Human constructed physical structures, from roads and channeled rivers to walls and buildings, are the templates of social and psychic structures. This is the foundation of social construction and constructivism, upon which superstructures are built. Julian Jaynes suggested this operates linguistically by way of metaphors, helping to create analog structures (e.g., inner mind-space). Whatever the mechanism, the underlying theory is that we can tell a lot about a society by the kinds of structures they use, inhabit, and speak about.
For Jaynes, he seems to have limited his speculations in this area to that of the container metaphor. That makes sense. It’s not only that actual containers (pouches, jugs, jars, barrels, boxes, etc) became more common as civilization developed, beginning with the agricultural revolution and later increasing with surplus yields and wide-scale trade. All structures, from temples to houses to granaries, became more enclosed and hence more containing.
In contrast, there is the example of the Piraha with their animistic mentality (the term offered by Paul Otteson). At first, Marcel Kuijsten, the editor of many collections of Jaynesian scholarship, suggested that animistic mentality was a subset of bicameral mentality; but he clarified that his suggestion was tentative. We weren’t certain at first and we’re now leaning more toward distinguishing the two. The reason precisely has to do with the container metaphor.
The Piraha don’t seem to make or use containers. They rarely store food, except occasionally smoking some fish for trade. Even their shelters are as simple as possible. The few objects they trade for (e.g., metal axes) are treated with little sense of value and no sense of possession, just left lying around for anyone to use; or else simply to be forgotten. It’s unsurprising they have an extremely uncontained sense of self, not to mention an unstructured social order.
To be accurate, it’s not that the extreme end of non-WEIRD mentality is actually unstructured. Rather, it is structured more according to the natural world. Hunter-gatherers often have a sense of self that is shaped by the immediate environment and sensory field. For the Piraha, they live on a river and so maybe it’s unsurprising their very conception of reality is one that flows and shifts, that appears and disappears as if going around a bend.
The Australian Aborigines offer a middle position, as they already had basic agriculture, including granaries. Like many tribal people, they had highly structured the world around them, though early Westerners couldn’t see it. The whole world was a garden to be tended. The Aborigines managed water, fire, and animals; similar to Native Americans. Aboriginal Songlines were a geographic mapping of psyche, based on landscape markings, seasonal patterns, ecosystems, and ancient trails.
So, in reality, human experience is always structured. But maybe that isn’t quite right. Structure implies a struction, something that was constructed. Not all societies spend much time constructing, if there is no society that doesn’t construct something. Even the Piraha make basic things as needed, albeit on a limited scale, heavy emphasis on the latter point. The Piraha go to the extreme of not bothering to make jewelry or ornamented clothing. Neither do they construct stories, in having no storytelling tradition, although they’ll sometimes repeat the stories they’ve heard outsiders tell.
Still, the Piraha do build things, such as shelters, bows and arrows, etc. But there is something unique about building containers, an object of little use to the Piraha. The archaic bicameral mentality, according to Jaynes, likewise wasn’t modeled according to the container metaphor. Yet the structures that had developed by the time of the Bronze Age were much more containing, in the proliferation of enclosed spaces. And containers proper were becoming more commonly used.
In this context, voice-hearing also seems to have become more structured, as opposed to the egalitarian and non-hierarchical voice-speaking (i.e., spirit ‘possession’) of the Piraha. The first permanent structures were not houses to be lived in, granaries to store food, or any such thing. They apparently were ritual sites, that is to say houses for the gods, god-kings, and ancestors. The mummified bodies or skulls were literally housed there, presumably because they were maintained as an aid in hearing the voices of the dead or of hearing the voices that spoke through the dead.
Animistic tribes like the Piraha don’t do any such thing. There is no individual who permanently possesses or is possessed by archaic authorization. Spirits and the dead can speak through any number of people, as there are no authority figures of any sort, no shamans, healers, chiefs, or council of elders. As such, when any given person dies, it’s no more relevant than any other death. Access to the voices isn’t threatened because they are free-floating identities — one might consider them communal theories of mind.
