Not all live in the same present


[The last essay in my series on the psychology of powerlessness. The shot is from the south coast. The main thing about Australia is the sky. Here it’s connected both to the land and to the ocean. Like our original identity, all three are empty, all are full…]

Not all Live in the same Present ‒ On Dys-Synchronicity and ‘Spiritual Overwhelm’

Thesis: People live in differing states of historical or cultural ‘lag’ and psychological ‘overwhelm’ with regard to the deep social, cultural and spiritual revolution now needed to realise ‘One World’and human(e) survival

In order to help explain German working class defeat and Nazi mass appeal in the 1930s, German utopian-Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch developed a theory of ‘Ungleichzeitigkeit’ (‘dys-synchronicity’). According to this theory, ‘not everyone lives in the same present’. (‚Nicht alle sind im selben Jetzt da.’). History is no neat linear progression in which later stages simply eliminate earlier ones. Rather, history in Bloch’s view, is ‘multi-rhythmic and multi-spacial with enough areas unresolved or by no means fulfilled or integrated.’ There are thus ‘dys-synchronicities’, i.e. temporal and cultural lags both between different societies and between different social strata within a specific society. ‘Old times’ are preserved in ‘older’ social strata and socially these can be easily romantically regressed to in times of crisis.

One could extend Bloch’s theory of dys-synchronicity a little further and hypothesise that these lags may also exist between temporally different psychic strata or layers within the same individual. Thus both different people’s social identities and aspects of a single individual’s identity may be situated in different historical time zones, as it were, and their corresponding modes of thought and behaviour.

Thus, although almost all people now objectively live within a global (economic, and increasingly cultural) ‘modernity’ or ‘post-modernity’, not everyone’s consciousness is equally, or consistently, post-modern or, often enough, even modern. At the airport bookshop the Koran may be found just a shelf further on from Fanny Hill and Fifty Shades of Grey. Patriarchal tribes, sorcery and witch hunts, peasant clans and repressive, authoritarian forms of religion still coexist with a world of lonely urban singles, Sex In The City, The Vagina Monologues, and Desperate Housewives. Mormon pole-dancers cohabit a world in which female genitals are still mutilated, ‘honour killings’ still widely practised and eight year old girls may still be traded as wives to settle debts or resolve disputes between patriarchally organised clans and families.

Sociologically over-simplifying, three abstract, typical and conflicting forms of cultural consciousness can be distinguished. ‘Pre-modern’ (tribal/peasant-patriarchal) forms of consciousness necessarily clash with ‘modern’ (national/industrial) forms of consciousness and these again clash with ‘post-modern’ forms. The latter are often also ‘post-national’, or trans-national, forms, which, ideally, do not suppress, homogenize or obliterate but rather sift through and integrate both the viable pre-capitalist values and perspectives of the pre-modern tribal/rural mind and those of the critical, urbane/national modern mind.

Although the global economy is now inherently trans-national and culture increasingly trans-cultural (in both capitalism’s homogenising and post-capitalist emancipatory forms), pre-modern tribal and/or modern national forms of consciousness, and corresponding tribal-national conflicts and wars, still predominate all over the world. As a result of ever increasing globalization, the Human Family has now become one economic, material reality but not yet a cultural, political or conscious reality. There is thus a deep cultural lag between the material facts and majority subjective consciousness in all nations.

Although such lags may have often occurred in human history, humane survival would now seem to necessitate the rapid closing of that cultural lag. Politically this would mean, for example, that all national foreign politics would have to become ‘world domestic politics’ (Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker) and foreign ministers would become ‘ministers of the planetary interior’. Culturally, this would mean that a majority of the world’s people would start integrating their rich local and national identities with their now wider identities as cosmopolitan world citizens. Psychologically, this would mean that the historical universality of material interchange and technological achievements collectively created by humankind (‘globalisation’) would be mirrored – as Marx foresaw (e.g. in the Feuerbach section of Deutsche Ideologie) ‒ in equally collective, ‘globalised’ or ‘universal individuals’ able to cherish both cows and computers, both specific place and planet.

