In the Shadow of the Enlightenment, II
I left off the last post a little abruptly. Here I’ll flesh out more about the meaning of the Modern Era becoming “self-devouring”.
A lot of what is called “post-modernism” isn’t that at all. It’s Late Modernity devouring itself and its own foundations. A lot of post-modern thinking doesn’t have a sniff of a clue about what comes after the “deconstruction”. And it is in that sense that, formerly, I made note of the apparent reversal of roles between Promethean Man and his “brother” Epimethean Man, the former meaning “forethought” or “foresight” and the latter name meaning “afterthought” or “hindsight”. Promethean Man (or “Faustian Man”) was the spirit of the Modern Era. Epimetheus, as “brother” to Prometheus, is the latter’s alter ego. Epimetheus corresponds to post-modernity. Prometheus and Epimetheus “bookend” the Age of Reason, just as meanings of Parzifal and Don Quixote “bookend” the High Middle Ages. Parzifal is the fool that becomes a knight. Don Quixote is the knight who reverts to the fool once again.
Prometheus and Epimetheus are this for the Age of Reason. Epimetheus might be taken as the name of the post-Enlightenment and of the Shadow of the Enlightenment, too. Again, this is ironic reversal or enantiodromia in action.
We tend to think that we are being guided in our activities by the spirit of Prometheus, who gifted fire to the human beings, whereas in fact is now not Prometheus but the spirit of Epimetheus who is guiding our thinking, who is the one who opened Pandora’s Box. To put it in other terms, Prometheus is the Luciferic principle, while Epimetheus is the Mephistophelian principle, and are related to each other as beginning and ending, in terms of “foresight” and “hindsight”.
Another way of putting that, perhaps more understandable in contemporary terms, is Reason and Rationality. The divorce of the reasonable and the rational is pretty much the meaning of Gebser’s thoughts about the mental-rational structure of consciousness now functioning in “deficient mode”. We might call that “Epimethean Mode” also, or even “Mephistophelian” mode. This pertains to that observation by Gebser that man’s increase in technological power has not been commensurate with his sense of responsibility for using that power. The increase in “rationality” represented by technology is, therefore, not necessarily corresponding to a gain in reason. In fact, the increase in technological feasibility which seems to attest to “progress”, seems inversely related to the diminished sense of responsibility for that power — an expansion with a corresponding contraction.
Rosenstock-Huessy also made a point of drawing a distinction between the “rational” and the reasonable, which he highlighted in his essay “Farewell to Descartes“, which originally concluded his massive study of the European Revolutions called Out of Revolution: Autobiography of Western Man. This divorce between the rational and the reasonable is also the theme of John Ralston Saul’s works, especially The Unconscious Civilisation and Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West. Correspondingly, Rosenstock-Huessy (amongst others) has differentiated between “dialectics” and “dialogics” as parallel to this.
The post-modern retrospective on modernity is clearly not Promethean, but Epimethean. Perhaps even Epimethean regret. This is one of the objections to postmodern philosophy, to a certain extent valid, that while it assumes Nietzsche’s method of “deconstruction” or devaluation of values, it has no corresponding “revaluation of values” as Nietzsche attempted. In that sense, postmodernity represents a self-devouring without a corresponding regenerative vision or “revaluation of values”. But, in effect, “Pandora’s Box” is pretty much identical with Gebser’s observation about man’s increase in technological rationality and feasibility without a corresponding gain in the sense of responsibility for the uses of it.
This is what distinguishes Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy from the mainstream of postmodern thinking and logic (if “logic” there be, for in fact, “logic” is also one of those “metanarratives” that is subject to incredulity and super-scepticism also). The deconstruction or devaluation might be either the endgame or simply a clearing of the deck, and a clearing away of the detritus of modernity in preparation for new growth — the revaluation of values that is, in Gebser’s and Rosenstock’s terms, the integral consciousness. The present situation overall, and as reflected in postmodernism, is ambiguous in that regard, which is why some call it “the danger of dangers”.
And in that respect, I refer you once again to what I posted earlier about “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature“.