In search for meaning in the realm of freedom: Hannah Arendt on the threat of automation

It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.

I’ve been reading Hannah Arendt’s “The human condition” (1958) — on and off over the last couple of weeks, because it feels, most of the time, like a very depressive read, a look into a bleak and hopeless future of the humankind.

She writes about severable foreseeable events that threaten this future, and by now, one of them has already happened — or rather, is happening right now:

This is the advent of automation, which in a few decades probably will empty the factories and liberate mankind from its oldest and most natural burden, the burden of laboring and the bondage to necessity. Here, too, a fundamental aspect of the human condition is at stake, but the rebellion against it, the wish to be liberated from labor’s “toil and trouble,” is not modern but as old as recorded history. Freedom from labor itself is not new; it once belonged among the most firmly established privileges of the few. In this instance, it seems as though scientific progress and technical developments had been only taken advantage of to achieve something about which all former ages dreamed but which none had been able to realize.

It may not feel like this liberation is happening right now — especially not to someone working long hours in a soul-deadening job and/or struggles to make the ends meet. But it is here, we are living it — even if this dream sometimes feel like a nightmare, showing itself in the threatening guises of unemployment and decreasing labor participation rate (so that “job creation” — making new opportunities for labor out of thin air — is perceived like a most useful activity). By the way, another well-know face of this dream come true is procrastination: one doesn’t procrastinate about something one is really bound to do by life’s necessity; procrastination is a sign of freedom — of a freely made choice to do something.

A slightly more “advanced” version of a society liberated from labour was (rather vividly) imagined by Kurt Vonnegut in his 1952 dystopia, “Player Piano”. There, nobody needs to worry about paying their bills, and most people don’t need to do anything — everyone has enough to consume; but, contrary to all expectations, this doesn’t make the liberation from labor feel like a dream come true either, because life becomes meaningless.

The threat, then, is not automation per se — the threat is our inability to find meaning in the realm of freedom from necessity. That’s how Arendt describes this threat:

The modern age has carried with it a theoretical glorification of labor and has resulted in a factual transformation of the whole of society into a laboring society. The fulfilment of the wish, therefore, like the fulfilment of wishes in fairy tales, comes at a moment when it can only be self-defeating. It is a society of laborers which is about to be liberated from the fetters of labor, and this society does no longer know of those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won. Within this society, which is egalitarian because this is labor’s way of making men live together, there is no class left, no aristocracy of either a political or spiritual nature from which a restoration of the other capacities of man could start anew. Even presidents, kings, and prime ministers think of their offices in terms of a job necessary for the life of society, and among the intellectuals, only solitary individuals are left who consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living. What we are confronted with is the prospect of a society of laborers without labor, that is, without the only activity left to them. Surely, nothing could be worse.

I feel this painful contradiction every day; I am living it. I dropped out of “labor force” quite a few years ago, and, apart from a few smallish household chores, I don’t really need to do anything which would qualify as “labor” — that is, anything necessary for the process of life. For all intents and purposes, I am living in the realm of freedom from life’s necessities, and my private realm of freedom is filled with painting, reading, contemplation, and love. Surely, nothing could be better.

But this lack of need for me to do anything often feels like it’s me that is not needed, and then the realm of freedom appears to me as the barren desert of uselessness and meaninglessness. I can probably think of myself as one of these few solitary individuals mentioned by Arendt in passing, those who still “consider what they are doing in terms of work and not in terms of making a living” (I have to, if only because I am not making a living). But an activity qualifies as “work” only insofar as its result enter the public realm — insofar as they are shared and, at least to some extent, seen.

And so my days are split between painting and this (blind and somewhat desperate) quest for contribution, for action, for participation in life. A search of how to share whatever it is I have to share — is it a search for meaning in the realm of freedom, or a quest to be bound by something, not so weightlessly and carelessly free? It requires some willpower and effort to drag myself away from the realm of freedom towards the whole range of different attempts to transform what I am doing into “work”, into something that has an existence, a way of being, in the public realm. And yet I keep doing it… all the time feeling that I would rather just paint privately and be free.     

I came across an interesting idea on Scott Young’s website the other day: if you work at home, he says, stop counting your work hours. Instead, maximise the free time — the time that remains when the necessary daily “work” tasks are taken care of. This idea brought this contradiction into the light of clarity: if I think of painting as “work”, this advice makes no sense at all; painting is something I want to be doing, not something I want to get done. It can only happen in the realm of freedom.

Arendt acknowledges that the artist is, in a sense, exempt from the general trend:

… we have almost succeeded in leveling all human activities to the common denominator of securing the necessities of life and providing for their abundance. Whatever we do, we are supposed to do for the sake of “making a living”; such is the verdict of society, and the number of people, especially in the professions who might challenge it, has decreased rapidly. The only exception society is willing to grant is the artist, who, strictly speaking, is the only “worker” left in a laboring society.

But this seems to have changed: the society’s verdict is now that the artist, too, has to either “make a living” or be condescendingly relegated to the status of “hobbyist”. Arendt writes about this change:

The same trend to level down all serious activities to the status of making a living is manifest in present-day labor theories, which almost unanimously define labor as the opposite of play. As a result, all serious activities, irrespective of their fruits, are called labor, and every activity which is not necessary either for the life of the individual or for the life process of society is subsumed under playfulness. In these theories, which by echoing the current estimate of a laboring society on the theoretical level sharpen it and drive it into its inherent extreme, not even the “work” of the artist is left; it is dissolved into play and has lost its worldly meaning. The playfulness of the artist is felt to fulfil the same function in the laboring life process of society as the playing of tennis or the pursuit of a hobby fulfils in the life of the individual.”

But here, I think, there is a glimpse of hope: a hope to turn the threat into a challenge, a way to perceive the liberation from necessity for the wished-for paradise it really is. What we lack, after all, what makes this wish come true into a threat is just the knowledge of “those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won”. The search for this knowledge one of the greatest challenges of our age, and the artist’s playful labor might just be one of the seeds from which it will emerge.

