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.

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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.’

Islamic Voice-Hearing

Islam, what kind of religion is it? Islam is the worship of a missing god, that is how we earlier described it. Some might consider that as unfair and dismissive to one of the world’s largest religions, but this is true to some extent for all post-bicameral religions. The difference is that Islam is among the most post-bicameral of the world religions. This is true simply in temporal terms.

The bicameral societies, according to Julian Jaynes, ended with the widespread collapse of the late Bronze Age empires and their trade networks. That happened around 1177 BCE, as the result of natural disasters and attacks by the mysterious Sea People, the latter maybe having formed out the refugees from the former. The Bronze Age continued for many centuries in various places: 700 BCE in Great Britain, Central Europe and China; 600 BCE in Northern Europe; 500 BCE in Korea and Ireland; and centuries beyond that in places like Japan.

But the Bronze Age Empires never returned. In that late lingering Bronze Age, a dark age took hold and put all of civilization onto a new footing. This was the era when, across numerous cultures, there were the endless laments about the gods, spirits, and ancestors having gone silent, having abandoned humanity. Entire cultural worldviews and psychological ways of being were utterly demolished or else irreparably diminished. This created an intense sense of loss, longing, and nostalgia that has never left humanity since.

Out of the ashes, while the Bronze Age was still holding on, the Axial Age arose around 900 BCE and continued until 200 BCE. New cultures were formed and new empires built. The result is what Jaynes described as ‘consciousness’ or what one can think of as introspective mental space, an inner world of egoic identity where the individual is separate from community and world. Consciousness and the formalized religions that accompanied it were a replacement for the loss of a world alive with voices.

By the time Rabbinic Judaism, Gnosticism, and Christianity came around, the Axial Age was already being looked back upon as a Golden Age and, other than through a few surviving myths, the Bronze Age before that was barely remembered at all. It would be nearly another 600 years after that first century monotheistic revival when Muhammad would have his visions of the angel Gabriel visiting him to speak on behalf of God. Islam is both post-bicameral and post-axial, to a far greater degree.

Muslims consider Muhammad to be the last prophet and even he didn’t get to hear God directly for it had to come through an angel. The voice of God had long ago grown so faint that people had come to rely on oracles, channelings, and such. These rather late revelations by way of Gabriel were but a barely audible echo of the archaic bicameral voices. It is may be understandable that, as with some oracles before him, Muhammad would declare God would never speak again. So, Islam, unlike the other monothesitic religions, fully embraces God’s absence from the world.

Actually, that is not quite right. Based on the Koran, God will never speak again until the Final Judgment. Then all will hear God again when he weighs your sins and decides the fate of your immortal soul. Here is the interesting part. The witnesses God shall call upon in each person’s case will be all the bicameral voices brought back out of silence. The animals and plants will witness for or against you, as will the earth and rocks and wind. Even your own resurrected body parts will come alive again with voices to speak of what you did. Body parts speaking is something familiar to those who read Jaynesian scholarship.

Until then, God and all the voices of the world will remain mute witnesses, watching your every move and taking notes. They see all, hear all, notice all — every time you masturbate or pick your nose, every time you have a cruel or impure thought, every time you don’t follow one of the large number of divine commandments, laws, and rules spelled out in the Koran. The entire world is spying upon you and will report back to God, at the end of time. The silent world only appears to be dumb and unconscious. God is biding his time, gathering a file on you like a cosmic FBI.

This could feel paralyzing, but in another way it offers total freedom from self, total freedom through complete submission. Jaynesian consciousness is a heavy load and that was becoming increasingly apparent over time, especially in the centuries following the Axial Age. The zealous idealism of the Axial Age prophets was growing dull and tiresome. By the time that Muhammad showed up, almost two millennia had passed since the bicameral mind descended into darkness. The new consciousness was sold as something amazing, but it hadn’t fully lived up to its promises. Instead, ever more brutal regimes came into power and a sense of anxiety was overtaking society.

Muhammad had an answer and the people of that region were obviously hungry for someone to provide an answer. After forming his large army, his military campaign barely experienced any resistance. And in a short period of time while he was still alive, most of the Arabian peninsula was converted to Islam. The silence of the gods had weakened society, but Muhammad offered an explanation for why the divine could no longer be experienced. He helped normalize what had once felt like a tragedy. He told them that they didn’t need to hear God because God had already revealed all knowledge to the prophets, including himself of course. No one had to worry, just follow orders and comply with commands.

All the tiresome complications of thought were unnecessary. God had already thought out everything for humans. The Koran as the final and complete holy text would entirely and permanently replace the bicameral voices, ever receding into the shadows of the psyche. But don’t worry, all those voices are still there, waiting to speak. But the only voice that the individual needed to listen to was that of the person directly above them in the religious hierarchy, be it one’s father or an imam or whoever else with greater official authority with a line of command that goes back to the prophets and through the angels to God Himself. Everything is in the Koran and the learned priestly class would explain it all and translate it into proper theocratic governance.

Muhammad came with a different message than anyone before. The Jewish prophets and Jesus, as with many Pagans, would speak of God as Father and humanity as His children. Early Christians took this as a challenge to a slave-based society, in borrowing from the Stoics that even a slave was free in his soul. Muhammad, instead, was offering another variety of freedom. We humans, rather than children of God, are slaves of God. The entire Islamic religion is predicated upon divine slavery, absolute submission. This is freedom from the harsh taskmaster of egoic individuality, a wannabe demiurge. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad formulated a totalitarian theocracy, a totalizing system. Nothing is left to question or interpretation, that is in theory or rather in belief.

This goes back to how, with the loss of the bicameral mind and social order, something took its place. It was a different kind of authoritarianism — rigid and hierarchical, centralized and concentrated, despotic and violent. Authoritarianism of this variety didn’t emerge until the late Bronze Age when the bicameral societies were becoming too large and complex, overstrained and unstable. Suddenly, as if to presage the coming collapse, there was the appearance of written laws, harsh punishment, and cruel torture — none of which ever existed before, according to historical records and archaeological finds. As the world shifted into post-bicameralism, this authoritarianism became ever more extreme (e.g., Roman Empire).