All of that changed with the agricultural revolution, and so that is what begins an important distinction. Bicameral mentality not only with temples and later urbanization but increasingly with their walled city-states and emerging empires was more contained than animistic mentality, if far less contained than Jaynesian consciousness. The difference was communal-containment versus self-containment, but still a containment of sorts in either case, as contrasted to animistic uncontainment.
Both the bicameral-minded and the consciousness-minded had hierarchies, separating them both from the extreme opposite end of animistic-minded laissez-faire egalitarianism. Since the Piraha don’t have any authority figures at all, hierarchical or otherwise, there is no one in a position to monopolize and control voice authorization. Hence, no enforced authoritarianism, although plenty of tribalistic conventionalism and conformism that is maintained merely through shared identity.
We could speculate that authoritarianism had already appeared, if barely, among the earliest bicameral-minded societies, following the agricultural revolution, since that was the beginning of new forms of extreme stress: overcrowding, resource competition, malnutrition, famine, infectious disease, etc — indeed, research shows that such large-scalle stressors are precisely the conditions of authoritarianism. Whenever it first appeared, we certainly can safely assert that full-on authoritarianism was taking hold by the end of the Bronze Age.
We lean in the direction of the initial wave of bicameral-minded societies only having been partly and temporarily authoritarian, as conditions changed. But is partial and temporary authoritarianism actually authoritarian? We sense that it is not or at least not in how we understand it. Humans can collectively respond to threats, sometimes in oppressive ways, but without forming permanent authoritarian social orders. The threat response is built into the human psyche, as it’s an evolved survival instinct. Authoritarianism isn’t merely the threat response under normal conditions for it only appears when stressors continue indefinitely without the option of resolution or escape — it becomes stuck in the on position and so takes exaggerated form.
The entrenchment of authoritarianism as overwhelming and pervasive stress, in inducing mass anxiety and trauma, might be the very thing that was undermining bicameral mentality by the end of the Bronze Age. Maybe bicameral mentality required the lingering traces of the non-authoritarian animistic mentality. The problem was that bicameral mentality required the control of animistic mentality in order to control ever larger and unwieldy populations, but this kind of social control is anathema to animistic communalism and egalitarianism.
If we accept that view, we could interpret bicameral mentality as a very long transitional phase from animistic mentality to Jaynesian consciousness. In a sense, it was never a stable order because it was built on an internal conflict. Over time, it demanded more and more authoritarianism, which undermined the very voice-hearing that held the society together. The bicameral-minded societies were the earliest attempts at making agriculture a sustainable social order. It was an experiment and no one knew what they were doing.
The container metaphor might offer us a central insight. To contain something is to control it. Hunter-gatherers often have little need for control, depending on how much or how little stress they are under. But once agricultural settlements become permanent, control becomes necessary for continued survival. Farmers can’t simply move on and go their separate ways. That was ever more true as urbanization increased, food systems complexified, and trade became interdependent. There was no second option. When drought or famine occurred, most of the population simply died. The containing structure of civilization sometimes became a death trap.
That could be what also distinguishes early bicameral mentality from late bicameral mentality. The earliest structures were apparently ritual sites that were visited, not places of settlements. And even the first settlements were typically temporary affairs. It took many millennia for permanent settlements to have become more common, as large populations became dependent on agricultural foods. There was no turning back, in the way that was previously possible with small city-states that regularly dissolved back to herder and forager tribes.
Maybe what we mean by Jaynesian consciousness is simply civilization finally hitting a tipping point, the ending of the transitional phase of bicameral mentality. The pre-agricultural practices and cultures had finally and fully been forgotten from living memory or somehow no longer valid and applicable to altered conditions. When the Bronze Age collapse happened, this was a crisis since there was no other option remaining, no option of a return to animistic mentality. Large urban and farming populations can’t easily transition back to tribes of any sort.
