June 22, 2009

Tribal Consciousness and the Enlightenment Tradition

At one point in his work, Proust advances a theory of development that goes back to Goethe, and ultimately to Plato. It was Goethe who coined the term “morphology,” by which he meant the science of form, and the crucial idea was that the adult manifestation of an organism was already encoded in its earliest structural arrangement. Thus the entire oak tree, for example, was already present in the acorn; growth and development were basically a process of “unfolding” from an original archetype. It is a teleological theory, a theory of predestination; and Proust comments that if you see a pretty girl next to her mother, you can already discern in the daughter the pattern of ageing, the adult features, “in the wings,” as it were. Extending the theory from the biological to the social realm, Proust argues that we should hardly be surprised, for example, to learn that some Jewish person we might know (this around 1900, say) is heatedly on the side of Alfred Dreyfus.* For this is pre-ordained, he says; it’s in the blood. Our mistake is to believe that we are making rational decisions, when the truth is that “our minds possess in advance...the characteristic that we imagine ourselves to be selecting.” He goes on:

“For we grasp only the secondary ideas, without detecting the primary
cause (Jewish blood, French birth or whatever it may be) that
inevitably produced them....We take from our family, as [adult
plants] take the form of their seed, as well the ideas by which we
live as the malady from which we shall die.”

The theory, then, is one of genetic memory, and for Proust it applies to the biological development of human beings as well as plants. It also, Proust is saying, applies to the mental and supposedly intellectual function of human beings, in the form of what we might call “tribal consciousness.” Of course, Dreyfus was innocent and his enemies were a bunch of liars and antisemites, but for Proust that is not the point. The claim here is that we would expect Jews to be on the side of Dreyfus without worrying too much about the evidence pro or con, in the same way that it is not too much of a shock to learn that 96% of the black American population voted for Barack Obama. These are not really freely chosen rational decisions, in short, and we are kidding ourselves if we think they are.

This matter of tribal consciousness is enormously significant, it seems to me, and Jewish identity is as good an illustration of it as any. Suppose, at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, God had waved a magic wand and all of the Jews in France suddenly became Christian, and all the Christians, Jews. I can’t prove it, of course, but I’m guessing that a large percentage of the new Christians would suddenly regard Dreyfus as guilty, and a large percentage of the new Jews would now find him innocent. It is depressing to think that evidence gets marshaled in the service of emotions, but hard to avoid that conclusion. What happened in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Gaza during December 2008-January 2009, for example, which was nothing less than the wholesale massacre of Palestinian civilians, was quite Orwellian: one heard Israeli spokesmen and apologists claiming that Israel (the occupying power) was somehow the victim in all of this–and they actually believed it. But again, if a magic wand suddenly rendered the Israelis Palestinians and vice versa, wouldn’t the former Israelis now be on the Palestinian side, and the former Palestinians now be convinced that yes, Israel was indeed the victim in this tragedy? That blood, rather than evidence, is the issue constitutes the essence of tribal consciousness. We need to examine this more closely.

I remember, some years ago, pondering this question of how tribal allegiance colonizes the brain when I ran across an intriguing work of science fiction by the American author Neal Stephenson, entitled Snow Crash. The core of the book is what might be called the “viral theory of religion,” in which the brain is taken over or possessed by a certain set of religious ideas. The virus replicates itself inside the individual mind, and it also jumps from one person to the next. Stephenson spends a lot of time applying this theory of infection to ancient Sumer, the thought process of which can be regarded as a kind of trance phenomenon. (Egypt would fall into the same category, it seems to me.) There were, he says, various attempts to break out of the trance, Judaism being the most notable. Thus the Torah was also a virus, says Stephenson, but a benign one; a counter-virus to the ancient mythological world, which was stuck in a rut. Scribes copied it; people came to the synagogue to read it. Judaism was basically the first rational religion, then, but eventually it hardened into legalism, whereupon it was challenged by Christ...whose ideas got taken over by viral influence almost immediately, becoming a new theocracy. The Reformation, fifteen centuries later, was then the counter-virus to this. Etc. The idea is that we become “hosts” for self-replicating information, and as further examples Stephenson points to mass hysteria, jokes, catchy tunes, and ideologies.

