Integrality and Embodiment in Jean Gebser and Sri Aurobindo – Debashish Banerji

Jean Gebser (1905-1973)


 keynote for the 43rd jean gebser society conference, los angeles, 10/4/13

Jean Gebser gives us a philosophy of history which looks at emergent structures of consciousness as forms of relative concealment and unconcelament of what he calls “the ever-present Origin.” In this he can be said to follow Heidegger’s reinterpretation of Hegel, the first modern philosopher of history. Instead of Hegel’s historicism, Heidegger had put agency back in the human, and acknowledged Being as setting up the horizon and confronting beings, who find themselves in their “thrownness,” responding with language, the house of Being, through which its horizon discloses and undiscloses itself. This existential turn in Heidegger, stands Hegel on his head and confronts him with Nietzsche.

Gebser gives this Heideggerian creative praxis (Eirignis) an anthropological concreteness in seeing the signs of these evolutionary stages of human ontological mutation in the archeological record. Arriving at the Mental structure, Gebser goes through several stages leading to the development of perspectivism. Perspectivism implies objectified thinking, pathways from ignorance to a vanishing point of gnosis. There can be infinite such pathways, which is why the Bengali saint of Dakshineshwar Ramakrishna said, there are as many paths as there are opinions.

Yet if the pathways proliferate, they run into each other and find themselves having to cohabit uncomfortably. They do so through social structures. These social structures inevitably disintegrate due to ever finer perspectivisms. There will be some natural confederations but there will be a great step when humanity at large realizes that the vanishing points of all perspectives is the same and has independent reality. This is the Integral Consciousness. According to Gebser, this independent reality of integral consciousness was across the horizon of Being for the mental structure. Now, as this structure, at least in potential, reaches its culminant perspectivism, the mentally “impossible ideals” begin to be possible to experience, due to the independent reality of the integral consciousness.

According to Gebser, from the mid 19th c., the integral consciousness has begun being intuited in all the arts and sciences. He is most comfortable talking about visual culture. This is expected, given his characterization of the age in terms of perspective. Perspective is a visual ontology, thus a spatial one but one which includes and subordinates time.  In contrast, music can be thought of as belonging to a temporal ontology, to which space is subjective experience and shaping. However, the integral is the aporetic event (or location), where all space and time are present at each point. This is what gives to it its special ontology, which to Gebser has the objective qualities of transparency and diaphaneity. The transparent, again, is a purely optical quality, though indeed, one may adapt this easily and we hear of transparent sound, meaning sound so natural you cannot hear the mediation of technology (or its perspective). Hence transparency means the presence of truth, either unmediated or mediated by something which makes itself invisible.

Gebser uses the term diaphaneity also to refer to integral consciousness. I take it he is not referring to a mediating instrument as being diaphanous, but integral consciousness itself as having this property. This would imply gradations within the integral consciousness. I take it that diaphaneity refers to the presence of all possibilities at each point. The coexistence of all time implies a transparently accurate palimpsest of history, spatially appearing as a translucent density, a diaphaneity. Closer contact with this consciousness reveals the space dimension to be a door opening to a holographic dimension of a continuity of discrete events with fuzzy borders, the presence of time, with all space known only through eventuation. Living in this presence is what Bergson refers to as duration. Deleuze sees this as the basis of intuition, duration as primary intuition, the living presence of the past and future. This, possessed in its fullness is the knowledge of the three times, trikaldrishti.

What, according to Gebser, must we do to embody this consciousness? I believe the first step is the reversal of primary dimension from space to time. Space with time present but subordinated is perspectival consciousness. The modality is thought as projection, planning. In its place, Gebser suggests becoming aware of the presence of history and conscious of the co-existence of all space and time in our space and time. We are creative agents of history and each of our actions has world effects. This is not a way of thinking but an intuition of being leading to an ontology, the integral. Moments of integral consciousness can come upon us unexpectedly, but the practice of the intuition of duration is achieved, according to Gebser through intensity. Intensity implies the concentration of many possibilities, both synchronically (cultural) and diachronically (historical). But, though one can intuit the dimension of “integral consciousness” philosophically and catch glimpses of it in experience, to what extent can we think of our times as expressing the “integral consciousness” (as Gebser would have us think)? Holding this question, let us turn to Sri Aurobindo, in whom Gebser saw a like-minded visionary, perhaps even a mystic from whose pervasion (vyapti) Gebser himself received his intuitions. In a 1979 publication, Gebser had written:

Be it noted that my concept of the formation of a new consciousness, of which I became aware by a flash-like intuition in the winter of 1932/33, and which I began to put forward in 1939, largely resembles the world-scheme of Sri Aurobindo, who was then unknown to me. My own, however, differs from Sri Aurobindo’s in that it appeals to the Western world only and does not have the profundity and the pregnant origin of his ingeniously presented conception. I see an explanation for this phenomenon in the fact that I was in some way brought into the extremely powerful spiritual field of force radiating through Sri Aurobindo.

