Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Chemically-
Altered (Alchemical) Consciousness
Photo: Tree of Life by Ron Barnett
Preface: Take it and eat it.
Walking alone on a quiet beach at dawn, I found an old, leather-bound book half buried in the sand whose title, once stamped with golden letters, was now too worn to decipher. I opened it, discovering inside that a cavity had been carved out of the pages to make room for its pharmacological contents: seven nearly dried psyilocybe cyanescens mushrooms. I removed and ate them one by one, leaving behind a bluish-purple outline on the page. As I swallowed the last mushroom, I noticed the text beneath the blue stains and realized I must be holding the Bible. The text, from Revelation, chapter 10, read:
Go, take the book which is open in the hand of the angel who stands on the sea and on the land…Take it and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.
I looked up from the page and was immediately struck by the first beam of light from the Sun as it rose above the ocean horizon. Its light carried with it a powerful sound, like a cosmic trumpet, which knocked me to the ground. I dropped the book and laid in the sand with my hands covering my face to shield me from the synesthesic storm. A sinkhole opened beneath me, as though I were passing through an hourglass. My body descended into darkness. In a moment, all was silent and still, until suddenly, my consciousness was turned inside-out.
I awoke to find myself in bed, the first gentle glow of sunrise gleaming through a crack between the curtains. It had been a dream. As I rubbed my eyes to greet the new day, all sorts of metaphysical questions occurred to me. The dream was vivid and visceral enough that I wondered if I should expect the onset of a psychedelic experience in the next 15 or 20 minutes as a result of the placebo effect having lead my pineal gland to release a bit of its own secret stash of DMT.1 Might my psyche find a way to blend my psychedelic dream with what “I” call “reality”–“I,” the “normal waking, rational consciousness” that William James so eloquently relativized in The Varieties of Religious Experience? Alas, no such alteration of my consciousness was forthcoming, but I was left wondering, like James, what the meaning of this abrupt transition could be. As James put it, reflecting upon his psychedelic encounters with nitrous oxide,
No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded…they may determine attitudes though they cannot furnish formulas, and open a region though they fail to give a map…At any rate, they forbid a premature closing of our accounts with reality. Looking back on my own experiences, they all converge towards a kind of insight to which I cannot help ascribing some metaphysical significance.2
As James well knew, consciousness is not easily made into an object fit for scientific study, if it can be so studied at all. The nearest approach to such a study appears most effective when one pays close attention to alterations in consciousness, to the transitions between dreaming and waking, or indeed, to the transformations brought about by the ingestion of one of many psychedelic chemicals. These peculiar chemicals, found throughout the plant and fungi kingdoms, and often close cousins of mammalian neurotransmitters, provide the fields of consciousness and transpersonal studies with the equivalent of Galileo’s telescope or Hooke’s microscope.3 The effect of psychedelic instruments has been variously described by experimenters as an expansion and/or an intensification of everyday consciousness. But these are metaphors: unlike normal scientific instruments for observation of the very large or the very small, consciousness has no size and cannot be measured. As transpersonal instruments and participatory technologies, psychedelics call into question the very identity of the scientist doing the observation. In such experiments, the “object” of study, consciousness, becomes both observer and observed. These recursive effects make psychedelic experiments an especially fruitful method of participatory spiritual inquiry.
Transpersonal Theory, Religious Studies, and Alchemical Consciousness
Transpersonal theory emerged in the wake of the radical political and spiritual upheaval of the 1960s, finding its principle expression in the work of Abe Maslow and Stanislav Grof. As Gregg Lahood has argued, the so-called Philosophia Perennis functioned for this first wave of transpersonalism
as a masking device, or a prestigious, protective, and seemingly authoritative sacred canopy with which to wheel a marginal, subversive, and unimaginably anomalous psychedelic epistemology into the heart of what William Blake called Newton’s sleep, or the hyperrational West.4
In other words, through what Lahood calls the “post-rational sorcery”5 of countercultural figures like Aldous Huxley,6 Timothy Leary,7 and Alan Watts,8 the psychedelic experience became sutured to a precariously universalized but nonetheless rhetorically powerful hybridization of the world’s great religious traditions. According to Lahood, transpersonalism is “still evolving through a major conceptual crisis in its worldview.”9 The second wave of transpersonalism could be said to have emerged with Jorge Ferrer’s publication of Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (2002). Ferrer deconstructs the explicitly universalist and residual Cartesian assumptions of the first wave of transpersonal thinkers in order to reconstruct the discipline within the context of “a more relaxed spiritual universalism.”10
The principal aim of this essay is to explore the influence of chemically-altered, or alchemical consciousness, not only on the founding and ongoing articulation of transpersonal theory, but on the origins of spirituality more generally. Alchemical consciousness has been intimately bound up with religious innovation for thousands of years. Accordingly, I argue that the emergence of transpersonalism out of the foment of the 1960s is just the most recent example of the radical rhetorical effects of psychedelics on spirituality. I also attempt to support and expand Lahood’s notion of psychedelically-induced cosmological hybridization by drawing upon Richard Doyle’s thesis that psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” in the evolution of spiritual discourse,11 as well as Michael Rinella’s study of the interplay between speech (the logistikon) and psychedelics (the pharmakon) in ancient Greek spirituality.12 From Doyle’s perspective, rhetoric is not simply persuasive speech leading one astray from the truth, but, due to its role in sexual selection, the engine of biological novelty; rhetoric, in other words, is an ecological practice.13 Just as flowers evolved as rhetorical devices for getting the attention of bees, and male peacock plumage for getting the attention of female peacocks, human rhetorical strategies have been evolutionarily selected for their eloquence.14 The degree to which such rhetoric truly or falsely corresponds to reality is biologically irrelevant, since it is precisely the creative appearance of beauty and its boundary dissolving effect as an “attention sink” that has guided the evolution of life on earth, determining through genetic and symbolic inheritance the bodily and behavioral patterns that shape our lives.15 What begins as appearance can in the future become reality. Psychedelics function as “rhetorical adjuncts” for many species,16 and for humans in particular
are involved in an intense inclination to speak unto silence, to write and sing in a time not limited to the physical duration of the sacramental effect…they are compounds whose most persistent symptoms are rhetorical…[such that] language…becomes the occasion for a feedback loop, where utterances and writings that seem to enable the endurance and enjoyment of psychedelic experience are replicated, programming further ecodelic investigations…17
Rather than seeking some form of authoritative disambiguation,18 as Lahood argues the first wave of transpersonalism did by turning to Perennialism, the “anomalous,” ineffable, and participatory nature of alchemical consciousness are affirmed as a fertile source of open-ended rhetorical strategies for both consciousness transformation and cosmological (re)construction. Before tentatively defining religion with help from Robert Bellah, and exploring the rhetorical influence of psychedelics on religious consciousness, I unpack Ferrer’s participatory contribution to the study of human consciousness and spirituality.
The Participatory Turn and the Representational Paradigm
Ferrer’s major contribution to the field of transpersonal studies was to defend the validity of spirituality without basing this validity upon the authority of the Perennialist tradition, at least as this tradition has been interpreted through the subjectivist and scientistic biases of modern Western culture. These biases are rooted in the representationalist paradigm that has held sway, consciously or not, since the time of Descartes. As Richard Tarnas notes in his foreword to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, despite the radical intensions of the first wave of transpersonalism, its theoretical framework “[retained]…certain essential and usually unexamined assumptions” carried over from the historical background out of which it emerged.19 From within the representationalist paradigm, truth is thought to consist in a correspondence between a subjective picture or concept in the mind and an objective state of affairs in the world. Both the Myth of the Framework (subjectivity constructs reality) and the Myth of the Given (reality is objectively pregiven) are potential symptoms of this representationalist dualism.20
For the initial Perennialist wave of transpersonalism, every genuinely mystical or spiritual experience, despite potential differences in its explicit description, must implicitly refer to a single underlying and so pregiven spiritual reality. The research program for transpersonal theorists within the Perennialist paradigm is therefore to seek scientific validation of spiritual experiences by applying a broader form of the empirical method than that used in the natural sciences, one that includes not only outer, but also inner experience.21 According to Ferrer, though appeals to scientific verification were perhaps “historically inevitable,” and even “methodologically crucial” in establishing the academic legitimacy of transpersonal theory at the time of its founding, such an approach “has become today problematic and detrimental.”22
There are many reasons a representationalist/scientistic approach is problematic for transpersonal studies, several of which have been singled out and skillfully deconstructed by Ferrer in Revisioning. One of the crucial problems with the representationalist paradigm for psychedelic studies in particular is that interpreting alchemical forms of consciousness from such a perspective leaves them especially vulnerable to dismissal as subjective misrepresentations of a pregiven objective reality. Despite the attempts of transpersonal theorists to expand the epistemology of empirical correspondence so as to include inner realities, contemporary academic research on altered consciousness by those outside the field of transpersonal studies has tended to argue for precisely such a dismissive characterization. For example, Revonsuo et al. recently argued that, while during a “normal state of consciousness…the mechanisms of conscious representation in the brain…carry accurate information from ‘world’ to consciousness,” during an “altered state,” “consciousness…deviate[s] from the natural relation in such a way that the world and/or self tend to be misrepresented.”23 Revonsuo et al. go on to explicitly dismiss what they call “higher and mystical states of consciousness”:
…despite their intensely positive emotional tone and significance for the subject, these states…tend to induce a variety of misrepresentations for the subject’s conscious experience.”24
There are many question-begging assumptions here, not the least of which are the dogmatic reduction of consciousness to neural mechanisms, and the substantialist reading of consciousness in terms of experiential “states.” It would appear that transpersonal theorists cannot beat natural scientists at their own representationalist game, since it is all too easy for the latter to reduce “inner experience” of spiritual realities to some kind of neurological malfunction. Instead, it is necessary to change the rules of the game by shifting the critique to the epistemological and ontological foundations of modern scientism.
Ferrer’s remedy for the representational residue in first wave transpersonal studies is his participatory, or enactive, vision of spirituality. Enactivism was first articulated as a paradigm shift in the cognitive sciences by Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch in The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (1991).25 As Ferrer describes it,
Participatory knowing…is not a mental representation of pregiven, independent spiritual objects, but an enaction, the bringing forth of a world or domain of distinctions cocreated by the different elements involved in the participatory event.26
Rather than rooting the foundation of knowledge in a secure, unaffected and largely aloof subject who modestly witnesses the behavior of an external world (as natural science tends to pretend), Ferrer’s participatory approach to human consciousness uproots knowledge from the the solid self, such that the act of knowing is transformative of both self and world.27 Alchemical forms of consciousness are accordingly best understood, not as “states” of the mind, but as world-transfiguring events. As Ferrer suggests:
…this transfiguration of the world is not…a mere change in our individual experience of a pregiven world, but…the emergence of an ontological event…in which our consciousness creatively participates.28
Religion as Participation in Non-Ordinary Realities
In his study of religion in human evolution (in a book of the same title), sociologist Robert Bellah attempts to define “religion” in the context of a wider discussion about non-ordinary realities, like those encountered in quantum physics, cinema, dreams, play, after ingesting a psychedelic chemical, or when approaching death.29 He contrasts such non-ordinary realities with the ordinary (or at least culturally dominant) reality of “waking, rational consciousness,” or what he, following Alfred Schutz,30 calls “the world of wide awake, grown up men.”31 Unlike the participatory consciousness of religious realities brought forth through ritualized symbolic play and/or chemical alteration, the solid self of the “grown up” world of instrumental rationality tends to bracket the ontological implications of such “offline” activities, while attending instead to everyday practical needs and desires.32 In this everyday world, a world Bellah connects with a felt sense of lack or deficiency, space is experienced as discretely separating my body from every other body (and so my mind from every other mind), and time passes in a linear fashion according to the minutes and hours of a clock and the days and weeks of a calendar. The world of rational consciousness is the world of isolated bodies colliding in a crowded container, bidding for survival in the course of neutral (i.e., non-teleological) time, all the while haunted by a fundamental anxiety rooted in the fear of death. But, as Bellah is careful to point out, “nobody can stand to live in [such a world] all the time.”33 Ordinary reality is inevitably interrupted and overlapped by non-ordinary realities, typically with dramatic effects:
It is one of the functions of other realities to remind us that…bracketing [the vague sense on the fringes of rational consciousness that other forms of reality are possible] is finally insecure and unwarranted. Occasionally a work of art will break its bounds, will deeply unsettle us, will even issue us the command ‘Change your life’–that is, it will claim not a subordinate reality but a higher reality than the world of daily life.34
In the case of religious realities, the distinguishing feature is that they emerge from what Bellah refers to as “unitive events.”35 Such events bring forth worlds of non-standard space and time, where the boundaries between bodies and minds becomes porous and the flow of events is inherently creative and meaningful. Accordingly, unitive events are notoriously difficult to describe in a predominantly representational language, which tends to construe such events after the fact as subjective experiences. Bellah, like Ferrer, is sensitive to the modern Western tendency to speak of experience in terms of something “had” by a private, inner self, and so chooses the term “event” deliberately to avoid the implication that religious realities are somehow not “objective” or real. It is also important to note that by designating non-ordinary religious consciousness as “unitive,” Bellah does not mean to equate all such non-ordinary events with the realization of some nondual ultimate reality. Rather, “unitive” refers to the way in which the dichotomous subject-object consciousness of ordinary space and time is transformed, such that formerly sharp boundaries become relativized in a whole variety of ways.
