Tag Archives: Jean Gebser

Radio Interview about The Dynamics of Transformation 

I did this two-hour radio interview on The Styxxoplix Show in Ft. Wayne, IN, in which we discussed my book The Dynamics of Transformation: Tracing an Emerging World View. It was a fascinating conversation ranging from Aristotle’s four causes and Jean Gebser’s five stages of consciousness to the qualitative nature of time, the exponential acceleration of technology, and the novel world view that seems currently to be emerging.


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How Old Were Philosophers When They Published Their First Major Works?


I’ll be turning 35 in January, so I’ve been doing some thinking about age in relation to the trajectory of my career. I’m in the final stages of preparing my first book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll, for publication, and I’m well into my second book, a straight work of philosophy. With these considerations in mind, I decided to look at how old my favorite philosophers (and a few psychologists and a stray scientist and sociologist) were when they published their first major works and some of their best known works thereafter. I haven’t tried to be comprehensive, so please don’t be offended if I’ve left out one of your favorite books or thinkers. Rather, I’ve given a subjectively chosen selection of works merely sufficient to answer my question. To make a long story short, the conclusion I’ve drawn is that we philosophers are doing just fine if we publish our first book by our late forties. Philosophy is clearly not a vocation for those seeking instant gratification.

One caveat: the ages I’ve listed are approximations based solely on the years, not the months, of birth and publication, so there’s essentially a one year margin of error. I could take the time to recheck all the numbers, but you get the idea, and I need to get back to writing my book.

William James

48 – The Principles of Psychology

55 – The Will to Believe

60 – The Varieties of Religious Experience

65 – Pragmatism

67 – A Pluralistic Universe

Henri Bergson

30 – Time and Free Will

37 – Matter and Memory

48 – Creative Evolution

Alfred North Whitehead

49 – Principia Mathematica

64 – Science and the Modern World

68 – Process and Reality

72 – Adventures of Ideas

77 – Modes of Thought

C.G. Jung

37 – Psychology of the Unconscious

46 – Psychological Types

59 – The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious

69 – Psychology and Alchemy

77 – Synchronicity

87 – Memories, Dreams, Reflections

Jean Gebser

44 – The Ever-Present Origin

Richard Tarnas

41 – The Passion of the Western Mind

56 – Cosmos and Psyche

G.W.F. Hegel

37 – The Phenomenology of Spirit

42 – The Science of Logic

Thomas Kuhn

35 – The Copernican Revolution

40 – The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

James Hillman

34 – Emotion

38 – Suicide and the Soul

49 – Re-Visioning Psychology

Sigmund Freud

44 – The Interpretation of Dreams

48 – The Psychopathology of Everyday Life

57 – Totem and Taboo

74 – Civilization and Its Discontents

83 – Moses and Monotheism

Charles Darwin

50 – On the Origin of Species

62 – The Descent of Man

Max Weber

41 – The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism


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The Teleological Incline: Reconciling Materialist Reductionism and Final Causation

My dialogue with Matthew Hutson, the author of The Seven Laws of Magical Thinking: How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane, over the last few days has been stimulating and thought provoking. As I’ve been thinking about our conversation, I’ve been refining my rejoinder to his purely materialist, reductionist perspective. Here’s one way to summarize my view:

