In the Shadow of the Enlightenment, III
To continue from the last two posts….
Postmodernity, generally defined as “incredulity towards all metanarratives” and therefore as “deconstruction”, brings with it a number of consequences for both good and ill. Incredulity towards all metanarratives or “grand narratives” also affects the foundational narratives of Church and State, religion and politics, or morality and legality or constitutionalism. In those senses, postmodernity is also post-metaphysical and post-Enlightenment as well. When Nietzsche, for example, called himself a “post-humous man” living the Dionysian “beyond good and evil” he was already living outside or “beyond” the horizons of the Modern Era.
For all these reasons, and more, postmodernism has also been called “New Paganism”, and that is even reflected in a book by the Canadian theologian Tom Harpur called The Pagan Christ.
We had best understand, therefore, what “paganism” really is.
Postmodernism usually presents itself as a programme for emancipation from the tyranny of totalising “metanarratives”, taking its cue from Nietzsche’s “the will to a system is a lack of integrity”. But emancipation of what, exactly, is pretty vague. But if postmodernism is accurately described as “New Paganism”, then it is what we’ve been calling “The Return of the Native” after Thomas Hardy’s novel. We can also call that “the return of the repressed”.
In that sense, postmodernism is an intelligible project, although it has also been accused of lending ideological support to things like neo-conservatism and other forms of postmodern politics, particularly “noble lie” theory and the doctrine of “creative destruction”. Let’s not forget that the rise of fascism was also “new paganism” and the return of the repressed, even if in pathological form. And it is for this reason that postmodernism has also been accused of playing a “very dangerous game”.
“New Paganism” is also reflected in neo-conservative Robert Kaplan’s promotion of neo-imperialism in The Coming Anarchy, in which he wishes to rollback even the last 2,000 years of history to resurrect caesarism, extolling the Roman Emperor Tiberius as the model for the “new” politician of a post-democratic world order. In that sense, a lot of what is being called “postmodernism” is actually better called “premodernism” or anti-modernism — a “before” rather than a “beyond”.
The tyranny of totalising metanarratives (Jacques Ellul, in his critique of the technological system and instrumentalising rationality called this as the search for “the one best way” of doing anything; and what John Ralston Saul correspondingly calls “the dictatorship of reason”) is equally what Rosenstock-Huessy referred to as freeing the mind from the tyranny of “amalgamate false natures”, or what Nietzsche also called “the idols” or “modern ideas”. In that sense, Rosenstock-Huessy’s social philosophy is also “post-metaphysical”, but in the sense that he elevates biology and ecology (or the logic of life) over the ruling narratives of physics and metaphysics (the Newtonian-Cartesian “Frame of the World”). To that extent, Rosenstock-Huessy’s social philosophy could be called “radical existentialism”. The iconoclasm of much post-modern deconstruction or devaluation of values is really idol-smashing.
The return of the repressed, which is Gebser’s “irruption”, is probably the dominant fact of the 20th century, and it has taken many forms. But with the end of all guiding metanarratives, including Nietzsche’s “death of God”, it is attended by bewilderment. Bewilderment is the loss of direction and of horizons — the return of the wild also. Panic and anxiety often attend bewilderment. Bewilderment is the meaning of Nietzsche’s “madman in the marketplace”
Bewilderment is to be lost in the wilds without a map. This is where the work of Jean Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy parts company with postmodern deconstructionism. Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” and grammatical method, or Gebser’s “plus mutation” and the integral consciousness (or for that matter Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed) are designed to provide that new map, quite in keeping with Seth’s warning also about the return of the repressed, which is in Seth, “the ancient force” (from The Unknown Reality, 1979),
When, at this point now, of mankind’s development, his emerging unconscious knowledge is denied by his institutions, then it will rise up despite those institutions, and annihilate them. Cult after cult will emerge, each unrestrained by the use of reason, because reason will have denied the existence of rampant unconscious knowledge, disorganized and feeling only its own ancient force.
If this happens, all kinds of old and new religious denominations will war, and all kinds of ideologies surface. This need not take place, for the conscious mind – basically, now — having learned to focus in physical terms, is meant to expand, to accept unconscious intuitions and knowledge, and to organize these deeply creative principles into cultural patterns…
I am saying that the individual self must become consciously aware of far more reality; that it must allow its recognition of identity to expand so that it includes previously unconscious knowledge. To do this you must understand, again, that man must move beyond the concepts of one god, one self, one body, one world, as these ideas are currently understood. You are now poised, in your terms, upon a threshold from which the race can go many ways. There are species of consciousness. Your species is in a time of change. There are potentials within the body’s mechanisms, in your terms not as yet used. Developed, they can immeasurably enrich the race, and bring it to levels of spiritual and psychic and physical fulfillment. If some changes are not made, the race as such will not endure.
The “ancient force” is Nietzsche’s Dionysian, but it is also Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde. It is the dragon power and it was represented by the “world serpent” the ouroboros. And, as Seth also points out, unless this return of the repressed is integrated with, and guided by, an “enlightened ego consciousness” it can be very, very destructive, and this was also Nietzsche’s warning about all forms of “unselfing”. It can even seize the minds of those who should know better — as in fascist Japan with “Holy War Buddhism”, “National Buddhism” or “Imperial Way Buddhism”. Kundalini Yoga is another practice of harnessing this “ancient force” in a disciplined way.
The ancient force is the vitality. It can be a very healthy thing or a very sick thing. It is fundamentally the energy of Nature itself, as birth and death, eros and thanatos, Genesis and Nihilism. The alter ego of Dionysus is Hades. Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” is the marriage of the enlightened ego consciousness with the ancient force, which is the life force.
So that’s the “very dangerous game” being played out by postmodernism as “emancipation” and the return of the repressed. “Away with all maps” can result in disaster and catastrophe, the typical signs that modernity’s endgame has arrived as self-contradiction — ironic reversal, perverse outcome, revenge effect, unintended consequence. It means that some other power than “reason” has become a fate for us, and is determining the outcome of our acts despite our own declared rationales, will, and desire.