It’s a daunting task: trying to talk to one’s colleagues about consciousness. Is it a quality? Is it a substance? Do we wield it — or is it the nature and seat of our being? And what is its relationship to this sphere of action known as language? Consciousness trance-scribing itself for others. I want to say thought, consciousness, language, narrative: all are simultaneous, intermixed. I walk around, stare at three orange and white daffodils beside a small creek. Water runs across rock as a runner runs past as cars drive past, the world a series of concentric rings through which consciousness vibrates, even as with a body, with fingers typing on technology, words are produced. It all happens temporally and simultaneously. Consciousness is what allows us to perform these tasks. We move among sights, sounds, movements, actions, words, interactions with other beings. But then I also wish to say that consciousness is an awareness, a state into which one awakens gradually and intermittently amid cycles of sleep. We can put ourselves into better states through achievement of consciousness. Lukács uses the term in this sense in his book History and Class Consciousness. And for many Marxists, this achievement is to be sought against a backdrop of “false” consciousness. In a racist society it can transform into what W.E.B. Du Bois called “double consciousness.” And of course it’s what second-wave feminists addressed when they organized themselves in the early 1970s into consciousness-raising groups. How does one say this for friends and colleagues? I practice the yoga of baby-holding while simultaneously listening to birds and crows, contemplating a solution. A way of saying, so as to facilitate shared awareness. What is this thing, this abstraction, this manifestation of mind that persists amid disruptions?
Time to welcome Spuren into the discourse, a concept central to the writings of Western Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch. The essential scheme of these writings is as follows: Bloch finds in the world evidence of “the imperceptible tending of all things toward Utopia” (121). Spuren is his name for this evidence. Fredric Jameson translates the term as “traces, spoor, marks, and signs, ‘signatures of all things I am here to read'” (Marxism and Form, p. 121). The trace isn’t just an external object; it happens, it is a noetic experience, an alteration of consciousness. We pause in astonishment, Jameson says, before these Spuren, “these glowing emblems in which some urgent yet utterly personal secret seems to be concealed” (122). Real philosophizing begins with this lived experience of astonishment. An astonishment born in Bloch’s view from an encounter with “the concrete new in its unimaginable plenitude” (127). The Spuren intervenes, disrupts the ideological slumber, wakes the sleeper from a state of forgetfulness, causing not just remembrance or anxiety but hope. For these reasons, we might liken Spuren to those events Jungians call synchronicities. Spuren are meaningful coincidences, only instead of just realizing psyche in cosmos, they hint prophetically of happier states ahead. One becomes possessed or pulled inwardly by the urging not of the Freudian unconscious, but by a Blochian not-yet consciousness, a beneficent spirit that wishes well. One is driven, steered by unconscious forces, Jameson says, into “the not-yet-existent, rather than back into the endless repetition of childhood fixations” (130). Bloch regards the utopia as a form that reveals this movement of reality toward the future. They educate us to our heart’s desire. “The meaning of Being…comes into being, if at all,” Jameson writes, “only at the moment when the world passes over into Utopia, and when that final Utopian destination returns upon the past to confer a sense of direction upon it” (Marxism and Form, p. 131). I step outside to birds everywhere, the world alive with song. Anxiety can be transformed into positive anticipation — a lifting of the world with hope.
Lionel Hampton’s Golden Vibes dances through me, my skin resonating like keys beneath Hampton’s mallets. During Tuesday’s performance, percussionist Sandy Blocker stood from his drums and played a balafon. Meanwhile I got bills to pay, roles to play, life pregnant with life. In the Renaissance occult imagination studied by Frances A. Yates, an “umbra” is a shadow formed by the light of the divine mind — light we can only ever seek “through its shadows, vestiges, seals” (The Art of Memory, p. 268). One of these days, I tell myself, I should track down the Nock-Festugière edition of the Corpus Hermeticum along with Norman O. Brown’s book Hermes the Thief: The Evolution of a Myth. I sit in a dark room for a few moments, in a hat and a cape, observing shadows, thinking about stars and moons, ancient debates between Egyptian and Greek philosophers arising again from memory, debates of great consequence, much of it still hidden. For Renaissance occultists like Alexander Dicson, the roots of the art of memory lie in ancient Egypt, not ancient Greece. “And if it is separated from Egypt,” he writes, “it can effect nothing” (as quoted in Yates 272).