Studio notes on sonnet 83, plus some thoughts on “distributed artistry” [March 31 — April 8]

Lena Levin. Sonnet 83 (The barren tender of a poet’s debt). April 2016.

I never saw that you did painting need,
And therefore to your fair no painting set;
I found, or thought I found, you did exceed
The barren tender of a poet’s debt:

And therefore have I slept in your report,
That you yourself, being extant, well might show
How far a modern quill doth come too short,
Speaking of worth, what worth in you doth grow.

This silence for my sin you did impute,
Which shall be most my glory being dumb;
For I impair not beauty being mute,
When others would give life, and bring a tomb.

There lives more life in one of your fair eyes
Than both your poets can in praise devise.

This is one of the sonnets that have a special significance in the context of the “Sonnets in colour” project, because it equates sonnets with paintings. Its theme is an interruption in the flow of sonnets — silence. It glorifies the poet’s silence in the face of life and beauty — this silence might seem like a sin, but it shall be most my gloryfor I impair no beauty, being mute.

And when the poet is silent, the painter stops painting.

I have already grown accustomed to my life mirroring the events and experiences of the sonnets — so I wasn’t surprised that this painting was preceded by a long interruption in the flow of sonnet paintings (it was not even a full-blown “artist’s block”; just a conspiracy of life events).

A poet questioning the role of poetry. The theme of immortality through art, so fundamental to the sequence, is reversed here: far from bestowing immortality, it brings a tomb. One might read this, superficially, as a condemnation of another poet — a rival. But at a deeper level, it is about poetry in general, perhaps about art in general. No wonder, then, that my encounter with this sonnet branched into a series of essays questioning the role of painting (on my “Art of seeing” blog).

Shakespeare’s take on the role of art — the need for art — seems at first to be radically alien to our age: it’s neither about the artist’s “inner need” to create, nor about the audience’s need to be touched by art. Instead, it questions whether it is a need for the “subject matter” — the thing to be represented and expressed (in verse or in colour). Seemingly, he talks only about his particular subject matter — the addressee of his sonnets — but there is this more general question behind the appearance: does life need to be the subject matter of art

Living through this question — as I had to in order to paint this sonnet — somehow lead me to a new way of seeing this strange quality of the modern world, which often seems to have more poets than readers and more painters than viewers of paintings. We are accustomed to another state of affairs: a few artists — authors, painters, composers — and a multitude of their audience. And now, we seem to live in a different world entirely, in a world with a multitude of speakers and not a lot of listeners. In a sense, this quality brings the condition of the modern artist closer to the condition of a Renaissance sonneteer: after all, these sonnets were not intended for publication when they were written; they were not for public. Even though Shakespeare did know that the sonnets will be read so long as men can breath and eyes can see, yet originally, this was purely an act of interaction between the poet and his subject matter, who was also his Muse.   

And this seems radically different from how the role of art is generally envisioned. Wassily Kandinsky writes in “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”:

“The spiritual life, to which art belongs and of which she is one of the mightiest elements, is a complicated but definite and easily definable movement forwards and upwards. This movement is the movement of experience. It may take different forms, but it holds at bottom to the same inner thought and purpose.

Veiled in obscurity are the causes of this need to move ever upwards and forwards, by sweat of the brow, through sufferings and fears. When one stage has been accomplished, and many evil stones cleared from the road, some unseen and wicked hand scatters new obstacles in the way, so that the path often seems blocked and totally obliterated. But there never fails to come to the rescue some human being, like ourselves in everything except that he has in him a secret power of vision. He sees and points the way. The power to do this he would sometimes fain lay aside, for it is a bitter cross to bear. But he cannot do so.”

The role of an artist, then, is to see and to point the way of spiritual progress; the intended addressee of this act of communication is not its subject matter, but the whole of the humankind; and the artist does so even if the humankind doesn’t seem to look (or listen).

In Kandinsky’s view of the world the artist is, of course, a lonely genius; someone quite unique, one in a multitude. But what we see now is that more and more people making art in spite of unwelcoming circumstances. Can it be that the artist’s “inner need”, which was once the fate of a few, is now felt by many? Can this be a manifestation of the spiritual evolution of human consciousness — the same evolution Kandinsky talks about? Or, in more down-to-earth terms, the humanity’s movement up the Maslow hierarchy, towards the need for self-actualisation?

Nowadays, the common name for this desire to make art seems to be “self-expression”. And, to be frank, if one’s goal is to “express one’s self”, then no wonder nobody is willing to listen — everyone is predictably interested in one’s own self, not in other selves. But I believe “self-expression” is a remarkably misleading term. The artist’s inner need is, in a sense, impersonal: it’s not the need of an artist’s self; it’s something larger, more universal, wanting to be expressed. Can it be that it’s indeed life wanting — needing — to be expressed through art? Can it be that what our age has to express can only be expressed through this distributed artistry, not through lonely geniuses?

I have no answers to these questions, but I needed to write down these “mentations”, as raw as they were invoked by the process of painting this sonnet. It had to be a painting about not-painting, about a breakdown of painting in the face of life and beauty, a painting questioning its own right to exist. This meant, formally, a breakdown of picture plane: painting the illusion of “holes” in the picture plane, as though something were visible through it, rather than on it.

I have always felt some sort of tension about the modern painting’s “law” insisting that a picture plane must never be “broken”; I even remember being criticised for violating this law as a child. This memory has always stayed with me as a potential point of entry into something yet unclear, not quite understood — but wanting to be understood. A vague feeling that there is a meaning in breaking the picture plane, but without the slightest idea of what this meaning might be. This is the meaning I found in this sonnet: the tension between painting and non-painting, between poetry and silence.    

There are three openings, three “holes” in the picture plane. I wanted the world revealing itself beyond these openings to be brighter, more full of light and life and beauty, than the “flat” areas of the picture. There is not much of “representation” going on in this painting — it works mostly through geometry of colour — but there is a hint at a juxtaposition of sun “behind” the picture plane and sunflowers on the picture plane.

The painting is really just a fragment of the overall composition of sixteen sonnets about Poet and Poetry, Poet and Muse. It is in this context that it ought to be seen (and, quite possibly, reworked later on, when all its sister paintings are ready and assembled).

