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.


Blogger Ti-Guy said...

Enjoyable post, Mr. Berman.

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.

I myself don't have anything to add in terms of how to break out of this. Back in the early 90's, when the Internet was "democratised," (I was an early enthusiast, fresh from information and media studies graduate work in late the 80's), I thought the WWW would be the tool with which the barriers between the evidence and those who would benefit from being exposed to the evidence would be dismantled. I no longer believe that, as the WWW and the interconnected communications network appear to have become an startlingly efficient vector by which the most ludicrous of ideas are propagated. And technocratic attempts to deal with that in the last decade are only making the situation worse, the latest example of that being Twitter.

The problem lies with how our mass media determines authority and to some extent, the inability of authorities to popularise and/or communicate their ideas with a sense of urgency that would indicate they are interested in a wider audience at least grasping the essence of what they are advancing, if not the detail.

To paraphase Noam Chomsky: reality's not that complicated once you clear away the bullshit.

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Justme said...

the WWW and the interconnected communications network appear to have become an startlingly efficient vector by which the most ludicrous of ideas are propagated. And technocratic attempts to deal with that in the last decade are only making the situation worse, the latest example of that being Twitter.

To see the internet as a solution to anything is probably wrong. But to see it as a failure even so. So far nobody is forced to use the WWW 'in the way it was intended to be used' e.g. Twitter. ;)
It's not what it is, it's what one makes out of it. If it can be used for propagating tribal consciousness it can also be used in 'enlightened ways'. It's up to everyone of us. Maybe it's just one step further for an evolving human consciousness. Maybe it's not.

8:28 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Justme,

I take it you came to this conversation kind fo late. I'd suggest you check out some of the dialogue under the two previous posts. What you are espousing is the naive view of science and technology--that they are value-neutral and can be used for good or evil. Were that it were so, and that it were merely "up to us." Philosophy passed that point long ago, and you would do well to educate yourself on this score. The naive view has been completely discredited by McLuhan, Marcuse, and several other major thinkers--most especially Albert Borgmann ("Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life"). It is simply not true that we have choices about it. Sure, one can reject electricity, let's say, but only if one wants to live an Amish-type life--kind of difficult in the US in the 21st century. Plainly put, technology alters the context, values, and behavior of a society, and we become a different society, and different people, as a result. Even beyond McLuhan and Co., the literature that has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's, and New Atlantis over the past few years on how screens and computer technologies are changing our very thought processes is quite extensive, and doesn't make for a pretty picture.


9:55 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


The Reenchantment of the World was the first book of yours that I read, back in the mid-'80's, when it made its now-ironic appearance as part of the Bantam "New Age" series, and it remains a favorite of mine.

I have been meaning for a while now to ask you how you view that book today, and where you currently agree and disagree with what you wrote then. I think that your blog readers would be interested in reading your response, and it seems appropriate here, since the themes of the book are relevant to this post and thread.

So, if you'd like to expatiate in this space on what I've asked, then I hope you'll do so. If you think it inappropriate, however, or would rather not do so, then I understand. If you've addressed the question elsewhere, then I'd be grateful for a referral to that information.



11:19 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Kevin,

Yes, good question, and it would probably take me a long time to answer. Or at least, to do so comprehensively, since there are a lot of parts to the book. I guess I can only make a few short comments here.

One is, that ROW relies too much on paradigm-shift, or consciousness, as an agent of change. Happily, not entirely, since the last ch. is called The Politics of Consciousness, and does talk a bit about the realities of power. And consciousness is not irrelevant to the political process, of course, but I would say that Marx was probably right, i.e. that existence makes a greater difference for consciousness than vice versa. The crash of last October is a good example of that, it seems to me; suddenly, we're all Keynesians again!

As for power, it seems clear that it can co-opt just about anything, 'reenchantment' or 'new age' included. I subsequently saw this on the holistic or New Age lecture circuit, where despite all the lovely talk, the real agenda was money and influence. The speakers with the sweetest voices tended to be the ones most interested in power--something their adoring minions were unable to see.

