Friday, March 15, 2013

cognitive archeology of the west


ribbonfarm | Venkat’s recent post The Disruption of Bronze touched on a subject I’ve been pursuing fervently for the better part of a decade now: the time frame in which psychologically modern humans evolved. More than that, however, my interest is in why and how human psychology shifted to cause the sudden, radical changes that ultimately resulted in civilization.

My view is that without an understanding of this shift, there can be no evolution beyond the devouring, predatory virus that is civilized culture. In a mere 10,000 years, civilization has all but wrecked the planet — a truly impressive horror.

Collapse (of either the slow or sudden variety, take your pick) is a certainty, in my opinion; what I needed, for my own sanity, was a context in which to fit this state of affairs. Does the story really begin and end with American avarice? Are humans condemned to repeat the rise-and-fall of civilizations until we wipe ourselves out for the last time? Is there no greater narrative arc here?


Civilizations rise and fall not in isolation, but as complexes. They follow the outbreak of certain memes, as evidenced by the archaeological record, in clusters of time and geography. In the West we humans do civilization not only because of what we think, but because we think our thoughts in a specific kind of way. It makes sense then that the narrative arc should begin with the emergence of our specific kind of thinking.

Pre-Conquest Consciousness
Anthropologist E. Richard Sorenson is best known in academic circles for pioneering what’s known as “visual anthropology”: the use of non-dialectic observational techniques in the field of anthropology, most often through the use of film. Academics are, however, notorious for missing the forest for the trees; Sorenson’s real contribution came as a result of his techniques.

Visual anthropology made it possible for Sorenson to identify patterns of behavior inherent across isolated, unrelated, primitive tribes. Underlying these behavioral patterns is a type of mindset which Sorenson calls “pre-conquest consciousness,” which he describes thus:
Most of us know about subliminal awareness—the type of awareness lurking below actual consciousness that powerfully influences behavior. Freud brought it into the mainstream of Western thought through exhaustively detailed revelations of its effects on behavior. But few, including Freud, have spoken of liminal consciousness, which is therefore rarely recognized in modern scholarship as a separate type of awareness. Nonetheless, liminal awareness was the principal focus of mentality in the preconquest cultures contacted, whereas a supraliminal type that focuses logic on symbolic entities is the dominant form in postconquest societies.
. . .
From the Latin language underlying our Western heritage we can understand that liminal awareness, by definition, occurs on the threshold of consciousness. This concept, though abstract, provides a useful term. In the real life of these preconquest people, feeling and awareness are focused on at-the-moment, point-blank sensory experience—as if the nub of life lay within that complex flux of collective sentient immediacy. Into that flux individuals thrust their inner thoughts and aspirations for all to see, appreciate, and relate to. This unabashed open honesty is the foundation on which their highly honed integrative empathy and rapport become possible. When that openness gives way, empathy and rapport shrivel. Where deceit becomes a common practice, they disintegrate.
Where consciousness is focused within a flux of ongoing sentient awareness, experience cannot be clearly subdivided into separable components. With no clear elements to which logic can be applied, experience remains immune to syntax and formal logic within a kaleidoscopic sanctuary of non-discreteness. Nonetheless, preconquest life was reckoned sensibly—though seemingly intuitively.
Given the widespread nature of Sorenson’s findings, and the almost complete absence of supraliminal symbology in any given culture’s archaeological record prior to its own Neolithic Revolution, it would appear that this liminal consciousness is the default psychology of anatomically modern humans. “Pre-conquest” peoples do not have the capacity for intellectual abstraction, not because they are less intelligent — the homo sapiens sapiens brain has not changed physically for something like 200,000 years — but because their mental capabilities are focused entirely on the here and now. Gods and goddesses, writing, numbers and the like cannot exist in the “complex flux of collective sentient immediacy” because they have no physicality with which to be either sentient or immediate. Such things exist entirely in the abstract. They are, for all intents and purposes, not real.

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