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.