This was always the other side of the rise of individuality, of Jaynesian consciousness. The greater potential freedom the individual possesses the more that oppressive social control is required, as the communal bonds and social norms of the bicameral mind increasingly lost their hold to organically maintain order. Muhammad must have showed up at the precise moment of crisis in this change. After the Roman Empire’s system of slavery, Europe came up with feudalism to re-create some of what had disappeared. But apparently a different kind of solution was required in the Arab world.

Maybe this offsets the draining of psychic energy that comes with consciousness. Jaynes speculated that, like the schizophrenic, bicameral humans had immense energy and stamina which allowed them to accomplish near-miraculous feats such as building the pyramids with small populations and very little technology or infrastructure. Suppression of the extremes of individualism through emphasizing absolute subordination is maybe a way of keeping in check the energy loss of maintaining egoic consciousness. In the West, we eventually overcame this weakness by using massive doses of stimulants to overpower the otherwise debilitating anxiety and to help shore up the egoic boundaries, but this has come at the cost of destroying our physical health and mental health.

Time will tell which strategy is the most effective for long-term survival of specific societies. But I’m not sure I’d bet on the Western system, considering how unsustainable it appears to be and how easily it has become crippled by a minor disease epidemic like covid-19. Muhammad might simply have been trying to cobble together some semblance of a bicameral mind, in the face of divine silence. There is a good reason for trying to do that. Those bicameral societies lasted many millennia longer than has our post-bicameral civilization. It’s not clear that modern civilization or at least Western civilization will last beyond the end of this century. We underestimate the bicameral mind and the importance it played during the single longest period of advancement of civilization.

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Let us leave a small note of a more personal nature. In the previous post (linked above), we mentioned that our line of inquiry began with a conversation we had with a friend of ours who is a Muslim. He also happens to be schizophrenic, i.e., a voice-hearer. The last post was about how voice=hearing is understood within Islam. Since supposedly God no longer speaks to humans nor do his angelic intermediaries, any voice a Muslim hears is automatically interpreted as not being of divine origins. It doesn’t necessarily make the voice evil, as it could be a jinn which is a neutral entity in Islamic theology, although jinn can be dangerous. Then again, voice-hearing might also be caused by an evil magician, what I think is called a sihir.

Anyway, we had the opportunity to speak to this friend once again, as we are both in jobs that require us to continue working downtown amidst everything otherwise being locked down because of the covid-19 epidemic. In being isolated from family and other friends, we’ve been meeting with this Islamic guy on a daily basis. Just this morning, we went for a long walk together and chatted about life and religion. He had previously talked about his schizophrenia in passing, apparently unworried by the stigma of it. He is an easy person to talk to, quite direct and open about his thoughts and experiences. I asked him about voice-hearing and he explained that, prior to being medicated, he would continue to hear people speak to him after they no longer were present. And unsurprisingly, the voices were often negative.

Both his imam and his therapist told him to ignore the voices. Maybe that is a standard approach in traditionally monotheistic cultures. As we mentioned in the other post, he is from North Africa where Arabs are common. But another friend of ours lives in Ghana, in West Africa. Voice-hearing experience among people in Ghana was compared to those in the United States, in the research of Tanya M. Luhrmann, an anthropologist inspired by Julian Jaynes. She found that Ghanans, with a tradition of voice-hearing (closer to bicameralism?), had a much more positive experience of the voices they heard. Americans, like our Islamic friend, did not tend to hear voices that were kind and helpful. This is probably the expectancy effect.

If you are raised to believe that voices are demonic or their Islamic equivalent of jinn or are from witches and evil magicians, or if you simply have been told voice-hearing means your insane, well, it’s not likely to lead to happy results when you do hear voices. I doubt it decreases the rate of voice-hearing, though. In spite of Islamic theology denying God and angels speak to humans any longer, that isn’t likely to have any affect on voice-hearing itself. So, the repressed bicameral mind keeps throwing out these odd experiences, but in our post-bicameral age we have fewer resources in dealing constructively with those voices. Simply denying and ignoring them probably is less helpful.

That is the ultimate snag. The same voices that once were identified as godly or something similar are now taken as false, unreal, or dangerous. In a sense, God never stopped speaking. One could argue that we all are voice-hearers, but some of us now call the voice of God as ‘conscience’ or whatever. Others, like Muslims, put great emphasis on this voice-hearing but have tried to gag God who goes on talking. Imagine how many potential new prophets have been locked away in psychiatric wards or, much worse, killed or imprisoned as heretics. If God can’t be silenced, the prophets who hear him can. The Old Testament even describes how the authorities forbid voice-hearing and demanded that voice-hearers be killed, even by their own parents.

The bicameral mind didn’t disappear naturally because it was inferior but because, in its potency, it was deemed dangerous to those who wanted to use brute power to enforce their own voices of authorization. The bicameral mind, once central to the social order, had become enemy number one. If people could talk to God directly, religion and its claims of authority would become irrelevant. That is how our Islamic friend, a devout religious practitioner, ended up being drugged up to get the voices to stop speaking.

Islam as Worship of a Missing God

A friend of ours is a Muslim and grew up in an Islamic country. As he talked about his religion, we realized how different it is from Christianity. There is no shared practice among Christians similar to the praying five times a day. From early on, Christianity was filled with diverse groups and disagreements, and that has only increased over time (there are over 4,600 denominations of Christianity in the United States alone). My friend had a hard time appreciating that there is no agreed upon authority, interpretation, or beliefs among all Christians.

Unlike Muhammad, Jesus never wrote anything nor was anything written down about him until much later. Nor did he intend to start a new religion. He offered no rules, social norms, instructions, etc for how to organize a church, a religious society, or a government. He didn’t even preach family values, if anything the opposite — from a command to let the dead bury themselves to the proclamation of having come to turn family members against each other. The Gospels offer no practical advice about anything. Much of Jesus’ teachings, beyond a general message of love and compassion, are vague and enigmatic, often parables that have many possible meanings.

