Sarah Perry is a guest blogger who blogs at Carcinisation and is the author of Every Cradle is a Grave: Rethinking the Ethics of Birth and Suicide.
A selective sweep occurs when a new, beneficial gene mutation appears and quickly sweeps across a population, erasing the genetic diversity that existed prior to the sweep. Similarly, languages have “swept” across continents as the cultures they belonged to gained unbeatable advantages (often agricultural or military), resulting in losses of language diversity from earliest human history to the present day. Today, half the population of the world speaks one of only thirteen languages.
These are not controversial claims. More controversial is the idea that human prehistory (and even history) hosted a wide variety of human consciousness, not just language, and that these disparate kinds of subjective consciousness were destroyed upon contact with new forms of consciousness. Most dramatically, Julian Jaynes famously argued (in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) that human consciousness changed drastically in the past few thousand years, from an archaic bicameral form in which one side of the brain shouted orders and the other obeyed, to a modern, introspective form. My claim is not so extreme: I simply argue that there are and have been many forms of human consciousness, varying in particular ways, that we retain the “hardware” capability for many forms of consciousness, and that humans are constrained into particular mental states by their cultures, especially through group ritual (or lack thereof). In order to explore this claim, it is helpful to think about our own form of consciousness in detail – a form of consciousness that is novel, contagious, and perhaps detrimental to human flourishing compared with more evolutionarily tested forms of consciousness running on the same hardware.
The form of consciousness that you and I share (if you are reading this) was likely not the only one to sweep across new territory, erasing previous variation. But it is the most recent such sweep, and it has been a dramatic one. It provides particular ways of subjectively experiencing time, identity, the self, other people, external reality, and the divine. (E. Richard Sorenson lists the consciousness variants as sense-of-name, sense-of-space, sense-of-number, sense-of-truth, and sense-of-emotion.) Ours is a literate kind of consciousness, gathering momentum with the advent of printing and achieving its ultimate realization (though with some subversion) in the form of the internet. Since it appears to be transmitted by schooling and since it is the form of consciousness most conducive to industrialization, it may be thought of as scholastic-industrial consciousness.
Most of the time, in most cultures, not just our own, we do need to be in complete control of our faculties. But we also need, sometimes, to dissolve into our groups, which presupposes the existence of such a group. While I think we are socially and emotionally starving without participatory group rituals, especially rhythmic rituals, I also think we must be very cautious in adding new or old rituals to our diet. The rebirth of ritual is the most deadly serious play.
Especially Recommended Readings
Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1987.
Kavanagh, Aidan. On Liturgical Theology. New York: Pueblo Publishing Company, 1984.
Rochat, Philippe. Others In Mind: On the Social Origins of Self-Consciousness. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Seligman, Adam, and Robert Weller. Rethinking Pluralism: Ritual, Experience, and Ambiguity. Oxford University Press, 2012.