex has prominent vulture images and headless human figures, both associated with death in early cultures. For example, there was the archaic practice of removing skull for veneration and so the relevance of portrayals of the headless. Humans have long been obsessed with death. Elders were those who carried and passed on cultural knowledge, those who embodied and gave voice to gods, spirits, and ancestors. They were accordingly revered. In shared memory, their knowledge and voice lived on.

That is how authority operated long ago, by what an individual embodied and represented. Both Jaynes and Kelly see ancient authority as having originally been less hierarchical or else based on different forms of power, such as voices and knowledge. What makes knowledge into power isn’t just that it is information controlled by the few but because it is knowledge given form and voice through the force of personal presence. Ancient knowledge systems were visceral, not abstract, although incipient forms of abstraction had emerged, such as how physical mnemonics once learned could be accessed in the mind without the external triggers.

In these societies, the individual is so fully enmeshed within the world that the world is exists within the individual. These aren’t just systems of memory and knowledge. They are entire lived and embodied worldviews. The person is inseparble from the place. Everything would be integrated in such a community: tradition, knowledge, language, culture, ritual, religion, worldview, environment, etc.

It’s hard to know what that would have meant. The still existing societies with this kind of system have been in contact with modern societies for generations or centuries. In some cases such as the Australian Aborigines, they’ve taken the lessons learned in dealing with white Westerners and incorporated them as songs into their cultural knowledge. We have no way of being able to observe a society prior to contact and contact inevitably brings changes. Sometimes changes come far in advance of direct contact by way of intermediary tribes and environmental alterations. We can only guess at what is indicated from limited evidence.

I become aware of this difficulty sometimes while reading books like that written by Lynne Kelly. There is often the assumption that people in other societies are basically like us with the differences being mostly superficial. So, for example, behaviors and motivations are interpreted according to modern Western experience. But we know from research, that WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic) subjects are among the least representative populations in the world, which is problematic as they are the most commonly used in scientific studies.

Related to this is when Lynne Kelly discusses the power held by those who control knowledge in indigenous societies, It occurs to me that this is very much a WEIRD way of understanding human nature. That is projecting an intention onto others that she cannot possibly know. She is arguing, so it seems, that they lack sincerity in performing their ritual. But maybe sincerity and insincerity is not a standard framework for the oral cultures of indigenous tribes.

John Beebe defines sincerity as the aspiration toward integrity, by which he means that you can only aspire toward what you lack. In that case, sincerity and hence insincerity can only exist among those who have lost the ancient inheritance of an integrated worldview (i.e., integrity). This would make sense, if indigenous mnemonics actually is an inseparable structure to a cultural experience of reality, rather than being a mere memory technique. That is what the Australian Aborigines appear to be claiming when they state that they sing the world into existence.

This is not to romanticize tribal people, but it is a serious consideration of the possibility that we modern Westerners would not recognize full integrity if we saw it. If anything, this is to counter the romanticized ideal of integrity that sincerity evokes, as differentiated from the lived experience of integrity. A number of thinkers have seen an opposition between cultures of ritual and cultures of sincerity, sometimes used to contrast Catholicism and Protestantism but maybe it goes much deeper when considering societies where ritual is entirely dominant. It’s just something to keep in mind as a possible point of misunderstanding.

This leads to a stumbling block for many in imagining the bicameral mind that Julian Jaynes describes. From the modern Western experience, such a mindset seems absurd or impossible. But it might be more plausible within a worldview of ritual and integrity.

If songlines originally were an expression of bicameralism or else something similar, each song would be a distinct voice (or set of voices). These songs would express the voices of gods, spirits, and ancestors as passed down by the song teachers across the generations. The songs would invoke not just landscapes but also narratized worlds with specific worldviews, mindsets, personalities, and histories. This internalized public space would be the precursor for the post-bicameral interiorizing of private space, both being metaphorical but the former connecting the individual to the concrete and the latter freeing the individual through increasing abstraction.

In building structures in the world, what if early humans were building structures in their minds? Creating a radically different mindset might have offered greater survival value than even building a permanent house to live in. An entire world would have been formed where new possibilities were made available. Maybe humans had to change their way of thinking before they could imagine civilization into existence.

* * * *

Making Gods, Making Individuals
Building and Battling in Ancient Europe
Music and Dance on the Mind
Choral Singing and Self-Identity
Development of Language and Music
Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 441-464

Knowledge is power

Or so it used to be. Australian Aboriginal cultures in their traditional state, American Indian cultures resisting the influence of the colonisers and African cultures still practising their ancient knowledge systems all provide ample examples of the way in which those who controlled the knowledge also controlled society. The role of knowledge in the exercise of power is underrepresented in archaeological interpretation of prehistoric social structures.

Mike Parker Pearson, the British Neolithic archaeologist, and Ramilisonina wrote:

We employ cross-cultural generalizations as a means of assessing the likelihood of certain aspects of social organization being shared between different cultural contexts. We may define these generalisations as probability analogies since they work on the principle that, if a certain relationship is found amongst most traditional societies today, then there is a probability that this relationship probably obtained in most societies in the past (1998a, p. 309).

Archaeologists describe monument building eras, such as the British Neolithic, the Archaic of the American Southeast and the Ancestral Puebloan era of the American Southwest, as showing no signs of a wealthy elite, no physical signs of a hierarchy. Yet, to build such monuments as Stonehenge, Poverty Point and Chaco Canyon there must have been an organising hierarchy. It is this feature which leads to the first, and the most definitive, of the ten indicators of a mnemonic monument described below. I propose that, as in contemporary Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherer cultures and Pueblo sedentary societies, the power granted to elders in these cultures was based on their access to knowledge.

I acknowledge that, as Renfrew says, ‘Modern hunter-gatherer societies are the product of forty centuries of sapient evolution, just as much as urban ones. They should not be regarded as living representatives of the Palaeolithic past’ (1998, p. 4). Methods found in contemporary Australian Aboriginal knowledge systems can be traced back for over 40,000 years (Haynes 2000, p. 53). Hence, it is considered justified to propose that the generalisations about oral knowledge systems can be translated into prehistory, as archaeologists currently transfer generalisations about human physical attributes and needs. It would be highly speculative to transfer the beliefs of any contemporary culture into the prehistoric era. However, it is logical to consider that the technologies by which they formally taught and painstakingly memorised their knowledge might have analogies in the more distant past. A deeper appreciation of the demands of knowledge retention and transmission in oral cultures opens up possibilities for radical reinterpretation of archaeological sites and artefacts globally.

Kindle Locations 4906-4927

The organisation of labour, degree of planning, structuring of space and caches of exotic materials all point to a complex Chacoan political authority over a large region over a long span of time (Lekson 1999, p. 48; Sebastian 1992, p. 57). It is generally agreed that the time of great house construction in Chaco Canyon itself was a time of low violence; coercive force was not an integral part of Chacoan society (Frazier 2005, pp. 2, 74– 82; Mahoney 2000, p. 16). Pueblo Bonito has disproportionately few infants in the burial sample (Saitta 1997, p. 15), as would be expected if the privilege of burial at Chaco was awarded to members of the knowledge elite.

Social inequalities increased between ritual leaders in the great houses of Chaco Canyon and the other Ancestral Puebloans over the course of the tenth century (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 98– 101). During the latter half of the eleventh century, some elite burials occurred at Pueblo Bonito, in rooms that were nearly 200 years old at the time (Van Dyke 2007, pp. 121– 2). In Room 33 of Pueblo Bonito, two males were interred with thousands of turquoise pieces (Saitta 1997, p. 15). However, the number of burials in great houses is so small that some researchers question that much can be concluded from their context (Saitta 1997, p. 5; Sebastian 1992, p. 51). Nevertheless, analysis of those interred in the great houses indicated that they had a better level of nourishment than those in the villages (Saitta 1997, pp. 14– 15; Van Dyke 2007, p. 3).

It can therefore be stated fairly reliably that there was an elite with power in Chaco Canyon during the Classic Bonito phase, but that there is minimal, if any, sign of individual wealth or coercion. This chapter argues that power was due to control of knowledge, and the centre of the knowledge was Chaco Canyon. Knowledge specialists from the outliers would have come regularly to the canyon to maintain existing, or gain new, knowledge from the elite in the great houses. The implementation of knowledge spaces was also localised in each outlier. Control of esoteric knowledge is so integral to the power structure in contemporary Pueblo society that Sebastian argues that ‘it would be surprising if such control were not a component of ancestral Puebloan societies as well’ (2004, p. 95).

The Memory Code
by Lynne Kelly
Kindle Locations 94-109

Orality, I soon discovered, was about making knowledge memorable. It was about using song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff. The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed. Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival—physically and culturally—depended.

I wasn’t far into my research when I began to understand that songlines were key to the way Indigenous Australians organised this vast store of information so that it would not be forgotten. Songlines are sung narratives of the landscape, singing tracks that weave across the country and enable every significant place to be known. At each location, rituals are performed that enact the knowledge associated with that specific place. In this context, rituals are repeated acts and no more should be implied by that word. The degree to which they are religious ceremonies depends entirely on the specific ritual. One elder explained to me how singing the names of the sacred sites along the songlines created a set of subheadings to the entire knowledge base, a place for knowing about every animal, plant and person. The songlines could be sung when moving through the space in reality or in imagination.

By repeating the stories of the mythological beings through songs and dances at sacred landscape sites, information could be memorised, even if it was not used for tens, hundreds or thousands of years. Songs are far more memorable than prose. Dances can depict animal behaviour and tactics for the hunt in a way no words can do. Mythological characters can act out a vivid set of stories that are unforgettable.

Kindle Locations 231-241

In oral traditions, dance acts as a complementary memory cue to the sung narratives. Not only do the dances entertain but information can also be encoded in dance that defies clear expression in words. As a natural history writer, I doubt I could accurately describe details of the movement of a kangaroo—the flick of an ear, the subtle change in stance as it detects an approaching human—despite having observed them for most of my life. Australian Aboriginal dancers can represent this behaviour in a matter of moments.

Rituals performed before a hunt are often referred to as ‘hunting magic’, the word ‘magic’ implying that they are simply superstitious acts performed in the belief that they increase the fortune of the hunt through a call to supernatural beings. A little more investigation shows otherwise. Many of the songs reinforce details of animal behaviour, such as indicators that the animal may be aware of the hunters, or the way in which a mob of animals may disperse in fleeing. These rituals confirm planned hunting strategies and so, exactly as claimed, enhance the likely success of the hunt. When I discussed ‘hunting magic’ informally with Australian Aboriginals and Native Americans, they indicated that they were well aware of this rational link. The songs, for them, combine practical and magical aspects.

Kindle Locations 376-390

I found the concept of singing the road map, with paintings and sand drawings to help visualise it, mightily impressive, but I had yet to glimpse the power of the songlines. They were so much more than navigational tools. At each sacred place along the route, songs were sung and rituals performed. Rituals, by definition, are simply acts that are repeatedly performed. Those performances include the songs and dances that encode knowledge of a wide range of the practical subjects I was exploring, not just the navigational routes. What intrigued me was the way the songlines acted as an organiser, a table of contents to so much of the knowledge.

Each location acted as a subheading for the knowledge encoded in the ritual performed at that location. Vivid stories at each of these sacred sites told of the mythological ancestors who created the landscape, the animals, plants and everything in Country. Everything was linked. Everything had a place and was named and known. The traditional Aboriginal landscape is a memory space on a grand scale.

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of placenames, a seemingly unemotional task. Within the singer’s mind are all the associated stories. I have set up a series of ‘songlines’, a few kilometres of locations to which I have encoded information such as countries of the world, history and families of birds. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extraordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embedded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense.

Kindle Locations 484-495

Mythology certainly reflects spiritual beliefs, but what is pertinent to the story being told in this book is that it also encodes a vast store of practical information and rational knowledge of the world. Mythology, in this context, is an incredibly effective memory aid.

If the story carries knowledge about a particular plant, for example, then the plant will often be cast as an animated character. The plant-character will have human-style adventures and experiences, setbacks, difficulties and successes, acting as a metaphor for the events of a normal life. The character or personality of a medicinal plant, say, will be easily remembered while often telling a moral tale as well. If a plant is poisonous, then the story will involve its deathly quality. Realising that mythological stories are memory aids is not a revelation from Western researchers. Non-literate people are well aware of the role of story. […] Traditional peoples would not have survived had they been, as so often portrayed, living in a fog of superstition and irrational thinking.

Kindle Locations 515-522

One problem with trying to understand something as critical as the wangarr is that we have no equivalent in Western culture and no appropriate words to describe the concept. A viewer who watches the three long films, a number of short films and listens to the narrative about the Djungguwan learns that there is nothing in the wangarr that can be called a god. The mythological ancestors are not worshipped nor are they the objects of prayers. Their stories are told and through those stories cultural knowledge is imparted and cultural values sustained. It is simplest to accept the term and describe, granted in simplistic terms, that the wangarr are those who travelled through the land, creating the landscape, plants, animals and people. The wangarr gave the Yolngu languages, ceremonies, sacred designs and laws and, critically, the songs, dances and stories that encode all the knowledge and beliefs of the culture.

Kindle Locations 1355-1365

Unfortunately, Göbekli Tepe was labelled a temple by Schmidt and everyone discussing it since has used the term, leading to the assumption that it was primarily a religious building.2 With no sign of habitation, it was not domestic. Situated on what was a forested plateau, but is now desert, there was no nearby water. There are no burials and no sign of a wealthy hierarchy. However, there are signs of feasting, public and restricted performance spaces, and stone pillars in clear sequences. Göbekli Tepe has all the indicators of a memory space.

Göbekli Tepe was built by non-farming people. It has long been assumed that to build monuments, people needed to be farming to free the time for such labour-intensive activities. I believe that in order to settle, it was essential that indigenous peoples found some way to create a local memory space. This would gradually replace the knowledge system embedded in the broader landscape. Any strongly sequenced set of objects, such as standing stones or posts, could be used to replicate the locations along the songline or pilgrimage trail. The fact that many of these monuments are circular is indicative of the way time is cyclic for indigenous cultures when they talk of resource management and agriculture. The monuments need to represent the landscape locations while also providing both public and restricted performance spaces.

Kindle Locations 1812-1815

All these theories are consistent with the concept that Stonehenge was primarily a knowledge space, and that death rites, astronomical observations, timekeeping and healing were all part of the complexity that is seen in historical indigenous knowledge systems.

Kindle Locations 3398-3403

This monument was built by hunter-gatherers, as was the far more sophisticated Louisiana site of Poverty Point, which emerged nearly 2000 years later. Poverty Point was the centre of a hunter-gatherer culture spreading over nearly 2000 square kilometres. It demonstrated that a large complex monument could be created by hunter-gatherers.4 The fact that these sites were built without any sign of agriculture challenges accepted wisdom that communities needed to settle and farm in order to free up the time required to build monuments. I believe that the reverse is true: people needed to build monuments in order to preserve the knowledge system to enable them to settle.

Kindle Locations 3488-3491

The archaeology of the Poverty Point monuments demonstrates that essentially egalitarian hunter-gatherers attained levels of organisation and integration once only attributed to advanced farming cultures. Hunter-gatherer people may be less complex in terms of their hierarchies, cities and politics; it should never be assumed that they are less complex intellectually.

A Million Years of Music
by Gary Tomlinson
Kindle Locations 4252-4272

From the recent end of the timescale also there are indications that the institutionalization of ritual power may extend back into the Paleolithic, even in monumentally structured ways. The excavations since the 1990s of Göbekli Tepe in southeastern Turkey have uncovered a project of staggering scope of stone quarrying, carving, and building that resulted in a long-lasting center of activity starting about 11,000 years ago. With little sign of on-site habitation yet found, Klaus Schmidt, the lead archaeologist, and others posit this as a sacred locale for groups of foragers in the surrounding areas, periodically gathering to celebrate essential rituals. It is, to say the least, not the kind of project hunter-gatherers have usually been thought to mount. For Schmidt it points to a new, ideological stimulus for the beginnings of the transition to sedentism: religious ritual and institution. In this view it is metaphysics that drove settlement patterns and eventually brought about farming, not the reverse.

A recent revisionist account has taken issue with this interpretation, seeing in it an anachronistic distinction of shrine from house and envisioning Göbekli Tepe as a sacred settlement, along the lines archaeologists have now and then perceived elsewhere. 7 (Inca Cuzco is a much more recent example.) This new interpretation suggests that the real message of Göbekli Tepe might instead be that what counted most for early Neolithic humans was life integrated with incipient ritual, not separated from it. It is hard not to imagine this as a repeating of earlier, Paleolithic lifeways.

Whatever our interpretation of the site, however, we are left with the construction of a special center, built and used across centuries and involving daunting technological challenges— all some seven millennia before Stonehenge or the Great Pyramid of Giza. We must contemplate that arresting date in prospect, so to speak, from the vantage of Paleolithic developments, not merely in retrospect. It places the earliest monumental construction at Göbekli Tepe closer in time to the painting of Lascaux than to the building of the pyramids. The famous decorated caves from the end of the Paleolithic propose themselves to us as ritual spaces just as eloquently as Göbekli Tepe does; this similarity is inescapable. To entertain it is, however, to locate Göbekli Tepe in a history of the making and use of such sites reaching far back into the Paleolithic period, if on smaller scales. This history includes not only Lascaux, Altamira, and many other sites from after the Last Glacial Maximum but Chauvet also, painted much earlier, in Gravettian or even Aurignacian times; and it includes many open-air and enclosed sites of rock painting and sculpture from Africa, the immense antiquity of which has only recently begun to be appreciated.

Inside the Neolithic Mind
by David Lewis-Williams & David Pearce
Kindle Locations 544-587

Most sensationally, Schmidt found that the pillars had images carved on them (Pls 2, 3, 4; Fig. 6). They include wild boar, gazelles, wild cattle, foxes, snakes and birds – no domesticated animals. Nor is there sign of any domesticated plants or animals in the deposits. These people were hunters and gatherers, albeit socially and economically complex.38 One pillar appears to have a human arm carved on it, and this feature, seen in association with the armed pillar at Nevali Çori, seems to confirm the impression that the stone columns are all somewhat anthropomorphic. Here was an early Neolithic, pre-farming community that, like their Upper Palaeolithic predecessors in Europe, most definitely had image-making as a practice that went beyond practical matters of making a daily living – though such a distinction is probably ours rather than one made by the people themselves.

The pillars came from a quarry about 91 m (300 ft) away. There, the limestone bedrock was cut and the pillars shaped, at least to some extent. One pillar still in place in the quarry would, had it been removed, have been as much as 6 m (20 ft) long and would have weighed 50 tons. What drove the people of Göbekli Tepe to make these pillars, to drag them to the rock-cut structures, to embellish them with images and to raise them up?

Schmidt has found no traces of early Neolithic houses nearby. He therefore concludes that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre to which Neolithic people came for religious purposes. It may have been a site of intense religious experiences that reinforced beliefs and social networks. Perhaps ‘pilgrims’ came regularly from as much as 100 km (62 miles) away, from a site known as Jerf el Ahmar, where there are comparable round structures with benches and also images of animals, but no rock-cut structures with stone pillars.

While contemplating Göbekli Tepe, the English archaeologist Steven Mithen had an idea that supports what one of us had previously advanced for the domestication of cattle at Çatalhöyük and which, in general terms, followed in Cauvin’s footsteps.39 Mithen concluded that the religious beliefs embodied in the massive stone structures and associated carvings came before and eventually led to agriculture. How could this inversion of the sort of scenario that Childe would have recognized have happened?

Schmidt pointed out to Mithen some hills about 30 km (18.6 miles) to the south. These are known as Karacadag (‘Black Mountains’). Phylogenetic DNA studies had shown that this area was the origin of domesticated einkorn wheat. To put the matter more forcefully, Karacadag was the place of origin of domesticated grain and therefore the origin of the Neolithic.40 Mithen suggests that the switch to domestication came about as a result of frequent ritual and construction activities that took place at Göbekli Tepe, in our terms, religious practice. Large numbers of people, possibly measured in hundreds, would have been needed to make the Göbekli Tepe structures and pillars, and this would have necessitated the gathering and processing of much wild grain to sustain the workers. This activity would, in time, have resulted in fallen grain springing up, being gathered again and thus becoming domesticated. Mithen concludes that a drier climatic spell may not have been the trigger that set off Neolithic agriculture, as many researchers believe: ‘It may have been a by-product of the ideology that drove hunter-gatherers to carve and erect massive pillars of stone on a hilltop in southern Turkey.’41

The good quality of Karacadag grain may have led workers returning home to take some with them to sow in their own gardens at Jerf el Ahmar and other settlements, eventually step-by-step even as far as Jericho itself. In addition to seashells and shiny obsidian that we know Neolithic people traded, the first domesticated strains of grain may also have spread across the Near East. Indeed, there is more obsidian at Jericho than one would expect for a town of that size; it may therefore have been a trading centre and one of its commodities may have been the Neolithic itself.

More than environment: preternatural seeing

The rock-cut structures and carvings at Göbekli Tepe and the highlighted eyes of the Jericho skulls point to an unavoidable part of human life, one that Childe, as a Marxist, and more recent environmentalist archaeologists have tended to ignore, or, at any rate, to deprive of any causal influence. We suggest that ‘conversion’ from one belief system to another means accepting new understandings of the functioning of the human brain and the mental states that it produces (though, of course, the people themselves do not see it that way). What were once regarded as aberrant, meaningless mental states may, with a change in religious perspective, become central divine intimations. In short, we need to examine human consciousness, not just in the alert, problem-solving state that we cultivate today, but also in the more mysterious states that, in some circumstances, become the essence of religion.