To live allegorically is to juxtapose multiple dimensions of being: this world and another, or this part and that within a single world-system. Records arrive for me at Goodwill, including Charlie Haden’s The Golden Number. I wander around in what feels sometimes like a giant memory palace, reading student essays, some thoughtful, some not. I imagine one adapted into a lush graphic novel confrontation between a psychedelic Plato and a teetotaling Aristotle. From the underground temple of Eleusis we ascend to the Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo.
There’s so much still to learn, I think to myself. Let’s begin by reading a history of Mexican philosophy. Study the works of Emilio Uranga, Leopoldo Zea, and Luis Villoro. Seek information about the latter’s correspondence with Subcomandante Marcos, a book called La Alternativa. Or, maybe just focus on housing. Rethink Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” Why, in the mid-20th century, does Maslow wish to reintroduce a naturalized hierarchy into the “science of the human”? What were his fears? The hierarchy of needs is one we’re disciplined into by capitalism — so here I am, fretting about how to finance food, shelter, education, transportation. What Marxists call “social reproduction.” What good is a “hierarchy of needs” to a worker? The only truly humanistic psychology is one able to free workers to self-actualize: one that grants them relief from external structures of domination like debt. Is there a psychology of Being that can grant that relief?
Something draws me to the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles. For him, the cosmos is governed by processes of combination and disaggregation, incessant exchange between four roots (Fire, Earth, Air, and Water) and two forces (Love and Strife). His work is known to us today only in part, through a series of fragments. It’s clear, though, from the evidence we possess, that he was committed to the idea that “all things feel (phronesis) and have their share of thought (noema).” Listen, heed: the whole feels, resonates, sings. Each part co-produces the assemblage, the ensemble, experiencing itself locally as an “appearing-to-nature-as-it-happens” environment or life-world. Out of the day comes a live recording and an opportunity for a charitable offering. Soon I’m reading about Quetzalcóatl and Náhuatl philosophy and finding meaning in songs and flowers.
The drug experience enters cultural memory, becomes an object of philosophical investigation from the Romantic period onward — though perhaps it was already informing the thinking of the Ancient Greeks by way of the festival of Eleusis. Walter Burkert writes of these famed “experiences of ecstasy and wonder” in his book Ancient Mystery Cults, a work of “comparative phenomenology.” I think of it as a form of listening across time for psychedelic travel narratives, trip reports from wonderland written by heads possessed by a shared, singular-but-multiple “voice of experience,” a “general equivalent” allowing Being to relate to itself across time. By reading literary history as a continuous dialogue, something like a holy ghost emerges, self-consistent despite change, urging us toward happiness and freedom. Ernst Bloch called it the “Utopian impulse” or the “principle of Hope.” Jung imagined it as a “collective unconscious.” Teaching a course this way is a bit like saying, “You, too, can live allegorically. The way to do so is by reading.”
What would a revolution on the scale of the Copernican look like today? Sigmund Freud, whose works students and I discussed today in class, liked to pat himself on the back for his accomplishments, comparing himself to fellow paradigm-shifters Copernicus and Darwin. He believed the three of them had dealt “bitter blows” to humanity’s “craving for grandiosity.” Copernicus taught humans to de-center themselves, the earth a mere speck in a world-system of vast magnitude. Darwin robbed them of their self-regard — their sense of themselves as special, divine creations. Both figures dealt blows, in other words, to what Freud called humanity’s “Ego.” Why is the marriage of heaven and hell that Blake envisioned recast by Freud as cause for pessimism regarding humanity’s capacity for happiness? What happens when Blake’s “angels” and “devils” become Freud’s Superego and Id?
