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.