Modernity and Perspectivity
As an undergraduate at university, my chief area of interest was the history of propaganda. I was particularly interested in how propaganda affected, or interfered with, consciousness and perception such that “false consciousness” (ie delusion) could become a social problem.
Even after I graduated, I continued in my studies of propaganda. Around 1999, though, I began to feel I had taken my studies about as far as I could and felt I wasn’t making any further progress in my understanding. I came to the conclusion that I needed to expand my horizons and deepen my understanding of the matter by situating the phenomenon of propaganda, as a technology of social and psychological manipulation and control, within the broader historical context of the history and philosophy of science and technology. So, in 2000, I returned to university to further my studies in the history and philosophy of science and technology as these pertained to culture and consciousness.
One day, while I was trundling through abstracts and indexes in the university library looking for some arcane bit of information I took note of how many academic citations made reference to taking a “perspective” on this or a “perspective” on that. There were perhaps hundreds of citations that included the word “perspective” in their titles. It was then that the fateful question occurred to me: “what does it mean to have a perspective?” and whether this was an absolutely necessary requirement of good methodology.
Of course, I knew that perspectivity had been an innovation of the European Renaissance, but it now struck me as odd, as I was purusing the abstracts, that what was an aesthetic innovation in art could be transposed to a methodology and to a more general approach to interpreting reality and a worldview. I felt that there was something really important here that had been largely overlooked. Much to the chagrin, and even hostility, of some of my professors, I dove into the subject of perspective. I had become quite certain that the key to understanding the history and philosophy of modern science and technology lay in this innovation of the Renaissance artists — perspectivity, the rational organisation of spaces in three-dimensions. What I thought of then as an insight was met with either incomprehension or complete hostility. In fact, I was told to let go of the whole matter or face nasty consequences. It was a reaction that I hadn’t anticipated. I was quite taken aback by it but also determined to pursue that research despite the nasty consequences. Eventually, matters got so bad that I just quite the programme and left the university.
During this whole kerfuffle, though, I was gathering more and more evidence for my initial intuition about the connection between the aesthetics of perspectivism and subsequent developments in the history and philosophy of science and technology (whether that would eventually connect with my studies of propaganda was still undetermined). But I was up against some pretty anachronistic dualistic thinking in terms of the “two cultures” — liberal arts and hard sciences. Art was art (and irrational and totally subjective) and science was science (and completely rational and totally objective) and never the twain shall meet, as it were. The hostility was understandable in those terms. It was academic and faculty “identity politics”.
And since it became a matter of a double-bind — conform or face the nasty consequences — I preferred to get out. I left.
Bit by bit, though, I kept filling in the “missing links” between the invention of perspective and the Scientific Revolution, and the gradual diffusion of perspectivity and perspectivising perception through the general population as the very meaning of “the modern outlook”. If I were to return to university today, I would be much better armed with evidence and argument than I was then, when I was struggling to find the linkages (that I knew were there somewhere) between Giotto’s first fumbling attempts at perspectivity in the 13th century through to Copernicus, Galileo, and Rene Descartes.
Some historians of science, I discovered, had sensed a tacit connection between Renaissance aesthetics and the subsequent Scientific Revolution. Thomas Kuhn, in his biography of Copernicus, remarked in passing that he couldn’t see how Copernicus could have come up with his heliocentric theory without some knowledge of perspective. Historian George Santayana mused over the influence of the Renaissance draughtsman Albrecht Dűrer (1471 – 1528) on subsequent developments in science and technology. It was after I had already left the university that I also discovered that Galileo himself had once applied to teach perspective at the Florentine Academy (he was rejected). That was one of the “missing links” I had needed to seal the connection between perspectivism and the history of science and technology. Science historian Margaret Wertheim’s The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace also all-too briefly touched on the importance of perspectivism for the development of the objective attitude and the scientific intellectual organisation of space. As fate would have it, ironically, she was interviewed about that on the CBC the very day I walked out on the university. It was an odd coincidence. But listening to Wertheim, a thrill went up and down my spine. I felt vindicated. I recall being quite euphoric about that.
Discovering Jean Gebser’s The Ever-Present Origin, and his description therein of the “perspective structure of consciousness” (or what he also calls “the mental-rational structure”) was one of the great discoveries of my life, though. So lucid. So clear. Everything that I had puzzled over about the connection between perspective and the history science and technology (and the shape of modern consciousness) now made perfect sense, except for one thing. I still didn’t know how the perspective attitude or mode of consciousness diffused through the general culture and became “the common sense” or synonymous with the idea of “Western Man”.
Crane Brinton had once stated that the chief idea of modernity and the meaning of the “Modern Era” itself was “the invention of a system for creating systems”. It was Gebser who revealed, though, that the master system of which Brinton spoke was actually perspectivism — the rational organisation of space (and time) in three-dimensions. Not only did perspectivism teach the mind the “point-of-view” and the objective attitude (via psychological distancing or “distantiation”) but it also made precise technical blueprints possible (hence, also, Dűrer’s significance for Santayana). The master system — that which made the mental-rational consciousness possible at all — was perspective.
My own research while at university had highlighted the role of Leon Batista Alberti (1404 – 1472). Alberti stood out for me because he was the first to really formulate the mathematics of perspectivism, the axioms of perspective construction — the rational organisation of space and spaces in terms of ratios. Da Vinci, as noted by Gebser, simply improved on Alberti’s innovations. And here we come to another riddle and “missing link” that has been resolved for me in, of all places, Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism.
It’s in the Foreword to the book — a true “Eureka!” moment for me — that Bell, citing the work of German economist Werner Sombart, mentions also the significance of Alberti in the subsequent development and values of the emerging “middle class” or “bourgeois civilisation”,
“Sombart located the main areas of capitalist undertaking not in the Protestant countries, such as Holland, England, or the United States, but in the Florentine world, and he argued that the same kind of prudential bourgeois maxims associated with Benjamin Franklin (who in personal life was a bon viveur) could be found several hundred years earlier in the writings of Leon Batista Alberti, whose book Del governo della famiglia was a classic in its time, and whose views of middle-class virtues, the proper coordination of actions and the profitable employment of time, were adopted by large numbers of bourgeois entrepreneurs and commercants in Italy and France.” (p. xix)
This struck me like a thunderbolt, for I was not aware that Alberti had been also the “Miss Manners” of his day, and I did not know of Del governo della famiglia, or its widespread popularity — that Alberti had taken the principles of perspectivism — the rationalisation of space and time — and had extended that into a social ethos!
Good Heavens! What a revelation that was! There was the “diffusion” I was looking for, and Bell was essentially saying here, too, that “bourgeois civilisation” and capitalism is, itself also, a perspectivist construct, also conditioned by perspectivism!
Does this signal, then, that the “eclipse of distance” that so concerns Daniel Bell, a distancing which has its roots in perspectivism and in Alberti’s social ethos based upon perspectivism, also has implications for the shrinkage of the middle class and for the meaning of “post-modernity”? It’s pretty clear, too, that Bell’s concerns with this eclipse of distance (social and psychological, if not also geographical) corresponds to Gebser’s diagnosis of the breakdown of the perspectival or mental-rational consciousness.
One riddle solved, yet another, even bigger riddle arises. And that is, what is the meaning of “the eclipse of distance”, at least for Bell who finds it disorienting, and how is this related to Gebser’s breakdown or collapse of the mental-rational, and for the prospects for capitalism and the middle-class and liberal democracies?
Those are very big questions.