Deficient Rationality and Civilisational Collapse

In Jean Gebser’s typology of civilisations, which correlates civilisational types as they appear in history (or currently co-exist) as specific gestalts or structures of consciousness, these civilisations-as-consciousness-structures are described as having an “efficient” expression and a “deficient” expression in time. The efficient mode or period of a consciousness structure is characterised by its qualities of vitality, vigour, resilience, and robustness which make for its relative durability and persistence. The deficient phase of the consciousness structure, which is its decadent phase, is characterised by a deficit of these qualities. In other terms, “efficient” and “deficient” might also correspond to healthy and diseased states respectively. The deficient or deficit phase is what we typically signify when we speak of “the decline and fall” of an historical civilisation.

In Buddhist terms, skillful or unskillful, wholesome or unwholesome, might be considered the corresponding terms for Gebser’s “efficient” and “deficient”.

For Gebser, the possible structures of consciousness are five: the archaic, the magical, the mythical, the mental-rational, and the (prospective) integral. Each has its efficient aspect as well as a deficient aspect. To speak of consciousness as having a “structure” is to say that it has an intelligible architecture or — perhaps better — its own characteristic grammar and recognisable orderly articulation which distinguishes it and differentiates it from other consciousness structures with which it stands in often contradictory and even antagonistic relationship. In those terms, then, “efficient” and “deficient” modes are also equivalent to “coherent” and “incoherent”, or the articulate and the inarticulate. The deficient phase of a civilisation or structure of consciousness can thus be considered its de-coherence. In this sense, Gebser uses the term “dispersal” of its core vital energies which is social death. Dispersal here has the same meaning as dis-integration. Interestingly, in botanical terms, this “dispersal” is called “dehiscence”.

That these consciousness structures stand in an antagonistic and contradictory relationship to each other is witnessed by the attempts in history of one to suppress or destroy the other. To the mythical consciousness structure the magical consciousness was an abomination. “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, declares the Old Testament. The classical Greeks took a similarly antagonistic view towards magicians and sorcerers as did, violently in Crusade and Inquisition, the Catholic Church during the deficient phase of Christendom. The mental-rational structure of consciousness, similarly, has attempted to suppress and repress the magical and mythical consciousness structures, even though the persistence of these structures can scarcely be ignored or remain unrecognised as being still operative and functional in the human psyche for both good and ill, as, for example, in placebo and nocebo effect. In any case, what knowledge the mental-rational structure has of magic and myth is almost solely derived from its own struggles with suppression, and of the historically deficient and decadent expression of these seemingly other alien structures that were, nonetheless, just as effective in their vital period as was the mental-rational in the Modern Era.

Revolutions are, practically by definition, a change in consciousness structure and in the grammars of consciousness. Our grammars still retain (and indeed cannot do without) the active forms of the magical and mythical despite the intentions of “pure reason” types to (irrationally) rationalise our grammar and language to make it more like pure mathematical expression. You can scarcely speak a single sentence, however, without drawing upon the entire historical inheritance of the magical and mythical structures of consciousness as these remain active in language and grammar and, though unrecognised, in the human psyche. If they are considered components of the so-called “unconscious”, it is only because the mental-rational structure is itself unconscious, for they remain ignored and unrecognised for what they are even though they are still present and active, as Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell, amongst others, have pointed out.

That the mental-rational structure of consciousness which has characterised what we call “Modern Era” or “Age of Reason” has now entered its own deficient, decoherent, disintegrate, or decadent phase is plainly evident, and has been since the First World War brought about disillusionment with the “Enlightenment Project”, as it has been called. In many ways, the fascist “revolution of nihilism” from World War I to World War II was the angry and violently reactionary eruption of the suppressed magical and mythical consciousness structures against the oppression of the mental-rational structure, for which reason fascism has been called “the politics of the irrational”. In many respects, the period from 1914 to 1945 represents this “dehiscence” and disintegration of the Age of Reason and of the Modern Era, and which assumes the form of nihilism, or “deconstruction”, which has come to be virtually identified with “post-modernity”.