Now compare Jesus to the Islamic prophet. Muhammad is considered the last prophet, although he never claimed to have heard the voice of God and instead supposedly having received the message secondhand through an angel. Still, according to Muslims, the Koran is the only complete holy text in existence — the final Word of God. That is also something that differs from Christianity. Jesus never asserted that God would become silent to all of humanity for eternity and that his worshippers would be condemned to a world without the God they longed for, in the way Allah never enters His own Creation.

Many Protestants and Anabaptists and those in similar groups believe that God continues to be revealed to people today, that the divine is known through direct experience, that the Bible as a holy text must be read as a personal relationship to God, not merely taken on the authority of blind faith. Some churches go so far as to teach people how to speak to and hear God (T.M. Luhrmann, When God Talks Back). Even within Catholicism, there have been further revelations of God since Jesus, from various mystics and saints that are acknowledged by the Vatican but also from ordinary Catholics claiming God spoke to them without any great fear of hereticism and excommunication.

It made me think about Julian Jaynes’ theory modern consciousness. With the collapse of the Bronze Age civilizations, there was this sense of the gods having gone silent. Yet this was never an absolute experience, as some people continued to hear the gods. Even into the modern world, occasionally people still claim to hear various gods and sometimes even found new religions based on revelations. The Bahai, for example, consider Muhammad to be just one more prophet with others having followed him. Hindus also have a living tradition of divine revelation that is equivalent to that of prophets. Only Islam, as far as I know, claims all prophecy and revelation to be ended for all time.

I was thinking about the sense of loss and loneliness people felt when bicameral societies came to an end. They were thrown onto an increasingly isolated individualism. Religion as we know it was designed to accommodate this, in order to give a sense of order, meaning and authority that had gone missing. But Islam takes this to an extreme. After Muhammad, no human supposedly would ever again personally hear, see, or experience the divine in any way (excluding mystical traditions like Sufism). For all intents and purposes, Allah has entirely receded from the world. The only sign of his existence that he left behind was a book of instructions. We must submit and comply or be punished in the afterlife, a world separate from this one

That seems so utterly depressing and dreary to me. I was raised Christian and on the far other extreme of Protestantism. My family attended the Unity Church that emphasizes direct experience of God to such a degree that the Bible itself was mostly ignored and almost irrelevant — why turn to mere words on paper when you can go straight to the source? Rather than being denied and condemned, to claim to have heard God speak would have been taken seriously. I’m no longer religious, but the nearly deist idea of a god that is distant and silent seems so alien and unappealing to me. Yet maybe that makes Islam well designed for the modern world, as it offers a strong response to atheism.

If you don’t have any experience of God, this is considered normal and expected in Islam, not something to be worried about, not something to challenge one’s faith as is common in Christianity (NDE: Spirituality vs Religiosity); and it avoids the riskiness and confusion of voice-hearing (Libby Anne, Voices in Your Head: Evangelicals and the Voice of God). One’s ignorance of the divine demonstrates one’s individual inadequacy and, as argued by religious authority, is all the more reason to submit to religious authority. Islamic relation between God and humanity is one-way, except to some extent by way of inspiration and dreams, but Allah himself never directly enters his Creation and so never directly interacts with humans, not even with prophets. Is that why constant prayer is necessary for Muslims, to offset God’s silence and vacancy? Worship of a missing God seems perfectly suited for the modern world.

Muslims are left with looking for traces of God in the Koran like ants crawling around in a footprint while trying to comprehend what made it and what it wants them to do. So, some of the ants claim to be part of a direct lineage of ants that goes back to an original ant that, according to tradition, was stepped upon by what passed by. These well-respected ants then explain to all the other ants what is meant by all the bumps and grooves in the dried mud. In worship, the ants pray toward the footprint and regularly gather to circle around it. This gives their life some sense of meaning and purpose and, besides, it maintains the social order.

That is what is needed in a world where the bicameral voices of archaic authorization no longer speak, no longer are heard. Something has to fill the silence as the loneliness it creates is unbearable. Islam has a nifty trick, embracing the emptiness and further irritating the overwhelming anxiety as it offers the salve for the soul. Muslims take the silence of God as proof of God, as a promise of something more. This otherworldly being, Allah, tells humans who don’t feel at home in this world that their real home is elsewhere, to which they will return if they do what they are told. Other religions do something similar, but Islam takes this to another level — arguably, the highest or most extreme form of monotheism, so far. The loss of the bicameral mind could not be pushed much further, one suspects, without being pushed into an abyss.

Islam is a truly modern religion. Right up there with capitalism and scientism.

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Further discussion about this can be found on the Facebook page “Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.

 

To Empathize is to Understand

What is empathy as a cognitive ability? And what is empathy as an expansion of identity, as part of awareness of self and other?

There is a basic level of empathy that appears to be common across numerous species. Tortoises, when seeing another on its back, will help flip it over. There are examples of animals helping or cooperating with those from an entirely different species. Such behavior has been repeatedly demonstrated in laboratories as well. These involve fairly advanced expressions of empathy. In some cases, one might interpret it as indicating at least rudimentary theory of mind, the understanding that others have their own experience, perspective, and motivations. But obviously human theory of mind can be much more complex.

One explanation about greater empathy has to do with identity. Empathy in a way is simply a matter of what is included within one’s personal experience (Do To Yourself As You Would Do For Others). To extend identity is to extend empathy to another individual or a group (or anything else that can be brought within sphere of the self). For humans, this can mean learning to include one’s future self, to empathize with experience one has not yet had, the person one has not yet become. The future self is fundamentally no different than another person.

Without cognitive empathy, affective empathy is limited to immediate experience. It’s the ability to feel what another feels. But lacking cognitive empathy as happens in the most severe autism, theory of mind cannot be developed and so there is no way to identity, locate and understand that feeling. One can only emotionally react, not being able to differentiate one’s own emotion from that of another. In that case, there would be pure emotion, and yet no recognition of the other. Cognitive empathy is necessary to get beyond affective reactivity, not all that different than the biological reactivity of a slug.

It’s interesting that some species (primates, rats, dolphins, etc) might be able to have more cognitive empathy and theory of mind than some people at the extreme ends of severe autism, not necessarily being an issue of intelligence. On the other hand, the high functioning on the autistic spectrum, if intervention happens early enough, can be taught theory of mind, although it is challenging for the. This kind of empathy is considered a hallmark of humanity, a defining feature. This is what leads to problems of social behavior for those with autism spectrum disorder.

