Gebser and Prophecy
DavidM, in a previous comment citing Jean Gebser, really raised the main reason that drove me back into my propaganda studies, with which I am presently quite absorbed — that and this seeming innovation in contemporary commercial communications dubbed “marketing 3.0” or “holistic branding” (Martin Lindstrom in BrandSense). Propaganda analysis and interpretation was my area of specialisation at university, but I’m finding that I have to relearn it all over again. In the process, though, I’m learning quite a few new things that escaped my earlier notice and attention.
What I want to address in this post is the more apocalyptic and prophetic aspects of Gebser’s culture philosophy — his anticipation of a looming “global catastrophe” for which, he writes rather unnervingly, the horrific events of 1914-1945 were merely preliminary or preparatory — “child’s play” compared to what he anticipated as the endgame not just of the Modern Era but of a World Age. That is to say, something which, in its destructive intensity and extensity, is only comparable to a global extinction event such as happens quite rarely in the evolutionary chronicle of world ages.
I’m not sure who first named the present epoch “sixth extinction event” (or “Holocene Extinction” or “Anthropocene Extinction”) or when it alighted in that someone’s mind as the actual dynamic of the contemporary world. It is, evidently, the same “global catastrophe” that Gebser is talking about. “Climate Change” is just one, albeit fairly prominent, aspect of the Extinction Event. But realistically, it also includes processes like “collateral damage”, “roadkill”, human super-predation, and, I would argue in that vein also, genetic engineering. The full horror of Nietzsche’s prophecy of “two centuries of nihilism” doesn’t come to roost, as it were, unless it means “Extinction Event”.
Gebser’s notice of “the double-movement” of the times we live in isn’t simply a matter of ideas, mind, consciousness, but a matter of the broader issue — that every extinction event has also been a regeneration event. The “consciousness mutation” that he anticipates actually belongs to the seventh regeneration event — a kind of “seventh day of creation”, as it were. The Sixth Extinction Event seems very much implied in what Gebser also refers to as “the law of the Earth”. And I can well understand, then, why Gilgamesh was forewarned by the ghost of his dead friend Enkidu that, if he were to know the “law of the earth”, he would sit down and weep. An Extinction Event is the breath of the Void, the spectre of the Abyss. How can anyone in their right mind remain dispassionate or sustain an attitude of objective “disinterestedness” in the face of that? Indeed, are we then in our “right mind” at all? It’s chilling because it reminds me all the more of something Walter Benjamin wrote — in the same decade as Gebser was penning his Ever-Present Origin — that human “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” That is to say, the aesthetics of nihilism; an aesthetic of the Thanatic. Is this not the very thing that Jung calls “the Shadow”? That which Gebser also calls the “death-pole” of the soul or psyche?
The rise and fall of civilisations as structures of consciousness is what Gebser compares to the inhalations and exhalations of the spirit (inspiration and expiration) — the rhythm between the life-pole (rise) and death-pole (fall) of the psyche. The “efficient” phase of a consciousness structure is associated with the life-pole (Freudian “eros“) and the deficient phase (degeneration or decadence) is the growing pre-eminence of the “death-pole” (Freudian “thanatos“). This assertion of the Shadow or thanatic pole of the psyche is what we call “nihilism”. It’s simply Gebser’s confidence or faith (as it was Nietzsche’s) that the principle of enantiodromia or reversal at the extremity, or coincidence of opposites, eventually overrules the excess directionality of either pole in an attempt to restore equilibrium (or equanimity) of the whole. The rhythm here is like that of the breath — spiritus or pneuma — every exhaustion, exhalation, expiration is preparatory to a new inhalation or inspiration. The dynamic of life and death is played out in the rhythms of breathing — inhalation-exhalation, inspiration-expiration, rise and fall.
For Gebser, then, the energetic pattern is already fore-ordained, as it is also in Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s “grammatical philosophy”. It’s the Tao of things that where death is, life is implicit, and where life is, death is implicit. Or, as William Blake put it in one of his Proverbs of Hell, “Excess of sorrow laughs; Excess of joy weeps”. This is the pattern of hybris and Nemesis, of sin and “vengeance for sin” or “reversal of fortune” or ironic reversal, that is the real meaning and essence of the karmic law of action and reaction, or the yin and the yang.
