Mayhem and the Reorganisation of Consciousness
Mayhem. It can be taken as another word for “chaotic transition”, or even Nietzsche’s “two centuries of nihilism”. Etymologically the word “mayhem” is related to the word “maim” — to cause injury or harm – but which has also come to mean disorder or chaos.
For Jean Gebser, mayhem is ambiguous, being simultaneously a disintegration of an older consciousness structure and the incipient reorganisation of consciousness into a new structure — the idea of the “double-movement” of Late Modernity, which shows signs of both a decline and descent along with an advent; that is to say, both a decadent and a revolutionary tendency. The coincidence of these two tendencies, which can often be confused with one another or mutually entangled, is part of the mayhem of modernity.
Mayhem still seems, for many of us, something remote from business as usual, although for many parts of the Earth it is the “new normal” of everyday life, but which always seems to threaten just below the surface of events everywhere. Uneasy lies the head, and there are certainly some ominous signs and signals that the flood of mayhem may soon spread and overflow its present banks. In fact, every day now I note some event or another, often not very widely noted in the mainstream media, that has all the markers of the ominous about it, but whose significance seems to go largely unnoticed. Some are clearly in total denial about it. “The sun still shines. The rains still falls” as someone said to me recently. Yes. Although the sun may rise and the rain may fall upon a planet that is devoid of any kind of life to appreciate it. As it even stands now, with the Sixth Extinction Event there is no new dawn for many species. At this rate, and with these kinds of stresses, at some point some critical and crucial link in the Great Chain of Being is going to snap.
It’s Gebser’s faith (as it was the faith of Nietzsche and William Blake among others) that mayhem is apocalyptic, in the true sense of that word — disclosure — the shattering of delusive forms of false consciousness (or “deficiency” as he calls it) and a simultaneous and more adequate reorganisation of consciousness. That is to say, a dissolution of old cultural patterns and institutions with a corresponding reorganisation of the affairs of life into new cultural patterns and institutions. Major “mutations” in consciousness structure do not come on little dove’s feet, but catastrophically and apocalyptically, and human history is certainly replete with examples of that. In those terms, what we call “nihilism” or “mayhem” are unconsciously selected ways by which an old and worn-out civilisation and exhausted consciousness structure chooses to end itself, because its social arrangements and institutions don’t permit peaceful or smooth transitions to new forms of life.
An Age which has exceeded its sell-by date, but which does not know how to end itself peacefully, will have to end violently and volcanically. Mayhem becomes its fate, in the process of which not only are the old ways of life “liquidated”, but so are the instruments by which the Age is ended: “the revolution devours its own”. Old and new, all drawn equally into the vortex and the maelstrom. It is a law of Nature, and very probably the same as Gebser’s “law of the Earth”, and is very probably also the same as Nietzsche’s observation that an act of great cruelty always lies at the foundation of every form of human civilisation.
A truly enlightened age and consciousness would not find such means necessary for its revival and resurrection. But we do not live in a truly enlightened age. The repressed energies of life and desire, denied, will always return violently under social conditions where they cannot be integrated creatively or constructively in a new consciousness structure. In those terms, “mayhem” and “return of the repressed” are pretty much coincident, and the manner of our responses to this becomes the decisive issue.
Gebser, of course, believes that our present myopia and tunnel vision (which he calls “deficient perspectivisation” or the “deficient mode of the mental-rational consciousness”) precludes any hope for avoiding mayhem or a “global catastrophe” (although he has left the door unlocked).
The premise of democratic forms of life was precisely the belief that major social transitions or revolution could be conducted peacefully. Unfortunately, “democracy” exists largely in name only and has become dysfunctional itself. It was also premissed upon a well-educated, reasonable, articulate, responsible, and enlightened populace — not a propagandised, technocratically administered, economically-exploited, and behaviourally engineered one, or one of everyman for himself. Where true self-government does not exist in everyday life, it certainly can’t exist in the society at large. And in very large measure “mayhem” is the result of the loss of self-governance. How can one be self-governing in the context of the post-modern “loss of self” and conditions of “self-alienation”?
This are conditions, rather, of post-democratic ways of life. True self-government is not even possible until human beings realise they are multi-dimensional themselves, comprised of different consciousness structures in the way Gebser describes — the archaic, the magical, the mythical, the mental. In effect, “integral consciousness” and true self-government are pretty much identical in meaning. We are fourfold beings of thinking, feeling, sensing, and willing. And unless we can develop, articulate and balance these potencies and faculties, in no way can we be called “self-governing”, and mayhem will be the rule.
It should be obvious, then, that mayhem is the external reflection of the breakdown of the consciousness structure of modern man, following the Hermetic principle of “as above, so below” or coincidentia oppositorum. As within, so without. It is the consequence of a general misunderstanding about “human nature” and consequently a complete failure to understand the meaning of “self-governance”. What the mandala teaches, what Rosenstock-Huessy’s “cross of reality” teaches, what Blake’s mythology of the Four Zoas teaches, and what Gebser teaches in his cultural philosophy is really a model of authentic and responsible self-governance and the reasons for it.
The dictatorship of the ego-nature in the psychic household, or “culture of narcissism”, is not authentic self-governance. And the dictatorship of the ego-nature is sure to be accompanied by a real one in life.