As it turns out, Snow Crash is the fictionalized version of the theory of memes, first put forward by the British biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976. The dictionary defines “meme” as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” It’s basically an information virus. Dawkins regarded it as a “unit” of cultural ideas that moves by way of imitation, and saw things such as catch phrases, fashion in clothing, and the technology of building arches (to take three unrelated examples) as falling into this category. Memes are essentially replicators, and their mode of transmission can be likened to contagion. As in the case of Stephenson, the virus/meme invades the “host,” takes it over; and this is not, said Dawkins, necessarily positive: in terms of replication, a successful meme can actually be detrimental to the host body. (Just think of what neoliberalism and the Milton Friedman-virus–the “shock doctrine,” in Naomi Klein’s memorable phrase–have done to North and South America, for example.)

Now quite frankly, there is a lot to be said against the theory, most notably that it sets up a kind of pseudoscience that ultimately doesn’t explain very much. There was, for example, a period in the history of science in which the concept of “instinct” was extended from biology to sociology and psychology. It was a total explanation: there was a death instinct, a love instinct, an artistic instinct, a criminal instinct, a nesting instinct, an instinct for sailing the high seas, and on and on. It took a while for social scientists to realize that these “explanations” were completely circular. As one philosopher observed, it was like labeling a bird that went around in circles a “rotopedist,” and then when asked why the bird went around in circles, “explaining” that it did so because it was a rotopedist! Obviously, if everything is an instinct, or a meme, then nothing is.

Second, the meme theory itself can be seen as a meme, moving through society like a virus. But this takes us into a classic situation known as “Mannheim’s paradox,” because then the scientific status of the theory is called into question (it too is a fad, in other words). Karl Mannheim, the German sociologist, developed a mode of investigation known as the Sociology of Knowledge, whereby one studies how ideas get accepted in an intellectual community. Foreshadowing T.S. Kuhn, Mannheim argued that this acceptance did not occur on a rational basis, but rather on an ideological one. However, we then have to ask if this applies to the Sociology of Knowledge as well. After all, why should it alone get a free pass? If it does apply (and Mannheim unsuccessfully tried to argue that it didn’t), the rug is pulled out from under the theory. It begins to look like the ancient “Liar’s paradox”: A Cretan said, “All Cretans are liars.” Was he telling the truth?

Finally, and related to this, is the phenomenon whereby the counter-virus becomes, in short order, the new virus. Judaism becomes Pharasaism, Christ becomes St. Paul becomes the Vatican, the Reformation becomes Protestant rigidity, and New Age spirituality becomes Oprah and Chopra. The old mimetic system gets cracked open, and then the opener becomes The Opener. This means that in effect, with the exception of the briefest of moments, there is no such thing as a non-meme world. As I argued in an earlier essay (“The Hula Hoop Theory of History”), we seem to be caught up in one form of “hula-hoop” or another; we never seem to get a handle on any kind of objective reality. But can that really be the case? I mean, we know that Galileo was right about falling bodies and Aristotle wrong; we know that severe population pressure leads to hierarchical social systems; we know that syphilis is caused by a particular bacterium and that if left untreated, will result in insanity and death; and we know that Alfred Dreyfus was innocent and that the French army was corrupt. Objectively speaking, we know things–a lot of things. And yet, there is no getting around the fact that tribalism–mimetic thinking–is the rule rather than the exception. Thus while there are a number of soldiers in the Israeli army who refuse to serve in the occupied territories, and Israeli peace organizations such as Yesh Gvul (“There is a limit ”) who support them, the majority of the population does indeed see itself as victims, and votes for a prime minister who can be guaranteed to continue the dead-end policies of oppression and occupation–until the demographics of the situation will finally render Israeli rule untenable, and things will change not by reason, but by force. One tribe, in short, will defeat another. What a triumph!