As for a simple and unambiguous definition of religion, Bellah admits that cultural biases make this difficult. Following George Lindbeck,36 he lists three current alternative approaches to defining religion: 1) the propositional, 2) the experiential-expressivist, and 3) the cultural-linguistic.37 The propositional theory of religion holds that religion is essentially a series of conceptually stated beliefs concerning what is true. Bellah argues that this approach is inadequate since, while the conceptual/propositional aspects of religion are important, they are not essential to religious practice. The experiential-expressivist theory holds that a universal human potentiality for religious experience underlies all particular cultural manifestations of religion. The perennialist, quasi-empirical approach of first wave transpersonalism owes much to this theory. Finally, the cultural-linguistic theory holds that the symbolic forms of religion are primary, though
not so much as expressions of underlying religious emotions, but as themselves shaping religious experiences and emotions.38
This theory emphasizes the irreducible plurality of religions, and so also tends to bracket the ontological significance of religious symbolism. Bellah does not believe it is necessary to choose one approach over the other, but suggests that both the experiential-expressivist and cultural-linguistic theory can be utilized as “coordinate approaches.”39
In their introduction to The Participatory Turn (2008), Ferrer and Jacob Sherman construe the field of religious studies in a way similar to Bellah. They critique the “linguistic Kantianism” of postmodern scholars who would deny the possibility of real religious knowledge by pointing out the ethnocentric presuppositions underlying such dismissals.40 There is no privileged neutral ground from which to judge the metaphysical claims of religious practitioners, since academic scholars are no less ambiguously situated within their own cultural and historical contexts. In keeping with the participatory approach, Ferrer and Sherman gesture beyond the scholar/practitioner dichotomy by suggesting that
some kind of personal engagement or even transformation…may be required for both the apprehension and the assessment of certain religious truth claims.41
The “linguistic rationality” of ordinary consciousness simply is not capable of judging the non-ordinary unitive events at the generative core of the world’s religions. Ferrer and Sherman’s approach to the issue nicely complements Bellah’s, in that while none of them want to dismiss the experiential component of religion all together, all three call attention to the ways in which language and experience mutually transform one another. “In short,” says Bellah, “we cannot disentangle raw experience from cultural form.”42 Rather than seeing this entanglement as an unescapable epistemic limitation, Bellah argues that religious symbolism is potentially a way of knowing capable of reaching beyond the “dreadful fatalities…[of the]…world of rational response to anxiety and need.”43 In a similar vein, Ferrer and Sherman call into question the skeptical postmodern claim that non-ordinary religious consciousness is “overdetermined by cultural-linguistic variables” and therefore cannot possibly refer to “translinguistic” realities.44 At the same time, they call for a “resacralization of language,” such that religious symbolism is understood to carry its own “creational weight,” since it arises out of the semioticity of reality itself.45
Alchemical Consciousness and Cosmological Hybridization
The entangled relationship between symbolic formation, alchemical consciousness, and the generation and regeneration of religious realities has been fruitfully explored by a number of thinkers, to whom I now turn. As mentioned above, Lahood has argued persuasively that, by aligning themselves with a hybrid form of “psychedelic perennialism,” the “sorcerers and shamans” of first wave transpersonalism effectively participated in “the emergence of a novel mutating religious process on the West Coast of the United States.”46 While Lahood praises Ferrer for “re-booting” transpersonalism by destroying the perennialist “idol” worshipped by its first wave of theorists, he criticizes Ferrer’s “Ocean with Many Shores” metaphor for its “tacit appeal to religious purity”:47
Ferrer’s redeployment of distinct cultural/spiritual shores…may inadvertently reify a subtle fetishizing of cultural boundaries (instead of an appeal to one purity [the nondual One of Perennialism] we have an appeal to many purities, albeit in dialogue with each other).48
Following cultural theorists like Bhabha, Rosaldo, and Roof, Lahood articulates an approach to religious studies and transpersonal theory within which the default condition of every human culture is to be in open-ended transcultural mutation. In this sense, orthodox purity cannot be opposed to heretical syncretism, since there has never been a time when hybridity did not go all the way down.49 As Roof has argued:
…religions are anything but immaculately conceived; purity is a fiction…they are unfinished creations, always evolving, their boundaries drawn and redrawn to fit new circumstances.50
Such redrawing of boundaries remains especially pronounced in the “contact zone of late capitalism’s religious borderlands,”51 lands like the West Coast of California, where for more than half a century, psychedelics have functioned as “rhetorical adjuncts” bringing forth novel forms of hybridized spirituality. First wave transpersonalism, though helpfully deconstructed by Ferrer for its universalist assumptions, can nonetheless be read as “an early attempt at coming to terms with globalization and its related phenomena.”52 This first wave’s psychedelic perennialism was “a legitimate but largely culturally contextual project”53 whose major shortcoming was failing to recognize the extent to which it had cocreated a novel form of cosmological hybridization, rather than simply rediscovered a pure traditional source.
Historically, psychedelic consciousness has a marked tendency to generate rhetorical strategies for
…blurring…religious boundaries; breaking apart while, at the same time, binding together multiple cosmological postulates.54
This is what happened in the psychedelic revolution of the 1960s among the “educated theory-making literati,”55 as well as in the Eleusinian Mysteries of ancient Greece,56 which almost certainly involved chemical alterations of consciousness57 and represent
the most important religious experience of anyone who could speak Greek…for close to a thousand years.58
In his study of the tension between Plato’s development of the dialectical logistikon and the ecstasy-producing pharmakon of the Eleusinian rites, Rinella describes Plato’s discovery of the psychedelic qualities of language itself:
…the spoken word does not simply effect the audience–it has a ‘feedback’ effect that affects the rhetor himself.59
Plato, an alchemical initiate, was also one of the most literate and rhetorically skilled men of his age. Like later intellectual sorcerers of the 20th century, he was empowered by both the alphabetic and psychedelic technologies available to him to bring forth a novel, countercultural religious reality.60 Unlike later sorcerers, however, he did so not just by making new theories, but by disentangling theory itself from a heretofore polytheistic and mythic consciousness.61 He stepped out of the cave in which the rites were performed in an attempt to integrate what he had learned into the “waking” world of daily political life. All subsequent attempts to theorize our human participation in religious realities are, in one way or another, indebted to Plato’s original form of participatory cosmological hybridization.62
If, historically and logically, alchemical experimentation has been closely wed to participatory transpersonal research, then it is to be expected that new forms of more relaxed spiritual universalism will continue to emerge from its theorization. These forms will be “more relaxed” because researchers who adopt the participatory approach become more self-aware of the way their ambiguously situated bodies and the languages they speak have the potential to cocreate hybrid worlds with others.
As Doyle has suggested, psychedelics (or as he prefers to refer to them, “ecodelics”) function as “transhuman technologies,” or again as “deeply participatory media technologies.”63 By this he means that they intensify the everyday “problem” of awareness, a problem that waking, rational consciousness tends to repress, namely, “its inability to narrate its own conditions of emergence [and submergence]”:
This difficulty of observing the conditions of observation…leads to a further difficulty of observing the conditions of observing the observation, and so on into an infinite regress of observation, until observation forms the entirety of both the subject and the object of observation and all other objects disappear from consciousness and only a mandala…can orient the attention.64
Though often characterized as ineffable, Doyle notes the paradox encountered by many alchemical experimenters, that the rhetorical challenge of psychedelics–“the continual disavowal of language in language”–itself becomes an endlessly fertile site of open-ended cosmological inquiry.65
Ferrer’s metaphorical Ocean with Many Shores is a crucial corrective to the Perennialist longing for the One Destination. Adding the psychedelic “trip trope”66 to this oceanic analogy may open up even more possibilities for spiritual exploration. The origins of the rhetorical trope of a psychedelic “trip” can be traced back to analogies made in ancient Homeric Greek culture between drinking alchemically-enhanced wine and setting out on a nautical journey.67 Norman Mailer may have been the first to use the noun “trip” in an attempt to describe his indescribable encounter with mescaline published in 1959.68 By the mid-60s, it had spread throughout the psychedelic counterculture to become the trope of choice.
According to Doyle, the trope succeeds in that it
…[maps] the whorl of space-time characteristic of psychedelic experience…[and thereby] recuperates a psychonaut’s capacity to articulate by compressing a thoroughly distributed experience into a serial one. 69
Alchemical consciousness is “thoroughly distributed,” straddling sea and shore at once. Psychonauts are never again able to plant both their feet on the seemingly solid ground of everyday, rational consciousness. The trip trope functions not simply to describe psychedelic events to others, but to relativize one’s own consciousness by rendering into language recipes for self-transformation.70
Logos itself–that which, following Aristotle, has been said to define the human71–is, according to Corey Anton, best described as “a never ending tide of ambiguous merger and division.”72 Anton, building on the work of Ernest Becker and Kenneth Burke, brilliantly explores the way our human capacity for speech and so self-consciousness implicates us in an anxious search for some prevailing authority who might relieve our fear of dying, of becoming permanently lost at sea:
Logos transforms an otherwise submerged transpiring of organismal [birthing and dying] and vegetative [dreaming and sleeping] processes into a highly abstract, complex, and agonizingly lived-through drama enacted by personae whose lives play out within bids for cosmic relevance.73
But even these submerged biological processes are recognized by Anton to participate in the ambiguous mergers and divisions of non-conscious logos, as when a sperm merges with an ovum, which then divides within itself before merging with the uterine wall on its way to becoming a baby that will eventually divide itself from the mother through the process of birth. In other words, “logos [is] already rooted in the body.”74 Or, as Ferrer and Sherman put it:
In our poetic powers, we do not leave the world behind but create after the manner that nature herself creates.75
When logos becomes routinized in the form of instrumental rationality, it tends not only to estrange us from our earthly embodiment, but to struggle to authoritatively disambiguate the ineradicable mystery of our cosmic situation. However, logos can also, given the right religious or alchemical conditions, “reunite us with nature on a higher realm of contact”76 by granting conscious participation in unitive forms of space-time, or even participation in eternity. Rational consciousness, of course, can never,
with one summative and eternal word, say all of our different mergers and divisions.77
But research on chemically-altered, spiritually-attuned consciousness suggests at least the possibility of “rhetorical patterns consistent with…an epic eloquence,” verging on “eternal speech.”78 According to Doyle, participating in alchemical experiments to “[listen] for the logos” requires
subjects…willing to be healed, perhaps even subjects willing to be healed of being subjects.79
As much contemporary research is also suggesting, psychedelics provide the spiritual practitioner with a potent technology for overcoming the fear of death responsible for the fundamental anxiety dominating the world of ordinary rational subjectivity.80 Alchemical consciousness has the “disorienting ability to negate any essentializing voice by merging its symbols,”81 and so unlike an exclusively rationalistic consciousness, need not continually seek out authoritative forms of death denial. Their role in the ancient mystery traditions of Greece, not to mention the Vedic traditions of India,82 the shamanic traditions of South America,83 and perhaps even the Biblical tradition of Israel,84 shows that their influence upon the birth and development of transpersonalism in the 1960s is hardly a new religious phenomenon. As more scientific research is conducted, legal barriers restricting the free expression of psychedelic religion are sure to be broken down, and the open-ended cosmological hybridization so characteristic of transpersonal theory has the potential to blossom even more, gently grafting various branches of the world’s spiritual traditions together with its own creative discoveries into some as yet unrealized form of planetary mystery religion, a single cosmic tree producing an endless variety of salvific fruits.
