The Megamachine and the Metamachine
Crane Brinton once offered what I consider the best brief definition of the meaning of “modernity” yet — “the invention of a system for inventing systems”. That definition of modernity must be played against Nietzsche’s remark also that “the will to a system is a lack of integrity” in order to appreciate Brinton’s meaning here. With these two statements we really come to the gist of the issue — the origin, history, and the meaning of “the System”.
The invention of a system for creating systems also describes that “ensemble of techniques” that Jacques Ellul analysed and interpreted in his many writings on The Technological Society or (later) The Technological System. That “ensemble of techniques” (or orchestration of systems) constitutes the meaning of Lewis Mumford’s “Megamachine” as he described it in Technics and Civilization and in The Myth of the Machine.
But there is yet the Metamachine, which is akin to the “Master Narrative” of the Modern Era and has its origins in the metaphor of “the Clockwork Universe”. The Metamachine is the Master System that serves as the blueprint for all systems or techniques, which specifies their form and function and how they are to relate to one another as an “ensemble” or orchestra of systems, thus constituting the totality of the “built environment” and, in those terms, perhaps even the very meaning of “the Anthropocene”. This Metamachine is the Architect of our “invisible environment” (Blake’s Ulro) and Blake gave it name and purpose — Urizen.
Urizen, one of the four Zoas of the divided brain/divided humanity, is the Architect of the phenomenal world of merely sensate consciousness. In his “Eternal Form” he is divine Reason, and in his fallen or deficient form, he is the demiurgos, who is equally the demon Mara of Buddhism (“Lord of Illusion”) also known as “Satan” and as “the Prince of Lies”. Buddha calls Mara “Lord of my own ego”, and the parallels between Buddha’s famous final struggle with Mara under the Bodhi Tree and Jesus’s struggle with Satan in the desert are quite remarkable, indicating the Satan and Mara are the same spirit. Both are combined in the figure of Blake’s Urizen in his fallen form, after the fall of the Eternals into Time. This “Fall into Time” is the meaning of the spiritual Dark Age or Kali Yuga, as also described by Marty Glass in his notable book Yuga: An Anatomy of Our Fate. Blake makes the connection between Urizen and Satan explicit. Urizen, however, is also Lucifer before the Fall into Time, and as Lucifer he is “the Light Bringer”, the “Shining One” in his Eternal aspect as Divine Reason. This relationship between Lucifer and Satan (or Mephistopheles) roughly corresponds to that between the brothers of Greek myth — Prometheus and Epimetheus. (The name “Mephistopheles” is most likely a compound of the Hebrew words mephitz or “destroyer” plus tophel or “liar”).
Prometheus and Epimetheus may have some connection also with Iain McGilchrist’s neurodynamics as described in The Master and His Emissary. The Emissary as “usurper” in the psychic household (the self-alienated ego-consciousness who is the Prodigal Son of the Parable) is equally Blake’s Urizen in his fallen form. “Urizenic Man”, as the human of the modern type has been called, is the self-estranged and dissociated entity that McGilchrist calls “the Emissary” and his work is “system”. The Emissary is clearly also Jean Gebser’s “mental-rational consciousness structure”, and it’s “usurpation” (as McGilchrist calls it) is that structure now functioning in “deficient mode” (ie, just a fancy phrase for “decadence”).
The blueprint for System — the System of systems, as it were — is contained in Urizen’s “Book of Brass” or “Book of Iron Laws” which provides the metanarrative for the construction of the Megamachine itself. It is an ironic thing that Richard Dawkins’ published his book The Blind Watchmaker apparently oblivious to the fact that the Blind Watchmaker is McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of consciousness corresponding to Blake’s demiurgos Urizen, who is the ego-nature itself, and is equally Gebser’s “mental-rational consciousness structure” now functioning in deficient mode. In other words, the Blind Watchmaker is Mr. Dawkins himself even though it accords with the nature of Urizen and his Book of Brass.
Blake, via his “Eternal Prophet” — the Zoa named Los — has Los say “I must create a system or be enslaved by another mans; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create”. That could easily be also Nietzsche’s motto. The “another man” referred to by Los is Urizen, for much of Blake’s mythology of the four Zoas centres around the struggle between Los and Urizen. Los is “Imagination”, as Urizen is “Reason” (but in their fallen forms, they correspond only to Fantasy and Rationality respectively). There is something of Los in cultural philosopher Jean Gebser, too. Gebser’s attempt to displace “system” through synairesis is quite akin to Los’s efforts to free himself from Urizen’s shadow, quite parallel to our attempts to free the Whole from the mere Totality. Synairesis and System correspond to “Whole” and “Totality”. (I’ll take up Gebser’s “synairesis” later).
