Note to Daniel Dennett


Today I digress…just thinking of this old journal entry from May 2005 (again, a rumination generated by Consciousness Explained). I dare you to read it.

In terms of Jesus’ identity as it was self-realized or self-defined, Jesus was not conscious of being simply a person or “I”, but of actually being someone it was thought impossible for him to be. God had been around for a long time, spoken to Moses, David and the prophets, performed miracles in and for Israel, created the universe, etc. Dennett probably would say that Jesus must have been crazy, he must have created this illusory, impossible self (with great ingenuity, by the way), and he must have convinced his crazy followers of same, who then “made up” all kinds of stories. Dennett probably also would say that the people of the time were subject to memes which inclined them to believe such piffle. In fact, Dennett would say, much of the biography of Jesus is probably true, only it is riddled with “local memography”, or conceptual universes developed out of “primitive,” “superstitious,” or whatever, topographies of reality (i.e. myths).

However, Dennett would be guilty of one of his own most-hated logical fallacies – the failure to adequately imagine what this would entail, and so to rule out the truth of it summarily (“…thought experiment depends, illicitly, on your imagining too simple a case, and drawing the “obvious ” conclusion from it…”; or “mistaking a failure of imagination for an insight into necessity”).

First of all, the notion of memology, the “meme”, is largely rooted in Roman culture. Dennett’s novelistic theory of consciousness as a “centre of narrative gravity” flows from the dynamics of this so-called “primitive” culture. You might want to take a look at M.M. Bakhtin’s notion of “heteroglossia”, which is identical to memology, and whose “dialogization of social languages”, which he found to have originated in the Roman Empire, is the very development of consciousness as virtual novel with the centre of narrative gravity Dennett describes. Bakhtin outlines the origin of this type of linguistic process in the cross-cultural and intercultural dynamics of ancient Rome. One might ask whether a society whose inventions Dennett himself is using to enlighten quite a few, quite intelligent and modern people, could be all that naive, now, could it?

Second, when you study Bakhtin [The Dialogic Imagination], it is important to note that memes are specifically a development of the Roman Era, because when one examines literature antedating the rise of Roman novelistic heteroglossia, one discovers, as in the Epic genre for example, a much more closed, monoglossic, memonic world (or “consciousness”). So, one could not argue that memes as such, in all the multifarious diversity and interlocuity that Dennett ascribes to them, really existed, since there is no linguistic evidence for them [and yes, I know, Dennett notes Dawkins in the appropriation of this term]. Epic and other archaic genres exhibit a more formal structure, a literary stone age, if you will, especially in terms of timespace, or “chronotope”, which is fixed and unreal. The audience does not interact with the closed chronotope, it is a finished, entirely past, inaccessible timespace, not a “happening” but a “once upon a time…”. It is these closed genres that become the memes of ancient novels.

Bakhtin is quite adamant about this. It is the social development of theatre, especially parodic, comedic, irreverent, “grass roots”, non-elite productions out of which novel emerged. It is in this realm that the audience enters the narrative and is carried along with it; the chronotope becomes emergent and future-oriented, open-ended, more “consciousness-like.”

Third, in terms of Jesus’ followers “making up stories,” one can hardly imagine why they would risk their lives in this manner. If their leader was publicly executed by Roman authority, it seems very unlikely that the early disciples would defy the Imperial authority, on pain of death, by inventing pure fictions and publicly proclaiming them – openly insulting and provoking the Caesar, denying, illegally, the deity of Augustus, a popular and much loved ruler, and just generally stirring up trouble for themselves to no evidently beneficial purpose. Even the fact that they believed their preposterous claims does not adequately explain their suicidal mania. Thousands upon thousands of Christians were persecuted and executed, or just basically shunned and run out of town – for what? How did following Jesus’ teachings of giving up all worldly goods, sharing everything in common, giving to the poor and just basically helping each other out justify their stubborn bloody-mindedness and lack of survival instinct?

The fact is, it doesn’t! And one must see the basis of the conflict as somewhat more profound than simple naïveté. One must ask the reciprocal question: Why would a powerful regime, a veritably impregnable fortress of religious diversity, tolerance and authority, be provoked to such a degree by a small group of complete lunatics? What possible threat could they pose?

Fourth, in view of the linguistic sophistication of Roman culture, as evidenced by its creation of memes (heteroglossia) and of novels (dialogizations of social languages), narratives that are future oriented, open-ended and accessible, one could argue that consciousness itself underwent an important evolutionary development at this point in history – the very development Dennett describes as the nature of consciousness in the modern world, however broadly or narrowly you may wish to define “modern”.

