In the Shadow of the Enlightenment
I mentioned that I was presently reading (along with a few other tomes) Stuart Sim’s Irony and Crisis: A Critical History of Postmodern Culture. I think it’s a pretty good assessment of where we are now, one that helps us get our bearings in “the new normal”. Living in the post-Enlightenment and at the endgame of the Modern Project is something that should concern us all.
So, there are a few things I’ld like to say about that condition of our consciousness as they pertain to Sim’s book and as we’ve attempted to scrutinise in The Chrysalis.
Sim suggests that the beginnings of post-modernity can be dated to 1875. I suppose that means with Nietzsche. In other posts in the Chrysalis, I’ve noted more generally the end of the 19th century as representing something of an abrupt turn of events in the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson (The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), in Nietzsche’s Dionysian eruption, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native.
These were simply the prophets of a postmodern turn, but which didn’t actually erupt into history until the Great War. The whole period, 1914-1945, represented the dismantling of the Modern Project, loss of confidence in the Enlightenment, despair of the intellectuals, and disillusionment with the whole progressive project for Condorcet’s “infinite perfectiblity of man”, as I discussed that in a recent post. It is pretty much during this period that an “enantiodromia” occurred — an ironic reversal — that in large measure is still not recognised as such, in which we entered the Shadow of the Enlightenment. Dr. Jekyll became merely a mask for Mr. Hyde. This coincides also with what Jean Gebser means by the “mental-rational consciousness now functioning in deficient mode” — as the Gorgon (or Medusa) is the Shadow of Athena (or Minvera), and Hades the Shadow of Dionysus.
And, of course, I’m speaking of the Shadow in exactly the sense that Carl Jung used that term.
Both Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy, two authors I have discussed fairly extensively in The Chrysalis, both recognised the essential discontinuity represented in the First World War and in succeeding events, and as signaling the onset of Nietzsche’s anticipated “two centuries of nihilism”. Incipit tragoedia, Nietzsche had written in imitation of the directions in a theatrical performance. “The tragedy begins”. Both Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy wrestled and tussled with Nietzsche’s philosophy and the problem of civilisational nihilism, seeking for a way to outrun modernity’s endgame as Nietzsche anticipated it.
Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism” correspond to the postmodern “deconstruction”, which is not just an intellectual fashion but which is a term that embraces all aspects of Late Modern nihilism. This is equally, in Rosenstock-Huessy’s social philosophy, the four “diseases” of the social order — war, anarchy, decadence, civil war (or revolution). Tragedy is reversal, in which the dream suddenly and abruptly reverts to nightmare (in comedy, the nightmare reverts to dream). Yet, despite the onset of the world tragedy, Nietzsche, Gebser, and Rosenstock-Huessy remained cheerful about the outcome. They are all “apocalyptic thinkers”, as I’ve noted in past posts. The tragedy is passage through the crucible or “Day of Purification” to employ another phrase. They all saw that, within the dynamics of the nihilistic lay also the seed-germ of a new “metanoia” or essential transformation or mutation of consciousness — a re-integration which Nietzsche dubbed the “transhuman” or “overman”. It was the Dance of Shiva — one could not separate the nihilistic from the new Genesis.
This is the real meaning of the “double-movement” that is also represented in the term “creative destruction”. Shiva’s dance is the dance of creative destruction — the Hermetic principle represented as coincidentia oppositorum or “paradox”. But even before Nietzsche, Gebser or Rosenstock-Huessy, William Blake had called it and anticipated it as “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell“, which would mark the onset also of a “New Age” — the reconciliation of his “four Zoas” within the unified consciousness he called “Albion”.
So, I really think it is William Blake who is the first prophet of post-modernity and a new “transmodernity”, if we might call it that. He already saw the inevitable endgame of that structure of consciousness he called “Urizen” — the mental-rational or “Single Vision & Newtons sleep” as he called it. This “single vision” is what later Gebser is to call “deficient perspectivisation” or what I’ve been calling “the point-of-view-line-of-thought” consciousness, and the history and status of which we’ve explored at some length in the pages of The Chrysalis.
So, although Nietzsche’s name is associated with postmodernism and the deconstruction (and even the principle of “creative destruction” as active nihilism), his anticipation of a passage through this to his “transhuman’ marks him really as a “transmodernist”, if we might use that term — quite in keeping with Blake, Gebser, and Rosenstock-Huessy. Post-modernity is a transitional state between the past and the future. But William Blake is, I hold, the first prophet of the coming dissolution and decoherence of the mental-rational structure of modern consciousness in self-contradiction and self-negation, and its possible reconstitution and resurrection as his “Albion reborn”.