Postface: A Book Sweet as Honey
After the dream with which this essay opened, I came across Mazatec curandera Maria Sabina’s identification of psilocybin mushrooms with the logos, referring to them as “a Book”:
A book that is born from the earth, a sacred Book whose birth makes the world shake. It is the Book of God that speaks to me in order for me to speak. It counsels me, it teaches me, it tells me what I have to say to men, to the sick, to life. The Book appears and I learn new words.”85
May these new words continue to be learned in dialogue with sacred chemicals, with a multiplicity of unique others, and with the universe itself.
1 Richard M. Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 21, 33.
2 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: Viking, 1982), 388.
3 An analogy that many psychonauts have found appropriate, including Stanislav Grof [in Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics, ed. Roger Walsh and Charles Grob, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005), 125], Ralph Metzner [Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature (Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999), 81] and Alan Watts [preface to The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965)].
4 Gregg Lahood, “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007): 4.
5 Gregg Lahood, “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008): 159.
6 See The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945) and The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Row, 1954).
7 See The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Citadel, 1964).
8 See The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness (New York: Vintage, 1965).
9 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.
10 Jorge Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002),183.
11 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy.
12 Michael A. Rinella, Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012).
13 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 121.
14 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 127-173.
15 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 146, 170.
16 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 165-166.
17 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 114-115.
18 Corey Anton, Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010), 28.
19 Richard Tarnas, preface to Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, vii.
20 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 156-157.
21 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 69.
22 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 70.
23 Antii Revonsuo, Sakari Kallio, and Pilleriin Sikka, “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 194.
24 Antii Revonsuo et al., “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” 200.
25 Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991).
26 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 123.
27 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 122.
28 Ferrer, Revisioning Transpersonal Theory, 118.
29 Robert Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 1-43.
30 Alfred Schutz, “Multiple Realities,” in Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967), 207-259.
31 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 2.
32 “Offline” activities take place outside the strictly biological context of Darwinian survival. Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, xx-xxi.
33 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 3.Italics are Bellah’s.
34 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 4.
35 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12-13.
36 George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984), 31-41.
37 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution,11.
38 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 11.
39 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.
40 Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies (New York: State University of New York, 2008), 26.
41 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 26.
42 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 12.
43 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 9.
44 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 29.
45 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 17.
46 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160-161.
47 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 163, 179.
48 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.
49 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 167.
50 Wade Roof, “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998), 5.
51 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 159.
52 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 182.
53 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 181.
54 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 161.
55 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 160.
56 Camille Paglia has compared the “transnational mystery religions” of the ancient world, like that at Eleusis, to the marginalized and subversive psychedelic movement of the 1960s (see “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.
57 Rinella, Pharmakon, 85-87.
58 Rinella, Pharmakon, 137.
59 Rinella, Pharmakon, 214.
60 See Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 29-31, where Doyle analogizes the co-evolution of writing and human consciousness to the co-evolution of plant and fungi-based psychoactive chemicals and consciousness. See also Rinella, Pharmakon, 192-195, where Rinella discusses Plato’s mobilization of philosophy as a form of counter-magic.
61 Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution, 387-398.
62 As Alfred North Whitehead suggested, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists in a series of footnotes to Plato” [Process and Reality (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 39]. See also Jacob Sherman, “A Genealogy of Participation,” in The Participatory Turn, 81-112.
63 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 43, 51.
64 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 77.
65 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 45.
66 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 21.
67 Rinella, Pharmakon, 9.
68 “…a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe.” Norman Mailer, Advertisements For Myself, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992), 245.
69 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 49.
70 “Trip reports are fundamentally rendering algorithms, clusters of recipes to be tried out, sampled, and remixed by psychonauts.” Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 50.
71 Humans are the zoon logon echon, “the speaking animal.”
72 Anton, Sources of Significance, 28.
73 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.
74 Anton, Sources of Significance, 38.
75 Ferrer and Sherman, ed., The Participatory Turn, 20.
76 Anton, Sources of Significance, 42.
77 Anton, Sources of Significance, 43.
78 Doyle cites an international study (Beach et al., 1997) wherein “over 35 percent of subjects heard what they called ‘the logos’” (Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 109).
79 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 110.
80 Lauren Slater, “How Psychedelics Drugs Can Help Patients Face Death,” The New York Times, April 20, 2012, accessed April 21, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/how-psychedelic-drugs-can-help-patients-face-death.html?pagewanted=all
81 Lahood, “Paradise Bound,” 176.
82 The Rigveda describes a psychedelic drink named “Soma”: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered. Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?” (8.43.3, transl. by R. T. H. Griffith).
83 Archaeological evidence of psychedelic sacraments being used in South America dates back to at least 1500 BCE. Dennis McKenna, “Ayahuasca: An Ethnopharmacologic History,” in Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999), 42.
84 See Benny Shanon, “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.
85 Doyle, Darwin’s Pharmacy, 108; and “The Vaults of Erowid,” accessed April 23, 2012, http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms_quote1.shtml
Anton, Corey. Sources of Significance: Worldly Rejuvenation and Neo-Stoic Heroism. West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 2010.
Beach, Horace. “Listening for the Logos: A Study of Reports of Audible Voices at High Doses of Psilocybin.” Newsletter of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies 7, 1:12-17 (1997).
Bellah, Robert. Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Doyle, Richard M. Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011.
Ferrer, Jorge. Revisioning Transpersonal Theory: A Participatory Vision of Human Spirituality. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.
Ferrer, Jorge and Sherman, Jacob, ed., The Participatory Turn: Spirituality, Mysticism, and Religious Studies. New York: State University of New York, 2008.
Grof, Stan, Higher Wisdom: Eminent Elders Explore the Continuing Impact of Psychedelics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. New York: Harper & Row, 1954.
Huxley, Aldous. The Perennial Philosophy. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945.
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1982.
Lahood, Gregg. “Paradise Bound: A Perennial Tradition, or an Unseen Process of Cosmological Hybridization?,” Anthropology of Consciousness 19 (2008).
Lahood, Gregg. “The Participatory Turn and the Transpersonal Movement: A Brief Introduction,” Revision 29 (2007).
Leary, Timothy. The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. New York: Citadel, 1964.
Lindbeck, George. The Nature of Doctrine. Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1984.
Metzner, Ralph. Ayahuasca: Human Consciousness and the Spirit of Nature. Philadelphia: Running Press, 1999.
Metzner, Ralph, ed. Sacred Vine of Spirits: Ayahuasca. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 1999.
Paglia, Camille. “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Visions in the American 1960s,” Arion: A Journal of Humanities and Classics, 10 (2003): 57-111.
Revonsuo, Antii. Kallio, Sakari. Sikka, Pilleriin. “What is an Altered State of Consciousness?,” Philosophical Psychology, 22 (2009), 187-204.
Rinella, Michael A. Pharmakon: Plato, Drug Culture, and Identity in Ancient Athens. Maryland: Lexington Books, 2012.
Roof, Wade. “Religious Borderlands: Challenges for Future Study,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 37 (1998).
Schutz, Alfred. Collected Papers, vol. 1, The Problem of Social Reality. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967.
Shanon, Benny. “Biblical Entheogens: A Speculative Hypothesis,” in Time and Mind: The Journal of Archaeology, Consciousness, and Culture, 1 (2008), 51-74.
Varela, Francisco. Thompson, Evan. Rosch, Eleanor. The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1991.
Watts, Alan. The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. New York: Vintage, 1965.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. New York: The Free Press, 1978.
The following is an extension of some reflections I began late last year while the Occupy Movement was in full swing. I’ve since read much of David Graeber‘s book Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I was quite impressed with his historical research and analysis of the present moment. His argument that the emergence of the Axial age religious traditions can be understood as a direct response to re-organization of social relations resulting from the invention of coinage is very interesting. I’m not sure I would go all the way with him, but it is interesting nonetheless.
When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when to pay for the Vietnam War Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the reserve currency of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased around $3 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector?1 When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth’s ecology. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, in order to sustain its constant growth, the techno-industrial machine within which our daily lives take place must extract ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.). The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth’s ecology.
Contrary to Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant claim in 1992 that neoliberal capitalism had brought the “end of history,” our increasingly dire ecological situation, as well as the recent financial crisis, are forcing human civilization to entirely re-imagine its future from the ground up. Congress’ response to the financial crisis made it clear that government as we know it is no longer capable of serving the people. Politicians, it seems, are bought and sold like any other commodity in the market. By using tax dollars to bail out the banks, the US government in effect admitted that, while the 99% have to suffer the consequences of their risks and pay their debts, the super rich do not. The values of “democracy” and “capitalism” appear increasingly antagonistic, since the market has now completely swallowed the political sphere both in America and abroad: a consortium of transnational corporations, rather than the nation-state, now governs world affairs.
As the Occupy movement of late 2011 exemplifies, the result of Congress’ response has been to make revolutionaries out of average citizens, as more and more people are now beginning to reject the status quo to imagine radically new possibilities for human life on planet earth. In this essay, rather than attempting to wield the jargon of econobabble against global capitalism, as many ecological economists have tried,2 I will turn to emerging discourses within anthropology and cosmology in an attempt to put the current crisis in a larger historical context.3 Truly imagining a world after capitalism–a system which was created and is maintained largely by violence and the threat of violence4–will require thinking with entirely new categories. Without seeking out our roots in human and cosmic history through acts of counter-memory, we remain at risk of continuing to define ourselves according to the colonial logic of master and slave (as “owners of ourselves” and “masters of nature,” etc.) and to the capitalist logic of worker and consumer. To imagine the future, we must first remember the past.
It was with the publication of On the Wealth of Nations in 1776 that Adam Smith effectively brought the modern discipline of economic science into existence.5 In order to distinguish economics from politics and ethics, he had to argue that property, money, and markets existed before governments and provided the very foundation of human society. In other words, in order to establish the autonomy, and indeed the priority of the economic sphere over all others (cultural, spiritual, political, etc.), Smith first had to argue for a peculiar theory of human nature based on
“the strange fantasies of liberal philosophers like Hobbes [and] Locke about the origins of human society in some collection of thirty- or forth-year-old males who seemed to have sprung from the earth fully formed, [having then] to decide whether to kill each other or begin to swap beaver pelts.”6
This is the infamous “social contract” theory, which supposes that human beings are essentially isolated, self-interested profit calculators who relate to one another primarily via the logic of exchange. The role of mothers in raising children is entirely ignored, as are familial and communal relations, since they do not operate according to the law of exchange. Society is said to have arisen only because of some primordial contract between otherwise atomized individuals, and government only to protect the soundness of money and contracts. Smith even went so far as to reduce conversation and language to a logic of exchange, a reduction later parodied by Nietzsche, who suggested that, if modern bourgeois values were made fully explicit, human thought itself must be understood to have emerged from our desire “to set prices, to measure values, to think up equivalences, to exchange things.”7
According to David Graeber, anthropologists have been trying to point out the utter falsity of this account of the origins of society for more than a century.8 In point of fact, contrary to the “just so” stories told by Smith and all economists since, we have not always been capitalists.
Smith argued that the market began with individuals bartering with one another, each hoping to get the better end of the deal: “I’ll give you three beaver pelts for 6 of your chickens.” Due to the problem of the “double coincidence of wants,”9 so the story goes, money was soon invented to make such exchanges easier. One would expect, based on Smith’s account of primitive barter societies, to find indigenous peoples across the world engaging in such exchange. But as early as the 1850s, anthropologists had already dispelled Smith’s make-believe portrayals of indigenous societies (he made up several erroneous stories about Native American bartering). Lewis Henry Morgan, for example, published descriptions of the economic practices of Iroquois Six Nations peoples: tribes stockpiled most goods in longhouses to be distributed according to need by councils of women.10 A stronger contrast with what was going on back in Glasgow would be difficult to imagine. Economists (aside from Marx and Engels) to this day continue to pay no attention to libraries full of such anthropological data.11 “Why?” asks Graeber:
“The simplest answer would be: for there even to be a discipline called ‘economics,’ a discipline that concerns itself first and foremost with how individuals seek the most advantageous arrangement for the exchange of shoes for potatoes…it must assume that the exchange of such goods need have nothing to do with war, passion, adventure, mystery, sex, or death. Economics assumes a division between different spheres of human behavior that…simply does not exist.”12
Before he could claim to say something scientific about the objective nature of markets, Smith had to invent the subjectivity of the human beings who participated in them (much of this work had already been done for him by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke). He imagined human beings in the most abstract way possible, as disembedded individuals with no ties to culture, community, or land (other than that which they owned) and barely a trace of even having been born through a mother or into a family. This picture has little to do with how humans have lived for the majority of our species’ history.