Kindle Locations 2948-2951

we note the significance of stones as oracles: they link the initiate to supernaturally vouchsafed information about cosmology. One of the stones is like a mouth and has a hollow in it. We recall the standing stones at Göbekli Tepe, ‘Ain Ghazal and other sites. Working in west European Neolithic tombs, Aaron Watson, an archaeologist at Reading University, found that ritually produced sounds can ‘induce enormous stones to appear to shake and become alive’.41

Places of the Heart
by Colin Ellard
pp. 14-15

The business of designing environments that affect human feeling and action is so ancient that it actually predates any other aspect of human civilization, including written communication, the design of cities and settlements, and even the birth of agriculture, which is traditionally considered to be the seminal event that set into play most of the other forces that shaped modern humanity. The roots of such endeavors lie in southern Turkey, near the city of Urfa, at the ancient ruins of Göbekli Tepe. This structure, more than eleven thousand years old, consists of a series of walls and pillars constructed of stone slabs, some weighing more than ten tons.1 As architecture, the site represents the oldest building, other than simple dwellings, that we know to have been built by human beings. Indeed, the construction of Göbekli Tepe predates Stonehenge by about as much time as separates the origin of the Stonehenge from the present day. As artifact, Göbekli Tepe is even more important than this. It turns on their heads long-held truths about the origins of architecture. Before Göbekli Tepe, the conventional wisdom was that it was domestication, settlement, and agriculture that spurred the development of architectural practices, and eventually cities. Now it’s clear that this story drives the cart before the horse. These stones must have been laid down by hunter–gatherers who lived by killing and eating prey animals rather than by farmers living in settled groups. The walls that have been unearthed here may well be the first ever constructed for a purpose other than to shield the contents of one’s possessions and one’s family from enemies, the elements, and the prying eyes of neighbors.

Over such a long reach of human history, it is almost impossible to know what purpose the massive columns and walls of Göbekli Tepe might have served for their builders, but the scant evidence of human activity found at the site—the bones of animals and the remains of fireplaces along with the iconography of human figures and large birds, snakes, and carnivorous mammals carved into the columns—suggests that the place served as a kind of religious sanctuary, and most likely, a site of pilgrimage that was visited, modified, built, and rebuilt over a span of hundreds of years. What is clear is that nobody actually lived at Göbekli Tepe. It was a place to visit, perhaps to encourage thought and worship. Possibly, the carvings of the fearsome creatures found there were meant as totems to help manage the fears of the terrible dangers that their designers faced in their day-to-day lives as hunters. It’s also possible that, like Stonehenge, Göbekli Tepe was built as a healing place—an indication that one of the earliest human drives that led to building was a response to our awareness of our own finitude and that these early structures represent a nascent struggle against mortality. In some ways, much of the history of architecture, but especially religious architecture, can be seen as a concerted effort to find a way to cheat death—prima facie evidence of our early understanding of the power of the built structure to influence feelings.

Regardless of what can be known about the thinking that lay behind the careful construction of Göbekli Tepe, six thousand years before the invention of the written word, one thing is clear—what happened there may represent the very beginning of what has now become a defining characteristic, perhaps the defining characteristic of humanity: we build to change perceptions, and to influence thoughts and feelings; by these means, we attempt to organize human activity, exert power, and in many cases, to make money. We see examples of this everywhere, scattered through the length and breadth of human history.

Big Gods
by Ara Norenzayan
pp. 118-121

Göbekli Tepe is the world’s oldest known religious structure. It’s made of massive, humanlike, T-shaped stone pillars, arranged into a set of rings, and carved with images of various animals such as gazelles and scorpions (see figure 7.1). Long mistaken for a medieval cemetery, this ancient monumental architecture in present-day southeastern Turkey dates back to about 11,500 years, which makes it at least twice as old as Stonehenge (4,000 to 5,000 years old), the Great Pyramid of Giza (4,500 years old), and a few thousands of years older than Armenia’s Karahunj, another ancient megalithic structure with religious significance. Göbekli Tepe’s importance is magnified by the fact that no evidence of settled agriculture has been found so far. This could be explained by the fact that Göbekli Tepe is old enough to have been one of the world’s earliest temples built by hunter-gatherers. If true, it may hold clues to one of the deepest puzzles of our time, the question of how the Neolithic Revolution got off the ground, and gave rise to the origins of human civilization itself.2

Who built these structures, and how did they do it? The sheer scale of the operation must have been unprecedented—the stones in the Göbekli site weigh between 7 and 10 tons each, located on a site far away from any other known settlements, at a time when sedentary life, and its benefits, was still nonexistent—there were as yet no writing, masonry, metal tools, and domesticated animals to carry loads. And for what purpose would these hunter-gatherers—if indeed they were that—have built these monuments, which must have incurred spectacular costs in calories, time, and effort?

There are many puzzles and unanswered questions about this ancient site that will wait for more evidence and will be debated for a long time. The current picture that this site paints is incomplete, and open to multiple interpretations. Perhaps these were agricultural peoples, and it will take time to find evidence of domesticated plants and animals in Göbekli. To add to the mystery, the reasons behind the transition from hunting game and gathering wild foods to domestication of grains and animals remain somewhat puzzling and are hotly debated by archeologists. Unlike the more reliable supply of daily calories from hunting and gathering, domestication is a long-term affair fraught with risk. The diet of early agricultural peoples was poorer in protein content than the diet of hunter-gatherers. Evidence from prehistoric human remains suggests that early farmers were less healthy and less well fed than were hunter-gatherers.3 Despite negative effects on health and diet, early agriculture had one advantage over hunting and gathering: in the long run it could feed more mouths and sustain larger populations.

What we do know, with some confidence, is that in the cradle of agriculture that is the Middle East, not far from Göbekli Tepe, clear evidence of this transition is found to be about 11,000 years old. We also know that this transition coincided with population explosions. However, in more than 15 years of careful excavation, archeologist Klaus Schmidt, who first discovered these stone structures on top of a mound buried in earth, and others who have worked there since then, have not found any in Göbekli. If the builders and early worshippers of Göbekli Tepe were indeed hunter-gatherers, then we face the intriguing possibility that early forms of organized religious activity predated the agricultural revolution and the massive cultural transformations it ushered. This scenario, if confirmed, would turn on its head the conventional wisdom that organized religion, with priesthood classes, elaborate rituals, and sacrifices to powerful Big Gods, was a mere consequence of the transition to agricultural societies.

Göbekli Tepe suggests the idea that early stirrings to worship Big Gods motivated people to take up early forms of farming, and not the other way around.4 An analysis of the blades made of volcanic ash found on the site suggests that it attracted pilgrims from a wide range of locations. This raises the possibility that the temple was an early cosmopolitan center.5 Schmidt argues that the initial religious impulse to periodically congregate and worship among at least some hunter-gatherer groups in the Middle East might have led to semipermanent settlements around the sacred area. People likely continued to lead a hunter-gatherer existence, possibly for a long time. Eventually, however, settlements swelled. Hunting and gathering cannot feed large populations. This might have created the impetus for experimentation with an agricultural lifestyle in addition to hunting. Animal and plant domestication, in turn, would have led to food surpluses, and larger population sizes. In turn, this demographic growth, along with conquest or absorption of smaller groups, would have facilitated the cultural spread of these peculiar religious beliefs.

This hypothesis, which sees prosocial religions with Big Gods as a contributing factor (rather than merely as a side-effect of settled agriculture), fits better with the other observations discussed in this book. It is consistent with the psychological evidence that supernatural monitoring, and credible displays of faith to watchful deities, encourage cooperation, contribute to trust, and enable collective action among groups of strangers. It is also consistent with the historical evidence from the written record pointing to the role that these belief-ritual religious complexes played in the establishment of long-distance trade. This hypothesis accounts for the cultural spread of prosocial religions at the dawn of the agricultural revolution by assuming that, at the very least, Big Gods were one critical causal factor that contributed to the rise of large groups unleashed by agriculture. It would also explain the glaring absence of evidence for domesticated grains and animals in Göbekli Tepe.

The Well-Tempered City
by Jonathan F. P. Rose
Kindle Locations 974-984

These early settlements also required a new degree of large-scale cooperative behavior. Although they were built by hunter-gatherers, there was something different in their culture that brought them to work together at a scale never before achieved in human history. The psychologist Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia proposed that the transformation came with the emergence of a new belief system, one he called “big gods.” Prior to that time, humans believed in gods who created the universe, or local spirits, who had little interest in people’s behavior. In small-scale societies, cooperative behaviors were monitored by the group. Free riders were expelled from the community. But larger groups are harder to monitor, and to get to cooperate. Norenzayan believes that the belief in judgmental deities, or “big gods,” provided the cooperative glue necessary to build places such as Göbekli Tepe. A watchful, punishing god or gods proved to be a very good monitor of behavior, particularly if the god had authority over your after- or future life. “Big gods” tempered human behavior.

Edward Slingerland, a historian at UBC Vancouver, observed that all-knowing big gods are “crazily effective” at enforcing social norms. “Not only can they see you everywhere you are, but they can actually look inside your mind.”

Birth of the moralizing gods
by Lizzie Wade

Norenzayan thinks this connection between moralizing deities and “prosocial” behavior—curbing self-interest for the good of others—could help explain how religion evolved. In small-scale societies, prosocial behavior does not depend on religion. The Hadza, a group of African hunter-gatherers, do not believe in an afterlife, for example, and their gods of the sun and moon are indifferent to the paltry actions of people. Yet the Hadza are very cooperative when it comes to hunting and daily life. They don’t need a supernatural force to encourage this, because everyone knows everyone else in their small bands. If you steal or lie, everyone will find out—and they might not want to cooperate with you anymore, Norenzayan says. The danger of a damaged reputation keeps people living up to the community’s standards.

As societies grow larger, such intensive social monitoring becomes impossible. So there’s nothing stopping you from taking advantage of the work and goodwill of others and giving nothing in return. Reneging on a payment or shirking a shared responsibility have no consequences if you’ll never see the injured party again and state institutions like police forces haven’t been invented yet. But if everyone did that, nascent large-scale societies would collapse. Economists call this paradox the free rider problem. How did the earliest large-scale societies overcome it?

In some societies, belief in a watchful, punishing god or gods could have been the key, Norenzayan believes. As he wrote in Big Gods, “Watched people are nice people.” Belief in karma—which Norenzayan calls “supernatural punishment in action”—could have had a similar psychological effect in the absence of actual gods, a proposition his colleagues are investigating in Asia.

History and archaeology offer hints that religion really did shape the earliest complex societies. Conventional wisdom says that the key to settling down in big groups was agriculture. But “agriculture itself is a wildly improbable cooperative activity,” notes Slingerland, who studies ancient China. “Especially in places where you can’t get agriculture off the ground without largescale irrigation or water control projects, the cooperation problem has to get solved before you can even get the agriculture ramped up.” That’s where religion came in, he and Norenzayan think.

A case in point, they say, is Göbekli Tepe, an archaeological site in southeastern Turkey. Huge stone obelisks carved with evocative half-human, half-animal figures dot the 11,500-year-old site, which the late Klaus Schmidt of the German Archaeological Institute, who excavated there, called “the first manmade holy place” (Science, 18 January 2008, p. 278). Moving and decorating the great obelisks must have required a huge community effort. But signs of agriculture don’t appear nearby until 500 years later, meaning that the builders of Göbekli Tepe were likely hunter-gatherers who had come together to practice shared religious beliefs, Slingerland says. As Schmidt has said, “First came the temple, then the city.”

Ultrasociety
by Peter Turchin
pp. 10-11

Like the creators of Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe left no written explanation of their motives. But, as the Oxford anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse writes in Aeon Magazine, “a consensus is emerging among archaeologists that this was a hugely significant ritual center: not a permanent home but a sacred place where people gathered at special times.” The “Göbeklians” did not live on, or near, the hill; instead they traveled to it from many semi-permanent settlements within a large area, some coming from 100–200km (roughly 100 miles) away. We know this because archaeologists find the same kinds of symbolic objects from widely dispersed sites, from the T-shaped pillars, so characteristic of Göbekli Tepe temples, to peculiar-looking scepters.6

The Göbeklians carved T-shaped pillars from the side of the hill (a few of them are still there, unfinished), then transported them to a circular enclosure and installed them in carefully excavated rectangular pits. A typical temple has a dozen T-shaped pillars, with the two largest placed in the center, surrounded by the rest, almost like a group of people standing around two leaders. In fact, the pillars are clearly meant to represent people (or perhaps gods). The T-part looks like a head. Many pillars have arms carved into their sides and a loincloth in front.

Once the job of the construction was over, the fun part began. Göbeklians feasted on roasted gazelles and aurochs and drank copious amounts of beer. During their excavation of the site, the archaeologists Oliver Dietrich, Jens Notroff and their colleagues found large numbers of burned bones. They also found many large barrel-like and trough-like vessels, carved from limestone, with dark grayish residue coating the sides. Chemical analysis indicated the presence of oxalate, which precipitates during the fermentation of mashed barley (remember, this was not a cultivated cereal). Some of these vessels could hold 160 liters (40 gallons) of beer, or almost three kegs. Quite a party! A carved stone cup, found in the nearby site of Nevali Çori, depicts two people with raised arms, dancing. Between them cavorts a fantastic turtle-like creature, which Dietrich and colleagues think “might well hint at the dancers’ altered state of conscious.”

The archaeologists aren’t sure how long each temple was in use. At some point, however, the Göbeklians destroyed their temples by burying the monoliths in rubble. Clearly, the purpose was not to create a monument that would last forever; everything was in the service of the ritual.

Perhaps all the megalith-building cultures felt the same way. A retired carpenter and construction worker named Gordon Pipes recently recruited a team of volunteers to help him demonstrate how a small group of people could have moved the Stonehenge megaliths.7 Pipes estimates that 40-ton stones can be erected using Stone Age technology with fewer than 25 people. Placing lintels on top could require no more than a dozen workers. But such calculations and experiments seem to miss the point. At least as far as Göbekli’s temples were concerned, the idea wasn’t about erecting monuments in the most efficient manner, with the fewest possible workers—that’s the rationalistic thinking of a 21st-century engineer. The purpose was to bring people together.

This is an argument put forward by Jens Notroff and colleagues in an article titled “Building Monuments, Creating Communities.”8 These archaeologists look to recent ethnographic accounts of monument-building, such as the construction of megalithic tombs on the Indonesian island of Nias. There, a crowd of 500–600 share the work, hauling the megaliths—which are a bit smaller than the Göbekli pillars—using Stone Age technology (with a wooden sledge, rollers, and ropes made from lianas). It takes three days to move the stones a distance of 3km (two miles) to their destination. Many more people participate than is necessary. But it’s not about efficiency. It’s about having fun. And then, after the monoliths have been installed, everybody has a party with lots of food and (of course) beer. The tangible result—the monument—is not important. The intangible but lasting feeling of community and cooperation is what the whole thing is about.

pp. 171-172

Bringing together the various strands of the argument, I see the following sequence of events leading to the despotic archaic states. With the end of the Pleistocene around 12,000 years ago, the climate grew warmer and, more important, much less variable. Human populations began to increase everywhere. Migrations and colonization peopled new areas as they became habitable, and over the next few thousand years, the Earth’s landscapes filled up with foraging bands. Eventually, few places suitable for human habitation remained unoccupied. Areas where people were already present in substantial numbers during the last Ice Age, such as the Near East, filled up first.

According to the standard archaeological model, this is what happened next. Around 10,000 years ago, human beings started to domesticate plants and animals. This allowed them to increase production of food dramatically, which in turn enabled greater population densities, sedentary ways of life, villages—and then cities, complex societies, states, writing—in a word, civilization. The adoption of agriculture, then, created a resource base capable of sustaining high population densities and an extensive division of labor. It also generated a “surplus” capable of supporting craftsmen, priests, and rulers. At this point, the standard theory branches out into several different models, with some emphasizing the need to manage the economy, others focusing on warfare, and still others stressing the role of ritual and religious specialists. Details vary, but the common denominator is that a rich resource base is not only a necessary condition, but also a sufficient one for the rise of complex societies.

I call this the “bottom-up” theory of the evolution of social complexity, because it treats social complexity as a sort of “superstructure” on the material resource base. In other words, if you stir enough resources into your evolutionary pot, social complexity will inevitably bubble up.

The problem with the bottom-up theory is that in several places where we can date the key stages in this process, we see a different sequence of events. The two sites with early monumental architecture that we discussed in Chapter 1, Göbekli Tepe and Poverty Point, arose before agriculture.

So here we have an inverted sequence of events. First, a fairly large-scale society arises, with quite sophisticated ritual activities and buildings requiring the mobilization of large numbers of workers. Only later comes agriculture. Has the standard theory reversed cause and effect?

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
pp. 143-151

This was a paradigm of what was to happen in the next eight millennia. The king dead is a living god. The king’s tomb is the god’s house, the beginning of the elaborate god-house or temples which we shall look at in the next chapter. Even the two-tiered formation of its structure is prescient of the multitiered ziggurats, of the temples built on temples, as at Eridu, or the gigantic pyramids by the Nile that time in its majesty will in several thousand years unfold.

We should not leave Eynan without at least mentioning the difficult problem of succession. Of course, we have next to nothing to go on in Eynan. But the fact that the royal tomb contained previous burials that had been pushed aside for the dead king and his wife suggests that its former occupants may have been earlier kings. And the further fact that beside the hearth on the second tier above the propped-up king was still another skull suggests that it may have belonged to the first king’s successor, and that gradually the hallucinated voice of the old king became fused with that of the new. The Osiris myth that was the power behind the majestic dynasties of Egypt had perhaps begun.

The king’s tomb as the god’s house continues through the millennia as a feature of many civilizations, particularly in Egypt. But, more often, the king’s-tomb part of the designation withers away. This occurs as soon as a successor to a king continues to hear the hallucinated voice of his predecessor during his reign, and designates himself as the dead king’s priest or servant, a pattern that is followed throughout Mesopotamia. In place of the tomb is simply a temple. And in place of the corpse is a statue, enjoying even more service and reverence, since it does not decompose. […]

Let us imagine ourselves coming as strangers to an unknown land and finding its settlements all organized on a similar plan: ordinary houses and buildings grouped around one larger and more magnificent dwelling. We would immediately assume that the large magnificent dwelling was the house of the prince who ruled there. And we might be right. But in the case of older civilizations, we would not be right if we supposed such a ruler was a person like a contemporary prince. Rather he was an
hallucinated presence, or, in the more general case, a statue, often at one end of his superior house, with a table in front of him where the ordinary could place their offerings to him.

Now, whenever we encounter a town or city plan such as this, with a central larger building that is not a dwelling and has no other practical use as a granary or barn, for example, and particularly if the building contains some kind of human effigy, we may take it as evidence of a bicameral culture or of a culture derived from one. This criterion may seem fatuous, simply because it is the plan of many towns today. We are so used to the town plan of a church surrounded by lesser houses and shops that we see nothing unusual. But our contemporary religious and city architecture is partly, I think, the residue of our bicameral past. The church or temple or mosque is still called the House of God. In it, we still speak to the god, still bring offerings to be placed on a table or altar before the god or his emblem. My purpose in speaking in this objective fashion is to defamiliarize this whole pattern, so that standing back and seeing civilized man against his entire primate evolution, we can see that such a pattern of town structure is unusual and not to be expected from our Neanderthal origins.

From Jericho to Ur

With but few exceptions, the plan of human group habitation from the end of the Mesolithic up to relatively recent eras is of a god-house surrounded by man-houses. In the earliest villages,1 such as the excavated level of Jericho corresponding to the ninth millennium B.C., such a plan is not entirely clear and is perhaps debatable. But the larger god-house at Jericho, surrounded by what were lesser dwellings, at a level corresponding to the seventh millennium B.C., with its perhaps columned porchway
leading into a room with niches and curvilinear annexes, defies doubt as to its purpose. It is no longer the tomb of a dead king whose corpse is propped up on stones. The niches housed nearly life-sized effigies, heads modeled naturalistically in clay and set on canes or bundles of reeds and painted red. Of similar hallucinogenic function may have been the ten human skulls, perhaps of dead kings, found at the same site, with features realistically modeled in plaster and white cowrie shells inserted for eyes. And the Hacilar culture in Anatolia of about 7000 B.C. also had human crania set up on floors, suggesting similar bicameral control to hold the members of the culture together in their food-producing and protection enterprise.

