Nihilism: The Dynamics of Self-Negation

I’ve frequently suggested that what I refer to as “ironic reversal” is one of the chief characteristics of the post-modern condition (or “chaotic transition” if you prefer), and that ironic reversal is otherwise known in phrases like “unintended consequence”, “revenge effect”, “blowback”, “perverse outcome”, “reversal of fortune”, and so on. Another way to describing ironic reversal is in terms of a dynamics of self-negation or self-discrediting — the dynamics of an era and its civilisation that is now in process of discrediting itself and negating itself, which we summarily describe by the term “nihilism”. What is being referred to as “New Normal” is this process.

What I call our “four riders of the apocalypse” as chief features of the New Normal — Double-Talk, Double-Think, Double-Standard, Double-Bind, or those matters which we refer to more generally as “duplicity” or “hypocrisy” — are more generally dynamics of self-negation. Nietzsche described that thanatic or nihilistic dynamic more succinctly as “all higher values devalue themselves”. The creed or credo discredits itself.

Carl Jung, in homage to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, coined the term “enantiodromia” to describe the dynamics of reversal or self-negation. At the extremity of any action the action turns into its opposite and becomes its own self-negation or self-contradiction, and this is essentially what Heraclitus describes in his often misunderstood paradox that “the road up and the road down are the same”. Everything becomes a paradox. Everything becomes ambiguous. Everything equivocates. In popular speech it is expressed by the statement “not knowing whether we’re coming or going”.

This Heraclitean paradox is also expressed in Jean Gebser’s description of “the double-movement” of our chaotic transition — a process of disintegration and a process of integration. When some people use the term “turning point” or “omega point” what that really describes is what we might call “peak enantiodromia” where the dynamic reaches its maximum polarisation and maximum of stress and tension. That’s the point where we say “something’s got to give”, but we are in suspense as to what. “The social volcano”, as Rosenstock-Huessy once described it.

When Marshall Berman published his book All That is Solid Melts Into Air in the early 80s, with it’s main theme that “everything is pregnant with its contrary”, he was sniffing out that dynamic. The times then were not peak enantiodromia but “pregnant” with it. There were quite a number of books, in fact, written in the late 70s and 80s that anticipated the looming disaster, including Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and the theme of “diminishing expectations”. Narcissism and neediness in the context of diminishing expectations is an explosive combination.

Jung’s “enantiodromia” dynamic is implicated, too, in Gebser’s “double-movement”. Many people have really become channels for this strange milieu. It’s what Gebser describes as “distantiation” (or alienation) from the vital centre in his comparison of the deficient mode of the mental-rational in its collectivist and individualistic manifestations,

“Today, at least in Western civilization, both modes survive only as deteriorated and consequently dubious variants. This is evident from the sociological and anthropological questions currently discussed in the Occidental forum; only questions that are unresolved are discussed with the vehemence characteristic of these discussions. The current situation manifests on the one hand an egocentric individualism exaggerated to extremes and desirous of.possessing everything, while on the other it manifests an equally extreme collectivism that promises the total fulfillment of man‘s being. In the latter instance we find the utter abnegation of the individual valued merely as an object in the human aggregate; in the former a hyper-valuation of the individual who, despite his limitations, is permitted everything. This deficient, that is destructive, antithesis divides the world into two warring camps, not just politically and ideologically,but in all areas of human endeavor. Since these two ideologies are now pressing toward their limits we can assume that neither can prevail in the long run. When any movement tends to the extremes it leads away from the center or nucleus toward eventual destruction at the outer limits where the connections to the life-giving center finally are severed. It would seem that today the connections are already broken, for it is increasingly evident that the individual is being driven into isolation while the collective degenerates into mere aggregation. These two conditions, isolation and aggregation, are in fact clear indications that individualism and collectivism have now become deficient.” — “Fundamental Considerations“, The Ever-Present Origin

Now, another aspect of the deficiency (ie decadence) of the mental-rational consciousness, related to this, is its tendency to think in dualisms, characteristic of the Cartesian mind and mentality, or what today we refer to as “binary thinking”. Gebser uses the term “compartmentalisation” (or “sectoralisation”) to describe this. It belongs to the Jekyll-and-Hyde syndrome or, expressed in terms of popular speech, “the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing”. Mental or psychic compartmentalisation means two or more aspects of our own nature and being are isolated and segregated from one another, resulting in self-contradiction. Compartmentalisation is another term for disintegration, in other words, and is the real problem that is implicated in “denialism”. Compartmentalisation is the Ego and Shadow problem. In fact, Blake’s mythology of his “four Zoas”, in their mutually warring, disintegrate state, is this same problem of mental or psychic compartmentalisation — the inner schism, and this inner schism is, in turn, related to what Iain McGilchrist describes as the “Emissary’s usurpation” of the psychic economy and household in his fine book The Master and His Emissary.

