Aperspectivity and Proprioception, II

We have been exploring what Heraclitus may have meant by the term “ethos” (and particularly ethos as fate), and in yesterday’s post I suggested that the ethos of modernity has its roots in the invention of perspectivism in the Renaissance. Perspectivism suggested a whole new metaphysics and a new attitude towards our reality that we may fairly say represented a complete restructuration of consciousness and perception — the structure we refer to as the “mental-rational” or “perspectival” consciousness which is now (in our “post-modern condition”) under great stress and in great distress. This is coincident with the “Anthropocene”.

The history of the emergence of perspective consciousness is a truly engaging and instructive example of an age in transition, from the experiments of the first scientist-monk, Roger Bacon, in optics, through Petrarch and Giotto, Brunelleschi and Alberti, Michelangeo, Dürer, and Leonardo. It was a truly great event in human history that unleashed some quite remarkable powers of imagination and creativity. Much of the history of this innovation has been covered by Jean Gebser in his book The Ever-Present Origin. Not everything is covered in Gebser, though, but only enough of the period to support his thesis of civilisations as “structures of consciousness” and the Modern Mind as a development out of Renaissance perspectivism.

Our contemporary vocabulary still pays homage to this period when we use phrases such as “keeping things in perspective” or “point-of-view” or “framing” or “line-of-thought” or holding a “viewpoint”. The new attitude derived from perspectivism emphasised a certain distancing, an objectification, a certain detachment in order to “put things in perspective”. To view a perspective painting without distortion and with its illusion of depth required assuming a certain viewpoint. Maybe you have even been to an art gallery and observed people manoeuvring themselves before a painting in order to find the proper point-of-view in order to view the painting “realistically”.

This new attitude of distancing is quite different from what preceded it in ecclesiastical art where the emphasis is on immersion and immersiveness — to draw the viewer into the narrative depicted in the painting. That might even be said to be the chief difference between Renaissance and Medieval Art. The Renaissance perspective artist was interested in painting “naturalistically” or “according to nature”, while the Medieval artist was more interested in narrative. For the Medieval artist, space, as such, and rendering space visible is almost completely irrelevant to his purposes, whereas the Renaissance perspective artist was obsessed with making space visible and in a proper ratio or proportion of length, width, and depth, so that emphasis shifts from narrative to geometry and mathematics.

I am quite confident in saying that without the invention and gradual perfection of perspectivism, there would have been no Copernicus and no Scientific Revolution. The work of the perspective artists to paint “according to nature” paved the way for that new objective attitude that made for science. Leon Battista Alberti’s mathematical formulations for perspective (subsequently improved upon by da Vinci) and for rendering space and spatial relations visible preceded Copernicus’s de Revolutionibus by exactly one century. Notably, the great historian and philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn (author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) observed in his biography of Copernicus that he could not see how Copernicus could have envisioned his heliocentric theory and new model of the cosmos without knowledge of perspective.

Concomitant with this new attitude to space and nature, though, was an intensification of the sense of self, especially self as one thing, world as another. This is reflected in the cultural productions of the time — a rage for self-portrait, for biography and autobiography, for mirrors. It’s almost as if the “I” was discovering itself for the first time and was overwhelmed by it. Gebser pays particular attention to this sudden intensification of self-consciousness in his description of Petrarch’s ascent of Mt. Ventoux. Petrarch initially even experiences this intensification of self-consciousness in relation to the vista of space as sinful, even as a crime.

So, one of the unintended consequences of perspectivisation was what we now call “egoism” and a radical division between Self and World that became even the implicit subject-object metaphysics of modernity, very pronounced in Galileo and Descartes, for example. And another of the consequences of perspectivism was, along with the reification of the “point-of-view”, was the primacy of “the rational self-interest”, which seems clearly derived also from perspectivism. Perspectivisation also led to a complete social and political ethos.

Now, for all sorts of reasons (more or less subsumed in the phrase “collapse of reality”) this mode of perception we call “perspectival” or “mental-rational” has been breaking down and fragmenting and becoming incoherent. The rendering of space visible as a three-dimensional reality, which made the mastery of space possible and has resulted in the remarkable technological and scientific progress of the Modern Age, was also a Faustian bargain. We have addressed some of those reasons for this breakdown in earlier posts. Blake saw it before Nietzsche in his mythology of the rise and fall of Urizen, who may be fairly described as the god of the Age of Reason — or rather, the god of “Single Vision” which was always the latent danger of perspectivism (which also appears in Jacques Ellul’s critical sociology of the technological system as the “one best way” of doing anything). For what it’s worth, the “collapse of reality”, the post-modern “end of the Master Narrative”, and the fall of Urizen are one and the same process, and pretty much all describe the history of the last century, but which we have also characterised as being a “return of the repressed” both as cause and consequence, and for both good and ill.

This “return of the repressed” is the flip-side of the “collapse of reality” and end of the Master Narrative, and it is paradoxical for it contains elements of the infernal or infrarational (the Jungian “Shadow”) and elements of the supernal or “supramental”, to employ Aurobindo’s term, or what some call the “transcendental”. So, the present period may be fairly described as a great tension between the supernal and the infernal, or between the possibilities of the supramental or a regression to the infrarational, and this is the “double-movement” described by Gebser, too. Many people today are confusing what belongs only to the infrarational with what belongs to the transcendental or supramental (or “aperspectival” in Gebser’s phrase). William Blake’s “Marriage of Heaven and Hell (from 1793) is the first formal statement I’m aware of about the current possibilities of what we now call “integral consciousness”, and anticipates Nietzsche’s own attempt to reconcile Apollo and Dionysus.