On the responsibility of the artist [April 6-7, 2016]

Rembrandt. Artist in his studio. 1626.
Rembrandt. Artist in his studio. 1626.

Over the last several weeks, I somehow lost the rhythm of daily writing — which I seemed to have found, and integrated firmly into the overall structure of my day, in the beginning of this year.

The inner core of this rhythm is journaling, in my own, very inner, very private journal; writing down, every evening, all the impressions and insights of the day — in studio and elsewhere; having a deeper look into my own mind. The public, blogging facade — this “Studio Journal” — is an outshot of that. I would re-read every evening what I’ve written the day before, and if there was something worth sharing, I would edit the entry into a “Studio Journal” blog post, which is to say — edit out all the stuff which I feel should remain private; things completely personal and unrelated to the studio process.

I know — I’ve learned it the hard way — that journaling is essential for my life and work, for their organic, effortless flow. But there is a paradox in that, a paradox rooted in fear. Journaling is a tool for self-reflection, as a mirror of my mind. It creates a pause needed to take a step back from the fleetingness of life, and to see what’s really going on, to accept and “integrate” the achievements, and to acknowledge the failures, to gain some measure of clarity for my journey into the future.

It is as essential as “stepping back” in the painting process — when you stop the process, and look at what you are doing from a distance. If you don’t do it with some regularity, you are likely to end up with a mess — or, at the very least, with something dramatically different from what you imagined you were painting. And the danger is that, sometimes, there is a temptation to delay stepping back precisely because you really sense you need it — but this sensation means that something might have gone wrong, and you are not fully aware of it. There is a temptation in keeping the illusion of flow intact, to let it live for a while. And so you don’t do it precisely because you need to do it.   

I think I got it right with the painting process — reacting almost automatically when this sensation begins to arise. But the journaling practice is newer and weaker (although I did journal in the past, this was long ago). And so the routine broke exactly when it was most needed, when I began to feel that something might have gone wrong, but — apparently — didn’t really want to see it clearly. Life — at least my life — unfolds in these waves of ups and downs. I renewed journaling on the upward movement — precisely because I wanted to gain more awareness about what actually happens during the “downs”, and hoped that the habit will “hold” — but it broke almost at the first hint of the first downward movement.

So there is only one way — to renew it right now, without waiting for the next “up” (even though I suspect that this very determination might signal the beginning of the next “up” — which would be very welcome, by the way). And not only “internal” journaling — the “Studio Journal” blog, too; after all, the idea is that raw reflections on the process of painting the sonnets are an inherent part of the whole project.   

But this entry is not about sonnets — not directly. We had to go to San Francisco on Wednesday, and decided to use this opportunity to visit Pierre Bonnard’s exhibition in Legion of Honor. We’ve never really seen his work properly, even though he is represented in many museums we’ve been to. But on those occasions, competition was usually too strong — just too many things that I needed to see more; there was never enough time and space for Bonnard. In retrospect, I think it was good that I didn’t see his work properly before, because this was a completely unexpected experience, and a strikingly unpleasant one. Not because he is not a powerful painter — rather, because he is.

The essence of painting is showing the invisible — sharing one’s inner experience of the world with the viewer(s). And the experience communicated by Bonnard is that of an extreme world-alienation; more so: life-alienation. It is impressionism for the age of life-alienation — or rather, in Bonnard’s case, of complete alienation between human beings, a total, cold, unbearable breakdown of empathy and compassion.

His world of is the world populated by human beings who are absent even though their bodies are there — but just as material objects that affect the distribution of light and colour. Sometimes their heads are just cut off by the edge of the picture plane, sometimes shadowed to the point of invisibility. But even when they are visible, people are expressionless, nearly faceless — they are not present as human beings; if the eyes are windows into the soul, they have no souls (and even self-portraits don’t really constitute an exception). The only beings who have souls in this world are cats (and, less so, dogs).

I know this experience is real; there is a truth in it — after all, it’s not without reason that the ability to be present is being praised as a spiritual achievement. But, frankly, the last thing I want is for this experience to be magnified by painting — and Bonnard certainly has the power to do so. As a matter of fact, I hope that the peak — or rather the darkest depth — of the age of alienation might be over, that we are moving away from that. And these paintings — they certainly don’t help. That’s why I don’t even want to illustrate this post with a reproduction…   

I’ve been reading this book, “Art and Human Consciousness”, by Gottfried Richter. I keep planning to write about it in more detail, but it is hard to find my language for that — because his language is strongly shaped by his worldview, which is, in many ways, alien to me. I was able to transcend this gap in reading, but it is more difficult to do in writing.

But the Bonnard exhibition reminded me of one of Richter’s observations about the art of the twentieth century. He believes that, in earlier ages, artists were, in a sense, protected: as though there was an angel guarding the doorway to the darkness. If you were a true artist, you could be assured that all the insights you get — all the inner experiences you express — come from the light side of the spiritual realm (even though this doorway, too, was guarded by an angel). But now, both angels have left the world, and both doorways are unguarded. The artist now bears the full responsibility of knowing whether an experience come from the darkness or from the light. You can be a true artist, and still help in spreading the darkness in the world. And that was my experience of Bonnard.

On fears, and courage, and how a painting declares itself complete

Lena Levin. Paradox of Death (Sonnets 10-18). 60"x60".
Lena Levin. Paradox of Death (Sonnets 10-18). 60″x60″.

The last two weeks have been centred around a rework of the second composition from the sonnets series, Sonnets 10-18. And although I did write about the process in my private journal, I said nothing about it here, in this public “Studio Journal”. This is because this particular process stirred just way too much “personal stuff”, the raw story of my life. Its specifics seemed so completely irrelevant — and so potentially painful to people close to me — that I decided to leave them silent, unsaid.

But there was a doubt lurking behind this decision: isn’t it really motivated by my own fear: fear of being too vulnerable, too naked in eyes of men? There is this theory that all our fears are ultimately, deep down, the primordial fear of death. And this composition is actually very much about death, and the fear of death. Its working title, for now, is “Paradox of Death”.