Göbekli Tepe
by Wikipedia

Schmidt’s view was that Göbekli Tepe is a stone-age mountain sanctuary. Radiocarbon dating as well as comparative, stylistical analysis indicate that it is the oldest religious site yet discovered anywhere.[8][32] Schmidt believed that what he called this “cathedral on a hill” was a pilgrimage destination attracting worshippers up to 150 km (90 mi) distant. Butchered bones found in large numbers from local game such as deer, gazelle, pigs, and geese have been identified as refuse from food hunted and cooked or otherwise prepared for the congregants.[33]

Schmidt considered Göbekli Tepe a central location for a cult of the dead and that the carved animals are there to protect the dead. Though no tombs or graves have been found so far, Schmidt believed that they remain to be discovered in niches located behind the sacred circles’ walls.[8] Schmidt also interpreted it in connection with the initial stages of the Neolithic. It is one of several sites in the vicinity of Karaca Dağ, an area which geneticists suspect may have been the original source of at least some of our cultivated grains (see Einkorn). Recent DNA analysis of modern domesticated wheat compared with wild wheat has shown that its DNA is closest in sequence to wild wheat found on Karaca Dağ 30 km (20 mi) away from the site, suggesting that this is where modern wheat was first domesticated.[34] Such scholars suggest that the Neolithic revolution, i.e., the beginnings of grain cultivation, took place here. Schmidt believed, as others do, that mobile groups in the area were compelled to cooperate with each other to protect early concentrations of wild cereals from wild animals (herds of gazelles and wild donkeys). Wild cereals may have been used for sustenance more intensively than before and were perhaps deliberately cultivated. This would have led to early social organization of various groups in the area of Göbekli Tepe. Thus, according to Schmidt, the Neolithic did not begin on a small scale in the form of individual instances of garden cultivation, but developed rapidly in the form of “a large-scale social organization”.[35]

Schmidt engaged in some speculation regarding the belief systems of the groups that created Göbekli Tepe, based on comparisons with other shrines and settlements. He assumed shamanic practices and suggested that the T-shaped pillars represent human forms, perhaps ancestors, whereas he saw a fully articulated belief in gods only developing later in Mesopotamia, associated with extensive temples and palaces. This corresponds well with an ancient Sumerian belief that agriculture, animal husbandry, and weaving were brought to mankind from the sacred mountain Ekur, which was inhabited by Annuna deities, very ancient gods without individual names. Schmidt identified this story as a primeval oriental myth that preserves a partial memory of the emerging Neolithic.[36] It is also apparent that the animal and other images give no indication of organized violence, i.e. there are no depictions of hunting raids or wounded animals, and the pillar carvings generally ignore game on which the society depended, such as deer, in favor of formidable creatures such as lions, snakes, spiders, and scorpions.[8][37][38] Expanding on Schmidt’s interpretation that round enclosures could represent sanctuaries, Gheorghiu’s semiotic interpretation reads Göbekli Tepe’s iconography as a cosmogonic map which would have related the local community to the surrounding landscape and the cosmos.”.[39]

Cathedrals Built on Water: An Institutional View of Religion, Scholastic Discipline, and Civilization
by Robert Wyllie

Civilization involves a widespread belief in ideas, and is actualized through effective discipline. Nietzsche called this ideal basis of Roman civilization, for example, a Begriffsdome or “concept-cathedral” constructed “upon a moving foundation, as it were, on flowing water.”[5] In the less poetical terms of modern sociology, civilization is a social imaginary, broadly including the “images, stories, and legends” shared by large groups of people.[6] The temple typically comes before the city because disciplining a population with a social imaginary drastically lowers the costs of extending and maintaining power. […]

The lesson of Göbekli Tepe is that civilization is cheaper than we once thought. Even without a substantive economic base, or the perfect environmental conditions, a foundationless religious idea is enough to launch a civilizational project. Modern nomads, from sixteenth-century Calvinist radicals with their pamphlets, to twenty-first-century militant Islamists on YouTube and social media, have done the same. Civilizations emerge in effective discipline, which we see in the Reformed consistories’ emphasis on compulsory schooling and the emphasis on new strict school curricula by the Islamic State.

What we see on the news from Syria and Iraq is neither anomalous nor retrograde in any “grand scheme.” To the contrary, it seems possible that Western political tendencies to either underestimate radical Islam (usually on the Left) or essentialize it as Other (usually on the Right) might be related to an inability to understand the religious origins of Western civilization.

The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion
by Biblical Archaeology Society Staff

The Göbekli Tepe ruins and enclosures—the earliest monumental ritual sites of Neolithic religion and possibly the oldest religion in the world—are causing experts to rethink the origins of religion and human civilization. Until recently, scholars agreed that agriculture and human settlement in villages gave rise to religious practices. The discoveries at the Göbekli Tepe ruins, however, indicate that earlier hunter-gatherer groups that had not yet settled down had already developed complex religious ideas, together with monumental ceremonial sites to practice the sacred communal rituals of Neolithic religion.

Indeed, excavations at the Göbekli Tepe ruins uncovered tens of thousands of animal bones, indicating that many different species—including those depicted on the pillars—were slaughtered, sacrificed and presumably eaten at the site. While it is uncertain to whom these sacrifices were made, it’s possible they were offered to the enclosures’ stylized human pillars that, as some have suggested, may represent priests, deities or revered ancestors in Neolithic religion. Given that human bones were also been found, others believe the Göbekli Tepe ruins may have been a Neolithic burial ground where funerary rituals and perhaps even excarnations were practiced.

The First and Oldest Temple in the World? – Göbekli Tepe
by Bryce Haymond

Probably the biggest indicator that this may have been a temple lies in the fact that there has been no substantial evidence of any settlement at the site – no homes, no trash pits, etc. – the usual markers of human habitation. In other words, this wasn’t a site where people lived, so they must have been doing something else. The dating of the site indicates that the people were nomadic hunter-gatherers, so many archaeologists think that what was likely going on here was some sort of ritual – it was a shrine, or place of worship. This has changed many archeologists’ theories about the beginning of mankind. The history books have stated for a long time that people did not gather together and establish communities or centers of gathering (cities) until agriculture developed, sometime after 9,000 B.C. But this complex shows otherwise, which has provoked lead archaeologist Klaus Schmidt to say, “Our excavations also show it is not a domestic site, it is religious – the world’s oldest temple”6. The interpretation is that “first came the temple, then the city”7. I think Hugh Nibley would have agreed with that argument. Furthermore, Schmidt gives another Nibleyesque statement on the “terrible questions” which these temples were made to answer: “In my opinion, the people who carved [the pillars] were asking themselves the biggest questions of all… What is this universe? Why are we here?”8. It may have been the very rituals that these people were gathering to perform that led them to develop agriculture. Andrew Curry in Science Magazine notes:

Archaeologists once hypothesized that agriculture gave early people the time and food surpluses that they needed to build monuments and develop a rich symbolic vocabulary. But Göbekli Tepe raises the alternative possibility that the need to feed large groups who gathered to build or worship at the huge structures spurred the first steps toward agriculture.9

The site is on the top of a hill/mountain, which is the highest point in that area. We learn from the scriptures and modern revelation that mountains are synonymous with temples. People always ascended to their sanctuaries. As Nibley often said, the temple is the cosmic mountain, the primordial mound or hill. Moses ascended Mount Sinai. Nephi was caught away to a high mountain. The temple has even been referred to as “the mountain of the Lord’s house” (Isa. 2:2). So it is not surprising to find a temple on a high hill.

Evidence indicates that people traveled from great distances to come to the site. Many bone remnants have been found at Göbekli Tepe, indicating that animal sacrifice was performed.10

Klaus Schmidt suspects another reason why this might have been a temple:

Though he has yet to find them, he believes that the first stone circles on the hill of the navel marked graves of important people. Hauptmann’s team discovered graves at Nevali Çori, and Schmidt is reasonably confident that burials lie somewhere in the earliest layers of Göbekli Tepe. This leads him to suspect the pillars represent human beings and that the cult practices at this site may initially have focused on some sort of ancestor worship.11

Indeed, Sean Thomas has said that “human skeletons have been found, in telling positions, which indicate that Gobekli was possibly a funerary complex, a shrine that celebrated the life and death of the hunters”12.

Schmidt has also noted that this was not only the first man-made monument, but “the first manmade holy place” ever built13. Gary Rollefson, another archaeologist from Washington, also agrees – “Certainly it was a major focus for regional celebrations or ritual activity”14. While there are several such ritual sites in the region, Rollefson notes, “Göbekli Tepe’s really the only one with that megatemple approach”15. Schmidt continues, “Here we have the religious center for settlements at least 50 kilometers away… Those were village churches; this is the cathedral on a hill”16. Andrew Collins likewise agrees: “Göbekli Tepe can be described as sacerdotal, in that it was clearly utilised as a place of veneration and perhaps communication with supernatural entities and domains”17.

Uncovering Civilization’s Roots
by Andrew Lawler

Some archaeologists argue that crop irrigation and the resulting food surplus spurred that rise, while others cite the appearance of kings, colonial domination, or spread of a common religion. But the new Ubaid finds add weight to the hypothesis that growing contact among different groups—a so-called interaction sphere—was the spark that eventually ignited the urban revolution. “There is a direct correlation between an increase in cultural interaction and an increase in cultural complexity,” says Harvard archaeologist Carl Lamberg-Karlovsky.

The Beginning of the End for Hunter-Gatherers
by Graham Chandler

Traditionally, theories of the origins of food production have been based on human need: response to population pressures or other causes of resource imbalances. But as studies have advanced, no evidence of resource stress or malnutrition has been found in places where farming has bloomed, fueling new theories and debates.

But there’s little debate that the Neolithic period was truly a time of revolutionary change for humankind, not only in technology and ways of life, but religiously and spiritually. Jacques Cauvin, the late director emeritus of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, a leading scholar of the early Neolithic period in the Near East, called it a complete restructuring of human mentality, expressed in new religious ideas and symbols. Göbekli Tepe was front and center in that timeline.

The Neolithic revolution saw both highly developed religious ideology and mixed farming take a firm hold throughout the Middle East. Cauvin viewed the finds at Göbekli Tepe and the later sites of Çayönü and Nevali Çori as evidence of rooted communities with a religious bent. “We encounter for the first time simultaneous evidence for public buildings and for the collective ceremonies of a religious character that took place in them. These must have served as a strong cement for the psychological cohesion of these sedentary human groups,” he wrote in The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture. “It is also quite probable that they were addressing … a personal divinity.”

As agriculture took root, it had a powerful impact on these religious themes. “It seems probable that at sites such as Göbekli Tepe and ‘Ain Ghazal [an early Neolithic village in Jordan], myths featured protagonists who mediated the hunting/farming dichotomy…,” write David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.

The switch from pure hunting and gathering to farming was surely a profound change. Says another Neolithic researcher, Peter Bellwood of Australian National University, “There are obviously many aspects of mobile hunter-gatherer society that are antithetical to adoption of the sedentary lifestyle of the cultivator. On top of this, we have the attitudes of the farming and pastoralist societies themselves, often ranked and status-conscious, with whom some of the ethnographic hunter-gatherers have come into contact and by whom many have eventually been encapsulated.”

First came the temple, then the city
by Christopher Seddon

Many of the pillars are carved with bas-reliefs of animals, including snakes, wild boar, foxes, lions, aurochs, wild sheep, gazelle, onager, birds, various insects, spiders, and scorpions. Where sexual characteristics are present, they are always male. The images are large, often life-size, and semi-naturalistic in style. Some pillars exhibit pairs of human arms and hands, suggesting that they represent stylised anthropomorphic beings. However, it is unclear as to whether they represent gods, shamans, ancestors, or even demons. There are also a number of mysterious abstract symbols that have been interpreted as pictograms (Schmidt, 1995; Schmidt, 1998; Schmidt, 2000; Schmidt, 2003; Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

Pictograms are graphic symbols used to convey meaning, often by pictorial resemblance to a physical object. They are widely used in present-day road and other public signage to denote traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, speed cameras, etc. If the Göbekli Tepe symbols were indeed pictograms, then the origins of writing may extend back into the early Neolithic, thousands of years before the appearance of writing systems such as cuneiform and hieroglyphic script.

No traces of houses have been found and there is little doubt that Göbekli Tepe was a ritual centre, possibly the first of its kind anywhere in the world (Schmidt, 1998). Unlike Stonehenge, the people who built Göbekli Tepe lacked a mixed farming economy. This overturned the conventional wisdom that such major projects could only be realised by fully-established farming communities. “First came the temple, then the city”, as Schmidt put it. How are we to interpret this temple?

One possibility is that the animals depicted in the various enclosures are totemic. It could be that the site was frequented by a number of groups, each of which identified itself with a different animal or animals and travelled to the site to perform rituals in its own particular enclosure (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). Another possibility is that Göbekli Tepe was associated with shamanistic practices (Lewis-Williams & Pearce, 2005).

A project on the scale of Göbekli Tepe would have required a large number of labourers and craftsmen. Coordinating the activities of all these people, to say nothing of providing them all with food and shelter, would have been a major undertaking. It should also be remembered that unlike the builders of Stonehenge, the Göbekli Tepe people were still not yet full agriculturalists. Such an undertaking was almost certainly beyond the capabilities of a few shamans and their communities. Instead, it seems likely that the monument was constructed by a hierarchical, stratified society, with powerful rulers. The shamans might have had more in common with priests (Peters & Schmidt, 2004). The link between rulers and religion, so prevalent in later times, might have already started to take shape.

The totemic and shamanistic explanations are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and if the totemic view is correct, then it possible that animals depicted in each enclosure could provide clues as to the origins of particular groups. For example, wild boar depictions predominate in Enclosure C. This suggests a group originating from the north, where pigs account for up to 40 percent of the animal remains found at PPNA sites. Combinations of wild boar with aurochs and cranes, as seen in Enclosure D, suggest an ecotone of steppe and river valley, such as along most water courses in the Euphrates and Tigris drainage regions (Peters & Schmidt, 2004).

All Mixed Up?
by Andy Ornberg

I once read an account by a researcher who spent time with a group of aboriginal people in Australia. He insisted that there was a kind of mental telepathy going on between these people. He noted that there were times he would observe an individual drop what she was doing to respond to a command, summons, etc. she received when no one else was around. The only way this modern westerner could interpret this was to attribute it to telepathy, though it sounded much more to me like they were experiencing command auditory hallucinations ala Jaynes.

The Pirahã and the Bicameral Mind
by Merlijn de Smit

More strangely, the Pirahã have, according to Everett, a strong cultural taboo against talking about anything not within their immediate sphere of experience. No creation myths, or epic stories of any kind – or indeed no art of any kind. And finally entering bizarre territory: according to Everett in his Current Anthropology article, the Pirahã, despite any lack of actual religious belief or myth, do see forest spirits. Meaning, they see forest spirits. Everett recounts being woken from his tent one night by shouting and hollering – and found the whole tribe gathered at the river side, shouting at something on the other side. When Everett inquired what it was they seemed to upset about, the Pirahã incredulously asked whether he could not see the forest spirit that was obviously on the other side.

All of this is far from the “smoking gun” for Jaynes’ hypothesis. Jaynes regarded a total lack of deceit as a hallmark for the “bicameral” mind. The Pirahã seem to be well enough aware of the possibility of being cheated in trade, and, by Everett’s account, are very humorous, joke-loving people. But the apparent restriction of any communication to the immediate sphere of experience, and the actual, externalized perception of forest spirits, rather than imagining them, or divining their workings from inanimate nature, would, if indeed valid, at least bring to mind Jaynes’ thesis.

Mythologizing Landscape
by Andrea Green

Paul Devereux in Symbolic Landscapes (1992) suggests that prehistoric people experienced the landscape in a way alien and inaccessable to contemporary westerners . According to Devereux, prehistoric people were “more easily able to enter trance conditions then we are” (1992: 38) He refers to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the “bicameral brain” – a mode of consciousness that Jaynes ascribes to prehistoric peoples where the brain was “wired” differently and therefore affected sensory perception. (1992: 39) Devereux uses this theory to suggest that the relationship of prehistoric (in this case early bronze age) people with their landscape and environment was experienced through a different consciousness – one which was often hallucinatory and which swapped easily between normal awareness and altered states. In such a state the landscape moved, spoke and gave instructions. The siting and purpose of ritual sites was decided upon through direct communication with the landscape.

Songlines in the City? Hearing the spirit dimension
by Lloyd Fell

Songs and singing are a combination of words and melody – that which separates and that which draws together. Zuckerkandl regarded folk songs and chanting as the most fundamental forms of music because they blend word and tone to integrate our rational and emotional aspects. Purce claimed that using the voice and listening to the sound at the same time enables us to ‘go beyond the dualism of language and separation from the world.’

Jaynes (1990) developed a provocative explanation that consciousness actually originated in ‘the breakdown of the bicameral mind’ which refers to a stage in the evolution of the human brain when the two hemispheres performed distinctly different functions. One side, usually the right hemisphere, produced voices, which directed the other side that controlled speech and conscious thoughts. These were interpreted as voices of the Gods and only as their influence waned did the human responsibility of decision making and reflection that we know as consciousness develop. He argued that the vestiges of this are evident today in the considerable number of people who do hear voices at certain times, in schizophrenia and in the ‘quest for authorisation’ which manifests itself in both religion and science today.

It is widely accepted that brain function is lateralised in that the so-called dominant hemisphere mainly controls speech and rational, linear, thought whereas the other hemisphere is more concerned with creativity, intuition, holistic perception and music. Many anthropologists think that song came before speech in our evolution and Jaynes reviewed evidence that very early poetry (and the voices of the bicameral mind) were invariably sung. There is good evidence that singing requires the opposite brain hemisphere to speaking and that listening to music is also highly lateralised. People with brain lesions that prevent speech can often sing. Jaynes argued that the experience of music is a vestigial operation of the bicameral mind therefore stemming from our historical belief in the sacred Muses.

Musical performance often occurs in groups, sometimes in an improvisatory manner. Improvisation in musical performance has been described as not so much a skill to be developed as ‘the unlearning of habitual patterns of nonawareness and disconnectedness’ (Borgo 1997). The skill of music improvisation is an apt metaphor for the awareness of holonomy in everyday living

Authoritarians in Authoritarianism

Recent articles I’ve read point toward a typical confusion about authoritarianism, what it is and what causes it. The confusion seems built into the way we frame and measure authoritarianism, in particular as seen in the earliest research. Some social scientists speak of ideological mindsets and personality traits in the way that race realists talk about races, such that there are ‘authoritarians’ and ‘non-authoritarians’ as clearly defined and demarcated types of people. But it’s beginning to occur to some of them that this is inadequate.

Maybe unintentionally, Amanda Taub gets at this point in her Vox piece, The Rise of American authoritarianism. She states that, “Non-authoritarians who were sufficiently frightened of threats like terrorism could essentially be scared into acting like authoritarians.” This is based on “researchers like Hetherington and Weiler, Stanley Feldman, Karen Stenner, and Elizabeth Suhay, to name just a few.”

It’s interesting research and I’ve read many of the scholarly writings on this and so I’m already familiar with what Taub is discussing, but my understanding of such things has shifted these past years. When we label something, we tend to reify the underlying concepts and forget that they are social constructs we project onto the data (and hence onto the world) in trying to make sense of complexity, which then can lead to increasing simplification as the reified concepts are fed back into further research design and analysis.

The quote above about ‘non-authoritarians’ gets at this. If non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians, then maybe there is no such thing as authoritarians and non-authoritarians. Instead, a more reasonable conclusion is that all people possess within their common humanity a wide variety of potentials for psychological traits, social behaviors, and ideological tendencies. If so, it wouldn’t be helpful then to speak of subsets and subgroups as if that adds further clarity and insight. To be fair, Taub touches upon the issue rather directly, albeit briefly:

“More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label “authoritarians” doesn’t do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)”

Immediately after that, Taub goes right back to the assumption that authoritarianism is an inherent “psychological profile” that can get activated. From this view, seeming non-authoritarians don’t become authoritarian but were secretly authoritarian all along, just waiting for the right conditions to make their true nature manifest. Sleeper agents of societal madness ready to be unleashed on the naively innocent, Manchurian candidates waiting for a trigger from an evolutionary demiurge lurking in human synapses. At any moment, so goes the dark fantasy, alt-right trolls could transform into goosestepping Nazis who will suddenly take over the country. But in reality that isn’t how it ever works, as these things gradually build up over time and involve the entire society. Authoritarianism is far from being a strange relic of abnormal psychology and social deviants, like an infectious Darwinian maladaptation that must be quarantined and studied by the intellectual elite standing above it all. Even if we were to think of it as a mind virus, the greater threat would be those intellectual elites becoming carriers and spreading it into polite society, as has happened throughout history.

Projecting authoritarianism onto individuals or narrow groups is the opposite of helpful. It’s a way for people like Taub to maintain their belief that authoritarianism is something that only involves those other people, not good liberals like herself. Here is the problem. Taub is a Democrat and has strongly supported Hillary Clinton. The Clinton campaign has shown how strong the authoritarian tendencies are built into the Democratic Party. In supporting corrupt oligarchs like Clinton, Taub demonstrates how easily supposed non-authoritarians can act like authoritarians and defend authoritarianism. It does appear that authoritarianism closely tracks with social conservatism, but social conservatism comes in many forms. Democrats, for example, can be extremely socially conservative in their defense of the status quo, no matter how ‘liberal’-sounding is their empty rhetoric.

The reality is that no individual is an authoritarian. Rather, it’s social systems that are authoritarian, whether we are talking about organizations or movements or parties. In the US, the two-party system has long had an authoritarian streak. Both parties create the conditions for increasing neoliberalism and neoconservatism, increasing inequality and police-surveillance state. And those conditions in turn create an oppressive atmosphere of fear that, for the general public, elicits authoritarianism. It’s a great means of ensuring submission and social control. Social dominance orientation types, such as the lesser evils of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, then attempt to use that to their advantage. If you’re looking for the least authoritarian Americans, you’d need to look entirely outside of the two-party system.

In a fairly authoritarian society such as ours built on a long history of oppression, it is meaningless to talk about ‘authoritarians’ as if they were a distinct group of people. Nor does it help to blame it all on a single issue like racism, as a way of dismissing the larger context of authoritarianism. Obviously, as Taub explains, various forms of bigotry and other factors can elicit and activate authoritarianism. It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to separate out all of the tangled threads of dysfunction.

Let me return to the significance of the racial order. It is true that, as we live in an authoritarian society, we also live in a racist society. Both authoritarianism and racism become internalized by everyone within this society, even if normally these remain hidden. It’s there in the background, shaping and informing our worldview. Research shows that it’s easy to find racial biases in almost anyone, but more than that it is how racism is woven into the social structures and institutions we are part of. Not as much research of this sort has been done on underlying authoritarianism, but it has become more of a focus and it would be expected to operate in a similar way. There is pervasive racism with a rather small minority of overt racists, and so it should be unsurprising that there can be pervasive authoritarianism that is not primarily dependent on the authoritarianism of individuals. The continuation of systemic problems don’t require vocal, active support since silent, passive complicity can be so much more powerful.

This is hard for people to grasp. We can’t see clearly the society we are inseparably a part of, that defines our entire sense of identity and experience of reality. This makes it difficult for researchers who are trying to understand the very problems they are implicated in, as members of the society under scrutiny. Many researchers, as with many journalists like Taub, are good liberals which creates another bias. Obviously, authoritarianism will operate differently among liberals than among conservatives or right-wing reactionaries. Yet we know from history that authoritarians often come to power when good liberals, out of fear, turn to authoritarian leaders. Clinton in calling her enemies deplorables (just like she did when calling young blacks ‘superpredators’) was intentionally provoking an authoritarian response of fear from her followers, framing the other side as an existential threat to the ‘liberal’ way of life… and it worked, even though it turned out that her establishment authoritarianism was less effective as she lacks charisma and raw force of personality.