This compartmentalisation of the mind that leads to self-contradiction and self-negation (duplicity in other words) is actually the paradox or poles of the enantiodromia dynamic, and what distinguishes self-contradiction from paradox is precisely this matter of compartmentalisation. And it is against such compartmentalisation or dichotomisation and schism of consciousness that Rumi speaks in his poem “Shadow and Light Source Both”

How does a part of the world leave the world?
How does wetness leave water?

Dont’ try to put out fire by throwing on
more fire! Don’t wash a wound with blood.

No matter how fast you run, your shadow
keeps up. Sometimes it’s in front!

Only full overhead sun diminishes your shadow.
But that shadow has been serving you.

What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is
your candle. Your boundaries are your quest.

I could explain this, but it will break the
glass cover on your heart, and there’s no
fixing that.

You must have shadow and light source both.
Listen, and lay your head under the tree of awe.

When from that tree feathers and wings sprout on you,
be quieter than a dove. Don’t even open your mouth for
even a coo.

Discernment isn’t the same as compartmentalisation. “Healing the soul” is really a matter of transcending or overcoming this compartmentalisation through insight into the meaning of the paradoxical. But when we say that someone “talks the big talk but doesn’t walk the big walk” or when someone “doesn’t say what they mean or mean what they say”, at root is this issue of compartmentalisation, and this is very much epidemic today. The principle of complementarity or “coincidence of the opposites”, especially in the Hermetic Philosophy, is intended to transform this self-destructive dualism/compartmentalisation into a consciousness of polarity and paradox, just as Rumi describes. And if Nietzsche thought that understanding freezes action, (and that this is implicated in his thoughts on “beyond good and evil”), it is very much the same issue.

At the heart of any really new and vital science or social philosophy is the recognition that we are all very paradoxical beings living in a very paradoxical universe. And that means this “either/or” or dualistic logic expressive of our own inner compartmentalisation and schism, is obsolete thinking.

Paradox belongs to a higher order of thinking and logic. Self-contradiction to a lower order of thinking and logic. To put it in Blake’s terms, Albion is born when the compartmentalisation of the four Zoas is transcended, not in or as a “synthesis”, but as an authentic integration.

More to say on this problem of compartmentalisation later.

22 responses to “Nihilism: The Dynamics of Self-Negation”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    One of many examples of a civilisation in the process of negating itself.

    This is not at all a conscious process, but an example, too, of compartmentalisation, because it insists it is doing the exact opposite of what it is, in factuality, doing.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Not a day goes by but….

    What is wrong with this picture?

    You have Biden assembling a transatlantic council of men like Tony Blair and Canada’s Stephen Harper to defend liberal democracy?! Harper was one of the worst offenders when it came to dog-whistle politics! And Blair — a defender of democracy? It’s cynical. Harper himself was accused of having fascist tendencies.

    This is what I mean by institutions discredting themselves.

  3. mikemackd says :

    Here is a warning by a whistleblower about the lies that led us into the Iraq war who is now a member of the Australian parliament. He is warning about impending legislation demonstrative of such obsolete thinking / compartmentalisation by the Australian government:

    It seems it is not enough for big brother to be watching you; the watchers are to be watched, too, and if they display any responsibility to life or even their fellow humans where their role in the megachine is to dominate, deceive or destroy it all, they are to be incarcerated for decades.

    Australia’s Prime Minister is a Goldman Sachs alumni. Does that mean that he should be compartmentalised as such, with other such, like Steve Bannon? Hell, no, but it is a sign of where his allegiances may lie.

    For example, as far as I am aware there was no whistleblower back when the alleged report linked below was written. It was about big oil knowing the danger of its triggering climate change.

    It seems government these days is all about deceiving the citizens into thinking they are OK while all the world’s wealth, not just theirs, is being siphoned off to the one percent of the one percent. Surely if there had been a whistleblower at the time of the report linked below, under this impending legislation as reported in the link above, those magic words, “national security” would have been uttered?