As far as the nature of truth, I think the argument of ROW, about alienated consciousness, is correct, but the complete flip side, that of participating or mimetic consciousness, clearly has its problems--as this post on Tribal Consciousness makes clear. One thing I've learned is that we need both in a balanced relationship; but the real problem (in hindsight) is that ROW was written for those who had some real mastery of science and nonparticipatory consciousness, and came out the other side--i.e., saw its limitations. The truth is that most people are not in this category; they live in tribal consciousness all the time, and for them, a good dose of Hebrew-Greek reality is precisely what they need. To put it another way, it's all well and good for someone like Deepak Chopra to urge his (vast) audience to "escape from the prison of the intellect"; the problem is, 99% of them have never been *in* the prison of the intellect in the first place! What they really need to do is escape from the prison of tribal consciousness, learn what the Enlightenment tradition is, and *then* come to an assessment of the "prison of the intellect."

Anyway, lots more I could say about the book, strengths and weaknesses, but this isn't the place. The next two bks in the trilogy, by the way, developed the argument in ways that I feel are much more nuanced and sophisticated, and much less trendy (so to speak)...and the sales were accordingly fewer. In fact, "Wandering God," which I regard as my best book to date, and which questions the whole paradigm idea, sold all of 2000 copies, as opposed to the more than 100,000 for ROW. This taught me a lot, amigo.

Thanks for asking.


1:13 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I used to feel more hopeful about the advances of technology myself. Imagine, being able to find out so much with the click of a mouse! Or being able to converse with people all around the globe!

Except that what's usually clicked on seems to be porn, gossip, and increasingly insular (and insulated) websites.

Is it just me, or does the incredibly complex & astonishingly swift web of information technology seem to atomize culture, rather than bind & unite it? If so, than it not only reinforces that tribal consciousness, but it helps create even more of it.

I think this is what Professor Berman is talking about: that there's very little shared, in-depth, common culture any longer. Certainly very little (if any) with richness & maturity. But there's plenty of superficiality -- "American Idol," celebrity romances/divorces, fad diets, 10 tips for better ______ (fill in with anything), and so on.

Yes, we've always had those things, I know. But to such an overwhelming extent? What's shared now seems to be more of a paper-thin -- maybe micron-thin -- veneer of the most ephemeral pop culture. What’s most shared today is what’s least important to an adult culture. But it’s certainly what’s most important to a perpetually adolescent culture.

Or am I just missing something?

2:20 PM  
Blogger Ti-Guy said...


I was careful to refer to the WWW/interconnected communications network as a "tool" and not a solution. A solution implies a problem and I doubt many people understand there's a problem at all or have been able to fully articulate what it is for themselves.

4:50 PM  
Anonymous Justme said...

The crash of last October is a good example of that, it seems to me; suddenly, we're all Keynesians again!

Which could as well be the cause of a lack of consciousness instead of a lack of power.
It seems to me secure to say only (without applying the very simple scheme of cause and effect) that there must be some kind of interdependance between the two (like e.g. neurolinguistic feedback).
Why, can't we see power as identical with lack of consciousness? Just the other side of the same coin?
It's simple to say that the future will be different to the present. It is tempting to predict that it's gonna be worse anyway (and besides: It does pay off way better!;). It just does not comply with my personal experience.
What if consciousness is taking an ever increasing part as an agent of change, eliminating power in it's wake?
Maybe Reenchantment is happening just here and now?

the problem is, 99% of them have never been *in* the prison of the intellect in the first place!

This is in general an interesting thought that deserves to be pondered for some time.
Do I understand correctly: So you wrote ROW in the first place for all the prisoners out there; coming to the conclusions now that being a prisoner is a necessary part of the game?

Sold all of 2000 copies, as opposed to the more than 100,000 for ROW. This taught me a lot, amigo.

It taught you that consciousness is a slow process or maybe that you got caught in tribal consciousness as well?
Does that make ROW more important to you just because it's been sold much better (until today)?

Of course you are right: I'm not very familiar with your thoughts and the ongoing discussion and haven't read any of your books so far (I do apologize!:)

Is it just me, or does the incredibly complex & astonishingly swift web of information technology seem to atomize culture?

Is it necessarily bad for culture to be atomized in the light of what culture frequently does if it isn't?

A solution implies a problem and I doubt many people understand there's a problem at all.

So there is a problem? Which is you and me and not the WWW? I mean WWW does not exactly reduce the possibilities of mankind does it?

7:18 AM  
Anonymous Justme said...

Dear Morris,

So it is called 'naive' if one sees the sun shine behind the black clouds that obstruct everybodys view by covering the horizon? What does that mean? Does that mean he still is a tribal pre-prisoner? A prisoner? A post-prisoner? A post-post-prisoner? re-imprisoned? Does it even mean that he's free? Or does it mean he just went full circle? Who knows!

