Cracking Time’s Arrow: The Catastrophe of History, Cultural Evolution, and The Prophets of Progress

“Such a reaction, the reaction of a mentality headed for a fall, is only too typical of man in transition.” – Jean Gebser, The Ever-Present Origin

“It has become fashionable today to mock or treat with suspicion anything which looks like faith in the future. If we are not careful this skepticism will be fatal, for its direct result is to destroy both the love of living and the momentum of mankind.” – Teilhard de Chardin

“My feeling is that until the number of whole lives is greater than the number of shattered lives, we remain stuck in some kind of prehistory, unworthy of humanity’s great spirit.” – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Years of Rice and Salt

“Hegel says it in a scarier way. He says dialectics of philosophy does not run from Death and Devastation, but it carries with it for a while, and looks it in the face.” – Rick Roderick

“This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them… The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.” – Walter Benjamin

This article has underwent three different incarnations; each one, I think, did its best to describe a single facet of what I wanted to say. Apparently, I wanted to say a lot. Instead of writing a book about it (and maybe, one day, that’s what I’ll do), for the time being I’ll try to summarize a storm-cloud of passions, arguments, and ideas concerning the question of progress. I decided to publish this series because it is an important question, not only for the integral-evolutionary community, but also the larger cultural discussion currently happening through books like Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined on the one hand, or Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants on the other (while both are quite different, Pinker is a psychologist and Kelly is one of the co-founders of Wired, a self-proclaimed “techno-philosopher,” they are both seeing a positive trajectory in recent history. One technological, the other sociological).

Jeff Salzmann, whose TED-style video initially inspired this project, has mentioned Pinker’s work consistently, and referred to other authors and colleagues like Steve McIntosh (Evolution’s Purpose: An Integral Interpretation of the Scientific Story of Our Origins), and Carter Phipps (Evolutionaries: Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea, former editor of EnlightenNext magazine). There is clearly something bubbling up in the cultural dream machine, whether in spiritual counter-culture or the Silicon Valley techno-culture (…or arguably, techno-mystics, since some institutions at Google and elsewhere are busy working on artificial intelligence and the technological Singularity).

Andrew Cohen, former guru and spiritual founder of the EnlightenNext organization, has recently acknowledged the influence of what he calls the “‘Prophets of Progress’..Stephen Pinker, Matt Ridley, Stephen Johnson, Hans Rosling, and Peter Diamondis to name a few.” He tells us that these authors have inspired him with their “persistent optimism about where we’re headed in the future, even in the face of so much pessimism in progressive culture today.”

r1009192_11345285mza_593915022885355336.170x170-75Rattling off a few of their arguments, it’s easy to see why they can be so enrapturing. Jason Silva, a film maker and self-proclaimed “epiphany addict,” has produced a number of videos in stream-of-consciousness style, rattling off evolutionary possibilities of technology and futurism (he’s featured on Reality Sandwich.com, The Joe Rogan Experience podcast and a number of other media hubs …Disclaimer: I listen to the Joe Rogan Experience!).

So while Jeff’s video may be coming from a very specific angle (that is, Integral Theory, developed by Ken Wilber, and arguably founding a small but strong bulwark that’s trying to start an intellectual and cultural movement), the idea is present again in popular culture, as a rival meme to the apocalyptic obsession leading up to and beyond 2012 (see Gary Lachman’s article: “2013: Or What To Do When the Apocalypse Doesn’t Arrive“).

I’ll wrestle with this question because  I feel it is so vastly complicated. Because I feel that the cynics have a different kind of vision (but are no less visionary) than the optimists. That the weight and immensity of crisis, and death, and even the potential for failure is tremendous, and has been tremendous, since we stepped out of the African savannah. That death is real, but so is life. That transformation is wrapped up in so many “little deaths,” so that the real ends to the process – that elusive Transcendental Object, that realized Self – are never clear. Never given. No, the way of life, or evolution, or transcendence is never set about by clear trajectories. Time’s arrow bears no meaning for transformation. It is cracked brittle against the stones of history. And history is a labyrinth. Of twists and turns, curves and spirals, progress and retrograde. The winding path of transmuting the catastrophe of history into something akin to Utopia – or Heaven on Earth – is never clear. “Coagula et solve,” wrote the alchemists, and neither coagula (the accruement of a substance) nor “solve” (after coagulation, its total dissolution) describe the process of the evolution of the human psyche.

