By John Zerzan
We might say that the three most momentous overall events have been the Big Bang, the emergence of life, and the arrival of consciousness. In terms of the third, everyone has a general notion as to what is meant. Very familiar—but elusive. In fact, consciousness has been called “the last surviving mystery.”i
What exactly is consciousness? How does it come about? What does “consciousness” mean? Saying what constitutes jazz is a parallel slippery one. Hence the line, “If you gotta ask, you’re never gonna know.” The Oxford Guide to Philosophy puts it simply: “Consciousness exists, but it resists definition.”ii
It may be said to be perception of the inner environment or the immediacy of self-awareness. It is something so very central and yet, as Raymond Tallis asserts, most of what we do “can be carried out at least as well, and probably better”iii without it. A pop culture fascination with zombies comes to mind, with at least one attendant question: with the frightening reality we face, is it any wonder that many would rather have less consciousness? But in any case we certainly aren’t zombies. Unlike them we seem to be mainly animated by ourselves, by a mysterious interior force.
Not forgetting the wound at the heart of present-day consciousness. The million or more young Japanese, for example, who suffer from what is called hikikimori, a kind of IT autism/withdrawal. The techno world is now our backdrop for any exploration of consciousness.
Nothing can be more real than our own consciousness, even if nothing is more difficult to spell out. It is so close to what it means to be alive. Thus it is hard to take seriously the claim of some neuroscientists that it is nothing more than the noise neurons make, an illusion. But Colin Tudge wonders how something that isn’t conscious could somehow have illusions.iv Thomas Nagel’s “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”v brings to mind consciousness as tied to our basic sense of ourselves.
Not only is there no accepted definition of our subject, “it is impossible,” according to Stuart Sutherland in The International Dictionary of Psychology, “to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written about it.”vi In this vein, John Horgan noted that there are those who think that “consciousness might never be completely explained in conventional scientific terms—or in any terms, for that matter.”vii
Evidently what gives meaning to existence cannot supply meaning to itself. Without it nothing can be understood and yet consciousness remains an unanswered question, a profound and possibly eternal mystery. In terms of its emergence, for example, how could it speak to what was present in its absence, prior to consciousness? We know, after all, nothing but what consciousness puts there. It is impossible to reveal what it is by coming from the outside because there is no outside. The very effort to do so is something that is inside consciousness. As Ronald Chrisley put it, the difficulty is “not just that we don’t have an objective understanding of this or that token instance of experience, but that we don’t know how we could have an objective understanding of [that] experience at all.”viii
Freud was so very puzzled by consciousness that he turned almost entirely to the unconscious. It is also true, however, that in the field of philosophy of mind the literature on consciousness outstripped that on any other topic by 2000. Locke said that consciousness is “the perception of what passes in a man’s own Mind.”ix It is the realm of the knower being aware of their knowledge. But doesn’t this beg the question? What exactly is such “perception” or “being aware’?
Consciousness may not be a single entity, but that which varies in kind as well as degree. Is it an entity? Brains are made of things, but is consciousness made of anything? It is not anything other than itself. It is unique and private, utterly first-person, and more than that. There seems to be a bedrock, bare-bones, nothing-but element or dimension somewhere in there, as well….
“Considered as to its specific nature, consciousness is a domain closed in itself, a domain into which nothing can enter and from which nothing can escape,” wrote Aron Gurwitsch.x Sounds more like a black hole than our general sense of it. “No matter what theory we come up with,” assayed Colin McGinn, “it always seems to run into some shattering difficulty.”xi Michael Frayn concluded, “Without it nothing can be understood; about it nothing can be said.”xii
We might look at a non-complex organism, one without a nervous system, as “conscious” insofar as it reacts, to, say, a change in temperature or a need for nutrients. But of course it is not self-conscious; it lacks a feeling of autonomy, among other things. For us, consciousness is the living nerve of the self, a mineness, what it feels like to be a particular kind of being. There is a unity of selfness capable of grasping oneself as oneself.
Consciousness of one’s life is the background for all the other experiencing, while not forgetting the physical embodiment of it all. And a basic puzzle remains. Raymond Tallis noticed that “the harder the ‘I’ looks, the less there is to find that seems to be the ‘I,’ to be what the ‘I’ is.”xiii What we are trying to comprehend is the me that is trying to comprehend it. The poet Anna Hampstead Branch cut to the chase: “What are we? I know not.”xiv
Meanwhile, postmodernist thinking has done its best to deflate any claims to self-identity. Postmodernism marginalizes consciousness by asserting that it and the self are fundamentally no more than effects of language. The idea that language produces consciousness (cf. Emile Beneviste) is related to its corollary propositions, e.g. the denial of intentions and even of the presence of the speaker in speech (cf. Derrida), and the denial of the originality and coherence of the author.
Not only are these positions total surrender to the totalizing estrangement of the symbolic, they exhibit an ignorance of human development. Consciousness almost certainly preceded language by many thousands of years. We know that very significant human intellectual capacities are roughly a million years older than evidence of any symbolic ethos. And would not cognitive abilities necessarily predate language? How else could it be explained? Hence to claim that language causes consciousness puts the sequence plainly in the wrong order. There is also abundant case-by-case evidence that consciousness persists in individuals who have been deprived of language function.
Language does not create consciousness, and yet it is true that it is a hugely pervasive, confining presence. As Wittgenstein described, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us repeatedly.”xv Robert Bly celebrates the captivity, missing Wittgenstein’s point entirely: “I say, praise to the first man or woman who wrote down…joy clearly, for we cannot remain in love with what we cannot name.”xvi The dependence on language is pointing at the moon and seeing instead the finger.
Laura Riding asked, “What were we, then,/Before the being of ourselves began?”xvii That beginning of consciousness seems to be much earlier than is commonly thought. As an artifact of human culture it necessarily arose in band society, our face-to-face hunter-gatherer mode of being for two million years or more, well over 95 percent of our tenure as a human species. It was assumed, moreover, that band society was based on kinship; that is, less a matter of conscious choice than the fact of being related to each other. Now there is strong evidence that this was not the case.xviii We were evidently self-aware selectors of our social and cultural attributes for much longer than was previously thought. In this vein, Paul Radin’s work among Winnebago people showed him their reflective, individualistic qualities, which completely discredit the views of Tylor, Lévy-Bruhl, Cassirer and others who viewed “primitives” as pre-conscious, pre-logical.xix
Raymond Tallis saw “no evolutionary reason…why there should be consciousness at all.”xx Domestication of animals, plants, and ourselves in the bargain enters the picture about 10,000 years ago, and we might ponder its impact upon human consciousness. It is clear that non-human animals that are domesticated exhibit juvenilization or arrested development (cf. Lodewijk Bolk). Konrad Lorenz concluded in the 1960s that we also degenerate under domestication. There is a basis for what Roger Caras observed as our ambivalence about our own domesticated nature.xxi Cut off from a condition of intellectual freedom and unmediated connection to the natural world, ours is a place of lessened conscious range and acuity, almost certainly. Nietzsche frequently lamented the suppression of instinct, which is now even more evident in our increasingly deskilled and self-doubting existence. Now we find complete dependence on experts, and machines to replace the most basic conscious capacities.xxii A favorite chilling example of mine is the “babycry” iPhone app: it translates a baby’s cry into one of five messages (the baby is wet, hungry, etc.). Imagine: after so many thousands of generations we are now reaching the point where we need a machine to tell us what our infant needs. Domesticated consciousness moves forward, suppressing and eroding what we always knew.
William James held consciousness to be an awareness of the fleeting present, created and sustained by memory of the past and anticipation of the future.xxiii That doesn’t tell us, however, just what that awareness is or where it came from. It is also a formulation for a specific time and place; it relates to what Matthew Arnold called “this strange disease of modern life.”xxiv The “fleeting” present, the “anticipation” of the future are vivid for us, but they may have been missing altogether when the present did not flee before us and the future didn’t need to be a matter of anticipation. Lacan’s fatalistic ethic of the body comes to mind here. He describes a structure of anticipation in which the self is destined to fail,xxv fitting for an age of anxiety and foreboding.
In a context where experience is negative and threatening, consciousness is altered. Now it becomes useful to block out, not to open. Walter Benjamin referred to the role of consciousness vis-à-vis an often traumatic reality: “…the shock is thus cushioned, parried by our consciousness.”xxvi Benjamin’s colleagues Adorno and Horkheimer saw that thinking has largely become “instrumental reason” under the deforming pressure of domination. Reason is no more neutral or privileged than technology—or consciousness. The instrumentality of the dominant order imparts a particular direction, at a basic level, to consciousness itself. In Foucault’s view, subjectivity is invented and defined by the ascendant social institutions, to control us. Consciousness may be “a feeling about domain-specific capacities that have accumulated over millions of years of evolution,” as Michael Gazzaniga put it.xxvii It is also an artifact of that evolution, another marker of what has overtaken our species.
From Descartes to today, knowledge of the conscious subject seems to have taken on ever-increasing importance as the necessary first step in understanding. It is both the most intractable problem and the most philosophically resonant problem before us. It was central for Kant, though he erred in seeing consciousness as independent of any experience. Robert Brandom noted that “no Hegelian concept can be considered outside the economy of consciousness and self-consciousness.”xxviii In Hegel’s idealist system, however, actual consciousness barely counted. Along these lines, Wilfred Sellars referred to him as “that great foe of immediacy.”xxix Kierkegaard, the anti-Hegel, felt that Hegelianism made us forget what it means to be a conscious self.xxx But for Schopenhauer, awareness of our conscious self is torture; hence the goal is non-consciousness, an aim shared by Buddhists. Bergson was more positive. He defined consciousness as somehow a feeling of spontaneity.
Phenomenology (e.g. Husserl, Merleau-Ponty) celebrates the vitality and centrality of consciousness. Husserl described how the world is constituted through acts of consciousness, emphasizing the inseparability of perception and what is perceived, of consciousness from its objects. Intentionality is a key phenomenological term, meaning that consciousness is always active, always a consciousness of something. Another important phenomenological idea is that thinking must return to that which precedes it, to an originary, pre-conceptual presence or immediacy. This point is anathema to post-structuralist/postmodern types, who assail the notion that consciousness precedes the language used to describe it, and who mount an assault on the central role of consciousness in general.
Kenan Malik refers to a “bizarre love-in” between postmodernists and the neuroscientists who try to explain consciousness as a mechanism and hope to achieve its computer simulation. But he also understands that it isn’t so bizarre that both camps “end up in this virtual world, because both abandoned the one thing that attaches all of us to reality—our conscious selves.”xxxi In a massively estranged world, it is also unsurprising that resistance to mechanistic approaches, even the most ghastly ones like transhumanism and cyborgism, is weakening. In fact, it is loudly asserted that the strengthening technological context of society is “rewiring” our consciousness to our detriment, at a basic level.
A relatively new entry is that of Roger Penrose, who proposes that quantum mechanics, in the person of neuron particles called “microtubules,” may unlock the puzzle of consciousness. The logic seems to be that quantum physics is mysterious and consciousness is mysterious, therefore they must connect with each other.
Generally speaking, neuroscience looks at the mind as a complex computer or set of computational functions. The brain is of course the focus, and this organ is examined in minutest detail; but what is left out is what it feels like to possess a brain. A common assumption has been that computers would at some point become conscious, by becoming more complex and having greater capacity. But while we know why bigger mountains have snow and ice, we do not know why bigger brains have consciousness. Nothing that has emerged in computer technology (e.g. “Artificial Intelligence”) is remotely like consciousness; no sentient device in sight. Neurophilosophy cannot give an account of consciousness that in any way corresponds to ourselves and our conscious lives. Returning full circle, as it were, how can we make a conscious machine work when we don’t know what that would mean?
The nature of the relationship between the nervous system and consciousness remains murky and much debated. A dominant thread is that it has something to do with information processing. Some of our science heroes suggest that consciousness is indeed like information and that therefore we might be able to store it. On a very similar wavelength, they confuse machine computation with thinking and storage with memory. They forget that logical operations may be executed without consciousness—and seem to have nothing to do with it anyway!
Neural activity certainly bears on the shaping of consciousness and to some degree various processes of consciousness can be localized or located in the brain by cognitive neurobiology. The brain is obviously a necessary condition of any type of consciousness, not only self-consciousness, but nowhere is it shown to be a sufficient condition. Raymond Tallis is an invaluable resource on the topic and here is a deliciously pithy comment: “In so far as matter matters, the last word on its mattering lies with the consciousness to whom it matters.”xxxii
There is another point of agreement between postmodernists and neuroscientists (and a much larger number of people who are not aware of the assumptions and implications involved). This is the idea that consciousness is definitively representational. The postmodern tenet that there is nothing outside representation is intimate with the mechanistic identification of consciousness as symbolic processing, or representational. Postmodernists and neuroscientists share a pedigree going back at least as far as Socrates’ belief that consciousness was pictures in the soul. But representation cannot precede self-awareness; it presupposes consciousness, as Tallis points out.xxxiii Is consciousness possible without representation? The weakness of the doubt thus expressed can be dispelled in various ways. For one thing, representation in the form of symbolic culture is a recent development among humans, dated by most archaeologists to the Upper Paleolithic. Thomas Wynn and others have deduced from archaeological evidence that humans were as intelligent as we are a million years before even the first symbolic artifacts, let alone symbolic cultures.xxxiv Is it at all likely, then, that they did not have consciousness?
It is more likely that representation diminishes consciousness. Other perspectives or dimensions are inhibited once the symbolic is established. Immediacy is lost. The injury thus initiated is a commonplace of philosophy, dating from Hegel if not earlier. And it is little wonder that a distrust or unease about symbolic culture and its hold over us is always somewhere present. Lacan referred to a primary lack at the root of consciousness, but the lack is representation itself. Nietzsche described consciousness as a “disease” among Europeans, coming close perhaps to naming culture as the cause.xxxv Consciousness in the age of total representation has to be more damaged still.xxxvi
The idea that there are limits to our comprehension and that grasping our own consciousness may be beyond those limits is not a novel one. It seems to me that Colin McGinn has explained this very lucidly, in terms of representation. In sum: “While consciousness is a nonspatial phenomenon, human thought is fundamentally governed by spatial modes of representing the world.”xxxvii I think McGinn captured the possibly insoluble heart of the challenge to comprehend consciousness. Like time, consciousness may not be subject to representation.xxxviii Echoing St. Augustine’s meditations on time almost word for word, Sir William Hamilton wrote two centuries ago: “Consciousness cannot be defined; we may be ourselves fully aware of what consciousness is, but we cannot without confusion convey to others a definition of what we ourselves clearly apprehend.”xxxix Like time, consciousness may be nothing in itself, but there any resemblance ends. For the former, as an alienating, colonizing, dominating symbolic consciousness, is the bane of the latter. The inner reality of consciousness is active and fertile. We exert ourselves to plumb its full potential, to find what is preserved there, to find new states, a sharper self-presence, even if at times we also seek to be less than conscious.
Living under present conditions, our consciousness is haunted, and still we desire the open and undivided consciousness of the child, reminding us of what is almost a miracle, the polyphony of reality presented, not represented.
There is an often-told tale of a Pacific sailor who turns over his craft to islanders on an overcast, stormy night, and then marvels at their success at finding an island without so much as a compass.
When they arrived he asked, “How did you know that the island was there?”
The Native crew replied, “It has always been there.”xl