Even assuming that all particle interactions are random and that evolution is the product of this chance natural selection (about which I remain agnostic), the mechanistic materialist perspective is not necessarily incompatible with teleology, as there seems to be an implicit asymmetry in the nature of being that causes those chance interactions to add up to a larger process which tends towards increasing novelty, order, and consciousness. It’s as if we have lived all our lives on a slight slope, but we assume that slope to be completely flat because we have never known any other inclination. Our whole physics, our whole science is designed assuming that we are working on a flat plane when the truth seems to be that the deep cosmic structure is tilted ever so slightly in the temporal dimension towards the emergence of consciousness. Therefore, we may never be able empirically to show that there is this tendency until we have adjusted our whole mode of thought to take this deeply concealed factor into account. We need not necessarily change our physics because they work within their domain of applicability, like Newtonian physics works between the very large and the very small, though this metaphysical shift might open up new areas of physical research. But we must also consider the possibility that our physics are perfectly constructed to hide a miniscule slant in the nature of reality (this is, of course, only a metaphor for a higher order phenomenon that exceeds the scope of spatiality), which over very long periods of time produces directionality in the entire process. Even our most advanced physics, quantum theory and relativity, do not take into account that time is apparently a fractal dimension (as Jean Gebser and Terence McKenna suggest in different inflections—more about this another time), which we are moving through like a ball rolling down a barely discernible incline. If we could perceive the fullness of the temporal fourth dimension mathematically described by relativity as we see the three spatial dimensions, perhaps we would understand that time has a qualitative topology, but one that tends towards novelty just as gravity tends to draw massive objects together.

Thus, the choice is not between materialist reductionism and theistic intelligent design. In fact, the choice is not even between purely materialist reductionism and a subtle teleology almost imperceptibly guiding the evolutionary process. Rather, it seems to me that there is no choice because both perspectives are true within their domains of validity. Looked at atomistically, I would argue that evolution is most likely a purely random physical process. But looked at as an emergent whole, it is an undeniably teleological process. Thus, the paradox can be resolved, as is so often the case, by pushing through to a deeper level of meaning where the seemingly incommensurable perspectives can be reconciled. The material facts require the teleological narrative to give them meaning and direction, while the teleological narrative requires the material facts to give it the medium of concrete actuality in which the final cause must be expressed.

I’ve employed this quote from John Stuart Mill’s Coleridge essay in several conversations I’ve had here lately, but it bears repeating:

All students of man and society who possess that first requisite for so difficult a study, a due sense of its difficulties, are aware that the besetting danger is not so much of embracing falsehood for truth, as of mistaking part of the truth for the whole. It might be plausibly maintained that in almost every one of the leading controversies, past or present, in social philosophy, both sides were in the right in what they affirmed, though wrong in what they denied; and that if either could have been made to take the other’s views in addition to its own, little more would have been needed to make its doctrine correct.

If everyone who asserted one view in opposition to another (science vs. religion, reductionism vs. teleology, etc.) could recognize that all modes of thought have partial validity (though perhaps not equal validity), we could get on with discussing the really interesting questions, like what would it mean to experience the fourth, temporal dimension as fully as we experience the three spatial dimensions, and is such a thing even possible? Why do we have complete freedom of movement in the three spatial dimensions, but we are seemingly locked into a linear movement through time, which is mathematically describable as a fourth spatial dimension? In my opinion, we have the three spatial dimensions pretty well sussed out, so the frontier of human understanding ripe for discovery is time, and specifically approaches that interpret temporality as qualitative rather than quantitative, from Jungian synchronicity and Bergsonian duration to Tarnasian archetypal cosmology. But that’s a subject for another day.


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Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, and the Birth of Gaia


My friend Matt Segall has written an excellent and insightful response to my post on Bruno Latour and Richard Tarnas. I particularly appreciate his coinage (I presume) of the “misenchantment” of modernity, the perversion and emptying of the seemingly intrinsic human need for imaginal numinosity characteristic of corporate propaganda and reality television, which has come in many cases to act as a poor replacement for the Weberian enchantment characteristic of premodernity. This coinage reminds me of William James’ point, articulated in The Will to Believe, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and Pragmatism in various inflections, that disbelief (or disenchantment) is still a kind of belief (or enchantment), as it defines itself in relation to what it disbelieves (or disenchants). We cannot escape enchantment just as we cannot escape belief, for even the characteristic postmodern “incredulity towards metanarratives” is itself a purely negative, deconstructive metanarrative, paradoxically narrating itself as the moment when such narrativizing is finally overcome.