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Nothing short of a “whole” orientation can help us understand the time we presently live. To dismiss some process occurring, even if only visible to the poets and the ecstatics, is to neglect the vast “living laboratory” (as Aurobindo described biological life) of our existence. Yet, to only see the gradual ascent (to only be an epiphany addict),  is to quite literally fail to engage with The Great Work (what alchemists called the process of transmuting lead into gold – not to be taken literally, since it is also a path of spiritual growth). Somehow our vision of human potential must gain more rigor, make room for the sidereal realms and abysmal depths. For these too, and not merely the waking moments, make up the trajectories of history.

Lately, I’ve sympathized more dearly with those bleaker visions of our human condition than those who, to the contrary, are intoxicated with possibilities, and so, arguably, the worst among us to realize them. The cynics, contrarily, have frustrated me to no end, because their sensitivity to the “dark side” of transformation is integral to articulating and paving way for the future.

In a sense they are the threshold guardians. They do not oppose a better world, they are in fact standing at its gates. What is it that the Threshold Guardians are protecting? They guard life. Suffering. The dark places that grow in us and through us on our way to Realization. The cynics have the upper-hand because they, in traditional story-telling and psychological language, contain our shadow. In the spirit of these thresholds-to-transformation, I decided to write up a number of questions, interjections, and examinations into the chapters of history that have been conveniently forgotten – like Dark Ages or catastrophes. These periods – reversals, collapses, and retrogrades – are an integral part of how we came into being.

So let’s approach the gatekeepers.

The Recurring Leviathan

globalizationJeff Salzmann argued in his video that while predatory corporations, while not yet good, are somehow incrementally better. After all, McDonalds isn’t beheading people (though in many nations, arguably, a case can be made for tremendous human suffering, biological catastrophes and predatory capitalism, sending whole nations into the equivalent of indentured servitude). Jeff is saying that things aren’t perfect, but in some way, it’s all an improvement – we should “relax” our criticism of the world and turn on our wonder-factor, trust the up-swing. But “relaxing” our critical faculties is the opposite of what we need to be doing. As the Information Age etherealizes our libraries and economic systems into abstraction, so too has it virtualized violence into stock markets and mass-media empires.

The question remains whether these vaporized aggressors are an improvement in history (and, considering their environmental and social impact, are they so ethereal?). Many of these new tyrants won’t cut off your head. Does that make them any less dangerous? Noam Chomsky, famous American philosopher and linguist, makes a compelling argument that corporations are incompatible with democracy. This contradicts Jeff’s position that corporations are (as etherealized violence), somehow, part of the “upswing” of improved life freedoms (and developing consciousness):

“Fascism is a term that doesn’t strictly apply to corporations, but if you look at them, power goes strictly top-down. Ultimate power resides in the hands of investors, owners, bankers, etc. People can disrupt, make suggestions, but the same is true of a slave society. People who aren’t owners and investors have nothing to say about it.”

It begs the question: can we actually sublimate violence by etherealizing it? And is such a power structure really improvement, or rather, recapitulation of the past?

Chomsky’s vision of a neo-tyrannical corporate state syncs up with many contemporary critiques of our postmodern electronic culture. From another angle, Rick Roderick, a popular Texan philosopher on YouTube, in a lecture on Postmodern Culture (highly recommended), argues that no, we can’t etherealize violence, for the structural barbarism – either in our time or in previous times – remains the same:

According to the Frankfurt School, Roderick tells us, electronic culture’s effect was to reverse the process of Western Enlightenment. That is, of individuation. Mass culture undoes the reflective individual:

“Now it looks as though we are heading towards a society where, you can plug yourself into it, and it will meet your needs… the Global System that I am talking about, that is on its way perhaps… In this system, the walls will be much harder to storm. It’s hard to storm the walls on T.V. In fact, like in Total Recall, you’ll feel you’ve already stormed them… Those kind of walls, and that kind of totalitarianism I suspect many people in the world don’t suspect is… the dark side of the American Dream. I hope that there will be forms of resistance. But the basis of that hope today is slim… Don’t forget that the structural principles in our society are as barbaric in their structure as they ever were. Perhaps more so. Perhaps more so.”

