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
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.