Mythology of the Postmodern (I)


Joseph Campbell associates four main functions with a complete mythological system – mystical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogic. I propose to outline a contemporary mythos that satisfies these requirements. The term ‘postmodern’ is notoriously difficult to specify. I will adopt an evolutionary approach, starting from Wilber’s account of a sequence of major worldviews in which the fourth, our modern ‘rational-industrial’ period, is now giving way to a new ‘postmodern’ era. Wilber’sequence is as follows:

Archaic-    =>    Magical-       =>     Mythic-   =>    Rational-   =>   Existential-

foraging             horticultural           agrarian           industrial           informational

Of these, the first three are pre-modern, the fourth modern and the fifth ‘postmodern’. Wilber argues forcefully for this succession but viewing it as presented suggests there was no rationality up to our modern period, at which point – all of a sudden – it appeared. Obviously, this wasn’t so. Rather what we call rationality has been evolving through the entire sequence, manifesting in the mode of particular worldviews and the particular cultural ecology within which each operated. This means that rationality has been adapting throughout evolution to its cultural as well as natural environments. In the modern period, this led to a predominance of instrumental rationality and the eclipse of ‘Reason’ proper, as symbolic of an ordering principle which informs the unfolding of all evolution rather than a specifically human ordering potential which became conscious of itself as such in modern times.

Also, if rationality emerges through our whole sequence, we might wonder what is so distinctive about its standing in the modern period that we specifically call this ‘rational’? My answer, as indicated, is that rationality became differentiated to a point of explicit self-consciousness in the modern era. That Kant should publish a ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ during this period is evidence in itself. Moreover, if rationality has been evolving up to our modern period, we can expect it to continue evolving beyond where we happen to be now. But what can this mean? Where else can rationality evolve to? Facetiously, the answer is wherever we ordain. There are constraints, however. I take ‘rationality’ to refer to the transcendent principle of Reason as it becomes individuated in the course of our apparently separate lives, adjusting now to this and next to that contingency of our worldly careers. This adaptive focus has led to our modern preoccupation with autonomy and control. I want to suggest that now, as we enter post-modernity, the next great leap in the evolution of rationality will involve a qualitative opening whereby we come to realise what it means for us to have engaged reflexively – by rational-empirical means – a new story of our origins in the beginning of the space-time ‘material’ Universe and, also, a renewal of our sensitivity to Transcendence.

Kant observed that we can’t know the Transcendent via senses or rational intellects that are pre-tuned to conditions within the field of space and time. Now, in our time, science has brought us to empirical knowledge of the very threshold at which our field of space-time comes into being – or, more accurately, comes out of Being into existence. It brings us to a point where we as human beings are once more able to intuit a Transcendent order that defies understanding even as it is refocused by our efforts to achieve understanding. Philosophy’s first question – Why is there something rather than nothing? – is necessarily based on a prior realisation that Being is. There is not and never was ‘Nothing’. As human beings we have a capacity to wonder at this and be astonished. This capacity is now restored after centuries of instrumental reason. Our contemporary intuition of Transcendence posits a ‘Nowhere’ outside space-time to which empirically differentiated, scientifically informed rationality must now open, despite being specifically adapted to the field of space-time operations.

But because Transcendence exceeds the grasp of reason, it can only be engaged by myth. Campbell’s mystical function promotes realisation of the transcendence of apparent separateness in our phenomenal world of space-time. It serves to disclose the Universe as an expression in space and time of a Source that transcends both. Consider, for example, an ancient Hindu myth which presents the Universe as Vishnu’s dream: the Cosmic Serpent is adrift on the Cosmic Ocean. Vishnu lies asleep on its back, dreaming. The first manifestation of his dream is a lotus. On top of this  four-faced Brahma sits, beaming the projections of Vishnu’s sleeping consciousness out in four directions, giving rise to what we experience as the world. Does this mean Hindus actually believe the Universe rests on a lotus that grows from the dream of a God sleeping on the back of a serpent adrift on an ocean? No. It is symbolic language, mytho-poetic. The cosmic ocean represents a primary field of absolute consciousness. The serpent is the first differentiation to occur within this. Vishnu’s dream is a thought bridge which spans the divide between creative consciousness and our phenomenal world of space-time. And because Vishnu dreams the space-time Universe, he can’t be found inside it; nor can science appoint delegations to check if he’s actually there, although his image is everywhere. Even we are vehicles of Vishnu’s dream. Dawning awareness of this is the root of our contemporary obsession with reflexivity. Such meta-reflections suffice to establish the subtlety of our myth, which uses story to proclaim an order of Being outside space-time that ‘dreams’ the Universe alive and continues to influence all that happens inside it. This is important: ‘Creation’ isn’t a once-off event. Like the Big Bang, it’s happening still, now more than ever. And the ocean – corresponding to absolute consciousness – evokes by indirect, metaphoric means the Transcendent, about which we otherwise could not say anything at all.

