Under the Influence

Culture

In the not too distant past, people everywhere were still insulated from much awareness of the world beyond one’s local family and tribe. We might now take for granted how much technology has expanded our reach beyond the immediate time and place we find ourselves in. Mobility through technology allows very different peoples and cultures to mingle and merge, as it also expands our reach.

We moderns seek an explanation for everything, and now we can find it ‘online.’ We look to, reference and then quote the experts – or share a meme that claims a truth through an emotionally appealing story – for winning our ideological and psychological battles that the subjective, private self feels obliged to acknowledge in order to be validated and heard. The risk is to hand over our personal agency to collective forces, becoming enslaved by ideologues or by anyone who has our ear. Even if it lies unacknowledged, in the shadow of every ideology there lies an end game.

Every generation fights a new bogey man: whatever public institution, once deemed and revered as expert, eventually falls from grace. This is how it must be. All will eventually fall, as long as the categories themselves of ‘public and private’ remain in a dynamic tension in which one negates the other, rather than serving as that which shows us a third way which places agency back into one’s experience where we can then turn to – that place where all struggles ultimately find their residence.

Hurry Up!

After thousands of years of toil and disease, in which millions of human lives lived were fraught with pain and suffering, technology began to serve us well. But somewhere we have moved beyond a level of relative comfort to a place we’ve never been before. Unlike the self-reliant nature of walking, the speed of a car, while increasing our freedom to move, at the same time increases our expectation of ever greater speeds. Our desires seem insatiable with the idea that technology will increasingly bring more freedom, comfort and one day perhaps the Promised Land itself.

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La Fileuse (Maryo File la Laine). – The Spinner. Zincograph with hand-coloring Indianapolis Museum of Art. PublicDomain

With desires and expectations far removed from human nature we’re twice as vulnerable in an era when technology and social media become the primary source of opinions, stories, images and ideas that are ‘shared,’ ‘liked’ and distributed in their most base form. Memes, quickly consumed as simple explanations, offer platitudes and solutions in an increasingly complex and shared world. We fill our need for ever deeper, more personal reflection with collective opinions distributed just as other goods are bought, sold, and often time, borrowed on credit. Faster food, faster cars, faster weapons, faster information foster unreflected opinions that define reality and tempt us into drawing conclusions about what is broken and how things should be. How to fix what technology driven by a desire for ever-increasing speed breaks? Speed kills, but more than that, while giving an illusion of connecting long distances, cheats us out of deeper bonds to each other and the world that the slowness of essential daily tasks once provided.

Our desperation to make the world better shares this hurried frenzy. We risk the loss of skills for mediating between a multitude of competing ideas, where a deeper understanding of the nature of social and individual problems might counter the overbearing collective influence.

Perhaps our hurry serves to move us past the unbearable pain of increased awareness of the plight of others whom we are often powerless to help, and into the pleasure of believing in a solution that fits our cultural frame of reference. With the solution in mind, rather than the problem, all that’s left is to blame those that don’t share our vision, who we then scapegoat as either unenlightened, brainwashed, or simply “haters.” (Perhaps our exasperation is an important clue that our understanding is not yet complete and still wants something from us.)

Technology in the Driver’s Seat

Although technology extends our awareness, it can breed emotions for things and events far beyond our reach, and still carry with it an expectation that our influence and responsibility might increase too, giving the impression that together, we can solve the world’s problems. Alone with one’s computer, the bigger-than-ever world is now at my fingertips. Perhaps this is why frustration, depression and pathology more readily find us offline, as we never quite find our unique voice that can skillfully mediate and express ideas that we’re attracted to. We remain dispossessed; both afraid and unaware of the reach and limits of our own agency. With all of the speed of technology, the experts we seek for validation still own us.

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Influence

The increased reach of our psyche is far out of proportion to our individual influence on the world’s troubles. The more power, influence and responsibility I think I’m suppose to have, the more I suffer when things beyond my control break my heart. I feel this deeply.

Power and influence, and the question of who has it and who doesn’t, are breeding a new pathology. Never before have we had a spotlight big enough to expose so much to so many. The power of one small cellphone to globally broadcast any event to anyone anywhere is unprecedented. The changes brought to our psyche and to every culture are perhaps unstoppable and seemingly chaotic, contributing as much to the solutions of our problems as to the pathological states that bring harm to so many of us.

No matter one’s beliefs or culture, common archetypal themes grip and haunt us all. In a world saturated by apocalyptic visions and imagery, it is to our teleological views that we might now turn to, not to believe in them more, but to see through them and the power that belief infuses into crumbling cultures. Regardless of their veracity, it is our very belief in them that divides us into opposing forces of believers and heretics, penetrating our awareness and identity with a desire to convert the unfaithful over and above anything else. Falling into belief (defined here as a mistaking of the desire for something ultimately unknowable to be true) is itself pathological, ever in need of validation, reassurance and defense that is beyond the human condition to obtain.

