Richard Stivers: Technology as Magic: The Triumph of the Irrational

I’ve been reading in Richard Stivers’ book Technology as Magic: The Triumph of the Irrational as part of my inquiries into the meaning of “marketing 3.0” (also called “holistic branding” or “spiritual marketing”), and while I’m only in the early pages of the book I thought I would share some of his insights as they pertain to this issue of “technocratic shamanism” diagnosed by Algis Mickunas in his aforementioned Gebser-influenced essay, “Magic and Technological Culture”. Stivers’ approach to the issue is sociological rather than what we might call “cultural”, and he was not, apparently, familiar with Jean Gebser and Gebser’s cultural philosophy of civilisations as consciousness structures.

That is both an advantage and a disadvantage: a disadvantage in that the book could have been immeasurably enriched by knowledge of Gebser’s psychohistory, but an advantage inasmuch as Stivers has independently corroborated, from a sociological perspective, many of the essential concepts we find in Gebser and complements them. Some of these correspondences as corroborations I will note here.

Firstly, as noted in a comment to the last post, I will again quote a couple of passages from the introduction to highlight the central idea of Stivers’ book, and move on from there,

“…our expectations for technology have become magical and our use of it is increasingly irrational. Magic in turn has acquired a rational façade and is used like technology for the purposes of efficiency. In short, technology and magic, while separate and distinct categories in some abstract sense, are now related to one another in such a way that each has acquired important characteristics of the other.” (p. 1)

“Magic begins historically in the attempt to influence nature, which was experienced as sacred. How can we harness the power of nature, to make it work for us? In prehistoric times humans participated with the rest of nature in the re-creation or renewal of nature. Magic represented an attempt to persuade nature to act in the best interest of human beings. Today, however, technology is perceived to be a force greater than that of nature, for it is successfully used to exploit the resources of nature and to re-create nature. If the sacred was ultimately that which is experienced as absolutely powerful, then it was inevitable that technology would replace nature as the object of tacit veneration. There is a world of difference between nature and technology, however, for the latter is our own creation. To harness the sacred power of technology means to extend its reach over all of life; nothing can be excluded. But not all of human existence is so readily subject to technology.” (p. 2)

“The psychological and administrative control of humans (advertising ,management, and self-help, for example) is not genuinely technical, for it requires human belief and participation to be effective. It is here that contemporary magic flourishes. Passing itself off as a kind of technology (as an objective process), but not formally recognized as such, psychological and administrative magic is allowed to cross the moral and legal boundaries that technology is still not permitted to pass. In the past century, magic has come to imitate technology, acting to fill the gap that technology cannot – the psychological manipulation of human beings. Technology, then, extends its control over human society by the magical control of human beings.” (p. 2).

These passages give the tenor of the book, and set the tone for what follows (so far). And as, you can see, very pertinent to the issue of technocratic shamanism (or what I might prefer to call “technocratic Hermeticism”). In a sense, then, it might be said that we are in a battle for our souls — or, at least, for the principle of self-determination that is so central to the democratic idea (which despite its flawed conception and disappointments, I still hold out some hopes for in the face of assertive tendencies now toward Sheldon Wolin’s “inverted totalitarianism” or Bertram Gross’s “friendly fascism“). As noted before, there is a connection between the words “fascism” and “fascination” through the Latin word “fascinum“, which has amongst its many meanings for “binding” or the “binding power” also a magic spell or an enchantment, as does the word “glamour” which has older associations with the meaning of magic and spell-casting.

To some extent, then, Stivers’ concerns about magic and technology echo those of Jean Gebser (or Jacques Ellul as well) — that is, the problem of the confusion or conflation of the magical structure of consciousness with the deficient mode of the mental-rational or perspectivising structure of consciousness, which manifests in such ways as ‘techno-science’ or the emphasis on instrumentalising rationality and primacy of the will (and the “triumph of the will”). An unbalanced assertion of the will and an inordinate concern with power can, and usually does, lead to spiritual intoxication and psychic inflation. This was quite evident in the fascist period, and remains a looming threat even today. Gebser refers to this as the “immoderate” mode of functioning of a consciousness structure. It is here that Stivers could have very much benefited from familiarity with Gebser’s extensive investigation and interpretation of the fundamental efficacy of the magical structure of consciousness which is even today re-asserting itself with some force. And, in those terms, an “enlightened ego consciousness” must familiarise itself thoroughly with the principles of the Hermetic philosophy in order to avoid this intoxication by the magical structure or fall victim to the machinations of those “technocratic shamans” who seek to exploit that vulnerability.

As noted earlier, magic is real and is an implicit aspect of the fundamental psychic unity of the human form, and is today reasserting itself in all sorts of ways — even in quantum mechanics and in notions of the holographic universe or chaos theory which invoke and validate principles long regarded as “occult” that belong to the Hermetic philosophy and which also belong to what Gebser calls the “arational” or “aperspectival” emergence that herald the potential for a truly “integral consciousness”.