Someone entirely lacking in theory of mind would be extremely difficult to communicate and interact with beyond the most basic level, as is seen in the severest cases of autism and other extreme developmental conditions. Helen Keller asserts she had no conscious identity, no theory of her own mind or that of others, until she learned language.* Prior to her awakening, she was aggressive and violent in reacting to a world she couldn’t understand, articulate, or think about. That fits in with the speculations of Julian Jaynes. What he calls ‘consciousness’ is the addition of abstract thought by way of metaphorical language, as built upon concrete experience and raw affect. Keller discusses how her experience went from from the concreteness of touch to the abstraction of language. In becoming aware of the world, she became aware of herself.

Without normal development of language, the human mind is crippled: “The “black silence” of the deaf, blind and mute is similar in many respects to the situation of acutely autistic children where there are associated difficulties with language and the children seem to lack what has been called “a theory of mind” ” (Robin Allott, Helen Keller: Language and Consciousenss). Even so, there is more to empathy than language, and that might be true as well for some aspects or kinds of cognitve empathy. Language is not the only form of communication.

Rats are a great example in comparing to humans. We think of them as pests, as psychologically inferior. But anyone who has kept rats knows how intelligent and social they are. They are friendlier and more interactive than the typical cat. And research has shown how cognitively advanced they are in learning. Rats do have the typical empathy of concern for others. For example, they won’t hurt another rat in exchange for a reward and, given a choice, they would rather go hungry. But it goes beyond that.

It’s also shown that “rats are more likely and quicker to help a drowning rat when they themselves have experienced being drenched, suggesting that they understand how the drowning rat feels” (Kristin Andrews, Rats are us). And “rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.” They can also learn to play hide-and-seek which necessitates taking on the perspective others. As Ed Yong asks in The Game That Made Rats Jump for Joy, “In switching roles, for example, are they taking on the perspective of their human partners, showing what researchers call “theory of mind”?”

That is much more than mere affective empathy. This seems to involve active sympathy and genuine emotional understanding, that is to say cognitive empathy and theory of mind. If they are capable of both affective and cognitive empathy, however limited, and if Jaynesian consciousness partly consists of empathy imaginatively extended in space and time, then a case could be made that rats have more going on than simple perceptual awareness and biological reactivity. They are empathically and imaginatively engaging with others in the world around them. Does this mean they are creating and maintaining a mental model of others? Kristin Andrews details the extensive abilities of rats:

“We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret. Despite having brains that are much simpler than humans’, there are some learning tasks in which they’ll likely outperform you. Rats can be taught cognitively demanding skills, such as driving a vehicle to reach a desired goal, playing hide-and-seek with a human, and using the appropriate tool to access out-of-reach food.”

To imagine the future for purposes of thinking in advance and planning actions, that is quite advanced cognitive behavior. Julian Jaynes argued that was the purpose of humans developing a new kind of consciousness, as the imagined metaphorical space that is narratized allows for the consideration of alternatives, something he speculates was lacking in humans prior to the Axial Age when behavior supposedly was more formulaic and predetermined according to norms, idioms, etc. Yet rats can navigate a path they’ve never taken before with novel beginning and ending locations, which would require taking into account multiple options. What theoretically makes Jaynesian consciousness unique?

Jaynes argues that it’s the metaphorical inner space that is the special quality that created the conditions for the Axial Age and all that followed from it, the flourishing of complex innovations and inventions, the ever greater extremes of abstraction seen in philosophy, math and science. We have so strongly developed this post-bicameral mind that we barely can imagine anything else. But we know that other societies have very different kinds of mentalities, such as the extended and fluid minds of animistic cultures. What exactly is the difference?

Australian Aborigines give hint to something between the two kinds of mind. In some ways, the mnemonic systems represent more complex cognitive ability than we are capable with our Jaynesian consciousness. Instead of an imagined inner space, the Songlines are vast systems of experience and knowledge, culture and identity overlaid upon immense landscapes. These mappings of externalized cognitive space can be used to guide the individual across distant territories the individual has never seen before and help them to identify and use the materials (plants, stones, etc) at a location no one in their tribe has visited for generations. Does this externalized mind have less potential for advanced abilities? Upon Western contact, Aborigines had farming and ranching, kept crop surpluses in granaries, used water and land management.

It’s not hard to imagine civilization having developed along entirely different lines based on divergent mentalities and worldviews. Our modern egoic consciousness was not an inevitability and it likely is far from offering the most optimal functioning. We might already be hitting a dead end with our present interiorized mind-space. Maybe it’s our lack of empathy in understanding the minds of other humans and other species that is an in-built limitation to the post-bicameral world of Jaynesian consciousness. And so maybe we have much to learn from entirely other perspectives and experiences, even from rats.

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* Helen Keller, from Light in My Darkness:

I had no concepts whatever of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. Without a single exception my memories of that time are tactile. . . . But there is not one spark of emotion or rational thought in these distinct yet corporeal memories. I was like an unconscious clod of earth. There was nothing in me except the instinct to eat and drink and sleep. My days were a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without interest or joy. Then suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge, to love, to the usual concepts of nature, good, and evil. I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life.

And from The Story of My Life:

As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

And from The World I Live In:

Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith. […]

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught me. I thought only of objects, and only objects I wanted. It was the turning of the freezer on a larger scale. When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me. Thus it was not the sense of touch that brought me knowledge. It was the awakening of my soul that first rendered my senses their value, their cognizance of objects, names, qualities, and properties. Thought made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.”

I cannot represent more clearly than any one else the gradual and subtle changes from first impressions to abstract ideas. But I know that my physical ideas, that is, ideas derived from material objects, appear to me first an idea similar to those of touch. Instantly they pass into intellectual meanings. Afterward the meaning finds expression in what is called “inner speech.”  […]

As my experiences broadened and deepened, the indeterminate, poetic feelings of childhood began to fix themselves in definite thoughts. Nature—the world I could touch—was folded and filled with myself. I am inclined to believe those philosophers who declare that we know nothing but our own feelings and ideas. With a little ingenious reasoning one may see in the material world simply a mirror, an image of permanent mental sensations. In either sphere self-knowledge is the condition and the limit of our consciousness. That is why, perhaps, many people know so little about what is beyond their short range of experience. They look within themselves—and find nothing! Therefore they conclude that there is nothing outside themselves, either.

