“Walking through the Montreal airport, my 10-year-old observes: “It’s interesting how people, without any signs or directions, just order themselves. It’s almost like they mindlessly work together.”” That was shared by Corey Robin, on Twitter (ignore the fact that airports do have signs and directions, the point being that people who regularly take flights at a particular airport don’t consciously need to pay attention to the signs and directions, as a driver on familiar roads can get to their destination on mental automatic mode). To which David Crespo responded that it “reminds me of what Herbert Simon said about complex behavior coming more from the complexity of the environment than the complexity of the agent.”
Crespo then points to a passage (from The Sciences of the Artificial), ending with this conclusion: “We watch an ant make his laborious way across a wind- and wave-molded beach. He moves ahead, angles to the right to ease his climb up a steep dune let, detours around a pebble, stops for a moment to exchange information with a compatriot. […] It is a sequence of irregular, angular segments — not quite a random walk, for it has an underlying sense of direction, of aiming toward a goal. […] He has a general sense of where home lies, but he cannot foresee all the obstacles between. He must adapt his course repeatedly to the difficulties he encounters and often detour uncrossable barriers. His horizons are very close, so that he deals with each obstacle as he comes to it; he probes for ways around or over it, without much thought for future obstacles. It is easy to trap him into deep detours. Viewed as a geometric figure, the ant’s path is irregular, complex, hard to describe. But its complexity is really a complexity in the surface of the beach, not a complexity in the ant.” That is to say behavior exists within environmental constraints. A simple but profound observation. And often forgotten.
Let me put it into a different context. The ego-mind with its thick isolating boundaries of hyper-individualism, the post-bicameral Jaynesian consciousness of self-authorization (“…just order themselves,” as Robin’s kid observed) — this has never fully taken hold. It’s more of a story we tell ourselves than anything else, not to dismiss the power of stories in constructing social reality nor to dismiss the potent realism of its all too real consequences.
The closest we have to self-aware willpower might be Benjamin Libet’s veto power, that is the inhibition of volition. Not free will but free won’t. Still, that doesn’t tell us the source of inhibition, even as an action being vetoed elicits what is subjectively experienced as consciousness. A point not to ignore is that consciousness doesn’t seem to emerge until that moment of volitionary crisis, when two aspects of self come into conflict. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue. We simply go along, following our routines and scripts, automatons of learned behavior and heuristics.
It’s easy to miss the significance of this. We have no way of pulling back the curtain of our own mind to see what, if anything, is acting behind the scenes. Even probing into the brain can’t pull us up by the bootstraps into this aspirational ideal of self-understanding. Libet simply points to the moment of consciousness as it emerges, in medias res. If nothing else, this demonstrates what we are not, whatever it may or may not say about what we are. The mystery remains (see Conal Boyce, “Recovering from Libet’s Left Turn into Veto-as-Volition“).
We are in the territory of embodied mind and extended mind, of situated cognition. We live in a world of hyper-objects that are cast as shadows by collective hyper-subjectivity, a reminder of other modes of being (such as what Timothy Morton calls entangledness: “Knowing more about hyperobjects is knowing more about how we are hopelessly fastened to them.”), modes of being that if not acknowledged become demonic as forces of nature (e.g., climate change). We are immersed, not standing outside peering in. Some of this is discussed by Patrick Grim in his lecture “Thinking Body and Extended Mind”, as part of The Great Courses’ Mind-Body Series:
“The core of [J.J.] Gibson’s theory of perception is that we don’t perceive objects and don’t operate cognitively in terms of representations. What we perceive, what any animal perceives, are what Gibson terms affordances.
“Squirrels don’t see trees, represent them internally, and calculate how to climb them. What they see is something more immediate and more action-oriented than that. They see a way up. That way up, the thing Gibson says they really see, isn’t an object, but an affordance.
“We don’t see a door hinge to the right, a knob, and calculate that we can get out of the room by turning the knob. We see something much more immediate and much more action-oriented than that. We see a way out. That way out isn’t an object, but an affordance. For Gibson, a mind in the world operates in terms of those performances…”
Ah, a way out. That is a funny phrase, one that caught my attention in a book by Anke Snoek, Agamben’s Joyful Kafka. Although already familiar with Franz Kafka’s fiction, Snoek gave me new perspective (Kindle Locations 358-375):
“Kafka’s ideas on imprisonment, catastrophe, freedom and ways out are not as simple as they might seem on the first reading of, for example, The Trial . The short story ‘A Report to an Academy’ provides further insight into the type of freedom that Kafka had in mind. The hunting expedition of the Hagenbeck Company captured an ape. To train him, they put him in a very small cage on the company’s steamboat, a cage that was too low for him to stand up and too small for him to sit down. At the same time the sailors tormented him. The ape realizes that if he wants to live he has to find a way out. But he does not contrast his distressing situation with freedom: ‘No, it was not freedom I wanted. Just a way out; to the right, to the left, wherever ; I made no other demands ’. 24 The way out is not directed so much to a specific goal, i.e. freedom or return, but is simply a way out.”
This relates to Giorgio Agamben’s notion of ‘gesture’. A gesture is not freedom but a confounding of systems of power and oppression. It’s important to be reminded that, according to Julian Jaynes, post-bicameral consciousness is not only the ground of individualism but authoritarianism as well. Once humans were shook loose from the bicameral mind, new systems of control came to the fore, both in controlling others and controlling the self.
This brings us back to what is doing the controlling. I’d suggest that the divine voices that once directed Bronze Age humans still direct us. The difference is that we internalized them and, in the fashion of Stockholm Syndrome, came to identify with one of our captors, a singular and monolithic egoic tyrant who rules the seat of our soul — that is to say we have been possessed and enthralled ever since. We aren’t free and can’t hope to be free, at least not on the terms of the demiurgic ego-mind. The best we can do is offer a gesture or rather become a gesture, the closest approximation to Libet’s veto power.
Maybe the only way to become truly aware of the self is by becoming aware of the world that surrounds us. The kind of culture and language, social order and environmental conditions, lifeworld and mazeway, reality tunnel and ideology —- however you wish to describe the world we are thrown into by circumstances of inheritance and birth — shapes who we are and how we think, what choices we perceive and how we act. As with the ant, we live moment to moment, not seeing the trajectory of our path from where we came from to where we are going. We are like the river defined by the contours of the land, meandering this way and that, damned up here and flowing over that way, but always heading in a particular direction.
Rather than simplifying down the human to the manageable size of ant-like, maybe this viewpoint has ended up revealing how complex we are in our immensity — far beyond isolated bodies and individual egos. The negative space between confining boundaries is not who we are. Instead, as water is shaped by what contains and directs it, we are the world around us; and as the water seeps into the earth, we are intimately a part of it and embedded within it. This doesn’t make us lesser but greater. The functioning of an airport is no less impressive than the building of a pyramid. Be amazed that we make it seem so simple in our mindlessly working together, somehow getting to where we are going.
* * *
“Beyond that, there is only awe.”
Edge of the Depths
On Being Strange
Dark Matter of the Mind
Bundle Theory: Embodied Mind, Social Nature
Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond
The Psychology and Anthropology of Consciousness
Reading Voices Into Our Minds
Lock Without a Key
“How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.”
Pacifiers, Individualism & Enculturation
Making Gods, Making Individuals
Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral
Music and Dance on the Mind
The Group Conformity of Hyper-Individualism
Delirium of Hyper-Individualism
Individualism and Isolation
Incentives of Individualism