Now, Dr. Stivers, following a framework proposed by Jacques Ellul, speaks of the “three milieus” — the milieu of nature, the milieu of society, and the milieu of technology. “Milieu” is a more appropriate word than speaking of “environments” or “social environments” because a milieu has more the sense of a “life-world”. An “environment” tends to be objectified whereas a milieu is largely invisible — something we are immersed within. Those who are familiar with Gebser’s taxonomy of civilisations as structures of consciousness will immediately recognise Dr. Stivers’ milieus — the “milieu of nature” is the magical consciousness structure; the “milieu of society” is the mythical consciousness structure; and the “milieu of technology” is the mental-rational consciousness structure.

It may be said, then, that a milieu is a consciousness structure; or it may be said that a consciousness structure is a milieu. A milieu is a “field” — that in which, it might be said, “we live, move, and have our being”, and of which we are largely unaware precisely because we are this “field” itself. It’s here where the “holy mountain” and the view from the mountain is symbolically significant, because this “overview” (rather than the point-of-view) is the perception of those “fields” or “milieus” that comprise us as whole beings — fourfold selves — the integrality of the archaic, the magical, the nythical, and the mental consciousness structures that are, in effect, the issues of William Blake’s “fourfold vision”.

As you can see, then, Stivers, from his sociological approach, is approaching the issue from a different direction than Gebser’s cultural philosophy or psychohistorical approach, and yet they meet, and mutually corroborate one another through the mediating notion of “the milieu”. “Milieu” is an excellent choice of terms to describe what is essentially already a principle of magic — coincidentia oppositorum or conjunction of the contraries. In this case, there is no opposition between the so-called “subject” and the so-called “object”. It’s a continuum or unified field.

A milieu, as Stivers represents it, has other interesting correspondences with Gebser’s consciousness structures — namely, its polarity, a polarity that nonetheless becomes a dualism in the mental consciousness structure rather than a genuine polarity. This polarity of the milieu is a reflection of the polarity of consciousness itself and, properly speaking, a “polarity” is an interpretation of the mythical consciousness structure, and not of the magical or the mental which are characterised by “unity” or “identity” on the one hand, and exclusive “dualities” on the other. This “unity of the contraries” in the magical milieu, or polarity and complementarity of the polarities in the mythical milieu, or duality of the contraries in the mental-rational milieu is a reflection of the fundamental polarity of all consciousness itself, variously expressed, that is connected with Iain McGilchrist’s interpretation of the two modes of perception of the “divided brain” in his wonderful book The Master and His Emissary. The two modes of perception of the divided brain may be said to express an essential polarity in these terms — consciousness AS, and consciousness OF, which pertain to the intentional and attentional modes of awareness. And the manipulations of the intentional mode of awareness is the issue of magic, properly speaking ,while the more attentional mode of awareness is what we call the “reflective” mode. Every act of consciousness or act of perception has an implicit intentionality to it — the creative or “making power” — and therefore an implicit magical component. Intentionality is a faculty of consciousness, as much as thinking, and can be developed to the same high degree of functioning as much as intellect or thinking can.

In fact, we’ll have to become more aware of this because the manipulation of intentionality is the meaning of “marketing 3.0”. It is, in some sense, a step beyond “perception management” to a direct manipulation of the intentionality that is implicit in all acts of perception.  And this is what lies beneath the slogan “managers of meaning”. Branding is, in effect, spell-casting. What we call “will” or “will to power” is simply the echo or reflection of this fundamental intentionality of consciousness as it appears through the prism of the ego-consciousness.

Here’s how Dr. Stivers represents the basic polarities in each milieu,

“Magic changes according to what is perceived to be sacred. The sacred is, in the most general sense, the life-milieu. If the sacred is defined as ultimate power and reality, what better fits this than the milieu? One’s milieu is…. both that which threatens life (material and spiritual) and that which sustains life. The sacred, then, refers to both positive and negative forces. This is the basic ambiguity of sacred value that social scientists from Emile Durkheim to the present have observed. Each milieu is organized around a different set of polarities: life and death in the milieu of nature, good and evil in the milieu of society, and efficiency and inefficiency in the milieu of technology.” (p 28)

This is the polarity that Freud construed as the eros and thanatos principles of the psyche, and which Gebser identified as the “life-pole” and “death-pole” of the psychic organization, which correspond, effectually, to what we call the “rise” and “fall” of civilisations, or in broader terms, to the poles of Genesis and Nihilism. The activation of the “death-pole” in our time is the meaning of Walter Benjamin’s remark, that human “self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” This pertains to Nietzsche’s anticipation of “two centuries of nihilism” as well as Gebser’s anticipation of “global catastrophe”. The conflation and confusion of the mental-rational and the magical is very much implicated in this, and it corresponds to what we call “necromancy”.

