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.

Urbi et Orbi

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,

 

 

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7 responses to “Nature: The Pursuit of an Idea, II”

  1. Abdulmunem Othman says :

    Yes in the move backward resides our move forward. It is a paradoxical cosmos. One should not be chained to one side like our writer Mr Vaknin who saw in oneself the mortal enemy forgetting the friend who is living next to the enemy. The story of the seven selves or the seven forces of the self that introduces themselves to each other in a process of transformation to ward realization. The first is the inspired self with both its activities of the wrong commanding force and the right commanding force then the blaming force that settle the antagonism toward the rein of the tranquil force (state of content) where the master starts to regain his authority over the negative forces. The journey does not stop there but continue in its upward path toward the birth of the self accepted state and the divine accepted state where the journey reaches its fruition but things do not stop there but the self continue to encounter the waves of the divine ocean in their different vibrations. Our life from his life, our knowledge from his knowledge, our will from his will etc etc, until death comes.
    Realizing my myness in his inclusive myness. It is the agony of the Python in there chant of not dead yet, heralding the spiritual death of our materialistic civilization. It is sad we are unaware of the effectiveness of these forces. It is necessary that the forces of the light regain their zealous vehemence to guide the human wagon anew because night can not continue forever. The alternating processes of our cosmos that give us the encouragement to continue swimming in the murky water until we catch one of the two branches of our designated fates..

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      It is necessary that the forces of the light regain their zealous vehemence to guide the human wagon anew because night can not continue forever.

      No worries there.

      • Scott Preston says :

        Good article. Pretty much covers, and perhaps in much fewer words, everything I’ve attempted in the last three postings — or even the whole blog.

        Every article or book I open today begins by stressing the disintegrative aspects of the present, so probably no need on my part to overdo it. Sometimes, though, it’s couched in different terminology, like Bronowski’s “crisis of mechanism”, and the implications of that aren’t drawn out fully, for example how this “crisis of mechanism” relates to Mumford and his “Megamachine”.

        So Roof’s article in Kosmos Journal describes a divergence, which we can understand as Gebser’s :”double-movement”, which is also, to some extent or another, implied in “culture war”, although this sometimes seems as perplexed and chaotic as the Syrian conflict.

        I’m reading Bailie’s Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads presently, and it also opens with a diagnosis similar to Roof’s on the theme of disintegration, and now he’s into what he thinks of the growing indistinguishability of police and gang violence, everybody’s sense of being victimised which must be connected with Gebserian Angst. (If everybody’s feeling the victim, who then is the victimiser?). The question is applicable to “post-truth” society, too. If everyone is peddling “fake news” and false memories, who then is the Prince of Lies now? Is not the demon “Mara” becoming visible and audible before our very eyes and ears now?

        But then, that’s what Carolyn Baker and the Jungians call “the Shadow” which they believe is becoming activated today, and which we simply call “nihilism” or describe as the sudden inversion or reversal of values.

        Curiously, the above mentioned Perkins describes consciousness as elliptical movement around two foci, a positive and negative pole. And we see in his geometry of the ellipsis here, not only the principle of enantiodromia in play, but also a reflection of Gebser’s life-pole and death-pole of the psyche (or Freud’s eros and thanatos “instincts”).

      • Scott Preston says :

        Still not the dominant dynamic of late or post-modernity, though. Views like those of Nancy Roof and her Kosmos Journal are still on the periphery and margins of the main current, which looks hellbound for total collapse, and then arises the question of how to translate this into new cultural patterns and institutional structures — through imagination and creativity — making these insights actionable. This is supposed to be the Great Work, and it is a kind of alchemy, and is the work of “the cultural creatives”. So, yes indeed, you do have to become “Warriors of the Spirit” as Roof puts it.

        Most of the future “agony and ecstasy” will be the struggle to translate these inner insights into manifest reality, and especially against resistance to that thrown up by history and reactionary attitudes, which might even be lethal. Right now, it’s largely protected by being ignored or dismissed as irrational or irrelevant by the mainstream culture, which is both blessing and curse at once.

        The other question I need to address is how Bronowski’s “crisis of mechanism” impinges on the current expectations for our AI future? Or are these completely incompatible visions of the future?

  2. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Such complaints of feeling, inwardly like a machine, computer, a mere algorithm or calculating device are fairly common.

    Far more common, in my experience, are complaints of being treated like a machine, computer, cog or wheel (“squeaky” or otherwise) in the Machine.

    I hope I don’t burst anyone’s bubbles when I suggest (with no evidence other than anecdote) that the reverse is far more common, despite that the vast majority who feel this way have never even heard of many of the authors whose works we’ve been studying.

    Unfortunately, about the only recourse most of us can see is to “Rage Against the Machine,” apparently believing ourselves to be powerless to do anything else. If there is a single “belief” our “iconoclasts” should be hammering (or wrenching) away at right now, this is it, imo. If we aren’t 100% convinced that this is a struggle common to us all; that the power to change it is within us all; and that we must be united in confronting it; all “the work that reconnects” in the world will have been for nothing. But, as far as I can tell, most of us are still stuck in (and/or infatuated with) one or the other half of “the divided brain” or, in other words, humanity’s head.

