The Global Brain and the Collective Representations
While we are on the topic of “the collective representations” (that is, images) and how this plays out in relation to Howard Bloom’s “Global Brain” theme, I’ld like to revisit an earlier posting (pre-Trump) on that and build upon it further. That posting was called “The Image and the Spirit of Place” and addressed some of the missing information that always attends the image as a “genuine imitation” reality. Images are abstractions from the real, and often only have a tenuous relation to the reality which they supposedly mirror or represent. The Anthropocene. as the “built-environment”, is, amongst other things, a vast ecosystem (or technosystem) of images and image complexes, or “collective representations”. So, in a sense, we live inside this collective hallucination of the “Global Brain” within a system of mental abstractions called “the images” or the “representations”, which is a kind of schizophrenia.
Back in 1956 — which is a decade that many conservatives think of with nostalgia as a “golden age”, but for many others was an decade of alarming developments — Kenneth Boulding published his short book The Image: Knowledge in Life and Society. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you do. Boulding was perhaps the first to call for a “science” of the image, although coincidentally, the following year 1957, Owen Barfield addressed just this same issue of the image in his notable book Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry. An idolatrous people are, in effect, those whose consciousness is enslaved to the collective representations or images, which are only the shadows of the real, and in those terms idolatry and narcissism are equivalent ways of speaking about the same thing — what Blake calls “the mind-forg’d manacles”.
One of the reasons we are having such a hard time today with issues of truth and falsity, of a crisis of identity and the post-modern “loss of self”, of the crisis of “objective fact” and the discernment of the factual from the fictional (and so in a “post-rational” society), is because we are now inside the projected or objectified neurological structure of the human brain, and it’s a damned strange and surreal place to be actually. We are inside the objectified or extended human nervous system now materialised as “the network” in which we serve, pretty much, as “nodes” — neurons or brain cells — in this collective brain along with its collective imagination (as well as all the inner conflicts and contradictions of that). It’s in this sense that the distinction between what is “subjective” and what is “objective” is breaking down, where people like Kenneth Boulding, or Owen Barfield, or Neil Postman are asking, along with Paul Watzlawick (1976), How Real is Real? (subtitled Confusion, Disinformation, Communication).
All else aside, for the moment, “the Anthropocene” and the process of globalisation, is the construction of a sensory and information network — of media channels, trade routes, global internet — that is basically a neural net, a giant “global brain” which is our new “within”. It is this we call “the system”, a kind of semi-autonomous “egregore”, which Lewis Mumford calls “the Megamachine”, and is exactly what the father of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, called “a golem” in his book God and Golem, Inc. In effect, the theme of the movie The Matrix is closer to the real situation than we like to think, perhaps. Marty Glass, in his book Yuga, calls that “The Prison of Unreality”, which all becomes completely understandable and intelligible once we appreciate this “new within” (or “New Normal”) is a “genuine imitation” human brain and nervous system, as the “built-environment”. And as you know from observing even your own mental pictures or stream of consciousness, a lot of bizarre and surreal stuff often flows along our own neural pathways — images, dream, irrational moods, and nightmares.
Bloom also calls our “reality” a “mass hallucination”, but regrettably does not go into this much, but an aberrant vision of the “final form of society” like Rolf Jensen’s post-rational, post-truth “Dream Society“ (which is basically “The Matrix”) is conceivable only because of this new “within” of a global neural network.
In our strange, strange world, we live surrounded by the mental-abstractions called “collective representations” or mental-pictures, or images that we confuse with the reality itself — pretty much like Plato’s Parable of the Cave where the cave is a giant objectification or materialisation of the skull and human brain. It’s this that has alarmed so many social critics, even when they don’t connect things like branding, propaganda, or mass delusion with the self-alienation of the human subject in the form of the global brain, and it’s one of the reasons why the distinction between the “private” and the “public” is also collapsing, for the global brain includes the objectification of the identity and the subjectivity, where the self-image also often becomes identified with “brand identities”, “branded behaviours”, or “brand personalities” or “brand lifestyles” and so on. Self-alienation is essentially “projection” — equivalent to what Nietzsche called a “flowing out into a God”, but is now a flowing out into, and as, the collective representations or images or “brands” (or what also is sometimes called “commodity fetishism”, but that’s only part of the story).
And here’s the rub in all this — there is always missing information in the image or mental-picture, because it is an abstraction, inasmuch as the images today are largely digitalised and pixelated models, and therefore approximations, of the real which they attempt to represent or propagate (and this is also where Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem finds its relevance equally, and where David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous proposes a corrective to too much mental abstraction). What’s missing from the abstraction or image is the quality of Life. Although you may hear the image speak or see the image move, the sound and the movement and the form is a digitalised reconstruction of the voice and the form, and of pretty low fidelity. It’s an abstraction that censors out other aspects of the real person that makes for “presence” — you can’t “reach out and touch” that abstraction, nor can you sense the warmth or the smell or the taste of the real or immediate. The abstraction — the “collective representation” — has no life. It only has a simulation of life in terms of sound and movement. The image is, in effect, a caricature.
In the Anthropocene, though, this is the reality we interact with daily, and for newer generations it may be the only “reality” they know at all.
At the same time, though, this exteriorisation or objectification of the brain and mind as “global brain” and “planetary mind” is a wonderful opportunity to study the meaning of “mind” itself, and “the ecology of mind” (as Bateson put it). This is what Bloom attempts to do also in his book The Global Brain, even though I think it is often uneven and he overlooks quite a lot about this matter, particularly in light of Iain McGilchrist’s later book The Master and His Emissary about neurodynamics (and a debate between Bloom and McGilchrist about the implications of this “global brain” would be most engaging, I think. Bloom pays very little attention to the mode of attention of the right-hemisphere compared to McGilchrist. For the most part, Bloom’s “Global Brain” is McGilchrist’s “Emissary” — the mostly rationalistic and systematising functions of the left-hemisphere which is precisely the sphere of the “collective representations”, and we may assume equally that what will stream through the global neural net will also be the influence of the “unconscious” and even something resembling Jung’s “archetypes” of the “collective unconscious” already being configured as “brand personalities“). There is much that is pathological — neurotic and hysterical — that will also flow through the globalised neural net.
Expect a “mindstorm” in those terms, which is, I think, what we are already seeing, and which will, I also think, very much resemble the apocalyptic clash of Blake’s “four Zoas”. That is where Gebser’s cultural philosophy of the consciousness structures, Blake’s “fourfold vision”, Rosenstock-Huessy’s quadrilateral logic and “cross of reality”, as well as the Sacred Hoop, or perhaps Holling’s “Adaptive Cycle” also, can help us understand the mayhem and help us navigate the turmoil of the present mindstorm.
Because there is more to the brain and nervous system than just the “rational”, analytical and logical functions of the left-hemisphere, and these also will be objectified and externalised in the “global brain” and “planetary mind”.