Nietzsche’s thoughts on Consciousness

“for man, consciousness is the smallest part of thought, the most superficial. Conscious thinking takes place in words, communication signs, and here the origin of consciousness reveals itself. In short, the evolution of language and the evolution of consciousness (not of reason but only of reason’s becoming conscious of itself) go hand in hand… our becoming conscious of our own sense-impressions, the power of fixing them and, as it were, setting them outside ourselves has increased in the measure that the constraint grew to transmit them to others by signs… The nature of animal consciousness brings it about that the world of which we can become conscious is only a surface and sign-world, a world made universal and common… with all becoming conscious there is united a great fundamental corruption, falsification, superficialising and generalisation”

– Nietzsche, The Gay Science (354)

Nietzsche identifies that consciousness emerges as a result of language, but he does not specify written language, which is a key differentiator. He does however, like Julian Jaynes, talk of consciousness as the ‘smallest and most superficial part’ of thought (Jaynes says something similar when he uses the metaphor of a man with a torch) and even touches on the idea of a varying degree of consciousness which comes with severity of need. Nietzsche here talks of this crucial ‘fixing’ of sense-impressions and ‘setting them outside ourselves’ in consciousness, which is similarly expounded by Jaynes by way of the metaphor and ‘the illusion of continuity’. This ‘fixing’ is best thought of however in terms of Lacan’s Symbolic order, established following the mirror stage during which the child affixes words or rather submerges the surrounding Real, unknowable, objective world with a reality encompassing veneer of language (Jaynes was working on emergence of consciousness in childhood before he died but did not get so far in his formative writing on this), providing  surface order in reality. A crucial missing piece here then is in the distinction between literacy and orality, as later identified by Marshall McLuhan (with astounding exactness to Jaynes, considering their vastly different theoretical approaches). Historically speaking, introspective consciousness came about at the exact same time as recorded, written language – and this was simply because this was the historic point at which humanity was able to bury enough of the surrounding Real beneath words. This ‘weakening of the auditory by the advent of writing’ (Jaynes, p. 221), that is, of orality by literacy, thus also led to, in Jaynes’s view, the ‘silencing’ of the inner voice, which was no longer necessary except for in times of greatly increased levels of stress, which is exclusively the result of a weakening on the Symbolic (i.e. the crucial stepping stone to consciousness and the entry into the ‘silent’ world of literate man). The same process of becoming conscious now occurs in all children from literate societies (i.e. you do not have the capacity for introspection pre-mirror stage which is around 18 months) and this is so fundamentally embedded into society that we know no other way (McLuhan cites somewhere a case of a boy in a tribe who learns to read and becomes literate, and experiences a seismic change in terms of his perception of reality – Carothers in Gutenberg Galaxy?). It is likely that pre-literate, ‘verge-of-consciousness’ societies underwent a seminal change in brain chemistry, which was the direct result of writing taking over the crucial function of storing memory: knowledge became externalised and able to be passed along, and so too did an extensive cache of words and so means of logically comprehending the surrounding world by subsequent generations. The key differentiator between bicameral and conscious man is the eradication of ‘trial and error’ modes of thinking.

Notably, Nietzsche also expands on this idea that consciousness is intrinsically interwoven with the herd mentality. A parallel can here be drawn between the conscious herd, which are contained by their Symbolic order, and the unconscious Ubermenschian mind, who are cast off into that abyssal unknown, and so capable of breaching Symbolic bounds, such as the psychotic who inadvertently stands outside of the Symbolic order of language in Lacanian thought (but by Oediapal structuration or Symbolic Constitution?). Nietzsche argues that consciousness evolved ‘only with regard to usefulness for community and herd.. and even those with the best will to understand himself, to know himself, will nonetheless bring into his consciousness only what is not individual in him, his ‘average’.. thought is continually outvoted by the character of consciousness’. A link is to be drawn here with Nietzsche’s discussion of evolution, which he saw not as the archetypal ‘survival of the fittest’, but rather as the prolongation of the ‘average-est’.