Sri Aurobindo’s notion of integral consciousness belongs primarily to his yoga psychology, which is also a cosmology, or a psychology all the way down. Integral consciousness is used by him to describe the supramental consciousness. What I spoke of earlier as the knowledge of the three times, trikaldrishti, is certainly a feature of this consciousness. But this is at a higher than cosmic level, a level to which the laws of the cosmos (including the iron law of death) are creative choices. Instead of looking at what Sri Aurobindo calls “integral consciousness,” it may be more apt to look at what, if anything, Sri Aurobindo may have to say about the transition from the “mental structure,” or even more germane to us, from the “modern age.” Sri Aurobindo’s social and political philosophy is to be found in his book, The Human Cycle. It sees time in terms of the Hindu procession of yugas. But he does not see these as circular, in other words, repeating exactly the same patterns or events ad infinitum. He sees them as ontological time cycles. Thus, such a set of ontological developments forming a relative cycle, may be seen in the time scale of the Gebserian cycle of mutations of consciousness leading from an archaic age to an integral age; or each of these mutations of consciousness could be read in terms of such a time cycle sequence. The Puranic image of this sequence is that of a diminishment, in quarters of a circle of plenitude. The number 4 plays a very important role here (as it does in Gebser’s cycle which can be seen as a system of 4+1). The Satya Yuga or the Age of Truth has the full circle of truth, the Treta has ¾ of the circle, the Dwapara has ½ of the circle and Kali has ¼ of the circle. We are supposed to be in deep Kali now. Many schools however believe that we are in a yuga-sandhya or twilight age between the kali and the new satya yugas. This in itself implies a spiral idea, each cycle leading to a greater one with the same structural progressions.

Sri Aurobindo has his own reading of this succession. In the hybrid light of the German philosopher Karl Lamprecht (1856-1915), he translated these yugas into the terms of a diminishment of symbolic truth but a progressive increase of individual self-consciousness. The yugas translate in his language to a Symbolic Age, a Typal Age, an Age of Conventions and an age of Individualism. Sri Aurobindo’s “symbolic age” refers not to the symbol making property of humans (as in Gebser’s mythic structure) but to a spontaneous embodiment of a spiritual symbolic reality. Such an embodiment is however, individually unconscious, like the organs of a body that operate unconsciously but in spontaneous harmony under the law of the body’s autopoeisis. The rise of self-consciousness causes reflection on the characteristics of the symbolic realities and a consequent reification of the flexible symbols into types. Thus, the typal stage is characterized by a dominance of ethical concerns with all else subordinated to these. In Indian society, it was best expressed in the ideal and concept of Dharma, the upholding of tradition and the fulfillment of one’s social position and responsibility. The epic Ramayana best exemplifies this stage. In the conventional stage, the outward expressions of the Ideal overshadow the ideal itself, such that customs, outward signs and symbols become ends in themselves, and their inner spirit and significance becomes eclipsed. In its early phase, the spirit and inner significance of the social institutions still live and thrive within well-developed structures, but afterwards the institutions become more and more formalized and artificial, and their inner purpose and significance become obscured. In Indian society, this is illustrated with the growing rigidity of the caste system in which the society was organized, with its increasing emphasis on custom, heredity, and ritual. The society depicted in the epic Mahabharata is a good example of this. The Age of Individualism develops out of the Conventional Age, as a reaction to what is felt as its imprisonment by the spirit of the human.

There may be some comparison between these ages and Gebser’s structures – the Symbolic Age may correspond to the archaic structure, the Typal Age may correspond to the magic structure, the Conventional Age to the mythic structure and the Age of Individualism to the mental structure. But making such comparisons may defeat the purpose of the taxonomy in both cases. Clearly, Gebser’s structures refer to social ontologies based on a relation to “the ever-present origin” while Aurobindo’s are a progression in self-consciousness. Gebser didn’t like his structures to be looked upon as evolutionary stages, while for Aurobindo, there seems to be a cosmic determinism at work here, not necessarily an evolution but still, a psychological process to time. Yet, if one reads Sri Aurobindo closely, it is also clear that though the cosmic dice is loaded in each case, it is the play of world forces and human agency which together determine the transitions from age to age. Such a view can be contrasted with that of Hegel, for whom the Zeitgesit or Time Spirit was the primary Agent with human beings only acting out its dialectical experiments. It was in fact, as a reaction to such historicism, downplaying human freedom and creativity, that Nietzsche posited the will-to-power at work everywhere in acts of domination or subordination, but finding its true expression as the will to self-exceeding in the overman. Michel Foucault, who was self-avowedly a Nietzschean (like Gilles Deleuze, his friend), proposed a view of temporal phases or epistemes, similarly characterized by different relationships to the construction of knowledge as an act of power.

