Trapped in the Mirror was the title of a book on narcissism by Elan Golomb. It’s a very good title. Unfortunately, as I recall it, the book never really fulfilled the potential suggested by its title, largely because of its limited clinical and psychological focus on the individual where it could have broadened into the historical, sociological, or cultural context. Christopher Lasch attempted to do this with The Culture of Narcissism. Even then, I think, Lasch, despite the excellence of his sociological insights, erred in thinking that this, too narrowly, was a problem peculiar to “American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations”, as the subtitle has it.
Narcissism is the state of being “trapped in the mirror” and is the human, all-too-human condition. It has been that since human beings became self-conscious. It was just what was formerly called “idolatry”, which is the same state of being “trapped in the mirror”. If it were not the human condition, the ancient myth of Narcissus and Echo would not have been composed, and an event like the “Axial Age” of the prophets would never have occurred. It is narcissism that lies behind the legendary “Fall of Man”, and the Fall of Man was to become trapped in the mirror. This is also referred to as “the Fall into Time”, or “The Kali Yuga“.
I was recently re-reading an old mimeographed essay (yes, from back in the Stone Age of my university days when we said “mimeograph”) by Kenneth Burke — the formulator of “Dramatism” — called “Definition of Man“. It came to mind after I posted the last essay on “the myth of the machine”. Burke was a highly intelligent (and witty) writer and thinker, and I regret I have not spent more time on him in the pages of The Chrysalis because his work is also very relevant to its themes.
It’s Burke’s audacious “definition of man” that I want to address here as it bears on Mumford and the Myth of the Machine, and I will present it exactly as it appears in his essay in The Hudson Review, circa 1963-64.
A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.
Folly is the cloak of knavery. — William Blake, The Proverbs of Hell
Following close upon Meghan O’Gieblyn’s article on “transhumanism” as a contemporary theology of the Megamachine (“God in the machine“), yet another article — this one by Andrew Anthony — appeared in today’s Guardian also in a quite similar vein. “What if we’re living in a computer simulation?” describes what we might call, after Lewis Mumford, the contemporary “Myth of the Machine”, or the mysticism (or mystique) of megatechnics.
This is, indeed, an Age of Irony, because this new “myth of the machine” is also an example of the “return of the repressed” — for it is, in fact, the resurrection of the old doctrines of the Gnostics. Even students of Jean Gebser’s cultural philosophy must find this contemporary insurgency (or “irruption”) of the “irrational” factors of magic, myth, and mysticism within the “logical” mental-rational structure of consciousness to be quite unnerving (and a most appropriate word that is, too. The meaning of “unnerving” is worth a post in itself).
Meghan O’Gieblyn, in today’s Guardian, has written a pretty fascinating semi-autobiographical account of her “deconversion” from Christianity, her deep despair and Angst that followed that loss of faith and identity, and the temptations that “transhumanism” held for her as a surrogate faith and substitute theology. “God in the machine: my strange journey into transhumanism” describes what can only be called a theology for Lewis Mumford’s “Megamachine”.
It’s strange kismet, because last night I was obsessing, for some reason, over an early Pink Floyd song called “See Emily Play“, playing it over and over again trying to discover the meaning of who and what was “Emily”. The surrealistic Emily, I was convinced, bore some resemblance to the mood of Lily Allen’s song “The Fear” (as I discussed that earlier in “The Concretion of the Spiritual“). And it was in Meghan O’Gieblyn’s article that the two themes came together. There is something very profound about the human condition struggling to emerge into consciousness in “See Emily Play”, in “The Fear” and in O’Gieblyn’s “strange journey into transhumanism”.
Quite a few social observers are now calling time on neo-liberalism, particularly after the market meltdown of 2008. I’ve noted a few: Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End?, Yanis Varoufakis’s The Global Minotaur, Peter Pogany’s Rethinking the World, Jennifer Welsh’s The Return of History, as well as quite a few I’ve yet to catch up on in my reading. All suggest that the financial crisis of 2008 represents an unrecoverable system failure for neo-liberalism. However, the apparent demise of neo-liberalism (or Thatcherism, Reaganism and so on) isn’t necessarily true also of the Megamachine.
They say one shouldn’t kick one’s foe when he’s on the ground, but I can’t resist getting in a couple of swift ones against a foe, neo-liberalism, that has irritated and annoyed me most of my adult life. It’s cathartic. I might be accused of whipping a dead horse, here, but it’s also true that a whole lot of people are still under the spell of neo-liberalism — ready even to sacrifice themselves for it’s sake — which is why some people speak of “zombie logic”, “voodoo economics” and such. It’s only the ghost of neo-liberalism — or the ghost of Maggie Thatcher — that wanders like a lost soul over the face of the Earth.
So, let’s see how this malignancy developed in the first place so we can be rid of it — exorcise the ghost — once and for all.
There is a widespread belief — the virtual “common sense” — that politics is war, and war by other means. I hold that belief to be only a symptom of the degeneracy of the intellect and of the disintegration — the “deficiency” and decadence — of the modern mind, the mental-rational consciousness structure, as Gebser describes it. The irresponsibility of our politicians (and not just our politicians) lies in this fact, that when you believe that politics is war by other means, you should not be surprised, or feign disgust, when streetfighting becomes the norm of politics. It’s the karmic law. It’s only a decadent politics that thinks of itself as “warfare”. But once you travel down that path, you have to live with the consequences as a fate.
Lewis Mumford’s “Megamachine” is quite real in one sense (and quite unreal in another) — a semi-autonomous system that strives towards its ideal of full autonomous functioning, and, with the tech-revolution and artificial intelligence, is on the cusp of realising itself as such. It has no lack of “handmaidens” (Varoufakis’s phrase in The Global Minotaur) or “courtiers” (Chomsky’s description) to help it realise itself as such either.
The Megamachine has a long developmental history, and we could easily trace its maturation following Mumford’s four stages of realisation or maturation of an idea — from Formulation, through Incarnation, through Incorporation, to its mature phase “Embodiment“. But to the Megamachine (and its handmaidens) living beings are simply an irrelevancy, and human beings are as disposable and dispensible as BIC pens are And if you read contemporary economics schemes it’s as though human beings are not just irrelevant to the purposes of “economy”, but are practically considered inconvenient parasites on the body and the functioning of the perfect machine.