It does no real good to attack the Megamachine without insight into the Metamachine, the blueprint or “master narrative” which is part of our own consciousness structure inasmuch as we have appropriated that as “System”. We need insight into who and what Urizen is, and we need to read in his “Book of Iron Laws”, and which came about as a result of The Fall Into Time. This Fall into Time is related to Jill Bolte-Taylor’s description of her own “stroke of insight” where the Emissary mode of consciousness is compared to a “serial processor”. The Metamachine, from which the Megamachine is derived as “environment”, arises in and from this “serial processor” called “the Emissary” who, by it’s very nature, is time-bound, and is, indeed, called “the mortal self in time”.
The Fall into Time is the meaning of “samsaric existence”, and into subjugation to the karmic law of action and reaction, somewhat connected with Blake’s “mind-forg’d manacles”. Basically, the Fall into Time (and eventually into the Clockwork Mechanism as “cog in the machine” or “dust in the wind”) is that process of “distantiation” of the identity or ego-consciousness from the “vital centre” corresponding to what Gebser calls “the ever-present origin”. Traditionally, this is called “loss of soul”, and today’s identity crisis and identity politics is largely this process of self-alienation having reached an extremity as Lasch’s “the culture of narcissism”, as very much described in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming“.
At the extremity is disintegration, fragmentation, and dissolution — a state of decoherence that is precisely the meaning of “New Normal”.
The relationship of the Metamachine to Megamachine (or the Ensemble, or the System of systems) is akin to that between theoria and praxis, particularly in their more ancient meanings, where “theoria” meant a “way of seeing” or a mode of perception. (Plotinus still uses “theoria” to mean a mode or modality of perception). This earlier relationship between theoria and praxis is what underlies the famous saying of Heraclitus that “character is fate”, which is exactly what Iain McGilchrist means when he writes that our mode of perception determines our being. Likewise, the Megamachine draws its sustenance and its justifications from the continuous repetition of the Metamachine narrative in the everyday human mind of the “serial processor” — the Emissary — whose “usurpation” of the Master mode of awareness is the very meaning of the Fall into Time, corresponding to samsara and the karmic law, which is Blake’s shadow world “Ulro”. Karmic law is what we mean when we speak of “unintended consequence”, “revenge effect”, “perverse outcome”, “blowback”, or “ironic reversal” and reversal of fortune, or in saying that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”.
That is the meaning of Blake’s “dark Satanic Mill” and of “the mind-forg’d manacles”.
But the System has a vulnerability. That vulnerability was expressed by Kurt Gödel’s famous Incompleteness Theorem, the implications of which are profound. Gödel’s Theorem states, basically, that no system can ever achieve closure or completeness because the system itself relies on features or inputs extraneous to itself — assimilating or incorporating these extraneous features (systematisation or rationalisation of these features) into the system still leaves the system reliant on yet other extraneous features. Gödel’s Theorem thus addresses precisely the problematic issue of the Totality (as aggregation) and the Whole, and why the two can never be the same. In effect, those extraneous dependencies of any system also constitute vulnerabilities to the system — the meaning of “Achilles Heal”. In fact, Gödel’s Theorem was used in the movie The Matrix, when the “Architect” explains to Neo the nature of the “anomaly” or the anomalous. The “anomaly” also plays an important role in Thomas Kuhn’s great book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, whose basic thesis is very much buttressed by Gödel’s Theorem. Gödel’s Theorem not only describes the non-commensurability of the Whole and the Totality, but also the nature of the relationship between the Master and the Emissary modes of consciousness described by Iain McGilchrist, which also lies at the base of Gebser’s distinction between synairesis and system. Gödel’s Theorem explains why “perfect knowledge” is unattainable, because the extraneous dependency upon which the system relies is what we call “infinity” or “the infinite”. “Chaotic transition” (or “havoc”) is connected with Gödel’s Theorem in this sense — the irruption of those unconscious, extraneous factors begin asserting themselves into the System itself, anomolously and apocalyptically, disintegrating it.
It’s in those terms that Gebser’s history of “consciousness structures”, and their rise and fall (or “effective” and “deficient” modes as he puts it) as described in The Ever-Present Origin, are very much connected with the meaning of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem. Likewise Blake’s history of the “four Zoas” and their oppressions and suppressions by Urizen or Urizenic Man. The other three Zoas are the extraneous or anomalous factors that prevent Urizen from completing his “System” — his Book of Iron Laws. But, in effect, any such “System”, because of Gödel’s Theorem, is an edifice built on running water, or on a foundation of sand. Gödel’s Theorem accounts for why Urizen’s plans are ultimately doomed to to end in failure.
We will speak to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem further, and why the shift from “System” to “synairesis” as Gebser emphasises is of such consequence.