It seems that the type of consciousness created by living in the environment of Imperial Rome was blossoming from a more tribal, static, limited self-defining narrative to a more democratic, dynamic, diversified self-defining narrative – a paradigm shift. Robert Graves brilliantly characterizes this historical moment in his astounding novel (how ironic), I Claudius. In an argument between two historians, Livy and Pollio, Livy, of the old school, writes epic-like histories, incorporating poetry, eulogies and favoring historical inaccuracies reflecting glory over historical accuracy of negligible narcissistic quality. Pollio, on the other hand, prefers to write history in all its naked, irreverent and boring accuracy, favoring truth over narcissism. The point is not which is better, the point is that this reflects heteroglossia and dialogization in narrative and the development of a more real, temporally accessible, relatable, non-heroizing, novelistic type of history writing.

Variability and dynamism is evident in its development, leading to a diversity of novelistic forms and to the transformation of worldwide culture on the scale of a revolution. All subsequent developments in Western culture owe a debt of gratitude to the imaginative liberty of the Romans.

Fifth, it is the beauty of the wider parameters granted during this period that religious concepts underwent dialogization and became accessible to the common folk, rather than remaining strictly canonical, sacred, codified and basically useless to the average person. These concepts received memonic play in a way they never had before, and hence were examined, batted about and just plain adulterated, resulting in an explosion of intra and inter cultural adaptations, amalgamations, reworkings, translations, new ideas, heretical ideas, brilliant ideas and just plain fun, while yet maintaining some of the more rigid traditions in a state of cultural flux, tension and sometimes outright conflict.

It is into this environment that the consciousness of Jesus emerges. Jesus is able to freely spin self-determining narratives in this environment the like of which would have been impossible just centuries earlier. The material available to him is vast, multicultural, complex – memonic. It is also accessible to a broad spectrum of audiences via the memosphere of the vast empire. Jesus is a sophisticated language user and the historical accounts of his fame as a teacher above all else, reflect the overall sophistication of the average people of his culture in terms of well-developed socio-linguistic consciousness. This was not a naive, primitive, mythocentric group, but rather, a mentally maturing, creative, paradigm-shaping historical force, peopled by individuals who were just as concerned with truth and verification as we ourselves. Claudius himself, as a historian, is a prime example.

And so, when a writer of this era asserts that he is writing a true account, one must not simply dismiss this as the ravings of a village gossip or the superstitious fantasies of a deluded peasant. They may well be, in some cases, but a certain amount of respect for the text must be maintained.

The consciousness of Jesus as presented by the heterophenomenological accounts is not entirely unique in Roman culture. The emergence of such a centre of narrative gravity was not impossible as a derivative of the newly memonic social milieu. The point is that it was an accessible, if not expected, historical meme, a “God-Man” (θειος Ανηρ). Therefore, the stories surrounding and concerning the life and ministry of Jesus were given serious consideration by educated Roman minds, including Paul (who was Saul, a Pharisee), Luke, Roman magistrates (including Pilate), as well as the enemies of Jesus who cited some of the more extraordinary assertions, such as healing a man born blind on the Sabbath – a sophisticated legal abstraction of an apparently impossible, mythological idea – as the basis for his execution as a legal challenge to the authority of the Caesar.

The consciousness of Jesus, therefore, was not composed of linguistic “figment”, but rather, of social, political, historical, memetic, heteroglossic realities, virtual realities, in terms of the developing consciousness of the people of the time. And so, his claims were strongly resonant with the culture, they made sense to people, and in fact, are characterized by Jesus himself (and his followers) as “Good News,” relevant to the significance and meaning of the very society and the individuals of which it was composed. His message, and its concomitant phenomenological assertions, i.e., the presence of a supernatural force, a real, demonstrable, witnessed incidence of the God Man, was earth shattering to these people. The consciousness of Jesus was a memonic earthquake which shook the identity of the Roman Empire to its very core, and which redefined the centers of narrative gravity of thousands upon thousands of people. It eventually transformed the entire empire by its psychological and social power.

So this is no simple case of mythologic naïveté based on the hysterical fabrications of religious zealots. This is a case of a serious development of human consciousness brought about by the paradigm-shifting flood of consciousness raising achieved in and by the dynamic sociolinguistic environment of the Roman Empire. Jesus seems to have appeared at just the right time, at the cusp of these developments, and he seems to have taken control of them, giving direction to an otherwise crumbling and degrading Imperial lineage, resulting in the crumbling and degradation of the society itself. Without the appearance of the consciousness of Jesus, the Roman Empire would have disappeared, like many great civilizations before it.

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