What concerns us primarily in this discussion is our present times. Reading Gebser, one may call this a transition point from the perspectival to the integral structure. In Sri Aurobindo’s reading, the Age of Individualism arises due to the awaking of a further degree of self-consciousness, to which the social conventions and taboos of the past seem like imprisonments. As with Gebser, the most recent such shift from a conventional to an individualistic age occurred, according to Sri Aurobindo, on a world scale (or more properly on a scale which led to a world consequence, the birth of geopolitics and world history) with the European Renaissance. Following the Renaissance, The Enlightenment pushed the Age of Individualism into its characteristic “episteme,” what Sri Aurobindo calls “the Cycle of Reason.” Interestingly, we can see a clear convergence with Gebser’s thought here, since the invention of perspective, one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance, launches modern humanity into the perspectival phase of the mental structure, something which finds philosophical articulation and epistemic validity with the Enlightenment. But instead of a transition from this phase to an aperspectival integral structure of consciousness, Sri Aurobindo delineates two intermediate phases marking the completion and supercession of the cycle of Reason. The first if these is the Subjective Age. Once again, there is a convergence with Gebser, since Sri Aurobindo also identifies the Subjective Age as taking its first steps around the start of the 19th c., moving into its characteristic expression from the middle of the 19th c till the early 20th c., and promising to lead onto a deeper Spiritual Age as the 20th century progresses.

It should be noted that Gebser was 30 years junior to Sri Aurobindo and resident in Europe, where he had ready access to the exciting changes in culture that were part of Modernism in all the arts, sciences and philosophies from the early to mid 20th c. He wrote his magnum opus The Ever-Present Origin in the late 1930s, the heyday of Modernism. Sri Aurobindo, on the other hand, wrote his Human Cycle during World War I (1914-20), sitting in a remote corner of India, where the cultural currents of contemporary Europe were hard to come by. Thus, the examples he provides for the transition from a rational age to a subjective age belong to an earlier period, the mid-to-late 19th c., mainly in England, and drawing mostly on Poetry. We see these examples not in The Human Cycle, but in a work of literary historiography, The Future Poetry, where he surveys the history of English Poetry in order to show a transition towards a new kind of speech, capable of conveying spiritual experience through the heightened use of its fused powers of rhythm, vision and thought. He sees the forerunners of this trend in the Romantic poets of the early 19th c., but he sees better examples arising towards the end of the century. The names he gives us include some who enjoyed considerable popularity in their lifetimes but have since disappeared from sight – the British poets George Meredith, Stephen Phillips and Edward Carpenter – and some who are adulated to this day – Walt Whitman and Rabindranath Tagore. Though Sri Aurobindo demonstrates interesting departures in all these cases, the radical changes in Modernist poetry inaugurated by the French Symbolists or in the Anglo-American world by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, are missed out by him. In his later Letters on Literature, he did however discuss the Symbolists and on occasion, Eliot, and spoke of preparing a new edition of the Future Poetry in which he would address the Modernists, shortly before he passed on.

Like Gebser, who saw the signs of the integral structure in the Modernists, Sri Aurobindo saw his moderns as initiating the transition to the Subjective Age and preparing the ground for a Spiritual Age. Modernism, whether in Art, Poetry, Music or Science, certainly opened the doors to new ways of experiencing reality and hence, can be thought of as a harbinger of a new ontology. Since Gebser’s metaphors are worded in visual terms, we can see how, in the visual arts, Modernism, from Post-Impressionism onwards, drew inspiration from non-western cultures, to collapse perspective and express a new relation to reality, which was clearly subjective. The proper material for expression became not the object world separated from the subject, but the world as existent within the subject, shaped and colored by subjectivity. Yet, 40 years since the passing of Gebser and 60 years since Sri Aurobindo, high Modernism is no longer seen as a paradigm changing initiation, which has taken us into either a spiritual age or an integral structure of consciousness. Today, Modernism is periodized and relativized as an era of heroics, when the creative individual believed that s/he could change the world, but failed.