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F-15 and F-16 flying over a burning oil field in Kuwait in 1991. US Air Force. Public Domain

While it once seemed that the old institutions of church, social mores, government and superstition were to blame for our oppression and lack of freedom, as these structures begin to crumble, we might increasingly recognize a kind of personal free agency, unincorporated, to the extent that we don’t, out of fear and desperation, seek out ideologies and authorities to replace those fallen idols.

The desire to win an outcome stemming from any collective ideology, empowers the experts, who in the cultural free fall, solicit our dependence – increasing their influence over us while limiting the pool of ideas of what is possible. Corruption can be more readily justified through strength of belief. The antidote to belief is to stop worshiping at its altar, not the altar of any one specific belief, but the altar of belief itself. Ultimately, at root, what any of us always has – and which remains the very ground of our existence, is experience.

The Edge of the Universe

“Western reality has no prerogative or supremacy over other brands. It may be the present operating system for modernity on Earth, but its roots are no more rooted, its arising no more fundamental or absolute. No one species’s or planet’s deposition has primogeniture or is endorsed by the universe. The same claims are made implicitly by the spider and the mouse.”

In Richard Grossinger’s book, Dark Pool of Light, Volume One, he offers the above statement as a generous invitation to consider the broader nature of what we call reality. What seems increasingly important to me is to encourage and facilitate the awareness of just how provisional, and yet, universal are some aspects of our human experience. We live in amazing times. The shape of the world, its cultures and people, seems not nearly so distant anymore. We are at the threshold, perhaps, of realizing a global community.

Therefore, all cultural views and distinctions are being questioned, continually ripped apart by people who were once their very advocates and true believers. For some, this is truly devastating, threatening deeply held beliefs and traditions. We want to belong and we need meaning, even if it comes down to a fatalistic acceptance of meaninglessness or stricter adherence to fundamental religions. For others, a vision of unity brings hope that the human race may one day live cooperatively in peace and harmony between themselves and all that inhabits planet earth. I think we live in mystery, an outcome, or teleology only tempts us to leave the mystery.

The myths we live by might, and do, change. Every prior culture has eventually lost favor with succeeding generations. In the bigger picture of time, our culture in the west, post-modern, Judeo-Christian, like older paradigms, will unfold into something else. The push towards change has its own momentum, bigger than any culture or individual. Even in abundance, the drive to explore and reinvent ourselves remains. Yes, some individuals settle into comfortable beliefs that makes sense to them. But in the bigger picture of time, all cultures and paradigms drop out of favor, unfolding into something else. This doesn’t nullify particular aspects of cultures past and present, but incorporates them to more accurately reflect what was previously hidden.

Myths are not adopted necessarily because we prefer one version of the story over another. Myths that influence us at all, cannot reach us as myth, but as truth. When something resonates strongly with us, its irresistible pull helps us understand ourselves and the world we find ourselves in. Convinced of the certainty of what we believe, either by a historical perspective, teleology, or a charmed feeling of the experience it provides for us, we become storied, immersed as characters, even as our story conflicts with the stories of others. As they do for us, we become characters in a plot sometimes known only to ourselves.

So, does recognition and understanding of how myth works in us change anything? Can we see the implications of the story we find ourselves in and opt out? Yes, I think so, but can we ever be without myth? Is there a hard and objective reality, that when intellectually accepted as truth, replaces myth? What about science?

The structure of part of a DNA double helix

Science, perhaps more than ever, is an expression of a modern myth that seeks moving beyond and living without myth. It may be true that we are reaching a place we’ve never been before and that our rejection of myth in favor of reality may want something from us. But if so, can we ever leave behind the subjective states restricting us from objective experience? The next unfolding may not be about dispelling the mythological way of apprehending the world, but seeing how myth itself is an unfolding of the universe. Carefully, of course.

“The moment you let go of your habit addiction, you explode in all directions.”

Addiction to habit, yes, bringing us both the blessing of familiarity for survival and social skill, along with the curse of self-destructive beliefs that bring us pain and confusion, both which lock us into a mytheme that has long outlived its purpose. We see this on both the personal and collective level.

And so it may be the case that by placing faith in science and technology, we fail to recognize its curse of personal and environmental destruction because of how blessed we are through the benefits received. Perhaps the force of the myth itself satisfies, promising, and to some extent delivering us both health and wealth, along with relief from superstition and the bullying nature of the old guard of patriarchal structures.