Despite the more recent individualizing effects of money on human consciousness, we remain fundamentally social creatures who make decisions based upon a complex tapestry of interwoven value spheres, the economic/material only one among them. These individualizing effects began as early as 600BCE when coinage was invented simultaneously in India, China, and Greece, and they increased severalfold since the colonial era began around 1500CE. In our own era of globalized consumer capitalism, where money now mediates almost every one of our interactions with other people and the world, individuals are more likely than ever to buy into capitalism’s master narrative of exchange. But a closer look at history reveals that a counteracting tendency has always been in place.
In each region where money and markets first began to enter everyday life around 600BCE, one of the world’s great enduring wisdom traditions arose to challenge it: in India, Buddhism; in China, Confucianism; in Greece, Philosophy. Again, around 1500CE, as Europe left the Middle Ages to begin the planetary era of the capitalist empires, the Reformation emerged, at least initially, in opposition.13 It seems that religion and philosophy, as we know them, emerged as spiritual counter values in response to the increasing influence of the more materialistic economic sphere.
For the first time in history, popular uprisings during the Axial age were intellectually and/or spiritually motivated: “those opposing existing power arrangements did so in the name of some kind of theory about the nature of reality.”14 The poor weren’t simply angry about being put in debt, they felt they had moral knowledge of the injustices and therefore the ignorance of their oppressors, and were prepared to argue as much on rational and/or theological grounds.
On the other hand, religion and philosophy have also played into the hands of the logic of exchange by adopting its categories of thought. In the gospel of Matthew, for example, Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven as “[comparable] to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.”15 Primordial debt theorists like Michel Aglietta and Andre Orléans go so far as to argue that debt itself began as a religious concept.16 They point to the Vedas as some of the earliest recorded reflections on the nature of debt. In the Satapatha Brahmana (composed around 700BCE), it is written:
“A man, being born, is a debt; by his own self he is born to Death, and only when he sacrifices does he redeem himself from Death.”
Ancient Indian brahmins were already conceiving of human existence in terms of a business deal. The gods created us, and so we owe them a debt which can only be repaid with our lives (which is to say, it cannot possibly be repaid). We are in a similar situation with regard to our parents, according to the Vedas, and so must have our own children and be kind to strangers in order to have any hope of paying off our debt to them. The Brahmins, of course, were kind enough to accept taxes from the people on behalf of the gods.
The complicity of religion in tightening the stranglehold of the logic of exchange, despite its spiritual ideals, seems to present a problem. The transformative power of spiritual values like love, generosity, and reverence (etc.) seem to be among the few remaining counter values to the greed encouraged by the market, but how can the religious worldview be enacted outside the logic of exchange? In our postmodern context, spirituality has been even further co-opted by the market, as religion is increasingly treated as just another brand-name consumable meant to express our unique individuality. Not only has money corrupted politics, it has infested religion and spirituality, as well.
Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society through the mediation of monetary instruments. This mediation begins primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Max Weber’s analysis of the link between Protestantism and the capitalist work ethic are well-known, further problematizing the role of religion in countering the market.
While the traditional religious response to the market can still be edifying, it seems our current situation calls for a radical re-visioning of religion’s cosmological basis. We must re-imagine the human being’s relationship to the cosmos as it has been conceived in the modern age. During the 19th century, mechanistic science analogized physical energy to the activity of the proletariat, defining it as the ability to do work. Carrying the analogy even further, it was supposed that energy must always pay a debt, due to heat loss, back to the cosmos. The thermodynamic concept of entropy is no doubt a crucial component of any critique of techno-industrial capitalism’s fantasy of unlimited growth on a planet of limited means, but the utilization of such socioeconomic metaphors by physicists betray the far reaching influence of the market even on science. In a society whose highest aspiration was not work, but play, one would expect to find descriptions of the activity of energy not only in terms of entropy, but also in terms of centropy. Energy would be, not blind toiling, but, as Blake suggested, “eternal delight.”
Religion and society themselves can be understood as having emerged from the human being’s innate proclivity to play. This is precisely the perspective offered by sociologist Robert Bellah in his recently published 700-page account of the Axial turn in the evolution of religion.17 The relaxed field generated by playfulness, according to Bellah’s richly empirical story, is the source of all human ritual and religion, and indeed of culture more generally. Play is symbolic, which is to say that when we are engaged in play, we are pretending, stepping out of the normal, ordinary course of daily life into an imaginal realm with no necessary connection to the world of biological survival and economic exchange. In the course of daily life–the so-called serious world–we are obliged to work, to “bring about [a] projected state of affairs by bodily movements.”18 In the anxiety-free space of play, ends and means unite to produce a self-justifying, inherently enjoyable state of peace and mutual fulfillment.
One way to apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it suggests about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socioeconomic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. Gobekli Tepe, a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in 2008, provides a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs by domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to domesticated modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.”19 The great deal of detalied planning and hard work required to construct such a temple–a structure that provided the people who constructed it with a ritually protected relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play–makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the jovial. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for play. As cultural beings, we take play very seriously.
Bellah connects play to the axial phenomenon of “renunciation.” A “renouncer” is one who, for spiritual reasons, rejects the political and economic roles assigned them by society. In rejecting society, they seek to establish schools (from the Latin, scola, and the Greek, skole, meaning “leisure”) of various kinds in order to teach and preserve their spiritual insights without being subject to the field of anxiety and toil ruling over the ordinary reality of the work day. Renouncers are found in every axial culture; they are able to find support in their respective cultures, despite largely rejecting the premises of these same cultures, because everyone, even the ruling elite, have had a general sense of unease about the state of the world in which they live since about the Axial age. Not until the irruption of linear time characteristic of this age was an apocalyptic end to the world readily conceivable; nor, for that matter, was the coming of a utopian future easily imaginable.
Religion, it seems, has had a complex series of effects upon its human practitioners. It was perhaps the initiator of civilization, convincing us to give up our nomadic wandering to settle near the numinous power of elaborate temples, where, through the playfulness of ritualistic art and music, humans and gods transacted in a “time out of time.” The agricultural revolution demanded by such settlement, and the surpluses it created, then lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized chiefdoms, and eventually, to full-blown states. Societies organized around kinship–wherein everyone was understood to be related to primordial semi-divine ancestors–were increasingly replaced by kingship–wherein the king became the only link between peasants and the divine, and only an elite group of priests had the free time for ritualized play. As we’ve seen, it was amidst such injustice that the religious instincts of humanity erupted in the form of the great Axial ethical critiques of civilized empire (e.g., the Jewish prophets, the Greek tragedians and philosophers, the Chinese Confucians, the Buddha).
Play is symbolic because, as Bellah defines it, symbolism is the possibility latent in ordinary objects, persons, and events in the world of daily life to become “[meaningful] in another reality that transcends the world of working.”20 The renouncers of empire who have emerged in the last 2,500 years or so have all critiqued the world of daily life–of working–by pointing to a transcendent realm beyond the immoralities of worldly politics and economics.
Today, as the global capitalist economy continues to convulse, the ideological bankruptcy of its supporters is becoming all the more transparent. Former mayor of New York City Rudy Giuliani recently spoke to conservatives at a meeting of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the “laziness” of those responsible for the Occupy movement: “How about you occupy a job?,” he said. “How about working?”21 Giuliani went on to compare the occupation of Zuccotti Park near Wall Street to Woodstock, suggesting that protestors would rather have fun than work. In his mind, school is not an end in itself (as it was for students of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum); rather, school is a means to an end: a job. The truly insidious thing about capitalism is that it commodifies everything, placing a monetary value even on time itself. Of course, time must first be falsified into a measurable quantity, namely industrial clock-time, before it can be monetized.22 The time-anxiety experienced by the modern working person is a direct result of this falsification. Leisure time and recreation, when measured in terms of clock-time, is impossible, since genuine play is always an end in itself, never a means (for better performance at work, relieving stress, etc.).
One of the core cosmopolitical issues behind the Occupy movement concerns the relationship between work and play. Has not our capitalist civilization become imbalanced in respect to the activities associated with these two modes of consciousness? I quote Bellah at length:
“In our society, [playful activities] tend to be viewed as ‘less real’ than the world of daily life, as fictional and ultimately as less important than the world of working… Yet one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time…the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed… [It is usually] seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need, [and as such] is a world of mechanical necessity…It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.”23
Bellah points to art, science, and religion as practices and modes of consciousness equally capable of lifting us out of the world of daily life to reveal something beyond, something more real, in fact, than working. The world of working is a world of lack, of deficiency. The world of play is one of fullness, a plenum, wherein everything is symbolically possible. It is not only a culturally instilled sense of guilt that prevents us from breaking free of the world of work, as Weber suggested, though it is surely that, too. There is also the fear of death. Religion in its degenerate forms has not done much to assuage this fear. In its perennial forms, however, religion is the surest expression of humanity’s faith in the immortality and universality of the soul. Until individual human beings are released from the egoic anxiety resulting from their consciousness of death, we will never come close to realizing a cosmopolitics of play, where communal celebration, rather than private capital accumulation, becomes the norm. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the various Occupy encampments represents a non-linguistic, almost mimetic/enactive cosmological critique of capitalism. The drumming, dancing, and playfulness are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the world of working with its logic of exchange and monetary idolatry.
1 This was the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world.
2 i.e., by commodifying the community of life on earth in terms of “ecosystem services,” etc.
3 “History” should here be read in both its sociocultural and evolutionary senses. See Big History (2008) by Cynthia Stokes Brown or The Universe Story (1992) by Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme for examples.
4 David Graeber (366, Debt: The First 5,000 Years) suggests that the only thing holding the current global economic structure together is the threat of U.S. military power.
5 25, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber
6 210, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011) by David Graeber
7 2.8, Genealogy of Morals
8 21, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)
9 The person whose chickens I want may not want the beaver pelts I have to trade him.
10 29, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)
11 395, n. 15, Debt The First 5,000 Years (2011). Most economics textbooks still account for the emergence of money according to some variation of Smith’s “myth of barter.”
12 33, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)
13 The Catholic Church’s writs of indulgence were arguably the central grievance listed by Martin Luther in his 95 theses, written and posted in 1517. These writs were sold by papal representatives to those who wished to reduce their stay in purgatory by paying down their debts to God. In other words, the logic of exchange was so pervasive it even crept into our conception of the heavenly economy.
14 248, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)
16 56, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)
17 See Religion in Human Evolution (2011)
18 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011). (Bellah quoting Alfred Shultz)
19 See the work of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins
20 8, Religion in Human Evolution (2011).
22 See the work of cultural philosopher Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
23 3,9, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)
I just returned from a lecture by the sociologist of religion Robert Bellah. He was invited to speak about his book Religion in Human Evolution (2011) by the Dominican University of California. The University has just started a program in Big History, which concerns not only the study of human culture (east, west, and indigenous), but the history of life on earth and of matter and energy in the universe. Bellah spoke to an audience of perhaps 400 people not primarily about religion, but about science. Bellah’s lecture might be best characterized as a “biological sermon” (as one attendee suggested). He began by establishing the common ground of evolution. Most educated people, he said, can agree on the basic scientific story of evolution. We human beings all descend from a common ancestor. At one time, tens of thousands of years ago, we were an endangered species. A few thousand of us inhabited the African sub-continent. A few million years before that, we were primates, swinging in the trees of a pangean jungle. Before that, we were reptiles; before that amphibians; before that fish, and before that plants, photosynthesizing bacteria, cells, amino acids, molecules, elements, particles, photons. If we trace our genealogy back far enough, we come to the beginning of the universe itself. Everything that exists now was implied in the initial moment of creation. All of it enfolded.
Our human existence–and the human, I think Bellah would say, is that being who knows it exists–is no less significant than the big bang. Cosmos and Anthropos are metaphysically basic. The universe, as we know it, cannot but be human; of course, the human with all of its religion and culture, is no less natural than the seagull or the stellar nebula. Anthropos (and Logos) is written into the universe from the beginning. That which is most human in us is most cosmic in the universe. Stars, carbon atoms, and cells are intelligent actors in and producers of this world, alike in kind to Christ, even if not alike in power.
- Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture (footnotes2plato.com)
- Robert Bellah’s New Book “Religion in Human Evolution” (warpweftandway.wordpress.com)
- More on Myth, Panentheism, and Participation… (footnotes2plato.com)
- Work and Play in Human Evolution (footnotes2plato.com)
The Spirit of Integral Poetry:
“Waring” the Symbolism of Organism
In the preface of his magisterial account of the evolution of consciousness, The Ever-Present Origin (1985), Jean Gebser warns of a crisis “of decisive finality for life on earth and for humanity,” a spiritual crisis heralding the end of the deficient mentality of the present age and the coming of an entirely transformed constellation of consciousness.1 Although his research points to manifestations of this new integral constellation of consciousness in a variety of disciplines–including mathematics, physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, jurisprudence, sociology, economics, music, architecture, and painting–Gebser highlights poetry in particular as necessarily at the forefront of his inquiry. An inquiry into the nature of poetry, past and present, “is the most instructive means for disclosing the respective consciousness structure.”2 Gebser quotes Alfred North Whitehead in support of such an inquiry, who suggests that “the most concrete outlook of humanity receives its expression” in poetry, and that it is to poetry that we must look “if we hope to discover the inward thoughts of a generation.”3
Poetry is the linguistically shaped and structured statement, by the human spirit, of a power rooted in the “primal depths of the universe.”4 Poetic statement, according to Gebser, is today under a new obligation to render origin perceptible to human awareness. Integral poetry, unlike its mythic and mental forerunners, cannot merely order the soul by contemplating the Muses, it must now raise humanity to the “order of the spirit.”5 Spirit, according to Valéry (whose poetry is cited by Gebser as an inception of the integral constellation) is not a “metaphysical entity,” but a “power of transformation.”6 The creative power of spirit, which is humanity’s consciousness of origin, cannot be captured by the dead prose of reflective thought. Spirit is alive and effective only in the transparency of poetic statements.
Though Gebser draws on Ernst Cassirer’s research into mythic consciousness several times in The Ever-Present Origin, he ultimately finds his thinking one-sided, “indirectly [affording] more insight into rational…than into…mythical thinking.”7 Keeping Gebser’s criticism in mind, Cassirer’s perspective on the symbolic form of language is nonetheless instructive. Summarizing the Romantic philosophies of Herder, Schelling, and W. von Humboldt, Cassirer writes:
“…the essence of language never resides in those elements isolated by abstraction and analysis, but solely in the spirit’s eternally repeated endeavor to make the articulated sound an expression of thought.”8
This conception of language as a holistic activity or process, rather than an isolable sequence of elements amenable to reflective analysis, is essential to Romantic philosophy. In the context of Gebser’s structural scheme, “philosophy” may not be the best term to describe what the Romantics were up to. Friedrich Schlegel, for example, sought to transform philosophy into “transcendental poetry,” a form of thought that is no longer the expression of an individual artist or thinker, but becomes “the universe itself, the one work of art which is forever perfecting itself.”9 Novalis similarly suggested that poetry is the measure of a work’s truth and reality.10
The perspectival basis of philosophy, according to Gebser, ties it to the ego and its dualistic forms of ontological, phenomenological, or existential representation: “The age of systematic philosophy of an individual stamp is over.”11 What is needed are not more philosophemes, but eteologemes. Eteon is a Greek word meaning both “true” and “real.” Eteology is a form of statement that is more than magically evocative, mythically contemplative, or mentally explanatory; it is “being-in-truth,” allowing origin to shine through all the structures, making them transparent in the present by sustaining the verity of the whole.12 The Romantics, in seeking to transform philosophy into poetry, were after precisely such a systatic mode of thinking. “When lovers–and the poets–[are realized to be] far more learned than the scholars are,” writes Novalis, “and tales and poetry provide to real world-history the guide,” then “world to free life can return.”13 This, for Gebser, is a description of the aperspectival world.
In turning to the Romantics’ poetic eteology, I hope to build upon the irruptions of integral consciousness that their work exemplifies. Gebser does not dwell upon the Romantics as especially evident of the mutation into aperspectivity, but nor does he deny it. In what follows, I will draw upon Romantic eteology as it evolved through the 19th and into the 20th century. I will begin by briefly unpacking the founding principle of Romantic thought: organism. I will then end by pointing to Gebser and Rilke’s Christopoietic vision as perhaps the most effective means of spiritual transformation.
Cassirer marks the linguistic philosophy of Johann Gottfried Herder, an early Romantic and major influence on the development of Goethe, as
“the transition from the older rationalistic concept of ‘reflective form,’ which dominated the philosophy of the Enlightenment, to the Romantic concept of ‘organic form.’”14
Language, for the Romantics, is an organism. This is not a metaphor and is to be understood quite literally, as for Herder, “language is never made, but grows in a necessary process from within.”15 Organism is here to be understood not as a specific kind of phenomenon or singular fact of nature, but rather as a “universal speculative principle,” a “medius terminus” integrating the mental-rational dualisms of such seeming opposites as temporal process v. eternal idea, and “the unconscious growth of nature” v. “the conscious creation of spirit.”16 In Kant’s last critique, the dualism between nature and freedom running throughout his system similarly approaches resolution in the idea of organism.17 Unlike merely mechanical nature, which Kant argued could be understood according to efficient causes alone, living nature displays a form of organization that remains inscrutable without applying formal and final causation. A living organism is an incarnating idea working to maintain the rule of the whole over the parts. Kant, of course, was in the end unable to overcome the dualism implicit in his system, since he applied organism as a regulative principle of human judgment, unwilling to assert it as constitutive of nature itself. He felt this would require genius of a scientific sort, something he believed was only achievable by artists. An artist intuitively creates her object, while a scientist must empirically and deductively discover his. The reflective mind of the scientist, according to Kant, is cut off from the creative workings of the natural world and so can only uncover them piecemeal as dead mechanisms. Schelling followed the spirit, if not the letter, of Kant by arguing that the symbolically sensitive scientist could know organism to be constitutive of nature. According to Schelling, it was the creative imagination which, long ago, invented the symbolism
“that we need only interpret in order to discover that the less merely reflective thought we give nature, the more comprehensibly it speaks to us.”18
The scientist, like the artist, can imaginatively participate in the creative processes at the root of organic nature, there uncovering, in a flash of insight, the holistic patterns that, afterward, can be conceptually analyzed into mathematical laws. Schelling overcomes Kant’s dualism by integrating mind and nature systatically as organism.
“Here for the first time,” writes Schelling,
“there emerged from [the symbolic imagination’s] sacred obscurity that ideal being in which the mind supposes concept and deed, design and execution, to be one…So long as I myself am identical with Nature, I understand what a living nature is as well as I understand my own life…As soon, however, as I separate myself, and with me everything ideal from nature, nothing remains to me but a dead object, and I cease to comprehend how a life outside me can be possible.”19
Schelling’s integration of concept/deed and design/execution is another way of expressing Gebser’s warning to avoid collapsing the integrated process/effect of systasis into something merely effected, “for if we do we reduce it to a causal system.”20 Further, Schelling’s eteology of organism, and his participatory approach to knowledge, are clear exemplifications of what Gebser refers to as synairetic thought-perception. Synairesis is a mode of thought-perception that integrates and makes systatically present the respective modes of each structure of consciousness: mental system, mythic symbol, and magic symbiosis all become transparent to one another.
These examples should make it clear that the integral structure of consciousness, along with its characteristic form of systatic statement, was attempting to break through in the Romantic’s organic philosophy, or rather eteology. Organism heals the conceptual dualism responsible for the fragmentation hampering the deficient mental structure of consciousness. Through the symbolism of a properly living–that is, poetic, rather than prosaic–language, origin can be brought to consciousness.
Cassirer, belying the rationalistic bias attributed him by Gebser, argues that “we cannot conceive of any real thing except under the conditions of space and time.”21 If this were true, an awareness of origin would be impossible, as would true creativity, which for Gebser “is not bound to space and time.”22 From Cassirer’s mental-rational perspective, experience can only be measured, and so understood, within the bounds of space and time. Perhaps the most difficult obstacle for Kantian rationalists like Cassirer is accepting the arationality of genuine creativity. Creativity “reveals the limitations of understanding,” since its effects on the evolution of consciousness are largely “spontaneous, acausal, and discontinuous,” and cannot be grasped systematically.23
Despite Gebser’s criticism of Cassirer, he nonetheless goes a long way toward developing the mode of thought-perception characteristic of the integral structure of consciousness, as I will attempt to show below.
Gebser notes that creativity has a largely psychic emphasis, and warns that this makes all statements about it partial.24 Because of its basis in the psyche, exploring the mythic consciousness of the symbolic imagination is perhaps the best angle of approach available to us if we hope to better integrate its energies.
Symbolism is at the very center of Cassirer’s philosophy of culture. He argues that it is precisely symbolic imagination and intelligence that distinguish the human being from the rest of the animal kingdom.
“The principle of symbolism, with its universality, validity, and general applicability, is the magic word, the Open Sesame! giving access to the specifically human world, to the world of human culture.”25
In a way at least approaching the Romantic’s expansive application of organism beyond particular cases to encompass the whole of the universe, Cassirer employs symbolism to account for the entirety of the cultural world. He again draws upon Herder to claim that even the reflective mode of thinking characteristic of the mental-rational structure of consciousness is entirely dependent upon its symbolic roots.26 To the extent that Cassirer is open to the Romantic’s synairesis of language as a living organism (thereby overcoming the dualisms of deficient mentality) his thinking is on the way to aperspectivity.
“The true concept of reality,” he writes,
“cannot be squeezed into the form of mere abstract being; it opens out into the diversity of the forms of spiritual life…In this sense, each new ‘symbolic form’…constitutes, as Goethe said, a revelation sent outward from within, a ‘synthesis of world and spirit,’ which truly assures us that the two are originally one.”27
Cassirer’s use of the term “synthesis” is a red flag for Gebsarians, but his firm grasp of the original integrality of spirit and world suggests that, though he may have lacked the systatic terminology to express it, he did not lack an intuition of its meaning. In a discussion surrounding the Kantian dualism between mind and nature, Cassirer goes on to offer a startlingly integral formulation of the evolution of consciousness. I quote him at length due to the importance of this statement:
“From the standpoint of [Kant’s] antithesis it would seem to follow that the richer the symbolic content of [a] cultural form becomes, the more its essential content must diminish. All the many images do not designate, but cloak and conceal the imageless One, which stands behind them and towards which they strive in vain. Only the negation of all finite figuration, only a return to the ‘pure nothingness’ of the mystics can lead us back to the true primal source of being. Seen in a different light, this antithesis takes the form of a constant tension between ‘culture’ and ‘life.’ For it is the necessary destiny of culture that everything which it creates in its constant process of configuration and education removes us more and more from the originality of life. The more richly and energetically the human spirit engages in its formative activity, the farther this very activity seems to remove it from the primal source of its own being.”28
In the early pages of The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser repeatedly reminds his readers that the evolution of consciousness is not a continuous progression: “Progress is..a progression away, a distancing and withdrawal from something, namely, origin.”29 Clearly, Cassirer’s understanding of the evolution of symbolic forms is congruent with Gebser’s. However, by suggesting that only a “return” to the “pure nothingness” of the mystics allow us to break through veil of culture, Cassirer remains tied to the absolutist tendencies of the deficient mental structure of consciousness. Instead of avoiding regression into mysticism by overdetermining philosophy through eteology, thereby allowing origin to break through into consciousness, Cassirer restricts himself to the role of the rationalistic philosopher, forgoing the spiritual possibility because forgetting the physical actuality of his own “being-in-truth”/“a-waring/”verition” “of” origin.30 The longing of his soul to find perfection in the concretion of “his” spirit is tragically blocked, as he pretends to “[find] fulfillment only in the sharpness of the concept and in the clarity of ‘discursive’ thought.”31
Cassirer’s thought ultimately remains anthropocentric because it rests upon an unbridgeable ontological chasm between nature and culture. Such a chasm can, in the end, only produce a disintegrated cosmology and an alienating politics. His allegiance to scientific naturalism as the “clearest” and so most “useful” symbolic form prevents Cassirer not only from understanding, but from ethically “becoming-with” the organism/s of the world. “Becoming-with” is a term invented by contemporary Whiteheadian Donna Haraway to signal the need for a strong dose of “animal phenomenology” to correct for the anthropocentrism of deficient mental techno-science. Her work is a call to an intensified consciousness of the “lively knottings that tie together the world.”32 Though Cassier remained consistently fascinated by an intuition of organism as the symbol of symbols, he was met and blocked by the guardians of the physical sphere, namely space and time. He could not grasp and turn the magic key that poetically opens humanity to the presence of origin and the possibility of a truly integral civilization.
