“The history of the West, according to both the sociologist and the poet, is the progressive removal of mind, or spirit, from phenomenal appearances”
“[The] major premise of this book is that because disenchantment is intrinsic to the scientific world view, the modern epoch contained, from its inception, an inherent instability that severely limited its ability to sustain itself for more than a few centuries.”
The above two quotes can be found in Morris Berman’s The Reenchantment of the World. To explore this “progressive removal of mind” he charts the historical rise and eventual domination of non-participatory consciousness. This mode of cognition is central to the modernity we all know and plays a key role in what Max Weber called “disenchantment”.
Before getting to the juicy stuff, Berman outlines a cornucopia of useful caveats to help us further understand just what he’s trying to do as well as the assumptions and limitations of it.
History is a often a story (or, ideally, many stories) that uses the “X was born at Y time and did Z model” to write itself. This can be incredibly boring at times and seem meaningless but nevertheless it is easy for us to define and imagine. But imagine, if you will, that this simple narrative does not narrate everything. It leaves out what is difficult to concretely define even if these processes have a very defined effect on history. One such process is the Story of Consciousness and its Transformations.
This is often lambasted as too abstract or too tinged with the dubious woo-woo of watered down mysticism. To be fair, it can be tinged with the woo for sure but that’s largely because “consciousness” itself is a very slippery concept, shaky even in the hands of hard-nosed (and, to be fair, the delicate nosed) neuroscientists and philosophers.
Snouts aside, if consciousness is defined as an epiphenomenon of brain chemistry, a popular view, then to determine the “transformation of consciousness” that occurred over a few centuries in Europe would require us to conduct experiments, and repeat those experiments, in which brain-scans were given to X percent of the population prior to “transformation” and X percent of the population after the “transformation”.
Exhuming thousands of dead folks and probing their brain chemistry to catalogue if “X-person in Y-place at Z-time had ‘participatory’ or ‘non-participatory’ consciousness” doesn’t make much sense. It quickly becomes an impossible, insane and expensive thing to do. And only those with far too much time and money can foot the bill for the insane expense of impossible things.
I don’t think Berman has that kind of cash flow, so he gave us a different book. A book in which, for the sake of argument and brevity, “consciousness” is assumed to be an abstract Thing quasi-separate from the body. We all know that this is untrue and that consciousness is deeply correlated with brain chemistry, however, allowing for this hypothetical situation frees us from the impossibly meticulous task described above.
If we look at history with an eye toward defining time-periods based on their dominant mode of cognition, or consciousness, this helps us to contextualize the endless facts of the XYZ model. These facts are like footprints left by the journey of Consciousness and its Transformations and by tracking them we can better understand where the path diverged, when it diverged, and where we are now.
PART I – THE MEDIEVAL MIND
Participatory consciousness was the dominant mode of cognition in medieval times. The mind was more actively participating in the world because the everyday world was steeped in mind. Animism was alive and, by extension, so was everything else.
The Doctrine of Signatures was incredible important for this time period. It’s the idea that “The world” as Berman writes, “duplicates and reflects itself in an endless network of similarity and dissimilarity.” This shows up in the famous Hermetic dictum “As above, so below” as well as in the entire study of Alchemy, a study obsessed with dissolving-and-coagulating the alchemist as much as the chemicals he worked with. In regards to the latter, Berman writes that Alchemy was:
“The last major synthetic iconography of the human unconscious in the West. Or, in Norman O. Brown’s terms, ‘the last effort of Western man to produce a science based on an erotic sense of reality.'”
Now there’s a tasty phrase, “an erotic sense of reality.” The world was seen as a garment-worn rather than an object confronted, to paraphrase Berman. Through mimesis, or active emotional identification, one could get to know it on a much deeper level. The goal of knowledge was NOT to control the world, but to perfect oneself.
