Power, Magic, and Late Modern Nihilism.
I’ve been waiting patiently for Wikileaks to finally show its hand and prove to us the audacious claim that their newest release of leaked diplomatic documents will “redefine global history”. If the present near panic in government circles around the world about these releases is any indication of their explosive content, Julian Assange and the folks around Wikileaks may well be right.
(This weekend’s anticipated release of the Wikileaks documents also happens to coincide with Canada’s national football championship, the Grey Cup, and my home team, the Saskatchewan Roughriders, are competing for the grand prize. Therefore, two cosmic- and earth-shaking events are in competition for my attention.)
By chance, this evening, I happened to flip open to a page from Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin and found the following passage. It seemed very appropriate given the last few posts, so I thought I would quote it here (with a few insertions of my own — in brackets — for clarification)
“Deep in the magic structure [of consciousness], at least at the outset, man is earth-bound and earth-imprisoned, natural and primal, so that he can scarcely overcome this merger with the primeval forest. (Even today we associate the forest — etymologically related, at least in German [ie, the German for forest is Wald] with the word for ‘world’ — with dark, pre-conscious life.) Then, in this magic structure, he makes the almost superhuman attempt to free himself from the jungle-like bonds and spell of his fusion with nature. Here lies the basis of all sorcery and magic, such as rainmaking, ritual, and countless other forms by which magic man tries to cope with nature…. In the final analysis, our machines and technology, even our present-day power politics, arise from these magic roots: Nature, the surrounding world, other human beings [ie, society] must be ruled so that man is not ruled by them. This fear that man is compelled to rule the outside world — so as not to be ruled by it — is symptomatic of our times [ie, anxiety]. Every individual who fails to realize that he must rule himself falls victim to that drive [my emphasis]…. The skill needed in mastering and guiding our own being is still projected into the outside world [as government or the state where self-interest and national-interest are made synonymous]. We may not have power over it, but, mindful of our forgotten heritage, we ought to maintain the right to guide it. The magic heritage — the striving for power [ie, pursuit of self-interest]– has not yet been overcome, in this split form as well. (Jean Gebser, “The Four Mutations of Consciousness” in The Ever-Present Origin, p. 51).
While reading this passage, selected at random, I was reminded also of the title of one of Ursula LeGuin’s science fiction novels (I never read it) called The Word for World is Forest. Apparently, LeGuin had some inkling that “world” is etymologically connected with the Germanic term for forest — Wald. (The English word “forest” comes from Latin foris meaning “outside” or “before”). The world, I think, truly belongs primarily to the trees and the forests, and not to men.
That aside, the connection Gebser makes between political power, ideology, and magical thinking (we discussed that connection also in the previous post) is the most important thread in this excerpt. And it is probably safe to say that when Gebser speaks of our present “deficient rationality” as the accelerating breakdown of the mental-logical structure of consciousness (as is fully exemplified also in the verbal contest between Ron Suskind and the “senior advisor” mentioned in the earlier post) what is implied is the reversion to an older structure of consciousness — magical thinking with its primary emphasis on power, security, and control.
That said, there isn’t anything essentially wrong with magical consciousness except in its own deficient mode of functioning. Magic is the basis of the placebo effect (but also the lesser known nocebo effect) that has been the basis for many medical “miracle” cures that arouses and mobilises the body’s own inherent recuperative and healing powers (sometimes limply called “suggestion”).
But the issue I wanted to emphasise here, by drawing on this quote, was Gebser’s assertion that the compulsion to control, dominate, and subjugate the external world of nature (or society) as an aspect of magical thinking, is a projection onto the external world of an inward chaos that cannot be resolved by magical means (which instrumentality today we also call “perception management”, “public diplomacy”, or just plain old “propaganda”, all of which involve word magic). “Every individual who fails to realize that he must rule himself falls victim to that drive”, and not only needs to assert himself or herself aggressively and imperiously against the world and others, but also implicitly desperately needs and wants to be ruled by some disciplinary power divine or secular. That follows from Gebser’s assertion that the notion that the world outside is a threatening chaos is only a projection of one’s own inner state of psychic stress and distress, along with the egoic nature’s distrust of the spontaneous order and natural vitality of the psyche.