Cassirer’s understanding of symbolism leads him to posit an external “nature” as the material “given” to culture for spiritualization. His discussion of alchemy in the last chapter of An Essay on Man displays a lack of acquaintance with the transmutational modes of consciousness instigating the living words of the Romantic symphilosophers/sympoets.33
Cassirer admires the calculative power of mental-rational science as an advance over the “half-mythical language..full of obscure and ill-defined terms” he says makes up the alchemical-magical (and, we might add, astrological) corpus.34 Gebser warns about the eventual cosmopolitical cost of the quantifying mode of knowledge production, pointing to the distressing unconscious power of the deficient concepts of mass and measure over our conscious lives.35 The mytho-magical language of pre-Enlightenment consciousness is rejected by Cassirer in favor of the rationality and instrumental value of numerical systems. He writes of the gradual mathematization of chemistry that, by the time of the periodic table of elements, had “learned to speak a quantitative language.” The qualitative phenomenology of each element was thought to be entirely deducible from a knowledge of its atomic number.36 The work of Ilya Prigogine on the irreversibility of chemical organization has since made the spontaneous, non-deducible qualitative character of elemental processes more than apparent.37 Like alchemy, Prigogine’s is a chemistry sensitive to the creativity of time, while Cassirer’s 19th century conception is frozen in the spatial fixities of the deficient mental structure of consciousness.
Unlike Cassirer, Gebser recognizes the extreme danger of psychic atomization resulting from an obsession with quantity by drawing our attention again to the poetic statements of Novalis:
“When number and numeral cease to be
a power o’er the creaturely…
where light and shade conjoin once more
to the true clarity of lore…
then can one cryptic word commence
to drive the topsy-turvy hence.”38
The spiritual realization of the symbolism of organism (cryptically alluding to both the life and death-poles of the soul39) allows for participation in the becoming of the whole cosmos, in both its spatio-temporal and time-free aspects, beginning with the local planetary ecology of which we are a living member. In order to make transparent Cassirer’s categorically-bound philosophy, where the world is manufactured by the concepts and systems of our deficient industrial understanding, we must become conscious of the congruence between cosmogenesis and anthropoiesis. The new obligation of poetry is to raise the human soul above all 9 Muses40 by transfiguring their unconscious cosmogenic energies into consciousness of the spiritual history of the world.
“Poetry as history is the account of events…effected by creativity,”41 creativity as the common origin of the structure of both psyche and cosmos. Integral consciousness is imaginatively aware of the planetary bodies as the acategorial organs of the world-soul governing the life of the whole. This cosmic psyche is clothed as the sky witnessed from earth, and as such is intimately interwoven with the collective histories and personal stories of humanity. It is not only culture that is mutating with the integral constellation of consciousness, in other words, but the cosmos, as well:
“[The earth] is a star among stars, just as humans are only humans among other human beings. On its great journey across the millennia it hastens through the changing landscapes of ‘heaven,’ transforming its own countenance and man’s.”42
In the mythopoetic language of archetypal cosmology,43 Cassirer’s individual soul, though it has grasped the truth, beauty, and goodness of Mercury, Venus, and the Sun, has yet to integrate and so make transparent the psychic symbolism of the other planets, most significantly Jupiter (space) and Saturn (clock-time). Integral consciousness bursts the limits of space and time through the transformative power of the creative imagination, ruled by the trans-egoic planets Pluto, Uranus, and Neptune, respectively.
The transformative, orgiastic power of Pluto is anxiety-producing for the time- and space-bound ego of mental-rational consciousness, as yet uninitiated into death by the 7 planetary gates written of by Dante.44 Pluto is the Dionysian “original chaos of human nature”45 that Cassirer sought to restrain by the ordering influence of Apollo.46 Order is not to be given up in favor of chaos, nor intuition in favor of instinct, but to the extent that the psyche remains anxiously bound to the measure and mass of calculative thinking, it fails to pass through the death-rebirth mystery initiated by Pluto and so remains deficient in mentality. All organisms are born and die. The mental-rational human organism is conscious of its own mortality, but not yet conscious of its connection to origin. The anxiety ruling over the ever day life of contemporary humanity is a symptom of the ego’s unwillingness to transform.
“Anxiety is always the first sign that a mutation is coming to the end of its expressive and effective possibilities, causing new powers to accumulate which, because they are thwarted, create a ‘narrows’ or constriction. At the culmination point of anxiety these powers liberate themselves, and this liberation is synonymous with a new mutation. In this sense, anxiety is the great birth-giver.”47
In another work of magisterial scope, Religion in Human Evolution (2011),Robert N. Bellah sums up our present predicament by comparing the secular “world of daily life…based on a fundamental anxiety…arising from the knowledge and fear of death”48 to the world of “religious knowing” generated by “the feeling of an infinite Whole.”49 The former is rooted in “standard time and standard space,” while the later is made efficacious by “the capacity for symbolic transcendence,” for going beyond the “dreadful immanence” and “mechanical necessity” of ordinary space and time.50 Bellah, like Cassirer, recognizes the centrality of symbolism, but in recognizing the capacity for the symbolic imagination to transcend the finitude of measurable space-time to participate with spirit in cosmogenesis, Bellah spiritualizes and makes conscious what for Cassirer remains merely the psycho-cultural projection of the collective unconscious.
The Angel of Death and the Coming of Christ
The debilitating anxiety of the mental-rational ego in the face of death prevents it from becoming aware of the ever-presence of origin, effective in both the life- and death-poles of the soul. Catherine Keller, another contemporary Whiteheadian, evinces the psychic demand of the integral structure of consciousness by comparing the finite ego’s relationship to the universe with the book of Job. Job, the archetypal human of the post-fall phase of creation, is called by YHWH to intensify the symbolic “horizon of what our little body-brains can know”:
“The limits of our knowing, like the limits of our lives, trap us within an often tragic finality. Yet here shadows of ignorance begin to suggest the bottomless mystery not only of death but of life.”51
Keller attempts to draw our attention both to the mortal limits of rational knowledge and the immortal reaches of aperspectival faith. She suggests that YHWH “is challenging Job’s readiness to stir the destructive forces of chaos”52 in service of the ongoing transformation from a suffering organism into a living symbol of origin, from flesh into Word. Job’s is the story of the initial emergence of the unconscious spirit buried in the primal depths of the universe into concrete and personal presence.
Indeed, says Keller,
“Job already whirls toward an ecological theology of the Whiteheadian sort, in which human becoming looks cramped and cancerous–unless we collude more wisely with the elements, the plants, the beasts and each other.”
In learning to “become-with” the threads of life the bind the world into a whole, Job redeems his fallen state.
“Where were you,” asks YHWH of Job,
“before I laid the foundation of the world…when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? [Did you] enclose the sea with doors when, bursting forth, water went out from the womb; When I made a cloud its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and placed boundaries on it and set a bolt and doors, and I said, ‘Thus far you shall come, but no further; and here shall your proud waves stop.’?”53
Gebser points to the symbol of Christ as the first answer to YWHW’s call, representing immunity to resubmergence in the tumultous and anxiety-ridden animality of the depths of the soul.54 In Christ, the Creator becomes conscious of the life of its own creation, the poet aware of his craft. YHWH enters into space and time, is crucified as Jesus, and reborn as the living symbol and original organism of creation.
Jesus said: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.”55
Gebser marks water as the symbol of the life-pole of the soul, while the “siren-like angels” of Rilke’s poetry are its death-pole.56 Christ integrates the creativity of the former with the “perpetual plenitude” of the later, allowing the poet to both drink the wisdom of the past and “ware” the wisdom of the present.57 Rilke writes of Christ, who for the ego appears indistinguishable from the siren-like angel “deep inside the doors of the dead,” that “he obeys, even as he oversteps the bounds” of space and time.58
I quote Rilke’s poem Sonnets to Orpheus at length, for these words mark a crucial event in the dateless history of spirit’s creativity:
“To praise, that’s it! Called to praise, he came like ore out of the silence of stone. Oh, his heart’s a perishable press of a wine that’s eternal for men…Only one who’s also raised the lyre among shades may return unending praise with warning…Look at the sky…Even the linking of stars is a lie. But for a while now let’s be happy to believe the symbol. That’s enough…Hail to the spirit who can link us: because we live in symbols, really. And with tiny steps the clocks walk beside our primal day…Dare to say what you call apple. This sweetness that condenses first so in the taste that’s so tenderly intense it may become awake, transparent, double meaning, clear, bright, earthly, ours–O knowledge, feeling, joy–immense!…Deep down, the oldest tangled root of all that’s grown, the secret source they’ve never seen…Branch pushing branch, not one of them free…One! oh, climb higher…higher…Yet they still break. But this top one finally bends into a lyre…Do you hear the New, Master, droning and throbbing? Its prophesying promoters are advancing. No hearing’s truly keen in all this noise; still, now each machine part wills its praise. See, the Machine: how it spins and wreaks revenge, deforms and demeans us. Since its power comes from us, let it do its work and serve, serene…Even if the world changes as fast as the shapes of clouds, all perfected things at last fall back to the very old. Over what’s passing and changing, freer and wider, your overture is lasting, god with the lyre. Pain’s beyond our grasp, love hasn’t been learned, and whatever eliminates us in death is still secret. Only the Song above the land blesses and celebrates…But you O divine one, resounder to the end, when the swarm of unrequited maenads fell upon you, o beautiful one, you over sung their cries with order, your edifying song rose from the destroyers. No one was present who could crush your head and lyre, no matter how they struggled and wrested. And all the sharp stones they threw at your heart, on touching you, became tender and gifted with hearing. Finally they tore you, impelled by vengeance, while your sound still lingered in rock and lions, in trees and birds. You still sing there now. O you lost god, you endless trace! Only because in the end hate divided you are we now nature’s mouth and listeners…Breath, you invisible poem! Steady sheer exchange between the cosmos and our being. Counterpoise in which I rhythmically become.”59
While mental philosophy demands explanation (literally, spatialization, or laying out on a plain so as to expose), poetic statement integrates the dimensionality of space and time by making the whole transparently present. Poetry awakens us to origin without the need of argumentation or systematic conception. It “[steadies the] sheer exchange between the cosmos and our being,” as Rilke says. In such verse, the ego-fixed soul find’s its way through the mystery of death and is born again into the eternal life, now not of the waters, but of the spirit. Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” 60
1 p. xxvii, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
2 p. 317, ibid.
3 p. 94, Science and the Modern World (1932)
4 p. 316, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
5 p. 327, ibid.
6 p. 326, ibid.
7 p. 246, note 8, ibid.
8 p. 160, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. I: Language (1955)
9 p. 156, An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer (1944)
11 p. 309, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
13 quoted on p. 307, ibid.
14 p. 153, An Essay on Man (1944)
16 p. 154, ibid.
17 See The Critique of Judgment (1790)
18 p. 35, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature (1988)
19 p. 36, ibid.
20 p. 310, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
21 p. 42, An Essay on Man (1944)
22 p. 313, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
25 p. 33, An Essay on Man (1944)
26 p. 39-41, ibid.
27 p. 111, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (1955)
28 p. 113, ibid.
29 p. 41, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
30 See p. 352-356, ibid.
31 p. 113, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, Vol. 1: Language (1955)
32 p.vii, When Species Meet (2007)
33 For example, Friedrich Schlegel, who sought “a whole new epoch of science and art” based in the alchemy of creative communion with others of similar nature. His historical scholarship “served as [a] newly fashioned key to unlock the secrets of man and nature.” -p. 20, The Romantic Conception of Life by Robert J. Richards
34 p. 215, An Essay on Man (1944)
35 See p. 129-143, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
36 p. 216, An Essay on Man (1944)
37 See The End of Certainty (1997)
38 quoted on p. 306, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
39 See Gebser’s discussion of the polarity of the poetic soul, given life by the Muses and death by the angels on p. 322 of The Ever-Present Origin (1985). This will be discussed more below in connection with Rilke’s poetry.
40 p. 318, ibid.
41 p. 320, ibid.
42 p. 541, ibid.
43 For an example of what poetic philosophy becomes when art, science, and myth are successfully integrated, see Cosmos and Psyche by Richard Tarnas. Gebser seems to hint at the need for a renewed astrological orientation on p. 135 of The Ever-Present Origin (1985).
