Stuart Ewen and The Politics of Style

I’m about half-way through reading Stuart Ewen’s All Consuming Images: The Politics of Style in Contemporary Culture (1988). It’s a very good book, and one which is quite relevant for students of Gebser’s cultural philosophy as well. “Style” and “structure of consciousness” are pretty much interchangeable terms. And it might help in understanding further what Gebser means by “structure of consciousness” by approaching it through Ewen’s treatment of “style”.

In that respect, I want to quote something from All Consuming Images that struck me as pertinent to “structures of consciousness” and especially how Gebser understands the problems of the mental-rational consciousness structure.

      “From the Renaissance in Europe, when knowledge of diverse cultures and different historical epochs began to spread, the very notion of style implied a coherent, aesthetic expression of a given time, a given place, a given way of seeing. Encyclopediasts began to catalog a succession of ‘period styles’, each reflecting what William Morris would term ‘the needs and aspirations of its own time.” ‘Style’, observed Le Corbusier (Charles Jeanneret), a founder of the movement toward a ‘modern’ architecture, ‘is a unity of principle animating all the work of an epoch, the result of a state of mind which has its own special character.’
Against such standards of coherence, the evolution of ‘style’ in the nineteenth century was seen, by an increasingly vocal range of critics, as the absence of style, a significant expression of an age in crisis, confused about its own identity, its own state of mind. Behind the indiscriminate multiplicity of images that encrusted the hidden framework of industrialism, ‘the needs and aspirations’ of the present were being submerged, masked. To Egon Friedell, it was a period of ‘stylessness’ more than of style. Writing from the vantage point of 1936, the Swiss historian J. Huizinga reflected that ‘the nineteenth century never had a style of its own. At most there was a faint afterglow. Its characteristic is lack of style, mixing of styles, imitation of old styles… [a] tendency to imitate.”
Alarmed by the stylistic incongruity and discord that surrounded them, many late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century critics — from a wide range of perspectives — began to articulate the need to locate a coherent style, a unifying aesthetic, which would be true to the terms and conditions of the modern age. Their understandings of the problems, and the solutions they put forward, were, themselves, discordant.” (p. 121-2)

There are many such insightful passages in All Consuming Images that could benefit and be deepened by an acquaintance with Gebser’s cultural philosophy. For example, Ewen’s definition of style brings to mind Gebser’s insistence that “structures of consciousness” are largely styles of organising spaces and times:

Approaching “style” as “a way that the human values, structures, and assumptions in a given society are aesthetically expressed and received is a powerful insight.” Style is “an expression of the time that produces it”. This way of interpreting “style” actually calls to mind Augustine’s statement that “time is of the soul”, since “style” is here not only seen as “an expression of the time that produces it”, but also what gives aesthetic form to and expresses the inner being in terms of cultural patterns. The close connection between time and style is very pertinent to Gebser’s notion of “structures of consciousness” having different tempos. One might just as well say “style is of the soul”.

Turning now to what some critics call “the varnished barbarism” of modern style (or stylessness, rather) — the penchant for facade and the facetious, for pretense and the pretentious, for mask and masquerade or the carnivalesque — in which imitation and mimicry of past styles helter-skelter is the ‘norm’, points to the incoherence of the modern state of mind, or what Gebser calls “the deficient mode” of the mental consciousness — its fragmented and segmented (Gebser’s “compartmentalised” and “sectoralised”) consciousness.

This very incoherence of styles, though, points out the co-presence of different “times”, and all attempts to rationally “engineer” a “coherent style, a unifying aesthetic” have failed or have, as Ewen points out, simply led to even greater discordance and incoherence. This is what “marketing 3.0” or “holistic branding” proposes to do by borrowing the model of religion — shifting, as it were, from marketing “values and lifestyles” or “ways of life” to “reason for being” — one in which the personal and social quest for “wholeness” becomes the Greatest Story Ever Sold — just another branding and marketing opportunity. (Although the present realisation of the “limits to growth” suggests that this project of “consumer engineering” is about to hit a brick wall).

Changes in style, or in what we call “periods”, are, indeed, inflections of a particular structure of consciousness and learning to read style can tell us a great deal about changes in a consciousness structure or mode of perception.

This present “longing for wholeness” or integrity of being (which even market researchers presently acknowledge) can take a demented turn into totalitarianism, which is really a surrogate for wholeness — an artificial unification which seems, nonetheless, the logical endgame of the “deficient mode” of the mental-rational consciousness structure and a tendency already observed by some such as Bertram Gross, Arthur Selwyn Miller, Sheldon Wolin’s “Inverted Totalitarianism”, and others. It seems to have been a long time in the making — at least since Locke, one of the arch-foes of William Blake, proposed that human consciousness was born “tabula rasa” — empty of any intrinsic purpose or meaning and which developed only as a bundle of different impressions inscribed by the world upon it. Soulless in other words. And if the world and the human being is indeed tabula rasa and soulless, without intrinsic value, meaning, integrity, or purpose, then things like “human engineering” make logical sense.

