The Culture of Narcissism and the Anthropocene

If you look into the backstory for this term “Anthropocene”, you’ll find that it was coined coincident also with Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979). An Italian geologist named Antonio Stoppani even proposed an “Anthropozoic Era” as early as 1873, (so around the time Nietzsche was formulating his new philosophy, too). So, the Anthropocene has been a while in process of consolidation and in coming to our attention as the Era in which we are, and have been, living.

Culture of Narcissism and Anthropocene are conjoined themes, and if anything the chief symptom of the Kali Yuga — or spiritual Dark Age — is human narcissism. But do we really understand the meaning of narcissism at all?

In the previous Dark Age Blog, I went into this subject and history of narcissism in some depth, and also took issue with contemporary definitions of narcissism or the trivial and loose ways the term”narcissism” is bandied about these days. Even Lasch’s otherwise excellent book on the culture of narcissism has its shortcomings in that respect. My present blog The Chrysalis continues to grapple with this subject of human narcissism. It’s the theme of the quote from William Blake that graces the masthead: “For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern”. This I have referred to as the “point-of-view” consciousness. But it is also the theme of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.

The cavern and the cave also suggest themselves as metaphors for the Anthropocene itself, for it is now our milieu and our matrix. In fact, the movie The Matrix continues on the theme of Blake’s “Ulro” or Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, doesn’t it? The Matrix, too, is a contemporary parable about the culture of narcissism. And where neurologist Iain McGilchrist, in his book The Master and His Emissary, speaks of the Emissary’s “usurpation” of the Master, this “usurpation” is just another way of describing narcissism. Narcissism is simply the inevitable consequence and challenge of creatures such as ourselves that become self-aware.

So central is this theme of human narcissism in the Anthropocene that Jean Gebser pretty much opens his great book The Ever-Present Origin with reference to the myth of Narcissus and Echo, something that is very relevant, too, in this time of “echo chambers” and “filter bubbles” and the “Global Brain” (without which the Anthropocene in its present phase could not function at all). We are all now denizens of the Anthropocene (although a denizen is something quite different still from a real citizen).

As Gebser notes, the name “Narcissus” is derived from words for “sea” or “water”, and is related to words for states of unconsciousness — narcosis, for example. (The German word “Narr” — meaning “fool” — may have some connection with the name). Narcosis is immersion or submersion in the sea or ocean of obliviousness or inattention or heedlessness, as it were. Around this state of narcissism or narcosis has gathered, too, terms like “the robot” or “robopathy“, “post-historic man” (or even “post-conscious man”), the “automaton” or “the zombie”, or “the sleepwalker” and so on. These are all just various ways of describing the state of narcosis — or sleep — associated with narcissism, as is Marty Glass’s book Yuga: An Anatomy of Our Fate.

“YUGA describes five falls–the Fall into Time, the Reign of Quantity, the Mutation into Machinery, the End of Nature, and the Prison of Unreality. “

So reads the description of Glass’s book, which might be considered an important companion volume to Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism. But it is also a very good description of the characteristics of the demented and deranged Zoa and the god of this present world that Blake names “Urizen”. Urizen, in his fallen form, is simply another name for the Anthropocene. Urizen is also McGilchrist’s “Emissary”.

The Anthropocene is actually a very fortuitous coinage, since it now serves to organise those matters that, before, seemed disjoint, fragmentary, only vaguely related — the “Matrix”, the “culture of narcissism”, “post-historic man” (Lewis Mumford and Roderick Seidenberg), Yablonsk’s “robopaths”, McLuhan’s “Global Village”, Blake’s “Urizen” and the Ulro, Glass’s Yuga, as well as Aurobindo’s “Age of Subjectivism” — and much else besides — are suddenly revealed as being mutually intertwined.

My own preferred approach is to treat of the Anthropocene as the realised or manifested form of Blake’s “Urizen” and the Ulro — the architecture of Urizen’s mind. That in which we live, move, and have our being in the Anthropocene is the mind of Urizen, also called by Gebser “the mental-rational” or “perspectival” consciousness structure, but which, also, following H.G. Wells’ diagnosis, has reached “the end of its tether“.