It’s not hard, though, to understand the likely reasons for authoritarianism manifesting differently throughout the social order. Growing inequality (of wealth and opportunity, of power and influence) inevitably will lead to authoritarianism, but that authoritarianism will be expressed in disparate ways according to demographics and the historical legacies that they represent; lower classes or upper classes; or if middle class, downwardly mobile lower middle class or stable upper middle class; populations with high or low rates of unemployment, food deserts, incarceration, and lead toxicity; those directly impacted or not by the numerous negative externalities of neoliberalism and neoconservatism; et cetera.

The liberal class tends to be relatively more economically secure and comfortable, and so authoritarianism is less often to be seen in overt ways on the personal level. Instead, good liberals will support the authoritarianism of the system that their lifestyle is dependent on. That way, their hands are kept clean. They let the professionals like the Clinton New Democrats do the dirty work of forcing punishment on minorities through racialized tough-on-crime laws, drug wars, and mass incarceration… through corporatism that maintains the class system and keeps the poor in their place… through war-mongering, CIA interventions, and neoliberal foreign policies that ensures the American Empire runs smoothly.

In basic ways, the liberal class even on the lower end of the economic spectrum are protected from what the rest of the country experiences. The greatest of privileges is never having to acknowledge one’s privilege. It is all taken for granted, not just as a privilege but a right — if required, to be protected from the dirty masses that demand to be treated with equality and fairness. When that privilege is challenged, the authoritarianism of good liberals becomes very much overt. It’s just that in recent history good liberals have been kept comfortable and content while the lower classes have been kept disempowered and silenced, but that has begun to change and so we are beginning to hear authoritarian rhetoric from establishment Democrats, in their fear of the coming backlash of righteous justice, outraged vengeance, and populist unrest. Status quo Democrats know that they have been on the wrong side of history and this all-encompassing anxiety has led them to lash out blindly, making them a dangerous animal (e.g., their paranoid conspiracy theorizing and war-mongering about Russia that could initiate World War III).

Sadly, liberals tolerate, help to create, and often defend the very conditions that make authoritarianism inevitable: hyper-partisanship, identity politics, increasing inequality, stagnating wages, weakening organized labor, loss of good job benefits, worsening job insecurity, scapegoating the poor, law and order politics, racist dog whistle rhetoric, war hawk policies, militarization of the police, drug wars, mass incarceration, etc. Major figures such as President Jimmy Carter have voiced concern that the United States has become a banana republic and, based on the overwhelming evidence, it is impossible to argue against those concerns. In Taub’s article, she discusses this as if the conditions of authoritarianism are new, but the reality is that they’ve been building for decades and generations. Democrats have done little if anything to stop this, often promoting policies that make it worse. Both parties have embraced a corporatism that somehow balances the requirements of an oligarchic police state and the demands of plutocratic inverted totalitarianism, all the while maintaining the endless spectacle of a banana republic.

What motivates supposed liberals to promote the policies that undermine liberal-mindedness and strengthen authoritarianism? That isn’t to scapegoat liberals, in opposition to those who would like to scapegoat some other group, but obviously many who sound liberal-like aren’t the enemies of authoritarianism that they pretend to be. This faux liberalism is what one would expect in an authoritarian society born out of classical liberalism. Most people on all sides don’t understand the kind of society they are in or how it shapes them. As with faux liberals, Trump’s followers and his election to the presidency are symptoms, not the disease. No single group can be blamed for what has become of this society. All of it has to be taken as a whole, including the role of good liberals and every other sector of society. It is the society that is authoritarian. In a non-authoritarian society, individual authoritarians would be powerless and insignificant. The source of of the problem is systemic and institutional.

There is no inborn psychological profile of authoritarians, just as I’d argue that there are no genetic-based personality traits of addictiveness, neuroticism, etc. There are simply authoritarian conditions, no different than there are conditions for other mindsets and behaviors. Authoritarianism along with so much else is latent in everyone, as a potential within a shared human nature.

I’ve long been fascinated by personality traits/types and other areas of social science. Myers-Briggs personality theory was what initially drew me toward using web searches to find info. The first website I ever became an active member of was a Myers-Briggs discussion forum, although such things as trait theory was also regularly discussed. Most fascinating of all was the research and the many correlations shown, but over time I’ve grown more circumspect.

These days, I feel less certain about what correlations might (or might not) indicate. It partly comes from years of seeing how research can be misused by race realists, but that is only possible because much of the research itself is problematic. Correlations are dime a dozen, whereas proving causation is often near impossible. It’s not easy to determine that a correlation is not spurious, that it is significant and meaningful, and then articulating a falsifiable hypothesis that leads to useful results that don’t merely confirm one’s biases and expectations.

My interest here goes far beyond only authoritarianism. This involves my growing appreciation for the power of all kinds of environmental influences. Not just influences, though. To be more accurate, we are environmental creatures to the core of our being. We are inseparable from our environments, both physical and social. This has become a major theme of my writing. It comes out in my discussions of race realism and capitalist realism, of rat parks and high inequality, of toxo plasmosis and lead toxicity, WEIRD research and ancient societies.

Authoritarianism is yet another lens through which to peer into the social nature of humans. Living in this society, all of us are products of our environment while also being participants in the social order. What if studying authoritarians holds up a mirror to our own psyche, individual and collective? What does this say about us?

* * *

Human Nature: Categories & Biases
Bias About Bias
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
Sleepwalking Through Our Dreams
Dark Matter of the Mind
Investing in Violence and Death
An Invisible Debt Made Visible
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
America Is Not Great For Most Americans
The Comfortable Classes Remain Comfortable
Immoral/Amoral Flynn Effect?
Uncomfortable Questions About Ideology
Bias About Bias

Inequality leads to authoritarianism: Why Trump is acting like “a generalissimo with a giant brass eagle on his hat”
by Edward McClelland

Everyday Authoritarianism is Boring and Tolerable
by Tom Pepinsky

The Social Origins of Authoritarianism
Frederick Solt

Authoritarianism’s Hidden Root Cause
by Matthew Wills

The Rise of the Servant Society
by Michael J. Thompson

Authoritarian capitalism in modern times
by Peter Bloom

Culture of Cruelty: the Age of Neoliberal Authoritarianism
by Henry Giroux

Neoliberalism, Austerity, and Authoritarianism
by Riad Azar

Inequality causes rise of authoritarian leaders
by Hamid Ansari

The Preschooler’s Empathy Void
by Alia Wong

People With This Personality Trait Literally See the World Differently
by Cari Romm

Creative people physically see and process the world differently
by Alice Klein

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within:
The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough
Kindle Locations 3337-3342

And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.

Kindle Locations 3357-3362

This is not an uncommon story among people whose voices go away. Someone is there, and then they’re not there anymore. I was reminded of what I had been told about the initial onset of voice-hearing: how it can be like dialing into a transmission that has always been present. “Once you hear the voices,” wrote Mark Vonnegut of his experiences, “you realise they’ve always been there. It’s just a matter of being tuned to them.” If you can tune in to something, then perhaps you can also tune out.

Kindle Locations 3568-3570

It is also important to bear in mind that for many voice-hearers the distinction between voices and thoughts is not always clear-cut. In our survey, a third of the sample reported either a combination of auditory and thought-like voices, or experiences that fell somewhere between auditory voices and thoughts.

* * *

Charles Fernyhough recommends the best books on Streams of Consciousness
from Five Books

Charles Fernyhough Listens in on Thought Itself in ‘The Voices Within’
by Raymond Tallis, WSJ (read here)

Neuroscience: Listening in on yourself
by Douwe Draaisma, Nature

The Song Of The Psyche
by Megan Sherman, Huffington Post

Race Realism and Symbolic Conflation

My last post, in response to a race realist, was mostly written for my own amusement. It wasn’t a particularly serious post. Something about that kind of intellectual dishonesty is compelling. But I wonder how much of it is self-deception, being taken in by one’s own ideological rhetoric.

I had no desire to analyze race realism to any great degree because it ultimately isn’t about race. It’s similar to how, when conservatives argue for pro-life, it isn’t really about abortion. And it’s similar to how, when apologists argue about the Bible, it isn’t really about historicity.

When you accept their framing, there is no way for the debate to go anywhere because the purpose of the frame is obfuscation, as much to cloud their own mind as to defend against criticism. This is particularly clear with apologetics in being used as a tool of indoctrination for young missionaries, since the purpose isn’t so much to convert unbelievers as to further convert the already converted, the missionary strengthening their own ideological worldview. Maybe there is an element to this with any ideological debate.

This is something that has fascinated me for a long time. I’ve pretty much given up on online debates. I’ve been involved in too many of them and they rarely if ever go anywhere. I’ve changed my mind about many things over my lifetime. And on most issues, I don’t have a strong opinion. But it’s hard to argue with an ideologue when one isn’t an ideologue. The problem is that most people interested in ‘debate’ are ideologues.

There is no way I can ‘win’ a debate with an ideologue because there is no way for a real debate to even happen. As long as the ideologue determines the frame, he can never lose and he will simply go around and around in circles. Try to debate a religious apologist sometime and you will quickly see the power of ideological rhetoric. Apologists can be masterful debaters for the very reason that intellectual honesty isn’t their motivation. They will never concede any point nor fairly deal with any criticism.

Here is the problem for me about race realism. I’m neither an anti-environmentalist hereditarian nor an anti-hereditarian environmentalist. The entire nature vs nurture frame of the debate is meaningless, as it can’t speak to what we actually know in terms of scientific research. Such a debate within such a frame becomes a battle of ideological rhetoric, having little to do with seeking truth and understanding. Ideologues tend to like meaningless frames because they are more interested in the frame and the agenda behind it than they are in the topic itself. To be fair, these frames aren’t entirely meaningless, just that they don’t mean what they superficially appear to mean.

This is the only part that interests and concerns me. I want to understand what motivates such behavior, what makes such a mindset possible, what locks in place such a worldview. It isn’t just ideologues or rather everyone has the potential to be drawn into an ideologue’s mindset. Our minds are constantly being bombarded by ideological rhetoric. Few people ever learn to escape the frames that have been forced onto them, often since childhood. We pick up frames from parents, teachers, ministers, reporters, politicians, etc. And these frames are immensely powerful.

I’ve been trying to understand what this all means for years now. It’s the main project of my blogging. It is what led me to formulate my theory about symbolic conflation.

I realized that race realism is a great example of how this works. Race realism effectively uses political correctness, just-so stories, social constructs, etc… and all of this fits into symbolic conflation. Ideas are taken as reality, speculations as facts. The purpose isn’t to argue about the science but to use it for purposes of rhetoric, to shore up the racialized social order. This is why the race realist can never honestly deal with heritability and confounding factors, since it really has nothing to do with the science taken on its own terms.

Race is used as a proxy for other things: class, social control, etc. What makes a social construct so powerful is that it is taken as reality. The symbol is conflated with the world itself. The symbol becomes embedded within every aspect of thought and perception. It is unimaginable to the race realist that race might not be real. It is at the core of their entire sense of reality.

So, why is race so useful for this purpose? Like abortion, it touches upon the visceral and emotional, the personal and interpersonal. The symbol isn’t just conflated with reality but is internalized and felt within the body itself, expressed through embodied thought. The symbol becomes concretely real. Then the symbol takes on a life of its own. Only personal trauma or other severe psychological experience could cause it to become dislodged.

Social constructs aren’t just ideas. Or to put it another way, ideas aren’t mere abstractions. We are embodied beings and social animals. Ideas always are deeply apart of who we are. The most powerful ideas are those that aren’t experienced as ideas. An idea, as a symbol, may not be objectively true. But that doesn’t stop it from being experienced as though objectively real.

Something like race realism can’t be debated. This is because it is the frame of debate. The frame of debate can’t be changed through debate. As I once explained, “Rationality must operate within a frame, but it can’t precede the act of framing.” The moment the frame is accepted as the basis of the debate, what follows is inevitable. Debate becomes a way of making it difficult to challenge the frame itself. As such, debate is a distraction from the real issue. It isn’t about race realism. It’s about an entire worldview and social order, an entire identity and way of being in the world. The more it is debated the stronger the frame becomes, the more deeply the symbol becomes conflated with everything it touches.

This isn’t just about those other people. This happens to the best of us. We all exist within reality tunnels. But some reality tunnels are more useful and less harmful than others. The trick is to learn to hold lightly any and all symbolic thought, to catch yourself before full conflation sets in. The imaginative mind needs to be made conscious. That is the closest humans ever come to freedom.

The Sting of the Scorpion

There is continuous failure in American society, continuous for my entire life. This past campaign season and election has been a wake up call for me, even as others continue to sleep and dream. I’ve been shocked by how so many people, especially among the well educated, don’t seem to grasp what is going on. No matter how bad it gets, they always find new ways to rationalize it and make themselves further complicit in making it worse. They can’t see what has been happening, what has caused it, and where it is heading.

It isn’t a refusal but an inability to understand. They just don’t get it. I doubt they will ever get it, at least not until it’s too late to doing anything about it. That might be intentional on an unconscious level. These people realize they aren’t capable of the changes that are necessary, that must and will happen. Repressed desires can get expressed in odd ways, oftentimes in the form of resistance and fear that makes the desired outcome inevitable. I’ve previously observed this pattern in human behavior. Sometimes people know a change needs to happen. But on a conscious level they can’t take responsibility for making the change happen. So they create situations that will force the change to happen.

An example of this is people who obviously don’t like a job. They have the skills to work other jobs and there are other jobs available. Yet they won’t quit the job they have, instead acting in ways that will get them fired. To an outside perspective, it is clear the person is trying to get fired. It is what they want, even if it isn’t what they can admit to wanting.

Trump’s election is like that. On a conscious level, Democrats didn’t want a crazy demagogue Republican as president. Even so, everything they’ve done has created the conditions to put Trump into power, even going so far as the DNC promoting him into the Republican nomination. Trump will force the changes to happen, good or bad, and so force us all to take action. He will accomplish for Democrats what no establishment Democrat ever could. Democrats needed to make manifest the unseen, to exacerbate and exaggerate the situation so that it would be so overwhelming as to not be denied. Trump is playing the role required of him, a role taken to the extreme of caricature.

Arnold Mindell has a theory about this. If something goes unclaimed in the collective psyche, it must find a way to manifest in our collective experience. It’s similar to the process of a patient’s transference and a pscyhotherapists countertransference, but on a larger scale of our shared humanity — a group dynamic. This sometimes means an individual person needs to embody the issue that the group needs to confront. Trump has taken all of the problems we are facing and made them visible and visceral, made them concretely and personally real. That is what was needed. All our problems are now unavoidable. Trump is in power because, as a society, we didn’t know how to face our problems in a different way. Trump is holding a mirror up for Americans to see themselves.

As with Trump, Democrats, the liberal class, and the mainstream media are also playing roles. Few of them understand this. But that is irrelevant. For those of us who do understand, it is our responsibility to act accordingly and to treat them accordingly.

Consider the fable of the scorpion and the frog. The scorpion asked the frog to carry him across the river. Even though knowing scorpions are dangerous, the frog thought he was safe because he assumed the scorpion wouldn’t sting him while carrying him across. He was wrong and the scorpion did sting him. As the frog faced the reality that they both would drown, he asked the scorpion why he did it. The scorpion said because it was in his nature.

Like the scorpion, those in power and their minions on the pseudo-left can’t help themselves. It’s in their nature or, rather, it’s in the role they are playing. They’ve become fully identified with that role with its scripted behavior. But like the frog, the rest of us have a choice. There is nothing forcing us to carry the scorpion on our backs. It would be the wise thing to do keep as far away from the scorpion as possible. We already know how that story ends.

That leaves us in a situation of uncertainty. Those of us who saw it all coming didn’t chose this fate. But it is the shared fate that has chosen us, by default of being part of the same society that includes those who did make that choice. It is irrelevant what we’d prefer. We have to deal with what is before us. Knowing the nature of those involved, knowing the roles that are being played, how do we respond? What do we do?

It does no good to blame the scorpion. The scorpion simply acts in the way any scorpion would act, as scorpions have always acted since time immemorial. The scorpion isn’t evil. Likewise, we know that it is in the nature of pseudo-liberal Democrats to betray us when it matters most. It is simply what they do. They can’t be trusted any more than a scorpion. But they aren’t evil. It’s just a role they’ve taken on and the script they are playing out.

It is up to us to understand our own nature. No one can do that for us. We have to choose our own role and take responsibility for what it entails. Anger, outrage, frustration, and even hatred are normal human responses. It’s fine to feel the full range of your humanity, including that of hope and longing. The issue we face is how might we act, rather than merely react. In this scenario, what role is being ignored and is demanding to be fulfilled. What might that role represent? And are we capable of playing it?

If it turns out we don’t like any of the roles on offer, that takes us down another level deeper. The roles available are based on the story we are collectively living and manifesting. Every story has a particular ending. To change the ending, we’d have to change the story. In telling a new story, we would have different roles to choose from. And in choosing some other role, we’d enact a worldview that would displace what came before. Enough people do the same and all of society will follow.

You can listen to the stories told to you. Or you can tell your own story.

A Neverending Revolution of the Mind

In a recent book, Juliet Barker offers new perspective about an old event (1381: The Year of the Peasant’s Revolt, Kindle Locations 41-48):

“In the summer of 1381 England erupted in a violent popular uprising that was as unexpected as it was unprecedented. Previous rebellions had always been led by ambitious and discontented noblemen seeking to overthrow the government and seize power for themselves. The so-called ‘Peasants’ Revolt’ was led by commoners— most famously Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle— whose origins were obscure and whose moment at the forefront of events was brief. Even more unusually, they did not seek personal advancement but a radical political agenda which, if it had been implemented, would fundamentally have transformed English society: the abolition of serfdom and the dues and services owed by tenants to their lord of the manor; freedom from tolls and customs on buying and selling goods throughout the country; the recognition of a man’s right to work for whom he chose at the wages he chose; the state’s seizure of the Church’s wealth and property. Their demands anticipated the French Revolution by four hundred years.”

Our understanding of the origins of modernity keep being pushed back. It used to be thought that the American Revolution was the first modern revolution. But it was preceded by generations of revolts against colonial elite. And before that was the English Civil War, which increasingly is seen as the first modern revolution. We might have to push it even further back to the Peasant’s Revolt.

It makes sense when you know some of the historical background. England had become a major center of wool production. This unintentionally undermined the feudal order. The reason is that an entire community of feudal peasants isn’t necessary for herding sheep, in the way it had been for traditional agriculture. So, by the time the Peasant’s Revolt came around, there had already been several centuries of increasing irrelevance for much of the peasant population. This would continue on into the Enlightenment Age when the enclosure movement took hold and masses of landless peasants flooded into the cities.

It’s interesting that the pressure on the social order was already being felt that far back, almost jumpstarting the modern revolutionary era four centuries earlier. Those commoners were already beginning to think of themselves as more than mere cogs in the machinery of feudalism. They anticipated the possibility of becoming agents of their own fate. It was the origins of modern class identity and class war, at least for Anglo-American society.

There were other changes happening around then. It was the beginning of the Renaissance. This brought ancient Greek philosophy, science, and politics back into Western thought. The new old ideas were quickly spread through the invention of the movable type printing press and increasing use of vernacular language. And that directly made the Enlightenment possible.

The Italian city-states and colonial empires were becoming greater influences, bringing with them new economic systems of capitalism and corporatism. The Italian city-states, in the High Middle Ages, also initiated advocacy of anti-monarchialism and liberty-oriented republicanism. Related to this, humanism became a major concern, as taught by the ancient Sophists with Protagoras famously stating that “Man is the measure of all things.” And with this came early developments in psychological thought, such as the radical notion that everyone had the same basic human nature. Diverse societies had growing contact and so cultural differences became an issue, provoking difficult questions and adding to a sense of uncertainty and doubt.

Individual identity and social relationships were being transformed, in a way not seen since the Axial Age. Proto-feudalism developed in the Roman empire. Once established, feudalism lasted for more than a millennia. It wasn’t just a social order but an entire worldview, a way of being in and part of a shared world. Every aspect of life was structured by it. The slow unraveling inevitably led to increasing radicalism, as what it meant to be human was redefined and re-envisioned.

My thoughts continuously return to these historical changes. I can’t shake the feeling that we are living through another such period of societal transformation. But as during any major shift in consciousness, the outward results are hard to understand or sometimes hard to even notice, at least in terms of their ultimate consequences. That is until they result in an uprising of the masses and sometimes a complete overthrow of established power. Considering that everpresent possibility and looming threat, it might be wise to question how stable is our present social order and the human identity it is based upon.

These thoughts are inspired by other books I’ve been reading. The ideas I regularly return to is that of Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism and the related speculations of those who were inspired by him, such as Iain McGilchrist. Most recently, I found useful insight from two books whose authors were new to me: Consciousness by Susan Blackmore and A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton.

Those authors offer overviews that question and criticize many common views, specifically that of the Enlightenment ideal of individuality, in considering issues of embodiment and affect, extended self and bundled self. These aren’t just new theories that academics preoccupy themselves for reasons of entertainment and job security. They are ideas that have much earlier origins and, dismissed for so long because they didn’t fit into the prevailing paradigm, they are only now being taken seriously. The past century led to an onslaught of research findings that continuously challenged what we thought we knew.

This shift is in some ways a return to a different tradition of radical thought. John Locke was radical enough for his day, although his radicalism was hidden behind pieties. Even more radical was a possible influence on Locke, Wim Klever going so far as seeing crypto-quotations of Baruch Spinoza in Locke’s writings. Spinoza was an Enlightenment thinker who focused not just on what it meant to be human but a human in the world. What kind of world is this? Unlike Locke, his writings weren’t as narrowly focused on politics, governments, constitutions, etc. Even so, Matthew Stewart argues that through Locke’s writings Spinozism was a hidden impulse that fueled the fires of the American Revolution, taking form and force through a working class radicalism as described in Nature’s God.