However that may be, I came later to look for an image of my emotions and sensations in others. I had to learn the outward signs of inward feelings. The start of fear, the suppressed, controlled tensity of pain, the beat of happy muscles in others, had to be perceived and compared with my own experiences before I could trace them back to the intangible soul of another. Groping, uncertain, I at last found my identity, and after seeing my thoughts and feelings repeated in others, I gradually constructed my world of men and of God. As I read and study, I find that this is what the rest of the race has done. Man looks within himself and in time finds the measure and the meaning of the universe.

* * *

As an example of how language relates to emotions:

The ‘untranslatable’ emotions you never knew you had
by David Robson

But studying these terms will not just be of scientific interest; Lomas suspects that familiarising ourselves with the words might actually change the way we feel ourselves, by drawing our attention to fleeting sensations we had long ignored.

“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.”

As evidence, Lomas points to the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University, who has shown that our abilities to identify and label our emotions can have far-reaching effects.

Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”

This is called “emotion granularity” and she usually measures this by asking the participants to rate their feelings on each day over the period of a few weeks, before she calculates the variation and nuances within their reports: whether the same old terms always coincide, for instance.

Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.

In this way, emotion vocabulary is a bit like a directory, allowing you to call up a greater number of strategies to cope with life. Sure enough, people who score highly on emotion granularity are better able to recover more quickly from stress and are less likely to drink alcohol as a way of recovering from bad news. It can even improve your academic success. Marc Brackett at Yale University has found that teaching 10 and 11-year-old children a richer emotional vocabulary improved their end-of-year grades, and promoted better behaviour in the classroom. “The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives,” he says.

Both Brackett and Barrett agree that Lomas’s “positive lexicography” could be a good prompt to start identifying the subtler contours of our emotional landscape. “I think it is useful – you can think of the words and the concepts they are associated with as tools for living,” says Barrett. They might even inspire us to try new experiences, or appreciate old ones in a new light.

* * *

And related to all of this is hypocognition, overlapping with linguistic relativity — in how language and concepts determine our experience, identity, and sense of reality — constraining and framing and predetermining what we are even capable of perceiving, thinking about, and expressing:

Hypocognition is a censorship tool that mutes what we can feel
by Kaidi Wu

It is a strange feeling, stumbling upon an experience that we wish we had the apt words to describe, a precise language to capture. When we don’t, we are in a state of hypocognition, which means we lack the linguistic or cognitive representation of a concept to describe ideas or interpret experiences. The term was introduced to behavioural science by the American anthropologist Robert Levy, who in 1973 documented a peculiar observation: Tahitians expressed no grief when they suffered the loss of a loved one. They fell sick. They sensed strangeness. Yet, they could not articulate grief, because they had no concept of grief in the first place. Tahitians, in their reckoning of love and loss, and their wrestling with death and darkness, suffered not from grief but a hypocognition of grief. […]

But the darkest form of hypocognition is one born out of motivated, purposeful intentions. A frequently overlooked part of Levy’s treatise on Tahitians is why they suffered from a hypocognition of grief. As it turns out, Tahitians did have a private inkling of grief. However, the community deliberately kept the public knowledge of the emotion hypocognitive to suppress its expression. Hypocognition was used as a form of social control, a wily tactic to expressly dispel unwanted concepts by never elaborating on them. After all, how can you feel something that doesn’t exist in the first place?

Intentional hypocognition can serve as a powerful means of information control. In 2010, the Chinese rebel writer Han Han told CNN that any of his writings containing the words ‘government’ or ‘communist’ would be censored by the Chinese internet police. Ironically, these censorship efforts also muffled an abundance of praise from pro-leadership blogs. An effusive commendation such as ‘Long live the government!’ would be censored too, for the mere mention of ‘government’.

A closer look reveals the furtive workings of hypocognition. Rather than rebuking negative remarks and rewarding praises, the government blocks access to any related discussion altogether, rendering any conceptual understanding of politically sensitive information impoverished in the public consciousness. ‘They don’t want people discussing events. They simply pretend nothing happened… That’s their goal,’ Han Han said. Regulating what is said is more difficult than ensuring nothing is said. The peril of silence is not a suffocation of ideas. It is to engender a state of blithe apathy in which no idea is formed.

Battle of Voices of Authorization in the World and in Ourselves

New Feelings: Podcast Passivity
by Suzannah Showler

My concern is that on some level, I’m prone to mistake any voice that pours so convincingly into my brain for my own. And maybe it’s not even a mistake, per se, so much as a calculated strategy on the part of my ego to maintain its primacy, targeting and claiming any foreign object that would stray so far into the inner-sanctum of my consciousness. Whether the medium is insidious, my mind a greedy assimilation machine, or both, it seems that at least some of the time, podcasts don’t just drown out my inner-monologue — they actually overwrite it. When I listen to a podcast, I think some part of me believes I’m only hearing myself think.

Twentieth-century critics worried about this, too. Writing sometime around the late 1930s, Theodore Adorno theorized that a solitary listener under the influence of radio is vulnerable to persuasion by an anonymous authority. He writes: “The deeper this [radio] voice is involved within his own privacy, the more it appears to pour out of the cells of his more intimate life; the more he gets the impression that his own cupboard, his own photography, his own bedroom speaks to him in a personal way, devoid of the intermediary stage of the printed words; the more perfectly he is ready to accept wholesale whatever he hears. It is just this privacy which fosters the authority of the radio voice and helps to hide it by making it no longer appear to come from outside.”

I’ll admit that I have occasionally been gripped by false memories as a result of podcasts — been briefly sure that I’d seen a TV show I’d never watched, or convinced that it was a friend, not a professional producer, who told me some great anecdote. But on the whole, my concern is less that I am being brainwashed and more that I’m indulging in something deeply avoidant: filling my head with ideas without actually having to do the messy, repetitive, boring, or anxious work of making meaning for myself. It’s like downloading a prefabbed stream of consciousness and then insisting it’s DIY. The effect is twofold: a podcast distracts me from the tedium of being alone with myself, while also convincingly building a rich, highly-produced version of my inner life. Of course that’s addictive — it’s one of the most effective answers to loneliness and self-importance I can imagine.