The mental attitudes of optimism or pessimism have very little to do with it. These are merely surface reflections in the mirror of intellect for deeper currents in the psyche corresponding to faith or faithlessness. Gebser’s faith (as it was also Nietzsche’s faith) is rooted in a sense of the justice of the karmic law of action and reaction, as expressed in the Tao, and the lawfulness of the energetic flux, particularly the process of enantiodromia and coincidentia oppositorum. The awful and the awesome co-exist in the Extinction Event, and this is also the gist of Rumi’s great poem “Green Ears“, to which I’ve referred before, as a poem about the real meaning of the “apocalyptic”. It’s the meaning also of Shiva’s Dance of “creative destruction”,
Eventually, we are all equally collateral damage and roadkill, or as Mark Knopfler of the band Dire Straits once put it in song: sometimes you’re the windshield and sometimes you’re the bug.
“The sins of the fathers shall be visited down to the third and fourth generations” is not clairvoyance. It’s prophecy in the sense that it is rooted in insights into the meaning of the karmic law as the law of energy and dynamics — the law of action and reaction.
Gebser, like Nietzsche, saw global catastrophe and even events more devastating and horrific than those of 1914-1945, as concomitant with the “irruption” of the new consciousness structure — the new “mutation”, and perhaps even as necessary for the mutation to occur at all. But this prophetic factor in Gebser’s philosophy is highly conditional. Although Gebser believed (much as Rosenstock-Huessy also believed) that the integral consciousness was fore-ordained, he also thought it could be abortive — in which case we might have to wait another millennium for the opportunity to arise again — for the right concert of events and ensemble of circumstances.
That’s the danger that I believe to be represented in “marketing 3.0” or “holistic branding” — perception management and propaganda. The very term “holistic” branding attests to the emergence of integral consciousness, but is an attempt to co-opt it, not to aid in its emergence — and in that sense, represents the very danger of that “abortive” moment that Gebser foresaw as a real possibility. Advertising, often being, in turns, “mirror” of society’s moods but also “mind-bender” in equal measure (“psychological marketing” or “technocratic shamanism”) the meme of “holistic branding” actually reflects the present fascistic and authoritarian tendencies in Late Modernity, precisely because the fragmenting and disintegrating effects of the irruption of the new consciousness structure are disorienting and perplexing for most people (including public relations and advertisers who speak of “market fragmentation” or “segmentation” and so on).
Jean Gebser, Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Nietzsche and perhaps Aurobindo too are apocalyptic thinkers. By that, many people understand “pessimistic” or even nihilistic in mood. That’s owing to a great misunderstanding of the meaning of “apocalypse”, which means “revelation” or “disclosure” — and a narcissitic age obsessed with illusions and images would necessary experience that revelation as “shattering”, as disillusionment — what Gebser calls the “transparency of the world” or “diaphaneity” and the “diaphanon”. Naturally, Mr. Samuel Huntington’s ideal “architects of power” operating in the dark, or Mr. Vance Packard’s “Hidden Persuaders”, would find such transparency and diaphaneity very unwelcome. The entire Alice-in-Wonderland and Wizard of Oz world would find that very unwelcome — Emperors without clothes. So, there will be great incentives to try and ensure that it never happens. Or, that the irruption of a new consciousness structure — Rosenstock-Huessy’s “metanoia” equally — is diverted into “harmless” distractions like new “branded behaviours” or patterns of consumption. And, failing that, there’s always the jackboot and the truncheon — or worse.
There are quite a few ways in which the “mutation” can be made “abortive”. But I doubt that we have 1,000 years to wait for the next felicitous convergence of the right conditions and opportunities. But it seems to me pretty clear that if anything could make it “abortive” it’s not persecution or direct repression so much as it is “perception management” and “the mind-forg’d manacles”, which seeks to dominate all, and all “holistically”, and all in the name of “providing a service”.