Culturally and psychologically, this of course amounts to a radical revolution of human consciousness and identity, a form of religious or spiritual revolution in fact. However, as a species, ‘we have not been here before’ (Joanna Macy): we have, for example, no strong evolutionary experience of having identified with humans beyond our close family and tribal/national group, although post-tribal universal religions and secular philosophies (Confucianism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Humanism, Marxism, Anarchism) have attempted this in theory. This is thus a new step in human spiritual evolution, a step towards the universal, the ‘integral’, the ‘trans-egoic’ (Ken Wilber).

This revolutionary ‘step’, or ‘leap’, is of course itself evolutionary, a long drawn out historical process, a leap in slow motion as it were. Viewed from this perspective, it can be seen to be actually emerging out of the complex overlapping synergies of the various global social movements making up the alternative globalisation-from-below movements (peace, ecology, peasant and indigenous resistance, fair trade and development, social justice, participatory democracy, women’s rights, international law and human rights).

Confronted with such an objective need for humane survival, and given current levels of majority awareness, one may – despite the spiritual potential of the alternative globalisation movements ‒ justifiably feel psychologically rather overwhelmed. In the individual, such conditions of traumatic ‘overwhelm’ may call forth quite deep psychological, even biological, anxieties and defences. The task may seem simply much too big to even begin to accept into consciousness, not to mention to build into personal identity and act upon.

It is possible that feelings of ‘overwhelm’ may in fact call forth innate neurological defence mechanisms designed to protect the brain from trauma, ‘blowing a fuse’ and collapse. Not just the psychological ‘ego’ but the brain itself can be viewed as a necessary filter or safety valve against ‘cosmic overwhelm’. The direct experience of the universe/mystic centre, for example, is often all too much and must be defended against for the separate ego-identity to survive (Aldous Huxley, Hugo Benoit). According to sages like Alan Watts, Krishnamurti, Wei Wu Wei and spiritual practices like Zen, the ego-identity is in fact not a fixed entity or ‘thing’ at all but precisely the ongoing process of thinking-as-a-blocking-out, or defending against, imminent In-sight into original ‘Buddha-nature’ or ‘No-Self’ or ‘Emptiness’ that is one’s true identity in the great mystical traditions of humanity.

The planetary revolution of One Humanity/Planet needed for humane survival today would seem to be almost as big a spiritual turning as such a personal Insight, a mystical enlightenment or sartori on a collective level. Or perhaps it is in fact just the external social form of such a personal Insight. Historically, a majority of us would seem to be not yet ready to cope with such enlightenment, not developed or mature enough, just as majorities in previous revolutions also were not. This unreadiness, incapacity or psycho-spiritual immaturity may be our key continuity with the historical past. The process towards this collective enlightenment may take a further few centuries, or it may not. Reality seems to both follow certain organic laws of development and also be inherently surprising, discontinuous, non-linear, unpredictable. A radically new and unpredictable ‘emergence’ or ‘chaos point’ would seem to be an inherent feature of the complex, self-organising synergies of all natural and social systems.

The corresponding dual views on this question of timing with regard to enlightenment go back a long way. Mahayana Buddhism, for example, also split into a ‘gradual’ and a ‘sudden’ school of enlightenment. In critical social thought there is a similar split: for one school of thought, Utopia is only possible when the historical conditions, both objective and subjective, are ‘mature’ and ‘ripe’ enough (most Marxism). For the other school of thought, an enlightened Utopia is always possible right now, no matter what the objective conditions (most anarchism, Gustav Landauer, Gandhi, Barrington Moore). Similarly, in psychological thought, classical psychoanalysis viewed the talking cure as a long drawn out process of reviewing the past while Gestalt psychology, for example, emphasised the sudden shift within the closure of unfinished business in the here-and-now.

Will our revolutionary leap, our collective Insight as a species, come suddenly or gradually, or not at all? In the latter case we would be just another failed evolutionary potential within the ongoing dance of life and mystery of the universe. The possibility of planetary ecocide and/or nuclear self-annihilation now makes these questions considerably more than esoteric or academic; immense amounts of avoidable death and suffering are at stake. On their answer depends the liveable future of both people and planet for the next millennia.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on February 12, 2013.

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