How Did Reality Get So Unreal?
Or, as documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis calls it “hypernormalisation” where things stop making sense, or when nonsense becomes the new common sense which we are calling “the New Normal” — the absurd, the surreal, the “post-rational”, “post-truth” and so on.
It’s not something that has happened quite suddenly. It’s been creeping up on us for the last few decades. Plenty of writers, starting around the late 50s, have been firing warning shots across our bow. But the “post-modern condition” — whose central theme is the “end of the Grand Narrative” or “end of the Master Narrative” (which follows upon Nietzsche’s “death of God”) — is certainly implicated.
It’s certainly not the first time in history that a “Grand Narrative” has disintegrated into incoherence and chaos. The waning of the Middle Ages — of Christendom and Holy Roman Empire — was also just such a decoherence of a Master Narrative — the “authority of Scripture” — into sect and schism, all competing with one another — often violently — to establish themselves as the new “Grand Narrative”. It’s what lies behind Shakespeare’s remarks also about “times out of joint” and is the manifest correlate to Jean Gebser’s anticipation of the “disintegration” of the modern “mental-rational consciousness structure”.
What eventually triumphed over the “authority of Scripture” as Grand Narrative was “the Clockwork Universe” — the root ruling idea that informs Lewis Mumford’s notion of “the Megamachine”, and embodied in the form of “Universal Reason”. It was a pretty radical change from the notion of God as the author of the Scriptures to the Architect and Engineer of the Clockwork Universe or cosmic Megamachine. That’s what is depicted in the famous woodcut Urbi et Orbi
Right there is a visual representation of “the disenchantment of the world” in the change from one Grand Narrative to another Grand Narrative (or Metanarrative).
Today, as then, we have many “mini-Narratives” all competing with one another for “hearts and minds”, as well as reactionary attempts to re-legitimise and restore the older Grand Narratives.
What a Master Narrative is, in effect, is the ruling myth of a particular consciousness structure, and is the express form of that structure. The ruling myth of the modern consciousness structure (the perspectival or mental-rational) happens to be the Clockwork Universe (which is an interpretation of the meaning of time) and its reflection in the social order as “Megamachine” (or “System”, equivalently, Ginsberg’s “Moloch” or Varoufakis’s “Global Minotaur”). The Clockwork Universe is also what we call “Newtonian” or “Newtonian-Cartesian”, which is a model of the cosmos (and of human beings too) that has become untenable.
Master Narratives provide orientation (meaning, purpose, the “common sense”, what is considered “real” or true) for all members of society. This Master Narrative is quite evidently breaking down, which is why people today speak of the “multiversity” rather than the “university”. There is now no common (or universal) framework for estimating knowledge, or for evaluating what is “real” (in its terms) from what is unreal (in its terms). That’s one of the reasons the contemporary Maimonides, E.F. Schumacher, wrote his Guide for the Perplexed. (Also a significant resource for students of Gebser or Rosenstock-Huessy).
(It is completely necessary for the God of the Clockwork Universe — the Architect of the Megamachine — to die. William Blake anticipated this long before Nietzsche pronounced it — the demise of “Urizen”, Architect of the Ulro).
It’s in the face of this disintegration and decoherence of the Master Narrative that efforts like Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy (a new “universal way of looking at things”) or Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s quest for a “Universal History” should be understood, or other attempts to come up with a new “Universe Story”. The old one, which forms the background and supporting foundation for practically everything we think and do, has become “deficient”, in Gebser’s terms.
It’s quite simple to understand, in principle. The Clockwork Universe meme and myth no longer functions very well, and really “the God that Failed” was, finally, Blake’s Urizen, Architect of the Megamachine. It provided the sense of the familiar, the certain, the predictable, the “common sense” which it is no longer capable of doing because something is happening to the nature of “time” itself, especially an emerging conflict between lifetime and machine time.
When you consider St. Augustine’s remark that “time is of the soul” (a remark that buttresses Gebser’s cultural philosophy of consciousness structures) it’s completely understandable how the Clockwork Universe culminates in Mumford’s “Megamachine” (the Juggernaut) and in Lewis Yablonski’s Robopathy. Consequently, too, the problem of “zombie logic”, which is our apparent inability to free ourselves from the straight-jacket of mechanical time and transcend its compulsions. But that’s perhaps the chief promise of Gebser’s integral consciousness — “time-freedom”.
So, the end of modernity’s Master Narrative is not at all something to be anxious about, as so many seem to be today. It may be deeply disorienting and disruptive (and that’s pretty much the meaning of “chaotic transition”) but it’s all about time, and how lifetime has been so arranged and organised to favour and embellish, not life, but the requirements and dictates of the machine — the clockwork, the original “dark Satanic Mill” of Blake’s disdain.
As Gebser notes, ages of transition historically all involve a restructuring of space and time and a correlative restructuring of consciousness. It raises the interesting question (perhaps a chicken or egg question) whether space and time are still, themselves, evolving and mutating, and not just our understanding and interpretation of space and time (some people have made the argument for the former — that, in fact, space and time are continuing to evolve and mutate, and that our thinking is always playing catch-up with an ever-mutating, ever-evolving reality.
Gebser (and Carl Jung) wouldn’t put it that way. For them it is synchronous. Jungian “synchronicity” is the same “acausal connecting principle” that corresponds to the idea of co-evolutionary relation between cosmos and psyche or cosmos and consciousness. Or, as the Hermetic Philosophy puts it — the coincidentia oppositorum of “as above, so below”. For Gebser (and for Rosenstock-Huessy) any particular spacetime matrix is identical with a consciousness structure — they are part of the same life-world, and in those terms there are indeed species of consciousness. Therefore, identities evolve and mutate as well, but some people find that profoundly disturbing.