The term collective consciousness refers to the condition of the subject within the whole of society, and how any given individual comes to view herself as a part of any given group. The term has specifically been used by social theorists/psychoanalysts like Durkheim, Althusser, and Jung to explicate how an autonomous individual comes to identify with a larger group/structure. Definitively, “collective” means “[f]ormed by [a] collection of individual persons or things; constituting a collection; gathered into one; taken as a whole; aggregate, collected” (OED). Likewise, “consciousness,” (a term which is slightly more complex to define with the entirety of its implications) signifies “Joint or mutual knowledge,” “Internal knowledge or conviction; knowledge as to which one has the testimony within oneself; esp. of one's own innocence, guilt, deficiencies,” and “The state or fact of being mentally conscious or aware of anything” (OED). By combining the two terms, we can surmise that the phrase collective consciousness implies an internal knowing known by all, or a consciousness shared by a plurality of persons. The easiest way to think of the phrase (even with its extremely loaded historical content) is to regard it as being an idea or proclivity that we all share, whoever specifically “we” might entail.
Although history credits Émile Durkheim with the coinage of the phrase, many other theorists have engaged the notion. The term has specifically been used by social theorists like Durkheim, Althusser, and Jung to explicate how an autonomous individual comes to identify with a larger group/structure, and as such, how patterns of commonality among individuals bring legible unity to those structures. Durkheim and Althusser are concerned with the making of the subject as an aggregation of external processes/societal conditions. Also worth noting (though of a slightly different variety) are the writings of Vladmir Vernadsky, Katherine Hayles, and Slavoj Zizek, (specifically his pieces about cyberspace).
In his Rules of Sociological Method, Durkheim’s social conscience arises from his social theory. Desperate to know what causes individuals to act in similar and predictable manners, he observes: “If I do not submit to the conventions of society, if in my dress I do not conform to the customs observed in my country and in my class, the ridicule I provoke, the social isolation in which I am kept, produce, although in an attenuated form, the same effects as punishment....” (Durkheim 3). He eventually comes to the conclusion that “A social fact is to be recognized by the power of external coercion which it exercises or is capable of exercising over individuals, and the presence of this power may be recognized in its turn either by the existence of some specific sanction or by the resistance offered against every individual effort that tends to violate it” (Durkheim 8). Thus, humans come to act in certain ways via a kind of reward/punishment system enacted at the level(s) of both The State and the social spheres; subjects are trained in a kind of inward-outward movement; the individual may have certain barbaric proclivities, but the assimilation process into the social sphere corrects those tendencies by the distribution of positive or negative reinforcements. Collective consciousness is the affect of the trained subject—through the process of becoming a subject, an individual learns to be common: to dress, speak, and act like her neighbors. The “socially conscious” subject is the legible subject, one who exists in a degree of visible sameness in relation to the other members of the group/society.
Louis Althusser, an avid Marxist, specifically concerned himself with the "making" of the individual as a process of external coercion. In his formulation, the subject is created via a top-down network of “Ideological State Apparatuses,” or ISAs, which “present themselves to the immediate observer in the form of distinct and specialized institutions”(Althusser 143). At the top of the structure is The State, which aims to control the bottom (the individual subjects) through a series of institutional mediations. ISAs present all forms of communication and information to the public. They are every imaginable institution: Education, The Media, Law, Religion, etc. These ISAs direct power onto the subject at all times, honing her from the outside into the subjective (and subjected) body that will uphold and reproduce the power of The State. In Althusser’s formulation, the inwardness of an individual member of the public is born from a lifetime bombardment of external coercion-- individuals come to fulfill certain common duties, have common aspirations, follow common life-trajectories, etc. The “consciousness” of each individual is not something which originates from a singular interior spirit, but rather is pressured into being by the external devices of the State. Thus, collective consciousness again represents the individual’s relationship to a larger group or structure, but marks the sameness (the same set of ISAs applies to all subjects) among members of that group, which act to make that group a cohesive whole.
The aforementioned prescriptions of collective consciousness express the phrase as the internal representation of external conditions present in any given society. These are exerted upon the subject in a variety of ways, and then assimilated into the subject’s consciousness. The idea is that the collective is a mass of like-minded persons who will (re)emerge to reproduce the production force. Thus, collective consciousness is the affect/effect upon and inside of any given public whose thoughts and actions are constantly mediated by outside pressures.
The notion of collective consciousness also owes a tremendous amount to the emerging popularity of psychoanalysis in the 20th century. Carl Jung coined the term collective unconscious to denote the shared contexts and meanings of individual’s dreams. According to Jung, there exists a pre-experiential set of “mythological motifs, combinations of ideas or images which can be found in the myths of one's own folk or in those of other races” which yield “a collective meaning, a meaning which is the common property of mankind” (Jung 322). The unconscious is the portion of the self of which the individual is unaware, yet which still exerts control over the behaviors, desires, and drives of that individual. As such, unconsciousness is never entirely divorced from the consciousness within the individual, and one necessarily informs the other. One of the main goals of psychoanalytic speech is to bring the unconscious into consciousness, so that the patient may become aware of why she behaves in certain fashions. The Jungian “collective unconscious” is important when considering its other, “collective consciousness” because it suggests an original set of archetypes common to all members of a group, and out of which they formulate meanings, contexts, and patterns within the group.
The Althusserian and psychoanalytic readings presents a more classic meaning of collective consciousness, yet its discursive qualities ring true for the ways in which we presently think of the term as a foundation of media studies. Marshall McLuhan defines media as an “extension of man,” indicating that humans create the world and their tools in their image, likening technological apparatuses after their senses. Media, in the McLuhan vein, is intimately linked with the word medium, described as “Something which is intermediate between two degrees, amounts, qualities, or classes; a middle state” (OED). The internet is the ultimate medium; it provides a virtual meeting place for persons to gather and perform daily rituals of subjectivity (even at the micro-level of person to person discourse) all channeled through a technological network.
Collective consciousness is a term much needed by media theorists because it postulates one, if not the, effect of media—whose broadest primary function is to carry/transmit/interpret/reify messages/information from one site to another. Having described the contemporary historical epoch as “posthuman,” media theorists like Katherine Hayles strongly depend upon the notion of collective consciousness. In a McLuhan-esque maneuver, internet theorists mark “code” (the binary-numerical formulations which create internet-language) as direct replications of the human genome: differences are produced by slight variations on a set of simple, universal entities. In How We Became Posthuman, Hayles remarks that “the post human is ‘post’ not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will.” (Hayles 4) A coded human existence is one without the singularity of the liberal subject. Instead of a multiplicity of singular wills or a cacophony of different spirits and personalities, subjects are transcribed into codes operating via variations of ones and zeroes.
Present media theorists sometimes link the notion of collective consciousness to signal the internet as a major intermediary in the creation of a truly global society. In a 1998 interview with online technology review “Telepolis,” Slavoj Zizek described the consciousness of Internet culture as “this neo-Jungian idea that we live in an age of mechanistic, false individualism and that we are now on the threshold of a new mutation...We all share a collective mind.” The “collective mind” that Zizek here discusses refers to Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky’s noosphere. The noosphere is “The part of the biosphere occupied by thinking humanity”—the last of a tripartite evolutionary system in which human cognition is freed from the confines of an organic body. The noosphere is also “characterized by (the emergence or dominance of) consciousness, the mind” (OED).