Ulro and the Sea of Symbolic Forms

As mentioned earlier, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time on the German websites following social, political, and cultural developments there. (I have a particular interest in Germany because I studied there.) One of the great advantages of knowing another language is that you come to see how spatial and temporal relations — reality in other words — are configured differently. These configurations (or “Gestalts“) are what Owen Barfield calls “the collective representations”, or what we would call “images”, social or mental representations or symbolic forms. These symbolic forms or collective representations are governed by a grammar, which specifies who they are to relate to one another. A grammar imposes coherence on the symbolic forms or collective representations. This sea of symbolic forms in which we live is sometimes referred to as “the social imaginary” or “the social construction of reality”. Rudolf Steiner refers to these collective representations or symbolic forms as “mental pictures”.

These symbolic forms or collective representations typically constitute what we mean by the word “reality”. The directive that guides the Phenomenologists — “to the things themselves!” — expresses something of this frustration with the shroud or veil that the symbolic forms, mental pictures or collective representations or images interpose between our perception and reality. The father of Phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, attempted to work out a method by which our perception could penetrate the collective representations through suspending or “bracketing” the representations in order to perceive reality as it is immediately rather than mediated by the symbolic forms.

It is the sea of symbolic forms/collective representations that constitute a “structure of consciousness”, in Jean Gebser’s terms. We must not think of a structure of consciousness — in his terms, the archaic, the magical, the mythical, and the mental-rational — as a purely subjective matter. A “structure of consciousness” is best thought of as a field, a matrix, or, analogously, a sea, and the creatures that dwell in that sea are the symbolic forms or collective representations.

A fool sees not the same tree as the wise man sees — William Blake, “The Proverbs of Hell”

The collective representations are sometimes also referred to as “intentional objects”. That is to say they are “intended” or determined by the act of perception itself. For the greater part of our lives we don’t actually interact with “reality” at all, but only with the collective representations of reality or the symbolic forms or mental pictures which interpose themselves between our consciousness and our reality. This pertains to what Iain McGilchrist calls the “Emissary’s usurpation”. We mistake the collective representations or mental pictures for reality. This is what Blake also refers to as “Ulro” or the Shadow world, and also what is called “the veil of Maya”. Day in and day out we uphold our picture of the world, and the collective representations, through our internalised monologues that we conduct with ourselves. As Castaneda’s don Juan once put it to him, we go to bed at night telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like, and we wake up in the morning telling ourselves who we are and what our world is like. It’s the story we tell ourselves that upholds Ulro, but most especially our sense of identity.

So, for truth-seekers, stopping this internal monologue or inner voice that upholds our identity and our “worldview” is the most important strategy for coming to perceive ourselves and our reality as we really are. But that implies, too, that McGilchrist’s “Emissary” is also one of these symbolic forms, mental pictures, or collective representations with which we have become overidentified. In fact, we refer to it as “the self-image” in recognition of the fact that it is only a mental picture we have of ourselves, but one which we are desperate to cling to.

It seems a simple matter to understand, then, what Jean Gebser means by “the transparency of the world”. We and our world are opaque to each other as long as the symbolic forms/collective representations aren’t transparent. This opacity of the world is the real “solipsism”. When the great Sufi poet and mystic Rumi writes that “the whole universe is a form of truth”, he’s attesting to what Gebser also calls “diaphaneity” or the “transparency of the world” — the universe as it is when the veil of Maya is lifted.

The symbolic forms may be more or less faithful to the reality they symbolise. But their fidelity can only be determined when they become transparent as symbols or collective representations. Most propagandas have based themselves, until recently, upon manipulating the collective representations/symbolic forms subtlely altering our sense of what is “real”. Lately, though, newer techniques of propaganda or perception management have tried to go right to the source — manipulating perception or the collective imagination itself, or, more specifically, with the intentionality implicit in the act of perception. Social media and “the Global Brain” have made this, in some respects, infinitely easier than the “mass media”.

There is, of course, an analogy to be made between social media and the road system of the Roman Empire. The road network that the Romans built did indeed allow them to subdue and conquer vast territories for their Empire. But it was also this same network of roads that allowed the Goths and Vandals to invade and sack Rome. This sobering analogy should be kept in mind when we speak today of “the collapse of reality” too. And while the destruction of the Roman Empire was emancipating in many respects, it also ushered in a new centuries long Dark Age as well.

