The general secular consensus is that the animal species Homo sapiens sapiens emerged in Africa and spent tens of thousands of years living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As far as we currently know, before roughly 12,000 years ago, humans did not have writing, arithmetic, agriculture, domestic animals, and organized collectives larger than the tribe. Then, in the Ancient Near East, a series of interconnected changes took place that expedited the sociocultural evolution of humanity. Among these were widespread agriculture, which allowed people to settle in place for longer, and written words and numbers, which enabled people to create more complex communication, accounting, law codes, and a host of other functions required to operate large-scale societies. The first known types of written language were pictographic (depicting whole words or phrases with pictures, like Egyptian) or syllabary (symbols depicting syllables, like Sumerian). These earliest writing systems used icons of actual things to represent aspects of speech, while the Phoenician alphabet started a trend of abstracting symbols to represent consonant sounds, meaning there was less and less semantic connection between the symbol and the sound. By the time Ancient Greek began to be written, consonant and vowel sounds were represented by abstract symbols with no (or little) meaning beyond their function in the alphabet. The full-fledged Greek alphabet ushered in the age of literacy, the state of having letters or being lettered, while concurrently, a growing symbology for writing calculations ushered in the age of numeracy, that is, of having numbers or being numbered. The abstraction of these symbols foreshadowed the coming abstraction of human consciousness from its bodied roots.
Literacy and numeracy took root in Ancient Greece and spread to Rome, other parts of Europe, and eventually around the world. Their effects on human consciousness and culture were profound, and it is my belief that many of the intractable problems we face today result from those effects and/or our having yet to fully come to term with those effects. Literacy (the ability to read and write language) and numeracy (the ability to read and write numbers and number operations) were invented tools, and as most highly successful tools do, they transformed the lives and minds of their users. Tools are ‘things’: external, objective, manipulable, stable, and often semi-permanent. Before the age of literacy and numeracy, human cognition and its interpersonal communication were fluid, impermanent, evanescent phenomena, arising in the moment and fading into memory. They were more instinctively responsive to stimuli and intricately attuned instantaneous circumstances. In short, they were alive: living responses to living relationships both within human individuals and between them and others or the environment.
What fully alphabetic writing did was externalize and objectify human cognition and communication (and emotion insofar as it is communicable through writing). In other words, it made a tool out of us. This technologizing of the human mind would go on to give our species unprecedented power to regulate our unruly natures and the natural world at large. It explicated and enhanced certain limited cognitive functions like analysis and spatio-temporal calculation. It recorded our collective memory into books so that it could be read and reviewed forever. It sparked a new age of literary and philosophical creativity. It facilitated the development of complex cultures and societies, with the legal, political, and economic power to hold larger and larger groups of diverse people in cohesive collectivities. Inasmuch as we humans are defined by our complex symbological capabilities, the technologizing of those capabilities launched us to a whole new plane of what being human could be. The benefits we reaped from tooling our minds are many: scientific advancements to deal with the challenges of life on earth, medical alleviation of suffering and prolonging of life, law-codes that enable widespread peace, philosophical and religious wisdom to aid our journeys, media through which to express our aesthetic creativity, and interpersonal communication across vast stretches of time and space – to name some of them.
And yet, despite the undeniable benefits conferred on us by literacy and numeracy, there has been a terrible cost as well, a cost that I believe the world is trying to wake up to.
Technologized cognition held up a gigantic mirror in which we could – for the first time in history – observe our own minds outside ourselves. And we liked what we saw. Like Narcissus, we grew enamored with our own mental image. Because we engage writing through the visual cortex using our eyesight, the self-knowledge and self-imagination enabled by writing were primarily vision-based. We learned new things about ourselves by seeing ourselves in the mirror of thought. The image of us, the likeness…that is what we truly must be. And that image, because it was external to us and manipulable, we could now sculpt into whatever idealistic or fantastical thing we wanted. The self-image thus became a proxy for the embodied, and embedded beings that we really are. For the cognitive functions represented in writing are only a fraction of those carried out in all the systems of our whole bodymind. And we are much more than images to be seen. We are also voices to be heard and bodies to be smelled, tasted, and felt. So through the inadvertent adoption of a technology of narcissitically distorted self-knowledge, we catapulted ourselves light-years ahead in certain limited cognitive functions while leaving the rest of us behind.