My imagination roves, like a cursor directed by an unseen, other-dimensional stylus. The one—an abstract, digitally mediated, floating point of view—sits across from and mirrors the other, the active ongoing envisioning of Being. About which, we somehow wish to write. Thus the following. To “project,” in the Freudian sense, is to turn reality into a metaphor. Parts of the object-world are substituted, refashioned, reimagined. And these actions are performed by a subject. Indeed—projective doings are not just done by accident. In the Freudian universe, everything is significant, everything has meaning. Yet the “I” who projects, Freud says, is still largely unconscious of its being, occulted from itself, its thoughts and feelings forgotten as they happen, buried, submerged, stored outside conscious awareness. The party responsible for projection is that preconscious part of us that wishes and dreams, Freud says, not the part of us that remembers afterwards having done so. Freud likened the mind to a landscape, a topography, a surface and a depth, as did precursors like Plato and Coleridge, the former in the Allegory of the Cave, the latter in “Kublai Khan.” What happens, though, when the unconscious arrives into consciousness as a thing? Both are transformed, are they not? Assumption of the unconscious is necessary, Freud says, to explain acts presupposed: acts of dreaming, acts of spontaneous self-governance that happen without any remembered, conscious deliberation. “Our most personal daily experience acquaints us,” he wrote, “with ideas that come into our head we do not know from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at we do not know how” (“The Unconscious,” 573). The happenings of the mind exceed what is known to consciousness—so, upon that excess, we bestow the title “Unconscious.” Energetic, creative, erotic, Dionysian: these are its attributes, this original portion of ourselves, deepest and most essential, guided by what Freud calls “The Pleasure Principle.” The Unconscious is the home of the Id: the pre-socialized self, the “Self in its infancy,” motivated only to seek pleasure and fear pain. This early self is later shackled by the “mind-forg’d manacles” of the Ego and the Superego; but the Pleasure Principle remains operative throughout our lives, in all subsequent stages of psychological development. The Ego and the Superego enter onto the stage of the psyche through our interactions with our parents. The Ego is the conscious portion of the individual, the part that thinks itself the star of the show, whereas the Superego is the culturing force, the Law of the Father, parental authority as it becomes internalized.
“Spiral Dynamics” comes to mind as I listen to “Beautiful Crystals” by Sunwatchers.
The band takes its name from a song by Albert Ayler. Guitars interplay with horns, drums, and synths to form complex patterns. Concentrating on the band’s epic prog-psychedelic freak-outs, consciousness can float around a bit in a wild, hypnotic trance-state, reflections on sound and language intersecting to form brief synesthetic plateau-experiences. Life is mysterious, a bubbly, frothy, rococo garden of love, as one listens. Ever-changing, too—in constant surplus of itself. The band operates in a variety of modes: cosmic-archetypal in their aspirations one minute, urgently political the next. I look forward to seeing them when they play in town next month. Spiral Dynamics, meanwhile, seems to be some sort of West Coast “theory of everything,” popularized by the consciousness theorist Ken Wilber. Abraham Maslow fits in there somewhere in the movement’s origins, his “Hierarchy of Needs” adapted into a full-blown “tiered,” “evolutionary” theory of consciousness. It hasn’t been clear to me upon initial perusal whether or not this theory proposes a corollary ethics or practice, though I assume so. At times it sounds hyper control-oriented and egoic, encouraging practitioners to “sweep away objects” and focus on a prior “I Am,” consciousness in its most abstract and deracinated form—an ever-present, transhistorical “One,” divorced from the particulars of any thought, emotion, or object. Within short order, one finds oneself wondering, “Where is the Other in this model?” Reduced, it seems, to pure Becoming, known only through its momentary modifications, ripples, and arisings. The Other is that which encircles “I Am” as the latter spirals through states of distraction and re-cognition.