Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards. — Kierkegaard
We cannot really understand what it means to live the “post-modern condition” and what it might portend until we come to terms with the passing era called “Modernity”, which generally begins with the Reformation and Renaissance in Europe some 500 years ago in the midst of the disintegration of Christendom and the waning of the Middle Ages. The quotation of Kierkegaard above highlights the problem of what Lewis Mumford and Roderick Seidenberg refer to as “post-historic man” in this regard. It’s just another way of saying that if you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t know where you are going. The problem of post-historic man (who Loren Eiseley also calls “the asphalt animal“) is that he is a creature who thinks and acts as if he were born yesterday, and also lives and acts as if there were no tomorrow. Necessarily, such a creature also becomes post-conscious, too. As both Jean Gebser and Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy have noted, consciousness is very much a matter of how we structure the times and spaces of our reality. Consciousness, consequently, can undergo the same processes of expansion or contraction characteristic of all dynamic processes found in nature or the cosmos at large. In effect, “post-historic man” belongs to Christopher Lasch’s “culture of narcissism”.
Lately, I have immersed myself in the history and philosophy behind the idea of evolution and, of course, the new human concern with and discourse about time. And in the course of my studies of man’s ever evolving understanding of time and the evolutionary idea, I realised what a tremendous Tower of Babel exists in the sciences and the common culture not just about the meaning of the term “evolution” and time, but of “Nature” and of the “natural”. There is a tremendous amount of unarticulated and unconscious presumption about the meaning of names like “evolution” and “nature” — or “life” for that matter — as if people knew exactly what these names describe and represent when, in fact, for the most part they know nothing and are simply faking it.
“Nature: The History and Philosophy of a Name” (or “Idea”) would make a very good book, and perhaps it has already been attempted. “Nature” isn’t just another word, like “the” about which hardly anyone quibbles. “The” has determinant meaning and is non-controversial. “Nature”, though, isn’t just a word, it’s a name — a name for something we know not what, but which we only presume to know, much like the name of “Truth” or “Life” itself, or, for that matter, the idea of democracy.
Students of cultural historian Jean Gebser will, I think, find George Kubler’s short book The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (1962) of especial interest. The Shape of Time is a book on art history, but essentially deals with time and change processes, and how these are differentially reflected in the arts and in the sciences.
A copy of the book is available online. The third chapter, “The Propagation of Things”, may be the most pertinent in that respect. Kulber, like Gebser, attempts to read the evolution of a culture’s artifacts (repetition and variation) for insight into it’s sensibilities, and he has some very interesting things to say in about time and change processes.
In his book Yuga: An Anatomy of Our Fate, Marty Glass highlighted five essential features of the Kali Yuga, or Dark Age. These five are 1) The Fall Into Time; 2) the Reign of Quantity; 3) the Mutation into Machinery; 4) the End of Nature; and, 5) the Prison of Unreality.
Although, arguably, the latter four are consequential from the first — the Fall Into Time — they are all implicated in one another as inseparable aspects of one and the same process which we could broadly refer to as samsara or samsaric existence, and in those terms also, aspects of what William Blake called “Ulro” — the realm of Shadow or Maya, which Blake calls “the Sleep of Ulro”. Ulro can therefore be taken as Blake’s own symbolisation of what is called the Kali Yuga or “Dark Age”.
While the Fall into Time is the leading edge of the Kali Yuga, my concern today is principally with one aspect of that fall, and that is “the Mutation into Machinery”, or, described differently, the mutation of the human form into a mere “automaton of reflexes”, which could also be called “post-conscious”. This would be the final triumph of the “Sleep of Ulro”.
“Since Copernicus man has been rolling from the centre towards X” — Nietzsche
When I was an undergrad, one of my professors encouraged me to read Simone Weil’s book The Need for Roots. I did, reluctantly. I really don’t recall much of it but, in any case, I was suspicious that said professor was trying to steer me in the direction of kind of counter-reformation Catholicism or a right-wing neo-reactionary Traditionalism. At that time, uprooting was my predilection rather, and I wanted no truck with a stodgy conservative Traditionalism that I held in suspicion as being little more than a disguised form of counter-reformation or neo-fascism.
Nonetheless, I did read a few other works by conservative philosophers, such as the late Canadian nationalist and Nietzsche-influenced philosopher George Grant, who also named “homelessness” — that is to say, uprootedness or what we call “alienation” — as the chief symptom of the nihilism of Late Modern Man. Grant was a paradox, in some ways, for although he was inclined towards conservatism, he preferred the company of the socialists. In that, he also reminds of the social philosopher Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy. This seeming contradiction becomes understandable, though, when you appreciate that both conservatism and socialism were responses towards alienation, anomie, or uprootedness, which were seen as the chief liability and deficiency of liberal individualism.
The naive mind brings to the machine the kind of reverence once reserved for the gods in mythological culture, or for the power object in magical culture. The machine becomes an idol and a fetish because it is believed to be an incarnation of the “truth that sets free”, if only as the labour-saving or the life-saving device. For the naive mind, what works is what is true, and what is true is what works. Science is valued only as a discoverer of truths that can then be incarnated in the functioning machine as proof of truth. The machine then becomes not just the proof of the truth of Science, but the very incarnation of Truth itself, the embodied “miracles” of existence. Technology becomes the sacred object of reverence because it is truth itself made manifest and, alone, the truth that sets free.
This is, of course, idolatry, superstition and fetish, but a very powerful one that holds an extraordinary grip on the mind. Technology, here, is not just useful for achieving useful purposes and ends, but becomes an end and purpose in itself and for itself. Technology becomes incarnate truth, and there is no truth outside its incarnation as the machine. There is a kind of intimation of that in David Bowie’s great song “Saviour Machine“. In effect, technology proclaims “I am the Truth, and you shall have no other truth before me”.
The old monasteries of Christendom were governed by a single “Rule” from which the monastic order and its activity were derived. The Rule shaped its life. The Benedictines, the Franciscans, the Dominicans, even The Brethren of the Free Spirit, and so on, all had their own “Rule”, and that Rule was the central idea they sought to bring into the world. The Rule, in turn, was derived from some aspect of the Cross or the Gospels and so the monasteries remained within the “bosom of the Church”. In some ways, then, the monasteries were very much like the faculties of a university, and much of the structure of the university as an institution took its structure from the monastery because it was the Church that founded the first universities. Before the university, it was most often the monasteries that preserved and conserved classical learning and literature through the long European Dark Age. The alleged “first scientist”, Roger Bacon, was a monk, and many of our contemporary technical inventions had their origin in the monasteries (the clock, for instance, or early genetics). And I have argued that even contemporary political ideologies were derived from the monasteries, after Luther sent his monks and nuns out of the monasteries and into the world to make their own way. They simply took their Rule with them.
Today, the monasteries are, for the most part, sad and deserted places. I’ve visited a couple of them. Only a handful of aging monks left to tend to sometimes very large compounds.