These multi-sonnet compositions emerged in the process of painting this series almost on their own, one might say, accidentally. When we were organising an “open studio” exhibition of my work three years ago, it crossed my mind that arranging the first sonnets in this kind of “collages” would be the only feasible way of hanging them. That done, there emerged a unity I hadn’t anticipated. In terms of pure geometry, this was a result of the consistent use of a certain way of structuring the squares along their “golden section” verticals and/or horizontals. But there was more to it — barely visible to me at the time.

As the series progressed, I gradually started to work towards these compositions more consciously — while still keeping the individual sonnet paintings relatively independent of one another. And then, two more things happened.

First, I realised that I had to return to the first sonnets — the sonnets themselves influenced my painting too strongly in the intervening years; the first compositions were not quite compatible with the later ones. Some rework was needed (although I did not yet see how much). I understand, with some trepidation, that this decision, once taken, can put this series into an endless cycle of rework. I don’t know how many times I will have to go back to keep the series coherent. My friend and fellow artist, Terrill Welch, tells me that she knew from the start that this series will be my life’s work — thankfully, she decided not to share this knowledge with me back then, when I just started. Now, I am ready to accept it — there is no point in “timing” this process, or attaching “measurable goals” to it. This isn’t about “productivity”… Still, it would be really lovely to have the series completed by the time of my death, and this means, the time will come when I will have to make the decision that it is complete, and to let it go. And this decision itself will be the end of a huge part of my life, a death before the death.

Secondly, the unifying themes for these accidental “chunks” of the sonnets sequence began to emerge, gradually revealing a new interpretation of the whole sequence, and making comprehensible and clear what used to be mysterious and puzzling before. And the theme of this second composition is — as I have mentioned already — Paradox of death. A paradox, because the death — which presents itself to us an ultimate end, is also the origin of everything meaningful in this life. There are many theories about the origin of human consciousness, but they all seem to converge on one undeniable “cause”, one point of departure: the humankind’s awareness of individual mortality. Which is, in a sense, just another way of saying that it’s the fear of death that underlies all our fears and generates our actions.

And this particular painting process ended (that is, completed itself) in quite an unusual way; an experience I’ve never had before. I had been working on this composition throughout the last week, and every single day of the week, I felt like the painting is almost complete, nearly there — that this day would be the last. And invariably, by the end of the day, I felt that I am nowhere near the end of the process — lots and lots to be done yet. In fact, I was beginning to suspect that this whole experience of being almost over, and then not over after all, is, in a sense, an enactment of the theme of this composition, the paradox of death. So I decided I should avoid introducing any impatience into this whole process, and even thinking about when it would be complete.

But it seems to have happened within a single painting session — even less, in barely more than one hour. I am not yet quite certain about this, because this experience is unprecedented for me. As I started working, I was thinking about fears, fearlessness, courage. I am convinced that courage is the single most important thing in being (or becoming) an artist, but the question that was playing itself in mind was: what kind of courage? Where does this courage ought to show itself? For example, does my unwillingness to share the raw specifics of this process show the lack of artistic courage? Or should the locus of this courage be — for a painter — in painting, and in painting only?

Frankly, I don’t like it when these seemingly irrelevant trains of thoughts interfere with the painting process. It usually indicates that something has turned awry… But I have mastered — or almost mastered — a paradoxical technique of dealing with this kind of mental “noise”: rather than chasing the thoughts away, I concentrate on listening to them. When listened to, the noise fades away — and sometimes, there is something important to hear. Like in this case, when I heard, loud and clear, an unexpected answer to my question: And sometimes, courage shows itself in declaring the painting complete and letting it go.

It was so clear that this answer pertains to this particular painting, that it momentarily threw me into a feat of panic: there was so much I still planned to do! And yet, I knew that I had to listen — so I stepped away, looked at the painting from afar; and decided to leave it alone, for now at least.   

January 12, 2016: The painting bringing a kind of clarity to the poem (Sonnet 81), if not to itself

2016-01-12 13.32.59

This day’s painting session was shorter than I had hoped and expected — just two hours. Not even two full hours — rather two academic hours, with an interval in between; that’s how I generally structure my work time.

And yet, in spite of this brevity, it has noticeably moved the painting into the “right” direction; it is not complete, but it made sense to stop. Just because it may be the case that there is very little to be done at this point, and I don’t want to move forward without more clarity.

But that’s not the only thing that’s happened in this session.  There was also an “aha-moment” of (what I hope is) a deeper understanding of the sonnet. Not “the” solution to the puzzle of this sonnet. I think this puzzle, like most of Shakespeare’s many puzzles is not there to be “solved”, but rather to puzzle the mind, to make it give up and let go. Just recently, discussing “Hamlet” with Eugene, I told him that all the puzzling contradictions are there intentionally — otherwise, there would be nothing to talk about and interpret, and the play wouldn’t have fascinated us for these four centuries. This (kind of) implied that this was Shakespeare’s way to gain popularity and even his path to immortality. But that’s not the case, I don’t really think so. What Shakespearean puzzles remind me of is this Buddhist “teaching” practice, which amounts to offering the mind something so absurdly paradoxical and incomprehensible that it gives up, and “goes away” for a moment at least, opening the gap into pure perception of reality.

So it’s not a “solution” — not even for myself, just a new way to think about the puzzle. The question that’s been bothering me all along is this: who is that “you” who can be immortalised in Shakespeare’s poetry while “I” remains completely, earthly mortal? So the “solution” would be the identity of “you” and “I”, which would fit the situation “perfectly”, which I might “argue for” in some sort of scholarly commentary.

I don’t have such a solution, but what I realised during the painting session (“remembered” would probably be a better word here) was that, in the act of creation, the usual sense of “I” is suspended. The “I” who is doing the creating is definitely not the everyday “I” navigating in the world. In poetry especially, by all accounts, the ancient mechanism of suspending the “left-brain consciousness” to let another voice speak audibly still works. That’s how great poetry is created — by listening to this inner voice, not by “talking” or “arguing”. So the tension between two “I”s, two “selves” is inherent in the process of writing poetry — and there is every reason to believe that that’s how Shakespeare composed his sonnets, too (at least, most of the time).