Before diving into the meat of the conversation, there are a few issues I’d like to clarify in response to things that Matt said:

First, I don’t see technology in itself as disenchanting (or misenchanting), though technologically mediated activity often has a disenchanting effect. I think technology in itself is neutral, neither enchanting nor disenchanting, but much like psychedelics (literally “mind-manifesting”), technologies can act as non-specific amplifiers of psyche, both individual and collective. For instance, the choice of whether simply to turn off our devices at regular intervals and engage with the world in a relatively unmediated way or not is one that premodern people never had to make, but that we’re confronted with every single day. Of course, primal humans probably faced a similar choice during the emergence of language and fire, perhaps the original promethean technologies of our species: Speak and let our more intuitive preverbal capacities atrophy? Use fire and lose our night vision or become afraid of the dark? But as we increasingly integrate technologies into our daily experience, the potential for both great achievement and great tragedy concomitantly increases. This dual quality can be seen in the paradigmatic figure of Einstein, who unlocked profound mysteries of the physical cosmos, but at the same time made possible the atomic bomb. As it is said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Second, I don’t think modernity succeeded in purifying science of politics, but I think it was partially the attempt to do so that made us modern, so we should certainly move beyond that naïve attempt at scientific purification, but not try to claim that it never occurred, or less obtusely, that it did not play a significant, even necessary role in our cultural development.

Third, it’s not that Latour’s style is simply too academic or difficult (Process and Reality and The Phenomenology of Spirit are two of my favorite texts), but rather that Latour performs a certain style of academic discourse among others that I find less concerned with clear communication than with asserting rhetorical authority and controlling the discursive centers of academic power. I’m not sure if this is what Matt meant, but I wouldn’t say that Latour is “top down” and Tarnas is “middle up” because I don’t think the rhetorical mode practiced by Latour and his milieu is hierarchically more valuable or more profound than that practiced by more popularly oriented academics like Tarnas. Rather, to employ Latour’s concept, I see academic power as a horizontal network of relations, though differing from Latour, it seems to me that there are central nodes and margins of that network determined by the number of connections and the intensity of influence of those connections. To my mind, Latour’s discursive milieu often barricades itself in the centers of institutional power (based on money and influence) by speaking in such a way that non-specialists are denied access. In my experience, even the specialists in that particular milieu are generally speaking to one another in more or less impressionistic reflections of one another’s language rather than attempting fully to understand one another’s arguments and then respond logically to those arguments as we’re doing here. I’m a big proponent of bringing affective modes of cognizance into academic discourse, but the style in question seems to perform this integration in a one-sided way: on one hand, “poststructuralist” discourse (the boundaries of which Latour is admittedly pushing) uses the affective potency of language to assert intellectual dominance over an often anxious audience, which is affect in service to mentality; on the other hand, the “new paradigm” rhetorical style generally employs rationality in service to the expression of affective knowledge, so that intuitive understanding is given form and clarity. As I see it, the ideal rhetorical mode would integrate these two opposite, seemingly incommensurable approaches, asserting both intellectual and affective authority through both clarity of thought and rhetorical sophistication.

Finally, I also want to acknowledge that anxiety can be extremely productive. As Jean Gebser writes: “Anxiety is always the first sign that a mutation is coming to the end of its expressive and effective possibilities, causing new powers to accumulate which, because they are thwarted, create a ‘narrows’ or constriction. At the culmination point of anxiety these powers liberate themselves, and this liberation is always synonymous with a new mutation. In this sense, anxiety is the great birth-giver” (The Ever-Present Origin, 134). It seems to me that Gebser is defining a threshold (like a birth canal) into a radically novel mode of thought, and that Tarnas has staked his claim just beyond that threshold, inviting culture through the door, while Latour is located at the vanguard of the academic mainstream’s “center of gravity,” which is hesitantly lumbering, behemoth that it is, towards the threshold while often facing back towards its past with a mixture of disgust, bemusement, and longing for lost certainties. I see both Tarnas and Latour as playing vital roles in this epochal drama, and it seems to me that our job as theorists who trace the intersection of these two paradigm defining thinkers is, through the kind of dialogue we’re engaging in here, to bring these two modes of thought (so close to one another yet so far) into increasing resonance, to continually transpose and translate from one to the other until the two respective verbal systems, concentrated around different affective cores, consummate their courtship to produce an emergent third mode that completely integrates the two vocabularies.