The “post-modern condition” was only belatedly recognised by others (Lyotard), although as Sim points out “post-modern” is used occasionally by some writers after the First World War. This Postmodern Condition, which is ambiguous, is defined as “incredulity towards all metanarratives”, or what Lyotard called “end of the Grand Narrative”. That necessarily includes incredulity and loss of legitimacy of modern social institutions, traditions, and protocols, including moral codes and all those stories we tell ourselves about who we are and the meaning of our lives. The foundational or root assumptions of the mental-rational consciousness and thus of the whole Modern Era, are being interrogated for their legitimacy, ie “deconstructed” and found wanting in legitimacy, as having been themselves grounded in a mythology or a mytho-history. What was deemed to be “universal truth” is not. Truth has become fractured and ungrounded — as expressed in the problem of the “multiversity” and the hyper-partisan character of our contemporary discourses.
Although post-modernist deconstruction presents itself as a “liberation” from tyrannical metanarratives, obsolete myths, and institutional authorities — a super-scepticism — this is a double-edged sword. It’s here that the “ironic” and crisis meet. For “liberation” from all tyrannical metanarratives can also mean libertinage in which, as Marx once put it, “all that is solid melts into air” which, in the case of quantum mechanics, is almost literally true now. But in its other aspect — the Shadow of the Enlightenment — it means everything has been analysed to death, including the Modern Era itself and its consciousness structure. It has become self-devouring in a kind of ghoulish self-vivisection.
The dark side of all this “incredulity towards all metanarratives” includes metaphysical codes of morality and of “good and evil”. Lost causes hang around like zombies — the living dead — and I believe that the current craze for the myth of the zombie has something to do with that — the prevalence of lost causes. Post-Modern also means not just post-Enlightenment, post-Democratic, post-Rational but even post-Christian. As Bob Dylan put it in song “Everything is Broken”, and that’s pretty much the issue of the post-modern condition and the end of the Modern Project.
The problem with such total libertinism (which is Rosenstock’s “anarchy” and what he calls “our withering from within”) in relation to all metanarratives is that it can easily revert to authoritarianism also by a process of enantiodromia. This is indeed reflected in Canada’s current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who professes libertarian principles rhetorically, but authoritarianism in practice; who was initially elected on the promise of democratic reform towards greater participatory democracy, but implemented instead “executive democracy”
Turbulence is the postmodern condition and is pretty much identical with what we are now calling “the new normal”. Recall that indigenous elder’s prophecy I once mentioned: he saw the peoples of the Earth in one canoe headed for a rapids, and if we all pulled together, we would arrive safely at the calmer waters beyond the rapids. That “canoe” is, of course, Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth”.
If the world is now in the rapids, conservative sentiments like William Buckley Jr’s are completely unreasonable. Conservatism, he said, was standing athwart the railway track of history yelling “Stop!”, and this was reflected in Fukuyama’s “end of history” and Margaret Thatcher’s TINA principle (“There is No Alternative”). When you’re in the rapids (and I’ve shot a few in my time) you can’t just stop and get out, or turn the canoe around. You have to skillfully guide it through the turbulence, to avoid hitting the rocks or being flipped over by the force of the water. These kinds of statements by conservatives reflect only the reactionary and decadent mood — the conservative panic in the midst of the rapids and turbulence that makes them want to jump out of their skin as well as the canoe, and is reflected in “back to basics” fanaticism.
The only way out of a rapids is through it — passage through the crucible. Once you’re in the rapids, it’s simply too late to think about making the portage instead. And whether we survive it or not is a matter of skillfulness in navigating the currents and the rocks. Without that skillfulness, and keeping your wits about you, you will perish in the rapids, mangled and crushed between rock and water or, as I once put it years ago — between the Hammer of God and the Anvil of the Earth.
“Lip-service” is the conservative disease, says Rosenstock-Huessy, the disease of decadence. And a lot of that is simply self-deception. If “duplicity is the currency of the day” as the Pope says, quite rightly, it has a lot to do with that. “The new normal” is a a condition of post-modern schizophrenia — speech and reality, word and deed, theoria and praxis are out of synch — double-talk, double-think, double-standard, and double-bind are simply symptoms of modern man’s disintegration — the “turbulence” is simply the growing incoherence and dissonance of the consciousness structure itself.
The Shadow World (this is what Blake calls “the Ulro”) is always an image of the true. “Anything possible to be believed is an image of the truth” says Blake in one of his Proverbs of Hell, and this reflects Khayyam’s Caution too: “only a hair separates the false from the true”. In the post-modern condition we live in the Shadow of the Enlightenment — the grand reversal of the image and the reality, appearance and substance. Dr. Jekyll has become merely a mask for Mr. Hyde, and that’s the “schizophrenia” of the postmodern condition which we all live today even if we don’t know it.
Sim uses the term “New Paganism” to describe much of the post-modern, reflecting Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native. Much of what we call “neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism, neo-socialism” is this New Paganism of the new normal. Yet, we really don’t understand what this “new paganism” involves. Fascism was also the return of the pagan.
Do we really want to go there?