But it’s not as simple as just the relationship between a poet and his Muse. The “I” who is talking here is more complex, more ambiguous: on the one hand, it knows itself to be fully, completely, earthly, humanely mortal; on the other, it speaks of all breathers of this world with a mind-boggling detachment, as though it’s not one of them. There is a vacillation between mortality and immortality, between the speaker and the listener, between two “selves” — all throughout the poem, like the very rhythm of breathing in and out.

Julian Jaynes and William Shakespeare on the origin of consciousness in the breakdown of bicameral mind

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action…

William Shakespeare. Hamlet

According to Julian Jaynes, consciousness as we know it — this illusion of the inner world, where one does one’s introspecting, thinking, imagining, remembering, dreaming, planning, talking with oneself — depends on language and its metaphor-generating abilities. This particular mental set-up, which we tend to take as a biologically determined reality, could arise only at a certain stage of language evolution, and, it turns out, at a rather late one.       

Giotto. Legend of St. Francis
Giotto. Legend of St. Francis

If, as Jaynes proposes, we take the earliest texts of our civilisation as psychologically valid evidence, we begin to see a completely different mentality. In novel and stressful situations, when the power of habit doesn’t determine our actions, we rely on conscious thinking to decide what to do, but, for example, the heroes of Iliad used to receive their instructions from gods — which would appear in the times of uncertainty and stress.

This is what Jaynes calls “bicameral mind”: one part of the brain (the “god” part) evaluates the situation and issues commands to the other part (the “man” part) in the form of auditory and, occasionally, visual hallucinations (Jaynes’ hypothesises that the god part must have been located in the right hemisphere, and the man part, in the left hemisphere of the brain). The specific shapes and “identities” of these hallucinations depend on the culture, on what Jaynes calls “collective cognitive imperative”: we see what we are taught to see, what our learned worldview tells us must be there.     

The bicameral mind, and the corresponding systems of social organisation, began to break down about three millennia ago. Jaynes quotes remaining texts from the end of second millennium BC from Mesopotamia, where it must have started:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared,
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance.
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

And even this, which might be viewed as evidence of brain processes involved:

One who has no god, as he walks along the street,
Headache envelops him like a garment.

Mikhail Vrubel. Six-winged Seraph (Azrail). 1904
Mikhail Vrubel. Six-winged Seraph (Azrail). 1904. Oil on canvas. 131 x 155 cm.

Perhaps stressful situations became too complex and novel for the “god part” of the brain to deal with successfully, or the language evolution was reshaping human minds and brains — but gods left this world, which is to say, their commanding voices ceased to be heard, albeit gradually and — even now — not completely. Although consciousness verbal thinking about novel situations, rationalising one’s behaviour, willing oneself into action — had to replace gods as a decision-making mental mechanism, there are vestiges of the earlier bicameral mentality in a variety of “abnormal” phenomena nowadays, from schizophrenia to children’s “imaginary friends” to hypnosis to “spirit possession” in more traditional cultures.

And in ghost sightings, of course — which brings us to Hamlet, whose most famous soliloquy is quoted as the epigraph to this post. Let’s return to this part of the soliloquy:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

What is Hamlet talking about? He begins the soliloquy with a contemplation of suicide, but this is evidently about something else, something more general — one would hardly call suicide an enterprise of great pith and moment.

There is a word here which can easily mislead a modern reader, because it has undergone a significant semantic transformation in the intervening four hundred years — conscience. In the modern language, it refers to an inner sense of right and wrong — but this meaning doesn’t really fit here: if this conscience stops us from doing something, it’s not cowardice, but rather moral strength and courage. But here is how conscience is defined in “Shakespeare’s words”, a glossary of Shakespeare’s language compiled by David Crystal and Ben Crystal:

  1. Internal reflection, inner voice, inmost thought (Cymbeline, I.viii.116 from my mutest conscience to my thought)
  2. Real knowledge, internal conviction, true understanding (3 Henry VI, I.i.150 My conscience tells me he is lawful king).
  3. Sense of indebtedness, feeling of obligation (Twelfth Night III.iii.17 were my worth, as is my conscience, firm, You should find better dealing)

We see that semantic scope of conscience in Shakespeare’s language is notably broader than in the modern English; it comprises all kinds of inner voices, introspections, convictions, awareness and, in particular, that which we would now call consciousness — a word that didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s English: consciousness (in contrast to conscience) was invented by John Locke almost a century later, in his attempt to understand “human understanding”.

Edouard Manet. Faure as Hamlet.
Edouard Manet. Faure as Hamlet. 1877. Oil on canvas. 196 x 131 cm.

Once consciousness (as a word) came into being, conscience — which was inherited from Ancient Greece via Latin — gradually narrowed its meaning to its modern moral sense. But this hasn’t yet happened for Shakespeare (and for Hamlet). Hamlet abandons the idea of suicide not because his moral sense of right and wrong (which must have been, for all we know, supported by his religious beliefs) tells him that it would be wrong. He abandons it because he contemplates its possible consequences, and finds that he doesn’t have enough information to take such an irrevocable action (there is the rub…). And then To be or not to be turns from a contemplation on suicide to a reflection on the conscious mind’s attempts to make high-consequence decisions without sufficient information. Death, in this context, is but the ultimate expression of both high consequences and lack of knowledge — the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.

 Conscience here, then, stands not for “conscience” as we know it, but rather for conscious thinking as a decision-making tool: consciousness as the modern instrument for making up one’s mind. And the whole play turns out to be about a clash of two mental paradigms, two different mentalities: the bicameral mind and the conscious mind.

