How Dark Ages Precede Transformations of Consciousness

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William Irwin Thompson:

(from the book, Coming Into Being)

"There is another genius who wrote on the evolution of consciousness who can be of use here to help us understand our contemporary predicament as a choice betwveen evolution and dissolution: the German turned Swiss cultural historian Jean Gebser. A refugee from Franco's Spain and Hitler's Germany, Gebser was a brilliantly intuitive intellectual mystic with a pro found understanding of poetry and art. Right in the middle of the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and the descent of Europe into the Second World War, he had an intellectual vision of the evolution of consciousness that anticipated and excelled the whole New Age and the new paradigm thinking of the 1970s. Gebser was a friend of Frederico Garcia Lorca and Pablo Picasso, and his understanding of culture is based upon a deep feeling for specific works of poetry and art. But his high cultural European approach to the evolution of consciousness makes it difficult for Americans to appreciate his work.


Gebser can help us to steer wide of the California substitution in which the integral is a theme park simulacrum of electronics and psychedelics. Gebser is not a Disney animatron of the thinker; he is the real thing, a true European philosopher of art and culture who prophesied in the 1940s the shift to the new chaos dynamical mathematical understanding of nature, the new appreciation of matristic values in a dissolving of patriarchy, and the new spirituality beyond reactionary religions and deficient magical cults. Amazingly, Gebser seemed to be able to avoid the mistakes of other prewar thinkers, from the flirtations with Fascism that captured Mircea Eliade, Martin Heidegger, and Paul De Man, to the facile Communism that captured Louis Althusser and Jean-Paul Sartre, or the nihilism that destroyed Michel Foucault. Spiritual without being occult, Gebser also managed to avoid the psychic inflation of the self-elected guru that caught George Gurdjieff, so Gebser's work on the evolution of consciousness is well worth the effort, and now that it is available in an English translation, I hope that at least enough people will read him so that Ever-Present Origin does not go out of print.

Gebser's narrative is one of structural transformations of consciousness ... These turnings and transformations (in German, WandLung) are fivefold, and interestingly, Gebser's model is isomorphic to McLuhan's.

McLuhan Gebser

1. Oral        1. Archaic 
2. Script      2. Magical 
3. Alphabetic  3. Mythical 
4. Print       4. Mental 
5. Electronic 5. Integral 

Gebser's five structural mutations of consciousness should not be read as static stages or levels in a linear progression; they are processual trans-formations. His Eurocentrism derives not from any imperial contempt for other cultures, but from the fact that he was a political refugee with severely limited funds trying to flesh out his intuitive insights with the books that were at hand as he worked in the center of Europe, in Bern. Like McLuhan, Gebser holds out a visionary possibility for a transformation of consciousness in which the degenerative returns to the magical and the deficient efforts to recover the mythical are overcome in the quantum leap to the integral. In trying to understand this new level of global consciousness, Gebser became interested in the Zen philosophy articulated by D. T. Suzuki and the integral yoga of the Indian evolutionary philosopher Sri Aurobindo.

Although Gebser did not elaborate the point, I noticed in reading his works that a dark age is characteristic of the transition from one structure of consciousness to another.

Before agriculture, there was a loss of culture in the Mesolithic; gone was the high culture of Paleolithic Lascaux, but not yet come was the high culture of the Neolithic. So in the Exocene weather change, with its 300-foot rise of the seacoast level there was an Atlantean inundation that engulfed the old glacial world. Agricultural society stabilized itself from 9500 to 4500 B.C.E., and then came the Kurgan invasions and the destruction of the undefended agricultural villages of the great goddess. So before civilization, there was a second dark age transition. By 2500 B.C.E., civilization had stabilized itself in the new forms to be found along the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus, and Yangtze rivers. Then before Western civilization, there is the Aegean dark age of 1400 to 800 B.C.E., which expresses the shift from Gebser's mythical to mental epoch. Before Western European civilization, there was the dark age of 476 to 800 C.E. And now, before the shift to the integral, we seem to be experiencing our own dark age in which our civilization is disintegrating.

So if we line up Gebser's structural transformations of consciousness with dark ages, we get this:

Mesolithic Dark Age, 9500 B.C.E     1. Archaic 1. 
Kurgan Invasions, 4500 B.C.E.       2. Magical 2. 
Aegean Dark Age, 1400-800 B.C.E.    3. Mythical 3. 
European Dark Age, 476-800 C.E.     4. Mental 4. 
Contemporary Dark Age               5. Integral 5. 

In the loss that is characteristic of a transition to novelty, the dark age seems to, paradoxically, open up a new possibility: the loss of the magical in the shift from sacrificial, matristic cultures to militaristic, patriarchal cultures, or the loss of the mythical in the shift to the mental in Greek philosophy, or now the loss of literate civilization in the shift to the electronic noetic polities of a decultured planetization. Naturally, this shift is opposed by traditional and reactionary forces, from Islamic jihads to Aryan nation attacks; but as enemies adopt the electronic technologies of their opponents in order to fight them, they are inevitably pulled into the culture they abhor. Televangelists like Reverend Jimmy Swaggert may hold the good book in one hand while they gesticulate against rock music with the other, but to the degree that they use television to promote themselves, they become isomorphic to rock stars and become just another sports star or celebrity.

In chaos dynamical theory in mathematics, it is the accumulation of noise that pulls a system from one attractor to another. So in our transition from industrialization to planetization, it is the accumulation of noise that is pulling civilization apart. In industrialization, the global marketplace was the phase-space of human culture that defined the value of all human transactions. The new phase-space, however, is not the marketplace but the catastrophe, for it is the catastrophe that brings us together in a condition that now defines all our human transactions. This evolutionary catastrophe bifurcation of "up or out" compels us to look on human culture with a new, deeper, and more compassionately spiritual level of understanding. Those who are oriented to the marketplace will resist this transformation of world view^, so the accumulation of noise will have to be great indeed before they are pulled into the basin of a new attractor. Nevertheless, noise is the transition to the noetic polity; it destroys the solitude necessary for the philosophical reflection characteristic of the mental epoch. But before we can effect the transition to the integral to stabilize our condition in the angelic musical polities of the future we will have to learn how to make our way through the demonic states of possession of our present. My contribution to this effort is to offer —in the face of the disliterate, electronic world of MTV — this study of specific works of literature as expressing the true markers along the way of the evolution of human consciousness."