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Vol. 13, No. 3, 2014
 
     
 
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BEING AND SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS

by
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.

Joseph Conrad

Since 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 without?

Concomitant 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.

But 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. Why?

X wishes 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 does not.

When 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?

The evolutionary 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, before self-consciousness

In the 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.

In his 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 of rapists.

Many 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.

Not 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.

Our moral 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.

Being 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 other.

On our 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.

And make that a double.

 


 

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