    Everyone would have said “oooo”, stood to attention, saluted, closed their minds and the compartment’s door, and the whistleblower would have been put away for 25 years.

    On the other hand, if there had been a whistleblower, would we have been able to start tackling climate change decades ago?

    We do, after all, live in Philip Bobbitt’s so-called “market states”, in which big brother is big business’s bum boy, and both are watching you. The market state as a police state: go figure.

    Well, Scott, you have: it’s part and parcel of the dynamics of self-negation.

    • Scott Preston says :

      “national security” is very often no more than a pretense by power elites to secure and extend their power. Behind the “national interest” are often very clearly perceivable interests of certain power elites. All pretty much planned out in Edward Bernay’s 1928 book Propaganda.

    • mikemackd says :

      >> It seems government these days is all about deceiving the citizens into thinking they are OK while all the world’s wealth, not just theirs, is being siphoned off to the one percent of the one percent.

      I went to Facebook after posting the above and found this linked by Nancy Roof of Kosmos magazine. She suggests it could have triggered the USA’s withdrawal from the Human Rights Council:

      • Scott Preston says :

        I’m of the opinion that Niki Haley’s announcement of US withdrawl from the UN Human Rights Council because of an alleged “cesspool of political bias” is probably a ruse, a cover for Trump to withdraw from the UN conventions of human rights more generally.

        Ever since the neo-cons announced that “the gloves come off”, and proved it with black sites, Gitmo, rehabilitation of torture, and Abu Ghraib, among other things, there has been a steady erosion of respect for human rights or for any principles of universality whatsoever. It would be consistent with Trump’s current behaviour that he would consider withdrawing from the UN Human Rights Conventions completely. And I think he’s just prepping the public to accept it as a fait accompli.

        • Scott Preston says :

          In fact, to confess, I had Niki Haley in mind, too, when I wrote up this piece on mental “compartmentalisation”

          • Scott Preston says :

            Joe Biden now comes a close second in terms of “compartmentalisation”. His selection of luminaries for his “transatlantic council” to save liberal democracy is a joke. These guys helped pave the way for the Trumps of the world, and practiced their own forms of demagoguery and dog-whistle politics. Harper even cut off any flow of refugees from Syria until Trudeau re-instated the Canadian asylum and refugee policy. And both Harper and Blair themselves were accused of having fascistic tendencies, and they are among the least popular politicians in their respective countries — the UK and Canada.

            So what is Biden thinking? He seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel to find his “champions” of democracy! That in itself is pretty revealing.

            In fact, all Trudeau has to do is mention Harper’s name and his sagging polling numbers go back up.

        • Scott Preston says :

          It’s true, of course, that there is a migration crisis — some 68 million people displaced and on the move; more than since the Second World War, and the world is not handling it very well or intelligently. It’s part of that “havoc” that Peter Pogany anticipated in his book Havoc Thy Name is Twenty-First Century.

          There was quite a few articles on the migration crisis in today’s Guardian, along with a statement about the need to get “to the root” of it — addressing the conditions of insecurity in the source countries themselves.

    • mikemackd says :

      >> Australia’s Prime Minister is a Goldman Sachs alumni. Does that mean that he should be compartmentalised as such, with other such, like Steve Bannon? Hell, no, but it is a sign of where his allegiances may lie.

      Again from Facebook, I just learnt that in the Australian parliament’s question time yesterday Australia’s Prime Minister was asked how it was fair that an imminent tax cut would deliver $7,000 to a rich person and $10 per week to an aged care worker. His answer was that it should inspire the aged care worker to get a better job.

      His net worth is well into nine figures.

      It’s his “let them eat cake” moment. After all, here in Oz you can buy quite a nice cake for $10. One a week, in fact. Or even five scones, but not the jam, butter, or cream. There you go, then; he’s saving them from developing heart disease..

      Aged care workers: such a selfish, ungrateful lot.

      • Scott Preston says :

        They truly believe in the power of “market forces” to resolve all contradictions and inequities — almost as a panacea (and that’s magical thinking in itself), and that despite the obvious proof that it does no such thing. Yes. That’s an example of compartmentalisation, and that’s what lies at the root of much duplicity.

        That, too, brings to mind a scene from The Game of Thrones, when the timid Janos Slynt denies that there are any such thing as giants even as he’s looking directly at one.