Since I wrote my earlier post, I’ve had the opportunity to watch Latour’s first Gifford Lecture, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Latour is a profoundly engaging speaker, both in his rhetorical mastery and in his nuanced performativity (his often cantorial vocal phrasing, the flair with which he checks his watch, his sly smile). I’m particularly interested in his appropriation of the “Gaia” figure, who until now has been largely animated by a certain discursive sector roughly definable as “integral ecologists” based on the work of James Lovelock. Latour exemplifies a rather different stream of thought, and his employment of Gaia marks, as far as I know, her grand entry into the main streams of philosophical discourse. It seems to me that Latour’s gesture towards the emerging paradigm (for which I prefer the term “integrative” because it integrates disparate modes, though none of the current terms for this stream of thought are unproblematic) is a highly significant moment of “phase transition” in academia’s trajectory, and thus the trajectory of the larger culture for which academia is something like a secular priesthood. As I noted before, this seems to me an instance of Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.”

The affective anxiety that struck me when I read We Have Never Been Modern does not seem as evident in Latour’s first Gifford Lecture. He appears to be a man joyfully entranced by his fluency with language (even though he is speaking in heavily-accented English, his first language French), which is entrancing to witness. However, the sense I get from the questions posed by the audience and the apparently inadequate summaries of the presenter, is that no one in the room seems to understand precisely what Latour is saying. There seems to be a mixture of reverence and bafflement, the feeling that they should understand what he is saying, but his meaning remains difficult to locate. Where Tarnas takes the onus of communicating to his readers on his own shoulders, it seems to me that Latour shifts that burden decisively to the audience, and I’m not sure the audience is up to the task of rendering Latour’s ideas accessibly coherent. But, in all honesty, I’m not sure that’s what Latour is after. I don’t think he necessarily wants to be completely understood, but rather he seems to be oriented more towards the incitement of novel linguistic forms: “We are so new that we have no sort of common tools to absorb the fact that we live in a geostorical time,” as he says in answer to a question from the audience

As far as the content of the first lecture, in his discussion of “translation tables” between different collective productions of “divinities,” it sounds like what he’s looking for are the archetypal agencies that transcend particular cultural manifestation. The archetypes, as articulated by Tarnas and James Hillman, seem coextensive with the multiplication of agency that Latour articulates. Archetypes have often gotten a bad name in the circles in which Latour runs because they are perceived as essentializing certain qualities like “the feminine” or “the heroic.” However, in the most sophisticated definitions, archetypes are simply implicit potentialities for meaning that inform all aspects of experience. Put this way, it is not so controversial to say that the actual is a concretion of the potential underlying cosmic structure, so perhaps this section of Latour’s lecture will help to lay another stone in the bridge between, very roughly, the postmodern and the integral.

At the very end of the lecture, Latour claims that Gaia is not “nature” or “religion,” but something else, “another Earth” that does not participate in these categories:

The people who are assembled under Gaia will not resemble either those who used to invoke Nature, nor those who say that they worship a deity with all the trappings of religion. None of the four main attributes we reviewed so far seem to be part of Gaia. . . . Gaia is most probably another Earth, another Globe, invoked by another people, as foreign to what used to be called nature and natural scientists as from what used to be called religion. How to address It or Her respectfully? This is what we will have to discover.