Spinozism has been revived in many areas of study, such as the growing body of work about affect. Never fully appreciated in his lifetime, his radicalism continues to inform and inspire innovative thinking. As Renaissance ideas took centuries to finally displace what came before, Spinoza’s ideas are slowly but powerfully helping to remake the modern mind. I’d like to believe that a remaking of the modern world will follow.

I just started an even more interesting book, Immaterial Bodies by Lisa Blackman. She does briefly discuss Spinoza, but her framing concern is the the relationship “between the humanities and the sciences (particularly the life, neurological and psychological sciences).” She looks at the more recent developments of thought, including that of Jaynes and McGilchrist. Specifically, she unpacks the ideological self-identity we’ve inherited.

To argue for or to simply assume a particular social construct about our humanity is to defend a particular social order and thus to enforce a particular social control. She makes a compelling case for viewing neoliberalism as more than a mere economic and political system. The greatest form of control isn’t only controlling how people are allowed to act and relate but, first and foremost, how they are able to think about themselves and the world around them. In speaking about neoliberalism, she quotes Fernando Vidal (Kindle Locations 3979-3981):

“The individualism characteristic of western and westernized societies, the supreme value given to the individual as autonomous agent of choice and initiative, and the corresponding emphasis on interiority at the expense of social bonds and contexts, are sustained by the brain-hood ideology and reproduced by neurocultural discourses.”

Along with mentioning Spinoza, Blackman does give some historical background, such as in the following. And as a bonus, it is placed in the even larger context of Jaynes’ thought. She writes (Kindle Locations 3712-3724):

“Dennett, along with other scientists interested in the problem of consciousness (see Kuijsten, 2006), has identified Jaynes’s thesis as providing a bridge between matter and inwardness, or what I would prefer to term the material and immaterial. Dennett equates this to the difference between a brick and a bricklayer, where agency and sentience are only accorded to the bricklayer and never to the brick. For Dennett, under certain conditions we might have some sense of what it means to be a bricklayer, but it is doubtful, within the specificities of consciousness as we currently know and understand it, that we could ever know what it might mean to be a brick. This argument might be more usefully extended within the humanities by considering the difference between understanding the body as an entity and as a process. The concept of the body as having a ‘thing-like’ quality, where the body is reconceived as a form of property, is one that has taken on a truth status since at least its incorporation into the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 (see Cohen, 2009). As Cohen (2009: 81) suggests, ‘determining the body as the legal location of the person radically reimagines both the ontological and political basis of person-hood’. This act conceives the body as an object possessed or owned by individuals, what Cohen (2009) terms a form of ‘biopolitical individualization’. Within this normative conception of corporeality bodies are primarily material objects that can be studied in terms of their physicochemical processes, and are objects owned by individuals who can maintain and work upon them in order to increase the individual’s physical and cultural capital.”

In her epilogue, she presents a question by Catherine Malabou (Kindle Locations 4014-4015): “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?” The context changes as the social order changes, from feudalism to colonialism and now capitalism. But phrased in various ways, it is the same question that has been asked for centuries.

Another interesting question to ask is, by what right? It is more than a question. It is a demand to prove the authority of an action. And relevant to my thoughts here, it has historical roots in feudalism. It’s like asking someone, who do you think you are to tell me what to do? Inherent in this inquiry is one’s position in the prevailing social order, whether feudal lords challenging the kings authority or peasants challenging those feudal lords. The issue isn’t only who we are and what we are allowed to do based on that but who or what gets to define who we are, our human nature and social identity.

Such questions always have a tinge of the revolutionary, even if only in potential. Once people begin questioning, established attitudes and identities have already become unmoored and are drifting. The act of questioning is itself radical, no matter what the eventual answers. The doubting mind is ever poised on a knife edge.

The increasing pressure put on peasants, especially once they became landless, let loose individuals and identities. This incited radical new thought and action. As a yet another underclass forms, that of the imprisoned and permanently unemployed that even now forms a tenth of the population, what will this lead to? Throwing people into desperation with few opportunities and lots of time on their hands tends to lead to disruptive outcomes, sometimes even revolution.

Radicalism means to go to the root and there is nothing more radical than going to the root of our shared humanity. In questions being asked, those in power won’t be happy with the answers found. But at this point, it is already too late to stop what will follow. We are on our way.

Bias About Bias

A common and contentious issue is accusations of bias, often in the media but more interestingly in science. But those making perceiving bias can’t agree what they are. Some even see biases in how biases are understood. An example of this is how ideologies are labeled, defined, framed, and measured. I’m specifically thinking in terms of opinion polling and social science research.

A certain kind of liberal oddly agrees with conservatives about many criticisms of liberalism. I can be that kind of odd liberal in some ways, as complaining about liberals is one of my favorite activities and I do so very much from a liberal perspective. But there are two areas where I disagree with liberals who critique their fellow liberals.

First, I don’t see a liberal bias in the social sciences or whatever else, at least not in the way it is often argued. And second, I don’t see human nature as being biased toward conservatism (nor, as Jonathan Haidt concludes, that conservatives are more broadly representative and better understanding of human nature).

* * *

Let me begin with the first.

I agree in one sense, from a larger perspective, and I could go even further. There is a liberal bias in our entire society and in all of modern Western civilization. Liberalism is the dominant paradigm.

As far as that goes, even conservatives today have a liberal bias, which is obvious when one considers how most of conservatism is defined by the liberalism of the past and often not even that far into the past. Conservatives in the modern West are more liberal than liberals used to be — not just more liberal in a vague relative sense, as contemporary conservatives in historical terms are amazingly liberal (politically, socially, and psychologically). Beyond comparisons to the past, the majority who identify as conservative even hold largely liberal positions in terms of present-day standard liberalism.

Being in a society that has been more or less liberal for centuries has a way of making nearly everyone in that society liberal to varying degrees. Our short lives don’t allow us the perspective to be shocked by how liberal we’ve all become. This shows how much Western society has embraced the liberal paradigm. Even the most reactionary politics ends up being defined and shaped by liberalism. We live in a liberal world and, to that extent, we are all liberals in the broad sense.

But this gets into what we even mean by the words we use. A not insignificant issue.

This insight about the relativity of liberalism has been driven home for me. In the context of our present society, using the general population as the measure, those who identify as and are perceived as liberals (specifically in mainstream politics and mainstream media) are really moderate-to-center-right. Sure, the average ‘liberal’ is to the left of the political right, by definition. Then again, the average ‘liberal’ is far to the right of most of the political left (or at least this is true for the liberal class that dominates). Those who supposedly represent liberalism are often neither strongly nor consistently liberal, and so I wonder: In what sense are they liberal? Well, beyond the general fact of their living in a liberal society during a liberal age.

This watered-down liberalism defined by the status quo skewed rightward becomes the defining context of everything in our society (and, assuming the so-called liberals are somewhere in the moderate middle, that still leaves unresolved the issue of what exactly they are in the middle of — middle of elite-promoted mainstream thought? middle of the professional middle-to-upper class?). If social science has a liberal bias, it is this bias of this ‘moderate middle’ or rather what gets portrayed as such. And put that way, it doesn’t sound like much of a bias as described, other than the bias of ideological confusion and self-confirmation, but certainly not a bias toward the political left. As far as leftists go, this supposed liberalism is already pretty far right in its embrace or at least tolerance of neoliberal corporatism and neocon oligarchy. Certainly, the ‘liberals’ of the Democratic Party are in many ways to the right of the American public, with nearly half of the latter not voting (and so we aren’t talking about a ‘liberalism’ that is in the middle of majority opinion).

The question isn’t just what words mean but who gets to define words and who has the power to enforce their definitions onto the rest of society. Liberalism ends up being a boundary, a last line of defense. This far left and no further. Meanwhile, there seems to be no limit to how far our society is allowed to drift right, often with the cooperation of ‘liberal’ New Democrats, until we teeter on the edge of authoritarianism and fascism, although always with liberal rhetoric playing in our ears. The liberal paradigm so dominates our imaginations that we can’t see the illiberal all around us. So, liberalism dominates, even as it doesn’t rule, at least not in a direct and simplistic sense.

With all this in mind, the mainstream may have a ‘liberal’ bias in this way. But it obviously doesn’t have a leftist bias. There is the problem. Leftism has been largely ignored, except for its usefulness as a bogeyman since the Cold War. Mainstream liberalism is as far (maybe further) away from leftism as it is from conservatism. And yet to mainstream thought, leftism isn’t allowed to have an independent identity outside of liberalism, besides when a scapegoat is needed. Ignored in all this is how far leftist is the American public, the silenced majority — an important detail, one might think.

Social scientists, political scientists, and pollsters all the time include nuanced categories for the political right, distinguishing conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and reactionaries. But what about nuanced categories for the political left? They don’t exist, at least not within mainstream thought. There is little if any research and data about American social democrats, socialists, communists, Marxists, anarchosyndicalists, left-libertarians, etc; as if such people either don’t exist or don’t matter. It’s only been in recent years that pollsters even bothered to ask Americans about some of this, discovering that the majority of certain demographics (younger generations, minorities, etc) do lean left, including about the terms and labels they favor, such as seeing ‘socialism’ in a positive light.

In social science, we know so little about the political left. The research simply isn’t there. Social science researchers may be ‘liberal’, however we wish to define that, but one gets the sense that few social science researchers are left-liberals and fewer still are leftists. It would be hard for radical left-wingers (or those who are perceived as such within the mainstream) to get into and remain within academia, to get hired and get tenure and then to do social science research. As hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions often run on a business model and increasingly privately funded, present day universities aren’t as welcoming to the most liberal-minded leftist ideologies.

Anarchists, in particular, are practically invisible to social science research. Just as invisible are left-libertarians (many being anarcho-syndicalists), as it is assumed in the mainstream that libertarian is by definition right-wing, despite the fact that even right-libertarians tend to be rather liberal-minded (more liberal-minded than mainstream liberals in many ways). It’s almost impossible to find any social science research on these ideologies and what mindsets might underlie them.

Let’s at least acknowledge our ignorance and not pretend to know more than we do.

* * *

This brings me to the second thing.

Among some liberals (e.g., Jonathan Haidt), it’s assumed that human nature is inherently conservative. What is interesting is that this is, of course, a standard conservative argument. But you never hear the opposite, conservatives arguing human nature is liberal.

The very notion of a singular human nature is itself a conservative worldview. A more liberal-minded view is that human nature either doesn’t exist, not in a monolithic sense at least, or else that human nature is fluid, malleable, and shaped by the environment. The latter view is becoming the dominant view in the social sciences, although there are some holdouts like Haidt.

Mainstream thought changes slowly. The idea of a singular human nature was primarily held by the liberal-minded in centuries past. This is because it was used to defend universal human rights and civil rights, often in terms of inborn natural rights. The Enlightenment thinkers and later revolutionary pamphleteers helped spread the notion that everyone had a human nature and that it was basically the same, no matter if European or otherwise, rich or poor, free or slave, civilized or savage.

As opposed to today, the conservative-minded of that earlier era weren’t open to such thinking. Now conservatives have embraced this former ideologically and psychologically liberal position. Classical liberalism, radical in its opposition to the traditionalism of its day, is now seen by even conservatives as the bedrock tradition of our liberal society.

The very notion of a human nature is the product of civilization, not of a supposed human nature. Prior to the Axial Age, no one talked about a human nature nor is it obvious that they ever acted based on the assumption that such a thing existed. The invention of the idea of a ‘human nature’ was itself a radical act, a reconception of what it means to be human. All of post-Axial Age civilization is built on this earliest of radical visions that was further radicalized during the Enlightenment. Without the Axial Age (and one might argue the breakdown of the bicameral mind that made it possible), there would have been no Greco-Roman democracy, republicanism, philosophy, and science; and so no Renaissance that would have helped inspire the European Enlightenment.

The question isn’t just what is human nature, such as conservative or liberal, individualistic or social, etc. First and foremost, we must ask if such a thing exists. If so, what exactly does it even mean to speak of a ‘human nature’? Those are the kinds of questions that are more likely to be considered by the most liberal-minded, at least in the context of present Western society.

When certain liberals argue for a conservative human nature, I suspect an ulterior motive. The implication seems to be that conservatism is the most primitive and base, uncultured and uncivilized layer of the human psyche. As liberals we must contend with this conservatism and so let’s throw the conservative wolf a bone in hopes of domesticating it into a dog that can be house-broken and house-trained.

This could be seen as turning liberalism into an advanced achievement of modern civilization that transcends beyond a base and primal human nature, as if the difficulties and weaknesses of liberalism prove its worth. Sure, conservatism may be the foundation, but liberalism is the penthouse on the upper floors decked out with the finest of modern conveniences. Liberalism is to conservatism, from this perspective, in the way modern civilization is to ancient tribalism. Whatever one may argue about those earlier societies in relation to human nature, I doubt many want to return to that kind of social order, not even among the most nostalgic of reactionaries.

This is an argument made by Jonathan Haidt in promoting a Whiggish narrative of capitalism, despite his at other times bending over backwards to praise conservatism. Using conservatism as a broad base upon which to build the progressive liberal dream is not exactly what conservatives are hoping for from their ideological movement. This is why Haidt doesn’t grasp that most conservatives don’t want to just get along, for egalitarian tolerance isn’t a conservative-minded attitude.

One might suspect that calling human nature fundamentally conservative is a bit of a backhanded compliment. A wary conservative likely would assume a hidden condescension or else an attempt to butter them up for some ulterior motive. Even with the best of intentions, this seems like a wrong way to think about the ideological situation.

Here is a central problem. Anthropological accounts of tribal societies, I’d argue, don’t confirm the hypothesis of a conservative human nature. Outside of the modern Westernized world, I doubt it makes much sense to use a modern Westernized frame like liberal vs conservative. The approach used by theorists of Darwinian psychology has too many pitfalls, misguiding us with cultural biases and leading to deeply unfalsifiable just-so stories. As John Gray stated so clearly, in The Knowns and the Unknowns (New Republic):

“There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

“Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances, and in many contexts they have no meaning at all.”

For example, in thinking about the Pirahã, I don’t see them as being fundamentally conservative, at least as Daniel Everett portrays them. It appears they don’t particularly care about or, in some cases, even comprehend the worldview of what we call conservatism: need for control and closure, ideological dogmatism and rigid belief systems, natural law and universal morality, family values and the sanctity of marriage, organized religion and religiosity (much less literalism and fundamentalism), rituals and traditions, law and order, social roles and authority figures, overtly enforced social norms and community-sanctioned punishments, public shaming and harsh judgment, disciplinarian parenting and indoctrination of children, strict morality and sexual prudery, disgust about uncleanliness and protection against contagion, worry about injury and death, fear-ridden anxiety and heightened threat perception, dislike toward a lack of orderliness and clear guidelines, etc.

Within their society, they don’t have any kind of hierarchies or privileged positions. They have no chiefs, respected committee of elders, governing body, or political system. Any person could be a temporary leader for a particular activity, but the need for a leader is merely pragmatic and rare. Their society is loosely organized with no formal or traditional roles, such as shaman or medicine man. They lack anything resembling a social institution or social structure. They don’t even have such things as initiations into adulthood, traditions of storytelling, etc. The communal aspects of their tribalism are quite basic and mostly in the background. What holds their society together is simply a cultural identity and personal relationships, not outward rules and forms.

Their way of relating to the larger world is casual as well. They don’t have an inordinate amount of worries and concerns about outsiders or hatred and aggression toward them. They don’t seem to obsess about perceived enemies nor foster a worldview of conflict and danger. The worst that they do is complain about those they think treated them unfairly, such as trade deals and land usage, but even that is talked about in a personal way between individuals. Otherwise, their attitude toward non-Pirahã is mostly a casual indifference and the tolerant acceptance that follows from it.

In some key ways, the Pirahã are less conservative-minded and authoritarian than Western liberals. On the other hand, their society is basically conformist and ethnocentric in a typical tribalistic fashion. And they do have some gender role patterns, including in their language. But their pedophilia is gender neutral, not privileging men, as everyone is permitted to participate in sexual play.

Even within the conformity of their group identity, they strongly disapprove of one individual telling another individual what to do. No Pirahã will tell another Pirahã how to be a Pirahã. And if a Pirahã was unhappy being a Pirahã, I doubt another Pirahã would be bothered or try to stop them from leaving. They appear to have a rather live and let live philosophy.

Pointing out a specific area of social science research, I’m not sure how boundary types would be applied to the Pirahã, in that they don’t think about boundaries as modern Westerners do. They live in such a small world that what exists outside of the boundaries of their experience is simply irrelevant, such that they wouldn’t even recognize a boundary as such. Where their experience of the world stops, that is the edge of their world. There is just what they personally know and then there is everything else. Boundaries are explicitly acknowledged liminal spaces and so extremely fuzzy in their worldview, including boundaries of consciousness and identity. The worldviews of either individuality or group-mindedness would likely seem meaningless to them.

Even pointing out the few areas that could be interpreted as ‘conservative’, I wouldn’t think that would be all that helpful. It doesn’t really say much about human nature in a broad sense. What anthropology shows us, more than anything, is that human societies are diverse and human nature contains immense potential.

Consider all of this from the perspective of the outsider.

Jonathan Haidt came to his understanding partly because of an early experience among another traditional culture, India with its ancient Hinduism and caste system. That gave him a contrast to his liberal view of individualism and convinced him that individualism was lacking in something key to human nature.

I agree, as far as that goes. But I’d simply point out that in the United States the political right is often more obsessed with individualism than is the political left.

It’s American liberals who go on and on about community, the commons, social capital, social responsibility, concern for future generations, externalized costs, environmental protection, natural resource conservation, public parks, public good, public welfare, universal healthcare, universal education, child protection, worker protection, labor unions, public infrastructure, collective governance, group rights, defense of minority cultures, Native American tribal autonomy, etc. And a typical response by American conservatives is to accuse progressive liberals of being collectivists (maybe they’re right about this) while declaring the abstract rights and simplistic individualism of classical liberalism, often mixing this up with fundamentalist religion as though the Christian soul was the basis of Enlightenment individualism and the Biblical God the inspiration for the American Revolution.

Ironically, it is liberals in promoting tolerance who so often end up defending traditional religions and cultures against the attacks by modern-minded conservatives. The latter group, through internalizing libertarian and Objectivist ideologies, have become the fiercest advocates of classical liberalism and hyper-individualism.

Comparison between societies doesn’t necessarily tell us much about comparisons of ideologies within a society. If Haidt had instead spent that time in the Amazon with the Pirahã, he probably would have come to very different views. Plus, it always depends on your starting point, the biases you bring with you. Daniel Everett, who did spend years with the Pirahã, was coming from a different place and so ended up with a different view. Everett was a conservative missionary seeking to convert the natives, but instead they deconverted him and he became an atheist. My sense is that meeting a traditional society left Everett way more liberal than he began, causing him to embrace an attitude of cultural relativism, as inspired by the epistemological relativism of the Pirahã.

What Haidt misses is that Western religious conservatives, especially in the United States, tend to be individualistic Protestants (even American Catholics are strongly individualistic). It’s not that Everett necessarily lost his Evangelical individualism in being deconverted for the traditional society that he met was in some ways even more individualistic, even as it was less individualistic in other ways. The fundamental conflict had little to do with individualism at all. A religious conservative like Everett had been lost in abstractions, based on an abstract religious tradition, but he was blind to these abstractions until he met the Pirahã who found his abstractions to be useless and irritating.

American conservatism, religious and otherwise, can tell us nothing about traditional societies. As Corey Robin convincingly argues, modern conservatives aren’t traditionalists. Modern conservatism was created in response to the failure of the ancien régime. Conservatives came to power not to revive the old order but to create a new and improved order. It wasn’t a movement to conserve but a reaction to what had already been lost. This was clear even early on, as observed by the French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre when he pointed out that people identifying as conservatives only appeared after revolution had largely destroyed what came before.

Also, keep in mind that individualism and liberalism didn’t appear out of nowhere. Incipient forms of both, as I pointed out earlier, came on the scene back in the Axial Age. Even the India Haidt visited was a fully modern society that had seen millennia of change and progress. Hinduism had long ago fallen under the sway of varying forms of influence from the Axial Age to British Imperialism. And if we are to speculate a bit by considering Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, even the hierarchical social orders of recent civilizations were late on the scene in the longer view of vast societal development beginning with agriculture and the first settled communities.

To claim we know the ideological substructure of our humanity is to overlook so many complicating factors, some of which we know but most of which we don’t.

This has been a difficulty in our attempt to understand our own psychological makeup, in how our minds and societies operate. The ultimate bias isn’t political but cultural. Most social science research has been done on the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, And Democratic), primarily white middle class college students. It turns out that very different results are found when other populations are studied, not just countries like India but also tribes like the Pirahã. What we know about ideological groupings, as with human nature, might look far different if we did equally large numbers of studies on the poor, minorities, non-Westerners, independent societies, etc.

It’s not just a matter of what kind of human nature we might be talking about. More importantly, the question is exactly whose human nature are we talking about and who is doing the questioning. WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) researchers studying WEIRD subjects will lead to WEIRD results and conclusions. That is not exactly helpful. And it is even worse than that, as the biases go deep. Our very approach to human nature, identity, and the mind are shaped by our culture. In a WEIRD culture, that has tended to mean the assumption of an autonomous, bounded individual. As Robert Burton explained it (A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, pp. 107-108):

“Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.

“The idea that minds operate according to universal principles is a reflection of the way we study biological systems in general. To understand anatomy, we dissect one body as thoroughly as possible and draw from it a general grasp of human anatomy. Though we expect variations, we see these as exceptions to a general rule. It is to be expected that we see the mind in the same light. One way to circumvent this potentially misleading tendency to draw universal conclusions whenever possible is to subdivide the very idea of a mind into the experiential (how we experience a mind) and the larger conceptual category of the mind— how we think about, describe, and explain what a mind is. What we feel at the personal (experiential) level should not be confused with what a mind might be at a higher level— either as a group or as an extended mind.”

