Enantiodromia: Modernity in extremis
I’ve heard the name Paul Verhaeghe before. I can’t recall where I heard the name, but Mr. Verhaeghe has an article in today’s Guardian about the psychological ravages of neo-liberalism entitled “Neo-liberalism has brought out the worst in us”. It seems appropriate to bring it to your attention as it follows closely on what I wrote a few days ago on “Late Modern Schizophrenia”, or earlier in “The Ravages of the New Normal“.
This kind of medical model approach to the social phenomena of Late Modernity recalls the Canadian made documentary The Corporation. It is actually a good development when we start to think in terms of health and illness rather than moralising in terms of “good and evil” matters that are actually issues of well-being or sickness, or of wounding and healing, or dis-integrative and integrative.
I want, however, to interpret and re-interpret Mr. Verhaeghe’s observations on the dynamics of neo-liberalism further, as an example of that process of “enantiodromia“, formally named as such by another psychoanalyst Carl Jung after the philosopher Heraclitus. Enantiodromia, as discussed previously, describes reversal of action at the extremity or the “coincidence of opposites” (coincidentia oppositorum) at the limit. Enantiodromia is characteristic of the ironic or the hybristic.
Many of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell are, in fact, illustrative of the process of enantiodromia or reversal in extremis,
“If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise”
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”
“Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps.”
Nietzsche’s succinct formula for nihilism, “all higher values devalue themselves”, also describes the dynamic of enantiodromia, which we can also describe in terms of “revenge effect”, “unintended consequence”, “reversal of fortune”, “blowback”, “perverse outcome”, and so on — the self-negation of an act at the extremity or limit. Here by “in extremis” or limit I mean an aged civilisation and its consciousness structure (psychodynamics) that has reached the absolute limit of its capacity and then starts to undergo its own self-negation. The act begins to devour itself. The unity of the consciousness structure begins to negate itself.
Thus, when I say that presently the “pursuit of rational self-interest” has become indistinguishable from the irrational pursuit of self-destruction and identical with it, I am describing the process of enantiodromia as something typical of aged civilisations which have overreached the limit of their possibilities for further articulation or elaboration, which we call “expansion” or “growth”.
This Heidegger sensed as his despair of reason to save us. This H.G. Wells referred to as “Mind at the End of Its Tether”. This Nietzsche knew as our “two centuries of nihilism” and the devaluation of values… the exhaustion and breakdown of the mental-rational consciousness structure in development since the Renaissance, and even earlier — what Rosenstock-Huessy refers to as “the Greek Mind”. That’s the real meaning of Mr. Fukuyama’s “end of history”. So, I turn Mr. Fukuyama on his head.
This is what Mr. Verhaeghe is saying in his article, essentially — the presumption of neo-liberalism is that the principle of the pursuit of rational self-interest (despite irruptions of “irrational exuberance” or bubbles as market jargon has it) is a sure and certain guide to health and happiness and freedom, yet it is actually generating the opposite outcome. This self-negation or self-contradiction is typical of civilisations approaching breakdown and collapse. Their purposes are finally frustrated.
It is not coincidence that the “democratic deficit” grows apace with the expansion of neo-liberalism, “counter-intuitively”, as they say. It is enantiodromia. One may say the same for the dynamics of globalisation in general — the process which was enacted and expected to unite and “integrate” the globe is having the exact opposite outcome, as secessionist, separatist, nationalist movements and wars on the peripheries frustrate the dynamics of globalisation, something also “counter-intuitive” that Amy Chua puzzled over in her book World on Fire, but which she failed to understand, much as Fukuyama also failed to understand in what perverse way his “end of history” was actually, and ironically, true.
So, when I speak of “Late Modern Schizophrenia”, this schizophrenic condition is the expression within the mental-rational consciousness structure of the self-negating and self-contradicting action of enantiodromia itself, which is but another interpretation of the karmic law of action and reaction. This is not really a moral issue so much as a mental-health issue — the disintegration of the consciousness structure that has characterised the Modern Era. We have become this self-negating process of enantiodromia.
As The Boss, Mr. Springsteen, says there’s “darkness on the edge of town”, and that’s what Mr. Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary General also sees when he speaks of our “darkening horizons”. Our schizophrenia is the crucible of our own self-negation, which Nietzsche already foresaw, and which Robert Louis Stevenson also foresaw in his Jekyll-and-Hyde parable. We have become this same process of enantiodromia. We now embody its dynamic of self-contradiction, which to others looks like hypocrisy, but which is really the self-contradictory dynamic of enantiodromia in action.
And the only question is, whether we can master it or whether it will master us, whether we can outrun it or whether it will finally run us down. This is the issue of “integral consciousness” and of our intuitions about the “quantum leap”, which has become a kind of metaphor for our own self-overcoming and self-transcendence.