McGilchrist: The Divided Mind, IV
The masthead of The Chrysalis features a citation from William Blake: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern“. I believe that the recently announced “Anthropocene” is really the logical and fateful development of this condition; of Blake’s insight into the state of human consciousness — the human condition of narcissism writ large — and that this, more than anything, underlies the theme of the impending “Dark Age” that is being anticipated in much contemporary sociological writing (Morris Berman, William Irwin Thompson, Jane Jacobs, Tom Frank, even Iain McGilchrist, amongst many others. If you google up the terms “new dark age” you’ll find plenty of commentaries on this).
The present Chrysalis in fact began as The Dark Age Blog about a dozen years ago (the Iraq War being the trigger event for it), and many present subscribers to The Chrysalis will recall TDAB. But after more than 800 essays highlighting some of the contemporary evidence for an incipient new Dark Age, it became very depressing to continue mining that vein, and I felt the need to begin equally exploring some of the more positive features in our contemporary predicament, anticipating something hopeful, following not only Gebser’s assessment of the strange, paradoxical “double-movement” of our times, but also my own faith that the German poet Hölderlin was profoundly right when he wrote, “where the peril is greatest, there lies the saving power also”, (or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “in today already walks tomorrow”). That is, in effect, a perfectly good description of enantiodromia, or reversal at the extremity. And I also hold that Gebser’s “double-movement” — one towards disintegration and death, the other towards a new integration and life — is also enantiodromia in action.
So, from The Dark Age Blog was born The Chrysalis. Dark Age and chrysalis stage are, in effect, one and the same event but viewed in its double aspect as also enantiodromia. And so the Anthropocene can also be appreciated in its double aspect as both realised Dark Age but also Chrysalis stage — the stage preparatory to a profound mutation. For Dark Age nihilism can also be seen as an emptying of self — a loss of self — in preparation for a new inspiration or new fulfillment.
And so from Blake’s “man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind to the Anthropocene is a straight line. But I can assure you that it’s not just the “American Mind” of which Blake was speaking, but of mankind as a whole. Narcissism (or what was once referred to as “idolatry”) is the human, all-too human condition. The Anthropocene is the psychological equivalent of a domed city, Blake’s “cavern”, humankind’s self-enclosure, a “house of mirrors” and the “echo chamber” or “bubble of perception” all meaning, basically, the human monologue with itself. This is a dreadful thing. And I can’t help think that this “Anthropocene” presages a totalitarian turn. It would also follow logically from Blake’s insight into mankind’s self-enclosure.
“For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern“. This is the very theme, too, of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, and the ‘usurpation’ of the master’s prerogatives (the attention of the brain’s right hemisphere) by the emissary, which is the ego-consciousness associated with the left-hemisphere — what Jill Bolte-Taylor called the “I am” or the Buddha equally referred to as the “I am conceit” (the teaching of anatman, or No-Self, No-Mind). McGilchrist’s pessimism about the near term human prospect is connected to his observation that the left-hemisphere of the brain (the seat of the “rational” or systematising functions) is totally inhibiting the root perceptions and implicit awareness of the right-hemisphere of the divided brain — “shutting down all the exits”, as he puts it, to self-transcendence or the possibilities of self-transcendence. This is what I have called “the bubble of perception”, and the Anthropocene strikes me as the realisation of this bubble of perception — the logical consequence of the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere of the brain (and the corresponding hypoactivity or atrophy of the mode of attention of the right hemisphere). The evidence that McGilchrist has assembled from neurobiology and neuropsychology suggests that there is, indeed, a biological basis for Blake’s visionary and intuitive insights into the human condition in neurodynamics.
The Anthropocene, as a monological form of existence or mode of being, conforms to what McGilchrist describes as some of the main features of left-hemisphere brain hyperactivity: self-referentiality and tautology — much like an Escher picture (and who knows if Escher wasn’t actually illustrating this tedious circularity in the hyperactivity of the left-hemisphere of the brain?)