The very belief that the mind can be explained by the mind is a particular worldview. In the context of WEIRD populations being biased toward such a belief, Burton brought up an interesting point (pp. 50-51):

“If each of us has his/ her own innate ease or difficulty with which a sense of causation is triggered, the same data may generate different degrees of a sense of underlying causation in its readers. Though purely speculative, I have a strong suspicion that those with the most easily triggered innate sense of causation are more likely to reduce complex behavior to specific cause-and-effect relationships, while those with lesser degrees of an inherent sense of causation are more comfortable with ambiguous and paradoxical views of human nature. (Of course, for me to make any firm argument as to the cause of the authors’ behavior would be to fall into the same trap.)

“Unfortunately for science, there is no standard methodology for objectively studying subjective phenomena such as the mind. One investigator’s possible correlation is another’s absolute causation. The interpretation of the cause of subjective experience is the philosophical equivalent of asking every researcher if he/ she sees the same red that you do. The degree and nature of neuroscientists’ causal conclusions about the mind are as idiosyncratic as their experience of love, a sunset, or a piece of music.

“There is a great irony that underlies modern neuroscience and philosophy: the stronger an individual’s involuntary mental sense of self, agency, causation, and certainty, the greater that individual’s belief that the mind can explain itself. Given what we understand about inherent biases and subliminal perceptual distortions, hiring the mind as a consultant for understanding the mind feels like the metaphoric equivalent of asking a known con man for his self-appraisal and letter of reference.”

* * *

Here are some further thoughts about liberalism and such.

Maybe our very view of liberal bias has been biased by the ‘liberal class’ that dominates, defines, and studies liberalism. I don’t doubt that there are all kinds of biases related to our living in a modern liberal society as part of post-Enlightenment Western Civilization. But this bias might be wider, deeper, and more complex than we realize.

This class issue has been on my mind a lot lately. We live in a class-obsessed society. Sure, we obsess about class differently than the Indian caste system, but in some ways we are even more obsessed by caste for the very reason that it stands in for so much else, such as how castes include factors of ethnicity, religion and social roles. Class, in American society, has to do so much more ideological work to accomplish the same ends of maintaining a social hierarchy.

Maybe this is why class ideology gets conflated with political ideology, in a way that wouldn’t be seen in a different kind of society. Calling oneself a liberal in our society only indirectly has anything to do with liberal politics and a liberal mentality, as many who identify as liberal aren’t strongly liberal-minded about politics while many who are strongly liberal-minded about politics don’t identify as liberals.

The word ‘liberal’ doesn’t actually mean what we think it means. The same goes for ‘conservative’. These words are proxies for other things. To be called liberal in America most likely means you are part of the broad liberal class, which typically means you’re a well-educated middle-to-upper class professional, no matter that your politics might be moderate-to-conservative in many ways. A poor person who is liberal across the board, however, will unlikely identify as a liberal because they aren’t part of the liberal class. This is why rhetoric about the liberal elite has such currency in our society, even as this so-called liberal elite can be surprisingly more conservative than the general public on a wide variety of key issues.

What we forget is that our society is highly unusual and not representative of human nature, not in the slightest. The American liberal class is the product of a society that is based on Social Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy, late capitalism, plutocratic cronyism, and neoliberal corporatism. As I argued earlier, even American universities are hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions. And the Ivy League colleges still use class-based legacy privileges, which is important for maintaining the American social order as most politicians are Ivy League graduates as are many who are recruited by alphabet soup agencies (e.g., CIA). The larger history of Western universities precedes Enlightenment liberalism by centuries, not having been designed with leftist ideologies in mind.

Yet we consider universities to be refuges for the intellectual elite of the liberal class. That is only true in terms of the class social order. The majority of the liberal-minded, of the socially and politically liberal won’t find a refuge in such a place. In fact, the most strongly liberal-minded would rarely fit into the stultifying regimented lifestyle of a university. To be successful in a university career would require some strong personality traits of conservative-mindedness, although some have argued that was less true decades ago.

As such, liberalism in the United States has taken on so much meaning that has directly nothing to do with liberalism itself, specifically when talking about the role of liberalism within human nature. Consider other societies. In feudal Europe or the slave American South, being liberal (psychologically, socially, and politically) would have had nothing whatsoever to do with class; and if anything, being too liberal in such societies would have been harmful to your class status and class aspirations.

During the American Revolution, it was actually among the lower classes that were found the most liberal-minded radicals and rabblerousers. Thomas Paine, a self-taught working class bloke and often dirt poor, was on of the more liberal-minded among the so-called founding fathers. The more elite founding fathers were too invested in the status quo to go very far in embracing liberalism and many of them became or always were reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The working class revolutionaries who fought for liberalism didn’t tend to bode well, either before or after the revolutionary era. It took many more generations before a liberal class began to develop and, even then, the most strongly and radically liberal would often be excluded.

This is the point. A liberal class hasn’t always existed, despite liberal-minded traits having been part of human nature for longer than civilization has existed. The status quo ‘liberalism’ of the liberal class in a modern capitalism of the West is the product of specific conditions. It’s a social construct, as is ‘conservatism’. The entire framework of liberal vs conservative is a social construct that makes no sense outside of the specific society that formed it.

Environments are powerful shapers of the psyche, of attitudes and behavior, of worldviews and politics. All of Western civilization has become increasingly liberal and large part of that has to do with improved conditions for larger parts of the population, such as improved health and education even for the poor. In direct correlation with rising IQ, there is increasing liberalism. How class plays into this is that the upper classes see the improvements before the lower classes, but eventually the improvements trickle down or that is what has happened so far. The average working class American today is healthier, smarter, better educated, and more liberal than the middle class was in centuries past.

So, even class can only be spoken of as a comparative status at any given point in history because it isn’t an objective reality. The liberalism of the American liberal class, as such, can only be meaningfully discussed within the context of its time and place. This is more about a social order than about political ideologies, per se. That is most obvious in how conservatives embrace the liberalism of the past, for conservative and liberal have no objective meaning and there is no objective way to measure them.

Environments effect us in ways that involve confounding factors, and most of us inherit our environments along with other factors from our parents (epigenetics connecting environmental influences to new generations, even if a child was raised in another environment). Think about cats. For whatever reason, cat ownership is much more common in the Northeast and the Northwest of the United States. And as these are colder regions, people are more likely to keep cats inside. But this habit of having cats as indoor pets is a recent development. It has led to a rise in toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection — as I’ve discussed before in terms of psychology and ideology:

“When mapped for the US population, there is significant overlap between the rate of toxoplasma gondii infections and the rate of the neuroticism trait. Toxoplasmosis is a known factor strongly correlated with neuroticism, a central factor of personality and mental health. When rates are high enough in a specific population, it can potentially even alter culture, which is related to ideology. Is it a coincidence that liberals have high rates of neuroticism and that one of the areas with high rates of toxoplasmosis is known for its liberalism?”

Are New Englanders a particular kind of liberal simply because that is the way they are? Or if we corrected for the confounding factor of cats and toxoplasmosis, would we find for example that there is no causal relation between liberalism and neuroticism?

Environments aren’t always inherited, as it can change quite easily. Will a New England family that moved to the South still show increased rates of neurotic liberalism several generations later? Probably not. Most of this isn’t intentional and parents are often perplexed about why their children turn out differently, oblivious to the larger conditions that shape individuals.

My conservative parents raised me in a liberal church and in some liberal towns. And maybe more importantly, they raised me with cats in the house. It wasn’t genetic determinism and inborn nature that made me into a neurotic liberal. Still, the potential for neuroticism and liberalism had to be within me for environmental conditions to make it manifest. And indeed I can see how my neurotic liberalism is just an exaggerated variation of personality traits I did inherit from my conservative parents who are mildly liberal-minded.

Then again, I did inherit much of my broader environment from my parents: born in the United States, spent my formative years in the Midwest, grew up during the Cold War, went to public schools, encouraged to respect education from a young age, my entire life shaped by Western culture and capitalism, etc. So, my parents’ conservatism and my liberalism probably has more in common than not, as compared to the rest of the world’s population and as compared to past societies. Parents and their children share a social order and the way that social order shapes not just people but all the world around them. And in many cases, parents and their children will share the same basic position or place in society.

That is the case with my family, as contact with the broad liberal class has influenced my conservative parents as much as it has influenced me. The same goes for the Midwestern sensibility I share with my parents. My parents’ Midwestern conservatism seemed liberal when our family moved South. And my liberalism is far different than what goes for liberalism in the South. Had various lines of my family remained outside of the Midwest, the following generations would probably have been far different. Choices to move that were made by previous generations of non-Midwesterners led to my parents and I being born as Midwesterners.

Then, even later on living in the South, my parents and I couldn’t shake how growing up in the Midwest had permanently altered us, more powerfully than any political ideology (although less so for my dad, maybe because his mother was a Southerner). This is why it is often easier for me to talk with my conservative parents or to conservative Iowans than to talk to the liberals of the liberal class from other parts of the country.

Context is everything. And this gets me wondering. If all confounding factors were controlled for, what would be left that could be fairly and usefully identified as political ideology?

When feudalism was the dominant paradigm and ruling social order, it simply seemed like reality itself. It was assumed that social and class position were built into human nature. This is one of the earliest sources of racial thinking. The aristocracy and monarchy assumed (based on pseudo-scientific theories and observations of class, ethnicity, and animal husbandry) that feudal serfs were a separate race, i.e., a sub-species. It turns out that they were wrong. But if they had had the ability to measure various factors (from personality to ideology, from physiology to health), they would have noted consistent patterns that supported the belief that the social order was based on a natural order. It was a dogmatic ideology that was systematically enforced and so became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What if our own society operates in a similar way? Class-based opportunities and disadvantages, privileges and punishments socially and physically construct a shared experience of reality. A cultural worldview then rationalizes and encloses this in a mythos of ideological realism. The sense of identity is framed by this and those who inquire into human nature already have their sense of human nature constrained accordingly. Unless they are confronted by a truly foreign society, their worldview will remain hermetically sealed.

* * *

How many in our society, even among the well-educated, ever manage to escape from this blindered habitus? Not many. Only as the culture itself shifts will more people within the culture be able to explore new undestandings. This will then lead to new biases, but one could hope those biases will be more expansive and flexible.

Bias is inevitable. But we have the added problem of being biased in our perception of bias. It’s impossible to fully discern one’s own biases while under their influence, although we can gain the awareness of our predicament. The fact that we are beginning to question the biases of our culture indicates that we are beginning to shift outside of them. It will take at least a few more generations, though, before we can understand this shift and what it means.

Give it some time and liberalism will mean something entirely new. And the conservatives of the future will embrace the liberalism of our present. Some of what we now consider radical or even unimaginable will eventually be normal and commonplace. There will be different sets of biases framed in a different worldview and dominated by a different paradigm.

Most people in the future likely won’t even notice that a shift happened, as it likely will be gradual. They’ll assume that the world they know is in some sense how the world has always been. That assumption will shape their sense of human nature, how they think about it and study it, probably in ways that would surprise us. But one thing is for sure. They’ll look back on our debates about ideological natures and biases in the way we look back on the simplistic and misguided rhetoric of feudalism that defined the classes as separate races.

One thing that is safe to assume is that our society is wrong about most things we’ve taken as obvious truth. The realization of such uncertainty is a step toward new understanding.

Imagination: Moral, Dark, and Radical

Absence is presence.
These are the fundamentals of mystery.
The Young Pope

Below is a gathering of excerpts from writings. The key issue here is imagination, specifically Edmund Burke’s moral imagination with its wardrobe but also the dark imagination and the radical imagination. I bring in some other thinkers for context: Thomas Paine, Corey Robin, Thomas Ligotti, Lewis Hyde, and Julian Jaynes.

Besides imagination, the connecting strands of thought are:

  • Pleasure, beauty, and sublimity; comfort, familiarity, intimacy, the personal, and subjectivity; embodiment, anchoring, shame, and nakedness; pain, violence, suffering, and death;
  • Darkness, awe, fear, terror, horror, and the monstrous; oppression, prejudice, and ignorance; obfuscation, obscurity, disconnection, and dissociation; the hidden, the veiled, the unknown, and the distant; mystery, madness, and deception;
  • Identity, consciousness, and metaphor; creativity, art, story, poetry, and rhetoric; literalism, realism, and dogmatism; reason, knowledge, and science;
  • Enlightenment, abstractions, ideology, revolution, and counter-revolution; nobility, power, chivalry, aristocracy, and monarchy; tradition, nostalgia, and the reactionary mind; liberalism, conservatism, and culture wars;
  • Et cetera.

The touchstone for my own thinking is what I call symbolic conflation, along with the larger context of conceptual slippage, social construction, and reality tunnels. This is closely related to what Lewis Hyde discusses in terms of metonymy, liminality, and the Trickster archetype.

Read the following as a contemplation of ideas and insights. In various ways, they connect, overlap, and resonate. Soften your focus and you might see patterns emerge. If these are all different perspectives of the same thing, what exactly is it that is being perceived? What does each view say about the individual espousing it and if not necessarily about all of humanity at least about our society?

(I must admit that my motivation for this post was mainly personal. I simply wanted to gather these writings together. They include some writings and writers that I have been thinking about for a long time. Quotes and passages from many of them can be found in previous posts on this blog. I brought them together here for the purposes of my own thinking about certain topics. I don’t post stuff like this with much expectation that it will interest anyone else, as I realize my own interests are idiosyncratic. Still, if someone comes along and finds a post like this fascinating, then I’ll know they are my soulmate. This post is only for cool people with curious minds. Ha!)

* * *

On the Sublime and Beautiful
by Edmund Burke

Of the Passion Caused by the Sublime

THE PASSION caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

Terror

NO passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. 1 For fear being an apprehension of pain or death, it operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too, whether this cause of terror be endued with greatness of dimensions or not; for it is impossible to look on anything as trifling, or contemptible, that may be dangerous. There are many animals, who though far from being large, are yet capable of raising ideas of the sublime, because they are considered as objects of terror. As serpents and poisonous animals of almost all kinds. And to things of great dimensions, if we annex an adventitious idea of terror, they become without comparison greater. A level plain of a vast extent on land, is certainly no mean idea; the prospect of such a plain may be as extensive as a prospect of the ocean: but can it ever fill the mind with anything so great as the ocean itself? This is owing to several causes; but it is owing to none more than this, that the ocean is an object of no small terror. Indeed, terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime. Several languages bear a strong testimony to the affinity of these ideas. They frequently use the same word, to signify indifferently the modes of astonishment or admiration, and those of terror. [Greek] is in Greek, either fear or wonder; [Greek] is terrible or respectable; [Greek], to reverence or to fear. Vereor in Latin, is what [Greek] is in Greek. The Romans used the verb stupeo, a term which strongly marks the state of an astonished mind, to express the effect of either of simple fear or of astonishment; the word attonitus (thunder-struck) is equally expressive of the alliance of these ideas; and do not the French étonnement, and the English astonishment and amazement, point out as clearly the kindred emotions which attend fear and wonder? They who have a more general knowledge of languages, could produce, I make no doubt, many other and equally striking examples.

Obscurity

TO make anything very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion. Almost all the heathen temples were dark. Even in the barbarous temples of the Americans at this day, they keep their idol in a dark part of the hut, which is consecrated to his worship. For this purpose too the Druids performed all their ceremonies in the bosom of the darkest woods, and in the shade of the oldest and most spreading oaks. No person seems better to have understood the secret of heightening, or of setting terrible things, if I may use the expression, in their strongest light, by the force of a judicious obscurity, than Milton. His description of Death in the second book is admirably studied; it is astonishing with what a gloomy pomp, with what a significant and expressive uncertainty of strokes and colouring, he has finished the portrait of the king of terrors:

—The other shape,
If shape it might be called that shape had none
Distinguishable, in member, joint, or limb;
Or substance might be called that shadow seemed;
For each seemed either; black he stood as night;
Fierce as ten furies; terrible as hell;
And shook a deadly dart. What seemed his head
The likeness of a kingly crown had on.

In this description all is dark, uncertain, confused, terrible, and sublime to the last degree. […]

The Same Subject Continued

[…] I know several who admire and love painting, and yet who regard the objects of their admiration in that art with coolness enough in comparison of that warmth with which they are animated by affecting pieces of poetry or rhetoric. Among the common sort of people, I never could perceive that painting had much influence on their passions. It is true, that the best sorts of painting, as well as the best sorts of poetry, are not much understood in that sphere. But it is most certain, that their passions are very strongly roused by a fanatic preacher, or by the ballads of Chevy-chase, or the Children in the Wood, and by other little popular poems and tales that are current in that rank of life. I do not know of any paintings, bad or good, that produce the same effect. So that poetry, with all its obscurity, has a more general, as well as a more powerful, dominion over the passions, than the other art. And I think there are reasons in nature, why the obscure idea, when properly conveyed, should be more affecting than the clear. It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little. It is thus with the vulgar; and all men are as the vulgar in what they do not understand. The ideas of eternity and infinity are among the most affecting we have; and yet perhaps there is nothing of which we really understand so little, as of infinity and eternity. […]

Locke’s Opinion Concerning Darkness Considered

IT is Mr. Locke’s opinion, that darkness is not naturally an idea of terror; and that, though an excessive light is painful to the sense, the greatest excess of darkness is no ways troublesome. He observes indeed in another place, that a nurse or an old woman having once associated the idea of ghosts and goblins with that of darkness, night, ever after, becomes painful and horrible to the imagination. The authority of this great man is doubtless as great as that of any man can be, and it seems to stand in the way of our general principle. We have considered darkness as a cause of the sublime; and we have all along considered the sublime as depending on some modification of pain or terror: so that if darkness be no way painful or terrible to any, who have not had their minds early tainted with superstitions, it can be no source of the sublime to them. But, with all deference to such an authority, it seems to me, that an association of a more general nature, an association which takes in all mankind, and make darkness terrible; for in utter darkness it is impossible to know in what degree of safety we stand; we are ignorant of the objects that surround us; we may every moment strike against some dangerous obstruction; we may fall down a precipice the first step we take; and if an enemy approach, we know not in what quarter to defend ourselves; in such a case strength is no sure protection; wisdom can only act by guess; the boldest are staggered, and he, who would pray for nothing else towards his defence, is forced to pray for light.

As to the association of ghosts and goblins; surely it is more natural to think, that darkness, being originally an idea of terror, was chosen as a fit scene for such terrible representations, than that such representations have made darkness terrible. The mind of man very easily slides into an error of the former sort; but it is very hard to imagine, that the effect of an idea so universally terrible in all times, and in all countries, as darkness, could possibly have been owing to a set of idle stories, or to any cause of a nature so trivial, and of an operation so precarious.

Reflections on the French Revolution
by Edmund Burke

History will record, that on the morning of the 6th of October, 1789, the king and queen of France, after a day of confusion, alarm, dismay, and slaughter, lay down, under the pledged security of public faith, to indulge nature in a few hours of respite, and troubled, melancholy repose. From this sleep the queen was first startled by the voice of the sentinel at her door, who cried out her to save herself by flight—that this was the last proof of fidelity he could give—that they were upon him, and he was dead. Instantly he was cut down. A band of cruel ruffians and assassins, reeking with his blood, rushed into the chamber of the queen, and pierced with a hundred strokes of bayonets and poniards the bed, from whence this persecuted woman had but just time to fly almost naked, and, through ways unknown to the murderers, had escaped to seek refuge at the feet of a king and husband, not secure of his own life for a moment.

This king, to say no more of him, and this queen, and their infant children, (who once would have been the pride and hope of a great and generous people,) were then forced to abandon the sanctuary of the most splendid palace in the world, which they left swimming in blood, polluted by massacre, and strewed with scattered limbs and mutilated carcases. Thence they were conducted into the capital of their kingdom. […]

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in,—glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever. Never, never more shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom. The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that charity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

This mixed system of opinion and sentiment had its origin in the ancient chivalry; and the principle, though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations, even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe. It is this which has distinguished it under all its forms of government, and distinguished it to its advantage, from the states of Asia, and possibly from those states which flourished in the most brilliant periods of the antique world. It was this, which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality, and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions, and raised private men to be fellows with kings. Without force or opposition, it subdued the fierceness of pride and power; it obliged sovereigns to submit to the soft collar of social esteem, compelled stern authority to submit to elegance, and gave a dominating vanquisher of laws to be subdued by manners.

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions, which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly. Regicide, and parricide, and sacrilege, are but fictions of superstition, corrupting jurisprudence by destroying its simplicity. The murder of a king, or a queen, or a bishop, or a father, are only common homicide; and if the people are by any chance, or in any way, gainers by it, a sort of homicide much the most pardonable, and into which we ought not to make too severe a scrutiny.

On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which each individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows. Nothing is left which engages the affections on the part of the commonwealth. On the principles of this mechanic philosophy, our institutions can never be embodied, if I may use the expression, in persons; so as to create in us love, veneration, admiration, or attachment. But that sort of reason which banishes the affections is incapable of filling their place. These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law. The precept given by a wise man, as well as a great critic, for the construction of poems, is equally true as to states:—Non satis est pulchra esse poemata, dulcia sunto. There ought to be a system of manners in every nation, which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.

* * *

Rights of Man:
Being an Answer to Mr. Burke’s Attack on the French Revolution
by Thomas Paine

But Mr. Burke appears to have no idea of principles when he is contemplating Governments. “Ten years ago,” says he, “I could have felicitated France on her having a Government, without inquiring what the nature of that Government was, or how it was administered.” Is this the language of a rational man? Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race? On this ground, Mr. Burke must compliment all the Governments in the world, while the victims who suffer under them, whether sold into slavery, or tortured out of existence, are wholly forgotten. It is power, and not principles, that Mr. Burke venerates; and under this abominable depravity he is disqualified to judge between them. Thus much for his opinion as to the occasions of the French Revolution. I now proceed to other considerations.

I know a place in America called Point-no-Point, because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery as Mr. Burke’s language, it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance before you; but when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all. Just thus it is with Mr. Burke’s three hundred and sixty-six pages. It is therefore difficult to reply to him. But as the points he wishes to establish may be inferred from what he abuses, it is in his paradoxes that we must look for his arguments.

