06 February 2009

Bernard on Civilization as the Burden of Consciousness

Bernard didn’t waste anytime with small talk. Something had been keeping him up and the words spilled out even before I could read my menu.

“Civilization is the burden of consciousness. Our brains are big enough that it takes an enormous amount of complexity and work just to occupy them.”

“What?” I said, disoriented.

“We created all this society stuff to keep up with the development of our brains.”

I paused. I was irritated. Bernard knew that I rarely ordered the same thing twice and I needed to look at the menu each time. He wasn’t giving me time to do that. “So you’re saying that the Egyptian slaves built the pyramids because they were bored?”

“No. They had to create an outside world as complex as the one in their head.”


“Because otherwise they’d be bored.”


“Don’t be willfully obtuse,” Bernard sighed. “Communities do this. I has been a joint effort. Consciousness is like a vacuum that sucks civilization after it, inventing games, social constructs and technologies to occupy us.” He didn’t really need me to listen. He just kept on talking.

“But now the problem is that we Americans don’t really accept any rituals. It used to be that social complexity had to keep up with the complexity of consciousness, but now it’s reversed. We’ve made it too hard, made the construction of civilization and meaning a burden that we foist onto the individual.” Bernard did not even pause as the waitress came to take my order. I realized that he was again drinking espresso.

“We are a nation founded by Puritans who thought that rituals were a corruption of something pure. We threw away mass and art in church buildings. We reject rituals and social constructs and yet still there is a need for ceremonies, for some sacrament to mark milestones in life. But not many people have communion, or Bar Mitzvahs or whatever it is that ancient cultures have. We’ve been purified of rituals and still have a need for them so … we create them – rather poorly – on our own. What used to be a community tradition has become individual choice or responsibility.”

“So you are saying that it is not just that civilization is the burden of consciousness. You are saying that this burden is now personal?”

“Yes. And it’s an impossible task. By the time you realize what ritual is needed to become an adult or to leave home, you are a generation or two beyond that. The person immersed in the experience can’t be expected to also construct a way to commemorate, or symbolize it.”

“So I’m lost. You’re saying that we’ve purged our culture of rituals or that we just make them up ourselves? Civilization is the burden on consciousness or the burden created by consciousness?”

“I’m saying two things. One, civilization is a side effect of consciousness. Two, rituals are now left to the individual to choose or create. Now that everyone has to customize his own personal civilization – his own private culture – civilization has now become a burden to consciousness.”

“So we’ve gone full circle?”

“Everything living does.”

“So what is the prognosis?”

Bernard began to laugh. “Consciousness will become more complex. It has to, just to keep up.”

“Poof! Just like that? We’ll evolve more intelligence.”

“More social intelligence, yes. We already are.”

“We are?”

“Sure. What do you think the Internet is? Social sites like Facebook? We’re laying the foundation for new social inventions that can be shared. And we have huge networks to tap into.”

“Bernard,” I said laughing. ‘You’ve joined facebook?”

Bernard shifted uncomfortably. “Er. Yes. I have.”

I could not help but chuckle. “Bernard, I thought that was for college kids. No?”

“Not anymore,” Bernard said. “Everyone needs help constructing a life in a do-it-yourself culture. Not just kids.”

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