Gaia and the Anthropocene

Gaia or the Anthropocene? Right here we have, I think, the key question of our times, and again an expression of the “double-movement” in the trends of the times identified by Jean Gebser. Two contending narratives of nature and the Earth, and how these play out is probably the decisive question of our era.

Both are, in some important respects, attempts to “humanise” nature and the planet. But, as you can gather, they proceed from very very different understandings of the meaning of “human”. Gaia is fully integralist, while the Anthropocene is assimilationist. They are, in effect, correlates to consciousness structures. Both are “hyperobjects” (in terms of the mental structure of consciousness), meaning they exceed the capacity of our rational minds to fully comprehend or conceptualise.

There are other points of contention between Gaia and the Anthropocene: Gaia is accentuated predominantly feminine, while the Anthropocene seems to be accentuated predominantly masculine. Gaia is nature understood as an interlocutor and co-respondent, while the Anthropocene is an automaton, a Juggernaut. In these terms, it’s not hard to see also the outputs of the “divided brain” of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary.

I’m still trying to work out the meaning of this contention between Gaia and the Anthropocene as present-day “memes”, but I think it’s also further evidence of the soundness of Jean Gebser’s understanding of the “consciousness mutation” presently underway, for Gaia is an “aperspectival” understanding, while the Anthropocene is “perspectival“, in Gebser’s terms.

Working through the meaning of these two memes is really the key to the interpretation of the “human” and consciousness, for it is no longer one thing. For the interpretation of Gaia and the Anthropocene is really, fundamentally, a question of what it means to be human.

The question of Gaia or the Anthropocene is also the issue, writ large, of Jill Bolte-Taylor’s famous TED talk on the divided brain, reflecting also McGilchrist’s — two attentions — “Master” and the “Emissary”, corresponding to the mode of perception of the right-hemisphere of the brain and the mode of attention of the left-hemisphere of the brain (see, for example the interview with McGilchrist “Divided Brain, Divided World“). Here, at root, is the Gaia and Anthropocene issue, as well as the distinction that must be made between the whole and the mere totality, the integral and the merely assimilatory.

In the form of Gaia, man enters into a conscious relationship with nature and the planet, while the Anthropocene is blind mechanism (and most especially in the form of “geo-engineering”, inclusive of genetic modication and biotechnology). The Earth, considered as a singular sentience rather than as an amalgam of discrete, autonomous, mechanical “processes” (atomisation, fragmentation, fracture in Gebser’s terms) is the issue. And as this issue goes, so goes “mankind”.

Gaia, is in some sense, the ever-present “background” to the Anthropocene as “foreground”, and in some sense, too, Gaia is synonymous with Gebser’s “archaic structure of consciousness” or “origin”. The Anthropocene is the culmination of mankind’s attempt to remake the Earth and nature in his own image, but substituting man-made, technical processes for natural and organic ones. That image is Blake’s Urizen. So, if you understand the relationship between Gaia and the Anthropocene, you will perceive clearly, I think, the meaning of Blake’s “Urizen” and the Ulro — the shadow world of Urizenic Man as Urizen’s creation. So, it is quite important to appreciate that Gaia is the correlate to the incipient emergence of the arational-aperspectival “integral consciousness”, while the Anthropocene is really the endgame of the perspectival mental-rational consciousness, whose name is also “System”.

In grappling with the two discourses of Gaia or the Anthropocene, we are really grappling with ourselves and our perceptions equally – with the first and second attentions, in McGilchrist’s terms, and with the consciousness changes as anticipated by Gebser. And in the Gaia hypothesis we also discover the meaning of Nietzsche’s twin imperatives: “Be true to the Earth!” and “Become what you are!”.

It’s pretty clear-cut isn’t it? I’ll have more to say about Gaia and the Anthropocene as I work through it myself. With today’s post, I just wanted to draw that relation between Gaia and the Anthropocene to your attention as being quite decisive for the fate of the earth and of its human and non-human life. And it should be seen that the Anthropocene is really the realised form of human narcissism and anthropocentrism, or what Gebser calls “isolation” of the human in the narrowing ‘point-of-view’ consciousness structure.


9 responses to “Gaia and the Anthropocene”

  1. Steve Lavendusky says :

    And new Philosophy calls all in doubt, the element of fire is quite put out; the Sun is lost, and the earth, and no mans wit can well direct him where to look for it. John Donne

    • Scott Preston says :

      Yes. perfect. I just noticed in these lines from Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World” the equivalent in Blake: “if the sun and the moon should doubt, they’ld immediately go out”.