The bicameral mind is represented, of course, by the ghost. For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, ghosts weren’t quite as exotic and abnormal phenomenon as they are now; they belonged to what one might call the “collective cognitive imperative” associated with the Catholic faith, which had just recently been banished in England. As Stephen Greenblatt describes in “Hamlet in Purgatory”, ghost sightings used to be common enough, so there was an established procedure for distinguishing between “honest ghosts” (souls from Purgatory) and hallucinations or demonic apparitions (the procedure Horatio tries to follow during his first encounter with the ghost). Since Reformation had abolished Purgatory, ghosts were losing their church-sanctioned place in the collective cognitive imperative, and ghost sightings became less frequent (although never disappeared completely). This is the historical and cultural context of staging the ghost in “Hamlet”.     

Presumably, a bicameral man would have followed the ghost’s command without questioning, just like the heroes of Iliad followed the commands of their gods. But Hamlet is not an ancient hero, he is a conscious man; he doesn’t act, he thinks. Consciousness interferes between the ghost’s command and the man’s action — and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.  

Surprisingly, many people — Shakespearean scholars, directors, psychologists, just readers — find it puzzling, and even occasionally frustrating, that Hamlet cannot make up his mind to kill his uncle. Just recently, I’ve taken an online course on Hamlet, and was struck by this once again — both in the course materials and on discussion boards. Wouldn’t anyone in their right mind pause to think before springing into action if they see a ghost who commands them to kill someone? It would seem that, in our modern world, someone who tries to follow such questionable commands would have been diagnosed with schizophrenia (or some other mental illness). And yet, people keep looking for an “explanation” for Hamlet’s unwillingness to act (like Freud, for example, who found it necessary to invoke the Oedipal complex to explain why Hamlet cannot kill his uncle — the theory enacted in Laurence Olivier’s version of Hamlet).

I’ve come up with my own explanation for this puzzling reaction to “Hamlet”. In Hamlet, we are directly confronted with something the modern science only began to discover and address in the second half of the last century, and which makes us distinctly uncomfortable: although consciousness presents itself as a decision-making mechanism, it actually isn’t. We perceive consciousness as the initiator of our actions, but it’s an illusion — just as commanding gods of yore used to be. It is as hard to let go of this illusion as it is to see the blind spot, or — I would guess — just as it is hard to someone experiencing auditory hallucinations as the voices of gods to stop hearing them or to disobey them.

I still remember the shock I experienced when I first read about the  fraudulent nature of consciousness in Tor Nørretranders’ book “The User Illusion: cutting consciousness down to size”, but this shock was accompanied by a palpable feeling that I (or some part of me) knew it, even if non quite consciously. It would seem that Shakespeare uncovered this “user illusion” long before even the word for consciousness appeared in the English language. “Hamlet”, just like Hamlet himself instructs his players, hold(s), as ’twere, the mirror up to natureHamlet tries to use his consciousness to decide what to do and to will himself into action, and fails, because consciousness is good at preventing us from action, but not at initiating an action. This mirror is as revealing and unflattering now as it was then (if not more so), because it’s not just about Hamlet: it’s about our consciousness, too.         

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Julian Jaynes on how metaphors generate consciousness (Part II)

In her essay for “This Idea Must Die” (2015), Susan Blackmore writes:

“Consciousness is not some weird and wonderful product of some brain processes but not others. Rather, it’s an illusion constructed by a clever brain and body in a complex social world. We can speak, think, refer to ourselves as agents, and so build up the false idea of a persisting self that has consciousness and free will.”

(I am very grateful to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, who wrote about this book — which I bought immediately — in her Monday post).

Illusion or not, consciousness is not something we just “believe in”: it is our immediate experience, and the social world as we know it wouldn’t be possible without this idea of Self endowed with consciousness and free will (just consider for a moment all the legal and political implications of abandoning this idea). This conflict between experience and knowledge is thus not just a matter of abstract scientific discussions; it touches our very existence on an urgently personal level.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The Rage of Achilles
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. The Rage of Achilles. 1757

This is why Juilian Jaynes’s book on the origin of consciousness is so important — because it offers one of the most compelling (even if controversial) theory on how this illusion is constructed, and when and why it originated. One of his core ideas is that the cornerstone of consciousness is metaphor. A mind boggling implication is that consciousness is, historically speaking, a very recent phenomenon (somewhere between two and three millennia old) — a cultural (rather than biological) development, a stage in the evolution of language. According to Jaynes, the heroes of Iliad and the early prophets of the Old Testament didn’t have this particular illusion (they had an entirely different one instead). This means, among other things, that we must be right in the midst of a relatively fast evolution of consciousness, and — as far as I am concerned — this radically changes the concept of history and our place in it.

So what is metaphor, and how can it generate consciousness? Perhaps most familiar — and certainly most conspicuous — are fresh, striking metaphors we encounter in literature, like “Juliet is the sun” or “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, but that’s not what Jaynes means. He uses the word in a much more general sense:

“The most fascinating property of language is its capacity to make metaphors. But what an understatement! For metaphor is not a mere extra trick of language, as it is so often slighted in the old schoolbooks on composition; it is the very constitutive ground of language. I am using metaphor here in its most general sense: the use of a term for one thing to describe another because of some kind of similarity between them or between their relations to other things. There are thus always two terms in a metaphor, the thing to be described, which I shall call the metaphrand, and the thing or relation used to elucidate it, which I shall call the metaphier. A metaphor is always a known metaphier operating on a less known metaphrand. I have coined these hybrid terms simply to echo multiplication where a multiplier operates on a multiplicand.”

Nowadays, more common terms for what he calls metaphier and metaphrand are source and target; these, of course, are metaphors themselves, and you can perhaps feel how useful this way of extending language is. I feel quite certain it will be easier for you to remember that the more familiar thing in metaphor is called “source”, and the thing to be described, “target” — rather than to remember which of them is “metaphier” and which “metaphrand”.    

Leonardo da Vinchi. Vitruvian man.
Leonardo da Vinchi. Vitruvian man. 1492

Whatever terms we choose, Jaynes is right: metaphors are indeed ubiquitous in language; in fact, there is hardly a meaningful sentence without a metaphor. The following list is just scratching the surface:

“The human body is a particularly generative metaphier, creating previously unspeakable distinctions in a throng of areas. The head of an army, table, page, bed, ship, household, or nail, or of steam or water; the face of a clock, cliff, card, or crystal; the eyes of needles, winds, storms, targets, flowers, or potatoes; the brow of a hill; the cheeks of a vise; the teeth of cogs or combs; the lips of pitchers, craters, augers; the tongues of shoes, board joints, or railway switches; the arm of a chair or the sea; the leg of a table, compass, sailor’s voyage, or cricket field; and so on and on.”

