Alienation and Soul Blindness

There is the view that consciousness* is a superficial overlay, that the animistic-bicameral mind is our fundamental nature and continues to operate within consciousness. In not recognizing this, we’ve become alienated from ourselves and from the world we are inseparable from. We don’t recognize that the egoic voice is but one of many voices and so we’ve lost appreciation for what it means to hear voices, including the internalized egoic voice that we’ve become identified with in submission to its demurgic authorization. This could be referred to as soul blindness, maybe related to soul loss — basically, a lack of psychological integration and coherency. Is this an inevitability within consciousness? Maybe not. What if a deeper appreciation of voice-hearing was developed within consciousness? What would emerge from consciousness coming to terms with its animistic-bicameral foundation? Would it still be consciousness or something else entirely?

* This is in reference to Julian Jaynes use of ‘consciousness’ that refers to the ego mind with its introspective and internal space built upon metaphor and narratization. Such consciousness as a social construction of a particular kind of culture is not mere perceptual awareness or biological reactivity.

* * *

Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)
by Peter Harrison

Marx identified the concept of alienation as being a separation, or estrangement, from one’s labour. And for Marx the consistent ability to labour, to work purposefully and consciously, as opposed to instinctively, towards a pre-imagined goal, was the trait that distinguished humans from other animals. This means also that humans are able to be persuaded to work creatively, with vigour and passion, for the goals of others, or for some higher goal than the maintenance of daily survival. As long as they are able see some tiny benefit for themselves, which might be service to a higher cause, or even just simple survival, since working for the goal of others may be the only means of obtaining food. So, Marx’s definition of alienation was more specific than an ‘existential’ definition because it specified labour as the defining human characteristic. But he was also aware that the general conditions of capitalism made this alienation more acute and that this escalated estrangement of humans from immediately meaningful daily activity led to a sense of being a stranger in one’s own world, and not only for the working class. This estrangement (I want to write étranger-ment, to reference Camus, but this is not a word) afflicted all classes, even those classes that seemed to benefit from class society, since capitalism had, even by his own time, gained an autonomy of its own. Life is as meaningless [or better: as anti-human] for a cleaner as it is for the head of a large corporation. This is why Marx stated that all people under capitalism were proletarian.

When I discovered the idea of soul blindness in Eduardo Kohn’s book, How Forests Think, I was struck by it as another useful way of understanding the idea of alienation. The concept of soul blindness, as used by the Runa people described by Kohn, seems to me to be related to the widespread Indigenous view of the recently deceased as aimless and dangerous beings who must be treated with great care and respect after their passing to prevent them wreaking havoc on the living. In Kohn’s interpretation, to be soul blind is to have reached the ‘terminus of selfhood,’ and this terminus can be reached while still alive, when one loses one’s sense of self through illness or despair, or even when one just drifts off into an unfocussed daze, or, more profoundly, sinks into an indifference similar to — to reference Camus again — that described by the character Meursault, in L’Etranger.

There are some accounts of Indigenous people first encountering white people in which the white people are initially seen as ghosts, one is recorded by Lévi-Strauss for Vanuatu. Another is embedded in the popular Aboriginal history of the area I live in. On first contact the white people are immediately considered to be some kind of ghost because of their white skin. This may have something to do with practice of preserving the bodies of the dead. This involves scraping off the top layer of skin which, apparently, makes the body white. This practice is described by the anthropologist, Atholl Chase, in his reminisces of Cape York. But for me there is more to the defining of the white intruders as ghosts because of their white skin. These foreigners also act as if they are soul blind. They are like machines, working for a cause that is external to them. For the Indigenous people these strangers do not seem to have soul: they are unpredictable; dangerous; they don’t know who they are.

But it is the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who, I think, connects most clearly to the work of James Hillman on the notion of the soul. James Hillman uses the term soul but he does not mean a Christian soul and he is not ultimately meaning the mind. For him the soul is a form of mediation between events and the subject and, in this sense, it might be similar to Bourdieu’s conception of ‘disposition.’ For Viveiros de Castro, ‘A perspective is not a representation because representations are a property of the mind or spirit, whereas the point of view is located in the body.’ Thus, Amerindian philosophy, which Viveiros de Castro is here describing, perhaps prefigures Hillman’s notion that ‘soul’ is ‘a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself.’

Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond

I came across two books: Beyond Nature and Culture by Philippe Descola and How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn. They are about identity, experience, and perception. Both authors consider anthropological examples, through which they explore the relationship between the human and the world.