    The more I ponder this, the more I’m certain that there are not two “valid modes of perception.” There is only one that has been split (seemingly irrevocably) into two. And don’t tell me this is “duality’s” doing. It’s not. It’s humanity’s doing. We’ve not “gone backwards” and we’re not “devolving,” for what it’s worth. We’ve gone cross-eyed. We’re on a detour. And if we’re to get ourselves back onto “the Good Red Road,” it’s going to take every single one of us (and our “third eye”) to do it.

    Nobody’s free until everybody’s free. ~ Fannie Lou Hamer

    • Scott Preston says :

      Far more common, in my experience, are complaints of being treated like a machine, computer, cog or wheel (“squeaky” or otherwise) in the Machine

      That’s simply a reflection of the pressure on the individual to adapt to the requirements of the machine universe, or Mumford’s “Megamachine”, or what is now popularly described as “the Matrix”.

      I would reread Seth words from The Unknown Reality that I posted about some time ago under the title “The Most Haunting Words in All Literature”. It is, to my mind, the most succinct statement of our condition I’ve yet come across. Considering they were uttered some 50 years ago, they were quite prescient.

      https://longsworde.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/the-most-haunting-words-in-all-literature/

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        That’s simply a reflection of the pressure on the individual to adapt to the requirements of the machine universe, or Mumford’s
        Megamachine”, or what is now popularly described as “the Matrix”.

        I’m not sure it’s a reflection so much as a muffled (or muzzled) response or inner instruction of the “Ever-Present Origin” to assert itself in the face of that pressure to effect personal, cultural and societal transformation, which “the foreign installation” and its “pressures” gradually numbs over time until it becomes just “a still small voice within.” A case of “the falcon” no longer being able to “hear the falconer.” (Yeats)

        I sense in this, also, the true meaning of Thoreau’s “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation” as well as, perhaps, Munch’s Scream or Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (as a “popular” reference).

        In other words, I think it’s universal to the human experience and it’s that “universality” of experience we must tap into: the “common ground” (of Being).

        True Art does this by default.

        Kindly allow me to reference your other comments to continue this stream of consciousness.

        Views like those of Nancy Roof and her Kosmos Journal are still on the periphery and margins of the main current, which looks hellbound for total collapse, and then arises the question of how to translate this into new cultural patterns and institutional structures — through imagination and creativity — making these insights actionable. This is supposed to be the Great Work, and it is a kind of alchemy, and is the work
        of “the cultural creatives”.

        Or, “social entrpreneurs,” as they are wont to call themselves these days.

        But are these views “on the periphery and margins of the main current” (as if they’re an insurgency) or do they actually lie at the heart of the “main current,” increasingly hell-bound and determined to get through?

        [Roof’s editorial] pretty much covers, and perhaps in much fewer words, everything I’ve attempted in the last three postings — or even the whole blog.

        Mmm…. Not quite. I hope I’m not too far wrong in describing your blogs as attempts to unravel the tangled mess of misunderstandings (roots or “crossed wires,” if one prefers) currently lodged in the corpus callosum of the “The Global Brain,” so that those compunctions of the heart (of Consciousness) can get through the godforsaken morass humanity has created for itself, a “world” I’ve described in the past (and present) as the “world” humanity has “plastered over the face of Creation.”

        This is why I think Art is at the vanguard of any form of large-scale transformation, as Leguin intimated in her speech. It doesn’t “anticipate Life,” imho, so much as it carries Life along without these kinds of obstructions ever getting in the way in the first place, if that makes sense.

        How many of us have actually been “persauded” by an “argument?” Isn’t it more often true (if not always true) that we “gravitate” toward that which “resonates” with us as true? (Not in the sense of “confirmation bias,” of course, but in the sense of genuineness and authenticity.)

        I know I haven’t. That is our way forward, imho. Our politics (as usual) will be bringing up the rear, but (hopefully) not by too terribly much.

        Let’s continue with this “universality of experience.”

        Eisenstein, et al, have expressed a feeling of “wrongness” coming over them at a very early age, but at that early stage (age 9, in my case), the vague descriptor of “wrongness” is about all we can manage. As Carlin himself put it, all the inner voice can manage at that age is, “This is all wrong.” This universal sentiment brings us together and we say, “Okay. So, let’s fix it!” The only problem with that is that we’re not quite sure what it is we’re trying to “fix,” like a MD that has no idea what the ailment is he’s actually treating. So, we gather together our “Band Aids” and start slapping them onto to every hemorrhage we see, still with no idea what it is we’re actually trying to cure.

        We have, in fact, been doing that for quite some time. Meanwhile, Mother Earth finds herself in full cardiac arrest and we find ourselves fresh out of bandages. Hopefully, however, we’ll realize sooner rather than later that she’s actually in need of bypass surgery.

        Like billions of others, I’m having cash-flow issues, at the moment, but hope to pursue both Monbiot’s and Katurna’s ideas on the subject of moving beyond the morass as well as a couple of the more recent reads regarding scientific trailblazing.

        Regards.

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