It is in this zone of the “milieu” that the role of intentionality and the maxim that “you create the reality you know” as the social construction of reality has particular relevance, because of the essential efficacy of the magical component in every act of perception — the “making power” or the transformative potency. While some degree of belief is involved, belief is only a blueprint or guide to how intentionality is to be manifested, which is the reason why you have these different interpretations of fundamental polarity or dualism in the various milieus which are, themselves, the creations of intent. As Blake put it, “Every thing possible to be believ’d is an image of truth”. But what Blake called “Imagination” (which a capital “I”), and which he considered primary in the human frame, is, in effect, this same issue of “intentionality”, the fundamental magical element in psychic whole as the formative potency of the consciousness structure which is life-world forming, and life-world transforming — and life-world destroying, too.

I hope to draw out further correspondences between Stivers and Gebser as I progress through the book, especially as it relates to this problematic issue of the conflation of the mental-rational with the magical that is “technocratic shamanism”.


7 responses to “Richard Stivers: Technology as Magic: The Triumph of the Irrational

  1. Dwig says :

    A quote from Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”. I don’t know what Clarke’s conception of magic was, but it fits here. In this context, it might be rephrased “any sufficiently advanced technology can be sold as magic.”

    This leads me to what seems to be a subtle shift: from the image of the lone “mad scientist” to the priesthood of the religion of Science.

    As a lifelong engineer, I’m bemused by the way that word has faded from the public vocabulary. For example, what used to be called aerospace engineering is now hailed as “Rocket Science”.

    • Scott Preston says :

      There is a strong implicit stream of myth and magic in all technology. I can’t think of a single technology that doesn’t have its correlate in ancient magic — television, for example It was an attribute of the god Zeus who was called “the far-seeing”. Telephony, telegraphy, etc all had their magical correlates in telepathy or what we call “remote sensing” or projection, and so on.

      Mr. Stivers is dismayed by what he considers the disintegration of symbolic forms, but I think he’s wrong there. The symbolism has simply been transfered to the machine, about which I will post something next perhaps — the computer as symbolic form and why the computer can function as an analogy for the psychic organisation, for it, too, is a projection or extension of what we call “soul” and is, in that sense, as much art as science and engineering, and indeed, then myth and magic also. The analogy of the computer with the soul has some relevance — not to be taken too far, of course, but it is there. And once I’m through describing the symbolic character of the computer, you probably won’t look at it in quite the same way again I think.

      • Mystic sofa says :

        Scott, re your proposed post, have you read Mind as Computer, paper by Gigerenzer and Goldstein, 1996? You might find it interesting, and I think it’s freely available as in PDF form on the net if you search for it.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Thanks. I’m glad I read that article, but I’m going to take it further than “tools-to-theories”. There is an even deeper symbolic significance to the computer that has suggested to many that it’s appropriate to replace the clockwork as a metaphor for the universe itself, and this draws on the underlying magical and mythical dimensions of the computer that reflect the psychic organisation. So, I’m going to speak to the computer moreso as a symbolisation of soul rather than as emblem of the mind. This is where I think Mr. Stivers’ book may fall a bit short.

  2. Charles Leiden says :

    Another good writing. Ghandi wrote, “there is more to life than increasing its speed.” You write, “In a sense, then, it might be said that we are in a battle for our souls” So true. Metaphors are incredibly important in all these discussions. Behind the modern technology world is the metaphor of the machine. Many observers find it ironic that as Francis Broucek writes how “primitive cultures were also looked down upon because of their anthropomorphism, a term which refers to the projection of human characteristics or attributes onto the non-human natural world. Scientists and philosophers profess to take pains to avoid anthropomorphism in their investigation of the natural world, but many contemporary scientists are curiously willing to engage in gross anthropomorphic projections when it comes to talking about genes and machines, particularly computers. Not only do they attribute human mental characteristics to machines but also tend to view humans as simply complex machines. Many philosophers and scientists who are committed materialists attempt to erase the distinction between persons and machines by using mental terminology when talking about machines and using mechanical terminology when talking about minds.” The machine is the root metaphor in a scientific technological milieu. Floyd M Matson writes …with the advent modern science, nature came to be shorn of its intelligence and organicism in favor of a more congenial analogy; that of a machine. The world went from being anthropomorphized to becoming explained in the mechanical terms of natural causation. The subject was now regarded as an object:; the human world was mechanomorphized.

    Lee Worth Bailey write that “machines have become enchanting metaphors for organizing our relation to the universe.

    Scott wrote, There is a strong implicit stream of myth and magic in all technology. Bailey’s book “The Enchantment of Technology” is filled with examples from the Titantic to space travel to robots.

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