Being Your Selves: Identity R&D on alt Twitter
by Aaron Z. Lewis

Digital masks are making the static and immortal soul of the Renaissance seem increasingly out of touch. In an environment of info overload, it’s easy to lose track of where “my” ideas come from. My brain is filled with free-floating thoughts that are totally untethered from the humans who came up with them. I speak and think in memes — a language that’s more like the anonymous manuscript culture of medieval times than the individualist Renaissance era. Everything is a remix, including our identities. We wear our brains outside of our skulls and our nerves outside our skin. We walk around with other people’s voices in our heads. The self is in the network rather than a node.

The ability to play multiple characters online means that the project of crafting your identity now extends far beyond your physical body. In his later years, McLuhan predicted that this newfound ability would lead to a society-wide identity crisis:

The instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences. Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity, a vacuum of the self, which generates tremendous violence — violence that is simply an identity quest, private or corporate, social or commercial.

As I survey the cultural landscape of 2020, it seems that McLuhan’s predictions have unfortunately come true. More than ever before, people are exposed to a daily onslaught of world views and belief systems that threaten their identities. Social media has become the battlefield for a modern-day Hobbesian war of all-against-all. And this conflict has leaked into the allegedly “offline” world.

Who are we hearing and talking to?

“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.”
~ Charles Fernyhough

“Bicamerality hidden in plain sight.”
~ Andrew Bonci

“What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roofs.”
~ Matthew 10:27

“illusion of a completed, unitary self”
Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature
The Mind in the Body
Making Gods, Making Individuals
The Spell of Inner Speech
Reading Voices Into Our Minds
Verbal Behavior
Keep Your Experience to Yourself

Bicameralism and Bilingualism

A paper on multilingualism was posted by Eva Dunkel in the Facebook group for The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: Consequences of multilingualism for neural architecture by Sayuri Hayakawa and Viorica Marian. It is a great find. The authors look at how multiple languages are processed within the brain and how they can alter brain structure.

This probably also relates to learning of music, art, and math — one might add that learning music later improves the ability to learn math. These are basically other kinds of languages, especially the former in terms of  musical languages (along with whistle and hum languages) that might indicate language having originated in music, not to mention the close relationship music has to dance, movement, and behavior and close relationship of music to group identity. The archaic authorization of command voices in the bicameral mind quite likely came in the form of music and one could imagine the kinds of synchronized collective activities that could have dominated life and work in bicameral societies. There is something powerful about language that we tend to overlook and take for granted. Also, since language is so embedded in culture, monolinguals never see outside of the cultural reality tunnel they exist within. This could bring us to wonder about the role played post-bicameral society by syncretic languages like English. We can’t forget the influence psychedelics might have had on language development and learning at different periods of human existence. And with psychedelics, there is the connection to shamanism with caves as aural spaces and locations of art, possibly the earliest origin of proto-writing.

There is no reason to give mathematics a mere secondary place in our considerations. Numeracy might be important as well in thinking about the bicameral mind specifically and certainly about the human mind in general (Caleb Everett, Numbers and the Making of Us), as numeracy was an advancement or complexification beyond the innumerate tribal societies (e.g., Piraha). Some of the earliest uses of writing was for calculations: accounting, taxation, astrology, etc. Bicameral societies, specifically the early city-states, can seem simplistic in many ways with their lack of complex hierarchies, large centralized governments, standing armies, police forces, or even basic infrastructure such as maintained roads and bridges. Yet they were capable of immense projects that required impressively high levels of planning, organizing, and coordination — as seen with the massive archaic pyramids and other structures built around the world. It’s strange how later empires in the Axial Age and beyond that, though so much larger and extensive with greater wealth and resources, rarely even attempted the seemingly impossible architectural feats of bicameral humans. Complex mathematical systems probably played a major role in the bicameral mind, as seen in how astrological calculations sometimes extended over millennia.

Hayakawa and Marian’s paper could add to the explanation of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. A central focus of their analysis is the increased executive function and neural integration in managing two linguistic inputs — I could see how that would relate to the development of egoic consciousness. It has been proposed that the first to develop Jaynesian consciousness may have been traders who were required to cross cultural boundaries and, of course, who would have been forced to learn multiple languages. As bicameral societies came into regular contact with more diverse linguistic cultures, their bicameral cognitive and social structures would have been increasingly stressed.

Multilingualism goes hand in hand with literacy. Rates of both have increased over the millennia. That would have been a major force in the post-bicameral Axial Age. The immense multiculturalism of societies like the Roman Empire is almost impossible for us to imagine. Hundreds of ethnicities, each with their own language, would co-exist in the same city and sometimes the same neighborhood. On a single street, there could be hundreds of shrines to diverse gods with people praying, people invoking and incantating in their separate languages. These individuals were suddenly forced to deal with complete strangers and learn some basic level of understanding foreign languages and hence foreign understandings.

This was simultaneous with the rise of literacy and its importance to society, only becoming more important over time as the rate of book reading continues to climb (more books are printed in a year these days than were produced in the first several millennia of writing). Still, it was only quite recently that the majority of the population became literate, following from that is the ability of silent reading and its correlate of inner speech. Multilingualism is close behind and catching up. The consciousness revolution is still under way. I’m willing to bet American society will be transformed as we return to multilingualism as the norm, considering that in the first centuries of American history there was immense multilingualism (e.g., German was once one of the most widely spoken languages in North America).

All of this reminds me of linguistic relativity. I’ve pointed out that, though not explicitly stated, Jaynes obviously was referring to linguistic relativity in his own theorizing about language. He talked quite directly about the power language —- and metaphors within language —- had over thought, perception, behavior, and identity (Anke Snoek has some good insights about this in exploring the thought of Giorgio Agamben). This was an idea maybe first expressed by Wilhelm von Humboldt (On Language) in 1836: “Via the latter, qua character of a speech-sound, a pervasive analogy necessarily prevails in the same language; and since a like subjectivity also affects language in the same notion, there resides in every language a characteristic world-view.” And Humboldt even considered the power of learning another language in stating that, “To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint in the world-view hitherto possessed, and in fact to a certain extent is so, since every language contains the whole conceptual fabric and mode of presentation of a portion of mankind.”