As to the tragic paintings by which Mr. Burke has outraged his own imagination, and seeks to work upon that of his readers, they are very well calculated for theatrical representation, where facts are manufactured for the sake of show, and accommodated to produce, through the weakness of sympathy, a weeping effect. But Mr. Burke should recollect that he is writing history, and not plays, and that his readers will expect truth, and not the spouting rant of high-toned exclamation.

When we see a man dramatically lamenting in a publication intended to be believed that “The age of chivalry is gone! that The glory of Europe is extinguished for ever! that The unbought grace of life (if anyone knows what it is), the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone!” and all this because the Quixot age of chivalry nonsense is gone, what opinion can we form of his judgment, or what regard can we pay to his facts? In the rhapsody of his imagination he has discovered a world of wind mills, and his sorrows are that there are no Quixots to attack them. But if the age of aristocracy, like that of chivalry, should fall (and they had originally some connection) Mr. Burke, the trumpeter of the Order, may continue his parody to the end, and finish with exclaiming: “Othello’s occupation’s gone!”

Notwithstanding Mr. Burke’s horrid paintings, when the French Revolution is compared with the Revolutions of other countries, the astonishment will be that it is marked with so few sacrifices; but this astonishment will cease when we reflect that principles, and not persons, were the meditated objects of destruction. The mind of the nation was acted upon by a higher stimulus than what the consideration of persons could inspire, and sought a higher conquest than could be produced by the downfall of an enemy. Among the few who fell there do not appear to be any that were intentionally singled out. They all of them had their fate in the circumstances of the moment, and were not pursued with that long, cold-blooded unabated revenge which pursued the unfortunate Scotch in the affair of 1745.

Through the whole of Mr. Burke’s book I do not observe that the Bastille is mentioned more than once, and that with a kind of implication as if he were sorry it was pulled down, and wished it were built up again. “We have rebuilt Newgate,” says he, “and tenanted the mansion; and we have prisons almost as strong as the Bastille for those who dare to libel the queens of France.” As to what a madman like the person called Lord George Gordon might say, and to whom Newgate is rather a bedlam than a prison, it is unworthy a rational consideration. It was a madman that libelled, and that is sufficient apology; and it afforded an opportunity for confining him, which was the thing that was wished for. But certain it is that Mr. Burke, who does not call himself a madman (whatever other people may do), has libelled in the most unprovoked manner, and in the grossest style of the most vulgar abuse, the whole representative authority of France, and yet Mr. Burke takes his seat in the British House of Commons! From his violence and his grief, his silence on some points and his excess on others, it is difficult not to believe that Mr. Burke is sorry, extremely sorry, that arbitrary power, the power of the Pope and the Bastille, are pulled down.

Not one glance of compassion, not one commiserating reflection that I can find throughout his book, has he bestowed on those who lingered out the most wretched of lives, a life without hope in the most miserable of prisons. It is painful to behold a man employing his talents to corrupt himself. Nature has been kinder to Mr. Burke than he is to her. He is not affected by the reality of distress touching his heart, but by the showy resemblance of it striking his imagination. He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird. Accustomed to kiss the aristocratical hand that hath purloined him from himself, he degenerates into a composition of art, and the genuine soul of nature forsakes him. His hero or his heroine must be a tragedy-victim expiring in show, and not the real prisoner of misery, sliding into death in the silence of a dungeon.

As Mr. Burke has passed over the whole transaction of the Bastille (and his silence is nothing in his favour), and has entertained his readers with refections on supposed facts distorted into real falsehoods, I will give, since he has not, some account of the circumstances which preceded that transaction. They will serve to show that less mischief could scarcely have accompanied such an event when considered with the treacherous and hostile aggravations of the enemies of the Revolution.

The mind can hardly picture to itself a more tremendous scene than what the city of Paris exhibited at the time of taking the Bastille, and for two days before and after, nor perceive the possibility of its quieting so soon. At a distance this transaction has appeared only as an act of heroism standing on itself, and the close political connection it had with the Revolution is lost in the brilliancy of the achievement. But we are to consider it as the strength of the parties brought man to man, and contending for the issue. The Bastille was to be either the prize or the prison of the assailants. The downfall of it included the idea of the downfall of despotism, and this compounded image was become as figuratively united as Bunyan’s Doubting Castle and Giant Despair.

* * *

The Reactionary Mind
by Corey Robin
pp. 243-245

As Orwell taught, the possibilities for cruelty and violence are as limitless as the imagination that dreams them up. But the armies and agencies of today’s violence are vast bureaucracies, and vast bureaucracies need rules. Eliminating the rules does not Prometheus unbind; it just makes for more billable hours.

“No yielding. No equivocation. No lawyering this thing to death.” That was George W. Bush’s vow after 9/ 11 and his description of how the war on terror would be conducted. Like so many of Bush’s other declarations, it turned out to be an empty promise. This thing was lawyered to death. But, and this is the critical point, far from minimizing state violence— which was the great fear of the neocons— lawyering has proven to be perfectly compatible with violence. In a war already swollen with disappointment and disillusion, the realization that inevitably follows— the rule of law can, in fact, authorize the greatest adventures of violence and death, thereby draining them of sublimity— must be, for the conservative, the greatest disillusion of all.

Had they been closer readers of Burke, the neoconservatives— like Fukuyama, Roosevelt, Sorel, Schmitt, Tocqueville, Maistre, Treitschke, and so many more on the American and European right— could have seen this disillusion coming. Burke certainly did. Even as he wrote of the sublime effects of pain and danger, he was careful to insist that should those pains and dangers “press too nearly” or “too close”— that is, should they become realities rather than fantasies, should they become “conversant about the present destruction of the person”— their sublimity would disappear. They would cease to be “delightful” and restorative and become simply terrible. 64 Burke’s point was not merely that no one, in the end, really wants to die or that no one enjoys unwelcome, excruciating pain. It was that sublimity of whatever kind and source depends upon obscurity: get too close to anything, whether an object or experience, see and feel its full extent, and it loses its mystery and aura. It becomes familiar. A “great clearness” of the sort that comes from direct experience “is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever.” 65 “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions. Knowledge and acquaintance make the most striking causes affect but little.” 66 “A clear idea,” Burke concludes, “is therefore another name for a little idea.” 67 Get to know anything, including violence, too well, and it loses whatever attribute— rejuvenation, transgression, excitement, awe— you ascribed to it when it was just an idea.

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Since 9/ 11, many have complained, and rightly so, about the failure of conservatives— or their sons and daughters— to fight the war on terror themselves. For those on the left, that failure is symptomatic of the class injustice of contemporary America. But there is an additional element to the story. So long as the war on terror remains an idea— a hot topic on the blogs, a provocative op-ed, an episode of 24— it is sublime. As soon as the war on terror becomes a reality, it can be as cheerless as a discussion of the tax code and as tedious as a trip to the DMV.

Fear: The History of a Political Idea
by Corey Robin
Kindle Locations 402-406

It might seem strange that a book about political fear should assign so much space to our ideas about fear rather than to its practice. But recall what Burke said: It is not so much the actuality of a threat, but the imagined idea of that threat, that renews and restores. “If the pain and terror are so modified as not to be actually noxious; if the pain is not carried to violence, and the terror is not conversant about the present destruction of the person,” then, and only then, do we experience a delightful horror.”1 The condition of our being renewed by fear is not that we directly experience the object that threatens us, but that the object be kept at some remove move from ourselves.

Kindle Locations 1061-1066

Whether they have read The Spirit of the Laws or not, these writers are its children. With its trawling allusions to the febrile and the fervid, The Spirit of the Laws successfully aroused the conviction that terror was synonymous with barbarism, and that its cures were to be found entirely within liberalism. Thus was a new political and literary aesthetic born, a rhetoric of hyperbole suggesting that terror’s escorts were inevitably remoteness, irrationality, and darkness, and its enemies, familiarity, reason, and light. Perhaps it was this aesthetic that a young Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote, two years after Montesquieu’s death, “To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”

Kindle Locations 1608-1618

As she set about establishing a new political morality in the shadow of total terror, however, Arendt became aware of a problem that had plagued Hobbes, Montesquieu, and Tocqueville, and that Burke-not to mention makers of horror films-understood all too well: once terrors become familiar, they cease to arouse dread. The theorist who tries to establish fear as a foundation for a new politics must always find a demon darker than that of her predecessors, discover ever more novel, and more frightening, forms of fear. Thus Montesquieu, seeking to outdo Hobbes, imagined a form of terror that threatened the very basis of that which made us human. In Arendt’s case, it was her closing image of interchangeable victims and victimizers-of terror serving no interest and no party, not even its wielders; of a world ruled by no one and nothing, save the impersonal laws of motion-that yielded the necessary “radical evil” from which a new politics could emerge.

But as her friend and mentor Karl Jaspers was quick to recognize, Arendt had come upon this notion of radical evil at a terrible cost: it made moral judgment of the perpetrators of total terror nearly impossible.59 According to Origins, total terror rendered everyone-from Hitler down through the Jews, from Stalin to the kulaks-incapable of acting. Indeed, as Arendt admitted in 1963, “There exists a widespread theory, to which I also contributed [in Origins], that these crimes defy the possibility of human judgment and explode the frame of our legal institutions.”60 Total terror may have done what fear, terror, and anxiety did for her predecessors-found a new politics-but, as Arendt would come to realize in Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was a false foundation, inspiring an operatic sense of catastrophe, that ultimately let the perpetrators off the hook by obscuring the hard political realities of rule by fear.

Liberalism at Bay, Conservatism at Piay:
Fear in the Contemporary Imagination

by Corey Robin

For theorists like Locke and Burke, fear is something to be cherished, not because it alerts us to real danger or propels us to take necessary action against it, but because fear is supposed to arouse a heightened state of experience. It quickens our perceptions as no other emotion can, forcing us to see and to act in the world in new and more interesting ways, with greater moral discrimination and a more acute consciousness of our surroundings and ourselves. According to Locke, fear is “an uneasiness of the mind” and “the chief, if not only spur to human industry and action is uneasiness.” Though we might think that men and women act on behalf of desire, Locke insisted that “a little burning felt”—like fear—”pushes us more powerfully than great pleasures in prospect draw or allure.” Burke had equally low regard for pleasure. It induces a grotesque implosion of self, a “soft tranquility” approximating an advanced state of decay if not death itself.

The head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are
more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an
inclination to the object, the mouth is a little opened, and
the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh;
the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to
the sides. All this is accompanied with an inward sense of
melting and languor . . . relaxing the solids of the whole
system.

But when we imagine the prospect of “pain and terror,” Burke added, we experience a delightful horror,” the “strongest of all passions.” Without fear, we are passive; with it, we are roused to “the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (Locke, 1959,11.20.6,10;11.21.34: 304-5, 334; Burke, 1990: 32, 36,123,135-36).

At the political level, modem theorists have argued that fear is a spur to civic vitality and moral renewal, perhaps even a source of public freedom. Writing in the wake of the French Revolution, Tocqueville bemoaned the lethargy of modem democracy. With its free-wheeling antimonianism and social mobility, democratic society “inevitably enervates the soul, and relaxing the springs of the will, prepares a people for bondage. Then not only will they let their freedom be taken from them, but often they actually hand it over themselves” (Tocqueville, 1969:444). Lacking confidence in the traditional truths of God and king, Tocqueville believed that democracies might find a renewed confidence in the experience of fear, which could activate and ground a commitment to public freedom. “Fear,” he wrote in a note to himself, “must be put to work on behalf of liberty,” or, as he put it in Democracy in America, “Let us, then, look forward to the future with that salutary fear which makes men keep watch and ward for freedom, and not with that flabby, idle terror which makes men’s hearts sink and enervates them” (cited in Lamberti, 1989: 229; Tocqueville, 1969: 702). Armed with fear, democracy would be fortified against not only external and domestic enemies but also the inner tendency, the native desire, to dissolve into the soupy indifference of which Burke spoke.

* * *

The Dark Beauty of Unheard-Of Horrors
by Thomas Ligotti

This is how it is when a mysterious force is embodied in a human body, or in any form that is too well fixed. And a mystery explained is one robbed of its power of emotion, dwindling into a parcel of information, a tissue of rules and statistics without meaning in themselves.

Of course, mystery actually requires a measure of the concrete if it is to be perceived at all; otherwise it is only a void, the void. The thinnest mixture of this mortar, I suppose, is contained in that most basic source of mystery—darkness. Very difficult to domesticate this phenomenon, to collar it and give a name to the fear it inspires. As a verse writer once said:

The blackness at the bottom of a well
May bold most any kind of hell.

The dark, indeed, phenomenon possessing the maximum of mystery, the one most resistant to the taming of the mind and most resonant with emotions and meanings of a highly complex and subtle type. It is also extremely abstract as a provenance for supernatural horror, an elusive prodigy whose potential for fear may slip through a writer’s fingers and right past even a sensitive reader of terror tales. Obviously it is problematic in away that a solid pair of gleaming fangs at a victim’s neck is not. Hence, darkness itself is rarely used in a story as the central incarnation of the supernatural, though it often serves in a supporting role as an element of atmosphere, an extension of more concrete phenomena. The shadowy ambiance of a fictional locale almost always resolves itself into an apparition of substance, a threat with a name, if not a full blown history. Darkness may also perform in a strictly symbolic capacity, representing the abyss at the core of any genuine tale of mystery and horror. But to draw a reader’s attention to this abyss, this unnameable hell of blackness, is usually sacrificed in favor of focusing on some tangible dread pressing against the body of everyday life. From these facts may be derived an ad hoc taxonomy for dividing supernatural stories into types, or rather a spectrum of types: on the one side, those that tend to emphasize the surface manifestations of a supernatural phenomenon; on the other, those that reach toward the dark core of mystery in purest and most abstract condition. The former stories show us the bodies, big as life, of the demonic tribe of spooks, vampires, and other assorted bogeymen; the latter suggest to us the essence, far bigger than life, of that dark universal terror beyond naming which is the matrix for all other terrors. […]

Like Erich Zann’s “world of beauty,” Lovecraft’s “lay in some far cosmos of the imagination,” and like that of another  artist, it is a “beauty that hath horror in it.

The Conspiracy against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror
by Thomas Ligotti
pp. 41-42

As heretofore noted, consciousness may have assisted our species’ survival in the hard times of prehistory, but as it became ever more intense it evolved the potential to ruin everything if not securely muzzled. This is the problem: We must either outsmart consciousness or be thrown into its vortex of doleful factuality and suffer, as Zapffe termed it, a “dread of being”— not only of our own being but of being itself, the idea that the vacancy that might otherwise have obtained is occupied like a stall in a public lavatory of infinite dimensions, that there is a universe in which things like celestial bodies and human beings are roving about, that anything exists in the way it seems to exist, that we are part of all being until we stop being, if there is anything we may understand as being other than semblances or the appearance of semblances.

On the premise that consciousness must be obfuscated so that we might go on as we have all these years, Zapffe inferred that the sensible thing would be not to go on with the paradoxical nonsense of trying to inhibit our cardinal attribute as beings, since we can tolerate existence only if we believe— in accord with a complex of illusions, a legerdemain of duplicity— that we are not what we are: unreality on legs. As conscious beings, we must hold back that divulgement lest it break us with a sense of being things without significance or foundation, anatomies shackled to a landscape of unintelligible horrors. In plain language, we cannot live except as self-deceivers who must lie to ourselves about ourselves, as well as about our unwinnable situation in this world.

Accepting the preceding statements as containing some truth, or at least for the sake of moving on with the present narrative, it seems that we are zealots of Zapffe’s four plans for smothering consciousness: isolation (“ Being alive is all right”), anchoring (“ One Nation under God with Families, Morality, and Natural Birthrights for all”), distraction (“ Better to kill time than kill oneself”), and sublimation (“ I am writing a book titled The Conspiracy against the Human Race”). These practices make us organisms with a nimble intellect that can deceive themselves “for their own good.” Isolation, anchoring, distraction, and sublimation are among the wiles we use to keep ourselves from dispelling every illusion that keeps us up and running. Without this cognitive double-dealing, we would be exposed for what we are. It would be like looking into a mirror and for a moment seeing the skull inside our skin looking back at us with its sardonic smile. And beneath the skull— only blackness, nothing.  A little piece of our world has been peeled back, and underneath is creaking desolation— a carnival where all the rides are moving but no patrons occupy the seats. We are missing from the world we have made for ourselves. Maybe if we could resolutely gaze wide-eyed at our lives we would come to know what we really are. But that would stop the showy attraction we are inclined to think will run forever.

p. 182

That we all deserve punishment by horror is as mystifying as it is undeniable. To be an accomplice, however involuntarily, in a reasonless non-reality is cause enough for the harshest sentencing. But we have been trained so well to accept the “order” of an unreal world that we do not rebel against it. How could we? Where pain and pleasure form a corrupt alliance against us, paradise and hell are merely different divisions in the same monstrous bureaucracy. And between these two poles exists everything we know or can ever know. It is not even possible to imagine a utopia, earthly or otherwise, that can stand up under the mildest criticism. But one must take into account the shocking fact that we live on a world that spins. After considering this truth, nothing should come as a surprise.

Still, on rare occasions we do overcome hopelessness or velleity and make mutinous demands to live in a real world, one that is at least episodically ordered to our advantage. But perhaps it is only a demon of some kind that moves us to such idle insubordination, the more so to aggravate our condition in the unreal. After all, is it not wondrous that we are allowed to be both witnesses and victims of the sepulchral pomp of wasting tissue? And one thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them. Indeed, horror operates with complete autonomy. Generating ontological havoc, it is mephitic foam upon which our lives merely float. And, ultimately, we must face up to it: Horror is more real than we are.

p. 218

Without death— meaning without our consciousness of death— no story of supernatural horror would ever have been written, nor would any other artistic representation of human life have been created for that matter. It is always there, if only between the lines or brushstrokes, or conspicuously by its absence. It is a terrific stimulus to that which is at once one of our greatest weapons and greatest weaknesses— imagination. Our minds are always on the verge of exploding with thoughts and images as we ceaselessly pound the pavement of our world. Both our most exquisite cogitations and our worst cognitive drivel announce our primal torment: We cannot linger in the stillness of nature’s vacuity. And so we have imagination to beguile us. A misbegotten hatchling of consciousness, a birth defect of our species, imagination is often revered as a sign of vigor in our make-up. But it is really just a psychic overcompensation for our impotence as beings. Denied nature’s exemption from creativity, we are indentured servants of the imaginary until the hour of our death, when the final harassments of imagination will beset us.

* * *

The Horror of the Unreal
By Peter Bebergal

The TV show “The Walking Dead” is one long exercise in tension. But the zombies—the supposed centerpiece of the show’s horror—are not particularly frightening. Gross, to be sure, but also knowable, literal. You can see them coming from yards away. They are the product of science gone wrong, or of a virus, or of some other phenomenal cause. They can be destroyed with an arrow through the brain. More aberration than genuine monsters, they lack the essential quality to truly terrify: an aspect of the unreal.

The horror writer Thomas Ligotti believes that even tales of virus-created zombies—and other essentially comprehensible creatures—can elicit what we might call, quoting the theologian Rudolf Otto, “the wholly other,” but it requires a deft hand. The best such stories “approach the realm of the supernatural,” he told me over e-mail, even if their monsters are entirely earthly. As an example, he pointed to “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “wherein the brutality displayed is so deviant and strange it takes off into the uncanny.” Ligotti doesn’t require bloodthirsty villains to convey a sense of impending horror, though. “I tend to stipulate in my work that the world by its nature already exists in a state of doom rather than being in the process of doom.” […]

“Whether or not there is anything called the divine is neither here nor there,” Ligotti told me. “It’s irrelevant to our sense of what is beyond the veil.” Ligotti believes that fiction can put us in touch with that sense of things unseen, that it can create an encounter with—to quote Rudolf Otto again—the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, a state that combines terror and enchantment with the divine. In fact, Ligotti believes that “any so-called serious work of literature that doesn’t to some extent serve this function has failed.” It’s not a matter of genre, he says. He cites Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe as a character who would go wherever the clues took him, no matter how deep into the heart of the “unknown.” “Chandler wanted his detective stories to invoke the sense of the ‘country behind the hill.’ “

Because Ligotti has no interest in whether or not that world beyond actually exists, there is a tension, an unanswered question, in his work: Can we locate the source of this horror? His characters are often confronted by people or groups who worship something so alien that their rituals don’t conform to any identifiable modes of religious practice. Usually, they involve some form of sacrifice or other suggestion of violence. The implication seems to be that, even if there is meaning in the universe, that meaning is so foreign, so strange, that we could never understand it, and it could never make a difference in our lives. Any attempt to penetrate it will only lead to madness.

As a practical matter, Ligotti believes that the short story is the most potent means for conveying this idea. “A novel can’t consistently project what Poe called a ‘single effect,’ “ he explains. “It would be too wearing on the reader—too repetitious and dense, as would, for instance, a lengthy narrative poem written in the style of a lyric poem. A large part of supernatural novels must therefore be concerned with the mundane and not with a sense of what I’ll call ‘the invisible.’ “

Trying to get Ligotti to explain what he means by the “invisible” is not easy. “I’m not able to see my stories as establishing or presuming the existence of a veil beyond which the characters in them are incapable of seeing. I simply don’t view them in this way. ” But his characters, I insisted, suggest that we are all capable of seeing beyond the veil, though it’s impossible to tell if they are simply mad, or if they have indeed perceived something outside normal perception. I asked Ligotti if he saw a difference between these two states of consciousness. “The only interest I’ve taken in psychological aberrancy in fiction,” he answered, “has been as a vehicle of perceiving the derangement of creation.”

Thomas Ligotti: Dark Phenomenology and Abstract Horror
by S.C. Hickman

Ligotti makes a point that horror must stay ill-defined, that the monstrous must menace us from a distance, from the unknown; a non-knowledge, rather than a knowledge of the natural; it is the unnatural and invisible that affects us not something we can reduce to some sociological, psychological, or political formation or representation, which only kills the mystery – taming it and pigeonholing it into some cultural gatekeeper’s caged obituary. […] The domesticated beast is no horror at all.

