Thursday, December 06, 2007

This is the aspect of Jaynes that interested William Burroughs, with his investigations into language as a form of social control and as a virus

Jaynes introduces his theory by making reference to the Iliad, in which there is almost no description of interiority and subjectivity, or of conscious decision-making; instead, all the characters act at the promptings of the gods, who give them commands that they obey without question. Jaynes suggests that we take these descriptions literally, that this was the way the mind worked for thousands of years of human history. After the opening section of the book, where he quite interestingly discusses a range of philosophical issues having to do with the nature of consciousness and its relation to language, Jaynes supports his argument almost entirely through an analysis of ancient texts and of archaeological discoveries.
Where to begin in discussing such a suggestive, even if overly simple and overly totalizing, thesis? First of all, Jaynes argues that language is a prerequisite for consciousness, rather than the (common-sensical) reverse. This seems to me to be unarguably true, if we mean reflexive, or second-order consciousness. His arguments for this thesis, coming out of the tradition of Anglo-American empirically-grounded psychology, are interesting precisely in their difference from deconstructionist, and other Continental philosophical, arguments to much the same effect. This is useful because Jaynes thereby is able to point to the (relative) primacy of language in the human mind, without getting lost in those rather silly skeptical paradoxes that the deconstructionists are partial to.
Second, I find incredibly valuable the way Jaynes presents his picture of the schizophrenic, pre-conscious “bicameral mind” as a mechanism of social control. The bicameral mind arises, according to Jaynes, in tandem with the development of agriculture and the creation of the first cities (i.e. the first stirrings of “civilization” in Mesopotamia, and perhaps also Egypt, the Indus River Valley, and the Yellow River Valley, at around 9000 BC). Its purpose is to ensure obedience and social harmony; it entails, and enables, the creation of vast, rigid, theocratic hierarchies, such as existed in ancient Sumeria and Egypt (and also, much later, in the Mayan cities of the Western Hemisphere, and in other civilizations around the world). This is the aspect of Jaynes that interested William Burroughs, with his investigations into language as a form of social control and as a virus infecting, even as it created, the human mind.
In describing the passage from bicamerality to self-consciousness, Jaynes is really proposing a genealogy of different regimes of language and subjectivity, in a manner that resonates with ideas proposed by Deleuze and Guattari at around the same time (see especially the chapter “On Several Regimes of Signs” in A Thousand Plateaus). For Jaynes as for Deleuze/Guattari (I assume that Jaynes was unacquainted with D&G’s work, and vice versa), a “despotic” regime is displaced and replaced by a passional, subjectifying one. (I need to be a bit careful here, because I don’t want to merely translate Jaynes’ terms and arguments into deleuzoguattarian ones. The specific interest of Jaynes’ book is how he defamiliarizes the bicameral mindset, shows how it cannot be reduced to the categories that we, subjective people, take for granted)...This entry was posted on Monday, March 22nd, 2004 at 8:49 pm and is filed under Books, Science. RSS 2.0 feed.

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