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Record of exercise: conscious self-consciousness

Nietzsche’s account of the development of human consciousness tells a story of a simple animal mind riven apart and made complex and fragmentary by a momentous historical event - the birth of civilisation.

Formerly, the human, like any other animal, had thoughts and feelings that translated into spontaneous action. The advent of civilisation, which was founded on the enslavement of a great number of human beings by an oppressive master class, forced the human to restrain its natural behaviours and instincts. Instead, it was compelled to obey the masters - on pain of death.

This social repression, the internalisation of its own nature, the need to edit, manage and stifle its own behaviour, created an inner, private, mental world where before there had been no need for one. Thus was born complex consciousness, the capacity for abstraction, the ability to imagine a range of future outcomes, the need for deliberative decision making and the capacity for deception - for pretending to be something other than you are. This traumatic historical event allowed the human to transcend its animal state and enabled its incredible technological, cultural and philosophical achievements.

But, at the same time, it also generated a profound pathology in the human psyche. The human is the only animal haunted by the past and anxious about the future, hopelessly insecure in its estimation of its own value and tragically divided against itself. The rule of the masters over countless generations conditioned the population to be submissive, pliant, obsequious and resentful, as well as shrewd and clever. This is what Nietzsche calls ‘slave’ psychology and its effects permeate modern society.

For example, one characteristic of the modern human is its excessive self-awareness; its sense of feeling judged almost all the time. The purpose of the following exercise is to understand one’s excessive self-awareness, the propensity to act in contrived ways in front of other people and the impact this has on your conduct and choices during the course of any normal day.

Tuesday 08:39

Arriving at work. Always a moment of particular self-consciousness because many of my team get into the office before me and I feel that tiny tug of guilt that I am not here earlier - stupid. I repress it but it is always there. There is always that unspoken feeling that mutual monitoring, mutual policing, takes place around who is in earliest and who leaves latest. I resist this every day but remain aware of it. As I manage my team, I imagine they are bound to note my arrival and the time of it - just human nature.

This morning I was feeling especially conscious because I was ill yesterday - nothing too serious, some aches and a bad night’s sleep. How ill should I look now, on returning to work, to stave off the inevitable suspicions of being a malingerer? Another silly question - strange that even sickness makes one feel shameful. Minor concerns - will my manager be here this morning? What will I say? How will I respond to the inevitable question: ‘How are you feeling?’ Will I come across as believable?

I needn’t have worried. Only one colleague here. It turns out another two people have called in sick today, which helpfully lends credibility to my own absence. But why do I feel the need for this kind of credibility?

10:55

I tend to slouch back in my chair when I’m working. I’m doing this right now, but I’m conscious that there are some urgent pieces of work bouncing around the office and so people are conspicuously dashing back and forth with furrowed brows, trying to look busy, trying to look serious. I’m feeling self-conscious that, though I may be working hard (I am) my body language looks slack as hell. I have to fight the urge to sit upright, lean forward towards my monitor and plaster on a more concerned expression. It’s not enough to be busy - one has to lookbusy too. It’s not enough to be productive - one has to look stressed-out.

12:51

Ad hoc meeting with chair of the board over a few matters. I’m generally very confident in these one-to-one situations - a little pleased with myself even. Still hyper-aware of any impressions I may be making, of course. Hard to let go.

There is a staff briefing. There are about 60 people present. I’m a little worried that I may be asked to give an update for my team. I am wracking my brains thinking what I’m going to say if I am thrust into the spotlight. Skulking at the back, somewhat, to avoid getting any attention. The bizarre thing is, I like public speaking, albeit that it makes me nervy and I think I am pretty good at it too.

No update requested. I am both relieved and disappointed. The tension is probably something between not wanting to be singled out (the slave wants to blend-in to the herd, fly under the radar) and wanting to have an opportunity for recognition (the slave yearns for a pat on the head).

15:56

A meeting by telephone conference. The issue with this form of communication is that there are no visual cues, plus some latency from the technology and consequently people end up talking all over each other as we try and fill the inevitable gaps in conversation. Gaps means tension and discomfort. I find myself being a bit more of a pleaser than I would like. The other two people on the call are being pleasers too. Glad to get it over with.

(These are excerpts from the record. Names and incidental details may have been changed for reasons of confidentiality.)

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