    • Scott Preston says :

      I should probably add that John Donne is a fascinating poet-priest. He was right on the threshold of the Age of Reason and was profoundly torn between Faith and Reason, attracted to both. But the mood of the poem is melancholic, for prefigured in it is an anticipation of the death of God and the evaporation of the soul (especially the “World Soul”, or Anima Mundi), things which, indeed, came to pass in the 19th century as rationalism peaked. The Anthropocene corresponds to not just to the death of God, but also the eclipse of the Anima Mundi, (although now presently resurrect as “Gaia”).

    • Steve Lavendusky says :

      Our Divine Double
      Charles Stang
      Harvard University Press
      March 2016

      Henry Corbin figures prominently in the Introduction.

      From the Publisher:

      What if you were to discover that you were not entirely you, but rather one half of a whole, that you had, in other words, a divine double? In the second and third centuries CE, this idea gripped the religious imagination of the Eastern Mediterranean, providing a distinctive understanding of the self that has survived in various forms throughout the centuries, down to the present. Our Divine Double traces the rise of this ancient idea that each person has a divine counterpart, twin, or alter-ego, and the eventual eclipse of this idea with the rise of Christian conciliar orthodoxy.

      Charles Stang marshals an array of ancient sources: from early Christianity, especially texts associated with the apostle Thomas “the twin”; from Manichaeism, a missionary religion based on the teachings of the “apostle of light” that had spread from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean; and from Neoplatonism, a name given to the renaissance of Platonism associated with the third-century philosopher Plotinus. Each of these traditions offers an understanding of the self as an irreducible unity-in-duality. To encounter one’s divine double is to embark on a path of deification that closes the gap between image and archetype, human and divine.

      While the figure of the divine double receded from the history of Christianity with the rise of conciliar orthodoxy, it survives in two important discourses from late antiquity: theodicy, or the problem of evil; and Christology, the exploration of how the Incarnate Christ is both human and divine.

      Charles M. Stang is Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School.

      Introduction: Narcissus and His Double
      1. Reading Plato’s Many Doubles
      2. Thomas, Who Is Called “Twin”
      3. Syzygies, Twins, and Mirrors
      4. Mani and His Twin-Companion
      5. Plotinus and the Doubled Intellect
      6. Whither the Divine Double?

      • Scott Preston says :

        Thanks for the reference. Sounds like an interesting book.

        The Egyptian “Ka” was actually this dreaming double, not the soul itself. The ka was a kind of emissary or scout for the soul, for it is said that, before the death of the individual, his or her ka would precede them to the afterlife in order to prepare a way for their souls, or to plead for them there, etc. It’s also said that Pharaoh was the only one “united with his ka”.

        The double appears in all sorts of literature. Don Juan wasn’t “physically” with Castaneda most of the time, it seems. It was his double. Likewise ibn Arabi, in his memoirs of the Sufis of Andalusia, often mentions “dreamers” who apparently could travel far even while their physical bodies remained in place, an apparent reference to the dreaming double.

        Robert Monroe’s “Journeys Out of the Body” is a chronicle of the adventures of the dreaming double, and probably identical with what was called “the ka”.

  2. LittleBigMan says :

    “It’s pretty clear-cut isn’t it?”

    The Chrysalis makes it clear-cut and understandable, which is wonderful.

    A main trouble with the Anthropocene and the assimilative process is that it is extremely energy-intensive. In my view, that’s why it will ultimately fail. We simply cannot spend $10 of the type of energy we don’t want to get $1 of the type of energy output that we would like or deem necessary. This approach will not be sustainable.

  3. LittleBigMan says :

    By the way, thank you for the link to “Divided Brain, Divided World”. It’s a long read, but I’m sure someday I’ll have the chance to sit down and read it with joy.

  4. Dwig says :

    I think a major distinction is the time scale. Gaia works over centuries, millennia, epochs. Long after all forms of genus Homo are extinct, Gaia will still be “doing her thing”. If I remember rightly, some of the Indian gods work at large scales as well.

    • Scott Preston says :

      So, is the Anthropocene, how. The anticipation that we will be in the Anthropocene for “millennia” to come certainly shows a certain confidence or faith that we will even survive it (and that it won’t last longer than a few years or decades, at the rate we are going).

      The history of the Anthropocene, probably from the time that Nature was re-imagined as a great clockwork rather than the Great Mother, would be fascinating, and in some ways that is what Gebser is doing with his interpretation of the mental-rational consciousness structure. For I presume that the movement towards the Anthropocene begins when God is reimagined as Clockmaker and Architect (who is Blake’s Urizen). Today, the Earth is now re-imagined as a computer — an automaton — (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has the earth as a engineered to calculate an answer to the “life, universe, and everything” — the meme of the “Automatic Earth”.

      Blake has much to say about that in his poetry, actually. So, I think we have to turn to Blake for an answer to the meaning of the Anthropocene.

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