Unconsciousness, Consciousness, Popular Discourse, Race, and the Presidential Election

Posted on October 11, 2008 by


When I think of the word “consciousness”, I think of Mos Def’s line in his Close to the Edge Freestyle on the Chappelle Show.

So, stop with the nonsense, like he conscious
I’m just awake dawg, I’m doin’ great dawg

He was talking about “conscious”, meaning a state of knowing what’s going on. He says being conscious is not really a state worthy of praise or congratulated for; it’s just him simply being awake. By implication, this means he’s noticing things.

Consciousness, specifically human consciousness was the main topic in the book the User Illusion by Tor Norretander.

The main thing I got from the book was that 80% of what we do is done unconsciously. Breathing, heart rate, thoughts, especially during sleep. Unconscious. We can sense a billion things a minute, but only a few bits actually enter our stream of thought and movement called our “consciousness.”

I’m inclined to say that consciousness is about maintaining and exacting control. Consciousness acts so you don’t go crazy processing every bit of information. It acts as yet another filter of information for the world around you.

It simplifies your life, your thought, emotion, movement process, the way that the User Interface on your computer simplifies your life as a computer user. You don’t have to enter code just to do anything. You can click on your My Computer icon, the start button, which is nice, but there’s so much work involved in making it look that easy. The binary coding, the programming language, the time it took to develop all that. That’s all hidden.

Consciousness like that user interface that hides a lot of those details like the binary code and the programming language.

One thing I notice is that what you do become conscious of, you’re probably insecure about. Which brings me to self-consciousness.

I’m conscious right now about my math abilities.

Kanye West says he’s so self-conscious, but he’s the only one to admit it.

It’s a bad thing in this socio-cultural milieu to be “self-conscious” because it means you’re too worried about what people think. You don’t act the way you want to because you’re trying to control what people think about you. Or at least limit the bad thoughts.

When you become conscious, it seems like you don’t really do anything, but you observe. The “I” part of you becomes active, but you cannot envision that “I” part of you committing to an action.

Basketball players, soccer players are said to be unconscious when they’re making quick decisions with their respective balls. In those contexts, where timing is of the essence, you’re not supposed to think, you’re supposed to act. There is no room for pondering. There is no room for the “I” to perceive, and then decide to act because the moment is already over. Hesitation usually doesn’t mean anything good in sports. The solution is to act before you think. Acting unconsciously.

Essentially, the book by Norretander is about how happiness tends to happen more when we are unconsciously acting. Unconsciousness means we act rather than let the consciousness creep in and instill doubt.

Then I thought back to what Mos Def said about consciousness.

So, stop with the nonsense, like he conscious
I’m just awake dawg, I’m doin’ great dawg

Even outside of Mos Def’s context, we use “consciousness” a lot in youth hip-hop culture here in the US of A to indicate someone who seems to be thoughtful and knows about harsh realities. As opposed to someone who isn’t conscious. By implication, a person who isn’t conscious isn’t thoughtful and skips over harsh realities.

There is even a demarcation of “conscious” hip-hop and non-conscious hip-hop. “Conscious hip-hop” is hip-hop that invokes thoughtfulness and harsh realities.

There seems to be a parallel between consciousness and harsh realities. Consciousness seems to recognize “harsh realities” all the time. With its recognition of harsh realities, it notices limitations as well. Consciousness by proxy notices limitations.

Consciousness. Realities. Limitations. Consciousness knows realities and knows limitations.

Acting unconsciously. Happiness. When you act unconsciously, you’re generally happier.

Notice that we don’t really care whether or not Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, or Paris Hilton are “conscious.” I rarely hear that word used in any Hollywood Infotainment show. “Conscious.”

It’s probably because there’s a kind of happy and upbeat discourse always surrounding them, regardless of what they actually are feeling. They live in an unconscious world where each of their missteps are exposed and judged harshly, yet anything positive they do, including losing 0.5 lbs of weight, is celebrated as an achievement. With the worlds they live in, they can fuck up royally,

When explaining why people are addicted to gossip about Hollywood celebrities, Danielle Fishel, formerly of Boy Meets World and apparently now a gossip host, said something to the effect of: “it’s fun to follow their stories because their worlds are limitless.” Limitless. Boundless. Unconscious. By implication, they have choices and can act on any whim, which makes their story more intriguing.

They get to act as unconsciously as they want.

Now that’s something I wish I could do as a middle-class Filipino kid in America. I’m happy, but it feels like I have to walk on eggshells still. I have to carefully be something. I mean I wish I could just act ridiculous and stupid and then somehow bullshit my way into popularity. Or even something like the US presidency.

Only it feels like I can’t. It feels like I can’t just walk into a job interview and chum it up with old whitey. No matter the qualifications or knowledge I have, I have to match an employer’s “comfortability, fit” factor (or maybe that was just me). The employer is usually somebody white. It feels like I can’t just be an Eric Kandel from Vienna who studies literature and history as an undergrad, becomes a psychiatrist in training, and becomes a Noble Prize winning neuroscientists. My point is that it seems like everyone’s doing something unconsciously, except me.

I’m just sitting here consciously, and observing.

Now this brings me to a question of whether or not I could act unconsciously on my way into something like the US Presidency?

Would I as a Filipino middle-class kid be able to George W. Bush/Sarah Palin my way through anything en route to the presidency?

It feels like I have to do everything by the book while other people, namely the white folks and asskissers of color get by on a steady diet of bullshit. I feel like I’ve had to do things at a higher and tighter level, so good just to get something that white people could get with just a minimum of effort.

The same I could say about Barack Obama.

Community organizer from the creme-de-la-creme, professor, organizer, awesome communicator matching up against an old guy who is respectable but is probably going to continue the Bush push, and some lady who came out of nowhere and prides herself on being a hockey mom.

It feels like this presidential “race” shouldn’t even be a competition anymore. However, the polls are closee. He still seems to be walking on eggshells and is perpetually in doubt over the Bubba votes and the Bradley effect.

He’s still defending against so many things: Reverend Wright, the unfettered linking of his middle name to Saddam’s last name, the claims against his links to Islam.

All of these things shouldn’t be issues, but have been made so, and he’s had to straddle the line delicately to appease voters.

I think it took a lot of consciousness to play his positions the way he has. I do believe in his commitment to ALL working class folks. I really doubt he actually likes to support Israel, that he’s actually steadfastly Christian, or that he’s all for some kind of border security. Those seems like things in his form, his identity, that he consciously changed to make him palatable to broader demographics.

Not saying that’s wrong, but that’s how you win in politics — more form than function. The right form to carry out the function. With the right form, the collective feels that it can unconsciously carry on with their functions.