If we look at a language synchronically, as it is now, some metaphors are “live” and some are “dead”. A dead metaphor is one whose source is lost and forgotten: unless you know the word’s etymology, you would never recognise it as a metaphor. Jaynes writes:

“In early times, language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors, even, we may say, created the abstract on the bases of metaphors.

It is not always obvious that metaphor has played this all-important function. But this is because the concrete metaphiers become hidden in phonemic change, leaving the words to exist on their own. Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb ‘to be’ was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, “to grow, or make grow,” while the English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmi, “to breathe.” It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man had no independent word for ‘existence’ and could only say that something ‘grows’ or that it ‘breathes’.”

Michelangelo. Creation of Adam
Michelangelo. Creation of Adam (Sistine Chapel).

Our languages are filled with such dead metaphors with forgotten source meanings, which — at the present time — can play no part in generating consciousness. But there are also lots of “live” metaphors, where the source meaning still “works” as a component of the target meaning.

Consider any word which has meanings both from the physical-behavioural world and from the inner domain of cognition. For example, grasp: one can grasp a stone or one can grasp an idea.

You don’t need to know the etymology of this verb to have a clear intuition about what is the target here and what the source, which meaning is primary and which metaphorical: the direction is always from the “outer” world to “inner”, from “objective” to “subjective”, from physical to cognitive. This phenomenon is not even directly related to the actual history of a word: it’s a feature of one’s own internalised language, the language’s particular manifestation living within the individual brain. The mind refers to the outer, objective world to “model” its inner world of ideas: grasping an idea is like grasping a stone, not vice versa.   

Have you ever wondered what actually happens in the brain when you understand a word? For example, if you listen to someone saying something as simple as that they jumped, what’s actually happening in your brain to create the understanding of what you’ve heard? There is an increasing body of evidence that such understanding involves partial simulation of the very action of jumping. The pattern of neural codes engaged in understanding the word jump and the pattern of neural codes engaged in actual jumping have a portion in common (but obviously not enough to make you jump whenever you say or hear the word). And if we hear the same word used metaphorically — for example, something about someone jumping to conclusions — it would still involve processing of the word jump, and hence the corresponding neural simulation of actual jumping. The sensory properties of the source are thus brought in to contribute to the target meaning.

I hope it is gradually getting clear how metaphors can generate the illusion of special inner mind-space where consciousness “takes place”. Every time the brain processes a sentence about grasping an idea or jumping to conclusion, it simulates a space where these actions might take place, a space where ideas, conclusions, thoughts are modelled as “things” in the outer world — something one can see, approach, jump to, or get hold of.

Consciousness itself emerges as a special kind of “metaphorical” operation in which the world around us is the source and what’s happening inside us, the target. And, of course, this internal model of the outside world contains a little “I” who acts there — indeed, if I approach a problem both “I” and the “problem” must be located within the same space. This thinking and willing “I” turns out to be a tiny little actor on the stage within my own mind-space. Jaynes writes about these illusionary mind-spaces:

“They are a part of what it is to be conscious and what it is to assume consciousness in others. Moreover, things that in the physical-behavioral world do not have a spatial quality are made to have such in consciousness. Otherwise we cannot be conscious of them. This we shall call spatialization.

Time is an obvious example. If I ask you to think of the last hundred years, you may have a tendency to excerpt the matter in such a way that the succession of years is spread out, probably from left to right. But of course there is no left or right in time. There is only before and after, and these do not have any spatial properties whatever—except by analog. You cannot, absolutely cannot think of time except by spatializing it. Consciousness is always a spatialization in which the diachronic is turned into the synchronic, in which what has happened in time is excerpted and seen in side-by-sideness.”

This spatialisation of time is what allows our little metaphorical “I”s — the actors within our mind-spaces — to travel in time: reminiscence about the past, imagine different futures (the latter feature is particularly important, because of its potential role in willing and decision-making).

But the spatialisation of time is also a metaphor: we understand time by modelling it as a kind of space, and this, too, happens in language. The time-as-space metaphor tends to be embedded not only into the vocabulary, but in the grammar as well — for example, when we use spatial prepositions for time periods (something may happen in America and in winter, within a building or within a month). Just as we learn to understand thoughts and ideas as objects in space when we acquire language in childhood, so do we learn to think of time as a space.

This is how, according to Jaynes (or at least to my understanding of his theory), consciousness is generated in each of us now, by modern languages and their live metaphors. But languages were not always like this: their inherent models of our inner worlds weren’t always there, they have evolved over time. And before that happened, there could have been no consciousness as we know it. I will return to this — historical — dimension of Jaynes’s theory next week. Stay tuned…    

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Julian Jaynes on consciousness and language: Part 1

Every once in a while, a genuine breakthrough in science remains unnoticed (or almost unnoticed) and unabsorbed in the relevant domain of knowledge for a long time. The history of science knows many such episodes — but, of course, only those that were “found” and appreciated later on, when the domain was ready, or the intellectual climate has changed. There might have been more — either still waiting to be found, or forgotten forever, or otherwise rediscovered afresh by someone else.

August Rodin. The thinker
August Rodin. The thinker

I’ve come to believe Julian Jaynes’s “The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind” (1976) may be such a breakthrough — if not exactly unnoticed, but certainly underappreciated and unabsorbed by the domains of knowledge which his theory might potentially change. There are many of them — from psychiatry to archeology; the book is refreshingly cross-disciplinary in our age of increasingly stifling specialisation. There might not be a single scholar active in the world today who would be competent enough to evaluate the theory in all its details. As for me, I can only speak for linguistics — the only domain I used to work in — and I truly wish I knew about this book when I did; in fact, I wish it were (formally or informally) part of required reading for all linguists.