The causes of this failure lie mostly in the hubris of Modernism itself, its emulation of modenity’s sense of rupture from the past, in thinking of a perpetual revolution taking us into ever new dimensions of experience by the magus like power of the creative agent. But such a rupture remains alienated from the mass of humanity, subject to the mundane forces of techno-capitalism; and the modernist magi have rarely if ever, demonstrated a power of personal life that gives evidence of a higher than ordinary consciousness. Postmodernism has moved into a historical revaluation and a new subjective objectivity. And as Michel Foucault has pointed out in his late works, the need of our times is not the production of valorized artworks to be speculated over in the art market by the likes of collectors, museums, art journals and art critics, but the application of a micropolitical creativity to one’s own life, the demonstration of a power of integrity that challenges conditioning factors but is attentive to its own soul-making as a relational project, something he calls subjectivation.

If Modernism has not been the Moses’ Rod to part the Red Sea and lead us into the Promised Land, some today see our present phase of globalization as validation of the Gebserian integral structure or the Aurobindian spiritual age. Another thinker, along with Aurobindo, whom Gebser acknowledged as sharing a family resemblance, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, is more often addressed in this regard, a non-localized global consciousness available in a material sense through contemporary telecommunication (this very conference a good example of a local event with its dynamic spectral double in cyberspace) constituting the noosphere, a kind of cosmic consciousness which is presently supposed to be available to all of humanity. This relation has been forged in no small measure by the powerful poet and philosopher of media technology, Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s adaptation of Teilhard’s noosphere in the technological key has substantially contributed to the vision of cyberspace as a kind of cosmic consciousness/integral consciousness. Indeed, the argument can be made and has been made, that the principal properties of Divinity – omnipresence, omniscience and omnipotence – are within the reach of everyman today. One can contact any point in the globe with one’s cell phone; one can increasingly access any information pertaining to any subject from any period of the earth’s history through the press of a button; and one can control events and objects remotely in more and more powerful ways.

Yet there are two problems with this godhood: (1) it is sustained and driven by capital for the production of capital – and as such its principal object is in creating a control society of conditioned subjects whose choices in work, relations and pleasures are commodified and subordinated to the world market; and (2) it is “out there” but not “in here.” The first of these problems is one of hyper-perspectivism, the yoking of humanity to a single grand perspective, that of capital, served by the corporation and the nation-state. This is the Age of the World Picture of Heidegger, not the Spiritual Age of Aurobindo or the Integral Age of Gebser. The postcolonial scholar Trinh Minh-ha has pointed out how modernity lures its subjects with the promise of freedom but turns them into slaves of capital after tearing them from their historical roots. Increasingly, one finds neo-liberal clones, marked by their name branded merchandize, albeit in increasingly proliferating varieties, which appear to validate multiculturalism, but are in reality, only flavors churned out by a global desiring machine.

The second problem is even more fundamental, it is the difference between having and being. Having access to a global condition is quite different from being global or having a global consciousness. The images proper to such a condition are those of a hive of ants efficiently carrying out the functions of the totality through invisible control, a multitude of fools who can’t distinguish between gold and tinsel, or a bunch of apes seated in front of a console of buttons in a nuclear facility. W. B. Yeats ends his poem Leda and the Swan about the improbable and violent coupling of god and woman with the lines: “Did she put on his Knowledge with his Power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop.” A new world condition demands the production of a new subjectivity which can equal the epistemic “sense” of this world.

Do we have global agency in this world? What knowledge can we muster to confront the forces of global conditioning? For an answer, we have to return to Gebser, Aurobindo and others, whose writings are not primarily predictions, but intuitions, aspirations and guidelines for praxis. Among contemporary thinkers, it is Gilles Deleuze who has honed in on this issue as the central one of our times – how can we as individuals find a power of consciousness to equal that of the world machine? This question is not posed by him as a duality, but as an inextricable braiding. Deleuze re-engages with the Nietzschean dream of the overman, seeing this being as a body without organs and a practice of nomadology, micropolitically engaged with the triple folds of organic genetic codes, inorganic intelligence and the essence of language as the roots of affect below the threshold of conventional signification. In Sri Aurobindo, we find an adaptation of the theories and practices of ancient yoga traditions assimilated to a similar purpose – not meditation for stress-free management, or yoga for the packaged “healthy lifestyle” of the “yummy mummy” or as a badge of nativist identity politics but the intuition (vijnana) to interpret and bend the idea forces that shape our world, the power (shakti) to make the highest creative and revolutionary use of global energies, the refusal of biopolitical conditioning through the discovery of new powers of the body (as with Deleuze’s body without organs), the expansion of consciousness into true cosmicity and the entry into the house of the three times, trikaldrishti. This is the embodiment of integral consciousness. It is only at the distant end of such a praxis co-engaged as a creative agent in our global condition, dominated by capital, that we can say that the promise of the integral structure of Gebser or the integral consciousness of Aurobindo are no longer illusions or worse, fatal mistakes, but the very meaning of the challenge of our times.


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