This all existed within the Feudal Society, a structure where everything was more or less fixed. One had their defined role (farmer, blacksmith etc.) and defined way of role-playing; a peasant farmer didn’t swagger into the King’s abode and demand “yo King, lemme get some more food, I’m starvin’ bro! One of those fine capes would be nice too – blue’s my color.”
The hierarchies in society were viewed as reflections of a divine hierarchy. Everything was ordered and harmonious even if, for us, it seems incredibly restrictive. The major benefit of Feudal Society was that it provided a deep sense of closure; the hardest void to fill once it collapsed was the whole “what do we do now that closure has closed?”
The collapse is precipitated, largely, by economics.
In the Feudal world everything was more or less local. You had guilds with apprenticeship systems that trained people with a focus on quality production. You didn’t want to make half-ass things that made your neighbors lose respect for you because you relied on your neighbors for everything else — you were indebted to them, even if that debt didn’t rely upon money.
Craft was integral to this worldview largely because the imperative to produce as much as you can in as short a time as possible was absent.
That starts to shift as the litmus test for becoming part of a guild lowers and the demand for more stuff rises. This demand is largely spurned by the expansion of trade routes and the large scale commercial ventures that sought to profit from them. Capital was needed upfront to fund these enormous undertakings, so a new money economy was introduced alongside the corporation as we know it today.
The technical requirements of this new landscape required a more mechanical way of looking at it. Quantity trumped quality as the question of “how can we make the most and ship it the fastest” became the modus operandi. Time literally speeds up as the church bells that used to chime once or twice a day now start to ring out every hour. Time is money and one must stay busy.
This busyness, this sort of manic obsession with doing, grows in ethical value as the authority of the Church in Feudal society diminishes. Its hierarchy starts to be questioned and loses legitimacy as thinkers like Martin Luther and John Calvin urge a move away from Priest-mediation to a far more personal relationship with God.
This can be liberatory but it is also absolutely terrifying because the certainty of the hierarchical structure that mediated ones relationship with God is thrown in disarray at the precise moment that the social structure which it had mirrored is also thrown into disarray.
Now one must face the Divine alone while trying to make a living in a far more competitive economy.
Insecurity and anxiety reigns supreme and that medieval sense of closure is long gone. Calvin adds the nice little touch of saying we’re all basically screwed from birth: predestination. Your fate, aka eternal damnation, is determined at birth and there is nothing you can do about it. However, and this is the kicker that makes it useful to the growth of Capitalism, through busyness you can soften the blow.
PART II – DISENCHANTMENT AND MODERNITY
“The collapse of a feudal economy, the emergence of capitalism on a broad scale, and the profound alteration in social relations that accompanied these changes provided the context of the Scientific Revolution in Western Europe. The equating of truth with utility, or cognition with technology, was an important part of this general process. Experiment, quantification, prediction and control formed the parameters of a world view that made no sense within the framework of the medieval social and economic order.”
So the sense of closure known in Feudal times is replaced by a new sense of anxiety and alienation — “now I gotta deal with all these people and God?! At the same time?? People try to escape or forget this through excessive busyness.
This obsession with busyness, with doing something regardless of what it is, has a manic quality to it (think of the difference between “being busy” and “being productive”) that becomes harnessed by the growing Commercial Revolution, which then lays the emotional groundwork for Capitalism. This web of forces knits a new mode of cognition: Non-participatory Consciousness.
For this type of cognition to unfold, the animism of Medieval times must be left behind, because, “the notion that nature is alive is clearly a stumbling block” as Berman writes:
“For when we regard material objects as extensions of ourselves (alive, endowed with purpose) and allow ourselves to be distracted by the sensuous details of nature, we are powerless to control nature, and thus, from Galileo’s point of view, can never really know it.”
The progress of the next few centuries requires the disenchantment of the world.
This disenchantment means we find ourselves confronting a world of meaningless things and in seeking to understand this mind-less collection, we develop a radically new method of investigation. Well not you or me per se (we were too busy with non-existence) but influential thinkers and texts like Francis Bacon’s New Organon and Rene Descartes’s Discourse on the Method among others.