Urizen, in his fallen form, is the very picture of narcissism, and he is the manifest structure of the Anthropocene. But if we take Blake’s Prophetic Books as a guide, it also means that the Anthropocene is the arena of Urizen’s “last stand”, as it were. The Anthropocene is also the field of struggle between Urizen and the other Zoas of the fourfold universal humanity that Blake calls “Albion” or the true Anthropos. But the real Hegemon and Arch-Narcissist of the Anthropocene is Urizen.

But if the Anthropocene is also the era of “the Global Brain”, it’s worth recalling that, for Blake, the four Zoas “reside in the Human Brain” and will, therefore, necessarily also push towards manifestation in the arena of the Anthropocene. This is also happening, and also as a necessary implication of Aurobindo’s “Age of Subjectivism” and the coming-to-be of the fourfold “Self”. 

For the interim — or what we here call “chaotic transition” — we will be stuck between Panic and Paranoia, or between “the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”, so to speak (very rich saying, that, if you know the meaning of the myth of Narcissus). “Pandaemonium”, “havoc”, “chaos”, “mayhem”, “cacophony”, “the crisis of paradox” (Bronowski) are all terms being deployed to describe what Gebser calls “the double-movement” of our times, one of decomposition, decay, and disintegration (the morbid or thanatic aspects of Urizen’s derangement) as well as the dynamic of re-integration around the fourfold, or the social and psychic ecological.

This is, in fact, occurring. There is also signal amidst the noise, and most especially in contemporary efforts to articulate a four-term or quadrilateral logic which also recognises that the Urizen of Blake’s “Single Vision” has had his day and is no longer sustainable — has become “deficient”, as Gebser describes it. There is also, in the Anthropocene, the still largely latent possibility of realising Blake’s “fourfold vision” — the integral consciousness.

For that reason, I also call the Anthropocene the “chrysalis stage”, and frequently refer readers to Augusto Cuginotti’s comments on imaginal cells in the chyrsalis stage. For Blake, the “imaginal cell” of his transmutation of Urizen is the Zoa named “Los” — the “Eternal Prophet”. Los is the only one of the four Zoas who remembers their original unity in Albion — the primeval Anthropos or “Universal Humanity” (The Upanishads, I’ve found, call this either the Purusa or the Atman).

It is helpful if we think of the current “imaginal cells” engaged in the transmutation of the Anthropocene as comparable to Blake’s three other Zoas — most especially the work of Los, who is an alchemist of sorts. But this spirit of Los is working through particular transformative agents in the Anthropocene as its own “imaginal cells”. This is what I want to turn our attention towards in the next few posts.


17 responses to “The Culture of Narcissism and the Anthropocene”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    “Nervous States” — new book by William Davis. Not a great review by the reviewer, but I imagine the book might be much better at speaking to what Gebser anticipated as “chaotic emotion”.

  2. Scott Preston says :

    Lately, I’ve been delving into the Upanishads, and I’ve noticed many parallels and correspondences between Blake’s mythology and many of the Upanishads. I would even suggest that the Upanishads are a necessary resource for any Blake studies as well.

    • Mike McDermott says :

      Max, thank you for the link.

      I have just bought your book (Kindle version)

    • Scott Preston says :

      That is an excellent essay on narcissism, Max! Thanks for the pointer. That passage from the Psalms was also something I frequently invoked in my exploration of narcissism in the earlier Dark Age Blog. I’ll have to explore your Theoria site a lot more than I have to date, too.

      (I’ve also ordered your book).

    • Scott Preston says :

      Ha! I had planned this morning on continuing on this theme of the culture of narcissism in the Anthropocene by drawing upon Hervey Kleckley’s The Mask of Sanity, and how the Anthropocene generally comes wearing this “mask of sanity”, and I was going to draw on my own experience as a scuba diver as a metaphor for the deep dive into the riptides, undercurrents, undertows that circulate in the ocean as even something less powerful than those that characterise the human psychic constitution.

      But my intentions to publish something on the Mask of Sanity in the Anthropocene were side-tracked by my diving right into your book, and there I find the “Ocean” metaphor, the tides, and currents, already!

      My interest in bringing in Kleckley followed from a conversation I had yesterday with someone who insisted they were quite “rational”, whereas I could see that their “rationality” was just a thin veneer or patina driven by some very irrational and chaotic emotional currents just below the surface of their rationality. That’s what brought Kleckley’s “mask of sanity” to mind, and extending that to the Anthropocene at large — it’s own “mask of sanity” (the countenance of Urizen) being little more than like a cork bobbing up and down upon the surface of an ocean of riptides, currents, undertows, etc, and bringing in my own experience as a diver.