That was a period of catastrophe, as the great empires fell like dominoes when hit by a series of natural disasters (volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, wildfires, climatic changes, etc) that led to famines, refugees, and marauders. Vast numbers were suddenly forced out of their settled, stable, and secure lifestyles. What little they brought with them were containers of goods. It was the one structure they could rely on when all other structures had been destroyed, lost, or left behind. It was an obvious step for the container metaphor to become psychologically potent.
Self-containment was something entirely new, but it was built on the psychic structures of the prior age. It meant the final and complete suppression of the animistic mentality as a social order. Yes, the bicameral-minded social order, as a transitional phase, was over; albeit the animistic mentality could never be completely eliminated, however suppressed and distorted it became. This is maybe why some associate modern authoritarianism with a return of the repressed bicameral-minded impulses with its late stage authoritarianism: stratified hierarchies, centralized power, expansionary imperialism, standing armies, long-distance warfare, brutal oppression, genocidal slaughter, mass enslavement, written laws, court systems, moralistic norms, etc.
We were thinking about this in reading an interview with Brian J. McVeigh, a student of Julian Jaynes, in the collection recently put out, Conversations on Consciousness and the Bicameral Mind edited by Marcel Kuijsten. He was talking of the need to increase self-control to stabilize and optimize consciousness. We’ve come across him talking similarly in an earlier talk he had with Jaynes, from Discussions with Julian Jaynes. That meeting with Jaynes took place on June 5, 1991. So, this is a longstanding view of McVeigh, going back more than three decades, spanning his entire professional career, since that was the same year he got his doctorate.
This commitment to a control-orientation was probably something he picked up from Jaynes himself, as the two seemed in agreement. That perspective is understandable. As a society, we’ve become committed to Jaynesian consciousness. Our entire society is ordered in terms of it and so, at this point, it might be pathway dependence. The only way might seem to be forward. But one might wonder if there is an inherent contradiction to Jaynesian consciousness, as happened before with bicameral mentality, an intrinsic and irresolvable conflict that will worsen over time until it becomes an existential crisis.
The success of Jaynesian consciousness might end up being its doom, specifically as complexity leads to stress, anxiety, and trauma that would elicit increasing threat responses. To contain means to control, initially at a communal level, and that is precisely what predisposed bicameral mentality over time to worsening authoritarianism. That then made empires possible, if empires ultimately can’t operate according to bicameral mentality. It was an impossible situation that made collapse near inevitable.
Out of the wreckage, Jaynesian consciousness created a new order of control, but it came at a high price. Over the millennia, civilization has been on a boom and bust cycle with some of the busts being doozies. So, what if we are in a similar situation or else will get to that situation sometime in the future? We think of self-containment as self-control in making autonomy and independence possible. But maybe this is more of a perception than a reality. Only the controlled would imagine freedom as yet more control.
As a side note, the etymology of ‘freedom’ originated among German tribes, probably when they still were animistic. This word is cognate with ‘friend’. To be free, in this sense, meant to belong to a free people, uncontrolled and uncontained for the identity was shared and not enforced. It’s all about relationship, not individualism. So far, humans have never found a way to have individualism without authoritarianism for individuals act individually and hence need to be controlled for social order, collective action, and public good. This is made clear in how Germanic ‘freedom’ is opposite of Latin ‘liberty’ that, under the Roman Empire, simply meant not being being legally enslaved in a slave-based society.
This is the reason Southern slaveholders fought for liberty, not for freedom. They could make statements like, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” Liberty only applied to those who owned themselves. Then again, all the way back at least to the Stoics, there was the beginning of a concept of self-ownership that even slaves could claim, as no one else could own one’s soul. This sense of individualism was in compliance with authoritarianism, as the liberty of self-identity didn’t require liberty of the body. This remains true with modern wage slavery. Unlike animistic and egalitarian tribes, modern humans have little freedom to do what they will, as we live under the constant threat of hunger and homelessness if we don’t comply with and submit to the system of control.
