Speech and Reality

One of the classical meanings of the word “liberal” is “generous”. That’s not what think, today, in the term “neo-liberal”, which has come to mean the opposite — piracy and greediness. And one of the classical meanings of “conservative” is “prudent”. But that’s not what it means in the term “neo-conservative”, which by its embrace of “creative destruction” is anything but prudent. Conservatives now think of themselves as revolutionaries. In fact, the ancient tension between the liberal and the conservative was a conflict of values — between the generous and the prudent.

In the “new normal” something has happened to language. In a thousand ways we have betrayed it. And now it begins to betray us.

It’s not just that in the “new normal” of “post-truth society” that people lie and bullshit with impunity all the time, or that people don’t say what they mean, nor mean what they say; nor that the distinction between fiction and fact has become irrelevant. In very many cases, the words we speak have acquired meanings exactly the reverse or inverse of what they once meant. The words negate themselves. And if there is a crisis of meaning at our “end of history” it is largely because our language no longer provides meaning, and leads us in directions we wouldn’t take if we were at all sensible. And in our witlessness, we have largely allowed this corruption to go one without protest.

In fact, how we’ve allowed certain pristine words and names (and all words and names are the incarnation of values) to acquire meanings the exact contrary of their original sense, and become self-negating in that sense, is a perfect example of Nietzsche’s devaluation of values, or of how “all higher values devalue themselves”. And the most critical confusion of our time, from which all other confusions and devaluations follow, is the tendency to treat the word “whole” as if it were synonymous with “totality”.

Right there, in fact, is the root confusion that is also interpreted by Iain McGilchrist in terms of The Master and His Emissary, and the estrangement and alienation of the “emissary” from “the master” awareness. This inversion of values, in which the signposts of language now point us in false directions, is the work of the “emissary” as his usurpation or coup d’etat against “the master”.

Here’s the Butterfly Effect in terms of our language that has spread like a virus throughout language. As Gebser points out, the whole and the totality are contrary in meaning, where the former referred to life and the latter to death. The “whole” means health, life, and the “holy”, while Germanic “tot” (or German Tod) means “dead”. In those terms, it is indeed, and in all senses of the word, a fatal confusion.

It’s quite obvious where this fatal confusion leads, and explains why so many are today working to disentangle the meaning of “the whole” from its captivation in the meaning “totality”. The consequences of this confusion have been known, at least, since William Blake decried it as “Single Vision & Newtons sleep”. Virtually every effort being made today to disentangle quality from quantity, or the spiritual from materialism, or universality from uniformity (or equality from equivalence), or “soul” from “the unconscious” is a result of the fateful confusion and devaluation of “whole” to an aggregate — the “totality”.

It’s not difficult to see that this disentanglement is what motivates thinkers like Jean Gebser or Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy,  among others, and to those attracted to more ecological ways of thinking. And almost anything of any value that is being written today (including much of Nietzsche) is simply a footnote to this one concern: the whole and the totality have been fatally confused, and that the assumption that the whole and the totality are essentially equivalent has been the first and principle erroneous assumption of the entire Modern Era.

Are not the whole and the totality, in those terms, reflective of what Gebser calls “the life-pole” and “death-pole” of the soul (or what Freud interpreted as eros and thanatos “instincts”?). And are not these, at root, the equivalent to McGilchrist’s “Master” and “Emissary” poles of the divided brain? This is exactly what we see in the present corruptions of language, and in what we call “nihilism”. The psychic dynamic, which is being reflected in language, is shifting, rapidly, towards the “death pole”. That’s what is reflected in Walter Benjamin’s ominous statement about fascism,

Mankind, which in Homer’s time was an object of contemplation for the Olympian gods, now is one for itself. Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which Fascism is rendering aesthetic.

If you bear in mind that the entire point of Gebser and Rosenstock-Huessy is the redemption of the whole from the totality, which parallels Nietzsche’s concern to redeem the noble from the ignoble, (or for that matter, Jung’s attempt to redeem wisdom from knowledge), then everything falls into place quite logically. Freeing the whole from the mere totality underlies Gebser’s critique of narrow perspectivisation, and that means liberating human awareness from its enslavement to merely quantifying modes of thought.