      Now I have to figure out how to bring this into the conversation on the Anthropocene without it sounding derivative!

      (Great book by the way, Max. At least… to the point I’ve read so far).

      • Max Leyf says :

        Thank you for the kind words.

        Does “soul” relate to “sea” in a analogous manner to the way that “spirit” relates to “breath/respiration?” The latter is Latin and the former is Germanic, and “Seele” is German for “soul.”

        • Scott Preston says :

          and breath/inspiration to the wind or pneuma? And how the twelve winds of the compass rose relate to Rosenstock-Huessy’s essay on the “twelve tones of the spirit” (in I Am An Impure Thinker, which is available online).

          German Seele seems pretty closely related, too, to der See or die See — lake or sea.

          Speaking of names, did you know that the name “Dionysus” means “he of the trees”? Actually the god of Nysus, which is a mountain, but the name of the mountain is derived from the word for “tree”. This makes Dionysus equivalent to “the Green Man”. From Wikipedia…

          “he cult of Dionysus was closely associated with trees, specifically the fig tree, and some of his bynames exhibit this, such as Endendros “he in the tree” or Dendritēs, “he of the tree”. Peters suggests the original meaning as “he who runs among the trees”, or that of a “runner in the woods”. Janda (2010) accepts the etymology but proposes the more cosmological interpretation of “he who impels the (world-)tree”. This interpretation explains how Nysa could have been re-interpreted from a meaning of “tree” to the name of a mountain: the axis mundi of Indo-European mythology is represented both as a world-tree and as a world-mountain”

  3. InfiniteWarrior says :


  4. Scott Preston says :

    Jeremy Johnson (a subscriber) interviewed on The Daily Evolver about Gebser’s cultural philosophy and structures of consciousness. Very good.

  5. Scott Preston says :

    A profile of the Global Brain — at least, its thanatic pole. Pretty fair assessment of the ravages wrought by the Global Brain (or maybe global brainlessness rather?) by Ryan Broderick at Buzzfeed

    Of course, you still have to put the query why so many are attracted by and to the thanatic, the destructive, or the dark side or the Shadow or Mordor or Oblivion- — however you wish to describe it. There seems to be something quite self-destructive in it. Much orcery is afoot, as it were.

  6. Mike McDermott says :

    I am now in a hotel in Kabul which intelligence sources say may be the present target of Taliban suicide bombers. So if I stop posting for a week or so, you will know why. That would be O.K.; nobody lives forever, but some have truly lived, and I am one who has.

    Yesterday I came across this quote from Mumford: “Religion concerns itself with the reaction of man in his wholeness to the whole that embraces him”, which I traced to p. 90 of The Conduct of Life (1952). Then a few hours ago this morning I found the quotes below from pp. 118-119. In 1952, Mumford was talking about the dangers of a nuclear conflagration. Now, we have that, the massacres up to and beyond species extinctions of millions of our fellow creatures, climate change, the poisoning of the planet, the ascendancy of the worst in us, all trumpeted and empowered through megamachines, and all to awaken us to the urgency of transformation as Mumford describes below:

    On this view, then, religion is no bedraggled survival from the past, soon to be completely discarded through the advance of positive science. Traditional religion will, rather, be the source of fresh mutations, proceeding from older formulas to more active methods of investigation, experiment, self-observation, utilizing aspects of life and personality that science too long has disdained.
    Religion concerns itself with the reaction of man in his wholeness to the whole that embraces him. Instead of abandoning religion as science extends the province of objective description, we must rather increase its scope, so that our subjective contributions will be as adequate and as disciplined as our objective descriptions. The de-spiritualization of the world — the withdrawal of projections, as Jung calls it — has not brought us closer to reality, but has shut out that aspect of reality which only the fully developed human person with a rich subjective life can cope with. As a result of this process, we have not simply undermined our sense of the divine: we have rather embraced it in an inverted and debased form by giving a fuller scope to the demonic. When the god in him is repressed, the half-gods and devils take possession of man….

