Lock Without a Key

In his recent book The “Other” Psychology of Julian Jaynes, Brian J. McVeigh brings the latest evidence to bear on the the theory of the bicameral mind. His focus is on textual evidence, the use of what he calls mind words and their frequency. But before getting to the evidence itself, he clarifies a number of issues, specifically the ever confounding topic of consciousness itself. Many have proclaimed Jaynes to have been wrong based on their having no clue of what he was talking about, as he used consciousness in a particular way that he took great care to define… for anyone who bothers to actually read his book before dismissing it.

To avoid confusion, McVeigh refers to Jaynesian ‘consciousness’ as conscious interiority (others simply call it J-consciousness). McVeigh states that his purpose is to “distinguish it from perception, thinking, cognition, rational thought, and other concepts.” Basically, Jaynes wasn’t talking about any form of basic awareness and physiological reactivity (e.g., a slug recoiling from salt) nor complex neurocognitive skills (e.g., numerical accounting of trade goods and taxes), as the bicameral mind possessed these traits. Starting with Jaynes’ analysis, McVeigh as he does in other books gives a summary of the features of concious interiority:

  • Spatialization of Psyche
  • Introception
  • Excerption
  • Self-narratzation
  • Self-autonomy
  • Self-authorization
  • Concilence
  • Indidviduation
  • Self-reflexivity

These describe a historically contingent state of mind and social identity, a way of being in the world and experiencing reality, a social order and cultural lifestyle. These traits are peculiar to civilization of these past millennia. But be clear that they are no indication of superiority, as archaic civilizations were able to accomplish tasks we find phenomenal — such as envisioning and planning over multiple generations to carve stones that weigh hundreds of tons, move them over great distances, and place them into precise position in the process of building large complex structures, something we don’t know how to accomplish without the advances of modern mathematics, architecture, and technology.

There is nothing inevitable nor necessary about consciousness, and it is surely possible that civilization could have developed in alternative ways that might have been far more advanced than what we presently know. Consider that the largest city in the world during early European colonialism was in the Americas, where the bicameral mind may have held on for a longer period of time. If not for the decimation by disease (and earlier Bronze Age decimation by environmental catastrophe), bicameralism might have continued to dominate civilization and led to a different equivalent of the Axial Age with whatever would have followed from it. History is full of arbitrary junctures that end up tipping humanity one way or another, depending on which way the wind happens to be blowing on a particular day or how the entire weather pattern might shift over several centuries.

That said, in history as it did play out, we now have our specific egoic consciousness and it is hard for us to imagine anything else, even if in the grand scheme of things our mighty neurocognitive monoculture is a mere momentary blip in the passing of eons, maybe disappearing in the near future as quickly as it came. Our civilization lives in a constant state of precarious uncertainty. That is why we study the past, in order to grapple with the present, and maybe just maybe glimpse what is yet to come. We might as well spend our time in this game of attempted self-understanding, if only to amuse future generations who might happen upon our half-witted ponderings.

Let us consider one aspect of consciousness. Here is McVeigh’s quick summary of concilience (pp. 39-40): A “slightly ambiguous perceived object is made to conform to some previously learned schema.” Consilience (or assimilation) is “doing in mind-space what narratization does in our mind-time or spatialized time. It brings things together [as] conscious objects just as narratization brings episodes together as a story” (Jaynes 1976; 64-65). I hadn’t previously given this much thought. But for some reason it stood out to me in my perusal. Immediately coming to mind was Lewis Hyde’s metonymy, along with the nexus of metaphorical framing, embodied mind, and symbolic conflation. Related to concilience and narratization, McVeigh speaks of coception which he defines as “how perceptions and introceptions coincide (such overlapping deludes us into assuming that interior experiences are sensory reflections of reality)” (p. 41).

I’m not sure to what degree I comprehend what McVeigh is getting at. But I grasp some hints of what it might mean. It resonates with my readings of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World (see “Why are you thinking about this?”). Hyde defines metonymy as “substituting of one thing for another” (p. 169), “an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap. Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman).”

Even more relevant is Hyde’s detailed exploration of the body and shame. I’d propose that this is a key factor in the rise of consciousness. Jaynes’ noted that shame and general obsession over nakedness, sexuality, etc can’t be found in the earliest texts and art (maybe not entirely unrelated to how anthropologists have observed the depression that follows when tribal people first see themselves in a mirror and so see themselves as others see them, which leads to the entertaining thought of Bronze Age civilizations having collapsed as mirrors became widely used and the populations descended into mass despondency). Hyde says that, “The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. […] In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.”

This word magik of hypnotic metonymy and concilience is how we fall into our collective trance. We mass hallucinate our moral imagination into social reality. And then we enforce the narrative of individual selfhood onto ourselves, passing it on as an intergenerational inheritance or curse. What if shame is the cornerstone of modern civilization built over the buried corpse of bicameral civilization? We construct the social order around us like a prison to which we forgot to design a key. Shame is the trap we set for ourselves, the trap we keep on triggering, the door locking behind us each time. And so shame is the mechanism of the lock that we refuse to look at, the mechanism that would release us.

It is only in consciousness that we can remain unconscious.