Not because Jaynes was necessarily right in all details and nuances of his theory (he probably wasn’t), but because the book questions some very fundamental, core assumptions of the domain — and when they are challenged, it turns out that they aren’t really justified by much more than “common beliefs” and overall intellectual climate of the age. Personally, one of the most life-consuming projects of my years in linguistics both originated and, ultimately, failed, because of my own unquestioned belief in these received assumptions (this research project is way too technical to discuss in the context of this site — and, as I said, it was a failure anyway — but, come to think of it, this work had probably prepared my mind for Jaynes’s book. It may also be, of course, that this is just how my consciousness prefers to build my personal narrative, my own story of my life — just because it would be too hard to accept all those years as total waste).   

Luckily for us all, Jaynes was also an excellent writer, and his book is written as though for an intellectually curious layman (rather than just for peers, as scholarly books usually are). Given the cross-disciplinary scope of the book, he probably had no other choice: a peer in one domain is inevitably a layman in another. I may be better versed in general linguistics than he was, but I am certainly nothing but a curious layman in all other domains he touches upon; but even in linguistics, although I do find some details of the theory doubtful (and certainly often speculative), yet it is still an enlightening, even eye-opening read overall.

Marc Chagall. I and The Village. 1911
Marc Chagall. I and The Village. 1911

More importantly still, it was a mind-opener on a more personal level. It has changed the way I see other people, and the world, and my own place in it. In particular, it changed — for me — the historical and intellectual context of this project, Sonnets in Colour, so I will certainly write about it more here in the future. But the book should certainly be read in its mind-boggling entirety — it is really a brilliant book: I am not at all surprised that it is still in print, after nearly forty years since it was first published.        

One of the key points of Jaynes’s theory is that consciousness, the subjective human mind as we experience it, could emerge only at a certain, and relatively recent, stage of language evolution. To put it even more strongly, consciousness is generated by language, and lots of things must have happened in the evolution of language from its humble beginnings as rudimentary communication system before such a thing as modern consciousness could become possible.  

But what is consciousness? It is simultaneously most self-evident and most elusive thing in the world. Most self-evident because it is our immediate experience of the world (as we know it, or, more precisely — as we know that we know it). Most elusive because we tend to understand things by way of comparing them with something more familiar, more evident, more directly accessible to our outward-directed senses — in short, by finding an appropriate metaphor from the “real world”. But, as Jaynes writes:    

“If understanding a thing is arriving at a familiarizing metaphor for it, then we can see that there always will be a difficulty in understanding consciousness. For it should be immediately apparent that there is not and cannot be anything in our immediate experience that is like immediate experience itself. There is therefore a sense in which we shall never be able to understand consciousness in the same way that we can understand things that we are conscious of.”

Incidentally, as far as I could gather, much of the controversy around Jaynes’s theory when it was first published was generated by huge differences in how the very word, “consciousness”, was understood (and a range of derivative words, corresponding to — supposedly — different types of consciousnesses, have been introduced since then, which didn’t make things much clearer). It was not, I believe, because of Jaynes’s failure to define what he is talking about, nor of his readers’ failure to understand his definition. It might just be in the nature of consciousness to hide from itself, to resist observation and analysis: turning consciousness upon itself makes one quite giddy and all but makes the concept itself dissolve into thin air.

And it’s also in consciousness’s nature to present itself as a much deeper, larger, essential part of our mental life than it really is. However it is defined, it is clear that a lot happens in our minds without us being conscious of it at all. Jaynes himself uses the metaphor of flashlight:

“Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

I’ve used the word “metaphor” twice in this post so far, but there are hundreds of metaphors in it already. Just for instance, I called consciousness a thing a couple of paragraphs above, just because it easier to talk about things; that’s how nouns of our languages work, even though we routinely use them to point to things which aren’t things at all (like consciousness, for example). And just now, I said that nouns “work”, implicitly drawing in the metaphor of language as some sort of machine. That’s the way we talk, mostly without noticing it and, as a matter of habit, using metaphors that are already deeply embedded in our languages. But the way we talk is, more or less, the way we think, at least consciously — and this understanding is at the core of Jaynes’s argument.

And there is an important historical dimension to it, because metaphors that are now so deeply embedded in languages that we don’t even recognise them as such were once quite fresh and new — like, for example, Jaynes’s metaphor of consciousness as flashlight above. And before they were new, they didn’t exist at all — it took a long, long time to extend language’s capacity to its current familiar state, and for all this time consciousness as we know it couldn’t exist.

Pavel Filonov. Heads. 1924
Pavel Filonov. Heads. 1924

I will return to the topic of metaphors and Jaynes’s idea of their consciousness-generating potential next week. For now, let me introduce one essential example of metaphor: the mind-space, that inner space into which one can go to think, to ask oneself questions, to recall one’s memories or to imagine the future, where one can see solutions and grasp complex ideas — in other words, the space where consciousness “takes place”. Jaynes writes:

“<…>when we introspect, we seem to look inward on an inner space somewhere behind our eyes. But what on earth do we mean by ‘look’? We even close our eyes sometimes to introspect even more clearly. Upon what? Its spatial character seems unquestionable. Moreover we seem to move or at least ‘look’ in different directions. And if we press ourselves too strongly to further characterise this space (apart from its imagined contents), we feel a vague irritation, as if there were something that did not want to be known, some quality which to question was somehow ungrateful, like rudeness in a friendly place.”

Not only do we “have” this space within our heads, but we also assume it in others, even though

“we know perfectly well that there is no such space in anyone’s head at all! There is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another. <…> It means that we are continually inventing these spaces in our own and other people’s heads, knowing perfectly well that they don’t exist anatomically; and the location of these ‘spaces’ is indeed quite arbitrary. The Aristotelian writings, for example, located consciousness or the abode of thought in and just above the heart, believing the brain to be a mere cooling organ since it was insensitive to touch or injury.”

Wherever it is located, this illusionary inner space seems absolutely essential to the very existence of conscious thought, and it is implied in a whole range of everyday words and expressions. But where does it come from, and when did it originate?

I’ll be back with Jaynes’s answer to this question next week — please stay tuned!

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