Now, some people dispute whether there was a “Great European Dark Age” at all, although that really overlooks the fact of widespread lawlessness, warlordism, banditry, feudalism, fortifications and even fortified monasteries. At the same time, though, it was a time of incubation of a new consciousness as well — a departure from tribalism and the pagan world. In fact, the remote and fortified monasteries of Europe into which so many people took refuge in the Dark Ages, are the spitting image of the chrysalis stage, and it was in these structures that emergent consciousness was being prepared and incubated. And it’s for this same reason that many people today are also calling for secular versions of the monastic orders, not just to preserve the accomplishments of the past, but to prepare the future.

An influential example of that from literature is Herman Hesse’s Magister Ludi. But one of my own advisers at university commended the idea of such “secular monasteries” as assurance against what he believed was an impending total breakdown of civilisation in a new Dark Age as well, which was long before the anyone took the threat of an impending new Dark Age very seriously, a theme that, ironically, began to increasingly crop up coincident with Fukuyama’s announcement of “the end of history”! (Among others, Jane Jacobs, Morris Berman, William Irwin Thompson, Thomas Frank, etc have all written something about the perils of a new Dark Age. In some areas of the world, it is already their reality. And, in any case, such versions of “secular monasteries” already exist in pockets of the global internet).

In any event, the symbolic forms or collective representations cannot be adequately described in terms of “subject” or “object”, since they are both and neither. They belong to the “field” concept, but could be described as the “shadow forms” of the real, and much can be learned about them through works like Owen Barfield’s, or an unjustly neglected but quite insightful sociologist named Hugh Duncan Dalziel, author of Symbols in Society and Communication and Social Order. In fact, Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man is also an exploration of the collective representations, as is Robert Romanyshyn’s Technology as Symptom & Dream. (Another is Kenneth Burke and his theory of “Dramatism“).

This approach fits well with a definition of man once given by S.I. Hiyakawa, that man is “the symbol using, symbol abusing animal” or, optionally, “homo grammaticus” (Jeremy Campbell).

In such terms, then, it is easy to appreciate why Yogananda, in his Autobiography of a Yogi, could say that to arrive at the root of language — at the place from which speech originates — is the same as enlightenment. That place is what Gebser calls “the ever-present origin”, coincident with what the “speech thinker” Rosenstock-Huessy is also referring to when he states that “God is the power that makes us speak”. It is also called “the centre of the voice” by my Sioux friends, which is coincident with what Gebser calls “the vital centre”. And if you have watched Jill Bolte-Taylor’s TED talk on her “Stroke of Insight“, there should be no difficulty in realising what all this is referring to.

Bolte-Taylor’s stroke is, indeed, a beautiful example of what happens with the “collapse of reality”, ie, the suspension or breakdown of the collective representations or McGilchrist’s “Emissary” mode of attention, when “the symbol using and abusing” functions of her brain were inhibited. She grew expansive, a formless awareness “gliding through a sea of silent euphoria”, as she put it, identical with the “Life Force Power of the Universe” and “all that is”. In fact, to have to return to the confinement of her “tiny little body” and smaller identity was quite evidently painful for her, although with a completely new and transformed attitude to life. Her experience (which was also my own experience) makes all small, petty, and narrow concerns with “identity” seem pitiable. In effect, Bolte-Taylor had become transparent to herself.

The tranparency of the world and the tranparency of the self are the same issue. And perhaps this will have to come likewise as it came for Bolte-Taylor — as a shattering experience.



2 responses to “Ulro and the Sea of Symbolic Forms”

  1. mikemackd says :

    At the risk of sounding like an ageing hippie, “right on”. Perhaps sadly, man, I was never a hippie, mannnn.

    But seriously, this post is an example of what I was saying to Don before about when I quote here: “I agree with them, and credit them for saying it before me and better than I can.”

    I’m not familiar with Hugh Duncan Dalziel: next stop, Google.

  2. Charles Leiden says :

    Good writing. I agree with Mike. One can understand ideas without being able to articulate them.

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