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

by Jeremy Johnson

“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.

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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.”