An Event of Consciousness

One of the most difficult parts of writing The Triumph of Human Empire was trying to define an event of consciousness.  The rise of human dominance on the planet has been the ultimate slow-moving process, taking place over many millennia, and it has been composed of all sorts of material elements. Awareness of this dominance, however, represents a change in human thinking, not any particular change in the material world.  Furthermore, this awareness emerged quite rapidly, in a few decades in the late 19th century, once humans could see their dominance in the nearly-completed mapping of the globe.

As the above paragraph shows, it is hard to describe the concept in abstract terms. The Boston Marathon bombing has provided a tragic but dramatic illustration of an event of consciousness that is worth more than paragraphs of explanation.

For Bostonians the event of consciousness, played out in the last two weeks, is the realization that we are Bostonians.  This may seem ridiculously circular, but in a world where Mobility and Globalization and Cyberspace are all supposed to represent the human future, the idea that dwelling in a particular city matters seems quaintly anachronistic…..except when an event of consciousness makes you realize, no, where you live day by day on the surface of the physical world really makes a difference in your life.

In the past two weeks there have been innumerable debates about what it means to be a Bostonian, starting with the question of how much college students count as Bostonians (consensus: very little) and how much those who live in the Boston suburbs count (consensus: it depends). The more interesting discussions are about defining the essential characteristics of a Bostonian . Here the general consensus seems to be that it involves being basically decent and caring but also having an attitude that non-Bostonians might call jerkish and still others might refer to with some version of the expression “Masshole.”

But the point is that almost immediately after the bombing, there was a collective ah-ha moment for people in the Boston area. We may have lived here a long time, maybe all our lives, and our integration into the fabric of the place, in countless material and social ways, has taken place over many years–but in the twinkling of an eye, or, sadly, the bursting of two IEDs, we were conscious of belonging to the city, and the city belonging to us, and being proud of this.

(I live in the suburb of Newton, but only two blocks from the Boston neighborhood of Brighton, so I will claim Bostonian identity.  If you don’t like this you can……well, I still stop here, but remember, the jerkish and profane is part of it.)

Not quite, but almost as quickly, those who do not live in Boston also experienced an event of consciousness.  In this case, it was a new awareness of Boston as a city of contemporary history. As the Boston Globe editorialized on April 28, the image of Boston had become frozen in time, in the 1970s when violent protests against “forced busing” were the staple of news broadcasts.  The multiple changes in the city since then–which the flowering of the Boston Marathon as an international event was a prime example–were off the historical charts, so to speak, not especially newsworthy and therefore little noticed. The aftermath of the marathon bombings displayed a  dramatically different Boston, one where caring and competence triumphed in a crisis.

Among Bostonians, and also among many non-Bostonians around the world, historical consciousness suddenly caught up with slow-moving material and social events.  As the smoke from the explosions rippled away from the finish line on Boylston Street,  so did a new clarity about the importance of the city in personal and collective history.








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