Loss of soul (or which is, in mental-rational terms, described as “loss of self”) indeed goes back at least to the 16th century poet John Donne, whose great poem “An Anatomy of the World” already foresaw that the Age of Reason would also lead to an eclipse of the Anima Mundi (world soul) and the human soul (ultimately ending in Nietzsche’s declaration of the “death of God”). It’s this “loss of soul” reflected in the disintegration of the modern personality that motivates William Blake, Jean Gebser, Rosenstock-Huessy to give back some meaning to the words “soul” and “spirit” as the unified or re-integrated consciousness.

The soulless Beast “slouching towards Bethlehem to be born” of W.B Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming” is the soulless human itself reflected in the “varnished barbarism” of modern style (or stylessness). So, the urgency of giving some meaning to “soul” and “spirit” — Gebser’s diaphanon, Meister Ekhart’s “Aristocrat”, Emerson’s “oversoul”, the Jungian “Self” or the Nietzschean “overman” — has become rather pressing, because the real meaning of “barbarian” is “incoherent” — Babel and barbarian being related words.  And what we call “soul” is the lost sense of integrality, of wholeness. The whole meaning of Gebser, Blake, Rosenstock-Huessy, Jung, and even Nietzsche, in some respects, is to give back to the word “soul” some determinate meaning and reality. The present “yearning for wholeness” is Pinnochio’s quest for a soul, isn’t it? It’s just a fact that another term for Angst, anxiety, anguish, and paranoia is “loss of soul”.

Getting “carried away”, as we say, is pretty much synonymous with “loss of soul”. Getting “carried away” has its roots in magic and the notion of loss of soul, of someone snatching your soul. I’ll probably speak to that in my next post and why getting carried away and loss of soul are the same issue.

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2 responses to “Stuart Ewen and The Politics of Style”

  1. abdulmonem says :

    The more I read in your posts, the more I feel the deep call for rethinking all the aspects of our deluded life. I was reading Maria Rosa Menocal, the medieval scholar talking about the contacts between cultures and religions and its role in building new visions and new styles some time for the better some time for the worse and how the Muslims in Spain in their particularity and complexity have built in that land, not merely a style,but an entire life style that encompasses in its manifestations not mere architecture and design but poetry and grammar, moving thus from the grave of imitation to the mount of creativity. This remind me of Gebser and Rilke visits to Spain and how that contact remodeled their life and my personal experience in that remodeling ( thank you Scott) As you said totalitarianism is the ill-begotten son of perverted interpretation of wholeness. It is time to realize that there is a system of drawing down knowledge from the divine sphere to human sphere through retreat and meditation, the tools used by all prophets and sages across the ages.It seems to me that in time ancient god chooses certain person to deliver his message, in our time it is the human who chooses his way to god.God wants the human to know him not to believe in him without knowing, this demonstrated by Abraham when he asked god to show him how he resurrects the dead, god said, do not you believe Abraham said no, but I want to know in order to make my heart at rest. Life is a process of negation and affirmation, the process that have been forgotten by humanity, the process that needs to be invigorated through negation of the single vision and affirming the integrated vision, that is the vision of the divine, and that is what I understood from Ewen call to recover the present ( the ever present origin) from being submerged and masked by the ill-intent leaders,irrespective of their field of dominance,politics , commerce , education, religion and irrespective of the misleading tools they are using. At the end I like to emphasis the primordial purpose of knowledge in truth and justice away from power and suppression that have led our world to this unhappy situation. Just look to the territories of the middle east, to see the ugly interplay of power and suppression by some dishonest governments from the region and from outside the region. Every bad deed carries its own haunting punishments,Bush junior is afraid to go to Europe lest he will be indicted. I feel this types of punishment will be widely activated across the globe in the coming years and some signs are already being seen in the commotions the world is facing and how fear-mongers are haunted by their own ugly deeds.

  2. Charles says :

    Scott, I appreciate the writing about these concerns. In my reply the other day, I quoted Gebser ‘the current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an extreme collectivism…” I quoted that idea because I feel it suggests that the root of what is apparent in modern economic societies is a groundlessness. My office is filled with books (much like yours probably) that are insightful about all this. Several ideas are working principles. You mention a “longing for wholeness”. That longing is the motivation I would suggest but the challenge is going beyond the “cultural ego” that a human is nurtured in. One must experience a “crack in the cosmic egg” to initiate the process of a possible rediscovering of one Being. The loss of soul as you write. The modern technological ego is groundless and therefore can be manipulated quite easily.

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