Do we really control ourselves at all? Benjamin Libet’s research would indicate otherwise, as we apparently only become conscious of our actions after they are initiated. Control is a narrative that we tell ourselves for comfort. Self-ownership of the propertied self, what a strange thing — as if the individual could be removed from the public sector and made into a private corporation. We know that the self can never be made into an actual object separate from enmeshment in the world and relationships. Yet self-ownership clothed in the Burkean moral imagination is ideological realism at the highest level. It’s so compelling, a hypnotic trance.
But one might suspect it’s a cognitive trap, a dead end. Isn’t this a metaphorical internalization and ideological interpellation where the ego-self is made into a tyrant and slaveholder of the psychic realm, a demiurgic and archonic overlord? It seems to be an odd self-enforced authoritarianism, where one part of the psyche comes to rule over the rest; or else merely made to appear so, in acting as a puppet dictator who rationalizes the forces actually outside of his control. Exactly who is owning and controlling? Who is being owned and controlled?
Is inner authoritarianism an improvement over external authoritarianism? Or are they mirroring each other? Aren’t they ultimately of the same cloth? Is this why so many authoritarian regimes, from the Nazis to the Stalinists, rhetorically praised the individual soldier, worker, etc? Is there ever the light of individualism without the shadow of authoritarianism? How is one free when inside a container one cannot get out of? If we truly seek freedom, we might want to consider a new metaphor, and that would require new structures from which to form new identities. But it’s unclear, at this point, that we are capable of transformation without collapse.
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As an additional thought, we have doubts that Jaynes’ emphasis on metaphor is sufficient. That is the point of why we pontificate on actual structures. All metaphors begin in the physical world. But we are still left with explaining why some structures become common metaphors and why some common metaphors become internalized as identity. To this extent, we were building upon Jaynes’ own theorizing. And we could refer back to other thoughts we’ve had along these lines. It’s not only that structures of buildings and containers potentially shape the psyche. The most major factor might be how a key component of the civilizational project is the reshaping of the landscape, particularly in light of how central landscape has always been, such as with the earliest mnemonic systems of oral cultures, from the Australian Aborigines to the archaic Greeks.
This brings us to agriculture, as control of the earth itself (Enclosure of the Mind). But that is not how it began, in the earliest glimmers of the agricultural revolution. Even many millennia later into the post-bicameral dark age, agriculture remained a rough and primitive endeavor of weedy fields. The cultivation of grains, at the time, wouldn’t necessarily have looked much different from wild grasslands. It took the Axial Age to bring on systematization of farmland and farming practices (e.g., weed and ergot control) that would eventually make possible large and dependable surplus yields. Land reform, during modernity, took this to the next level as a nationalistic reform agenda to enforce what Brian J. McVeigh calls the ‘propertied self’. Every aspect of the landscape fell under greater control, from the plutocratic enclosure movement to technocratic land and water management. Nothing was left to remain uncontained and uncontrolled. Even ‘wilderness’ was to be carefully managed as part of bureaucratic park systems and national territories.
As external control has increased, so have the demands of internal self-control. Authoritarianism is ever more introjected. We can’t escape the oppression because it’s infected us, to such an extent we’ve become identified with the parasite. We can’t imagine anything else because our imagination is also contained, in having spent our entire lives within contained landscapes, especially with mass urbanization and city planning. It is near perfect epistemic closure; an all-encompassing ideological realism; a totalitarian interpellation. For all that tells us about our predicament, it’s still left to be determined what made it all possible, what motivated it in the first place, and what continually compelled humanity across millennia. The rarely discussed component is not just agriculture as a system and social order but what it produced.
This is seen right from the beginning of agriculture when the state of health plummeted, under the pressure of malnutrition and pestilence. The complete alteration of the human diet with farming, in particular, was one of the most profound changes humanity has ever experienced, maybe only equal to the megafauna die-off that immediately preceded it in causing the initial loss of nutrient density that turned humanity toward increased intake of plant foods. But it wasn’t only what was lost. In grains and dairy, there were substances that had not previously been a central part of what humans ate. Some of these substances appear to be addictive, along with affecting neurocognitive development (The Agricultural Mind). On top of that, it was what was being replaced