I have, in fact, noticed this in some of my acquaintances as well as in the recent commentaries swirling around the immanent Wikileaks publication of the controversial diplomatic documents. Some very muddle-headed minds have called for Assange’s elimination as a “traitor” etc, etc. These are the types (we’ve referred to them as “reactionaries”) that Gebser is referring to above. The real question here is not whether Assange, who is a brave man, is a “traitor”, but whether in fact governments themselves have betrayed their responsibilities to uphold certain values considered inviolable — whether these governments be Occidental or Oriental. As you can see, to the extent that some people and institutional powers have attacked Assange as a “traitor”, they do so only in projection and from bad conscience, for they are insisting basically upon the right of power to overrule and dispense with certain values that have been defining of human civilisation (while naturally considering themselves overtly faithful to its basic values and premisses, which they nonetheless covertly negate — values of reasonableness, openness, transparency, accountability, etc).
Gebser’s insistence on the need for self-rule as an aspect of the holistic or integral consciousness probably puts him on the side of what we might call thinkers of the anarchist persuasion, and is very much connected with his sentiments as he expressed them in the Preface to The Ever-Present Origin,
“The crisis we are experiencing today is not just a European crisis, nor a crisis of morals, economics, ideologies, politics or religion. It is not only prevalent in Europe and America but in Russia and the Far East as well. It is a crisis of the world and mankind such as has occurred previously only during pivotal junctures — junctures of decisive finality for life on earth and for the humanity subjected to them. The crisis of our times and our world is in a process — at the moment autonomously — of complete transformation, and appears headed toward an event which, in our view, can only be described as a ‘global catastrophe’. This event, understood in any but anthropocentric terms, will necessarily come about as new constellation of planetary extent.
We must soberly face the fact that only a few decades separate us from that event [this was written in 1949]. This span of time is determined by an increase in technological feasibility inversely proportional to man’s sense of responsibility — that is, unless a new factor were to emerge which would effectively overcome this menacing correlation.
It is the task of the present work to point out and give an account of this new factor, this new possibility. For if we are not successful — if we should not or cannot successfully survive this crisis by our own insight and assure the continuity of our earth and mankind in the short or the long run by a transformation (or a mutation) — then the crisis will outlive us.
Stated differently, if we do not overcome the crisis the crisis will overcome us; and only someone who has overcome himself is truly able to overcome [my emphasis]. Either we will be disintegrated and dispersed, or we must resolve to effect integrality. In other words, either time is fulfilled in us — and that would mean the end and death of our present earth and (its) mankind — or we succeed in fulfilling time; and this means integrality and the present, the realization and the reality of origin and presence. And it means, consequently, a transformed continuity where mankind and not man, the spiritual and not the spirit, origin and not the beginning, the present and not time, the whole and not the part become awareness and reality. It is the whole that is present in origin and originative in the present” (pp. xxvii – xxviii).
In other words, the status quo is no longer acceptable. It is neither sustainable nor viable nor valid. Nor is it acceptable for reactionary conservatives to stand athwart history “yelling ‘stop'”, as arch-conservative William F. Buckley defined conservatism or as Francis Fukuyama also attempted in his The End of History and the Last Man. The needful transformation and transition must occur. While the conservative mood is completely valid in its proper context, reactionary conservatism is not valid or sane. It is invalid (a word meaning, ironically, both false and also sick). It is sickness and diseased for being finally itself nihilistic, unhealthy, and self-destructive.
We come to rule ourselves, in Gebser’s sense, only by an act of self-overcoming, which was Nietzsche’s project for post-modernity as he foresaw it as well — the necessary advent of the transhuman. But what was his formula for that transformation? Nothing but this: “Become what you are!”
How simple, and yet so profound in its implications. We are already valid, whole, truthful, complete, and integral. Only our all-too-human narcissism interferes with the realisation of the validity of our true being.
Power always contrives to confuse authority with political power. The “purity of the creed” (dogma, ideology, “deficient rationality” in Gebser’s terms) is a very poor substitute — is narcissism and idolatry in fact — for the direct and existential experience of the innocent purity and potent truth of Being.
A message for those of the conventionally-inclined religious persuasion: do you really believe that God made you evil and wicked from the beginning, and which you now call “human nature”? This “human nature” has nothing to do with it, unless by “human nature” you might mean narcissism. But that is error, and not “nature” at all. That doctrine belongs also only to “nocebo effect”