7:44 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Justme,

I'd love to answer your objections/arguments, but I have to be honest: I can't follow your reasoning. I literally don't understand what it is you are saying. (Again, it might be helpful to you to read through the previous discussion on these topics.) But maybe some of the other folks can help me out...


9:57 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Justme: Is it necessarily bad for culture to be atomized in the light of what culture frequently does if it isn't?

A valid point, I'll admit!

What I'm saying is that every culture does have an overall narrative, something common to the majority of its people -- beliefs, myths, literature, and so on. A basic foundation, if you will, upon which individual variants can develop & grow, but which share a common root.

For Western culture at its best, I believe Professor Berman is saying that the Enlightenment tradition is that foundation. As such, it's something that all (certainly most) citizens should be aware of, have common knowledge of, recognize as a common starting point at the very least.

But when that foundation is thoroughly atmomized, so that there's very little in common at any level of depth & complexity, mere pop culture references & diversion -- emotional drugs, really, blotting out a growing central void -- simply can't provide solid common ground.

I'm not denying that the WWW is an incredibly useful tool -- after all, I'm using right now to discuss it with you! But it's also a remarkably seductive tool, and can create its own illusion of everyday reality, just as TV has done for quite some time now.

I'm reminded of Edward R. Murrow's hopeful prediction for TV: "The university of the airwaves." But it didn't turn out that way, did it? Game shows, soap operas, and above all constant ads that brand the brain of every child watching, creating obedient consumers pursuing an unattainable illusion of materialistic happiness.

Why should the WWW be any different?

Critics of TV, such as Jerry Mander (way back in the 1970s) said that the harm doesn't come from WHAT you watch on TV, but from the fact that you WATCH TV. It creates a way of experiencing the world through a pane of glass, of seeing one-dimensional images of unreal existence & believing that the world should resemble it. It makes us process information & think in a much more distracted, superficial fashion. Or simply makes us register the torrent of info-bytes, which we confuse with real thinking.

Again, why should the WWW be any different?

What I'm saying, I guess, that the negatives quite possibly outweigh the positives. Hey, I'd love to see the WWW become the digital university for all, bringing knowledge & insight -- but for most people, it seems to be a more efficient & sensation-oriented means of overdosing on gossip, porn, and useless factoids. (Useless to us, not to those who benefit from our having that facile worldview.)

Which only exacerbates tribal thinking: superficial, impulsive, defensive, afraid of looking beyond its boundaries. And that doesn't make for a healthy, vital, mature culture.

10:30 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Prof. Berman,

RE: "in terms of replication, a successful meme can actually be detrimental to the host body."

John Tierney's NY Times article, "Diet and Fat: A Severe Case of Mistaken Consensus" provides a quite literal example of this. Tierney writes about "informational cascades", in which an idea (in this case, the idea that saturated fat and cholesterol causes heart disease) is repeated over and over again, and becomes scientific consensus-- even though the data keeps pointing in the opposite direction. "Because of this effect, groups are surprisingly prone to reach mistaken conclusions even when most of the people started out knowing better..." And then there are "reputational cascades", "in which it becomes a career risk for dissidents to question popular wisdom."

The result: the low-fat paradigm we see all around us today. The Enlightenment tradition isn't to blame, of course, for bad science and corporate interests ready to take advantage of it. But, this is where "coming to our senses" becomes relevant, and we could turn to the wisdom of our bodies for better guidance.

7:31 PM  
Blogger Kelvin said...

Fascinating post, Morris.

A novel that I read when I was in the eighth grade as an assigned reading seems to dramatize your ideas of tribal consciousness vs. enlightenment tradition. _Lord of the Flies_ (by William Golding) strands a group of English choir boys on an island and traces their devolution into tribal consciousness save for two of the boys, "Piggy" and "Simon" (or Paul?). [It's been years since I read the book and don't remember the details].

When the boys hear strange moans emanating from a dark cave, they react superstitiously and fearfully. Simon, however, fearlessly discovers the truth that within the cave lay the only adult who arrived on the island with the boys and who mysteriously disappeared by crawling away from the boys (while they slept) in a state of semi-consciousness and great pain to go die alone. So Simon knows, unlike the other boys, the objective, prosaic truth that has eluded the other boys who are stuck in the meme of "The Lord of the Flies," and believe the cave is haunted by an evil spirit.