The emergence of the Scientific Worldview is better understood within the historical context described above.
This worldview, based upon a mechanical philosophy that separates fact from value, eventually comes to dominate the modern mind. Before that could happen however, the participatory consciousness exemplified by studies like Alchemy and Hermeticism had to be discarded so that non-participatory consciousness could triumph. This triumph, interestingly enough, was “not a scientific but a political process” as Berman writes, “participating consciousness was rejected, not refuted.”
Why was it rejected rather than refuted?
It was rejected largely because it was an impediment to the growth of Capitalism. To refute it would be a much slower and messy process that the every-onward-and-forward world was not ready to engage in. It’s important to remember that yes there was a lot of bunk and charlatans on the alchemical scene all throughout its reign, and probably more so as it began to decline, but that doesn’t mean the entire study is BS or that it doesn’t yield any truth.
And speaking about truth.
“Embedded within the scientific program is the concept of manipulation as the very touchstone of truth. To know something is to control it, a mode of cognition that led Oskar Kokoschka to observe that by the twentieth century, reason had been reduced to mere function. This identification, in effect, renders all things meaningless, except insofar as they are profitable or expedient; and it lies at the heart of the “fact-value distinction'”
The Scientific Worldview, which is integral to non-participatory consciousness, says that we gain knowledge of the world through distancing oneself from it.
Often this means an experimental set-up where an objective-observer prods and pokes at a separate-observed until its spills some type of secrets that we can, hopefully, control. Natura Vexata as Galileo called it, or “Nature Annoyed.” And the secrets that Nature spilled (“woah Nature, learn how to hold your liquor!”) were and continue to be incredibly useful to the modern world.
Dispassionately analyzing the function and structure of a culture or a bird’s nest is the pragmatic way to answer how-questions, however (forever how?) these types of questions are not the only ones that can or ought to be asked. A whole range of why-questions remained unasked; unformed even.
Now it might be argued that those questions are unasked because they are unscientific. That’s true, but when the methodology of science is seen as “the best way” to gain knowledge (and it is for some things) then its biases more strongly inform modernity and make why-questions less legitimate to ask.
As Gregory Bateson’s father repeatedly quoted to his son during his formative years, “It is easier for scientists to solve a problem than to feel a difficulty.” This leads to a methodological error, because if one can’t feel a difficulty then the information embedded within that feeling is left out, non-existent.
To give a concrete example: “how do we solve the ecological crises?” versus “why do we even have an ecological crisis?”
If Nature is an equation to be solved, then it must first be reduced to discreet units that can be counted, manipulated, and eventually, controlled. This gives us immense power but also immense problems because the fact that we have the power-to-do-something is so often far removed from the value of questions like “should we be doing this?” and “who is doing it?”
As we move toward modernity notions of truth and how to derive it shift away from questions of Being and Quality and toward questions of Doing and Quantity. Truth becomes a synonym of utility.
PART III – RECOVERING THE FUTURE
The domination of Non-participatory consciousness in the modern mind is the result of a sort of mental colonization. Remember that Alchemy and the medieval sciences were rejected, NOT refuted. It was more a political move that sought to eradicate any trace of participatory consciousness because it threatened this new how-oriented world. Natura Vexata (“Nature Annoyed”) was far more useful to a nascent Capitalism.
It’s not as simple as Medieval = All Positive and Modernity = All Negative. There was plenty wrong with the Feudal structure and there is plenty right with some things today. What’s important is to remember that the collapse of the Medieval World carried with it everything from metaphysics to economics. The Scientific Worldview that brought us into Modernity was necessary for the growth of Capitalism. It was a response, and it can be argued an apt response, to a new situation.
That situation was biased towards Quantity and Doing. A whole bunch of stuff had to be made and shipped to supply the demand brought on by these new expanded trade routes. How do we make a better ship? How do we protect our goods? How do we finance this project?
Answering questions like those allowed for an explosion of new technology that brought us to where we are now, but does where we are now still require non-participatory consciousness? Has it outrun its usefulness?