This seems to me a more subtle kind of opting out than the one Latour performs in We Have Never Been Modern, as it seeks to birth a new mode of thought by rejecting or side-stepping the old categories rather than integrating those categories in a higher order synthesis. It seems to me that this dismissal of all precedent in favor of radical novelty is only one step away from the inclusion of all precedent as the constitution of radical novelty. Rather than reject the categories of “nature” and “religion” in favor of something as yet undefined, I would suggest that perhaps the novelty Latour is seeking can be found in the dialectical embrace of nature and religion by a higher order Gaian entity. It seems to me that Latour is even closer in this lecture to the participatory, integrative mode that Tarnas exemplifies than he was in Modern, but there’s still a gap, a leap that remains to be taken, a conversion that needs to occur. Because Latour’s language is evocatively unlocatable, it’s less a conceptual shift that is apparently required than an affective shift. It seems that “nature” and “religion” are the progenitors of this new Gaian dispensation towards which Latour gestures, but instead of rejecting “Mother Nature” and “God the Father,” I would suggest that the only way to produce a birth is precisely through the reproduction of the parents. The child, Gaia, is a fundamentally new entity, but also a fulfillment, by means of a punctuated evolutionary hieros gamos, of the two seemingly incommensurable entities that constitute it. If my reading is correct, Latour asks us to reject mother and father, but he does not seem to acknowledge that, in order to reject the parents, one must first have been born of them. Thus, I agree with Latour that this figure of Gaia can exceed the explanatory scope of either nature or religion, but I think it’s also vitally important to honor the role that these conceptual entities have played in their own self-overcoming. In order to address Gaia respectfully, we must also treat her parents with respect.

Ultimately, my primary criterion for judging a theorist is whether his or her theory is compatible with my deeply considered beliefs, particularly those constellated around archetypal cosmology. I think James, Bergson, and Whitehead would all be open to the archetypal cosmological perspective at the very least, and we know Jung practiced it. From what I know of Latour, it’s hard to see how he would be open to it, though I’d love to be proven wrong. In the end, I appreciate Latour enough to spend many hours reading him, watching him, and debating about him, which is something I can say of relatively few thinkers.

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Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, and the Question of Modernity


I finally got around to reading Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern and I found it both fascinating and infuriating. As I was reading, I kept thinking how interesting it is that Latour published his influential book in 1991, the same year Richard Tarnas published The Passion of the Western Mind, one of my favorites. Although very different books, what they have in common is a broad historical view of modernity in relation to premodernity and what comes after the postmodern (if we take “postmodern” to mean the late phase of modernity), or in Latour’s case, what denies or dissolves the modern. Very briefly, Latour’s primary point that the three dualities of society,  nature, and “the crossed-out God” (all appearing as both transcendent and immanent in modern discourse) create multiple escape hatches for any argument against modern premises seems strikingly similar to Tarnas’ point that modernity has constructed subject and object, psyche and cosmos, as increasingly incommensurable through the instrumentality of a unitary transcendent, but personal, God, and that this perceived inability for the mind to know the thing itself is the root of “the Post-Copernican double bind.” In my reading, it seems that the cores of both works partially intersect and express the quality of that moment near the height of postmodernism, which has a lot to do with seeing through seemingly airtight modern constructs to a novel vision of reality.

As I see it, a primary difference between Latour’s book and Tarnas’ is that although Tarnas’ style is subtle and elegant, his rhetoric is always in service to the clear and engaging expression of big ideas. In contrast, Latour’s style, as with most writing generally grouped under the “postmodern” or “poststructuralist” rubrics (I think he belongs in this category even though he denies it), seems to privilege style over sense, though to my mind not as extremely as Derrida or Foucault (both of whom I appreciate and am frustrated by in equal parts). It seems to me that the “poststructuralist” style focuses on expressing ideas in novel, scintillating, and evocative ways.  Often this seems to take the form of writing in such a manner that it appears that profound and brilliant things are being said, but it’s impossible to determine what precisely is being said, so the meaning remains ambiguous: writing more as a means of gaining power and less as a means of communication. For instance, one trick this style of writing employs is using familiar words (mediator, intermediary, purification, hybrid, etc.) as a centerpiece of the argument without ever really defining what these words mean in context, so one feels like one should understand what is being said because one knows the words, but one is often uncertain precisely to what they refer.