William Blake’s own objection to the confusion of totality with the whole is expressed in his manifesto “There is No Natural Religion”

More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.

A thoroughly quantifying, rationalistic mentality can make no sense of this at all. To understand it properly, one requires what Gebser calls “arational” or “aperspectival” perception, or as he puts it, “a universal way of looking at things” (i.e, holistic) than narrow perspectivism can deliver. Nor is the holistic a coercive unification of perspectives (which would be “Single Vision”) nor is it a mere sum of different perspectives. Unification is not integration. It’s assimilation. And diversification is not integration either, its dis-integration. Both unification and diversification are quantifications. The holistic (or integral) is a quality that is realised “beyond” the dualisms of unity and diversity, even though it participates in, and precipitates out as, both.

The confusion of the whole and the totality is the fundamental and root delusion of our thinking. Our thinking has become aberrant (Gebser’s “deficient mode”) because of this confusion, and which marks the distinction between wisdom and knowledge, and between the contemplative and the merely rationalistic. This confusion, albeit fatal, has become systemic.

And unless by some miracle the “cloud of unknowing” is lifted, and the spell dispelled and the “doors of perception” are opened, and “the culture of narcissism” suddenly transformed, this will not end well for us.


5 responses to “Speech and Reality”

  1. davidm58 says :

    In regards to “liberal” and “conservative,” I’m reminded of John Michael Greer’s column this week, where he commented:
    “I suppose its probably too late in the game for both of the parties to do the right thing and swap candidates, so that the Republicans can go back to running a corrupt establishment neoconservative and the Democrats can field a libertine populist demagogue. Lacking such a sensible move, it’s not at all surprising that so many people have basically gone gaga, as Democratic and Republican voters try to convince themselves that they really do want to vote for someone who’s literally everything they least want in the Oval Office. That degree of cognitive dissonance does not make for calm discussions, rational decisions, or sane politics.”

    Gebser has an interesting discussion on “the shift from left to right” based on the apocryphal saying of Christ: “If you do not change low to high, left to right, back to front, you shall not enter my kingdom.” Gebser discusses this shift in relation to political, social, scientific, and artistic spheres, on pages 261-263 of EPO. I can’t say I fully understand where he’s going with all of this, but it did occur to me to wonder if any correlation could be made to McGilchrist’s thinking in regards to left/right brain hemispheres.

    • Scott Preston says :

      Most likely. the first thing that comes to mind in your reference of the apocryphal saying is Nietzsche’s remark that his wisdom was a result of having one foot in the grave and one in life, but also his “unique” ability to “switch foreground and background perspectives”. That, in fact, was a technique that don Juan taught Castaneda in order to break the routine perceptions of everyday life.

      If you take all that in relation to McGilchrist’s neurodynamics, it makes perfect sense. Nietzsche’s “foreground perspective” is the conscious attitude or mode of cognition associated with “the emissary”, and Nietzsche’s “background perspective” is McGilchrist’s “Master” awareness (which we are pleased to call “the unconscious” or “the soul” or whatever).

      Castaneda, in turn, was instructed to gaze at trees, not to focus on the leaves, but to gaze at the spaces between the leaves, and to listen not to sounds, but to the silences between the sounds. It’s an arduous practice, but it makes perfect sense in those terms. The aim was “stopping the world” by breaking the routine perceptions/cognitions of everyday life and to release awareness from the hold or spell of “the foreign installation” (the “false self”).

      It’s a hard practice, but after a while Castaneda realised there was an entire world in the spaces between the leaves and in the silences between sounds.

      And I believe this is what Jesus meant with that saying.

  2. Mystic sofa says :

    Henri Bortoft has written extensively on the difference between what he calls ‘authentic and counterfeit wholes’, which correspond closely with the distinction you make between ‘whole’ and ‘totality’. If you’re interested this is a link to one of his essays on this subject matter:


    • Mystic sofa says :

      …also, it’s clear that he understands the problem of perspectival consciousness:

      “For the alienated man outside of himself, the present moment shrinks towards a vanishing mathematical point in his falling from the whole. This he interprets as going into the future, which becomes his substitute for now in that this is where everything is going to happen”

    • Scott Preston says :

      Thanks for that. That is very useful. I’ll have to highlight it at some point.

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