Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Ambient Unconscious

When I was in high school, I thought that I was a genius. This isn't just to say that I made good grades or impressed my teachers. After all, there were a lot of other students that did these things, and nobody would call them geniuses. They were simply good at what they did: memorizing texts and following rules. No, as I saw it, my gift was different. It was a capacity for original thought. It was the potential to change the world. Yes, this was a big claim. At the time, though, I had proof. I could even point to the exact day when I came to this realization.

I'd just purchased a history of Western philosophy. It was my first serious text. Before that, I'd been an avid reader of fantasy and sci-fi, but that was the sum of my literacy. Even so, I considered myself a 'thinker,' and when my uncle recommended that I read a history on philosophy, I committed myself to the task. At first, I'd just wanted to prove that I could tackle difficult ideas, but as I read the book, I realized that its ideas weren't difficult at all. In fact, they were quiet familiar. I'd thought them all before. Plato, Kant, Hume: I'd never heard their names, but I'd come to their conclusions on my own.

This is why I thought I was a genius. What took Western civilization generations to devise, I had independently realized in just fifteen years. You can only guess at how this bolstered my self-image. At the time, I thought that I would take the banner of enlightenment and carry it to new realms. I would help society grow. It was my gift and my obligation. It was my genius, and for years I believed in it. Of course, it's easy for me to now look back and laugh. I'm twenty-eight and have not proven myself to possess any of this potential. I was just a regular kid with a thick book and big head. Still, this begs a question. How did an otherwise unremarkable fifteen-year-old boy come to the same conclusions as men like Socrates before he'd even heard their names?

The answer came to me three years after I bought that book. At the time, I was in college and reading 'Beyond Good and Evil.' Once again, I was matching each of Nietzsche's thoughts with one of my one, reaffirming my genius. At least, it seemed that way until I watched 'Batman Returns.' Of all things, Hollywood brought me to my senses. It happened while Batman was gearing up for the final conflict with the Penguin. Already, he'd shown himself to be outside of society's rules. He was a vigilante. He did what needed to be done, even if it went beyond good and evil. In other words, Batman was Nietzsche. Batman embodied the values of 'Beyond Good and Evil,' and by watching this movie, I was effectively taking an introductory course on the text. No wonder these ideas were familiar. I'd seen them when first I watched 'Batman Returns' as a twelve-year-old.

After that, I saw this happening again and again. Rousseau was in 'Requiem for a Dream.' Maugham was in 'The X-Men.' Popular culture had integrated the ideas of Western philosophy, and as we consumed its media, we came to the same conclusions as its thinkers. In time, their philosophies appeared like common sense. So, when I read a history of Western thought, of course the ideas were familiar to me. I'd learned about Locke and Hobbes through 'Law and Order,' about Socrates through 'The Dead Poet's Society,' about Nietzsche through 'Batman.'

As you might expect, this shattered my self-image. It took months to pick up the pieces. So, I wasn't a genius, after all. I was just like the other students in school, memorizing texts and following rules. It just happened that my text was more subtle, my rules less explicit. When I looked at the remains of these personal philosophies, I saw history and media staring back at me. Only after I swept away most the debris did I find a few shards that were my own, that were truly original. These, I held close to myself. These, I cultivated and refashioned, developing metaphors and stories so that I could convey them to others.

When I actually shared these ideas with my friends, though, something strange happened. They weren't confused. They didn't get riled up and contrary. No, my friends simply nodded knowingly. They had made the same conclusions themselves; they just hadn't put them into words yet. It was no different from how I immediately understood the philosophies within 'Beyond Good and Evil.' I had been primed. My friends had been primed. Still, this didn't make sense to me. I was sharing my most original philosophies. These ideas weren't in books or movies. How then had so many people also come to these realizations?

It took me a while, but slowly I began to see: what media accomplishes through implicit communication, people are doing organically, as well. We do not need to describe an idea in words to convey it to others. Rather, ideas spread just as readily through our actions and assumptions, and this is happening on a massive scale. Whole philosophies are forming just beneath our conscious, and although we are vaguely aware of them, we cannot yet talk about them. We can only skirt around them, hinting at their existence and tracing a vague outline. When I tell a friend one of my ideas and he nods, all that's happened is that I've pointed to something that he's long seen in his periphery. It is not my originality or genius that sees these things. It's just my obsession with looking sideways.

I've heard other people talk about this phenomenon, referring to it as the collective unconscious. These are the ideas which we have all begun to think, but which we are not yet fully aware of. It's a fitting label, though a bit of a misnomer, as well. When Jung originally coined it, he was referring to unconscious traits that all people are born with, such as an image of the ideal woman (anima) or a fear of death. In contrast, what I'm describing now are ideas which are actively evolving through conversation, art, and deed. They are not inborn archetypes. To avoid confusion, they need a different name, such as the 'ambient unconscious.' It's not the prettiest phrase, but ambient at least emphasizes the origin of these ideas: they are drawn from our surroundings, rather than from our genetics or soul.

I decided to start 'What I've Heard' with this essay because it highlights that the ideas to follow are not my own. Rather, they have evolved through conversation with friends, through images on flickr and facebook, through Catholic ritual and Buddhist meditation. All I am is the mixing pot. All my thoughts are is alchemy.

1 comment:

  1. Pope St. Rev. Edmund Lexis FendersonDecember 2, 2010 at 7:19 AM

    See Sir, you also refer to "genius," I believe, in the improper terminology. I think you should aim at natural intelligence. Because what you are doing here is not possible for most of our species. The ability to point out the hows and whys of what and where you have developed your insights. I would say that when I met you, back in those days, you had an inherent enlightenment, only due to the small minds that surrounded us in the high school environment, your idea of "self" had been stifled, as happens with most people of natural intelligence. That is all I will say for now, as I may begin to ramble past this point. By the way, most peoples concept of Nietzsche is totally off, I perceive his philosophy of "Nihilism" to be likened to Christian Buddhism.