44 p. 320, ibid.
45 Friedrich Schlegel, quoted on p. 161 of An Essay on Man (1944)
46 p. 163, ibid.
47 p. 134, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
48 p. 2, Religion in Human Evolution (2011)
49 p. 6, ibid.
50 p. 9, ibid.
51 p. 131, Face of the Deep: a theology of becoming (2003)
52 p. 134, ibid.
53 Job 38:4-8
54 p. 89, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
55 Revelation 21:6
56 p. 320, The Ever-Present Origin (1985)
58 verse 5, series 1, Sonnets to Orpheus (1955)
59 verses 7-26, series 1 and verse 1, series 2, ibid.
60 See John 3:6
- The Difficulty of Christianity (a response to ProfessorAnton) (footnotes2plato.com)
- Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture (footnotes2plato.com)
- Thinking in media res. (footnotes2plato.com)
- The Post-Copernican Odyssey from the Kantian Psyche to the Tarnasian Cosmos (footnotes2plato.com)
Levi Bryant has posted a few more reflections on myth. I’ve pasted some of our discussion over on Larval Subjects below. Bryant also recently posted on what he calls “a-theism,” and I’m more inclined to follow him at least part way in what he suggests. I have a few caveats, however. I do interpret the Christ event (he calls it the Jesus event) as a transformational turning point in the myth of transcendence that structured monotheism in prior ages. I am not a theist (which Bryant defines as a form of the myth of transcendence, wherein an entity is imagined “that is unconditioned and that conditions other things without itself being conditioned by other things”); rather, I am a panentheist. God is immanent in all things. All things participate in divine transcendence. Such a transcendence within all things is my way of affirming the OOO postulate of withdrawal. The keystone concept in Christianity, that which makes it panentheistic in structure, is the incarnation, which I have unpacked in relation to speculative metaphysics here, here, and here. I would also want to challenge Bryant’s caricature of Plato. The notion of participation (methexis) is central to Platonic thought. Any simplistic account of Platonic forms merely in terms of their transcendence has failed to wrestle with this admittedly difficult concept, and unfortunately, has completely missed the boat (the boat that Plato labored to construct to carry transcendence into immanence, eternity into time). I’d direct interested readers to chapter 1 of The Participatory Turn (SUNY, 2008), “A Genealogy of Participation” by Jacob Sherman, especially pages 81-87.
Levi, Your definition seems to imply that the ancient Greek gods, for example, were not mythic in structure (they were not transcendent, they were finite in power and in virtue). What were they, then?
I’d argue that the concepts of transcendence and monotheism were invented relatively recently (around the axial period), while myth, especially in its more ritualistically embedded and mimetic forms, has been structuring human experience for tens of thousands of years.
Matthew, As I’ve already remarked to you in discussion, I think your definition of myth is overly broad and fuzzy. You treat narrative and myth as synonyms, which they aren’t. As for greek gods, in my readings of classical texts they’re regularly treated as eternal and we get the stories of origins and falls I describe throughout Greek and Roman literature. I always get suspicious when people refer to the “axial age”, but I’ll set that aside.
Levi, your definition in terms of mythic structure, rather than content, is helpful. Any definition of myth will be “fuzzy,” however, since mythic forms of consciousness are indeed dream-like and can only be falsified by the “clear and distinct ideas” of mental-rational definitions. I come from a school of thought (Gebser, Jung, and more recently, Bellah) in which myth is to be grasped on its own terms, more akin to poetry and story, rather than collapsed into the theoretical terms of rationality.
I think an important distinction can be made between the immortality of Greek gods and the eternality of a transcendent God. The former does not imply transcendence of the emotional tumult of human-like existence, while the latter does imply a great distance, absolute or not, from such confusion.
As for the Axial age, it has survived Jaspers’ initial formulation quite well and remains a key concept for many sociologists and scholars of religion. You might look into Robert Bellah‘s “Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” (2011).
- Thinking with Latour and Bellah: Religion beyond Nature and Culture (footnotes2plato.com)
- Work and Play in Human Evolution (footnotes2plato.com)
- Religion and Reality in the University: Thinking with Robert N. Bellah (footnotes2plato.com)
I’m giving a brief presentation in a course on Christianity and Ecology with Prof. Jacob Sherman on Thursday. In what follows, I’ll try to sketch out what I’d like to say. I plan to briefly summarize the cosmotheandric potential of Robert N. Bellah’s recent tome, Religion and Human Evolution (2011). Bellah develops an account of the evolution of religion in the larger context of the evolution of the universe, earth, species in general, and humans in particular. His accounts of the unfolding of the universe and of pre-human life, though, are brief and perhaps inadequate. While interesting and even true, I’m not sure his uncovering of the mythoi woven into Chaisson’s and Dawkins’ scientific cosmologies is enough to provide readers with a deep sense of orientation in regard to the Fact of Cosmogenesis. Admirably, what he has succeeded in doing is disorienting us in regards to what we thought science was supposed to be telling we “moderns” about “nature.” Bellah, like Bruno Latour, shows how we have never been modern; that is, the West has never gone without myth and religion. As Hegel put it, “those moments which the spirit appears to have outgrown still belong to it in the depths of its present.” To the extent that we are aware of the presence of the past, we avoid being possessed by it. Nor has the West ever been in relation to a neutral and valueless “nature.” Nature is a modernist fiction, the product of capitalist economics and colonialist politics: both are forms of mythologically possessed culture (ideology) that seek to exploit the resources of whatever can be overpowered (lumber, oil, nature) or outsmarted (labor, soul, human nature).
Neither cosmological evolution nor the economics and politics of modernity are the focus of Bellah’s book. I’d say Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme’s The Universe Story (1993) is a good book to turn to for a sense of cosmic reorientation. Latour does a great job orienting us (we, the religious) in so-called modern times (or, we hope, non-modern). Bellah, on the other hand, articulates a non-modern, post-secular anthropology of religion up to and including the Axial period. Religion, for Bellah, has to do with those beliefs and practices related to non-ordinary experiences of the sacred. Of course, “the notion of non-ordinary reality, though widely held among a variety of peoples, might appear to be ruled out for modern consciousness” since moderns believe such realities to be “the mistaken beliefs of earlier cultures” (p. 1). I think this is where Bellah needs Latour’s critique of modernity in order to secure his definition of religion. Unless it can be shown that the moderns are mistaken about “nature” and about “culture,” then no defense of religious realities, or of the ontological import of non-ordinary experience, is possible.
Bellah is careful to point out that science, just as much as religion, is forced to invite us into non-ordinary realities in order to convey its truths. The world of daily life is not the world of bosons and quarks, nor that of incarnation and atonement. Art, too, opens a door into the beyond; a work is transcendent though never independent of its place and time of making. Some even say art, more than the tired orthodoxies of science and religion, is what civilization needs to renegotiate its catastrophic ecological situation. I’d suggest that these three cultural spheres (the differentiation of which Wilber calls the dignity of modernity) need to be re-integrated in a trans-disciplinary way (not pre-disciplinary), such that aesthetics, ethics, and epistemology (or art, religion, and science) are assembled into a single, complex cosmotheandric hypersphere.
Bellah moves us in this direction by rooting culture in play. Play opens us into a non-ordinary reality, allowing us to transcend the everyday world of work. The idea is not to transcend work entirely, but to recognize its relativity in regard to all the other experiential realties that are engaged in during a full 24-hour cycle of earth’s rotation (sleep, dreams, etc.), or the full span of our mortal lives (birth, near death, death, spiritual visions, etc.). A certain degree of work will always be necessary to survive, but the question remains what we are to survive for. If not play, then what? And what does it mean that play, and the creative efflorescence it provides, is at the existential core of our lives? I believe a connection can be made here to Imagination, to the way meaning is enacted, or imaginally bodied forth, rather than passively discovered in a pre-existing world (i.e., “nature”). There is no meaning here unless we are willing to play, to make present what is not here. Imagination is where immanence and transcendence meet and give birth to worlds worth living in. Religion, like science and art, is born out of our innate playfulness. Humans aren’t the only beings who play, but surely we have taken play more seriously than any being before us.
Latour reminds us not to stray too far from the cosmos in our search for the religion of humanity:
“a religion that has abandoned the cosmos has made itself irrelevant from the start…My contention is that religion could have been the best way to protect evolution against any kidnapping (any search for overarching [modern religious] meaning or [modern scientific] optimum), providing we expand a little further what we mean by the creativity of organisms” (p. 470, “Will non-humans be saved? An argument in ecotheology” (2009) in Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute).
When Latour speaks of the creativity of organisms, he references Alfred North Whitehead, for whom organisms make up the whole of the physical cosmos from hydrogen atoms and solar systems to wild flowers and primates. (In Whitehead’s fully worked out metaphysical system, organisms are understood to be societies composed of anorganic actual occasions intrarelated via the geometrical projection of an intensive hierarchy of eternal objects. Cosmologically, it is more helpful to speak of organisms.)
In accepting the philosophy of symbolic forms behind anthropologist Cliff Geertz’ study of religion, Bellah runs the risk of re-inscribing the all too modern dichotomy between symbolism and organism (another way of dividing “culture” and “nature”). This dichotomy is perhaps more pronounced in Ernst Cassirer’s work on culture (discussed here). Was the non-human world without meaning until humans, using symbolic language, successfully transformed pointless playfulness into full blown cultural practice? If Bellah is unwilling to remain open to the possibility of a pansemiotic, panexperiential cosmos, wherein energy itself is “eternal delight” disporting in time, then his approach fails finally to uphold the cosmotheandric potential I believe it nonetheless flirts with.
- Religion and Reality in the University: Thinking with Robert N. Bellah (footnotes2plato.com)
- Raimon Panikkar on Cosmotheandrism (footnotes2plato.com)
- God and Mytho-Poetic Thought (larvalsubjects.wordpress.com)
Graduate school can be tough sometimes. There are a lot of different graduate programs out there and each has its own unique challenges. If you think you’re up for the challenge yourself, Online Graduate Programs does a pretty good job of exploring some of the common struggles students have in grad school. As for me, I’m enrolled in two courses this semester here at CIIS. The first is taught by Prof. Eric Weiss; the second by Prof. Jacob Sherman. We’re well into the second week of November already, so its time to start fleshing out my term papers.
Weiss’ course is on the evolutionary schemes of the 20th century cultural philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Jean Gebser. Alfred North Whitehead has also been a near constant companion in our class discussion. Cassirer is famous for articulating the notion of symbolic forms, which could be defined as the various shapes of consciousness that have held sway over human society during the long course of its development, from early magico-mythic to late techno-scientific forms. Cassirer distinguishes mythic, artistic, linguistic, historical, religious, and scientific symbolic forms, among others. Each has its own characteristic way of interacting with the world and of making meaning of it. Cassirer does not suppose that we pass through each form, leaving the prior forms behind as we ascend to more scientific–that is, truer–modes of apprehending reality. Rather, he is quite aware of the extent to which even science remains a cultural activity, embedded in and dependent upon the symbolic webs of meaning that have accumulated and complexified since human beings first began to dance in ritual celebration beneath the stars.
Gebser, whose only translated work The Ever-Present Origin is perhaps the most profound text I’ve yet to read, lays out a scheme not unlike Cassirer’s. His picture of the evolution of human beings distinguishes 4 mutations connecting 5 structures of consciousness: the archaic, the magic, the mythic, the mental, and the integral. What is different about Gebser is the unabashedly spiritual and cosmological scope of his project. While Cassirer only claims to be speaking about the evolution of human culture, Gebser is explicit about the ontological reach of consciousness into the very structure of space-time itself. In other words, like any good Kantian, Cassirer limits himself to speaking about human access to reality, while Gebser explodes the cognitive limits of transcendentalism in order to bring forth an entirely new way of knowing, namely, integral-aperspectival consciousness. Integral consciousness is “aperspectival” in that it is not limited to the partial perspective of spatially-oriented mental consciousness, a consciousness unable to perceive the whole because of its deficient apprehension of concrete time as mere abstract succession. Gebser refers to this deficiency as the false spatialization of time, which turns what is in fact a spiritual intensity into a material extensity (i.e., lived time becomes clock-time). This is where Whitehead comes in. Gebser mentions his process philosophy as a possible inception of the new integral structure. In his critiques of Humean and Kantian accounts of experience, Whitehead unpacks his doctrine of causal efficacy. Experience in the mode of causal efficacy has been entirely overshadowed by modern philosophy’s obsession with another, more abstract and alienated mode of experience: presentational immediacy.