The parts of us we left behind as a Western society are now crying out to us.
Every human person and group has an ego. Although that term has negative connotations for many, one way to understand it is as the self-identity we hold based in our higher cognition, specifically linguistic and imaginal. Our ego is the identity of our selves in language centered around our ‘I’ and the image of our selves in imagination centered around our ‘Eye’. Our linguistic ego is influenced by the linguistic environment we live in, and our imaginal ego is influenced by the visual environment. Because writing is both linguistic and visual, it is insidiously adept at enhancing our egoic functions, which in the more extreme cases, become egotistical. Egos are not the problem; being human means having an ego. The ego is our ‘body’ at the linguistic and imaginal levels of cognition. But the egoic body must be integrated in the enveloping web of living relationships it exists in. The egoic ‘body’ needs to be integrated with the spiritual ‘body’, the emotional ‘body’, the sexual ‘body’, etc. within a single person, and all of these ‘bodies’ with the ‘bodies’ of neighboring persons, groups of persons, and all the bodies of the earthly lifeworld.
Healthy ego-development can run amok and become unhealthy egotism: the state in which the linguistic-imaginal part of a self becomes obsessed and preoccupied with itself. Such egotism is harmful to its owner and damages their relationship to others. A certain level of egotism is normal in the development children, of course, when their linguistic and self-awareness faculties are first coming online. And when the normal ego-forming operations of children are damaged or interrupted through abuse, the afflicted child may go on to form narcissistic traits into adulthood. Narcissism is a psychic defense strategy in which a person identifies their selfhood with their ego to the exclusion of other parts of the holistic embodied self. That is, the ego becomes stranded from the body and the other ‘bodies’ within the body. The owners of stranded egos suffer terribly: inside a person who identifies only with ego, there is little depth, little feeling, little warmth. It is like being a book or a picture album of a person, rather than an actual person. The ego-stranded person suffers in the two-dimensional inner life they live, and their heart and body suffer from cruel neglect.
Western culture has been becoming increasingly narcissistic, and here is why:
For more than two thousand years, we, the children of the West, have been compared to and comparing ourselves to standards of selfhood that are inherently narcissistic. It started when our ancestors started writing moral and legal law-codes. Up till then, morality and legality and cultural normativity were more fluid, more adaptive to the constant flux of reality. They more dynamic and impermanent. Writing fixed them into rigid forms that could endure unchanging through generations. As such, what was before a dynamic response to the exigencies of social and religious life became a static response. What was living became dead. Those in power, whether in religion, government, or cultural circles, set the linguistic and imaginal ideals for all the people under their authority. They created The Story and the The Image to which people were to conform. This in itself was not the problem, for societies as well as individuals can and do have egos. The problem was that The Story and The Image were not supposed to change over time, even though the world is always changing and is change itself. The authorities told us what stories to make of our lives and what images to make of our likeness. And these were relatively fixed. Over time, then, how people actually felt, the dynamic circumstances they were actually in, no longer informed their own personal ego development because the shape their egos were to take were predetermined. Eventually, these societies began to know themselves and experience themselves in terms of the collective ego: the group story and group image. The Group Story and Group Image took precedent over individual egoic stories and images and forced a certain degree of compliance and conformity. Resulting from this, members of such groups had to sever their egos – which were imported from the outside – from the lived experience of their embodied emotional and erotic selves. Cut off as they were from their internal source of power and ego-formation, they became slaves to the reigning systems.
The West has been a seedbed for such narcissistic systems. Westerners have been self-proclaimed proponents of rationality, and Christians have long been known as the ‘people of the Book’. That book (the Bible of course) is a prime example of how a fixed, external repository of moral cognition has exercised dominion over countless generations of people. A child born into Christianity has their ego preformed and predetermined for them. The story of who they are and will become, the image of who they are and can be, is handed to them gradually during their first decade. That process in itself is not the problem, for it is how all culture is passed down. The problem is that the Bible contains an egoic blueprint that was created thousands of years ago in dynamic response to the conditions present then, thousands of years ago. As if this anachronicity is not bad enough, what is to be said for the fact that many of the biblical authors were themselves abuse and trauma survivors with their own uniquely distorted lenses on reality? Why would we want to take their egoic blueprints – perhaps relevant at another place and time – and apply them relatively unchanged century after century? To do so successfully requires authorities of religion and culture to brutally repress the lived experience of embedded bodies in the present time and fiercely persecute those who threaten to expose the collective delusion.