I like to imagine that we live at the edge of the universe, unfolding a little more each day, both personally and collectively. The tension between the individual and the collective may be the springboard of revolution. We can look back on thousands of years of wounding through collective agreements, conventions and authority, and hunger for individual expression. But as the fullness of my individuality is experienced, I feel a desire to extend the boundaries of myself outward into the tribe.

When the need to distinguish self from other is fulfilled, alienation and annihilation ceases to have a hold on us. Then perhaps we’ll be able to experience ourselves anew as “beings” in relation at all times, to everyone and everything, and without the fear or threat of losing ourselves to authoritarian figures or “foreigners.”

“Our identity crisis— a crisis of possession —has progressed in the last hundred years into a crisis of meaning and a moral and spiritual crisis as well. We do not know who we are or if in fact we are. We cannot escape the Voudoun “who” has turned us into animated corpses. Every day we fear that we could be supplanted unaware by automatons because we experience how the global capitalist imperative has already turned us into something like automatons: desire machines without souls—workaholic, funaholic slaves.”

It’s not desire that destroys soul, but desire missing its aim of seeking to know others; to distinguish self from other in relationship by risking vulnerability and acknowledging a need for the other. Our attraction to machines, automation and technology bypasses the need for relationship. What we don’t get from each other we can get from automated devices, which increasingly invites us to treat ourselves and others as automatons.

Grossinger, Richard (2012-08-21). Dark Pool of Light, Volume One: The Neuroscience, Evolution, and Ontology of Consciousness: 1 (Reality and Consciousness). North Atlantic Books. Kindle Edition.

Wild Child

“Among oral people’s, language functions not simply to dialogue with other humans, but also to converse with the more than human cosmos. Words do not speak about the world, they speak to the world, and it is our loss that we have become severed from the vaster life, and have forgotten the expressive depths of language provided by the whole of the sensuous world.” David Abrams

A post on the Depth Psychology Alliance group, Ecopsychology, discusses the topic of story, fairy-tales and language in relation to environmental education and this paper by Joanna Coleman. You can read the post and conversation here, but a free membership is required.

My heart goes out to this vital topic. Before one can enter into a conversation on using stories to heal the rift between ourselves and nature, might it first be necessary to consider both Nature herself and the nature of belief and story? Are stories still a vital way to see ourselves?

Perhaps some resistance to seeing ourselves in a story, a living fiction, preferring instead to call it Reality, stems from a necessary agreement that we are not simply making the world up. We need agreement for those places where our lives intersect. The modern distinction between reality and fiction mistakes story as something untrue, rather than something that provides a metaphorical way to understand reality. Reality and story are not opposites. They belong to two entirely different modes of perceiving.

Storytelling, for us moderns, is enjoyed primarily because of its fictitious nature. Immersing ourselves in a story means suspending reality, perhaps releasing us from the tensions so many of us feel. Tensions caused perhaps by an increasing dependence on remote, uncontrollable sources for food, water and shelter. Technology, in some ways, returns us to infancy, only our mother is now the Sysco truck, the Real Estate agent and local Utility service provider.

File:2008-07-24 International truck docked at Duke Hospital South 2.jpgCan humans live for hundreds of thousands of years, relying primarily on hands-in-the-dirt participation with local resources for survival, to a place where we’ve forgotten most of the knowledge it takes to survive, trading it in for utter reliance on a network so vast, complex and distant that it’s become out of sight and out of mind? What does this change do to Psyche, let alone Nature?

Perhaps the change in us that’s hardest to see, although sensed, is also too primary to see. We live the life given to us through the structures already in place upon entering this world. They are natural. And if nature is now out there, in a zoo, a storybook, or a National Park, we’ve tamed it to the point that what little exchange we have with animals and trees barely touch us, except in a sentimental and safe way, or through efforts to manage her. From forest fires to so-called Parks, nature must submit to human demands – the more so, the more damage done.

But, do we remember the fear of the wild our ancestors lived with, or understand their drive to tame the wild west? Perhaps we have never come to terms with the conflict between a desire for safety and its result of devastating loss of wild life. Must the choice for safety always come at the expense of nature?

Culture:

Middle English (denoting a cultivated piece of land): the noun from French culture or directly from Latin cultura ‘growing, cultivation’; the verb from obsolete French culturer or medieval Latin culturare, both based on Latin colere ‘tend, cultivate’ (see cultivate). In late Middle English the sense was ‘cultivation of the soil’ and from this (early 16th century) arose ‘cultivation (of the mind, faculties, or manners)’; sense 1 of the noun dates from the early 19th century.

