Observations on Gebser’s Essay “The Integral Consciousness”, IV
Jean Gebser’s essay on “The Integral Consciousness”, posted previously, is a summary of his views expressed in the lengthier book The Ever-Present Origin. The essay relies for its fuller meaning and interpretation on the material presented in the book. Yet it is possible to provide a context for this fuller meaning of the essay, and of Gebser’s sense of urgency in writing it, by reference to just a couple of passages from the opening pages of his book.
The threat of death and dissolution — of imminent catastrophe — is the context for emergence of the integral consciousness. It is not the luxury of the idle with too much time on their hands, but a necessity for the survival of all life in the Planetary Era.
There are two significant passages which provide the mood for the book as well as greater context for interpreting the essay. It accounts for why Gebser feels that the integral consciousness structure is the only sane and healing response to the multiplying crises of Late Modernity which Gebser also understands as being equally “an essential restructuration”.
The first passage I will quote at length from The Preface, since it provides the basis for Gebser’s sense of urgency. The second passage that follows will perhaps provide insight into many of the unfolding events of the day — such as the “Occupy Earth” movement — as they relate to the “irruption” of the integral consciousness as historical response to the crisis of Late Modernity — which crisis is essentially a crossroads or crucible (crux or crucis) — a crucial situation.
From The Preface (1949) to The Ever-Present Origin,
“The crisis we are experiencing today is not just a European crisis, not 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 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 a new constellation of planetary extent.
We must soberly face the fact that only a few decades separate us from that event. 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 it will overcome us; and only someone who has overcome himself is truly able to overcome. Either we will be disintegrated and dispersed, or we must resolve and effect integrality. In other words, either time is fulfilled in us — and that would mean the end and death for 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).
The second passage I wish to highlight here occurs in Chapter 1, “Fundamental Considerations” and focusses in on one of the essential aspects of the contemporary crisis,
“The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man’s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient, that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically, but in all areas of human endeavor.
Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient” (p. 3).
One pole of this destructive negative antithesis has already collapsed and self-destructed. The other pole of “egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes” is well on its way and will also self-destruct. It is the essential thrust of the nihilism of our time, and many contemporary books have been written about this problem. It is also essentially what underlies the Occupy Wall Street movement and the global protests with which it is associated, unique in their character of being today coordinated and synchronised through the global internet. The protest against greed is really an attempt to draw attention to the disintegrating and degenerative effects of this exaggerated egocentric individualism as identified by Gebser. The trend described by Gebser has been observed by others equally, whether this is David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd or Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, or the various critiques of consumerism. Dame Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement that “there is no such thing as society” — which always reminds me of Nietzsche’s announcement of “the death of God” too and its implications for nihilism — also highlights Gebser’s earlier concerns about disintegration and dispersal.
And, indeed, Thatcher was somewhat right in rather unintended ways. The social crisis in Britain is so extreme that it may be wondered whether such an entity as “society” exists in the UK. The current UK prime minister David Cameron’s policies for constituting “The Big Society” strike me as a desperate — and ill-conceived — attempt to reconstitute society after Thatcher’s neo-liberal policies effectively dismantled or enfeebled it. This concept of “The Big Society”, as apparent corrective to the corrosive and atomising effects of an exaggerated neo-liberalism, was also earlier called “The Great Society” by US president Lyndon Johnson, as also a ill-conceived response to the growing fragmentation of American society, now presently coming to a head as “culture war” and in other ways. In Canada, the current (reactionary) conservative government of Stephen Harper also pursues a radical “Law & Order” and military agenda even as it deregulates the market and introduces a radical neo-liberal agenda in economics in place of Canada’s traditional emphasis on “social justice”. That is, the “Law & Order” agenda overthrows the social justice framework by, first, dissolving the social ties that bind through a divisive politics, and then artificially replacing them with a coercive legal and ideological framework instead.
All these trends are very similar. Many of these policies designed to preserve or conserve society have both an overt meaning but also a covert significance that is very often overlooked. It is this covert factor that results in double-bind policies that end in “perverse outcome”, “unintended consequence”, “revenge effect”, or “blowback”. The covert factor in neo-liberalism is a hidden authoritarianism. Ever action becomes its own reaction, which is the collapse of the dialectic of thesis and anti-thesis, or otherwise called “coincidentia oppositorum” (coincidence of ostensible opposites). This collapse of dialectical reason in which the thesis and the anti-thesis become identical (neo-liberalism and authoritarianism) is what Gebser refers to as “deficient rationality” — the breakdown of the mental-rational structure of consciousness in dialectical confusion of thesis and anti-thesis, or action and reaction. Tower of Babel. (Others call it “the Absurd“).