So if postmodern tyranny is just as big (or bigger) a beast as ever, one wonders if the digital age, which is engulfing everything into virtuality from libraries to (perhaps, eventually) human consciousness, unleashes the heart of Roderick’s “barbarism,” and highlights the fact that violence begins at a psychic level before it ever reaches materiality. And if this is the case, then our age holds for us a dual promise: the first, to cut through materialism and unveil violence as primarily a psychic act. Secondly, it reveals an opportunity to tackle the forces within us, lest we destroy ourselves in that process. I’m reminded here of Carl Jung’s video interview, where he states that the 20th century revealed like no other that mankind is the danger. “We are the evil,” he says, and what he means by this is that our technologically mediated age allows us to actualize our state of consciousness. It brings forth into reality what is deepest in us. If the basic psychic structures of human civilization has been violent (whether forced upon us our us upon others), then this age will realize that “karmic” state with expedient force. The state of consciousness in our age, in other words, requires some form of intensification if it is to survive. So, while I am not exactly an optimist, I am certainly no pessimist. It’s just that, all-in-all, the stakes are high. The risks are great, and I sure hope we make it.

“We need more understanding of human nature, because the only real danger that exists is man himself. He is the great danger, and we are pitifully unaware of it. We know nothing of man. Far too little. His psyche should be studied, because we are the origin of all common evil.”