Simon apparently possesses non-participating (paradoxical) consciousness. It's interesting to compare Simon to "Piggy" who also does not particpate in the prevailing meme that possesses the other boys. But it seems that "Piggy" is stuck in the meme that all the boys were in before they came to the island whereas, it seems to me, Simon is not. Simon is certainly extraordinary that you doubt that he can be merely an English choir boy. He is an embodiment of an almost pure enlightenment.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous SusanW. said...

Dear Dr. Berman, How do we break out of this trance? I don't really know either. But the ability to step outside of ourselves and recognize this is as valuable was noted by Thoreau also. He wrote:

" I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it; and that is no more I than it is you. When the play, it may be the tragedy, of life is over, the spectator goes his way. It was a kind of fiction, a work of the imagination only, so far as he was concerned."

Maybe it's in recognizing some of our dearly held beliefs and prejudices are "a work of the imagination only" as a starting point. Of course figuring out which ones are valid or not isn't easy.

Two religious figures I know of saw the dangers in tribalism and warned their followers. Jesus told his disciples not to pat themselves on the back for being good to their relatives and friends b/c even the worst people do that----it's extending ourselves beyond our private circle that's important. And in Islam welcoming the stranger and providing hospitality to him was encouraged by Mohammed. They're both peaceful religions as far as I can tell and have been horribly corrupted. I don't know much about Judism as a religion but from what I understand there's a strong tradition of charity and scholarship. What makes us as human beings so willing to sign up for injustice, "my country right or wrong" and ignore the evidence in front of our own eyes is baffling and we all do to some extent. Excellent post and thought provoking post as usual.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Phil Blank said...

Could it be the case that we are each composed of multiple tribal identities- many of which are antagonistic to each other? Instead of being either in or out of tribal consciousness, can't we be in different ones of varying degrees? Of course, objective reproducible reality is outside any tribal consciousness but it is extremely limited in handling existential questions.

This would also address how some people can shift out of their primary socially-given identities and disagree.

"Health" in this case might mean having the flexibility to encompass these multiple identities and their contradictions without collapsing into a fundamentalist, monolithic ego.

Thanks for you books and articles. I particularly am fond of Wandering God.

2:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The "Enlightenment tradition" is itself merely the latest "trance" already being dispelled by quantum theory on the one hand and postmodern hocum on the other. "Non-participatory consciousness." How quaint?

3:21 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

Nothing quaint about it at all; I'm sorry you missed the point of the article. The notion that "it's all in the mind," or all determined by consciousness, is the philosophical position known as Idealism (not to be confused with being idealistic, although there is a tangential relationship there, I suppose). It was discredited long ago, although there are remnant disciples in California, I'm told. Certainly, the Enlightenment tradition and modern science *can* become isms, trances of their own--I agree. But this is scientism, not science, and they aren't the same thing. There's just no getting around the existence of a bedrock empirical reality, and no amount of quantum mechanics or postmodernism can make that go away. Unequal weights do hit the ground at the same time, the sun does not revolve around the earth, and the Holocaust is an historical fact.

For those who think that empiricism has been rendered quaint by quantum mechanics or postmodernism (a hula-hoop if there ever was one!), I suggest the following experiment. Convince yourself that you can fly by flapping your arms vigorously. Then go to the top of a very tall building and jump, flapping your arms as you fall. Just before you hit bedrock empirical reality in the form of the pavement, you will experience a fabulous moment of clarity: science and the Enlightenment are not trances at all!


3:19 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Phil Blank:

Your remarks remind me a bit of points made by the Gurdjieff/Ouspensky "Fourth Way" tradition. I would never endorse this particular path or any other in toto, but Gurdjieff's observation that we are reactive, automatic creatures consisting of many ever-changing selves, and that we need to unite these selves under an overarching, observant
"I", is a valuable one, and is germane to the discussion here, I think.


This is a peripheral point, but one worth making, I believe. If we are asked to observe a distinction between science and perversions of it into "scientism", which I agree is valid, then we ought to recall that there are different forms of philosophical idealism, as well.

The form of idealism that recognizes the role of the senses and the mind in shaping what we experience as "reality", and the fact that what we experience are not phenomena themselves, but neurological correlates of phenomena, has not been refuted, at all. Rather the contrary; just ask any neuroscientist.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Well, there's a danger of an infinite regression here. In formulating the notion of We experience neurological correlates, the neuroscientist believes that this is empirically the case. But his empirical evidence is also a neurological correlate, etc. Sooner or later, the game has to stop, and we have to cut through the fog: perhaps in some abstract sense, hitting the pavement when we leap off a building is a neurological correlate, but it's a hell of a lot more real than the one that says "I can fly." In fact, it's absolutely true, and the other mentally constructed version of what might or should happen is absolutely false. This ought to impress us.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Corneliu said...