I prefer the classic narrative clarity of Passion, though it is probably important to recognize that the style in which Latour engages has been the dominant one in the most fashionable sectors of the humanities and social sciences for the last few decades (the sectors that often control the most prestigious academic jobs and publications). In contrast, if we can judge very roughly by the respective numbers of reviews on Amazon (76 for Passion, 8 for Modern), it seems clear that Passion has simply been a far more popular book among the general educated public. In my reading, Latour’s writing betrays and produces anxiety while Tarnas’ writing is inspiring and elevating, an instance of what Alfred North Whitehead calls “that slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.” Passion is a book that seems to build a bridge from what might be characterized as a novel, participatory mode of thought to the centers of academic power, inviting the main streams of academia to engage with what appears to be an emerging mode of consciousness after postmodernism. On the other side, Modern seems similarly to build a bridge from the poststructuralist discursive domains towards the emerging modes of thought, expressing similar ideas to those articulated by Tarnas (and William James, Carl Jung, Henri Bergson, Whitehead, Jean Gebser, Sri Aurobindo, etc.) less clearly, but with an obfuscating, unlocatable panache perhaps more attractive to the current American academic orthodoxy in large part because it excludes non-specialists.

Tarnas and Latour also simply disagree on some key theoretical points. As much as I can understand Latour (or perhaps as much as he can be understood), he seems to present the Hegelian dialectic as a process that claims to produce radical novelty by leaving behind the old, whereas it is clear from Tarnas’ work, and any number of other theorists including Hegel himself, that the dialectic includes the old but reframes it in a novel context, which transforms the character of the whole. Indeed, that Latour rejects the “revolutionary miracle,” the sudden, numinous emergence of radical novelty, speaks volumes about his implicit prejudices. He will do anything and in fact has done everything he can to deny enchantment (in Weber’s sense), though perhaps this will be different in his current Gifford lectures, which I intend to watch soon. “Haven’t we shed enough tears over the disenchantment of the world?” Latour asks, but shouldn’t we be concerned that our birthright of living in an enchanted world has been rendered increasingly difficult to locate in modern society? Latour seems to think us merely whiners for something that he perceives as not really having been lost, but then he is evasive and vague about why we have collectively mourned disenchantment so deeply for so long, leaving it up to some hypothetical “psychologist” “subtle enough to explain our morose delight” at this situation, which is a profoundly condescending and dismissive thing to write for those of us who have in fact felt the genuine depth of this loss. I can suggest a few psychologists Latour might look at if he wants to explore this apparently fundamental human need for enchantment that he dismisses so off-handedly, C.G. Jung, Stanislav Grof, and James Hillman first among them.

Latour caricatures those of us who agree with Weber that the world has been rationalized and disenchanted as “antimoderns” who see modernity as pure tragedy. His discussion of networks and relationism is useful, but this facile dismissal is overly simplistic straw-man thinking. For Latour, you’re either for modernity, against it, or you must opt out altogether in more or less positive ways (nonmodern or postmodern). In contrast, for Tarnas, being against modernity or opting out of modernity is as absurd as being against your own adolescence or trying to opt out of it. For both modernity and adolescence, it was necessary to go through that stage of process, for it is what has made us who we are. According to Tarnas, modernity has been both a loss and a gain: it has produced the individuation of the autonomous human intellect but at the cost of the disenchantment of the world. Latour seems to want to flatten this epochal transformation, to pretend it never happened.