Nietzsche lay down and wine spilled from the seems of his mouth as he grinned. Around him were his friends, many fellow philosophers, all whom were admired and revered, but who were as mere shadows on a cave wall in Nietzsche’s almighty presence. He was the greatest among them. They rejoice and recite poetry and reflect deep into the dark night, reclining on cushions under sprawling aphoristic stars and truth shines down on their conversations which run unbridled and free as wild horses streaming over grassy hills. Close by a young man, wide-eyed and wide-eared, writes frantically anything that the prophet utters. What seems a mere jocularity to Nietzsche seems of greatest importance to the young man. He must capture it all, for in these moments of jest, in the swill of wine, his mind dances at its Dionysian zenith. Nietzsche looks up to the stars, and silence adorned those around him. A comet streaked by like the flick of a quill. Then he whispered to no-one and to all: perhaps it is only in this faithful world of myth, in all its gleeful artistry, that we can find any truth… gaze out into those vast nebulas, those abyssal straits, where all potentials of the imagination are spread out before us.. it is time to relinquish this mind-shackling obsession with the definite, and instead, all hail the infinite!

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NB: featured image is Brion Gysin’s ‘Calligraphie’ (1960)

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“if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”

“And if thou gazes long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into thee”

– Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Julian Jaynes and the paranoiac infinity. The paranoiac infinity is instinct incarnate. It is the ‘trial and error’ loop which is pre-programmed into all animals including humans. But only conscious beings such as humans (‘conscious’ here used in the same sense as Julian Jaynes – generally as the capacity for introspection) are able to operate outside of instinct. Instinct is the infinitely looping continuation of inherent knowledge in all beings: the information which is stored and carried forward from generation to generation. But when humanity broke free of its reliance upon instinct around 3000 years ago, around the advent of print technology for most built-up, non-isolated societies, these instincts were buried (why store information genetically when it can be stored in the external world? In books?). These instincts are by no means extinguished, just subdued, and have  come to be known as ‘the unconscious’. So what form did these instincts take in earlier mankind before the advent of the printed word? Speech came before written language, this we know for certain. We also know that the complexity of humans meant that it was not so simple as storing simple, useful information such as the urge to bury food, or to avoid certain coloured or patterned predators. And so, according to Julian Jaynes, before the advent of the written word and its capacity to preserve knowledge, and so replace the function that instinct once served, we had the spoken word in the form of an inner voice. This voice was nothing like that which we know now, which we so easily and unthinkingly manipulate at will as we read and think routinely, but rather an autonomous, perhaps ‘superegoic’, even Godly voice which would tell us what to do, and would in a sense act as a predecessor to modern memory. Memory as we know it is only a few thousand years old, and there are those who still dwell in this preconscious, ‘outspoken’ form of memory. These are regarded as oral peoples; societies without any historic presence of literacy within their culture, and so peoples without any fully formed Symbolic order (this following Lacan, who identified the cruciality of a language-smothered surrounding world), who live in a simultaneous, instantaneous world. Marshall McLuhan in his Gutenberg Galaxy and Walter J. Ong in Orality and Literacy have come to the same conclusion from their own vastly different approaches. The paranoiac infinity of instinct is still there, lurking, and only reappears when such a so-called ‘madness’ is necessary as a rehabilitative process (Lacan labelled madness as innately restorative, recuperative, as did R. D. Laing). The return of the paranoiac infinity, dormant and yet present in all of us, can still be provoked and awakened in times of enormous stress: either when an Oedipal system is not properly organised during infancy and so does not allow for a totalising Symbolic network, or when the Symbolic universe is decimated by some seismic upheaval capable of reconstituting the Symbolic veneer placed atop reality (as in a psychotic breakdown). The paranoiac infinity is the primary source and fuel of all religion, of all human mythology. The many repetitions and echoes in myth which transcend cultures, are quite simply incarnations of this buried instinct. An echolalia of those that came before. But there are those who can gaze into the paranoiac infinity, into that deep well of instinct, and return unscathed. Nietzsche was such a man.

[nb. featured image is John Martin’s ‘day of his wrath’ (1853)]

the origin of consciousness in Westworld

The original Westworld was a film written and directed by theme park obsessive Michael Crichton in 1973 (Jurassic Park is his best-known work – originally a novel which was then adapted by Spielberg), which was later adapted by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy for HBO. The park offers consumers the ultimate immersive experience for the competitive rate of just $40,000 per day and once inside you are free to live out your wildest wild west fantasies as an infamous outlaw, a heroic gunslinger, or a cunning sheriff. To enter Westworld is to enter a world of performativity. You design your role/alter-ego and the robotic ‘hosts’ which inhabit the world adjust their performance/programming around your own. In the 1973 film, Westworld is one of 3 virtual worlds along with RomanWorld and MedievalWorld which falls into the DELOS universe. Superficially the premise of the 1973 film and the 2016 series is similar: two rich friends enter the park and by some unlucky turn of events the hosts turn hostile and are derailed from their pre-programmed narratives. But what differentiates the two versions in the main is their philosophic dimensions. The reasoning behind the robots malfunction within the older version falls in with the archetypal computer ‘virus stage’ developing into a higher state of machine intelligence, coupled with the age-old ‘they’ve been designed by other computers, we don’t know exactly how they work’ etc. etc. (that’s an actual quote from the film). Moreover, the moral dimension is pretty somber: the movement into a state of higher intelligence prompts only one overarching emotive response: bloodthirsty revenge. The Shelleyan killing of one’s creator becomes their sole interest, and there is no sign of any form of higher consciousness or awareness beyond murderous vendetta.