Multilingualism is multiperspectivism, a core element of the modern mind and modern way of being in the world. Language has the power to transform us. To study language, to learn a new language is to become something different. Each language is not only a separate worldview but locks into place a different sense of self, a persona. This would be true not only for learning different cultural languages but also different professional languages with their respective sets of terminology, as the modern world has diverse areas with their own ways of talking and we modern humans have to deal with this complexity on a regular basis, whether we are talking about tax codes or dietary lingo.

It’s hard to know what that means for humanity’s trajectory across the millennia. But the more we are caught within linguistic worlds and are forced to navigate our way within them the greater the need for a strong egoic individuality to self-initiate action, that is to say the self-authorization of Jaynesian consciousness. We step further back into our own internal space of meta-cognitive metaphor. To know more than one language strengthens an identity separate from any given language. The egoic self retreats behind its walls and looks out from its parapets. Language, rather than being the world we are immersed in, becomes the world we are trapped in (a world that is no longer home and from which we seek to escape, Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison and William S. Burroughs Control). It closes in on us and forces us to become more adaptive to evade the constraints.

Other People’s Craziness

In a Facebook group dedicated to Julian Jaynes, I was talking to a lady who is an academic and a poet. She happened to mention that she is also a ‘Manbo’, something like a vodou practitioner. She made the admission that she sees and hears spirits, but she qualified it by saying that her rational mind knew it wasn’t real. I found that qualification odd, as if she were worried about maintaining her respectability. She made clear that these experiences weren’t make-believe, as they felt real to her, as real as anything else, and yet one side of her personality couldn’t quite take them as real. So, two different realities existed inside her and she seemed split between them.

None of this is particularly strange in a group like that. Many voice-hearers, for obvious reasons, are attracted to Jaynes’ view on voice-hearing. Jaynes took such experiences seriously and, to a large degree, took the experiences on their own terms. Jaynes offered a rational or rationalizing narrative for why it is ‘normal’ to hear voices. The desire to be normal is powerful social force. Having a theory helps someone like this lady to compartmentalize the two aspects of her being and not feel overwhelmed. If she didn’t qualify her experience, she would be considered crazy by many others and maybe in her own mind. Her academic career might even be threatened. So, the demand of conformity is serious with real consequences.

That isn’t what interested me, though. Our conversation happened in a post about the experience of falling under a trance while driving, such that one ends up where one was going without remember how one got there. It’s a common experience and a key example Jaynes uses about how the human mind functions. I mentioned that many people have experiences of alien contact and UFO abduction while driving, often alone at night on some dark stretch of road. And I added that, according to Jacques Vallee and John Keel, many of these experiences match the descriptions of fairy abductions in folklore and the accounts of shamanic initiations. Her response surprised me, in her being critical.

Vallee also had two sides, on the one hand an analytical type who worked as an astronomer and a computer scientist and on the other a disreputable UFO researcher. He came at the UFO field from a scientific approach, but like Jaynes he felt compelled to take people at their word in accepting that their experience was real to them. He even came to believe there was something to these experiences. It started with a time he was working in an observatory and, after recording anomalous data of something in the sky that wasn’t supposed to be there, the director of the observatory erased the tapes out of fear that if it got out to the press it would draw negative attention to the institution. That is what originally piqued his curiosity and started him down the road of UFO research. But he also came across many cases where entire groups of people, including military, saw the same UFOs in the sky and their movements accorded with no known technology or physics.

That forced him to consider the possibility that people were seeing something that was on some level real, whatever it was. He went so far as to speculate about consciousness being much stranger than science could presently explain, that there really is more to the universe or at an angle to our universe. In this line of thought, he spoke of the phenomena as, “partly associated with a form of non-human consciousness that manipulates space and time.” Sure, to most people, that is crazy talk, though no more crazy than interacting with the spirit world. But the lady I was speaking with immediately dismissed this as going too far. Her anomalous experiences were fine, as long as she pretended that they were pretend or something, thus proving she wasn’t bat-shit loony. Someone else’s anomalous experience, however, was not to be taken seriously. It’s the common perception that only other people’s religion is mythology.

That amused me to no end. And I said that it amused me. She then blocked me. That amused me as well. I’m feeling amused. I was more willing to take her experiences as being valid in a way she was unwilling to do for others. It’s not that I had any skin in the game, as I’ve never talked to spirits nor been abducted by aliens. But I give people the benefit of the doubt that there experiences are real to them. I’m a radical skeptic and extreme agnostic. I take the world as it comes and sometimes the world is strange. No need to rationalize it. And if that strangeness is proof of insanity and disrepute, there are worse fates.

* * *

As for my own variety of crazy, I’ve always felt a kinship with Philip K. Dick. Below is what he what he wrote in justifying himself. Some people feel compelled to speak truth, no matter what. If that truth sounds crazy, maybe that is because we live in a society gone mad. Under such unhappy circumstances, there can be great comfort in feeling validated by someone speaking truth. So, maybe be kind toward the craziness and truths of other people. Here is what PKD has to say:

“What I have done may be good, it may be bad. But the reality that I discern is the true reality; thus I am basically analytical, not creative; my writing is simply a creative way of handling analysis. I am a fictionalizing philosopher, not a novelist; my novel and story-writing ability is employed as a means to formulate my perception. The core of my writing is not art, but truth. Thus what I tell is the truth, yet I can do nothing to alleviate it, either by deed or exploration. Yet this seems somehow to help a certain kind of sensitive and troubled person, for whom I speak. I think I understand the common ingredient in those whom my writing helps; they cannot or will not blunt their own intimations about the irrational, mysterious nature of reality, & for them my corpus of writing is one long ratiocination regarding this inexplicable reality, an investigation & presentation, analysis & response & personal history. My audience will always be limited to these people.”
(In Pursuit of Valis, p.161)

Birth of Snark

The next time you’re irritated by an internet troll, remember that one of the greatest inventions of civilization was snark. For millennia of recorded history, there was no evidence of it. Then suddenly, in the measure of historical time, there it was in all its glory.

