On a playwright's listserv where I lurk, the contributors recently had a set-to about whether plays and playwrights should raise the consciousness of their audiences/readers. They skirmished and parried and feinted, with factions arguing yes and no, for and against, and so on and so on, but in essence, the argument broke two ways. The "yes" voters felt that art should somehow "raise" those who consume it, the "no" voters rejected such a "should" and counseled that the only maxim is "don't be boring." And then on to another topic.
I thought they all made a rather dramatic assumption in their arguments: that there is, in fact, something called a "consciousness" that can be raised. I am not so sure.
How can I not be sure, you may ask, when the forward edge of neuroscience is now plumbing the chemistry and physics of how the body knows itself and the world around it? How can I not be sure when philosophers and other thinkers have generated so much thinking about thinking, so much thought about thought?
But I am unsure, and while I can offer no "evidence" to prove my proposition, I can offer a redefinition, and thus a reconsideration, of the term "consciousness" to get at what I mean.
Rather than act as if the word has a universal meaning for all time — i.e., that it is the thing that provides us truth and humanity, the thing that divides us from animals, that makes substance sentient, etc. — I ask this instead: what is "consciousness" in a hyper-virtualized capitalist system like the one in which we live today? And my only answer is: it is akin to a dream, and we live in that dream, with so much, if not all, of it mediated, prepared, shaped by corporate forces about which we (choose to) know little and over which we have no control. These speculations remind me of something a friend once said to me. He felt the reason why it was so easy to hypnotize people was because they were already almost asleep. It didn't take much to push them into an actual dream-state. All we need to do is think about the hypnotics offered by our society, from video games to consumerism, and the resultant political apathy and quietism, and it doesn't take much to see that what he said has some weight to it.
This does not mean that awareness cannot be raised. All creatures have awareness, a "knowing" about the world that surrounds them, though given the multitude of neurological set-ups for this, none of these "awarenesses" have an equivalence. We will never know the world the way even the simplest cellular mechanism does, except, of course, through the vocabularies we've invented to make our metaphors palpable, like science or art. But this is experience from the side, so to speak, not by direct infusion — an imaginative reconstruction that approaches, but can never reach, the zero point of the direct and unmediated "experience of."
But humans can raise human awareness, it can be done fairly easily, and many plays try to do just this, "awareness" meaning, primarily, "giving the audience member more information about," a type of entertainment journalism or documentarianism crafted to "put us in the place of" in order to prime empathy, a kind of emotional/aesthetic border-crossing.
But raising consciousness — that is a different matter altogether. "Raising consciousness" is not, like raising awareness, a process of familiarizing but of what the Russian formalist critic ViktorShklovsky called "enstrangement." In his Theory of Prose, he cast the human struggle for consciousness in the modern world as a struggle between enstrangement and "automatization." To him, "automatization eats away at things, at clothes, at furniture, at our wives, and at our fear of war." As it does this, alienation results (what, above, I call hypnosis) and, paradoxically, only enstrangement can re-familiarize people with themselves.
So, given the debate topic on the listserv — should theatre raise consciousness? — what would have been my contribution if I had contributed, given all these thoughts? I think most theatre serves to reinforce and renew the sleep we are in. Even when it moves us, it is the kind of movement we have when we jerk in our sleep — a response to a dream state. Even theatre that purports to rip away the veil doesn't challenge this sleep we're in — it just roils it a bit more than usual. In short, if we are so asleep, how can any consciousness be raised? Raised to what? To do what? What would a "raised consciousness," one supposedly so enstranged that it gained some power to look outside itself at the roots of its own limitations, act like in our hyper-virtual capitalized society? And how would we know a "raised consciousness" if we came across it and it came across us?
I am sure there are good counterarguments here — I just don't have any myself. I'll be glad to entertain anything anyone has to say on the topic. So, please, start blogging.