As you might have noticed (hard not to) there is a distinct lack of a shared or common ethos that characterises what we now call “the post-modern condition” (unless, of course, it’s WINNING, which is the ethos of the Roman gladitorial contest or the Mayan ball-court). Heraclitus was of the conviction, though, that there was such a common ethos — unknown, unrecognised, implicit and foundational that was universal and common to all.

So, let’s turn our attention now to trying to make this common ethos “behind” or “before” the mere point-of-view and the self-interest conscious and explicit. Our purpose here is not to dismiss perspectivism, but to demonstrate its incompleteness, limitations, and partiality and how, under present circumstances, it has become inadequate and deficient as a way of understanding ourselves and of approaching reality.

4 responses to “Aperspectivity and Proprioception, II”

  1. Scott Preston says :

    Techno-fascism and what Marty Glass (in his book Yuga) describes as “our mutation into machinery” is the subject of this article on “surveillance capitalism” in The Guardian — a review (and interview) with Shoshona Zuboff


    Quite dystopian, but just the sort of analysis of the issue I was hoping to find. Very important article (and probably so is the book).

    • InfiniteWarrior says :

      At the same time, Tim Berners-Lee is hoping to “inrupt,” if not overturn, the trend by decentralizing the Web.

      It’s difficult to tell at this juncture how or if “decentralization of the Web” might shape up, but I must admit I’m not too encouraged by other upstarts…I mean, start-ups…e.g. #My31. From what I’ve read about #My31, its founders seem to think the only real problem is that we don’t “own” our personal data and, so, are “being cut out of the deal.” While it may look promising at first glance, it rather strikes me as a bid to capitalize on the trend by refining the data being collected (making it “more accurate”) with our assistance, creating a centralized data silo of its own and cutting itself into the largest slice possible of the new, New Deal.

      Could be wrong, but as has been noted in the past, healthcare itself is now thought of as an industry and “managed” by for-profit corporations masquerading as non-profit organizations, at least in the States. Healthcare is, in fact, the latest financial bubble to be created by what Taibi called the “great bubble-making machine,” which is the financial industry as a whole and not just Goldman-Sachs. This is, I think, why the walls are coming down between hospitals, physician’s offices, insurance companies and, even, retail pharmaceutical chains just as the walls came down between commercial and investment banking before them in the States with the repeal of Glass–Steagall.

  2. Benjamin David Steele says :

    The Renaissance does get overlooked as a pivotal age. It’s similar to how so many look to the early modern revolutionary era (American, French, & Haitian revolutions) while ignoring the English Civil War and Peasants’ Revolt. The fullest expression of change can be caused by greater changes that preceded it by centuries or millennia. But it’s hard to detect larger patterns and trends when studying history as sets of events and narrowly defined periods.

    The Culture Wars of the Late Renaissance: Skeptics, Libertines, and Opera
    by Edward Muir
    Kindle Locations 80-95

    “One of the most disturbing sources of late-Renaissance anxiety was the collapse of the traditional hierarchic notion of the human self. Ancient and medieval thought depicted reason as governing the lower faculties of the will, the passions, and the body. Renaissance thought did not so much promote “individualism” as it cut away the intellectual props that presented humanity as the embodiment of a single divine vine idea, thereby forcing a desperate search for identity in many. John Martin has argued that during the Renaissance, individuals formed their sense of selfhood through a difficult negotiation between inner promptings and outer social roles. Individuals during the Renaissance looked both inward for emotional sustenance and outward for social assurance, and the friction between the inner and outer selves could sharpen anxieties 2 The fragmentation of the self seems to have been especially acute in Venice, where the collapse of aristocratic marriage structures led to the formation of what Virginia Cox has called the single self, most clearly manifest in the works of several women writers who argued for the moral and intellectual equality of women with men.’ As a consequence of the fragmented understanding of the self, such thinkers as Montaigne became obsessed with what was then the new concept of human psychology, a term in fact coined in this period.4 A crucial problem in the new psychology was to define the relation between the body and the soul, in particular to determine whether the soul died with the body or was immortal. With its tradition of Averroist readings of Aristotle, some members of the philosophy faculty at the University of Padua recurrently questioned the Christian doctrine of the immortality of the soul as unsound philosophically. Other hierarchies of the human self came into question. Once reason was dethroned, the passions were given a higher value, so that the heart could be understood as a greater force than the mind in determining human conduct. duct. When the body itself slipped out of its long-despised position, the sexual drives of the lower body were liberated and thinkers were allowed to consider sex, independent of its role in reproduction, a worthy manifestation of nature. The Paduan philosopher Cesare Cremonini’s personal motto, “Intus ut libet, foris ut moris est,” does not quite translate to “If it feels good, do it;” but it comes very close. The collapse of the hierarchies of human psychology even altered the understanding of the human senses. The sense of sight lost its primacy as the superior faculty, the source of “enlightenment”; the Venetian theorists of opera gave that place in the hierarchy to the sense of hearing, the faculty that most directly channeled sensory impressions to the heart and passions.”

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