Perversely, the end result of any thorough-going programme of neo-liberalism will be a new authoritarianism. What Gebser has really described above is what Buddhism knows as the karmic law of action and reaction, which is the ruling law of “samsara” (that is, what we call “the secular”, which has the meaning “time” as procreation or generational succession — “secular” is related to the word “sex”). Basically, when the action and the reaction become identical (which they do at the extremity or limit), or thesis and anti-thesis become identical, this has the same significance as Nietzsche’s short formula for nihilism: “all higher values devalue themselves”. They self-destruct. This is the same “menacing correlation” to which Gebser refers above. This menacing correlation is quite similar to Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, who likewise self-destruct. This underscores what Gebser means by “imminent catastrophe”.
But it is also an “apocalypse” in the sense of an unveiling or disclosure (Gebser uses the term “irruption” for this). This is the context for the emergence of Gebser’s “integral consciousness” as a “transformed continuity”. As a transformed continuity, it has much the same meaning as Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” (or, “all that is old is made new again”). Although new developments in science over the last century (ecology, relativity theory, quantum theory, chaos theory, complexity theory) coincident with the emergence of the Planetary Era have pointed towards the “irruption” of this integral consciousness, it is only now starting to make itself manifest in broader areas of social life.
In Gebser’s essay, he describes this “evolution” of the new consciousness structure (by which he means, as an unfolding or irruption, not a progression) as corresponding to an “involution”. That is to say, it is like a dialogue or conversation between the Planet-as-a-whole and the already latent potentiality of the human consciousness to achieve or realise integrality, wholeness, or fulfillment. This “involution”, in other words, presents itself to our human consciousness in the form of an imperative: “Change, or perish!” For Gebser, the integral consciousness is the appropriate response or answer to that imperative. (For some it is even experienced or felt as the very voice of God) and the failure of the response must result in the undesired outcome.
These are very similar themes as one discovers in the sociological work of Eugen Rosesntock-Huessy. Both men died in the same year, 1973. Although they approached the same issues from somewhat different angles, they arrived at much the same destination (or destiny) — the integral consciousness. And for Gebser, certainly, the integral consciousness was our human destiny — the irruption of the future within the present. The imperative “change or perish!” appears in the sociological work of Rosenstock-Huessy as the formula he also gives for a re-newed social science appropriate to the Planetary Era: respondeo, etsi mutabor — “I respond, although I will be changed”. The formula, by its very structure, excludes the merely reactionary from the new era in process of formation.
There’s no doubt that there are occasional “flares” shooting forth from the depths that herald this irruption, and if one studies the present “occupy” movement it is there also. An old consciousness demands to see demands or a clear programme. It would be good if the protesters do not succumb to such seductions. They would be wise not to do so. If you read between the lines of many of their missives, for example, you see a struggle against an older political idiom that does not correspond to their actual mood and sensibilities. They are working out a new idiom, one less ideologically laden (or leaden) and less compromising than the “conventional wisdom” provides. “Nothing less than a transformed civilization”. The reason they have no programme is because they are, for the most part, eschewing ideology as being inauthentic, if not hypocritical. This they call “direct democracy” instead, which is dialogical not ideological. Where you sometimes here the word “socialism” used it really doesn’t have the same meaning as in the recent past. It means “fellowship”. If you hear the word “solidarity”, it actually means conviviality. This is a transvaluation of values — a transformed continuity. It is the ongoing search for a new idiom that provides adequate healing correctives to the serious social problem of an “egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything” — cupidity, greed, narcissism, avarice, etc.
I read the statement of a war veteran — a Sargeant Shamar Thomas — in New York who was participating in the occupation (there are a notable number of veterans amongst the occupiers). He described the experience as the most “exhilarating thing” he had ever done in his life. He was re-inspired, and to be re-inspired — to be exhilarated — is to be revivified and exhumed from the dead. It is to experience real, authentic life again. That’s why they are there. Because outside this microcosm they experience only “the Lonely Crowd”, or the bleak social landscape of T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland; or the relentless war of all against all of the competitive market society; or the lifeless, inauthentic, and meaningless activities of routine consumerism. Those who are exhilarated by it are also the resilient core of the movement. The merely disgruntled or disaffected eventually fall away.
When they eventually break camp, which they must, the occupiers will take away something that no “demands” could ever succeed in delivering — the seed germ of a new consciousness, a new sense of purpose, and a new sense of the possibilities of common life. Don’t be mislead if, for the time being, many continue to pour new wine into old wineskins by using terms like “left”, or “socialist” or “solidarity” and so on. These are transitional.
But anything truly new or unique must eventually discover and disclose its uniqueness also in a unique idiom and vocabulary. It’s those novelties or anomalous usages that often arise spontaneously that one should look for as emergent manifestations of the new consciousness.
(Few articles in the mainstream press seem to actually “get it”. One of the rare ones that does is The Toronto Star‘s Christopher Hume, “Why we’re preoccupied with being occupied“).