Again, to deny, as does Latour, that there are centers of institutional power and thus margins is simply obtuse and even offensive in a society in which wealth and power are concentrated in the small percentage at the top. Similarly, Latour’s claim that “there are no more revolutions in store” seems characteristically postmodern however much he denies it—this end of revolutions fits perfectly alongside other postmodern ends: of history, of science, and of metanarratives. But it is simply not true that “there are no more revolutions in store” as, just since 1991, the internet, the paradigmatic network, was born in a revolutionary moment that transformed our experience in profound ways with relative suddenness.

It seems to me that Latour is trying to side-step the modern paradox, the post-Copernican double bind, by simply denying that it ever existed, which is a clever trick, but not, I think, a genuine innovation on the order of what Tarnas refers to as a “participatory epistemology,” which is summed up by Tarnas as the idea that “the human mind is ultimately the organ of the world’s own process of self-revelation.” The trajectory Latour describes from Boyle and Hobbes to Kant to Hegel to the phenomenologists to the postmoderns to the semiotic turn to what others are referring to as his nonhuman turn is a tale of finding more and more desperately ingenious ways to reify the dominance of mind (except maybe for Hegel). The greatest implicit fear of the modern, it seems to me, is that if we let go of the privileging of intellect, we will be stupid animals. However, it seems clear that what is needed is a reembrace of embodied affectivity, what Whitehead calls “bodily reference,” by rational intellect. True transformation requires submission to the pain of what is being lost, the unconscious privileging of mentality to which we have been addicted, whereas the mind itself can only be enriched by this wider epistemological opening after a period of withdrawal. As we know, the only way to produce a new birth is to go straight down the middle, while Latour seems to deny that birth can even occur or has ever occurred.

As I see it, Latour’s is the last wild gambit of the modern self to avoid ego death (after the previous last wild gambit in Derrida et al.). Rather than denounce him, we should strive to feel compassion for him and try to make the transition between eras as painless as possible, because he is us. Until Latour is free to believe in a mode of cognizance based on formal and final causation, none of us can truly be free. Beneath all of the dissimulating language and murky stew of ideas, Latour does not provide an answer to the questions of modernity, only a rejection of the modern so complete that he calls his book We Have Never Been Modern. But we have been modern because we have called ourselves modern; it is an idea we have lived with for centuries, that has taken generations to define to its furthest permutations.

The danger of Latour’s book is that, if we have never been modern, we cannot overcome our modernity in the embrace of a radically novel mode. This possibility does not exist for Latour, but a brief glance at history will show again and again that new ideas really do have the power to transform the world with relative suddenness. Latour is trying to master the modern by opting out of it, like Groucho Marx who wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him. However, where Latour completely denies and negates the modern, Tarnas embraces its grand project, while acknowledging its deep tragedies, and paints its fulfillment in the further development of history’s series of radical emergences grounded in the stable continuity of origin. To a great extent, we are what we choose to be. We invent and live through names and concepts like “modern,” “nonmodern,” “nonhuman,” and “participatory,” and these concepts inform all aspects of our lives. Sometimes, as now seems to be the case, we need new names for what we are becoming, not merely a rejection of what we have never been.

In the final analysis, I see the role of my preferred community of thinkers and writers, which is generally more influenced by Tarnas than by Latour, as to engage with the mode of discourse that Latour is pushing in our direction (particularly in his use of the “Gaia” motif in his current Gifford lectures), perhaps on our end pushing the new paradigm to integrate some of the undeniably potent rhetorical sophistication of poststructuralism. We’re lucky to live in a time when the two ends of the polarity of enchanted and disenchanted are so close, a hair’s breadth apart.  It seems to me that all it requires is a few more stones to be a laid, a few more great books to be written and a few more institutions funded, for the bridge between the old and the new paradigm finally to be complete and durable. When that happens, my guess is that there will be a flood of pilgrims to the new dispensation, the political and conceptual networks of academia will reconfigure themselves with relative suddenness around a new “center of gravity,” and we will be in a fundamentally new world.


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