Imagining the Future with Owen Barfield: Towards a Participatory Turn

English: Photo of Owen Barfield


I’ve been reading Owen Barfield‘s recently republished philosophical novella Unancestral Voice (1967, 2010). Like many of his books, its aim is to make the esotericism of Rudolf Steiner more digestible to a contemporary, or at least late 20th century, audience. Barfield begins by setting the late industrial scene ~1967, situating us within the toxic detritus of a decaying civilization we have by 2012 come to know all too well. Society is crumbling, tearing apart at the seams that once used to bind the generations together in pursuit of a common thread. The young no longer trust the old, and so they rebel against every established authority to secure the as yet empty freedom of mere negation. “Generally speaking,” says Steiner, “people are better able to find concepts for the existing world than to evolve productively, out of their imagination, the not-yet-existing actions of the future.” It is easy, in other words, to either affirm or reject the dominant world-picture, but rather difficult to bring forth an entirely new one out of the smoldering ashes of the old. What the world needs now are poets more than voters; citizen-participants at play in an emerging planetary imagination more than wage-slaves at work in the Satanic mills of global capitalism. The #Occupy movement is a hopeful sign that the young no longer seek freedom from authority, but freedom to be authors themselves.

What Steiner, and Barfield after him, sought to communicate to the world was not simply the need for self-expression. The creation of a new world is not meant to be the total rejection of the past in favor of the whims of the passing moment. There is a power higher than the fancy of the private ego that must be tapped to renew our civilization. The universe, in both its historical and natural guises, is at its roots a process of perpetual transformation. Old structures die and are reborn anew; and yet, if the natural history of the universe suggests a true transformation, then something, some agent, must be weaving together the entire process from the inside out. Otherwise, we are not dealing with transformation, but with mere substitution. This agent, capable of passing through the threshold of death again and again to bring forth “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” (as Darwin puts it in the surprisingly theological closing lines of his On the Origin of Species), is the common source of both cosmos and consciousness, of both nature and culture: it is the Logos, the Christ.

Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Keats Fall of Hyperion are both examples of the the Logos at work within the soul, there shaping the organs of spirit necessary to perceive the new earth and in so doing redeem humanity. Poetry, after the Romantics, became Bildung, a process of self-formation and spiritual education brought about by the secret power of Imagination. Keats called this process soul-making, while Blake called the Imagination “the divine body of the lord Jesus, blessed forever [...] He is the only God…And so am I and so are you.”

“The transforming agent in nature,” writes Barfield, “is also the ultimate energy that stirs in the dark depths of [our] own will” (p. 151). As Wordsworth put it in book 6 of The Prelude:

Imagination–here the Power so called
Through sad incompetence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind’s abyss
Like an unfathered vapour that enwraps,
At once, some lonely traveller. I was lost;
Halted without an effort to break through;
But to my conscious soul I now can say–
“I recognise thy glory:” in such strength
Of usurpation, when the light of sense
Goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
The invisible world, doth greatness make abode,
There harbours; whether we be young or old,
Our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
Is with infinitude, and only there;
With hope it is, hope that can never die,
Effort, and expectation, and desire,
And something evermore about to be.
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward,
Strong in herself and in beatitude
That hides her, like the mighty flood of Nile
Poured from his fount of Abyssinian clouds
To fertilise the whole Egyptian plain.


In the final chapters of Unancestral Voice, Barfield discusses the doctrine of Filioque emerging out of the Council of Constantinople (360 CE). The doctrine effectively denied the human soul “any participation in the creative spirit that informed the world of nature” (p. 198). Barfield places much blame upon this doctrine, established in a time when authority still weighed heavily on the hearts of Christians, for the social and ecological alienation that would later befall humanity. Humanity–”severed from the start from every link with the world around it, except the link through sense-perception, set apart from and outside of the inner being of the world that it was struggling to know”–could do nothing but build abstract models of a mechanistic universe (ibid.). With the Quantum Revolution of the early 20th century, a physical science long based on model building met its limits. Quantum events, which had been successfully described mathematically, were impossible to model physically, since they seemed to disobey the classical laws holding true of spatiotemporal happenings in the sensory world. The electron, for example, is paradoxically conceived of both as a mathematical point occupying no space at all and as a wave-function occupying the whole of space at once. The supersensible power of Imagination had been tapped into by the introverted Romantic poets more than a century before quantum physics, but now it seems this power needs to be extended beyond the self and into nature. The old doctrine that alienated the human soul from its body, itself part of a supposedly soullness nature, must be overcome if post-quantum science is to continue to generate knowledge as easily as it has continued to generate technology. What has physics to learn from the likes of William Blake?

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Following the physicist David Bohm, Barfield suggests that science must move past the admittedly useful but deceptively abstract Cartesian coordinate plane, since it has come to distort our natural perception of space-time, not as a mere neutral extension, but as a living topological scheme where inside and outside, above and below, before and after, etc., are each qualitatively distinct.