What does this remind of except Blake’s warning in his manifesto “There is NO Natural Religion“?
If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ratio of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again.
As McGilchrist has aptly argued (but without referencing Blake’s manifesto here), the poetic and prophetic draw their inspirations from the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention, while the philosophic and experimental is largely the product of the left hemisphere. In other words, the creative is the province of the intuitive or imaginative right-hemisphere, but this implicit creativity, passing over into the systematising explicitness of the left-hemisphere, is transmuted into merely the productive or productivity. And this also reflects, I would suggest, the eclipse of the holistic by the merely totalising (and consequent totalitarian). What is truly originary and original becomes, instead, mere novelty and a continuous reproduction of novelties.
In other words, McGilchrist has given us an exemplary description of decadence, as the left-hemisphere’s inhibition of the creative, imaginative, and originary predilections of the right-hemisphere and its mode of attention. Fundamentalism, reductionism, dogmatism, cynicism — these are the products of the left-hemisphere’s activity when it becomes estranged and alienated from the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere. The result is a “vicious circle” of mere mentation.
You may note, though, that one lonely figure in the lower left corner of Escher’s drawing has apparently escaped the “same dull round”. Otherwise, Escher’s drawings are often a perfect reflection of the mind conducting a monologue with itself in self-referentiality and tautology. This is what Buddhists also call “Monkey Mind”. And the Anthropocene strikes me as one great big Monkey Mind.
This situation of monologics (and corresponding monoculture, mononature, etc) contrasts with the dialogical, and it strikes me that upsurge of interest in dialogics and dialogical process (David Bohm, Rosenstock-Huessy, Bahktin) is the emergent corrective to this circularity of the left-hemisphere’s mode of perception and, of course, its narcissism. Dialogics, rather than dialectics. This return to dialogics and the “dialogical imagination” is also exemplifed, significantly, in one of the founders of contemporary Chaos Theory, Ilya Prigogine, whose great book Order Out of Chaos is also appropriately subtitled “Man’s New Dialogue With Nature“. But what that actually implies is a resumption of a new dialogue between the left and right hemispheres of the brain after Descartes’ monological turn.
And I think, too, that Mr. McGilchrist also missed this important development because he was still too much under the spell of Hegelian dialectics. This has resulted, I think, in a few shortcomings of his otherwise great book on neurodynamics. Dialogics reduced to an abstract dialectics is also one of those “perversions” that occurs when the inspirations and intuitions of the right-hemisphere’s mode of attention are “systematised” by the intellect associated with the left-hemisphere’s mode of attention. And the Anthropocene can be understood as the result of an error that goes back at least to Descartes and his “cogito, ergo sum“. The mind that puts the question is the same mind that is expected to provide the answer. It’s a monologue the mind conducts with itself and the end result can only be tautology — like an Escher drawing. This is the basis for Rosenstock-Huessy’s rejection of Cartesianism in his all-important essay “Farewell to Descartes” and his rejection of dialectical method in favour of dialogical process.
Reason has been debased into mere instrumentalising rationality and a narrow technicism because thinking has lost its connection to its primordial roots in the intuitive perceptions of the right-hemisphere of the brain. The resumption of a new dialogue between the left and right hemispheres would seem to be the obvious corrective to this unhappy situation. The Anthropocene strikes me as the logical, inevitable consequence of Descartes’ error. The result of Descartes’ error was Marx and Hegel — the left and the right — or materialism and idealism, communism and nationalism. For despite their being apparently complete antitheses, the share one thing in common that makes them nearly identical: a commitment to an abstract dialectics. And despite their differences, they both end in the exact same place — in the absurd: in Fukuyama’s “end of history”. And the Anthropocene strikes me as being but another version of that.
So, we’ll also have to turn to dialogical process for insights into how to get the two brain hemisphere’s talking to one another again and what “dialogics” itself means in terms of Gebser’s “integral consciousness”.