    No matter how efficacious the example of Buddha or Jesus may have been, we cannot put our faith in renewal by a similar process; or rather, though the process itself may be similar, the time in which it operates must be abbreviated. How can this be done? By looking, not for a single transforming agent, but for millions upon millions of them, in every walk of society, in every country: a democratic transformation, dispersed and widespread, to replace those centralized and authoritarian images which would today, under our current nihilism, be either ineffectual or tyrannous.

    Let us confess it: such a change has never yet taken place in the past. But the conditions which now make this kind of change imperative have never existed either: the extent of the catastrophe that threatens gives the measure of the transformation that will be necessary in order to master it. But the fact that there are no favorable historic precedents is not, for the philosophy advanced in these pages, an unclimbable barrier: we have learned nothing valuable about man’s nature and destiny unless we have learned that man holds, in far larger degree than the physical universe, the possibility of continuous creation. Thanks to the very form our institutions and machines have taken

    with our multifold channels of communication, millions of minds are now aware of man’s dilemma and awakened to the danger that threatens all life. if they are not fully awakened today, they may be roused — even to the point of action — tomorrow.

    This fact perhaps makes possible the change of attitude and purpose that will halt the processes of disintegration before they have reached the critical point where they can no longer be controlled. Though no one mind can impart his own dynamic of renewal to a world that is now radically endangered by its paranoia, its incapacity to foster love, a wholesale quickening of many minds might restore the collective balance. If but one person in ten were fully awakened today, fully capable – of exercising his higher centers of intelligence and morality, the fatal processes that we have set in motion could be arrested, and. a new direction set.

    On that possibility, mankind’s security and salvation now seem to hang. The task of the individual Messiah of the past now devolves equally on all men: likewise the burden of sacrifice

    • Scott Preston says :

      Kabul, eh? Live dangerously?

      “This fact perhaps makes possible the change of attitude and purpose that will halt the processes of disintegration before they have reached the critical point where they can no longer be controlled. Though no one mind can impart his own dynamic of renewal to a world that is now radically endangered by its paranoia, its incapacity to foster love, a wholesale quickening of many minds might restore the collective balance. If but one person in ten were fully awakened today, fully capable – of exercising his higher centers of intelligence and morality, the fatal processes that we have set in motion could be arrested, and. a new direction set.”

      We are very, very close to this point of runaway disintegration now. One can reflect on Mumford’s meaning here in relation to the stresses of the centrifugal force and the centripetal force — or the entropic and the neg-entropic forces — and here, again, we encounter that “10%” rule in Mumford that I wrote about earlier. It’s quite mysterious why it should be so, but it seems to hold across culture and cultures that you don’t need a majority — 10% of the population is enough to neutralise the effects or stabilise the culture of the 90%. I keep coming across this “1 in 10” rule in different places.

      • Scott Preston says :

        This 1 -in- 10 rule (an apparent rule) should be heartening. It means, really, there is no symmetry in the cosmos between what we call “the good” and what we call “the evil”. I think this may well be what Nietzsche referred to as “the shepherds” — his idea of the aristocratic (which, I think, he took from Emerson and Meister Eckhardt – the ideal of the “oversoul”). Nothing to do with social hierarchies or classes. This, also, it seems is what Mumford is referring to or the idea of “the cultural creatives” (Paul Ray: also follows a 10% rule). That means, 10% of the global population is enough to generate a kind of spiritual “field of force” to counteract the nihilistic or thanatic or negative dynamic.

        That should be encouraging.

      • Scott Preston says :

        O yes… the 10% rule also occurs in the Seth material, so it’s strange to find it also in Mumford and Ray also. I think of this 10% in terms of Max’s “honeybees of the invisible”, too.

        • InfiniteWarrior says :

          Just a cautionary note regarding the “1 in 10 rule.” I wasn’t going to say anything, but it’s going to stew somewhere until I do.

          As we’re obviously in the habit of thinking of persons as “cultural creatives,” it might behoove us to revisit some of the cultural metaphors alluding to this “rule,” e.g. “the 144,000″ of Christianity, lest we come to think something other than our “true selves” “cultural creatives,” if you get my meaning.

  7. Scott Preston says :

    Here’s an article about Ray’s “Cultural Creatives” and its characteristics and values. It looks to be close to the description of Gebser’s integral consciousness.

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