What does it mean, the Anthropocene? A geological fact, or just a dream? Maybe we should call it rather the Anthroobscene? O Anthropocene, what do you mean?
OK. Bad rhyming aside (I’ll work on it), you have probably read of the recent “official” announcement that the Earth has, somewhere around the 1950s, entered the era now dubbed “the Anthropocene”. And, no, it’s not because the ideal of human unity or global consciousness has finally been attained (which would be the positive connotation of the Anthropocene) but because the waste products of human activity are now found everywhere, forming a distinct and identifiable, indelible layer around the Earth — a permanent record of human activity. And unfortunately, it is of a very destructive and negative sort.
I’m of the opinion that the Anthropocene is something more than the fact that the waste products of human activity — geological, biospheric, and climactic — have enveloped the Earth, and the implications are quite frightening. I’m of the opinion that included in the meaning of “Anthropocene” is the meaning of a bubble — the complete conquest of reality by the image; more specifically, the human self-image; a near complete artificial reality. And it’s somewhat uncanny that the announcement of the Anthropocene comes only a few days after I posted something about this very thing in “The Image and the Spirit of Place“.
In other words, “the Anthropocene” includes the self-enclosure of the human in upon itself, self-referentially, tautologically — the logical end-state of “the culture of narcissism” in which what we are pleased to call “reality” becomes simply a constant echo and re-echoing of our own self-understanding and self-image; or, what is generally called “house of mirrors”. Is the Anthropocene a “house of mirrors”?
It would seem to follow — inevitably and as logical consequence — the insight of William Blake that adorns the masthead of The Chrysalis: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”. And what this “man” sees through the narrow chinks of his cavern — that is, the sensate consciousness — is everywhere only a reflection and echo of himself; of his own activities and mental processes congealed into a thought-form, a gigantic egregore (or golem) that is this human self-image writ large called Anthropos.
There were anticipations of this — Heidegger’s worry (in The Question Concerning Technology): “the fundamental event of the modern age is the conquest of world as picture” and which he interpreted as the basis of its nihilism (a theme which finds an echo in “The Image and the Spirit of Place”). It was in Kenneth Boulding’s plea for a new science of “eiconics” and understanding of the image in The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society. It was addressed by Neal Gabler in his book Life The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, which seems to have pursued Heidegger’s question in some detail. It’s also addressed in the various works of Stuart Ewen on consciousness and the image.
Those of you who have read Iain McGilchrist’s fabulous book The Master and His Emissary on the divided brain or brain “bilateralism” might recognise that all this seems connected with what he wrote there about the left-brain’s hyper-activity (or usurpation) and its inhibition and censorship of the right-brain’s better sense (of which I’ll have much, much more to say in future when I’ve finished the book myself). The Anthropocene, in those terms, seems more a realised outcome of the predilections of the left-brain — the imprint and autograph of its own limited and limiting activities. And yet, implicit in the Anthropocene could also be the possibility of realising the activity of the “second attention” of the more global and holistic predilections of the right-hemisphere of the brain, as described by McGilchrist. Therein also is Gebser’s description of the “double-movement” of our times, and this double-movement (towards disintegration and fracture and towards integration and coherence) appears to have everything to do with McGilchrist’s studies of brain asymmetry, the “divided brain” and the two hemisphere’s different modes of attention. The Anthropocene, at present, seems to bear the signature of the left-brain, in McGilchrist’s terms.
What’s so exciting about McGilchrist’s book is how it grounds the error of dualistic rationality and the schizophrenic tendencies of the human in the divided brain, and therewith, also, the possibility of their unification. For it’s pretty clear that Jean Gebser’s “integral consciousness” is correlated with the unification of the brain, not just bilateralism in terms of left and right hemispheres, but also anterior and posterior bilateralism (which is more subdued in McGilchrist’s work). It seems pretty clear that William Blake’s awareness, expressed as coincidentia oppositorum or coniunctio oppositorum (coincidence or conjunction of opposites) — “the world in a grain of sand”, “eternity in the hour”, “heaven in a wild flower”, the presence of the infinite in the finite, etc — is related to the facility of his awareness to switch focus between left-hemisphere and right-hemisphere modes of attention, and that this is also what Nietzsche did when he spoke of his own ability to “switch perspectives” — foreground and background perspectives. In other words, that seems very much connected with what Castaneda also learned as the first and second attention, otherwise called “the tonal” and the “nagual”. If McGilchrist’s study holds up (and the evidence seems overwhelming that it does) what don Juan did with Castaneda was induct him into the mode of attention that is the predilection of the right-brain by temporarily inhibiting the mode of attention (the “first attention”) of the left-brain.
McGilchrist’s studies suggest that a similar kind of “shifting” is occurring in the modes of attention (there are actually four modes of attention in McGilchrist, but his book only addresses itself principally to two of them). If so, what we are presently calling “chaotic transition” or “crisis” or “ironic reversal” or even Nietzsche’s “revaluation of values” is the emphasis shifting now from the left-brain to the right-brain with their two different value orientations, resulting in an intensified inner conflict, also resulting in the value confusions addressed in The Chrysalis — the confusion of the totality (aggregation) with the whole (holism), the confusion of the assimilatory and uniformity with the integral, confusion of productivity with creativity, of the image with the real, confusion of “fact” with “truth” and therewith “the facts of the matter” with “the truth that sets free”, and so on. In fact, what I have been calling “Khayyam’s Caution” — ie, “only a hair separates the false from the true” — is completely explicable in terms of McGilchrist’s description of brain asymmetry.
It would not be surprising, then, if the Anthropocene also reflects this inner conflict as well, and reflects it precisely, and so the “Anthropos” of the Anthropocene also has the implicit potential to be the actual realisation of Blake’s “Universal Adam” of the Kabbalah or “Albion” — the realised integration of his four Zoas.
And as the German poet Hölderlin put it, reflecting equally Rumi’s poem “Green Ears“, “where the peril is greatest, there grows the saving power also”. Both may be, and very likely are, reflections of McGilchrist’s brain asymmetry and their differing modes of attention that make for everything paradox and ambiguous. The “invisible” reality (or “unknown reality” in Seth’s terms) is simply the suppression or usurpation of the right-brain’s innate mode of attention (which perceives the whole already) by the left-brain’s restrictive focus which makes it a tyrant and a despot, its authoritarianism being, apparently, fear of being overwhelmed by the perceptions of the right-brain, or what Freud himself, with typical dogmatic left-brain awareness or “single vision”, once dismissed as “the black tide of mud of the occult”.
But more of that later.