Morris Berman seems to think so:
“The hope is that archaic knowledge, especially the recognition of Mind, will emerge under an aesthetic rubric, so that our science (knowledge of the world) will become artful (artistic). The hope is that we can have both mimesis and analysis, that the two will reinforce each other rather than generate a ‘two cultures’ split. Only through a mimetic relationship with your environment (or anything you address, for that matter), can you obtain the insight into reality which will then form the center of your analytical understanding. Fact and Value merge and Mind is revealed as both a value and a mode of analysis”
This new situation we are in is pulsing with a lot of emotional residue left from the Feudal collapse, primarily an excess of anxiety and alienation. If we are to effectively respond to this situation, then it seems likely that a new mode of cognition must emerge. Although Berman doesn’t provide us with a pretty-packaged name to this new mode, he does say that it requires a “reenchantment of the world” (hence the name of the book) and provides an outline for what that might look like.
He doesn’t become trapped in the romantic notion of turning back time but does recognize the value of the time back then when he argues that “recapturing a reality is not the same thing as returning to it.”
So this is a between-way approach that synthesizes two seemingly divergent trends. He focuses on unifying fact-and-value and bringing back that erotic sense of reality lost so long ago. “If Eros can be revived at all,” he writes “it has to be through the claim that Eros is a fully articulated way of knowing the world, the ignorance of which has been intellectually crippling.”
We need a far more subtle version of the “you make your own reality” claim that many New Agers and Positive Thinking gurus tend to over-emphasize.
“He argues that all knowing takes place in terms of meaning, and thus that the knower is implicated in the known. To this I would add that what constitutes knowledge is therefore merely the findings of an agreed-upon methodology, and the facts that science finds are merely that — facts that science finds; they possess no meaning in and of themselves. Science is generated from the tacit knowing and subsidiary awareness peculiar to Western culture, and it proceeds to construct the world in those particular terms.”
That “tacit knowing and subsidiary awareness” is focused on, in their own way, by two important thinkers: Wilhelm Reich and Gregory Bateson.
Reich, an incredibly prolific scientist, is known for establishing the importance of character armor, or somatic rigidity, how it relates to the formation of neuroses for individuals and societies at large, and how to fix that through working with the body directly (he was a therapist after all). “‘The philosophical underpinning of body authenticity,’ writes Peter Koestenbaum, ‘is that the body is a metaphor for the fundamental structure of being itself’.”
This view would be recognizable to the Hermeticists focused on “As above, So below.”
“If the body and the unconscious are the same thing, the permeation of nature by the latter explains why participation still exists, why sensual knowledge is part of all cognition, and why the admission of this situation is not a return to primitive animism.”
If one can hardly feel their own body because of the excessive rigidity of character armor, it becomes much more difficult for them to develop an empathetic relationship with the world. To put it more poetically, if you can hardly feel your own breath, how can you expect to feel the breath of nature?
Gregory Bateson was also an incredibly prolific scientist and thinker. Through an interest in cybernetics among many other things, he developed theories of learning that helped us better understand the biases and tacit knowledge we bring into a new context. No longer was the knower separate from the known, but they combined into a larger system of knowing. “In a Batesonian framework, as opposed to archaic consciousness” Berman writes, “we can actually focus on the circuit, not just be immersed in it.”
Full immersion in the circuit is like a mystical experience, one that was probably far easier in the Feudal world because the ego was not as fully crystallized as it is nowadays. But we don’t seek complete immersion all the time, but rather a mediation between mimesis and analysis.
The erotic sense of reality died en masse when the pragmatic success of Non-participatory consciousness became overwhelming. That success, however, cannot be linearily projected into the future because we can already see enormous cracks developing. The view of nature as “dead” puts us in the position of being morticians who guess what life was like. Perhaps if we go back in order to move forward, to paraphrase Berman, we can begin once again to feel what life is like. Balancing the perfection of oneself with the technological control of nature.