These books connect to much else I’ve been reading as of late. One of my long term projects is a series of posts about radical change, in relation to such things as Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism, the Axial Age, and the Enlightenment Age. I’m still thinking about it and not prepared to write anything in detail, but for the moment I wanted to throw out a few thoughts.

We have a hard time seeing outside of the world we are raised in. It is our entire reality. Perusing the books mentioned above reminded me of how true that is. An animistic worldview isn’t just a belief system, in the way we today talk about religion. Animism forms an entire reality, and to us modern Westerners it is a foreign reality.

Within animism, it isn’t just that the world is alive. It is also quite fluid. What is human and not isn’t absolutely demarcated, nor is the subjective and objective. Other distinctions also become less clear and certain: religion and society, economics and politics, individual and group.

One thing easily becomes something else. Perspective and its shifting defines everything. The world is alive and aware, overflowing with thinking beings, every mind a different mentality. The larger world is a society of beings and minds, spirits and gods, each species a potential community, each category of things a potential pattern of forces. This requires a careful attitude in relating to and negotiating with the others in the world, a constant concern and worry about breaking an agreement or trespassing boundaries (boundaries, by the way, that are social rather than conceptual).

This animistic world is a cacophany of voices, for those who hear them. These aren’t metaphorical notions. These people aren’t pretending to believe in what we scientific-minded moderns ‘know’ to be ridiculous. Still, it is hard for us to accept their reality for what it is.

Those who live in this animistic worldview typically are hunter-gatherers, although I don’t know if it is limited to them. In Jaynes’ theory, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle preceded the early civilizations where bicameralism developed. However, hunter-gatherers today aren’t the same as hunter-gatherers from before all of civilization. I doubt there is a single hunter-gatherer tribe that survived into the modern world without ever having been impacted by the bicameral and post-bicameral societies that surrounded them, whether through direct or indirect influences. Anthropologists have no firsthand observations of and knowledge about supposedly bicameral societies, much less pre-bicameral societies.

A while back, I discussed bicameralism with an anthropologist, Cris Campbell (see: All Mixed Up: Julian Jaynes). It was surprising that he didn’t understand this basic point. Even when others explained it to him, he wouldn’t concede its significance and relevance.

I got the sense that Campbell was too caught up in Jaynes’ language that he couldn’t fully take seriously the hypothesis itself and the evidence its based upon or something like that. He did admit that insights were to be found within Jaynes’ writings (see: here and here; not that he goes into great detail). Plus, he certainly has an understanding of and appreciation for animism, in which he mentions Philippe Descola (his blog in general is worth checking out).

For some reason, he believed some tribal people had escaped all influences and therefore should show evidence for Jaynes’ theory, despite the fact that Jayne’s theory never was about hunter-gatherer tribal people in the first place. Campbell apparently couldn’t take the theory on its own terms, even to criticize it on its own terms, which isn’t to say there aren’t genuine criticisms to be made (and already have been made by others, including those who have developed similar theories; e.g., Iain McGilchrist in his book, The Master and the Emissary–a book I mentioned to Campbell and received no response).

I don’t think it was ever made clear exactly what was the basis of Campbell’s doubt toward Jayne’s theory, besides the language issue. The discussion, in the comments section, simply ended without resolution. It seems he just gave up on the issue, which maybe just means he is giving it more thought. I hope that is the case, as I suspect he could delve much deeper into the topic.

Anyway, I wonder why there is such difficulty in taking Jaynes seriously (whether or not that is the case with Cris Campbell, for I admit that I’m likely not be giving him enough credit). My guess is that it has to do with how, to most people, such a proposed worldview appears alien and incomprehensible. How could people live without an interior sense of self, a society entirely dominated by external voices and social experience? It seems patently absurd, for someone who claimed such things today would be labeled as insane and probably institutionalized. And it seems beyond improbable that a society of people like this could actually be functional, especially to the extent of building great civilizations and massive monuments.

To take Jaynes seriously means to consider the immense potential within humans. This is what leads us down radical lines of thought and this is what causes many to pull back from that ledge. However, if we can anthropologically recognize what to us seems like the strange worldviews of hunter-gatherers, it is a small step to consider that the bicameral mind or something akin to it might have been a real possibility for ancient humanity.

