Hair on Fire: Contesting Consciousnesses
In a bureaucracy, those who are “running around with their hair on fire” always lose the arguments because they are not being objective.
And yet bureaucracies actually fuel the “hair on fire” phenomenon because they drive people to such behavior in an attempt to transcend objectivity to reveal “real reality.” People are driven to such “extreme” behavior, which is then, because it is seen as extreme, rejected. This illustrates the power of bureaucracy or of an objectified consciousness. Those who don’t buy into this consciousness are seen as “extreme” or “mad” or insane, and they are marginalized, ala’ the “Airplane 4 crowd” in the Minneapolis FBI office in the run-up to 9/11.
So, the dispute over the “20th hijacker” in Minnesota was actually a contest between the consciousness of objectivity and another kind of consciousness. The same contest was evident in the run-up to the 9/11 attacks generally. But the dissenters aren’t aware of what’s going on, that they are in fact challenging “the single vision” consciousness that characterizes an objectified world. And they are not aware that there are alternatives to that single vision consciousness.
Novelists and poets are more likely to be aware of what’s going on. In fiction, presenting an alternative consciousness is common. Witness Vonnegut, Austen, Twain, Greene, McCarthy, or O’Brien. For Twain, what of Tom and Huck, two alternative consciousnesses? Or Merlin and the Connecticut Yankee? Austen in Emma, the early Emma and the later Emma? And of course not only in Emma. Or what about Twain’s Joan of Arc? Did Joan represent an alternative consciousness? And both the Church’s condemnation of Joan and her sainthood miss her meaning, the meaning of her consciousness, as both her condemnation and her sainthood flatten her out, reduce her complexity to make her fit into the single vision. In these authors and their works, we can catch glimpses of “contesting consciousnesses.”
And perhaps this is what Aristotle and Machiavelli were about. Aristotle and Machiavelli were investigating what I’ll call “the political consciousness,” and looking for and indicating, at least covertly, an alternative. In investigating the political consciousness both Aristotle and Machiavelli engaged in irony and, hence, their teachings are at times humorous and meant to be humorous. And regarding Aristotle, I can hear Pascal and his argument that Aristotle thought reforming politics was like trying to bring order into a madhouse, meaning political consciousness is, in fact, madness. As Pascal wrote, there are people who think that being “king” and “queen” is something real. And Aristotle is famous for having asserted, “Man is the political animal," meaning that human beings have embraced political consciousness and even treat it as natural. And, regarding Machiavelli, because he was investigating human consciousness, it is misleading to call Machiavelli the teacher of evil, even though in some sense this is correct. Machiavelli was saying, I think, that the evil is there, it’s a fact, even the fact of life, but if it is objectified via government, it could serve to ameliorate the human condition. Objectified, evil is useful, even indispensable. Of course, it is easy to think of Plato’s Republic as his investigation of the political consciousness, presented ironically through Socrates, whose philosophical consciousness was humorously characterized by Aristophanes in The Clouds. And what of Augustine and his Confessions? Another investigation of human consciousness, one kind that is uninformed by God and another that is informed by God?
Defending philosophy is defending a particular and even peculiar kind of consciousness, a consciousness that is always in conflict with political consciousness. And this helps make sense of Socrates and his investigations of politicians, poets, and artisans in Athens to see what they knew. And it also helps understand the subversive character of Socrates’ conclusion that the difference between himself and the Athenians is that while both didn’t know the most important stuff, Socrates knew he didn’t know that stuff, while the others thought they did. For what could be more challenging to political consciousness than a recognition, a claim that we humans do not and probably cannot know the most important things because, after all, what all politicians claim, and what all societies take for granted, is that they know the most important things. A consciousness of ignorance is, as it were, always subversive.
[I said recently that all politicians should learn to say, “We’ll see!” Which is what Zen Buddhists say.]