Wholeness and the Overview Effect
A “Renaissance” is a profoundly paradoxical and ambiguous affair, and usually an apocalyptic one. It just means “rebirth”. There’s no reason to idolise a Renaissance because it could just as well be the rebirth of Yeats’ “rough beast” in his poem “The Second Coming” — the riddling sphinx-like creature slouching towards Bethlehem from the deep deserts who heralds the return of pharoahism and the god-emperor (which is one reason I remain quite uneasy about Jeremy Naydler’s The Future of the Ancient World). “New Renaissance”, as Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna have it in their book The Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance, could just as well be a rebirth of the shaman-king and emperor-god, and in that sense a regression rather than a new integration.
The assumption in The Age of Discovery is that the “New Renaissance” is, basically, a resumption of the Old Renaissance rather than, as Gebser would have it, a “consciousness mutation” itself. The Age of Discovery proposes a Renaissance of the Renaissance, as it were — a kind of grand restoration. While the book is quite good at describing what we call “chaotic transition” in regards to the Old Renaissance, it often reads to me like an attempt to overcome post-modern malaise by rallying the troops for the struggle of “the ignorant armies” on Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain” (“Dover Beach“), which is a poem about this profound malaise of modernity — and even of the seeming futility of existence. To that extent, also, Goldin’s and Kutarna’s “New Renaissance” reminds me of Fukuyama’s equally vain attempt to dispel modern malaise by his triumphalist announcement of the “end of history”.
(Both Macbeth’s famous speech about the “petty pace” of time and Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” exemplify this malaise perfectly, as the sense of life’s futility, absurdity, and emptiness).
Neither are a return to “perspective” nor the resurrection of Renaissance “virtu“ in the forecast. The “New Renaissance” is not going to be a Renaissance of the Renaissance. Both perspective consciousness (after Einstein and Picasso) and Renaissance “virtu” (after Nietzsche) are clearly disintegrating, having been run to ground by fundamentalism and reductionism — the final stages of Reformation and Renaissance. And I am afraid that Goldin’s and Kutarna’s book is misleading in that respect. Nonetheless, they are right about “chaotic transition” and about the co-incident deconstruction and reconstruction of truth (and of human nature) that is characteristic of ages in transition. But they would have learned a great deal more had they read Gebser’s own account of this as the disintegration and re-integration of a consciousness structure as he described it in his masterpiece The Ever-Present Origin.
There is not, in The Age of Discovery, any mention of what is probably the chief theme of our time — the “return of the repressed”, which is the Renaissance of the mythical and the magical and such things as are implicated presently in “post-rational” or “post-truth” society. In that sense, Naydler is right about “the future of the ancient world”, and it’s reflected in all those current concerns with “technology as magic” or “technocratic shamanism” or in Romanyshyn’s Technology as Symptom & Dream. It is probably also reflected in the contemporary fear of “the mummy” or the “zombie” or the return of the undead which, in some respects, represent the repressed or unintegrated aspects of the human psyche.
Any “New Renaissance”, in the positive sense of this term, will have to come about as a result of what Gebser calls a “plus mutation” of the consciousness structure, and not by a negative regression or “minus mutation”. And that means, in the present context, a turn to the “overview” rather than a re-establishment of already deficient perspectivising or “point-of-view” consciousness.
The possibility of a renewal that is not a regression is foreshadowed in many areas of human endeavour, today, but most especially in what is called “The Overview Effect”, which is the real topic of today’s post, and which is connected with Duane Elgin’s “The Awakening Earth“, for there is indeed a reciprocity between what is called “overview effect” and “awakening Earth” in terms of the return of Gaia or the Renaissance of the Anima Mundi (once eulogised by John Donne in his poem “The Anatomy of the World“). The theme is wholeness, and in those terms it is not a regression (which would be a minus-mutation) but a retrieval (a plus-mutation). A “minus mutation” is what is represented by Yeats’ “rough beast”.
The Overview Effect is the effect on consciousness of the Earth perceived as a whole and as a holon in its own right, and is a common experience with astronauts, and which is very disruptive of the “point-of-view” consciousness. One could just as well call it “the Gaia Effect” . The Earth is witnessed as an integral being in itself, foundational, before its partitioning or segregagtion into continents, hemispheres, territories, tribes, nationalities, states, provinces, races, and so on, which are now seen as being inessential and secondary abstractions away from the self-evident integrality of the Earth itself. “Butterfly Effect” is not some hypothetical abstraction, but something they perceive with their own eyes in how everything is connected with everything else in a fine network of inter-dependence. The Earth becomes real in a way not seen before — it is alive. It is the life-world. What they experience of the Earth is the truth of David Bohm’s Wholeness and the Implicate Order both as a visible and as an intuitive percept. Earth is not just the “third rock from the sun”, but is also a living world and in that conversion or deeply transformative disruption they become the self-consciousness of that living world.
The cosmonaut is, in some ways, the ultimate Prodigal Son. In order to discover the life-world as Anima Mundi, he or she first had to leave it, precisely in order to find his or her way back to it. And the same may be said of the ego-nature and the soul. In order to rediscover the soul, the ego-nature, as Prodigal Son, had to depart from it only in order to return to it transformed. The parallel process between the ego-nature and the cosmonaut is a contemporary myth of the Prodigal Son both on their journey towards self-overcoming in the “overview effect” (or equivalently, what Gebser calls a “truly universal way of looking at things”). Overview is integral vision, and that means non-schismatic, non-sectarian, non-partisan, non-segregative. All such things are concepts, and secondary abstractions away from the primordial unity that the astronaut, in particular, sees and intuits immediately.
This is not to say that difference is irrelevant. It’s to say that such things as nations, states, provinces, territories, tribes are quite secondary to primordial wholeness and should be appreciated as ecologically related, intertwined and interdependent only against a background of Gaia — the integral Earth.
Therefore, my candidate for a “new Renaissance” or rebirth is the Anima Mundi, and the consciousness mutation towards the integral is just the self-conscious of the human as Anima Mundi. It’s the special significance, it seems to me, of the Buddha’s bhumisparsha mudra or “earth-touching mudra” when he called upon the Earth to bear witness to his enlightenment before Mara. It was the Anima Mundi that certified and verified the Buddha’s enlightenment before Mara.
The whole human journey has been the journey of the Prodigal Son, to distantiate itself from the primordial origins in the archaic consciousness in order to discover itself as the self-consciousness of it — as Gebser’s “diaphainon“. The cosmonaut symbolises this departure in order to rediscover and return, not as sleeper in the womb of the Earth as “archiac man”, but as the awakened, individualised consciousness of the integral Earth itself. The “first Adam” slept in beams of light, as Blake put it. The Second Adam, who is Blake’s Albion, is the awakened and aware consciousness — the integral.
That’s the tacit meaning of the “overview effect”. And it’s my candidate for anything resembling a “New Renaissance”. This is why I harp on the present confusion of the Whole and the mere Totality. The Earth is a whole first and foremost, and not a patchwork or aggregate sum or system of nations, tribes, races, states, etc, which are secondary phenomena and even abstractions away from wholeness and the implicate order, which is always primary, and is not a totality.