Before there was social media and online comments sections, there were letters written in cuneiform. There is something about text-based communication that brings snark out in some people, no matter the medium. But first there had to be a transformation in consciousness.

* * *

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes
p. 249-250

Going from Hammurabi’s letters to the state letters of Assyria of the seventh century B.C. is like leaving a thoughtless tedium of undisobeyable directives and entering a rich sensitive frightened grasping recalcitrant aware world not all that different from our own. The letters are addressed to people, not tablets, and probably were not heard, but had to be read aloud. The subjects discussed have changed in a thousand years to a far more extensive list of human activities. But they are also imbedded in a texture of deceit and divination, speaking of police investigations, complaints of lapsing ritual, paranoid fears, bribery, and pathetic appeals of imprisoned officers, all things unknown, unmentioned, and impossible in the world of Hammurabi. Even sarcasm, as in a letter from an Assyrian king to his restive acculturated deputies in conquered Babylon about 670 B.C.:

Word of the king to the pseudo-Babylonians. I am well . .  . So you, so help you heaven, have turned yourselves into Babylonians! And you keep bringing up against my servants charges— false charges,— which you and your master have concocted . .  . The document (nothing but windy words and importunities!) which you have sent me, I am returning to you, after replacing it into its seals. Of course you will say, “What is he sending back to us?” From the Babylonians, my servants and my friends are writing me: When I open and read, behold, the goodness of the shrines, birds of sin . .  . 28

And then the tablet is broken off.

A further interesting difference is their depiction of an Assyrian king. The Babylonian kings of the early second millennium were confident and fearless, and probably did not have to be too militaristic. The cruel Assyrian kings, whose palaces are virile with muscular depictions of lion hunts and grappling with clawing beasts, are in their letters indecisive frightened creatures appealing to their astrologers and diviners to contact the gods and tell them what to do and when to do it. These kings are told by their diviners that they are beggars or that their sins are making a god angry; they are told what to wear, or what to eat, or not to eat until further notice: 29 “Something is happening in the skies; have you noticed? As far as I am concerned, my eyes are fixed. I say, ‘What phenomenon have I failed to see, or failed to report to the king? Have I failed to observe something that does not pertain to his lot?’.  .  . As to that eclipse of the sun of which the king spoke, the eclipse did not take place. On the 27th I shall look again and send in a report. From whom does the lord my king fear misfortune? I have no information whatsoever.” 30

Does a comparison of these letters, a thousand years apart, demonstrate the alteration of mentality with which we are here concerned? Of course, a great deal of discussion could follow such a question. And research: content analyses, comparisons of syntax, uses of pronouns, questions, and future tenses, as well as specific words which appear to indicate subjectivity in the Assyrian letters and which are absent in the Old Babylonian. But such is our knowledge of cuneiform at present that a thorough analysis is not possible at this time. Even the translations I have used are hedged in favor of smooth English and familiar syntax and so are not to be completely trusted. Only an impressionist comparison is possible, and the result, I think, is clear: that the letters of the seventh century B.C. are far more similar to our own consciousness than those of Hammurabi a thousand years earlier.

The Haunting of Voices

“If I met a skin-changer who demanded my shoes, I’d give him my shoes.” This is what a Navajo guy once told me. I didn’t inquire about why a skin-changer would want his shoes, but it was a nice detail of mundane realism. This conversation happened when I was living in Arizona and working at the Grand Canyon. Some might see this anecdote as the over-worked imagination of the superstitious. That probably is how I took it at the time. But I wouldn’t now be so dismissive.

While there, my job was to do housekeeping in the El Tovar. It’s an old hotel located directly on the South Rim of the canyon. It has the feeling of a building that has been around a while. It’s age was hard for me to ignore in its lacking an elevator, something I became familiar with in carrying stacks of sheets up the stairs of multiple floors. I worked there a few times late at night and there was an eerie atmosphere to the place. You could viscerally sense the history, all the people who had stayed there and passed through.

There were stories of suicides and homicides, of lonely lost souls still looking for their lovers or simply going through their habitual routine in the afterlife. The place was famous for it having been one of the locations where the Harvey Girls worked, young women looking for wealthy husbands. There was a tunnel that was once used by the Harvey girls to go between the hotel and the women’s dorm. This hidden and now enclosed tunnel added to the spookiness.

Many Navajo worked at the Grand Canyon, including at the El Tovar. And sometimes we would chat. I asked about the ghosts that supposedly haunted the place. But they were reluctant to talk about it. I later learned that they thought it disrespectful or unwise to speak of the dead. I also learned that some had done traditional ceremonies in the hotel in order to put the dead to rest and help them pass over to the other side. Speaking of the dead would be like calling them back to the world of the living.

I doubt this worldview is merely metaphorical in the superficial sense. Though it might be metaphorical in the Jaynesian sense. Julian Jaynes hypothesized that ancient people continued to hear the voices of the dead, that the memory would live on as auditory experience. He called this the bicameral mind. And in bicameral societies, voice-hearing supposedly was key to social order. This changed because of various reasons and then voice-hearing became a threat to the next social order that replaced the old one.

The Navajo’s fearful respect of ghosts could be thought of as a bicameral carryover. Maybe they better understand the power voice-hearing can have. Ask any schizophrenic about this and they’d agree. Most of us, however, have developed thick boundaries of the egoic mind. We so effectively repress the many voices under the authority of the egoic sole rulership that we no longer are bothered by their sway, at least not consciously.

Still, we may be more influenced than we realize. We still go through the effort of costly rituals of burying the dead where they are kept separate from the living, not to mention appeasing them with flowers and flags. Research shows that the number of people who have heard disembodied voices in their lifetime is surprisingly high. The difference for us is that we don’t openly talk about it and try our best to quickly forget it again. Even as we don’t have ceremonies in the way seen in Navajo tradition, we have other methods for dispelling the spirits that otherwise would haunt us.