  4. InfiniteWarrior says :

    this is very much epidemic today

    Only among so-called “thought leadership” of all kinds in all places, as per usual, imho.

    True, there is much work to be done in transforming our institutions from purveyors and supporters of the “mental-rational consciousness structure” (as our religions and social sciences, et al, obviously have failed us on that score), but even there, the transformation is in its infancy, at least, with everyone from students of Economics to the many local and regional initiatives of which we’re aware now questioning and confronting the “status quo” and offering up environmentally and socially just alternatives to it, along with “presencing” activities, et al.

    Such transformations won’t happen overnight — especially with few to any “institutions” supporting them — but, as my favorite saying of yours goes, “Our institutions will be the last to change.” (Seriously, I have to get that embroidered.)

    As I see it, we can “wail and gnash our teeth” for “all eternity” at what’s going on in the so-called “Halls of Power” or we can put our energies to better use ushering in new “structures” in our own lives and those of our friends, relatives and neighbors where we are, while still keeping an eye on those self-same institutions. (Same “task,” essentially, as it has always been.)

    Our choice.

    I choose to put my energies to work elsewhere. This subject is spent and well past its own expiration date, as evidenced by the many (and growing) criticisms of “post-modernism” itself. (My goodness! “Post-modernists” do go on…and on…and on…. Ad infinitum. World without end.)

    It’s been real. Keep on keeping on! I will forever cherish the many book recommendations and introductions to “new thought” and historical cultural observations, especially those of Gebser, Mumford and Rosenstock-Huessy, et al.

    • Scott Preston says :

      When Fukuyama pronounced his “end of history” and much of the MSM jumped on the bandwagon and went along with his triumphalism, I was astonished by this myopia that couldn’t see it was about to be side-swiped by the same forces that undid the USSR. Hardly anyone saw that the same forces that undid the USSR were at work here, too, and in exactly the ways foreseen by Gebser decades ago.

      So, now it has become completely evident, and everyone’s perplexed because they still don’t understand the forces at work here. Still myopic (Gebser’s “deficient perspectivisation”) and therefore still headed for a fall.

      If you really want to know what the immediate future is going to look like, with modern institutions being discredited or discrediting themselves, you just have to look at Putin’s Russia. There’s the intersection and the rationale for the convergence of interests between oligarchs with plutocrats.

      • Scott Preston says :

        It is ironic, of course, that America’s future (maybe the West’s future) is being planned and designed in Russia, with the active collaboration of much the citizenry (and not just the Trumpies). But that’s the implication of all this.

      • InfiniteWarrior says :

        The Roman Empire fell, too. And yet, somehow, some way…we’re still here to talk about it. Imagine that.

        • Scott Preston says :

          Brings to mind Samwell Tarly’s dialogue with the Archmeister in The Game of Thrones about the coming of “The Long Night” and the Archmeister’s response.

          But, as of season 7 anyway, The Wall fell.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    While I’ve offered some examples here of compartmentalisation, probably the most egregious example is the climate change denialism, and how some of the people who accept that the Sixth Extinction Event is anthropogenic will deny it when it comes to climate, as if you could in fact segregate these things, both of which are features of the “Anthropocene”. Anthropocene, climate change, and extinction event can’t be separated. But quite a few people do just that. It’s very schizoid.

    Another egregious example is the tendency to treat environment and economy as separate issues as well, and that seems to be a pernicious legacy influence stemming from Cartesian metaphysical “mind-body” dualism.

  6. Scott Preston says :

    Observing the crowd behaviour at some of Trump’s rallies, it’s hard not to conclude that these MAGA people have become slavish puppets of Trump’s will. That encourages Trump to be even more willful, more arbitrary, more arrogant — as “the Great and Powerful Oz”. He feeds on that, and ironically, these MAGA people may push him towards his downfall, his Nemesis — the proverbial “bridge too far”.

  7. Scott Preston says :

    Important article taking a more holistic (“omnigenic”) approach to genetics, rather than the atomic approach. Another example of a shift in thrinking.

  8. Scott Preston says :

    As we discussed earlier in regards to transition towns and the “city state” model, something of a neglected undercurrent is the subject of this article on “New Localism” from the BBC (although this one is about America).

  9. InfiniteWarrior says :

    Very interesting essay by Paul Kingsnorth: A Storm Blown from Paradise

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