"In fact, it's absolutely true, and the other mentally constructed version of what might or should happen is absolutely false. This ought to impress us".

No question about it. (Although your scenario would not be absolutely true on a planet with different forms of gravity). I just wanted to emphasize that idealism of a sort is not entirely refuted or outmoded.

I've never felt that idealism and empiricism were irreconcilable opposites, myself, since idealism presupposes a perceiving subject that must experience phenomena in order to have neurological correlates of them. External stimuli "sculpt" the cerebral surface, but the cerebral surface determines what sort of "sculpting" can take place.

That said, no one is arguing that "all neurological correlates are created equal"!

7:48 AM  
Blogger Carl said...

What's a different form of gravity? A larger, denser planet certainly has a greater gravitational attraction than a smaller, less dense planet, but the gravity is all the same. You go high enough before you fall and the impact with the surface will kill you.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Ti-Guy said...

Sooner or later, the game has to stop...

Or at least left to those rare individuals who are willing to expend a great deal of time and energy examining it rigorously from various philosophical/epistemological/empirical perspectives.

Most of us are not equipped to generate anything novel with respect to the existence of an external, objective reality and it's a waste of time (and slightly conceited) to think that's even possible, especially when it's indulged at the expense of learning about the World around us and discovering that most of our brilliant ideas have already been generated, evaluated, rejected or accepted a long time ago.

What this "Age of Information" requires is a lot more humility.

2:10 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Not to mention free hors d'oeuvres.


6:38 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...


Pardon me for my being in a bit of a hurry, and for having used imprecise language in my previous post. I promise to try to be more precise in the future, if you in turn try to hone your reading skills.

What I stated is that Morris's scenario would not be absolutely true on a planet with different gravitational attraction, where it might indeed be possible to climb to the top of a tall building, leap off, and not die upon impact. "Absolute" means "free from dependency, autonomous; not relative; not dependent for meaning or significance on a relationship with another term or concept". If we have to take into account different contexts when evaluating a truth, then the truth is not, strictly speaking, absolute.

8:12 PM  
Blogger Carl said...


But in a different context, you don't need to go to another planet to avoid death when jumping off a tall building. You just need to wear a parachute. The absolute truth at the heart of Morris's scenario is that matter attracts matter. The hard reality of gravity cannot be swept away by context.

8:42 AM  
Blogger Kelvin said...

Another version of Morris's refutation of philosophical idealism, classically espoused by Bishop Berkeley, is Dr. Johnson's who famously quipped, "I refute Berkeley thus...," whereupon he kicked a stone. Whereupon the man who thought he could fly hit the pavement while still vigorously flapping his wings as noted by the tremulous movement that his mangled limbs exhibited to passers-by whose morning routines had been interrupted by the gory smash-up of this hapless, human bird. The detritus was eventually removed and business resumed as usual.

11:28 PM  
Anonymous Peter Y. Paik said...

I think that the best explanation for why it is so difficult to break out of the “meme-trance” in our time is to be found in TAC, in which you talk about how people in the Dark Ages lost the intellectual ability to imagine different worldviews, to imagine a different perspective and then to see the world from that perspective. In our age, the leading schools of thought have unfortunately discouraged this activity because it regards knowledge as inherently oppressive. Deconstruction for example teaches the doctrine that any perspective contradicts itself and relies upon contradiction in order to structure itself, but it tells us nothing about what it is like to see the world from within that perspective. Indeed, the very act of learning how the Ottoman sultans saw the world, or the Ching dynasty regarded the West, falls under suspicion as a form of Western imperialist mastery over the East.

But this apparently moral refusal to inhabit the worldview of the other (which strangely enough goes hand in hand with the insistence upon “respecting” otherness: how is it possible to respect another human being if one does not know what he or she cherishes?) assumes that the power relations are irrevocably fixed and that the history of ideas has reached its end-point, hence there is no need to inhabit over perspectives. One might say that this is a case of the highest arrogance masquerading as humility, were it not for the fact that the definition of humanity that informs this view is close to that of Nietzsche’s picture of the Last Men, who regard as insane any yearning that goes beyond the carnal appetites. Our age is no less quick to label as oppressive any practice that goes beyond a narrow and impoverished view of human desires and capacities.

