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.

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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.

Vestiges of an Earlier Mentality: Different Psychologies

“The Self as Interiorized Social Relations Applying a Jaynesian Approach to Problems of Agency and Volition”
By Brian J. McVeigh

(II) Vestiges of an Earlier Mentality: Different Psychologies

If what Jaynes has proposed about bicamerality is correct, we should expect to find remnants of this extinct mentality. In any case, an examination of the ethnopsychologies of other societies should at least challenge our assumptions. What kinds of metaphors do they employ to discuss the self? Where is agency localized? To what extent do they even “psychologize” the individual, positing an “interior space” within the person? If agency is a socio-historical construction (rather than a bio-evolutionary product), we should expect some cultural variability in how it is conceived. At the same time, we should also expect certain parameters within which different theories of agency are built.

Ethnographies are filled with descriptions of very different psychologies. For example, about the Maori, Jean Smith writes that

it would appear that generally it was not the “self” which encompassed the experience, but experience which encompassed the “self” … Because the “self” was not in control of experience, a man’s experience was not felt to be integral to him; it happened in him but was not of him. A Maori individual was not so much the experiencer of his experience as the observer of it. 22

Furthermore, “bodily organs were endowed with independent volition.” 23 Renato Rosaldo states that the Ilongots of the Philippines rarely concern themselves with what we refer to as an “inner self” and see no major differences between public presentation and private feeling. 24

Perhaps the most intriguing picture of just how radically different mental concepts can be is found in anthropologist Maurice Leenhardt’s   intriguing book Do Kamo, about the Canaque of New Caledonia, who are “unaware” of their own existence: the “psychic or psychological aspect of man’s actions are events in nature. The Canaque sees them as outside of himself, as externalized. He handles his existence similarly: he places it in an object — a yam, for instance — and through the yam he gains some knowledge of his existence, by identifying himself with it.” 25

Speaking of the Dinka, anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt writes that “the man is the object acted upon,” and “we often find a reversal of European expressions which assume the human self, or mind, as subject in relation to what happens to it.” 26 Concerning the mind itself,

The Dinka have no conception which at all closely corresponds to our popular modern conception of the “mind,” as mediating and, as it were, storing up the experiences of the self. There is for them no such interior entity to appear, on reflection, to stand between the experiencing self at any given moment and what is or has been an exterior influence upon the self. So it seems that what we should call in some cases the memories of experiences, and regard therefore as in some way intrinsic and interior to the remembering person and modified in their effect upon him by that interiority, appear to the Dinka as exteriority acting upon him, as were the sources from which they derived. 27

The above mentioned ethnographic examples may be interpreted as merely colorful descriptions, as exotic and poetic folk psychologies. Or, we may take a more literal view, and entertain the idea that these ethnopsychological accounts are vestiges of a distant past when individuals possessed radically different mentalities. For example, if it is possible to be a person lacking interiority in which a self moves about making conscious decisions, then we must at least entertain the idea that entire civilizations existed whose members had a radically different mentality. The notion of a “person without a self” is admittedly controversial and open to misinterpretation. Here allow me to stress that I am not suggesting that in today’s world there are groups of people whose mentality is distinct from our own. However, I am suggesting that remnants of an earlier mentality are evident in extant ethnopsychologies, including our own. 28

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Text from:

Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness:
Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited
Edited by Marcel Kuijsten
Chapter 7, Kindle Locations 3604-3636

See also:

Survival and Persistence of Bicameralism
Piraha and Bicameralism

Ian Cheng on Julian Jaynes

Down an Internet Rabbit Hole With an Artist as Your Guide
by Daniel McDermon

The art of Ian Cheng, for example, is commonly described in relation to video games, a clear influence. But the SI: Visions episode about him touches only lightly on that connection and on Mr. Cheng’s career, which includes a solo exhibition earlier this year at MoMA PS1. Instead, viewers go on a short but heady intellectual journey, narrated by Mr. Cheng, who discusses improv theater and the esoteric theories of the psychologist Julian Jaynes.

Jaynes, Mr. Cheng said, posits that ancient people weren’t conscious in the way that modern humans are. “You and I hear an internal voice and we perceive it to be a voice that comes from us,” Mr. Cheng says in the video. But Jaynes argued that those voices might well have been perceived as other people.

In that theory, Mr. Cheng explained in an interview, “The mind is actually composed of many sub-people inside of you, and any one of those people is getting the spotlight at any given time.” It’s a model of consciousness that is echoed in the film “Inside Out,” in which an adolescent girl’s mind comprises five different characters.

This conception of consciousness and motivation helped him build out the triad of digital simulations that were shown at MoMA PS1. In those works, Mr. Cheng created characters and landscapes, but the narrative that unfolds is beyond his control. He has referred to them as “video games that play themselves.”