Being conscious is not only one of the great mysteries of science—it can be dangerous stuff in ways that might not occur to us. I was reading about the damage done to young people addicted to Instagram: getting depressed about about their body image, and other self-inflicted wounds. It made me think about something in Jean-Paul Sartre’s book, Being and Nothingness.
Sartre provides a startling account of what goes on when two conscious beings confront each other. The main idea is this: each person is an invisible center of consciousness. I see the polite smile on your lips but what you’re thinking, feeling, etc., is hidden. So in every relationship there is an element of mystery and uncertainty.
Facing each other, not only are our thoughts invisible and possibly suspect, but we are disposed to objectify each other. We’re hopelessly exposed to the secret judgment of the other. According to Sartre, in all our relationships, there is a dialectic going on, a struggle to be the subject that we are and not the object the other wants or needs us to be.
Best of all is when we treat each other as subjects, as in friendship, family, and hopefully, in religion, art, politics, science, sport, etc.. Nevertheless, the dialectic of master and slave, subject and object, is built into our dualistic consciousness, and you find it everywhere, the need and readiness to objectify the other.
It’s impossible to escape the latent paranoia of consciousness. Racism and resentment of all kinds, fundamentalism in all its forms, and much more: all are part of consciousness objectifying, stereotyping, categorizing, and often demonizing the other. Consciousness, touchy and nervous, needs to dominate, feel superior, exert power, and if it feels backed into a corner, do bad. After all, in my consciousness, I am alone, flanked on all sides by others ready to label and grind me down to an object.
I haven’t read Sartre for a while, but it would seem that we have three options every time we confront and interact with another human being. We can allow ourselves to be objectified, and feel, say, in some way, deficient, diminished, crossed out, or as we say today, cancelled. The second possibility is that we contrive to feel and imagine that we are the top dogs, dominant and triumphant. I may keep my sense of triumph gleefully to myself or I may act out my conviction of fancied superiority in ways sly or gross.
So far the options are: let your self be defined, reduced and diminished by the other or do your best to stay on top, dominate and objectify the other at all costs.
But there is a third option. Instead of feeling objectified by the other or feeling at all times the compulsion to do the objectifying, it is possible to do neither. We’re not compelled to suffer the passive/paranoid syndrome. We can instead tap into another capacity of consciousness, its capacity for the freedom and creativity to direct itself, in spite of obstacles, to choose and shape its own existence. We can meet the other as if he or she is another self, not a mere object to classify and control or a subject disposed to crush my reality. We can do this by focusing on our common humanity, by reminding ourselves of what we share with all conscious beings.
We’re living through a period of history where the global information technologies are fracturing consciousness into many millions of islands of subjectivity. It will be very hard to drill down to any lingering sense of common humanity. It has to be there, comatose perhaps, and tough to spot, but it has to be reachable.
We need to foster a revolution in higher education. ‘Higher’ in the sense of higher forms of consciousness. If it’s possible to train people to operate computers, why not train them to operate their creative and intuitive imaginations? Learning how to manipulate numbers and symbols on keyboards is one kind of skill. Learning to sense and pick up on the secrets of other people’s souls is something else.
The Romantic poet Keats once wrote that great poets and leaders possess “negative capability.” Meaning that you can empty yourself and make room for feeling, sensing, even merging with, the subjectivity of others—real or imaginary. But, as they say, if you’re ‘full of yourself,’ you’ll lack the inner space to imagine, empathically, the stories of other people. And by the way, not just people like you, but also the freaks and the weirdoes. As to consciousness being friend or foe, it’s all up to us.