Furthermore, the West is narcissistic because so much of its self-understanding is mediated through linguistic and visual media whose messages are crafted and controlled by people other than the majority of us. Our culture is like the child whose ego formation is interrupted with indoctrination and made to conform to a story and image at odds with its innate constitution. At the origin of our civilization, literacy and numeracy catalyzed our becoming preoccupied with the egoic functions of our personal and collective selves. At that stage, we were like toddlers coming into our language and self-awareness mirrored in the externalization of our cognition. Then, this vulnerable stage of our development was exploited by those in power such that instead of our egotism gradually unfolding into robust egoism, it instead turned into a crippling narcissism. And a tragic consequence of this is that, in being so dehumanized by narcissistic abuse, we who suffer this way project our pain onto others and dehumanize them as well. We, the heirs of this legacy, cut off from the body of our sub-egoic selves and the body of the Earth, have suffered terribly even as we have raced ahead technologically. The pain of our self-alienation so long buried in our cells and marrows we have sought to assuage by inflicting pain on other bodies, much like a rabid dog rages to pass its virus onto hapless victims. First dehumanized by narcissistic ideologies, we learned to dehumanize ourselves and then rabidly pass on the legacy of trauma by dehumanizing our brothers and sisters. We are sick, and our civilization is sick.
Yes, literacy/numeracy gifted our species with a tool of incredible power and potential. But the progress we have made with this tool has left in its wake a litany of victims: our personal selves, our collective selves, our nonhuman relatives, human minorities of all stripes, and our home planet. Like a narcissistic supply junkie, our civilization is addicted to the dopamine hits it attains from unchecked scientific research and technological advance. We are still enamored with the ‘rational animal’ image we see in the mirror of consciousness.
Yes, we are rational, and I love that about us. But not just rational: we are animals first and foremost – let’s not forget that. We have ravenous appetites, sexual urges, gurgling guts, throbbing hearts, cold reptilian instincts, and warm mammalian drives. We are good at thinking to be sure. But we also like to eat, drink, shit, sleep, fart, fight, feel, fuck, and frolic. When we cut ourselves off from these embodied and embedded aspects of our humanness, we strand our egos in nightmarish, solipsistic cells of solitary confinement. There, in muted anguish, we reflexively strike out at others as scapegoats for our suffering, seeing in them all that reminds us of the livingness we have lost and the feelingness we have fled.
The antidote to narcissism is feeling. And feeling happens in our bodies.
That is why I am participating in, and advocating for, a step forward into conscious bodyhood and embodiment. For just as literacy (being lettered) and numeracy (being numbered) constituted the greatest technological advancement our kind has ever seen, corporacy – ‘having a body’ or better, ‘being bodied’ – could lead to a flourishing of humankind unlike what we can even imagine. Corporacy, the technologizing of the embody, will be a tool of consciousness suitable to the integral beings that we really are. Unlike literacy and numeracy, which are mostly two-dimensional, flat, and monochromatic, corporacy is pandimensional, holographic, and kaleidoscopic. Just as there has been a symbiotic relationship between writing symbols and the linguistic-imaginal functions of our neocortex, corporacy could result in amazing new technologies fit for the integral operation of all brain levels and the neuro-psycho-endocrinal system. While literacy/numeracy have been a mirror of consciousness, corporacy will feel like its avatar.
In short, corporacy is felt fluency of embodiment. Only when We the Disembodied, as persons and as a civilization, have the courage to descend from the mirrored caves and enclaves of narissistic self-idolatry – be they ‘Christian’ or ‘secular’, ‘American’ or ‘European’, ‘white’ or ‘black’, ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’, ‘republican’ or ‘democrat’ – and enter with conscious compassion into the pain lodged in our bodies, can we access the healing we are longing for. The true path to further progress is through the pain. Once we have felt into our own pain, we can start to feel the pain of others. Feeling others’ pain creates safety for them to feel their own pain and find the same healing. Then, together, we can feel the pain of the planet and its inhabitants and work to build a world that is more just and loving for all.