Whether recognised or not, this mood of nihilism in the deconstruction of dialectical or mental-rational consciousness — which belongs to what Gebser describes as reason having entered its deficient mode — has become the mainstream attitude. It is what social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called “our withering from within” as he, like Jean Gebser, urgently sought a way to try to “outrun” the breakdown and collapse of “the modern mind” through a new philosophy of integralism.

A compelling case can be made that “deficient rationality” has become the mainstream mode of functioning. The example I tend to favour is the implicit nihilism in neo-liberalism and in former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s pronouncement that “there is no such thing as society”. She saw, she insisted, “only individuals and families”, but nothing called “society” or even public.

It’s an attitude consistent with what Christopher Lasch (however inadequately) called “the culture of narcissism” that became noticeable at the same time in the mid-70s. The interesting thing about Thatcher’s reasoning and perception is that she was trained as a physical scientist, as a chemist, and that her seeing only “individuals and families” pretty much accords with the “atoms” and “molecules of atoms” that make up the materialistic and mechanistic viewpoint of the classical, Newtonian-oriented natural scientist. Even the Latin word “individual” was originally strictly the word for the atom, not for persons. Thatcher’s reductionism and materialistic fundamentalism which seems to equate individuals with atoms and families with molecules of atoms is a species of nihilism. That this absurdity is even considered the new social and political “common sense” is itself a clear sign that the mental-rational structure of consciousness has entered its deficient mode of functioning.

The corollary Thatcher gave to “there is no such thing as society” being “there is no alternative” (the famous TINA principle), the breakdown of the dialectical relationship between private and public as the polarities — like the poles of a battery — for organising the energies of all healthy social life was completed. There being no “public” or commonwealth as such, having been dismantled by “privatisation” and “deregulation”, there remained only the pursuit of self-interest by the atoms and molecules of atoms. With that, the stage was set for the spectacular market meltdowns of the first decade of the 21st century culminating in the great market crisis of 2008, with which we still are struggling.

In a very real sense, the revolt of the “99%” against the “1%” is just a symbolic or short-hand way of reasserting and restoring what is deemed to be the proper relationship between public and private that Thatcher and Reagan had nullified. The Occupy Movement is a response to this reductionism as market fundamentalism by reasserting the notion of “public” as commonwealth, as a necessary entity in its own right, and not as a mere aggregate or epi-phenomenon of self-interested individuals pursuing their own individual advantage in a marketised competitive war of all against all. When Thatcher had declared the reality of only “individuals and families” and the unreality of anything called “society” or public, she destroyed the basis for community and commonwealth as common, shared life, which became completely reduced to the market alone. In other words, the public realm, now conflated completely with “the free market” became the battlefield upon which “individuals and families” pursued their own self-interest and advantage.

“Public”, as the realm in which social peace and unity was enacted in the form of both community and commonwealth, ceased to exist. And to my mind, it’s not a coincidence that the UK has been plagued with waves of rioting and the problem of hooliganism ever since. What “public” is, as a commonwealth, is the demarcated space and time where the private self-interest of individuals, families, and classes is suppressed for the sake of re-establishing community and the commonweatlh as shared peace and unity. This was the thing that Thatcherism and neo-liberalism abolished in the name of economism, and which represents the breakdown of dialectical consciousness. Disintegration of society is the eventual result, and it cannot be amended by artificial celebrations of unity through stoking up a war against “outsiders” here or there, or mass sporting events as the Romans or Mayans tried also in the midst of their own decadence.

Today, the political classes believe they can still forgo recognising anything called “society” or “public” or “commonwealth” by merely staging the occasional great mass spectacle, sports or military, that will serve as an adequate substitute for an authentic and genuine commonwealth. While this defective response to the peril of social disintegration may work for a while, it didn’t save Rome or the Mayan and Aztec civilisations from breakdown and collapse.

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4 responses to “Deficient Rationality and Civilisational Collapse”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    To the signs of “dispersal”, as Gebser uses this term to signify fragmentation, should probably be added the corrosive influence of the “hyper-partisan” character of contemporary political discourse and ideology, now come to Canada as well.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    “In Jean Gebser’s typology of civilisations, which correlates civilisational types as they appear in history (or currently co-exist) as specific gestalts or structures of consciousness, these civilisations-as-consciousness-structures”

    Learning about that alone has completely rearranged my thinking about and understanding of history. I’ll keep reading…

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