In the attic of the mind a lunatic family resides, a carnival world of aberrant thoughts and feelings – that, if we did not lock away in a conspiracy of silence would freeze us in such terror and fright that we would become immobilized unable to think, feel, or live accept as zombies, mindlessly. So we isolate these demented creatures, keep them at bay. Then we anchor ourselves in artifice, accept substitutes, religious mythologies, secular philosophies, and anything else that will help us keep the monsters at bay. As Ligotti will say, we need our illusions – our metaphysical anchors and dreamscapes “that inebriate us with a sense of being official, authentic, and safe in our beds” (CHR, 31). Yet, when even these metaphysical ploys want stem the tide of those heinous monsters from within we seek out distraction, entertainment: TV, sports, bars, dancing, friends, fishing, scuba diving, boating, car racing, horse riding… almost anything that will keep our mind empty of its dark secret, that will allow it to escape the burden of emotion – of fear, if even for a night or an afternoon of sheer mindless bliss. And, last, but not least, we seek out culture, sublimation – art, theatre, festivals, carnivals, painting, writing, books… we seek to let it all out, let it enter into that sphere of the tragic or comic, that realm where we can exorcize it, display it, pin it to the wall for all to see our fears and terrors on display not as they are but as we lift them up into art, shape them to our nightmare visions or dreamscapes of desire. As Ligotti tells it, we read literature or watch a painting, go to a theatre, etc. […]

Horror acts like a sigil, a diagram that invokes the powers within the darkness to arise, to unfold their mystery, to explain themselves; and, if not explain then at least to invade our equilibrium, our staid and comfortable world with their rage, their torment, their corruption. The best literary horror or weird tales never describe in detail the mystery, rather they invoke by hyperstitional invention: calling forth the forces out of darkness and the abstract, and allowing them to co-habit for a time the shared space – the vicarious bubble or interzone between the reader and narrative […]

This notion of the tension between the epistemic and ontic in abstract horror returns me to Nick Land’s short work Phyl-Undhu: Abstract Horror, Exterminator in which the narrator tells us that what we fear, what terrorizes us is not the seen – the known and definable, but rather the unseen and unknown, even “shapeless threat, ‘Outside’ only in the abstract sense (encompassing the negative immensity of everything that we cannot grasp). It could be anywhere, from our genes or ecological dynamics, to the hidden laws of technological evolution, or the hostile vastnesses between the stars. We know only that, in strict proportion to the vitality of the cosmos, the probability of its existence advances towards inevitability, and that for us it means supreme ill. Ontological density without identifiable form is abstract horror itself.” […]

Yet, as Lovecraft in one of his famous stories – “Call of Cthulhu” once suggested, the “sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” Here is the nub for Ligotti, the dividing line of those who continue to sleep in the illusory safety net of their cultural delusions […] Many will remember the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot once suggested that “humankind cannot bear too much reality”. […]

For Ligotti the subjective reaction to the seemingly objective stimulus of the uncanny is the gaining of “dark knowledge” about the workings of individuals, […] This sense that the corruption works both ways, upon the victim and the perpetrator; that the world is now topsy-turvy and that the uncanny boundaries between victim and perpetrator are reversible and hazy, and not always obvious is due to that subtle knowledge that each culture is circumscribed within its own black box of conceptuality. By that I mean by that that as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in his Cannibal Metaphysics argues the case that Amazonian and other Amerindian groups inhabit a radically different conceptual universe than ours—in which nature and culture, human and nonhuman, subject and object are conceived in terms that reverse our own—he presents the case for anthropology as the study of such “other” metaphysical schemes, and as the corresponding critique of the concepts imposed on them by the human sciences. […]

We’re in that position of moving either way: 1) literalizing our fantasies: building walls and barbed-wire fences against invading hordes of refugees, migrants, etc.; or, 2) of seeing through them, seeing the aesthetic and defensive use of art and social mechanisms to defend ourselves from the onslaught of our own daemonic nihilism and drives: our fears and terrors. […]

In our time we’ve forgotten this fact, and forgotten the art laughter, to see the world through the lens of art or horror literature and know that this, too, is illusion: the aesthetic call to our emotions, to our fears and our terrors that allows that purge, that release that only great art can supply. Rather in our time we’ve all become literalists of the imagination, so that apocalypse rather than a pleasant channeling of our fears has become an actual possibility and real manifestation in the world around us in wars, famines, racism, hatred, murder, mayhem… The problem we face is that we’ve targeted the external world of actual people and deemed them disposable as if they are the ravenous zombies and vampires of our contemporary globalist madness. We’ve turned the inside out, reversed what once existed within into a projected nightmare scenario and living hell in the real world not as fantasy but as daemonic threat and doom upon ourselves and others. Talking of contemporary horror films Ligotti remarks that the characters in these films “cannot be sure who is a “thing” and who is not, since those who are transmuted retain their former appearance, memories, and behaviors even after they have become, in their essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world.” (CHR, 92) This sense that we’ve allowed the immigrants (US) and refugees (US and EU) to enter into and become a part of the social body of our nations leads to this sense of the uncanny uncertainty that one cannot be sure who is the “thing” – is it us or them: a paranoiac nightmare world of ravening lunacy, indeed. Because our categories of normal/abnormal have broken down due to the absolute Other of other conceptual cultures who have other sets of Symbolic Orders and ideas, concepts, ideologies, religious, and Laws, etc. we are now in the predicament of mutating and transforming into an Other ourselves all across the globe. There is no safe haven, no place to hide or defend oneself against oneself. In this sense we’ve all – everyone on the planet – become as Ligotti states it, in “essence, uncanny monstrosities from another world”. (CHR, 92)

* * *

Trickster Makes This World
by Lewis Hyde
pp. 168-172

During the years I was writing this book, there was an intense national debate over the concern that government funds might be used to subsidize pornographic art. The particulars will undoubtedly change, but the debate is perennial. On the one side, we have those who presume to speak for the collective trying to preserve the coverings and silences that give social space its order. On the other side, we have the agents of change, time travelers who take the order itself to be mutable, who hope— to give it the most positive formulation— to preserve the sacred by finding ways to shift the structure of things as contingency demands. It is not immediately clear why this latter camp must so regularly turn to bodily and sexual display, but the context I am establishing here suggests that such display is necessary.

To explore why this might be the case, let me begin with the classic image from the Old Testament: Adam and Eve leaving the garden, having learned shame and therefore having covered their genitals and, in the old paintings, holding their hands over their faces as well. By these actions they inscribe their own bodies. The body happens to be a uniquely apt location for the inscription of shame, partly because the body itself seems to be the sense organ of shame (the feeling swamps us, we stutter and flush against our will), but also because the content of shame, what we feel ashamed of, typically seems indelible and fixed, with us as a sort of natural fact, the way the body is with us as a natural fact. “Shame is what you are, guilt is what you do,” goes an old saying. Guilt can be undone with acts of penance, but the feeling of shame sticks around like a birthmark or the smell of cigarettes.

I earlier connected the way we learn about shame to rules about speech and silence, and made the additional claim that those rules have an ordering function. Now, let us say that the rules give order to several things at once, not just to society but to the body and the psyche as well. When I say “several things at once” I mean that the rules imply the congruence of these three realms; the orderliness of one is the orderliness of the others. The organized body is a sign that we are organized psychologically and that we understand and accept the organization of the world around us. When Adam and Eve cover their genitals, they simultaneously begin to structure consciousness and to structure their primordial community. To make the temenos, a line is drawn on the earth and one thing cut from another; when Adam and Eve learn shame, they draw a line on their bodies, dividing them into zones like the zones of silence and speech— or, rather, not “like” those zones, but identified with them, for what one covers on the body one also consigns to silence.

[…] an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap.

Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman). This substituting of one thing for another is called metonymy in rhetoric, one of the many figures of thought, a trope or verbal turn. The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. To begin with, there are always larger stories going on— about women or race or a snake in a garden. The enchantment of those regularly repeated fables, along with the rules of silence at their edges, and the assertion that they are intuitively true— all these things secure the borders of the narrative and make it difficult to see the contingency of its figures of thought. Once the verbal tricks are invisible, the artifice of the social order becomes invisible as well, and begins to seem natural. As menstruation and skin color and the genitals are natural facts, so the social and psychological orders become natural facts.

In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.

If this is how the trap is made, then escaping it must involve reversing at least some of these elements. In what might be called the “heavy-bodied” escape, one senses that there’s something to be changed but ends up trying to change the body itself, mutilating it, or even committing suicide […]

These are the beginnings of conscious struggle, but we have yet to meet the mind of the trickster— or if we have, it belongs to the trickster who tries to eat the reflected berries, who burns his own anus in anger, who has not learned to separate the bait from the hook. As we saw earlier, the pressures of experience produce from that somewhat witless character a more sophisticated trickster who can separate bait from hook, who knows that the sign of something is not the thing itself, and who is therefore a better escape artist with a much more playful relationship to the local stories. The heavy-bodied, literalizing attempt to escape from shame carries much of the trap with it— the link to the body, the silence, and so on. Inarticulately, it takes the sign for the thing itself, imagining racism inheres in the color of the skin. Wise to the tricks of language, the light-bodied escape from shame refuses the whole setup— refuses the metonymic shift, the enchantment of group story, and the rules of silence— and by these refusals it detaches the supposedly overlapping levels of inscription from one another so that the body, especially, need no longer stand as the mute, incarnate seal of social and psychological order. All this, but especially the speaking out where shame demands silence, depends largely on a consciousness that doesn’t feel much inhibition, and knows how traps are made, and knows how to subvert them.

This is the insight that comes to all boundary-crossers— immigrants in fact or immigrants in time— that meaning is contingent and identity fluid, even the meaning and identity of one’s own body.

It should by now be easier to see why there will always be art that uncovers the body, and artists who speak shamelessly, even obscenely. All social structures do well to anchor their rules of conduct in the seemingly simple inscription of the body, so that only after I have covered my privates am I allowed to show my face to the world and have a public life. The rules of bodily decorum usually imply that the cosmos depends on the shame we feel about our bodies. But sometimes the lesson is a lie, and a cunningly self-protecting one at that, for to question it requires self-exposure and loss of face, and who would want that? Well, trickster would, as would all those who find they cannot fashion a place for themselves in the world until they have spoken against collective silence. We certainly see this— not just the speaking out but the self-exposure— in Allen Ginsberg, and we see it a bit more subtly in both Kingston and Rodriguez. Neither of them is a “dirty writer” the way Ginsberg is, but to begin to speak, one of them must talk about menstruation (which talk she links to becoming the mistress of her own sexuality) and the other must talk about his skin (which talk he links to possessing his “maleness”).

To the degree that other orders are linked to the way the body is inscribed, and to the degree that the link is sealed by rules of silence, the first stuttering questioning of those orders must always begin by breaking the seal and speaking about the body. Where obscene speech has such roots it is worth defending, and those who would suppress it court a subtle but serious danger. They are like the gods who would bind Loki, for this suppression hobbles the imagination that copes with the shifting and contingent nature of things, and so invites apocalyptic change where something more playful would have sufficed. Better to let trickster steal the shame covers now and then. Better to let Coyote have a ride in the Sun-god’s lodge. Better to let Monkey come on your journey to the West.

* * *

“Disseminated Volition in the New Testament Gospels”
by Andrew Stehlik
The Jaynesian (Vol. 3, Issue 1)

It is well known that many words for inner spiritual motions and emotions are actually metaphors derived from primitive (outward) physiological observations. Brief references to any good dictionary which includes etymology can corroborate this conclusion.

Julian Jaynes in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind dedicated a whole chapter to this theme — looking forward through the Iliad (pp. 257– 272). He concentrates on seven words: thumos, phrenes, noos, psyche, kradie, ker, and etor.

Julian Jaynes recognized that these and other similar body based, physiological or anatomical metaphors (in almost any language) are actually more than simple linguistic metaphors and that they played an important role in the breakdown of bicameralism and the development of consciousness. Different forms of stress and anxiety trigger different physiological responses. Observations of these responses were used in naming and creating hypostases and metaphors useful in the terminology of introspection and the development of consciousness. […]

In the New Testament Gospels (therefore quite late in the historical process — the second half of the first century CE) I recently recognized an interesting phenomenon which could be part of this process, or, even better, a pathological deviation along this process.

Once in the gospel of Mark (9: 42– 48) and twice in the gospel of Matthew (5: 27– 30 and 18: 6– 10) Jesus is supposed to utter an almost identical saying. In this saying, individual parts of the body (eyes, hands, feet) are given the ability of independent volition. They can inform acting of the whole person. The saying suggests, further, that when the influence (instructions, independent volition) of these body parts is perceived as dangerous or harmful, they should be silenced by cutting them off to protect the integrity of the rest of the body.

All academic theological literature known to me takes these sayings as high literary metaphors. Frequent references are made to biology and medicine and the use of amputations are the last resort in serious conditions.

Completely unrecognized is the whole presumption of this saying according to which individual body parts could possess independent volition and as such can inform (sway/direct) the acting of the whole body. Even more seriously — the presumption that self-mutilation can stop or somehow influence higher mental processes. Even the person who is not a trained psychologist or psychiatrist can recognize that we are dealing with a seriously pathological state of mind. […]

Already at the time of recording in the gospels this saying was perceived as anomalous. Luke, the most educated and refined of synoptical authors, preserved the immediate context, but edited out most of the peculiar parts concerning disseminated volition and self-mutilations.

Further and broader contexts which may be mentioned and discussed: other Greek and Hebrew physiological and anatomical metaphors; the popularity of a metaphor of the body for structuring and functioning of society in Hellenism; the ancient practice of religious self-mutilation; the potential for facilitating our understanding of brutish penal codes or modern self-mutilations.

* * *

The Monstrous, the Impure, & the Imaginal
The Haunted Moral Imagination

Inconsistency of Burkean Conservatism
On Truth and Bullshit
Poised on a Knife Edge
“Why are you thinking about this?”

Human Nature: Categories & Biases

There is something compelling about seemingly opposing views. There is Mythos vs Logos, Apollonian vs Dionysian, Fox vs Hedgehog, Socratic vs the Sophistic, Platonic vs Aristotelian, Spinoza vs Locke, Paine vs Burke, Jung vs Freud, nature vs nurture, biology vs culture, determinism vs free will, parenting style vs peer influence, etc.

And these perceived divisions overlap in various ways, a long developing history of ideas, worldviews, and thinkers. It’s a dance. One side will take the lead and then the other. The two sides will take different forms, the dividing lines shifting.

In more recent decades, we’ve come to more often think in terms of political ideologies. The greatest of them all is liberal vs conservative. But since World War II, there has been a growing obsession with authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism. And there is the newer area of social dominance orientation (SDO). Some prefer focusing on progressive vs reactionary as more fundamental, as it relates to the history of the revolutionary and counterrevolutionary.

With the advent of social science and neuroscience, we’ve increasingly put all of this in new frames. Always popular, there is left and right brain hemispheres, along with more specific brain anatomy (e.g., conservatives on average have a larger amygdala). Then there is the personality research: Myers-Briggs, trait theory, boundary types, etc — of those three, trait theory being the most widely used.

Part of it is that humans simply like to categorize. It’s how we attempt to make sense of the world. And there is nothing that preoccupies human curiosity more than humanity itself, our shared inheritance of human ideas and human nature. For as long as humans have been writing and probably longer, there have been categorizations to slot humans into.

My focus has most often been toward personality, along with social science more generally. What also interests me is that one’s approach to such issues also comes in different varieties. With that in mind, I wanted to briefly compare two books. Both give voice to two sides of my own thinking. The first I’ll discuss is The Liberal’s Guide to Conservatives by J. Scott Wagner. And the second is A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind by Robert Burton.

Wagner’s book is the kind of overview I wish I’d had earlier last decade. But a book like this gets easier to write as time goes on. Many points of confusion have been further clarified, if not always resolved, by more recent research. Then again, often this has just made us more clear about what exactly is our confusion.

What is useful about a book like this is that it helps show what we do know at the moment. Or simply what we think we know, until further research is done to confirm or disconfirm present theories. But at least some of it allows a fair amount of certainty that we are looking at significant patterns in the data.

It’s a straightforward analysis with a simple purpose. The author is on the political left and he wants to help those who share his biases to understand those on the political right who have different biases. A noble endeavor, as always. He covers a lot of territory and it is impressive. I won’t even attempt to summarize it all. I’m already broadly familiar with the material, as this area of study involves models and theories that have been researched for a long time.

What most stood out to me was his discussion of authoritarianism and social dominance orientation (SDO). For some reason, that seems like more important than all the rest. Those taken together represent the monkey wrench thrown into the gears of the human mind. I was amused when Wagner opined that,

Unlike all that subtlety around “social conformity-autonomy” and authoritarianism, the SDO test is straightforward: not to put too fine a point on it, but to me, the questions measure how much of a jerk you are. (Kindle Locations 3765-3767)

He holds no love for SDOs. And for good reason. Combine the worst aspects from the liberal elite of the classical liberal variety as found in a class-based pseudo-meritocracy. Remove any trace of liberal-minded tolerance, empathy, kindness, and compassion. And then wrap this all up with in-group domination. Serve with a mild sauce of near sociopathy.

Worse part of it is that SDOs are disproportionately found among those with wealth and power, authority and privilege. These people are found among the ruling elite for the simple reason that they want to be a ruling elite. Unless society stops them from dominating, they will dominate. It’s their nature, like the scorpion that stings the frog carrying him across the river. The scorpion can’t help itself.

All of that is important info. I do wish more people would read books like these. There is no way for the public, conservative and liberal alike, to come together in defense against threats to the public good when they don’t understand or often even clearly see those threats.

Anyway, Wagner’s book offers a systematizing approach, with a more practical emphasis that offers useful insight. He shows what differentiates people and what those demarcations signify. He offers various explanations and categorizations, models and theories. You could even take professional tests that will show your results on the various scales discussed, in order to see where you fit in the scheme of personality traits and ideological predispositions. Reading his book will help you understand why conflicts are common and communication difficult. But he doesn’t leave it at that, as he shares personal examples and helpful advice.

Now for the other approach, more contrarian in nature. This is exemplified by the other book I’ve been reading, the one by Robert Burton (who I quoted in a recent post). As Wagner brings info together, Burton dissects it into its complicated messy details (Daniel Everett has a similar purpose). Yet Burton also is seeking to be of use, in promoting clear thinking and a better scientific understanding. His is a challenge not just to the public but also to scientific researchers.

Rather than promising answers to age-old questions about the mind, it is my goal to challenge the underlying assumptions that drive these questions. In the end, this is a book questioning the nature of the questions about the mind that we seem compelled to ask yet are scientifically unable to answer. (p. 7)

Others like Wagner show the answers so far found for the questions we ask. Burton’s motive is quite the opposite, to question those answers. This is in the hope of improving both questions and answers.

Here is what I consider the core insight from Burton’s analysis (p. 105-7):

“Heinrich’s team showed the illusion to members of sixteen different social groups including fourteen from small-scale societies such as native African tribes. To see how strong the illusion was in each of these groups, they determined how much longer the “shorter” line needed to be for the observer to conclude that the two lines were equal. (You can test yourself at this website— http://www.michaelbach.de/ot/sze_muelue/index.html.) By measuring the amount of lengthening necessary for the illusion to disappear, they were able to chart differences between various societies. At the far end of the spectrum— those requiring the greatest degree of lengthening in order to perceive the two lines as equal (20 percent lengthening)— were American college undergraduates, followed by the South African European sample from Johannesburg. At the other end of the spectrum were members of a Kalahari Desert tribe, the San foragers. For the San tribe members, the lines looked equal; no line adjustment was necessary, as they experienced no sense of illusion. The authors’ conclusion: “This work suggests that even a process as apparently basic as visual perception can show substantial variation across populations. If visual perception can vary, what kind of psychological processes can we be sure will not vary?” 14

“Challenging the entire field of psychology, Heinrich and colleagues have come to some profoundly disquieting conclusions. Lifelong members of societies that are Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic (the authors coined the acronym WEIRD) reacted differently from others in experiment after experiment involving measures of fairness, antisocial punishment, and cooperation, as well as when responding to visual illusions and questions of individualism and conformity. “The fact that WEIRD people are the outliers in so many key domains of the behavioral sciences may render them one of the worst subpopulations one could study for generalizing about Homo sapiens.” The researchers found that 96 percent of behavioral science experiment subjects are from Western industrialized countries, even though those countries have just 12 percent of the world’s population, and that 68 percent of all subjects are Americans.

“Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia psychologist and prepublication reviewer of the article, has said that Heinrich’s study “confirms something that many researchers knew all along but didn’t want to admit or acknowledge because its implications are so troublesome.” 15 Heinrich feels that either many behavioral psychology studies have to be redone on a far wider range of cultural groups— a daunting proposition— or they must be understood to offer insight only into the minds of rich, educated Westerners.

“Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.”

I don’t feel much need to add to that. The implications of it are profound. This possibly throws everything up in the air. We might be forced to change what we think we know. I will point out Jonathan Haidt being quoted in that passage. Like many other social scientists, Haidt’s own research has been limited in scope, something that has been pointed out before (by me and others). But at least those like Haidt are acknowledging the problem and putting some effort into remedying it.

These are exciting times. There is the inevitable result that, as we come to know more, we come to realize how little we know and how limited is what we know (or think we know). We become more circumspect in our knowledge.

Still, that doesn’t lessen the significance of what we’ve so far learned. Even with the WEIRD bias disallowing generalization about a universal human nature, the research done remains relevant to showing the psychological patterns and social dynamics in WEIRD societies. So, for us modern Westerners, the social science is as applicable as it ever was. But what it shows is that there is nothing inevitable about human nature, as what has been shown is that there is immense potential for diverse expressions of our shared humanity.

If you combine these two books, you will have greater understanding than either alone. They can be seen as opposing views, but at a deeper level they share a common purpose, that of gaining better insight into ourselves and others.

Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

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* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic.)