What our discussion comes down to is this: Leaving aside, for now, the first two (philosophical) objections to the meme-virus theory, and granting the fact that tribal consciousness really is the norm for the human race, what are the chances that mimetic behavior could be seriously disrupted, once and for all? This was, after all, the goal of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment tradition; but as one political scientist once pointed out, “It’s not that the Enlightenment failed; rather, it’s that it has never been tried.” This is, of course, not entirely true; but when you have an “advanced” industrial nation with 59% of its adult population sitting around and waiting for the “Rapture” and the Second Coming, 29% thinking that the sun revolves around the earth or not knowing which revolves around which, and 45% believing that extra-terrestrials have visited the planet, you realize that this commentator has a point.

It all comes down to reflexivity: Can we break the hold of the meme-trance, and look at things from the “outside”? After all, intuitively speaking, heavy bodies should hit the earth faster than light ones when dropped from the same height, and we can plainly see the sun “rise” in the East and “set” in the West. Getting outside of the (medieval) meme here means that we look at evidence that is counter-intuitive; that we recognize that there is an objective truth to the situation that doesn’t give a damn about our personal or tribal belief system; that one can stand outside a situation and evaluate it, and extend this analytical mode to our own beliefs, and to who we are. “O would some power the gift to give us/To see ourselves as others see us,” wrote the Scottish poet Robert Burns in the eighteenth century. This external evaluation–what I have referred to elsewhere as “nonparticipating consciousness”–was, as Neal Stephenson correctly notes, the stellar contribution of the ancient Hebrews; and it was also characteristic of the ancient Greeks (their ties to the Mystery religions notwithstanding). After all, when you have Heraclitus talking about the problem of subjective judgment, and Democritus asserting that it is only by convention that we can talk about sweet, bitter, hot, and cold, “but in reality there are only atoms and the void,” you know you’re in a different kind of world than that of blind mimetic belief.

I am not, I should add, claiming that nonparticipating consciousness is without its problems; indeed, that was the entire point of my book The Reenchantment of the World. But it is also the case that there is too much that simply cannot be solved from within a strictly mimetic framework, and this is why we need to ask if the Enlightenment tradition can ever be made to “stick.” Reading its late twentieth-century representatives–I am thinking of philosophers such as Peter Singer and John Rawls–I am often frustrated at how naïve they are, because they are clearly talking about how people “ought” to behave (i.e., rationally) and not how they actually behave (i.e., tribally). What planet are you guys on? is the annoyed reaction I frequently have. And yet, this is the crucial point: Controlling the excesses of tribal consciousness really does mean taking the Enlightenment tradition seriously, breaking the “trance,” and standing outside the particular meme we are caught up in (whatever it is) and evaluating it rationally and empirically. Singer and Rawls don’t have any clear ideas on how to get to such a place, and frankly, neither do I. My guess is that force, not reason, will be the deciding factor in a whole host of areas as the twenty-first century wears on. But it’s challenging to think about what a non-mimetic path might consist of.

Here is a single example, something I can’t really do myself, but at least aspire to. A very long time ago, when I first got interested in Karl Marx, I ran across a biography of the man by Isaiah Berlin. At the time I had no idea who Isaiah Berlin was, but as I was keen to learn more about Marx, I read the book from cover to cover. It was a very sympathetic portrait of the great German philosopher; the author managed to get inside his head, enable you to see the world through Marx’s eyes. I came away impressed with Marx as a thinker; really, as a heroic figure. And then I subsequently learned that Communism was complete anathema to Berlin, who was a Russian (actually, Latvian) emigré; and that if there was one single political ideology he hated, it was that. I still retain a great admiration for Marx, of course, and confess I have some reservations about the work of Isaiah Berlin in general. But that is neither here nor there. Given his own mimetic background, it is hard not to regard his portrait of Marx as a type of heroism all its own.

©Morris Berman, 2009

*Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jewish artillery officer falsely convicted of treason in 1894, and sent to the Devil’s Island penal colony in French Guiana, where he spent two years in solitary confinement. The real culprit, Ferdinand Esterhazy, was tried and acquitted in 1896 in what amounted to an Army cover-up (including the falsification of documents). In 1898, the famous writer Émile Zola led the public protest against the government, as the “Dreyfus Affair” tore the nation apart. Eventually, all the charges against Dreyfus were dropped, and he was finally exonerated in 1906. All in all, not exactly France’s finest hour.