4:20 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Ah, yes, how silly of me to forget that philosophical Idealism begins and ends with Berkeley. Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Royce... who were those guys after, all, and who needs to engage with them, anyway? After all, all their views on the subject were identical, right, and can therefore be swept away in one simplistic stroke? ;-)

3:44 PM  

Could this benign virus (Tora) be the prelude of the enlightenment tradition? The "magic" that makes "reason" posible to be seen as "freedom"?

8:38 PM  
OpenID brutus said...

the real problem (in hindsight) is that ROW was written for those who had some real mastery of science and nonparticipatory consciousness, and came out the other side--i.e., saw its limitations. The truth is that most people are not in this category; they live in tribal consciousness all the time, and for them, a good dose of Hebrew-Greek reality is precisely what they need

This is an important insight, though from the comments, not the main body. I wonder if you had it when ROW came out or later. My perspective is that scientific mastery and development of rational thought, in addition to being too difficult for many people to bother with and actively discouraged in contemporary life, fail to deliver human meaning in the same easy fashion as tribal consciousness. Moreover, it's a fairly logical step even for so-called "techies" to turn at some point towards a "fuzzy" subject such as the fine arts or humanities in pursuit of personal meaning and fulfillment. It's a fairly rare intellect who finds meaning and beauty in the underlying empirical reality you're discussing unless it's found in the diversity and complexity of reified nature.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Brutus,

I think you're right, but I personally see science more as a tool than a world view. However, it can be integrated into a larger sense of humanistic values, in which meaning does exist, but doesn't have to turn into a crusade. This is a consciousness that can, perhaps, be regarded as sacred as well as secular. I think that's what I was trying to get at in the sequels to the Reenchantment book, namely Coming to Our Senses and Wandering God.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

"My perspective is that scientific mastery and development of rational thought, in addition to being too difficult for many people to bother with and actively discouraged in contemporary life".

News flash: Mastering the likes of Paradise Lost in its entirety, or learning ancient Greek and reading Homer in the original, is not any easier, nor is it any less discouraged, these days.

Between analytical, unemotional rationality and the herd mentality, there is a third way. Difficult formal poetry, which marshals denotative and rational analysis alongside more fluid, intuitive, emotional and imaginative interpretation, for instance, offers one such alternative.

I, for one, am very glad that sterile scientific rationality and tribal (un)consciousness are not our only choices.

12:14 PM  
Anonymous SusanW. said...

Dear Dr. Berman, I watched a program last night on Isreal that focused on two civilian men who were both called up to serve in Lebanon and the recent Gaza invasion. Both were decent, intelligent and likable guys who saw nothing amiss about killing primarily civilians and building settlements on occupied land. But then, neither do we. The only difference I can see is Palestine is next door and Iraq is a long way off. Yet the only people I ever hear referred to as "tribal" are Muslims but we all do it. I reread your post and understand it better (I hope). Self interest seems to have as much to do with with fostering this as anything but we do appear to be oblivious to our motivations. And it doesn't seem like any deviation from the company line or questioning is exactly encouraged either. It has probably never been easy to stand up to the tribe but now is particularly difficult with the force of the media denouncing anyone who points out the hypocrisy and cruelty that's piously denied. There was an article in The Nation last week about an Israeli man who was trying to help Gazan refugees and the anger he suffered at the hands of his fellow Israelis. I don't get it----I would have thought the example he set of courage and compassion to people known for both would have shamed them.

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Matt Holbert said...

It's a fairly rare intellect who finds meaning and beauty in the underlying empirical reality you're discussing...

It's interesting how there doesn't seem to be a correlation between this "rare intellect" and IQ-type intelligence. I worked in the institutional investment world with scores of individuals who went to the best schools and would have graduated at the top or near the top of their class. However, I thought that the whole investment world was a silly game and got away from it ten years or so ago. To my knowledge, all of the "best and the brightest" are still at it.

I suppose that some of them continue to work in the industry in order to put their kids through the best schools so that they can get out and play the same game. All of these people understand the concept of gravity but yet are willing participants in a culture that has leapt off a tall building.

