BEING AND SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS
ROBERT J. LEWIS
For the use of reason
is to justify
the obscure desires that move our conduct, impulses,
passions, prejudices and follies, and also our fears.
Never to see yourself
as others see you,
it's a wonderful preservative.
no one is comfortable with the negative feelings and awkwardness
associated with being self-conscious, why is this unwanted, anti-productive
attribute written into our DNA? The dread and discomfort joined
at the hip with self-consciousness predict the reflex movement
away from it towards the opposite state of mind (lessness) --
a validation of Freud’s death wish theory, we wonder out
loud? What is the evolutionary purpose of self-consciousness?
What benefit, what advantage did it confer, when, let us hypothesize,
there were two competing versions of man: one with it, the other
with the appearance of intelligent life on earth has been the
unrelenting, pitiless war man has been waging against self-consciousness.
The truces have been fragile, ephemeral, and the victories costly
in consideration of time and capital man has invested in trying
to free himself from the state’s crippling imperatives and
punishing protocols. It’s hardly a coincidence that every
society in the world encourages the consumption of some sort of
narcotizing agent in order to temporarily decommission that part
of the brain (neo-cortex) responsible for the condition of self-consciousness
in order to facilitate the reversion to the pre-reflective state
of mind we associate with animals and the variegated vegetable
kingdom. Carrot envy or carrot consciousness is not a choice as
much as a preset or vital interval, and is coeval with our very
humanity. It has been suggested that one of the primary functions
of sleep is to allow us to recover from the stresses and debilitations
associated with SC (self-consciousness). A cottage industry of
self-help literature has sprung up in response to the needs of
millions who are desperate to overcome their self-consciousness,
variously described as the enemy of performance, fun and life.
since our being-in-the-world is inextricably linked to SC there
must be a reason for it, assuming the gene sequence responsible
for the condition is not simply an adventitious mutation that
has managed to survive until the present. If we grant that there
are degrees of SC, often quantified as an epidermal designate,
empirical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the thick-skinned
among us are consistently more successful than the thin-skinned.
to persuade an audience to undertake a particular course of
action, but he is too self-consciousness to stand before their
gaze: he fears their judgment, the power they hold over him.
At the podium, his voice cracks, tightens, he freezes, he fails
to speak. Someone else, Y, unaffected by SC, addresses this
same group and convinces them to buy into another course of
action to which X is opposed. His ideas survive, X’s does
not. In the performing arts, the singer who is comfortable performing
in public gets a hearing, the singer who is too self-conscious
early man lived nomadically in tribes, and optimal performance
meant the difference between life and death, the hunter or hunters
who fell prey to being negatively affected by SC returned to
their dependents empty handed. If the tribe succumbed to starvation,
the unfit genes would be eliminated. At least that is what we
expect should have happened, but it didn’t, which begs
the question: Is it possible to be human and not be saddled
with self-consciousness? Is it possible for someone to know
that he exists separate from everyone and everything else, is
mortal, can conceptualize a past, present and future without
being conscious of who he is?
counterpart of the Big Bang occurrs when man first appears, when
he utters for the first time in the history of life on earth “I
am,” which means he knows that ‘he is’ and is
conscious of the fact that one day he will not be. At this critical
evolutionary juncture, he can now observe and judge others who
are making decisions that bear directly on survival: wise decisions
that are partial to well-being, unwise decisions that are not.
Since he can judge others, he himself can be judged, which means
it is impossible to be conscious of existing, of being sentient
and temporal, and not be self-conscious. With the first pronouncement
of “I am, or I exist,” man is banished forever from
the Garden of Eden, which was life on earth before intelligence,
prelapsarian world there is no SC. There is simply pure and unmediated
being: no past, no future, no anticipation of death, no anxiety,
which is why man looks back to this state with a longing-cum-craving
that left unfulfilled is often experienced as sickness of being,
and latches onto to any activity (yoga, sports, computer games)
or endorphin producing substance that allows him, if only temporarily,
to revert back to pure being, to existing wholly in the present
indicative. In other words, even though performance is almost
always negatively affected by SC, the gene sequence survives because
the evolutionary advantages of being intelligent and self-aware
by far and away outweighs the downside of the condition, routinely
experienced as a kind of besiegement and constriction.
essential makeup, the king of the beasts is manifestly self-conscious;
it is a condition over which he has very little natural control
and as such, the degree to which he is afflicted is mostly a matter
of luck of the draw (inheritance) and early-in-life role models.
If, according to Spengler, mankind can be divided into two types
-- those who make history and those that don’t -- those
least affected by SC have been our history makers and, until recently,
our most prolific breeders. Those undeterred by SC, who can rise
to the occasion of sexual conquest in especially the public domain,
will spread their seed more copiously than their self-conscious
counterparts, who, it must be said, are nonetheless still breeding
in private. Throughout history, among the rites of victory, rape
of the enemy has played a significant role in human breeding patterns,
and as mentioned in an earlier essay,
natural selection has always looked kindly upon rape and the genes
responsible for the behaviour. One of natural selection’s
toughest truths is that many of us are the sons and daughters
aspects of our culture and ethos are determined by SC. All of
us seek out and have learned to create privileged, intimate spaces
or sanctuaries where we can let down our guard and enjoy the freedom
and bliss that unselfconscious allows, which is why we dress one
way in public, and less formally in the privacy of our homes.
long after the first “I am” was spoken, man, irreparably
self-conscious, discovered that he preferred to perform his
ablutions and excretory functions in private, and cover his
genitalia, and conduct his conjugal life away from big brother
and the captious public eye.
universe and its imperatives are the living issue of SC, which
make us self-aware of what we owe our families, our friends, our
community. This kind of debt or social contract doesn’t
exist in the animal world. The man who unselfconsciously chooses
to spend his days in the tavern and is indifferent to or unaffected
by the censure of his community and refuses to modify or correct
his behaviour will be less likely to attract a mate, and his seed
to see the light of a new day. So to the accusation that natural
selection has been only a bit player during the past century,
other than eliminating those who can’t get their hands on
food, it has always been punishing those at the extreme ends of
SC who are much less likely to produce offspring than those in
the middle of the pack.
self-conscious is simply the price you pay for being-in-the-world.
There is no circumventing, negotiating or finessing the state,
just as there is no way to prevent man from creating his quiet
corners and reverting to all manner of subterfuge to either escape
from or anesthetize himself against SC’s worst effects.
In biblical terms, every day after the fall is judgment day since
we are all subject to the never ending scrutiny of the ubiquitous
hands and knees, begging to be relieved of SC, we, in perpetuity,
ecstatically discover -- with a nodding off to Dionysus -- that
our most intense pleasure centers and pre-self-conscious states
of mind are one and the same, and that their euphoric conjunction
does not negate what the Buddha in his wisdom was purported to
have said: “wonderful are the things of the world but terrible
to be them.” For all of its lacerations and suffocations,
self-consciousness is nothing less than becoming conscious of
the gift that is the miracle of life, and is the force that drives
the green fuse and makes meaningful life possible.
that a double.