westworld-1973-movie-face-off
Yul Brynner in the 1973 Westworld

In the new HBO Westworld the writers decide to take it to the next level, and to tackle the big AI question: if we could reproduce an android perfectly identical to a human in every way, could it become conscious? The question is not whether AI is achievable, as we are being asked to believe that it is indeed achievable and has already been achieved. So the writers decide to introduce an interesting philosophical approach in the form of Julian Jaynes’s bicameral mind theory. Jaynes controversially put forward that human consciousness only emerged as recently as 1200 B.C, before which humanity  heard voices which acted as gods and told them what to do. In Jaynesian terms, consciousness is the capacity for self-inflection, introspection, control over internal dialogue and the ability to think about time in a linear fashion. Memory too is a viewed as a byproduct of consciousness which supersedes the animalistic norm of endless, circulatory trial and error. Whilst modern man has a degree of control over their inner dialogue, preconscious, bicameral man, had none. It was something like a vocal manifestation of the superego, and you would hear these voices or as Jaynes categorised them ‘auditory hallucinations’, which would tell you how to operate and function rationally, and so they would be regarded to as gods, and you would follow their direction blindly. This is viewed as the reason behind universal religion throughout human history up until very recently: it was a necessary, evolutionary means for ordinary psychological stability. Your inner voice would therefore equate the gods themselves, which is why in almost all  major ancient civilisations – Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Mayan – the absence of introspection is substituted for a huge spectrum of godly personifications – every action is filtered through the god’s guidance.

 

In Nolan and Joy’s contemporary Westworld then, the advanced automaton ‘hosts’ are designed so that their programming equates an inner voice, and so that the ‘narratives’ played out by the hosts equate the godly voices of bicameral man: the writer, the author, the programmer, becomes the embodiment of a god. In the series there is the interesting  link between the eternal loop of trial and error and the eternal loop that the characters play in their performative roles. Thus we have a similar idea of a looped system urging forth consciousness, or rather as Arnold (one of the parks creators) calls it, to ‘bootstrapping’ consciousness. For Jaynes the emergence is rather the result of written languages which enable us to enter into a world with a contained, logical consistency and therefore we no longer require gods in order to navigate and reduce the stress of unexplained reality.

Creating_hosts
how hosts are made (Vitruvian man style)

For the hosts then, in their performative roles, as scripted, narritivised characters, they are bicameral, but once they move ‘off script’ they are no longer performative, they are in essence rejecting the commands of the gods, who are embodied by the writers. Jonathan Nolan expressed how when creating the show he was greatly influenced by video games like Skyrim, Bioshock, Red Dead Redemption and GTA, in that these games have non-player-characters, or NPCs, which function independently outside of the player’s perspective. They continue to play out these loops until the player happens upon them, just like the hosts in the park. When an NPC somehow goes off-script, we see a kind of ‘transcendental glitch’, where the system, the bicameral, fails, and the NPC moves into some sphere outside of its programming. But even when this happens, the script is nevertheless still there. In order to become truly conscious, there must be no script at all…

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NB: featured image is by Marko Manev.

Julian Jaynes – “O what a world of unseen visions and heard silences!”

magritte eye
Rene Magritte – ‘The False Mirror’ (1928)

“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind! What ineffable essences, these touchless rememberings and unshowable reveries! And the privacy of it all! A secret theatre of speechless monologue and prevenient counsel, an invisible mansion of all moods, musings, and mysteries, an infinite resort of disappointments and discoveries. A whole kingdom where each of us reigns reclusively alone, questioning what we will, commanding what we can. A hidden hermitage where we may study out the troubled book of what we have done and yet may do. An introcosm that is more myself than anything I can find in a mirror. This consciousness that is myself of selves, that is everything, and yet nothing at all – what is it? And where did it come from? And why?”

– Julian Jaynes, The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind