With the 2014 Gebser conference just around the corner, we would like to formally introduce this year’s Keynote speaker, Nicola Masciandaro.
Professor of English at Brooklyn College (CUNY), and a specialist in medieval literature, Nicola’s work falls between philosophy, mysticism, and criticism, with special attention to the topics of sorrow, decapitation, and commentary.
In his Keynote, Nicola takes a critical approach to the problem of individuation and mystical birth in Gebser, and seeks to investigate its aperspectival structure. Gebser is brought into dialogue with more traditional concepts of mystical becoming, as articulated in the writings of figures such fourteenth century Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, for whom “god shines in man”, as well as more contemporary figures such as Meher Baba (1894–1969), who claimed to be a divinely realised avatâra (manifestation of god). According to thinkers such as these, spiritual evolution follows the pattern of a more radically singular process of self/world-negation. Here, salvation is individualised through God-realization.
Nicola’s recent publications include “I Am Not Supposed To Be Here: Birth and Mystical Detection,” in True Detection, eds. Connole, Ennis, and Masciandaro (Schism, 2014), “Paradisical Pessimism: On the Crucifixion Darkness and the Cosmic Materiality of Sorrow” (Qui Parle, 2014), Sufficient Unto the Day: Sermones Contra Solicitudinem (Schism, 2014), and Dark Nights of the Universe, co-authored with Daniel Colucciello Barber, Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker (NAME, 2013). Current/forthcoming projects include: Floating Tomb: Black Metal, Theory, and Mysticism, co-authored with Edia Connole (Mimesis); Sorrow Of Being; and Dark Wounds of Light, co-authored with Alina Popa. He is founding editor of the journal Glossator: Practice and Theory of the Commentary.
Nicola will be presenting his Keynote on Saturday 18th October 2014, at 10 a.m. The full presentation abstract is provided below.
Nicola Masciandaro, PhD
Keynote Presentation, International Jean Gebser Society, Crisis and Mutation, 2014
Jean Gebser’s Ever-Present Origin, in keeping with the seeming paradox of its titular concept, may be said to be saturated with the problem/question of birth to the point of erasure. On the one hand, its understanding of the mutative evolution of consciousness is thoroughly general and collective, sited within the universality of mankind and the scientistic episteme of the human ‘we’. It address our crisis, the crisis of the mutable world we happen to inhabit. From this perspective, the work leaves scant room for the radical asymmetry of individuated coming-to-be and expresses almost nothing of its hypersubjective existential terror. It is difficult to imagine Gebser, in communion with Cioran, either “long[ing] to be free . . . as the stillborn are free” or claiming that lack of “mourning and lamentations” over birth is the best “proof of how far humanity has regressed.” On the other hand, by bringing the mutations of consciousness wholly to bear upon the imperative of the present, Gebser’s work is integrally ordered precisely towards the solution of individual birth, the evaporation of the all-too-specific enigma of one’s being here, now. Its weight places itself squarely upon the singular ‘anyone’ or ‘someone’ who “supersedes ‘beginning’ and ‘end’,” who alone “knows of origin [and] has present, living and dying in the whole.” Like the fact of one’s own being born, the impossible and inevitable event of oneself which makes suicide always-already too late, the question of birth is not elided but rather made absently present in Gebser’s thought. Beginning, then, with the assumption that Ever-Present Origin’s non-treatment of the question of birth represents in these terms a significant form of spiritual refusal or silent negation of birth, my paper investigates the aperspectival structure of the phenomenon of birth by bringing Gebser’s thought into dialogue with more traditional concepts of mystical becoming, in particular those found in the writings of Meister Eckhart and Meher Baba, according to which spiritual evolution follows the pattern of more radically singular self/world-negation and individualized salvation or God-realization. As birth is a ‘ready-made’ aperspectival and four-dimensional truth par excellence—subjective, objective, both, and neither—so is it precisely the (w)hole one’s leap into which is the next mutation of human consciousness.
A recent piece on the range of historical meanings associated with the Greek word thumos, “rage, wrath”, inspired me to revisit Gebser’s discussion of Homer’s Iliad. In works such as Transformations of the West and The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser puts forth the idea that the first line—indeed the first word—of the Iliad encapsulates the entire thrust of the mental-rational consciousness that would emerge from Greek civilisation. Mental consciousness, for Gebser, was directed, straight, and focused on an object, an impulse that burst the cyclic seams of the prevailing mythological consciousness, which was, by contrast, circular rather than straight, polar rather than dualistic, and complimentary rather than mutually exclusive.
For Gebser, the irruption of the mental structure of consciousness was distilled in the word menis. It’s leitmotif—wrath:
Wrath or anger is the force which bursts the confines of community and clan, to the extent that it manifests the “hero” in the individual and spurs him on toward further individuation, self-assertion, and consequently ego-emergence. We noted earlier the decisive role of the concurrent emergence of wrath in both the Bhagavad Gita and the Iliad; the Iliad begins with the words: Menin aeide, thea, Peleiadeo Achileos (“Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles”), words in which we can recognise a summons to consciousness.
Gebser draws out the nuances of meaning that surround the word menin both in Greek and in its Indo-European cognates to suggest that it is “the first intimation of the emergence of directed or discursive thought”, signalling a break from the cyclic complementarity of the mythical world. Menin and its cognates encompass meanings such as wrath, courage, resolve, anger, power, intent, thinking, thought, and deliberation, according to Gebser, who draws heavily on a solid body of Indo-European philology.
This aggressive shift towards directed thought was “literally earth-shaking”. It “bursts man’s protective psychic circle” and ruptures his congruity with the “psychic-naturalistic-cosmic-temporal world of polarity and enclosure”. “The ring is broken”, remarks Gebser, “and man steps out of the two-dimensional surface into space, which he will attempt to master by his thinking”.
The idea of rupture in relation to the emergence of metal consciousness is emphasised in a further layer of meaning that Gebser ascribes to the myth of the birth of Athena, whose “imagery and allusions” are “unmistakable”:
Zeus has wedded Metis, the personification of reason and intelligence, who, being one of the daughters of Oceanus (“the river encircling the world”) had the power of transforming herself. Fearing the birth of a son more powerful than he, Zeus devours Metis, who is already pregnant with a daughter, thereby transporting her [the daughter], into his own body. When Hephaestus (or Prometheus, or Hermes) splits Zeus’ head with an axe, this daughter, Athena, is born. Pindar has described this birth brought about by the blow of an axe as having taken place accompanied by a terrible tumult throughout nature, as well as by the astonishment of the entire pantheon. The sea (the all-encompassing soul) surges forth, and Olympus and earth—until that moment in a polar relationship—tremble and shake; the carefully preserved balance is destroyed; even Helios interrupts his course. The circle is indeed interrupted, and, from the breach, the wound, a new possibility of the world emerges.
The idea that the breach, rupture, or wound is the very means by which the new world and consciousness will emerge is significant for a number of reasons. Not only does it signal the principle of creation arising from destruction, it suggests that the wound itself is actually the hidden key to the emergence of consciousness. For emergency yields emergence. Dissolution is the solution. The poison is a Gift (to play on a dual-language pun).
Within the broader purview of Gebser’s work, it becomes self-evident that it is precisely the mis-directed wrath of the (deficient) mental-rational consciousness that is destroying our contemporary world. Given Gebser’s insights into of the very birth of rationality from wrath and rupture, we can begin to look deeper into our contemporary wounds for answers to our present predicaments. To what extent are the symptoms of fragmentation potential openings into a womb—lattices in a matrix in which a more integral world is gestating? In other words, to what extent are the wounds of civilisation also the wombs of consciousness?
Sabrina Dalla Valle, MFA, is the current Vice President of the Gebser Society. She has presented at our conferences since 2009, and co-hosted the 2013 conference at the University of Philosophical Research, where she also teaches a Gebserian approach to creative writing and consciousness. Her book, Seven Days and Nights in the Desert, was released last year via Kelsey Street Press. In the following two-part interview with Anna Soteria Morrison, she discusses her poetic and philosophical influences. In this connection, it is imperative to recognise that Gebser himself was first and foremost a poet, and that it was from his essentially poetic insights into reality that his philosophy emerged as a co-expression. Comments Dalla Valle:
I find this dualistic relationship between poetry and philosophy in your question difficult to connect with ~ because for me they are reciprocals and they mirror one another, so they are found in each other. Build fires to worship the wood, burn wood to worship the fire. This line from one of Susan Stewart’s poems really encapsulates my response.
The full interview is available here:
I sure hope you’re finding the new site easy to navigate. While we’re working on putting up new content — as well as getting our bearings — I thought I’d share with you an interesting article I found on io9 today: “The Forgotten History of CGI.”
As it turns out, the origins of CG (computer graphics) have their roots in a classic Renaissance aim: that of mastering the perspectival eye:
The roots of CGI lie in the first mechanical aids to drawing and painting. The earliest of these were developed to help solve a problem every artist has found to be sticky: perspective.
John David Ebert is an independent cultural critic and philosopher. In addition to being a prolific essayist, Ebert has recently published a number of works from “Art After Metaphysics” to his recently brilliant analysis of graphic novels, “Giant Humans, Tiny Worlds.” He writes regularly at Cinema Discourse. Check out his Amazon Author’s page here.
This post officially inaugurates our freshly updated and mutated Gebser Society website, and announces the much anticipated Call for Papers for this year’s conference.
This year we are very excited to bring Gebser to New York City!
The conference dates are 17-18 October 2014. The theme this year is Crisis and Mutation. The deadline for abstracts is 31 July 2014. Note them well.
Full conference information will be available in the Conference Program, which is scheduled for release directly after the Call for Papers draws to a close (31 July 2014). In the meantime, updates will be made available here as they arise.
I wish to personally thank Jeremy Johnson for his instrumental assistance in securing the conference venue—the fabulous and historic Judson Memorial Church—and setting up the new website. Jeremy presented at last year’s conference in Los Angeles, and when he’s not being generally invaluable to the Gebser Society, he does great work at Evolver Learning Lab and Reality Sandwich.
On a technical note, we wish to assure you that all the material from the old website has been saved. Relevant material will be uploaded over the coming weeks. If you have any specific requests or enquiries, please contact Jeremy directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Much is on the horizon, and we will be writing separately about some of the new features and opportunities that will be afforded us, including our vision for a more creative, interactive, and truly international Jean Gebser Society.
Aaron Cheak, PhD
Gebser Society President