Nature: The Pursuit of an Idea, II
Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. — Kierkegaard
We cannot really understand what it means to live the “post-modern condition” and what it might portend until we come to terms with the passing era called “Modernity”, which generally begins with the Reformation and Renaissance in Europe some 500 years ago in the midst of the disintegration of Christendom and the waning of the Middle Ages. The quotation of Kierkegaard above highlights the problem of what Lewis Mumford and Roderick Seidenberg refer to as “post-historic man” in this regard. It’s just another way of saying that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are going. The problem of post-historic man (who Loren Eiseley also calls “the asphalt animal“) is that he is a creature who thinks and acts as if he were born yesterday, and also lives and acts as if there were no tomorrow. Necessarily, such a creature also becomes post-conscious, too. As both Jean Gebser and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy have noted, consciousness is very much a matter of how we structure the times and spaces of our reality. Consciousness, consequently, can undergo the same processes of expansion or contraction characteristic of all dynamic processes found in nature or the cosmos at large. In effect, “post-historic man” belongs to Christopher Lasch’s “culture of narcissism”.
So, what we want to explore today is the origins of this peculiar structure of consciousness that Jean Gebser calls “the mental-rational”, or what we mean by “modern”, along with its peculiar restructuration, or revaluation of values, of Nature as a World Machine — the Newtonian-Cartesian cosmos which we refer to as “the Mechanical Philosophy” or “the Mechanical Model” to distinguish it from other models or other earlier possibilities of natural philosophy such as the Hermetic Philosophy. What gave the Renaissance its marvelous creative dynamism was largely the contention between these two standpoints which, in retrospect, we can now appreciate as reflecting the “Master” and “Emissary” modes of perception of the divided brain described by Iain McGilchrist in his notable book The Master and His Emissary.
When one of the English fathers of modern science, Sir Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626), weighed the relative merits of “science or magic” for man’s conquest of Nature, he was actually weighing the relative merits of what was then called “Natural Philosophy” (with its praxis, “experimental method”) against the Hermetic Philosophy (with its praxis, “alchemy”). It was a fateful decision, for just as Plato is often considered the philosopher who divorced logos from mythos, or thinking from feeling, Bacon effectively divorced experiment and experience, just as, parallel to this, on the continent Rene Descartes (1596 – 1650) was formulating his doctrine of metaphysical dualism, separating mind from body. Theoretical science largely descends from Descartes, experimental science largely from Bacon.
What we are interested in is the historical transition from a life-world inhabited by “souls” to a World Machine inhabited by automata, around the time that the metaphor of the Clockwork Universe was coming to dominate men’s minds as the image of “pure reason” or “Universal Reason”. This is sometimes called the Newtonian-Cartesian world view and is, to a certain extent, what underlies the meaning of the movie The Matrix. As Crane Brinton once aptly put it, the chief characteristic of the Modern Age was the invention of a system for creating systems, and the master system was mechanism. That’s the context in which to understand Nietzsche’s remark that “the will to a system is a lack of integrity” along with his antipathy to “modern ideas”.
Many people are fascinated by the Flammarion engraving named “Urbi et Orbi”, and it is for that reason. It depicts the historical transition from nature and cosmos experienced as a life-world to nature and cosmos revalued as World Machine. That means, also, a restructuration of human consciousness as well, so the figure of the pilgrim in the engraving is Everyman, or even “Neo” in The Matrix.
That conception of the World System as a World Machine populated by beings reconceived as automata is what largely gives us our present technological society or what Lewis Mumford calls “the Megamachine”. In effect, The Matrix is a rendering of Mumford’s Megamachine or of what Jacques Ellul equally described as “The Technological System“, which we have related here in The Chrysalis to Marty Glass’s notion of our “Mutation into Machinery” as one of five symptoms of our Kali Yuga or “Dark Age” (in his book Yuga: An Anatomy of Our Fate).
It’s in this context of what is called “the made environment” that socio-cultural phenomena such as Christopher Lasch’s “culture of narcissism” and our corresponding “mutation into machinery” makes perfect sense as a strategy of adaptation. Feelings of being nothing but a machine, an automaton, are fairly common to what is called “narcissistic personality disorder”, as this excerpt from Sam Vaknin’s essay “The Ghost in the Machine (Narcissism and Rootlessness)” attests,
“In my mind, I am not human. I am a machine at the service of a madman that snatched my body and invaded my being when I was very young. Imagine the terror I live with, the horror of having an alien within your own self. A shell, a nothingness, I keep producing articles at an ever accelerating pace. I write maniacally, unable to cease, unable to eat, or sleep, or bathe, or enjoy. I am possessed by me. Where does one find refuge if one’s very abode, one’s very soul is compromised and dominated by one’s mortal enemy – oneself?”
Such complaints of feeling, inwardly like a machine, computer, a mere algorithm or calculating device are fairly common. Now it should be possible, then, to understand the current zombie “craze” as meme and mythology of Late Modernity and how our “mutation into machinery” (or into automata of reflexes), the “culture of narcissism” and “rootlessness” (Simone Weil, George Grant, et alia), and my earlier researches into “marketing 3.0” and “branded behaviours” are all interconnected sociocultural phenomena as adaptations of the human form to the requirements of the Megamachine which is fast consolidating itself as “the Anthropocene” — as total environment. It’s this context that makes Loren Eiseley’s discomfort with the “asphalt animal” quite intelligible, as he described that in his book The Firmament of Time,
“Not long ago a young man — I hope not a forerunner of the coming race on the planet — remarked to me with the colossal insensitivity of the new asphalt animal, ‘Why can’t we just eventually kill off everything and live here by ourselves with more room? We’ll be able to synthesize food pretty soon.’ It was his solution to the problem of overpopulation.
I had no response to make, for I saw suddenly that this man was in the world of the flight. For him there was no eternal, nature did not exist save as something to be crushed, and that second order of stability, the cultural world, was, for him, also ceasing to exist. If he meant what he said, pity had vanished, life was not sacred, and custom was a purely useless impediment from the past.” (p. 128)
That may seem aberrant nihilism in the extreme, but Eiseley is right. This is the direction of the Anthropocene and the “New Normal”. And it is in Eiseley’s “asphalt animal” that Glass’s concern about our “mutation into machinery”, Lasch’s about “the culture of narcissism”, Weil’s about modern rootlessness, Mumford’s about the Megamachine, and Seidenberg’s about “post-historic man” (or post-human man), or Blake’s “Urizenic man” all converge as the image of Nietzsche’s decadent “Last Man” (or “Ultimate Man” in some translations). All this is essentially summarised in the meaning of the Flammarion engraving.
And the purpose of what Algis Mikunas calls “technocratic shamanism”, which I’ve related to so-called “holistic branding” or “spiritual marketing” as this “marketing 3.0” is sometimes also called, is to make men contented with their disease and with the amputation of their humanity. Technocratic shamans are the equivalent of what Nietzsche calls “the teachers of sleep”.
Now, if the Modern Era was, to a great extent, the story of the evolution of system, of the evolution of the mechanical model of the World Machine and its consolidation as the Megamachine, what then would “post-modernity” actually signify? Well, for a lot of people, “post-modernity” means deconstruction and disintegration, or of “mind at the end of its tether”. It is all that, indeed, but it may also be connected equally with what the late scientist Jacob Bronowski called “the crisis of mechanism” in a very engaging little book of lectures called The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. (Bronowski was one of those rare creatures — perhaps becoming less rare today — a scientist who was also a Blake scholar).
Bronowski is undoubtedly right about “the crisis of mechanism”, which must inevitably be not only a crisis of the ideals of the Modern Age, but of its consciousness structure, too — what Jean Gebser called “the mental-rational” or “perspectival” consciousness. In those terms, Bronowski’s “crisis of mechanism” and Gebser’s mental-rational disintegration and fragmentation are as much convertible terms as Einstein’s matter and energy convertibility. And while “post-modernity” may well involve also this “crisis of mechanism”, and portend that fragmentation of the modern consciousness structure anticipated by Jean Gebser (in The Ever-Present Origin) and by Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy as the disintegration of the personality structure of modern man, post-modernism offers little by way of a new integration.
In effect, though, what Bronowski calls “the crisis of mechanism” is inevitably implicated in “chaotic transition”, and one may assume that Bronowski’s interest in William Blake, much like quantum physicist David Bohm’s engagement with Buddhism, is the search for a new holistic metaphor to guide the sciences towards a new more effective integration. It’s not just that the Megamachine has become inhuman and even anti-life, but that the picture of nature as World Machine and its inhabitants as automata has become deficient even as metaphor. Yet, it is remarkable how many people still dogmatically cling to this model and metaphor despite its increasingly unsustainable and quite irrational contradictions.
The “crisis of mechanism” and the fate of the mechanical philosophy and the mechanical model reminds me of a Monty Python skit,