In my opinion, some of this has to do with what Ken Wilber refers to as the "Mean Green Meme." A large group of "cultural creatives" have the facts before them, but think that hosting or attending another conference will solve all our problems.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Berman,

Interesting that Wandering God sold a fraction of what ROW did. Wandering God is one of the best I've ever read, and made the rounds with my roommate during a year of volunteering in Africa. It shifted my view of most everything in the best of possible ways.

Can you expand on why you think it was ignored more than your other books?


6:36 AM  
Blogger Bobo said...

Well Maury, it's been a while since I read your stuff! I still like the way you see the history of cultural development. Listening to the many discussions going on in the US and Canada today, I sense the relevance of tribal consciousness. How else to explain the blind reaction from right wingers like Michelle Malkin and Sarah Palin and Joe the Plumber and all those GOP fogeys!?

It's good to read your sane words. I didn't know that Isaihah Berlin wrote a biography of Marx. I will find it and read it. But I must say that IB has a writing style that tends to the opaque. But thax for the suggestion.

It's good to read the intellectual and emotional vigor in your words. I will be back to read your stuff again.

Robert G in Vancouver

4:09 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Steve and Robert,

ROW easily lends itself to slogans--'paradigm shift' etc., and is pretty optimistic based on changes of consciousness. By the time I got to WG, 20 yrs later, it was clear to me that once you stir in the human body and the anthropological record, the picture is much more complex, and the possibilities for substantive change a lot more limited. These are not messages the American public is very interested in.

As for the blind tribal consciousness of the GOP: the blind tribal consc. of Obamaphilia is equally breathtaking, and the president's courting of big business, neoliberal economics, and the Pentagon should have woken these devotees up. No such luck. And in 2 yrs, when the failure of the present gov't to do anything truly meaningful becomes glaringly apparent, these folks will not be thinking that Nader and Kucinich had a point; oh no, they'll be looking at the next Democratic candidate, the next 'change with a difference'. The last thing they'll be looking for is reality; which also has something to do with WG (and DAA) being invisible, I'm guessing. Hey, what're ya gonna do?


8:59 PM  
Anonymous lauren said...

Have been reading your books this summer; came to them late. I read Coming To Our Senses first, and am almost through with ROW, and have an unread, and recently purchased, copy of Wandering God on my desk. Your work as enriched my relations with others, person to person. It is a difficult thing to practice--the recognition and ongoing awareness of the hatchet we carry always at the ready.

3:32 PM  
Anonymous B.C. Scofield said...

Observations from a former student who happened to land here just as Uranus squares my Venus.

Every summer for a few years I would take my kid to a track league organized by some distance runners in the area. About 150 kids would show up and they'd be playing and joking - until the individual teams were formed and the identifying shirts were handed out. After that it was all teasing and tormenting between groups, not individual kids.

How to overcome this drive? One solution that worked for me was LSD experimentation (about 75 trips) which seemed to wipe out huge chunks of cultural programming and left me with a strange objectivity about deeper biological drives. It then became apparent to me that the two main commandments for human primates were to form tribes and to establish rank/power - it is fairly easy to fit [all?] individual and cultural behaviors into those general categories. Why they should be such strong drives has been addressed by evolutionary psychology - tribalism as a kind of group immune system in action, for example. These drives are probably located in specific sections of the brain that take operative imprints early on in development.

So maybe some acid in the reservoirs....

1:23 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Bruce,

What a delight, to hear from you after all these years. Glad to hear yer brain is still intact, after 75 acid trips. Your solution, BTW, was proposed a long time ago by Ken Kesey, but never put into effect for some odd reason.

Regarding what is or is not innate in human behavior: a long and complex subject, and one I dealt with in "Wandering God," publ. in 2000. You can buy it from SUNY Press or probably get a used copy off of Amazon. Rather than wipe out large chunks of yer brain, it may instead fill them up. (Think of it as an anti-acid, like Alka Seltzer.) Well, give it a whirl, see what you think.

What's going on with you these days? Are you still living in Amherst? Still in touch with Peter Shanley? If you'd like, drop me a line at mauricio@morrisberman.com, and we can catch up.

Thanks for writing, my astrological friend-


8:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so! really nice post.

9:30 PM  
Anonymous zadesvox said...

We Jews go from Moses to Jesus to Madoff with most inbetween. Is there another ethnic group or religion that they dont have both their Saints and Hitlers. But the Jews seem to get the rap for everything bad...what claptrap, but it has caused grief to Jews and has been even more chaos to non-Jews!

2:45 PM  

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