It Ain’t Rocket Science
It often occurs to me, as I read highly refined and articulated sociological works or cultural philosophies, that they are often just elaborations upon already existing popular expressions and intuitions.
For example, what is Gebser’s “deficient perspectivisation” but what we call “myopia” or “tunnel vision”? And what is “the mental-rational consciousness structure now functioning in deficient mode” but another way of saying “too clever by half”?
Myopia is an example of the doctor who, I read recently in the news, objected to a ban on plastic microbeads in cosmetics and toothpaste as harmless things because, he stated, they passed right through the human body as waste anyway.
And ended up where?….And where they did what?
But “too clever by half” is an intuition about enantiodromia, and about hybris and Nemesis, isn’t it? It’s a statement about exceeding a limit, overstepping or transgressing on a boundary condition and consequently experiencing a reversal – some perverse outcome, revenge effect, unintended consequence that rebounds on the one who has exceeded the limit. We thought we were being clever, but having gone too far we are instead shown to have been very, very foolish. “Too clever by half “ is an intuition about the karmic law of action and reaction, which is after all not one bit different in meaning from hybris and Nemesis. The consequences of your thinking and acting stick to you, or, equivalently “what goes ‘round comes ‘round”.
“Language is wiser than the one who speaks it” says Rosenstock-Huessy. And these popular expressions are really a case in point. They often hit the mark more accurately than involved social analyses. They are spoken often without real depth of awareness as to their meaning, other than perhaps as an intuition about something or other. So, it is the task of the cultural philosopher or sociologist to draw out the meaning of that intuition, and to, in a sense, redeem the meaning from its lapse into rote formula or vacuous cliché.
At root, what Iain McGilchrist and Jean Gebser simply want to say, finally, is that we have become “too clever by half”, or have succumbed to a fatal myopia and tunnel vision – and all the consequences of that in terms of hybris, Nemesis, enantiodromia or the karmic law. What is involved in all that is a notion of transgression, or overstepping a limit. That is to say, that there really, really is such a thing as “too much of a good thing”.
In truth, it ain’t rocket science. It’s just an elaboration upon what is called “the common sense”. The good social scientist or cultural philosopher just draws out all the aspects and the full implications of that sensus communis as they find it already preformed and performed in everyday speech, and elaborates upon them to show what they reveal about human consciousness and perception. And that’s really what Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy do. They demonstrate by their approach that we already know what it’s all about, it’s just that we’ve forgotten that we know it.
One could write a fairly lengthy tome about the meaning of “too clever by half” and the revenge of unintended consequences. In fact, some have been written, such as James Chiles’ Inviting Disaster: An Inside Look at Catastrophes and Why They Happen or Edward Tenner’s Why Things Bite Back or Paul Virilio’s The Original Accident. I don’t know that they’ve reached the conclusions that Gebser has reached or that which McGilchrist fears (“ambling towards the abyss”), that something has gone dreadfully wrong with the prevailing mental-rational consciousness. But these students of catastrophe and the accidental do point in that direction and give some illustration of meaning of hybris and Nemesis.
“Ambling towards the abyss”, as Iain McGilchrist calls it. But that’s the image of The Fool in the Tarot cards isn’t it? – head in the clouds, abstractedly and distractedly engaged in some fantasy, not noticing that he’s about to step over a precipice, while a little yappy dog tries to warn him. It’s not exactly Modern Man’s image of himself, and who prefers to see himself as a “Winner” with a capital ‘W’.
Maybe that little yappy dog’s name is Coleman Barks.
Or maybe it’s Jean Gebser, or Iain McGilchrist, or Rosenstock-Huessy, or William Irwin Thompson, or Jane Jacobs……