“Our habit of beginning, as it were, with space and time, as if they were existents, and then planting a number of objects in them, may be traceable to the Cartesian innovation. Whereas it would perhaps be possible to begin with the process itself–in this case the structural process–and look at the order of events, as it were, from their own point of view. We should then perhaps find that the relation between structure and space is reciprocal and that it is not the inevitable nature of our minds, but the Cartesian abstraction, that makes us find the notion of space without structure less absurd than the notion of structure without space” (p. 178).

Space without structure, the neutral and soulless vacuum of classical physics, must be replaced by what can be called for now the “negative” space of Imagination. The inner organizing power responsible for threading the endless forms of cosmogenesis together is “inner” as mind is interior to matter, not as the flesh of an orange is interior to its rind. Barfield sums up this new doctrine thusly: “interior is anterior.” Quantum phenomena are the very edge of the physical domain; classical physics can penetrate no further. But an imaginative science can find in the limit of the physical world the doorway to a spiritual world. What could the source of the “complex interacting rhythms of energy of which we now find that the physical universe consists” be other than “a system of non-spatial relationships between hierarchies of energetic beings?”

This would imply, Barfield continues, that we not think of these beings, but begin, instead, to think their activity itself. “Perhaps it will involve so thinking that their energy, transformed, becomes our thought” (p. 194).
This sort of transformation of our thinking is precisely what the participatory paradigm aims to secure. I’m taking a course with the editors of The Participatory Turn (2008), Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, this semester, and so the ideas explored above will continue to develop in the coming months. Stay tuned….

Harman’s Crucified Objects and Whitehead’s God: More on Withdrawal

Continuing the discussion that begin on Knowledge-Ecology earlier today, here are some highly speculative reflections after reading the first few pages of Graham Harman‘s Guerrilla Metaphysics (2005) again:

I’m reminded that we must deal with more than the absolute difference between objects and relations, but that between an object and itself. Objects withdraw not just from other objects, but from themselves.

“Objects withdraw absolutely from all interaction with both humans and nonhumans, creating a split between the tool-being itself and the tool-being as manifested in any relation. And along with this rift between objects and relations, objects are also split in themselves between their sheer unity as one object and their multiplicity of traits” (p. 5).

He goes on in ch. 6 to talk of the “ether”/”solar wind”/”vicar” connecting objects with each other. Despite the withdrawal of their “inner life,” they continue to “nurture or damage one another in every instant” (p. 73).

What does it mean to say an object withdraws from all of its relations if that same object withdraws also from itself? What, in the end, withdraws?

“In the sensual sphere, there is a difference between the banana as a single intentional object and the banana as a set of sensuous qualities. But there is also a lower floor of being, where we find a difference between the real banana as a single private reality, and that same real banana considered as a multitude of real attributes, quite apart from any relation that other entities may have with it” (. p. 77).

So there is an apparent banana, the appearance of that banana, a real banana, and a bundle of real banana qualities. This is Haman’s quaternity, a structure he admits may at first seem “bizarre.” With the second duality between the real banana and its many real qualities, he aims to describe “vacuous actualities,” objects never fully deployed in the world. This is a metaphysical, and not a physical, description. Which is to say that he of course realizes that the physical banana would be destroyed by digestion, or at least its matter transformed into something else, but nonetheless argues that the metaphysical banana–the idea/form of the banana–withdraws from digestion. It withdraws because many of its real qualities are not at all touched by chemical processes in the stomach. What does the dark stomach care about the pale white color of banana flesh?

Harman’s difficult to understand “vicarious cause” needs to account for more than just relations between one object and other objects, but the relations between an object and itself. The inner life of an individual object is itself some kind of dynamic “ether” that is never quite completely what it is (more like a power, as Iain Hamilton Grant might say). Harman calls this ether the “glue of the universe,” that which “binds macrocosm and microcosm alike” (p. 93). The ether provides this glue despite the fact that nothing ever really touches anything else, since all anything else can really feel is the pain or pleasure of the bleeding wound of quaternal crucification.

Carl Jung, from the Red Book

Harman outs himself as an occasionalist metaphysician, though he claims his recapitulation of this traditionally theological position can succeed without theology. Whitehead’s God function is, ultimately, what allows everything in the universe to touch. Whitehead assumes the cosmic solidarity provided by God’s Love is just as powerful, and metaphysically relevant, as the creative differentiation achieved by finite occasions. Finite occasions do withdraw from each other in Whitehead’s system, making them distinct individuals; but this private subjectivity is only a single phase in concrescence, a partial description of the fully crucified occasion known as a banana. For Harman, it is never just a banana, but a complexio oppositorum between a real banana, a sensual banana, a real banana’s qualities, and a sensual banana’s qualities. For Whitehead, the concrescence of any given banana-occasion into ONE banana also includes God, whose Love transfigures the ongoing inner life of the occasion into something cosmic, lifting it from the deadly cross of private time and space into the etheric dimension of universal feeling. Harman leaves out God and so of course ends up seeing radiant vacuums everywhere instead of little Christs. But perhaps the difference is merely nominal.