In my essay for this course, I want to explore the possibility that presentational immediacy, a mode of experience Whitehead suggests is only available to especially complex organisms, is in fact a capacity that developed quite late even in human beings. I think the deficient form of mental-rational consciousness currently reigning (though it is increasingly fragmented and in an obvious state of decay) only became possible as presentational immediacy took on an increasingly dominant role in human experience. Gebser’s other structures (archaic, magic, and mythic) can be characterized by their instinctuality and lack of reflective capacity, and by the absence of a distinction between “appearance” and “reality” so characteristic of the mental structure. I will attempt, in this essay, to unpack the changing relationship between presentational immediacy, causal efficacy, and the hybrid mode of experience, symbolic reference, as human beings move through each of the structures articulated by Gebser and Cassirer. In the course of this analysis, I hope to both integrate Gebser’s account of the evolution of consciousness with Whitehead’s cosmology, and further draw out the differences between Cassirer’s Kantianism and Gebser and Whitehead’s participatory realism.
Sherman’s course is focused both on why the ecological crisis emerged out of the Christian cultural matrix and on how this same matrix may enable Western humanity to respond to it. We’ve been reading quite widely in the field of religion and ecology. My favorites thus far are Thomas Berry’s New Story, Matthew Fox’s creation spirituality, Wendell Berry‘s and Norman Wirzba’s agrarian Christianity, and Leo Boff’s liberation theology. I’ve also read Robert N. Bellah‘s new book Religion in Human Evolution to help me write a paper for this course, as I think the ecological crisis forces us to ask a larger question concerning not just the role of Christianity, but religion more generally. A religious response to the ecological crisis requires that we first unpack the relationship between science and religion, and between mythic and secular reality. I think ecology, on its own, has much to teach us all, Christian or not. But the combination of Christianity and ecology changes everything, since in the Christian context we are dealing with a Creation and not simply a haphazardly existing cosmos. Ecology is the study of our home; unless our home is hallowed, how can we live in it peacefully and joyously? In my paper, I hope to use Bellah’s thesis regarding the role of play in human evolution to critique modern industrial society’s anxiety driven obsession with work. The role of religion in our ecologically troubled time is to re-imagine not only what’s worth living for, but what’s worth working for. What we need now is a renewed sense of how to play with seriousness. What ought we to be doing with our time here on earth together? Industrial civilization has its answer. Christianity has another. The two are not compatible in the least. My task in the essay for this class will be to articulate what a consciousness of Creation brings to ecology and to respond to the challenges presented by scientific cosmology to “Creationism.” In short, I think authentic science (i.e., the gentle empiricism of Goethe, or the naturphilosophie of Schelling) is fully compatible with cosmotheandric accounts of the creative universe. When scientists like Hawking and Dawkins say that science has made it all but impossible (or at the very least unnecessary) to believe in a Creator, I think they are expressing the industrial values of late capitalism more so than that of science, in its pure, disinterested form. Industrial capitalism has a vested interest in maintaining a cosmological picture in which owners hire workers to remake an otherwise dead and purposeless world in their own image. If the world is God’s Creation, “private property” becomes a pragmatic shorthand at best, blasphemous at worst.
At the center of Robert Bellah‘s 700 page account of the axial turn in the evolution of religion (Religion in Human Evolution, 2011) is a theory of play. The relaxed field generated by playfulness, according to Bellah’s richly empirical story, is the source of all human ritual and religion, and indeed of culture more generally. Play is symbolic, which is to say that when we are engaged in play, we are pretending, stepping out of the normal, ordinary course of daily life into an imaginal realm with no necessary connection to the world of biological survival. In the course of daily life, the so-called serious world, we are obliged to work, to “bring about [a] projected state of affairs by bodily movements” (Bellah quoting Alfred Shultz on p. 2). In the anxiety-free space of play, ends and means unite to produce a self-justifying, inherently enjoyable state of peace and mutual fulfillment. “Play,” says Bellah, “emerged in the evolution of mammals as a sphere sheltered to some degree from selectionist pressures, having its end internal to its practice, however much it may have proved adaptive in secondary and tertiary forms” (p. 112).
One way we might apply Bellah’s theory is to consider what it tells us about the history of work, in particular as it relates to the shift in socio-economic organization represented by the agricultural revolution. “Gobekli Tepe,” a gigantic, 12,000 year old temple structure uncovered by archeologists in Turkey in 2008, provides us with a counterexample to the standard account of human evolution. As the standard account goes, human beings needed to technologically secure their basic survival needs buy domesticating plants and animals before the supposedly superfluous activities of ritual, art, and religion (all closely related for archaic consciousness) could flourish. Gobekli Tepe suggests, instead, that the latter cultural activities pre-dated the shift to domesticated modes of production. Evidence at the site shows conclusively that the people who built this temple were hunter-gatherers. It does not seem such a stretch to suggest in light of the age of this site that the need for stable religious expression made the labor intensive shift to agriculture more worthwhile than it otherwise would have been for hunter-gatherers, the “original affluent society.” The great deal of detalied planning and hard work required to construct such a temple–a structure we may suppose produced for the people who constructed it a ritually protected relaxed field of spiritual and artistic play–makes clear that no necessary separation exists between the serious and the jovial. Human beings are quite willing to work harder in order to secure time and space for play. As cultural beings, we take play very seriously.
Bellah quotes Plato:
“I say that man must be serious with the serious. God alone is worthy of supreme seriousness, but man is made God’s plaything, and that is the best part of him. Therefore every man and woman should live life accordingly and play the noblest games and be of another mind from what they are at present… For they deem war a serious thing, though in war there is neither play nor culture worthy the name which are the things we deem most serious. Hence all must live in peace as well as they possibly can. What, then, is the right way of living? Life must be lived as play. Playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies and win in the contest” (Laws 7.796).
As we can see, for Plato and for Bellah, play is quite a serious matter. Bellah connects play to the axial phenomenon of “renunciation.” A “renouncer” is one who, for spiritual reasons, rejects the political and economic roles assigned them by society. In rejecting society, they seek to establish schools (from the Latin, scola, and the Greek, skole, meaning “leisure”) of various kinds in order to teach and preserve their spiritual insights without being subject to the field of anxiety and toil ruling over the ordinary reality of the work day (the Greeks established schools, the Buddhists made monasteries, etc.). Perhaps the best examples of such renouncers in our own Western tradition are Socrates and Plato: they were both “in but not of the city and also criticized it from the outside,” says Bellah (p. 575). Renouncers are found in every axial culture; they are able to find support in their respective cultures, despite largely rejecting the premises of these same cultures, because everyone, even the ruling elite, have had a general sense of unease about the state of the world in which they live since about the axial age. Not until the irruption of linear time characteristic of this age was an apocalyptic end to the world readily conceivable; nor, for that matter, was the coming of a utopian future easily imaginable.
Religion, it seems, has had a complex series of effects on its human practitioners. It was perhaps the initiator of civilization, convincing us to give up our nomadic wandering to settle near the numinous power of elaborate temples, where, through the playfulness of ritualistic art and music, humans and gods transacted in a “time out of time.” The agricultural revolution demanded by such settlement, and the surpluses it created, then lead to the emergence of hierarchically organized chiefdoms, and eventually, to full-blown states. Societies organized around kinship–wherein everyone was somehow related to the primordial semi-divine ancestors–were increasingly replaced by kingship–wherein the king became the only link between peasants and the divine, and only an elite group of priests were permitted the free time for ritualized play. Amidst such injustice, the religious instincts of humanity erupted once again in the form of the great axial ethical critiques of civilized empire (e.g., the Jewish prophets, the Greek tragedians and philosophers, the Chinese Confucians, the Buddha…).
Play is symbolic, because as Bellah defines it, symbolism is the possibility latent in ordinary objects, persons, and events in the world of daily life to become “[meaningful] in another reality that transcends the world of working” (p. 8). The renouncers of empire who have emerged in the last 2,500 years or so have all critiqued the world of daily life, of working, by pointing to a transcendent realm beyond the immoralities of worldly politics and economics.
Today, as the global capitalist economy continues to convulse, the ideological bankruptcy of its supporters is becoming all the more transparent. Watch former mayor of NYC Rudy Giuliani speak to the conservative crowd at a recent meeting of the Americans for Prosperity Foundation about the “laziness” of those responsible for the Occupy movement:
“How about you occupy a job? How about working??” Giuliani goes on to compare the occupation of Wall Street to Woodstock, suggesting that protestors would rather have fun than work. In his mind, school is not an end in itself (as it was for students of Plato’s Academy and Aristotle’s Lyceum); rather, school is a means to an end: a job. The truly insidious thing about capitalism is that it commodifies everything, placing a monetary value even on time itself. Of course, time must first be falsified into a measurable quantity, namely industrial clock-time, before it can be monetized (see the work of Jean Gebser in The Ever-Present Origin). The time-anxiety experienced by the modern working person is a direct result of this falsification. Leisure time and recreation, when measured in terms of clock-time, is impossible, since genuine play is always an end in itself, never a means (for better performance at work, relieving stress, etc.).
One of the core cosmopolitical issues beneath the Occupy movement concerns the relationship between work and play. Has not our capitalist civilization become imbalanced in respect to the activities associated with these two modes of consciousness? I quote Bellah at length:
“In our society, [playful activities] tend to be viewed as ‘less real’ than the world of daily life, as fictional and ultimately as less important than the world of working… Yet one of the first things to be noticed about the world of daily life is that nobody can stand to live in it all the time. Some people can’t stand to live in it at all–they used to be sent to mental institutions, but today in the United States they can be found wandering the city streets. All of us leave the world of daily life with considerable frequency–not only when we are sleeping and dreaming (the structure of dreams is almost completely antithetical to the structure of the world of working), but when we daydream, travel, go to a concert, turn on the television. We do these things often for the sheer pleasure of getting out of the world of daily life. Even so we may feel guilty that we are shirking our responsibilities to the real world. However, if we follow the analysis of Alfred Shultz [mentioned above], the notion that the world of daily life is uniquely real is itself a fiction that is maintained only with effort. The world of daily life, like all the other multiple realities, is socially constructed… [It is usually] seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need, [and as such] is a world of mechanical necessity, not radical autonomy. It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding [Kenneth Burke’s term], that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances”(p. 3,9).
Bellah points to art, science, and religion as practices and modes of consciousness equally capable of lifting us out of the world of daily life to reveal something beyond, something more real, in fact, than working. The world of working is a world of lack, of deficiency. The world of play is one of fullness, a plenum, wherein everything becomes symbolically possible. It is not only a culturally instilled sense of guilt that prevents us from breaking free of the world of work, though it is surely that, too. There is also the fear of death. Religion in its degenerate forms has not done much to assuage this fear. In its perennial forms, however, religion is the surest expression of humanity’s faith in the immortality and universality of the soul. I would argue that, until individual human beings are released from the egoic anxiety resulting from their consciousness of death, we will never come close to realizing a cosmopolitics of play, where communal celebration, rather than private capital accumulation, becomes the norm. The carnivalesque atmosphere of the various #Occupy encampments represents a pre-linguistic, almost mimetic/enactive cosmological critique of capitalism. The drumming, dancing, and playfulness are a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the world of working.
- Religion and Reality in the University: Thinking with Robert N. Bellah (footnotes2plato.com)
- Religion in Human Evolution – By Robert N. Bellah – Book Review (nytimes.com)
- Notes on the Occupation from the Mountaintop (footnotes2plato.com)
- From Means to Ends, From Work to Play (footnotes2plato.com)
A quote from Bellah’s recently published book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. I’ve just started this massive tome, but thus far I think I’m going to really like it.
“One could say that if we can no longer glimpse that sacred foundation, the actual university would collapse. For the real university is neither a wholesale knowledge outlet for the consumer society nor an instrument in the class struggle, though the actual university is a bit of both. But if the university does not have a fundamental symbolic reference point that transcends the pragmatic considerations, then it has lost its raison d’être.
Without the capacity for symbolic transcendence, for seeing the realm of daily life in terms of a realm beyond it, without the capacity for “beyonding,” as Kenneth Burke put it, one would be trapped in a world of what has been called dreadful immanence. For the world of daily life seen solely as a world of rational response to anxiety and need is a world of mechanical necessity, not radical autonomy. It is through pointing to other realities, through beyonding, that religion and poetry, and science too in its own way, break the dreadful fatalities of this world of appearances.”-p. 9