Rilke’s Disappointing Dolls

Rilke’s Disappointing Dolls

Posted on May 22nd, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade
The Secret Life of Puppets
By Victoria Nelson
Pages 69-70

In the essay “Doll: On the Wax Dolls of Lote Pritzel” (1913-14), inspired by an exhibit of life-size adult dolls he had seen in Munich as well as the Kleist esay, Rainer Maria Rilke confronts the frustrating paradox of graven images that will not come to life.  Noting as a casual given that most inanimate objects “eagerly” absorb human tenderness (“a violin’s devotion, the good-natured eagerness of horn-rimmed spectacles”), he laments the fact that the childhood fusion with the self-object doll is a barren union that promises everything and delivers nothing.  “You doll-soul,” he exclaims in this monologue addressed to an idol that does not reply, “not made by god, you soul, begged as a whim by some impetuous elf, you thing-soul exhaled laboriously by an idol and kept in being by us all.”  As children, he says, we invent a soul for the doll, but ultimately the doll makes the child feel cheated,  “unmasked as the gruesome foreign body on which we squandered our purest affection.’  By the end of cihildhood “we could not make it into a thing or person, and in such moments it became a stranger to us,’ and so the doll-soul and its possibilities die for good.  Rilke suggests that this kind of infantile wish-animism is doomed to wither in the object once it has died within us.

The same is not true of the puppet, however.  Rilke expresses his hope that this simulacrum will prove to be a potential soul vessel in the fourth Duino elegy, where he builds explicitly on the paradoxes Kleist set forth in “On the Marionette Theater”:

    when I am in the mood
    to wait before the puppet stage, no,
    to watch it so intensely that, in order
    finally to compensate for my watching, as puppeteer
    an angel must come to set the puppets in motion

Or, as Harold Segel has elegantly paraphrased this passage: “Once the self is overcome, one stands before the possibility of a heretofore unrealizable interaction of the material world, represented by the puppet figure, and the transcendent world, represented by the figure of an angel… the path to harmonize the world.”  The puppet-angel conjunction is in fact Rilke’s solution to the mute and fruitless idolatry of childhood, a state of innocence to which, like the Garden of Eden, we cannot return.

Rilke continues:

    Angel and puppet.  Now we will have a play.
    Now will there come together what we always
    Divide because of our presence…
    Now will the angel perform over us.

To achieve the loss of ego necessary to experience the true unio mystica, the conjunction of the visible and invisible worlds, he says, we must do precisely as Kleist’s Mr. C. suggests — bite the apple again and re-lose our innocence.  For Rilke, however, this loss of ego may represent not, as Louis Sass argues about Kleist, the subject-object fusion that is “an obliteration of all individuating self-consciousness,’ but rather a more sophisticated state of integration, “a higher self-consciousness that is, at the same time, a higher self-fogetfulness,” the true Paradise on earth.

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Nicole : wakingdreamer

38 minutes later

Nicole said

yes, indeed, Rilke always aspired toward that true integration. you can see it as well when he speaks of love, for example in the passage I quoted in the God Pod discussion What is Love? excellent blog. I’m really enjoying this Rilke series, learning a lot

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 1 hour later

Marmalade said

I posted these blogs about Rilke for 4 reasons.
1) I thought you might enjoy them.
2) It might start some nice discussion.
3) The 2 books I quoted from are ones I’ve been looking at recently and this gives me an opportunity to think about them.
4) Its a non-poetic way of looking at poetry.  🙂

I was noticing how different a view Rilke’s ideas of the doll are from The Velveteen Rabbit.  No amount of human love(no matter how innocent and pure) is going to animate Rilke’s dolls into animate Reality.  The puppet, on the other hand, draws forth the animating power beyond the human(child or otherwise), the Angel.  The doll can’t be ensouled, but the puppet can be moved by the angelic spirit.  The puppet can be animated because that which animates is transcendent to it.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 6 hours later

Nicole said

yes, Ben! oh, how do you see so clearly? i very deeply admire your keen mind and insight.

and thanks that you were at least partly motivated by my enjoyment. that is definitely full reality!

Quote of the Day: 12/11/09

A native of Africa is said to view his surroundings as pulsing with a purpose, a life, that is actually within himself; once these childish projections are withdrawn, he sees that the world is dead and that life resides solely within himself.  When he reaches this sophisticated point he is said to be either mature or sane.  Or scientific.  But one wonders: Has he not also, in this process, reified — that is, made into a thing — other people?  Stones and rocks and trees may now be inanimate for him, but what about his friends?  Has he now made them into stones, too?

 ~ Philip K. Dick, “The Android and the Human”, Shifting Realities, p. 183