Ironically, culture relates to land, saying something about our relationship to nature, not nature as it is, but the one we till, grow and harvest. Culture than is the very thing that moved us from a people living with the inherent constraints and fierceness of nature, to a people resisting her wild unpredictable circumstances by settling down, forcing nature to comply through the use of our technology. From here it’s easy to see that nature becomes our thing, less something nourishing and containing us, and more something to be subdued, enslaved and dominated.

A Snow Leopard at the Toronto Zoo.

Not only must we see the horrific attitude that comes from dominating nature, but perhaps we must also see that blindly following the path of our ancestors has less to do with some inherent human evil and more to do with the harshness of nature herself. Can we remember what the pre-technological past was like and the harsh conditions of day-to-day life for primary sustenance? Could we moderns ever willingly give up even a drop of our technology; the safety, the abundance, the convenience and choices we have as a sacrifice for longterm stability?

Perhaps we need first to forgive the ancestors and ourselves, for choices made along the way that brought us the comfort we now seem unable to live with or without. Maybe then we can accept the sacrifices necessary to bring about a balance between our comfort and convenience and a sustainable world. Can we see though that our desire to plan and manage nature is what got us to where we are today? Does nature need us to tend to her ways?

I prefer to answer that question by remembering that I, too, am nature; part of the problem and the solution. Perhaps the thing most needed now is not only to see how blame, hope or turning away affects us, but to enter into a conversation that allows fear, anger, and sadness as necessary expressions that encourage attention to the complexity of our human nature and current predicament.

Maybe our fate has already been sealed and we’re free-falling our way to an unknown future – not alone though, for, abandon her, love her, fear or hate her, nature will be there too.

With hunger at her heels,
Freedom in her eyes
She dances on her knees,
Pirate prince at her side
Stirrin’ into a hollow idols eyes
Wild child full of grace,
Savior of the human race – Jim Morrison

Entanglement

“any measurement of a property of a particle can be seen as acting on that particle (e.g. by collapsing a number of superimposed states); and in the case of entangled particles, such action must be on the entangled system as a whole. It thus appears that one particle of an entangled pair “knows” what measurement has been performed on the other, and with what outcome, even though there is no known means for such information to be communicated between the particles, which at the time of measurement may be separated by arbitrarily large distances.” From Wiki

To our waking selves, the question “what is dreaming,” provides us with one of the most useful ways to recognize seemingly naturally occurring boundaries and divisions. It is worth noting that in dream states I do not recall ever questioning the nature of waking states. Putting aside for the moment lucid dream states, how different my dreaming self appears to my waking self comes from the waking recognition that both states, separate and distinct, co-exist.

Lower South Falls, OR

Distinction, definition, identity, and notions of ourselves and others can not be made without narrowing down and separating into parts ourselves and others. Just as the dream world is hard to conjoin to the waking world, it is difficult to hold the particularity of anything alongside an integrated state it participates in. Any focus on particular ideas or things – an act of separation itself, seems to blur the edges into a peripheral vision. Perhaps this can be likened to the idea in physics* of entanglement. Are we waves, particles, or both?

A symbolic representation of a biphoton (a pair of entangled photons)

I find it comforting that physicists now understand waves and particles to be descriptions of different states of things dependent on the perspective of the observer. These states may also describe our human predicament of trying to measure what exists in motion. Intuitively, I have always felt myself to be part of a bigger whole, but the nature of some particulars, like the difference between dreaming and waking states, seem to detract from the seamlessness in ways that cannot be ignored. The temptation to draw conclusions remains.

In Robert Moss’s book, The Secret History of Dreaming, he writes about the many ways that dreaming has been understood, whether as prophetic warnings, time or astral travel, or tools for psychological transformation, dreaming has played a significant role across time, place and culture. Through technology, we moderns now gain a birds-eye view of history and past cultures in a desensitizing way that tempts us to feel removed, post-modern. And so, I often remind myself that we are part of the whole human story, and that paradoxically, the fractured sense of culture experienced today, as technology shakes us up like a snow globe, is itself an acculturation, albeit a sometimes disorienting one.

Perhaps though, fracturing itself engenders a sense of unity, as unity and wholeness remain phenomenologically ungraspable, but intuitively and ultimately real.

When technology is used to reproduce a picture digitally, the greater the fracturing, the less the particulars are seen, the clearer and more whole the picture appears. So, what to make of the nature of the world then, is it digital or analog, or do the terms simply fail us, or perhaps merge together?

Maybe the two distinct perspectives feed each other, and that feeding enriches our experience of particularity into the ability to intuit whole and unified states. There is no war between them, as physics shows us that particle and wave behavior depend entirely on how we view and measure them. Likewise, I wouldn’t want to suggest that homogenization is some sort of goal and that stirring the pot into a well-blended soup will cure all ills. If the universe shows us nothing else, it shows us variety through multiplicity and diversification.