To clarify: I am not here to critique, or dismiss the possibility of collective socio-cultural development. I do believe it is possible, and that there is something more to the seemingly random and often retrograde dance of history. But let’s, as Roderick quoted Hegel saying, “carry” ourselves with death for a while. It is an integral teacher of transformation and renewal. We have not learned to live if we have not come to deeply know our death. And, having said that, it is my hope that articles like this one can help us steer clear of the pitfalls that come with metamorphosis. We can’t avoid death, only temper it with embrace, discern its language in our chattering bones and dance with it for an evening. If we take seriously the mysticism of yogis like Sri Aurobindo, then this should be no surprise: we are born in death, you know. The human life is a little death for the soul, as much as it is new life. Born into time, struck on the lip by the angel so that we would forget our spiritual origins. Like Aurobindo’s call for an “integral yoga,” a yoga where we bring down spiritual realizations to solve and transmute our lives, we should call down the armies of our projected futures and bring them to the task at hand, the prima materia of our lives: the Great Work is here if we would take it up.

~~~~~

This is the first in a series of articles examining the nature of progress and evolution’s dark side. The next installment is by contributor and friend, Trevor Malkinson (founder of Beams and Struts), with his essay: “A Time to Mourn, A Time To Weep: The Many Faces of Progress.”

5 thoughts on “Cracking Time’s Arrow: The Catastrophe of History, Cultural Evolution, and The Prophets of Progress

  1. Hi Jeremy. Very thoughtful. I concur with much of what you say. It’s interesting, I’ve spent good portions of my life in both milieu’s . . . a good couple of decades in the ‘Chomsky’ and ‘Environmental’ cynic, critic realm and 5 years in the Cohen-inspired realm. The former world, I found for sure, critical, but ultimately lacking . . . I think too many, of not most of its adherents identify to strongly with a cynicism and I suspect it speaks to an underlying motivation within their personae which they would do well to face and examine – the right thing can ALWAYS be there for the wrong reasons!! and I always maintain that in the end, doing the right thing for the wrong reasons will eventually get ugly (I think it was in a Wilber book I read that someone did a sociological study of the participants in 1960′s anti-establishment protests and found quite a very wide spectrum of motivations, agendas and personal narratives at play – and some were high and some were dark. . . I can see that clearly in Occupy protests). I really don’t agree with Chomsky that corporations per se are anti- anything. I think like anything, they can be tools for good or bad. We need a much higher level of functioning consciousness than is presently operational to run them, that is FOR SURE – but we could say the same of communes, cooperatives, and communist states. We certainly have seen plenty of horror dispensed by humanity under just about any model, corporate or otherwise of human affairs management you care to look at! On the other hand, there is certainly a palpable naively intoxicated positivity on the ‘new’ evolutionary side of the coin. I’ve been around it and I don’t find it all that attractive, usually not that deep, and not very cognisant of history or reality. I feel the same way I feel when I meet Americans in foreign lands! AS for overall trajectory of time – I think it depends how far you stand back. For sure, its very torturous with twists and turns and often retrogrades that can endure for centuries!! But one can’t avoid, standing back the furthest, Brian Swimme’s observation that we have gone from Hydrogen to giraffes and Mozart – and there is something about that! What I feel in the deepest part of myself is at once, and simultaneously, BOTH a healthy cynicism (that I don’t draw from a pathological part of myself to justify and empower my limitations) and an excited optimism (that I don’t feel with any naiveté). It is a delicate and complex, but palpably ripe picture. I have come to appreciate that what is increasing with time is BOTH the opportunity for promise and the danger of peril. The amplitude between the heights of potential promise and depths of possible peril, I would say, is increasing. We have a lot more to lose and a lot more to gain at the same time. And what determines where it goes, is more up to us than ever, and more demanding of us to (not just an elite few, but more of us than ever), get a lot smarter, a lot more mature, a lot more functional.

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  2. Great post, Jeremy. It could be that Thompson is right and we’re entering a new dark age. Certainly the news on the environmental front suggests that catastrophic challenges lie ahead one way or the other. At this point, halting our production of carbon dioxide enough to make a difference would likely cause economic turmoil, bringing its own troubles. Then again, maybe these projections are based on our current technological understanding and we’ll work our way out of this once, say, solar power becomes as cheap as dirt. Who can say. I feel where you are coming from, and I think of Keats’ famous quote about Negative Capability in his letter to his brother: “I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Perhaps the idea of a single narrative of evolution is problematic and in some sense both of these stories (Salzmann’s and the more cynical view) are correct. Keats, incidentally, was talking about Shakespeare as the “capable man.” Shakespeare’s vision makes room for quite a bit, often a full range of competing perspective together on the stage. The upside, I guess, of Thompson’s notion of impending dark age is that it will force us to change. As frightening as mass species extinction and water shortages sound, the result could be a more stable global governance and a dialing back of the excesses of capitalism. Ultimately it comes down to your meta-narrative of existence, whether its truly human centered, or Spirit-centered, or whether any of it should make sense and cohere to a discernible narrative. And, I suppose, whether there is a destiny for humanity and how much we can shape it. If so, I can’t help but think that the first steps are strikingly obvious: we need America to wake up and start caring about what’s going on, and we need to start educating with the entire planet in mind, or with the mind of the planet in mind. Looking forward to more in this series!

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    1. Hey Andrew! I’ve been meaning to get back in touch with you these past few weeks but haven’t been able to find our archived messages. Could you do me a favor and shoot me a quick “hello”?

      And regarding your post, I whole-heartedly agree that the glaringly obvious thing for our first steps is to start caring and start acting differently. There is potentially a huge crisis that we are facing, whether or not we can avoid it with new “green” technologies, or advanced solar energy, so we have to come together for it and I’m not sure if I see many signs that we are. My issue I guess with Salzman is that I don’t get the impression that “waking up America” is a priority over the rhetoric of “It’s all going to be OK. You can trust the system.” What if we can’t? What if we never could, and now more than ever we have to become a far more participatory and engaged democracy? Then the problem isn’t being an optimist or pessimist, it’s becomes about collective action with individual talents and creative ingenuity coming together to problem solve a global meltdown.

      Then again, maybe we can’t avoid it, and I get the impression that Thompson is leaning this way. Being ever-hopeful about the future, I can’t follow him here. But his writings on cultural dark ages has done wonders for me to help understand the movements of consciousness and the long road through transformation.

      I liked your reference to Keat’s Negative Capability and thought it was apt! Yes, that one sums up my essay nicely.

      Thanks again! Hope you’re staying tuned for the conference blogs!

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  3. I agree. I liked Salzmann’s comment about dirt getting up and writing poetry. That is certainly staggering to think about. However, I can’t just sit in integral’s lap as per his suggestion. I think our fate is in our hands. There’s no universal law prohibiting poetry from crumbling back into dirt if we don’t figure out how to balancing modernity with ecology. Any sense of upward directionality guiding us from some larger presence is just too difficult to predict or know directly, regardless of how the tea leaves appear. I would like to think something is steering, but I’m not sure. I think the uprisings in places like Egypt and Turkey might be the beginning of the right kind of direct action (the Rest leading the West for once). Can you imagine what sort of popular movement would have to assert itself in order for corporate profit to be balanced with ecological concern? Especially since something as seemingly obvious as cap-and-trade can’t pass congress. I just can’t see this working itself out without some painful political clashes, at least. Growing pains, for sure.

    I, on the other hand, am optimistic because you’re going to be blogging the conference, and that’s good enough for me! Have fun!

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