The process of Universal manifestation corresponds to our dimension of Immanence.  Wilber’s sequence specifies its unfolding, which occurs within a boundless Transcendent that can’t be known by reason, perceived through senses, nor described in language. However, if we could experience Immanence as a continuing revelation of the Transcendent, then Campbell’s mystical and cosmological functions would be restored, and with them a renewed sense of human freedom, purpose and responsibility. Such experience is empirically ascertainable: as we have seen, absolute consciousness can be accessed through the generic disciplines of ‘yoga’. Kant lacked yoga but none the less intuited a metaphysical connection with Transcendence. He tried to evoke this in terms of a ‘Transcendental Aesthetic’. This doesn’t depend on linguistic-conceptual patterning but relates to the Feeling function I characterised earlier in terms of unformulated awareness. Feeling is our primary feminine mode of knowing, whose repression was compounded rather than alleviated by Western rational Enlightenment. It is attuned to the intelligence of the Tao, by virtue of which grass grows, cells divide and organisms self-regulate. It is passive and receptive. This contrasts with the classifying and measuring functions of a sovereign ego which posited itself as the subject of rational understanding and master of (instrumental) reason. In doing so, it effectively divorced itself from the vast intelligence that underpins all our acts of individual understanding.

Throughout the modern period, moreover, rationality became so focused on its intention to account for the fixed Universe described by Newton’s science and bequeathed by patriarchy’s God that it became ensnared in the power of its own projections. That is, having repressed Feeling – which allows the world to be revealed rather than discovered – it became a creature of its own paradigms, caught up in networks of linguistic-conceptual patterning. This theme figures prominently in post/structuralist reflections on and of our culture’s collective narcissism, according to which it’s not possible ever to transcend the ‘bottle’ of our social formation. These dispositions are fundamentally determined by a modern belief that we alone bring ‘meaning’ to the Universe, without reference to its self-organizing dynamics or the deep ordering wisdom of the Tao. Acknowledging a Transcendent realm which we can access and by which we can be inspired breaks open the closed circuit of modernity’s secularised Newtonian belief systems.

However, as modern ego-driven rationality became differentiated to a point of reflexive awareness, it forgot about its connections with the natural world. It managed this by repressing further our inner world of instincts and emotions, including difficult and shameful aspects of our pre/history. Losing contact with our depths in this way, we also lost contact with our spirituality (since repressed emotions clog the Heart centre in which Feeling registers, with respect to both upper and lower worlds).  Rational Enlightenment dispensed with such subtleties and, imposing its objective model, focused on visible surfaces only. Thus ‘rationality’ compounded earlier religious repression to leave our treasure (as signified by the kundalini serpent, for example) doubly lost. This links with the reasons why Orpheus, Inanna and other mythic figures have needed to go down into their depths. We need even more to do so now, in order to retrieve our buried gifts and gather them for renewed expression in our ‘post-modern’ world.

Ironically, the confidence of Universal Reason was undermined by the emergence of depth psychology and the gradual articulation of a time-developmental consciousness which took shape as we learned more and more about the age of the Universe and the conditions of our emergence in relation to it. Since then we have been integrating this discovery of the past, in terms of quantitative depth and qualitative awareness. This is crucial since the past is also our past and illuminates our nature. The story of Universal unfolding articulates the immanent aspect of human spiritual experience. Thus, coming to awareness of it is a major step in the unfolding of spiritual consciousness (where by ‘spiritual’ I again refer to a realisation of connectedness). We are now far beyond the atomising tendencies of post-Newtonian science. Systems theory proclaims the inter-connectedness of all phenomena and we find that at the smallest and largest horizons of our awareness – from quarks to cosmology – understanding dissolves before intimations of Mystery and Transcendence.  We can get some perspective on this by recapping the emergence of our past into modern consciousness. The following argument draws heavily on the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme.

In the eighteenth century, Vico noted the relativity of cultural frames and how these developed in time. Newton saw that the world was much older than the six thousand years traditionally associated with Genesis. Kant speculated on the evolution of the Heavens. Linnaeus observed that plant life was still evolving – i.e., new forms were still appearing which didn’t date from a once-off Creation. Condorcet reflected on stages in the development of human consciousness. Hegel identified such stages as the primary vehicle of spiritual evolution. Marx and Saint-Simon extended this growing developmental awareness to include human societies, which also pass through evolutionary stages. Then Darwin showed that even species evolve. Thereafter, evolutionary thinking became more and more prominent, increasingly upsetting a worldview based on Newton’s model of a fixed Universe. Most shattering was Einstein’s realisation that the Universe itself was evolving, and not just ‘things’ inside it. So radical were the implications of this that Einstein sought at first to suppress them. Then, in the 1940s, Gamow ‘predicted’ a Big Bang. Empirical confirmation came in 1965 with the discovery of background radiation. Details have accumulated since but I want to focus here on three points only:

1) Time-developmental consciousness has been gathering through the modern period and culminates in the intuition of a Transcendent realm that is beyond space and time.

2) The Universe itself, relative to this Transcendent, is the primary mode of Revelation. It is the adventure, not a backdrop. It is the primary energy event, given in its wholeness ab initio, although this wholeness is progressively articulated as holons emerge.

3) The fulfilment of time-developmental consciousness comes as human awareness reaches back reflexively to recollect its origins in time, with the appearance of something out of what we can only dimly comprehend as ‘no-thing’ – the pure, mysteriously fecund ‘Void’ of mystical tradition.


Peculiarly, it was Freud who first linked notions of depth and pastness regarding patterns of individual experience. A similar relationship obtains between collective depth and our collective past. Wilber proposes a helpful schema to illuminate this: suppose a quark has a depth of 1, an atom of 2, a molecule of 3 and so on. Then, the further into the process of holarchic emergence we get, the more depth we encounter. This goes right back to a Fireball that raged for a million years after the Big Bang. We contain molecules that contain atoms that contain quarks. Hence, we can now trace our depth back to the origin of everything. This narrative recovery of our deep past reveals that we have an interior culture of shared depth in common with all that exists and that this depth attains a condition of self-awareness through us. We have now come to our time of remembering the Universe’s past and realising the intricacies of the vast, cumulative, meandering path that has precipitated our current leap into reflexive awareness. Moreover, our realisation of this is a further expression of the cosmic creativity that produced the first quarks. It is particularly timely that we should remember now, after centuries of apparent derailment during which we forgot the extent of our radical emeddedness in the process of Universal becoming. Our ancestors understood this intuitively. We suspended intuition in the interests of rational self-definition. Now their knowledge is returning after centuries of explicit scientific endeavour. This never was an aberration but rather a necessary phase in the attainment of individuated consciousness.

Once such consciousness is achieved, it inclines to reflect on and revalue what there is to be conscious of. As this happens, we open beyond the conditioned loops of reflexivity described by Mead. As he says, these allow us to become self-conscious. But the Universe also becomes self-conscious as we do, since we are an integral expression of its growth. And as we open beyond our current collective narcissism, based on the mis-take that we are somehow other than the Universe, its reflexivity is activated. It remembers as we remember. Thus we realise that we are part of a Universe which is intrinsically revelatory. Such knowing is post- rather than pre-reflective. It allows us to resume non-dual awareness while remembering, if we choose, what this means. And as our contracted, avowedly postmodern consciousness dissolves and opens beyond discursive straitjackets which formed it, Universal consciousness is also itself transformed.

I say ‘avowedly postmodern’ because – although time-developmental consciousness has contributed to the erosion of our rational-industrial worldview, it has not taken us beyond the limitations of this frame – just helped to expose them. The existential disposition of sharpened ego-consciousness has certainly arrived and we have never before had so much information available to us. And yet the existentialist – s/he who stands out from all of which s/he is nonetheless inescapably a part – pronounces life in a strictly rationalist framework absurd. Likewise, our ever accumulating masses of information appear disconnected and indigestible for lack of an overarching mythos. (Recall Adorno on Erfahrung.) This places our modern episteme under ever-greater strain. Because it can neither integrate nor expand – being tied to the image of a fixed-frame material Universe – proliferating data simply clog the space of our reflective consciousness, leading to effects of overload and compound obfuscation. Until this stranglehold is broken, within and around us, we become increasingly reflexive and express this awareness through irony, parody and pastiche. We need a new story – a new vision of what we are for – to break this impasse. We cannot have a new worldview or ‘episteme’ until this story is in place and it can’t come into place until we suffer the dissolution of our old frame. We haven’t allowed this, which suggests that declarations of a new ‘post-modern’ world may be premature.

Kierkegaard saw irony as characteristic of transitional periods – i.e., as arising between epistemes. This particularly fits the transit between Wilber’s F5 and F6, from adolescence to adulthood. We begin here by criticising received positions in order to ‘differentiate’ our own and continue until we have no ground left to stand on – a tendency exemplified by Derrida on a broader cultural front. What’s meant to happen at this point is that the deep symbolic resources of our culture will be brought forward (by ‘elders’) to carry us beyond impasse. What happens in post/modernity is that – since awareness of our depths and heights fails to be activated – we become increasingly deprecating with regard even to our own fragile, scarcely tenable ‘positions’. We end as adepts of irony, ill-equipped to be for anything and divorced from awareness of our Passion. It is precisely at this point that we hunger for new vision but can’t realise it until the ego surrenders itself into the mode of the Transpersonal (F7). If we aren’t aware of this as a possibility, of course, and if nobody has shown us how to proceed along the track, our Dream gets lost. A culture without a Dream has no idea what it is for and experience within it becomes increasingly arid and alienating. This remains the condition of our post/modern Wasteland.

As of now, its sensibility is still characterised in terms of increasing reflexivity in our patterns of awareness. These manifest as satire and thus presuppose what they claim to subvert. They cannot of themselves afford new vision, nor provide the substance of a new worldview. Indeed they are symptomatic of the old’s persistence, even through its late disintegrative phase. To hail such moments as evidence of New Times is parochial. We can’t enter a new worldview without suffering a shattering of the old, and admitting the revelations which impel it. Modern culture is badly served with respect to Revelation (which traditionally concerns irruptions of Eternity into Time), since it is based on a self-denying myth which says there is no Eternity, no Transcendence, and nothing to open to or be inspired by. Our spiritual awareness atrophied temporarily in response. This was part of a  hidden macro-phase process whereby we withdrew from our parents’ influence – ‘fathers’ predominantly, Gods and Kings, given our patriarchal backdrop, but also the no longer Great Mother of ‘fallen’, empirical, de-divinized ‘nature’. Now, after this withdrawal, which was crucial for our exploration of freedom, it’s time to open to a promise of mature reconciliation. We are motivated in this by an impulse to connect – this time in a conscious, adult way – with all we have been separated from.  The element of realisation is crucial here, as is the authority of experience over doctrine. We have the option now to move beyond childish patterns of dependency and belief.

But we really need to help ourselves. This doesn’t mean there is no inspiration available for us, only that we are obliged to access it without recourse to formal hierarchies or tribal structures. Our elders have not been initiated into Mysteries and don’t have spiritual wisdom to pass on. However, non-coincidentally (since straying maps the Path), the teachings of older, ‘deeper’ cultures are available to us as never before, together with interpretative tools of ‘depth psychology’ forged in our own milieu. These allow us to readmit ancient gifts in a non-literal, non-reductive way. It is only by doing this that we can overcome negative effects of a superficial model of progress which held that our evolution depends only on going beyond what we were before, rather than renewing this into transformed patterns of awareness. As Freud showed, we have no option but to carry our ‘depth’. The only choice is how graciously and effectively we do so. Imagine that instead of carrying forward a child’s capacity for wonder and joy, I relinquish these gifts in the name of sombre ‘rationality’. If you do likewise, we forget how to see the world as alive, as our ancestors saw it. We come to be formed by epistemes which are based on amnesia, or repression. We say that to see the world as alive is childish, as our ancestors were. We justify this by noting that observations made within our repressive episteme show that the world really is ‘dead’. Thus, forgetting who we have been, we forget who we are, individually and collectively, both in relation to our human past and the process of Universal emergence of which this is an integral expression.

More positively, we might say that – because our collective world is not working very well – it is necessary to re-examine our story from a point of new awareness to identify and put right possible mistakes in the script we’ve been working from. Again, the point is not to arrive at the account of a ‘past’ which is not yet over, but rather to achieve effects of healing in relation to it. This is why we need to revalue the old across developmental stage boundaries. Consider: the coherence and effectiveness of my being now depends on the accuracy of my sense of who I have been. This doesn’t mean that my present consciousness has to somehow manage a comprehensive record of all the selves I used to be but rather that the gifts and powers of these earlier selves be available to me in the sense that they aren’t subject to repression or distortion. There is no good reason why I shouldn’t be capable of abstract thought and experience communion with trees, animals and rocks (cf. Wilber’s F7). Ultimately, the disjunction we perceive between these potentials stems from limitations we impose upon ourselves as a result of our formation in epistemes which promote certain possibilities and discount others. Now, in our time of reflexive recollection – when details of diverse experiments in being human are available as never before – we have an option to awaken, consciously and rationally, to dimensions of our identity which have been hidden by the contingent limits of past epistemes. And our postmodern, trans-rational realisation of connectedness, especially, has the potential to be more than just another ‘box’ in an ill-comprehended sequence. It can become a period of mature self-remembering and rededication.

For now, with our reflexive, time-developmental consciousness in place, we can apply its insights to ease our way through what Foucault pointedly termed epistemic mutations. We can sense when something new is trying to happen and – realising that its novelty can’t be fulfilled by assimilating it to the restrictions of old ways – look beyond them to facilitate its passage. Then, having integrated the new and suffered a shattering/expansion of our old view in the process, we can look back and see what revised significance may be attributed to the old in the light of new awareness. In this way, a progressive marriage between continuity and change can be maintained. This is what it means to participate consciously in evolution, recognising phases of quantitative accretion within stages that are punctuated by bouts of qualitative disjunction in between. Conscious participation in the latter requires a will to surrender and ‘let go’, trusting that old powers will return on the far side of a cycle we can facilitate but not control. These returning gifts manifest in ways that are adapted to new conditions brought about by our continuing development – e.g., a scientist’s observations of Nature might express a child’s wonder with a reverence and finesse that weren’t available when s/he was five.  

Up to now, only the constancy of basic themes across diverse mythic traditions alerted us to the underlying unity of humankind, both as an integral species and in relationship with other life forms. A knowledge of underlying unity has always been in our Unconscious. Now, through comparative analysis and evolutionary review, it can be raised to the level of consciousness. Not everyone has realised this connection, of course, which is why – as ever – a new mythology is required to promote new awareness. In this vision, diverse modes of human accomplishment are viewed as mirrors tha different groups hold up as testimony to potentials we all harbour. It is very significant in this time of unprecedented opportunity for post-modern integration that so many models of human specialisation should be widely available, and also that the primary response of our intellectual culture should be to rank these along a developmental trajectory that puts itself in pole position. This strikes me as simplistic. Molecules include atoms which include quarks but rational-industrial society does not include the mythic sensibilities of agrarian societies, which sought to eliminate those of earlier ‘Goddess’ times. Even foraging societies had myths! We badly need some too.

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