Comets Kick up Dust in Helix Nebula

Where am I going with this? Inspired by a discussion on the nature of consciousness in a podcast on Skeptiko, between host Alex Tsakiris and scientist Bernardo Kastrup, which synchronized nicely with a post entitled “Who Are We,” by Michael, who blogs at Embracing Forever, a resolution for me, where before there was none, seems to be taking shape. But, there you have it, look quickly while it’s a particle and remember that the wave is not affected, or is it? …and what I see, each moment and stop to describe, is but a glimpse.

But does it matter to know this, and if so, in what ways?

Perhaps in our ongoing struggles to be a human family that gets along, we can recognize the validity of both states, respecting that we are continually moving between their different perspectives.

We may not only be living in the world, but as well, may be shaping it with every thought, breath, birth, death, movement or stillness that becomes us. Not only in the usual sense of shaping the world through public activity, but through a web of consciousness that creates and embraces us and every “thing.” From the tiniest particle, to universes unknown, we continue to sense separation to the extent that our ability to filter, through our embodied senses, allows. And even in filtering, Bernardo suggests that through our sharing of this web of consciousness, to some extent, and not always equally, we share the burdens of each instance of life ever to have taken form. The implication then, is that we are truly in it together, for better and, of course, for worse.

 *To be fair, I claim only a scant lay person’s knowledge of quantum physics and you are free to make of the comparison of the behavior of the quanta with psychological states what you will.

The Unveiling

Perhaps we moderns no longer see ourselves as living under the influence of myths or belief systems. Whatever their source, they no longer serve us because any belief we subscribe to does not necessarily come to us through the culture of our familiars. More than any other period in history, we have become fractionalized as our awareness of the big menu of ideas, belief systems and cultures increases. Even the beliefs we first experience through the childhood lens of family and small communities of fellow believers are contaminated, if not corrupted, as we venture forth into adulthood where we discover a bigger world of competing beliefs.

Perhaps the act of choosing our beliefs rather than adopting what is handed down to us causes some of us to lose the inclination to sign up for any structured system of beliefs, especially as it has become increasingly evident that all communities are susceptible to the failings of their all-too-human members. Modern communication tells all and every belief system is at risk now of being de-mythologized. Even in looking for something to believe in, we find the only way to sustain our true-believer status comes at the price of excluding other beliefs, even of people who we love and respect as rational beings like ourselves.

File:The Caxton Celebration - William Caxton showing specimens of his printing to King Edward IV and his Queen.jpgOr, maybe we can no longer “believe,” because our exposure to competing beliefs leaves us with the belief (ironically) that any belief system is man-made, constructed, and so we come to acknowledge the fantastical nature of all sets of ideas which drives us to conclude that the only viable search for truth left for us moderns is one we have come to call reality. Secular, if not down right atheist, we will not be fooled again, or so we believe.

In pondering this idea of reality, I have wondered why we moderns seem to be so much under its spell. What do we mean when we make reference to reality, declaring something to be real (or not), and how is it that this modern usage came into being? What new shift in our experience does it reflect?

Reality as a belief, perhaps brings us to the ultimate supposition that there is one true background to all that exists, and paradoxically seems to show us that we live amid a multiplicity of perspectives, but at the same time insist, either that one of them is true, or perhaps something grander, that an as yet to be known truth does in fact exist. This now makes sense to me – to see our notion of reality as that which refers to the Whole, a sense that there is an undivided nature of all that was, is and will be.

File:Motorway (7858495690).jpgHow did we get here, to this point where we now experience ourselves as separated parts that make up a whole? We might agree that what has changed is our ability to both relocate and communicate at the speed of light and to any geographical distance, either physically or virtually, through the technology of travel and telecommunications. We no longer live in small localized communities that stay together generation upon generation, because we are not as confined and limited as were previous generations. We now have the means to move, in varying degrees, through both physical travel and the use of the internet to anywhere around the globe. As both the speed and frequency in which we move increases, perhaps so does our sense of separation from others and from the past. Especially in Western cultures, our independence reinforces the notion that we are separate, forging our own paths and no longer bound to a collective set of beliefs or the past.

Recently, I have been entertaining that notion that in order to restore the feeling of belonging and caring more for each other and for earth our home, we need a new myth. Some of us can see that it is a common mythology that holds a culture together. Only in our modern, historical, non-mythological culture could we think it possible that if we could just find the right myth all will be well – returning us to a paradise we imagine was once there.  Our de-mythologized state may be what allows us to entertain a notion like that but as well curses us with a mythology that says there is no myth, only reality! That is our myth, that there is a reality, even if we don’t feel ourselves to belong to it. Totally unreal! 🙂

File:Ottheinrich Folio296r Rev13.jpgWhat is it then that we need? Perhaps the historical perspective needs its grand finale, transforming us out of its myth of progress, and at last freeing us from the sins of the fathers.

I would guess, that the more we try to power our way out of the current global storm, the stormier it will get. If something must die, and it’s not a literal dying, what is it?

Maybe all that is left is to see is that there will never be an escape from myth. We are myth makers, and whether we call it reality, fantasy, science or religion, we are bound and contained, limited ultimately by our sense of who we are. The more we try to and need to define ourselves, the more caught we’ll be. If we are not who we think we are, then who are we?

Why Deny the Obvious Child?

Have you ever sensed while talking among friends, family or people you work with that much of our conversation is derivative from mediated cultural sources and sounds more like we’re speaking through second-hand voices instead of directly from our own authentic voice?

But maybe you wonder as I do what our interests, our sense of ourselves and of others would be like were we able to enjoy the feel of our own authenticity? Would our experience of the world then become more immediate rather than one that is heavily mediated? …and would gaining an understanding of what authenticity looks like further the effort to more cooperative and peaceful relations?

Perhaps until we are better able to experience authenticity through our immediate senses and perceptions (is this Hillman and Corbin’s Thought of the Heart?), in which it is understood how our ideas and language affect our daily lives, especially negotiating the choices and decisions at hand, we will not gain a sense of what authenticity looks and feels like, but will forever be placing it outside of ourselves and especially at the foot of a perceived expert or anyone we allow to speak for us. Of course, this is tricky because we learn and borrow ideas and language from each other all the time. That borrowing may not necessarily take away our voice if we work to develop the honesty and skill of sensing and  perceiving our immediate surroundings.

Paradoxically, without both differentiation and unity between self and other we may never know the authenticity that follows from honesty, understanding and compassion in ourselves and for others. 

The problem of authenticity and authority is for each of us a personal issue as well as a cultural one. Who do we trust? What makes an idea viable for us? What do we mean by the idea of “real” and “reality” that we often refer to? Does our use of those terms indicate who and what we have determined to be trustworthy? These are modern terms only recently coming into use to mean “authentic” and more recently coming to mean an objective actuality referring to the state of things.

Perhaps we all look for ways to authenticate and authorize our ideas and knowledge through others because we fear claiming any authenticity for ourselves. We want to be right, and need a basis to make choices, or a way to explain why we have no choice for how we live our life, but we also need to explain, or explain away, where our ideas and decisions come from. Authority abounds, whether from the state, the church or the laboratory, but in a highly mediated collective culture it less often comes directly from ourselves.

Collective sources more than ever have become our resources for knowledge. Whether it’s the popular media of television, radio, newspapers or internet, structures of our work environment, communities, church institutions, schools and governments, getting along in society means trusting in these sources to have our best interest and the common good in mind. If we question them there are often consequences, sometimes it’s just easier to ride the bus.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” Bob Dylan

Today we are saturated with information and communication as well as choices in media – ways to participate in community activities – churches, sports, travel, even diet and exercise have become part of the cultural conversation. Although having choices can be freeing, we can only eat one meal at a time. But is it possible to eat and be healthy by attending to our own diet and feel our bodily reactions? Would we dare to?

The shadow side of being overly saturated in collectivity and culture is that the more ways we have to keep from being alone (or from boredom as some say) the less it seems that we need each other or recognize authenticity. We don’t as easily trust what a friend says, when we have placed authenticity in collective structures and a select few who have been collectively chosen as the Experts.

Expertise can be authentic, but a claim that one is an expert is an over reach; a misunderstanding of the nature of ourselves for it implies that our nature is static when it is ever-changing as much as Heraclitus’ flowing river.

When I ponder the possibility of creating a culture of authenticity, the disagreements, whether about religion, politics, science, the use of technology, limited and valuable resources, I see us more and more driven by ideas, technologies, desires, and choices that we don’t have the time or the resources to understand and so we punt, leaving it all to the experts, who also punt, and so I ask myself, who are the experts leaving it to?

“Some people say a lie is just a lie
But I say the cross is in the ballpark
Why deny the obvious child?” Paul Simon

Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air

“The Imagination of Air and the Collapse of Alchemy,” is Hillman’s next to last chapter in his book, Alchemical Psychology. He reminds us at the start of the chapter that it is the images of air and not their measurement that was the focus for the alchemists. The chapters of this wonderful book get meatier and meatier and so please forgive me for the increasing length of these posts. Even so, what is presented here is just a glimpse of this very heavy chapter on air.

“Geist, Logos, Pneuma, Spiritus, Prana, Ruach, Psyche, Anima/Animus – words of air, forms of its imagination. Air makes possible this perceptible world, transmitting the colors, sounds and smells that qualify and inform our animal immersion.

Aspiration, inspiration, genius is structurally inherent, a pneumatic tension within each soul.

A pneumatic tension. In the latter days of alchemy, through the chemical imagination, a bridge is created leading to a new era in which the effects of air upon physical substances spurs a revolution in science birthing inventions that greatly change the technology of everyday life. Transportation powered by steam and gas for lighting streets, homes and businesses helps to usher in both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Dispelling the dark however, removes the sense of the mystery of the invisibles from our imaginations. To us moderns, if you can’t count it, you can’t count on it.

Hillman notes the shift from alchemical work done for personal benefit, to that work which leads our focus out into service of the world. One of the first of many airy inventions was hot air balloons, leading eventually to the technology of flight. Through the use of burning coal and the construction of city gas lines the illumination of the great cities of Europe, America and eventually much of the world had begun.

The control over nature that bringing light to the masses provides leads to the powerful ideals of a progressive movement that now envisions the possibility of improving conditions of humanity so much so that we might one day eliminate crime, hunger and poverty.

“The enlightenment literalized and moralized: deprivation of gas-lighting becomes a privatio boni. To light the night, and actually dispel darkness, its dreadful dominion, implies the upgrading of mankind.”

File:Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Thomas Phillips.jpgHillman goes on to show us through the discoveries of latter-day alchemists that their work with air itself brings a spirit and a puer sense to their lives and undertakings. Here he starts with the work and writings of Humphrey Davy to show us some of that puer spirit and the part he played in the transition from an alchemy of subjective value to a science that serves humanity. Davy’s work in chemistry alone identified 47 new chemical elements.

“Davy gives us, further, a clue to the spirit of empiricism that informs the period from Jan Baptist van Helmont and Robert Boyle through Davy. These men played even as they measured:  Benjamin Franklin with his kite; Robert Hooke with his gadgets; Stephen Hales examining his animals and plants; Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac ascending to 7,000 meters in a balloon; Humphry Davy and his crowd sniffing.

It was not merely that magical tricks and alchemical transformations still pervaded the new chemistry, but that the occupation with air constellated its elemental force: risk, flight, fancy. The spirit of experimentation – the puer impulse had not yet succumbed to the pre-arranged intentions of what experiments came to be in later science. A lab experiment now is a senex ritual repeating what is already known. Less an investigative act of curiosity, it is more an initiation into the scientific paradigm by an imitative performance of what the figures of science, now senex patriarchs of scientific laws, did centuries ago.”

Hillman notes the shift in perspectives between those who held to the use of a substance called Phlogiston to explain chemical phenomena and those who advanced the understanding of chemistry through chemical reactions such as oxidation to being pivotal in the transition to modern science.

“Let me demonstrate the paradigm shift, the death knell of alchemy, before your imagining eyes. If a strip or bar of metal is calcined, that is, dry roasted in the intense heat of a burning glass – the old alchemical operation of calcinatio  – the calx or powdery residue of the metal weighs more than the original metal. Does this heavy calx remaining mean that something volatile in the metal has been burned away, subtracted, leaving a heavy deposit? If this is your account, then you belong to the school of Stahl and would call the “something volatile” that has burned away phlogiston. If, however, you consider the heavier residue to indicate that calcining has added something to the metal that is present in the calx and was not present in the metal (at all or to the same degree), then you belong to the school of Lavoisier and the “something added” is oxygen.”

This shift in paradigms moves the focus away from qualifying the material world to quantifying and measuring it.

When Lavoisier designed the shorthand symbol for his principe oxygine, he drew it with sharp points  because acids were imagined in the eighteenth century to be composed of atoms with spikes, hence their biting, corrosive effect. Phlogiston, through its sulfuric ancestry, was warm, oily, and generous; oxygen, through its acidic ancestry, was corrosive and aggressive. The chemical revolution brightened, and soured, the air.

The exchange of alchemy for chemistry was, in short, an exchange of phlogiston for oxygen. What went was vitalism and the final cause; what came was atomism and the material cause. What went was Stahl’s anima; what came was Lavoisier’s methode. What went was the meaning in chemical transformations; what came was their explanation.

The reduction to matter is not necessarily a fall, a defeat of the wing; materialization is a means by which spirit becomes differentiated, makes itself knowable.”

Quoting the scientist Henry Cavendish:

“Since we are assured that the all-wise Creator has observed the most exact proportions, of number, weight, and measure, in the make of all things; the most likely way therefore, to get any insight into the nature of those parts of the creation … must in all reason be to number, weigh and measure. ”

Much is gained by this new method of revealing nature’s secrets.

“God can thus be present in the method and not only in the material as alchemy thought. This is the watershed between alchemy and chemistry: where alchemy sought the secret in matter, chemistry imagined the secret in the modes of examining the matter – measure, weight, and number. Hence the importance of technical apparatus, mathematical models, laboratory experiment – these were divine instruments. To call this merely quantification or technology or applied science is to lose the inspiration, aspiration, effervescence, illumination, and ascension – the gas – that suffuses the discoveries and the heights of vision to which the methods led.

The collapse of phlogiston freed the spirit. It had been held in an alchemical vestige, for phlogiston was, as Stahl insisted, a kind of matter, yet one which no method could analyze. Lavoisier’s accurate method overcame that subtle matter, releasing spirit from that style of alchemical materialization. Now the place of spirit was in the method of “free” scientific inquiry, which together with the social, religious and technical revolutions that inseparably accompanied the new method, breathed the aerial soul, and its inflations, into the free-thinking spirit of the times whose watchwords were both measure, weight, number and liberté, egalité, fraternité.”

Hillman spends much time detailing the lives of these new scientists and especially their lack of relatedness and particularly to women. Many of these men never married. Rather than find one’s soul through the love of a woman, nature now became the object of their adoration.

“The new weightiness of air corresponded with a new substantiation of soul in the material world. Physical experiment made the invisible more visible. 

The fascinating mistress was not woman, but the mystery within the natural world.”

This “fascinating mistress” though is also a call from one’s genius, often seen as a puer trait. Anytime the puer archetype is seen the senex is never that far away, which might help us to understand the drift in modern science towards scientism, where the guards of the hen-house have in some instances starved the hens.

“It is easy enough to attribute inventions to genius, but genius is also an air, a nimbus around the head. Genius was the Roman word for psyche or daimon, for a vapor-like spirit that “blows.”  It is not an ego, but breaks in upon it – invenio – a gift of the genie in the bottle who speaks to the “boy,” a guiding presence telling the attentive worker how next to move his hand, waking him in the night with flashes of intuition as to how best respond to the demands of the invisible to become visible by means of invention.

Of course, these men were often solitaries; they reserved their ears for the subtle “invenio” of the airy genius.  “I do not think I could work in company,” Faraday said, “or think aloud, or explain my thoughts.”  The genius of making, poesis: apparatus as poem.”

I love that Hillman sees the lives of these transistional scientists as still serving soul and that much as the myth of Eros and Psyche is a story of love and attraction that brings joy, so it is that anytime there is love you will find psyche.

“We must therefore read the chemical revolution neither with progressivist heroics for what had been conquered nor with nostalgia for loss of feminine soul. The genius of air was still imagining by making new images, and these men were still serving soul as it seems to have asked to be served. 

Love was there in the work itself because psyche was there when, following Jung, we see that “suitable objects” can be “lodging places” of psychic events. The experiment, the laboratory, the apparatus, and the paper (Black, Davy, Dalton, Faraday, Boyle each wrote hundreds of papers or delivered hundreds of popular and scientific lectures): here was eros, anima, joy; and an aesthetics of usefulness.

And one last thought to remind us that alchemy is not necessarily lost to us moderns.

“Though our minds are still ruled by the mechanical enlightenment, animation works in the laboratory hands, elaborating fantasy, inspiring things with new life, like the puer spirit now playing in computers. Alchemy, therefore, did not collapse – if we mean by alchemy a poesis of matter.”

Hillman, James (2011-10-10). Alchemical Psychology (Uniform Edition of the Writings of James Hillman) (Kindle Locations 6604-6607). Spring Publications, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Thank you 5th Dimension for Up, Up and Away

Love is waiting there, in my beautiful balloon
Way up in the air, in my beautiful balloon
If you’ll hold my hand, we’ll chase your dream across the sky.

Links to all posts in the series:

Colour My World , Alchemical Psychology, Part I – Black http://wp.me/pZ0y1-T7

Alchemical Psychology, Part II – Blue http://wp.me/pZ0y1-TA

Alchemical Psychology, Part III – Silver http://wp.me/pZ0y1-Um

Alchemical Psychology, Part IV – White http://wp.me/pZ0y1-UT

Alchemical Psychology, Part V – Yellow http://wp.me/pZ0y1-WV

Alchemical Psychology, Part VI – Red http://wp.me/pZ0y1-XT

Alchemical Psychology, Part VII – Air http://wp.me/pZ0y1-11b

Alchemical Psychology, Part VIII – Caelum http://wp.me/Z0y1