Daniel Gustav Anderson is presently a graduate student in Cultural Studies at George Mason University. His interests include critical theory, ecology, and European and South Asian traditions of dialectical thinking. He is the author of "Of Syntheses and Surprises: Toward a Critical Integral Theory" and "Such a Body We Must Create: New Theses on Integral Micropolitics", which have been published in Integral Review. Erik Scott Thornquist is a writer and independent researcher interested in applied linguistics, dramaturgy, chaos magick, and Buddhism. He lives and throws produce in Northern Idaho.
Nonviolence of Nonmetaphysics
An Interview with Daniel Gustav Anderson
This is a transcript of an interview Erik S. Thornquist conducted by email between 30 April and 26 May 2009. Integral World
How specifically did I become committed to integral theory? I was teaching English Literature surveys as a lecturer at the University of Idaho. My students were struck by some passages in Matthew Arnold that I had asked them to read, which reminded me of some materials I had been studying on my own in Aurobindo Ghose. I have long been an admirer of Aurobindo's poetic work, and had some notes on a paper regarding some problems in Aurobindo's poetry and also his theories of time and race. So I put all this together in a tidy package and submitted it on a lark to the Integral Review. The editors at that journal did a remarkable thing: they decided to publish it but more importantly they challenged me. I grumbled about it at the time but this was the best thing they could have done and I owe them an immense debt of gratitude for throwing this gauntlet down.
Take a step back: there are basically two tasks in any critical project, a negative one and a positive one (if you want to correlate these to the two interventions I propose in the micropolitics paper you may get some interesting results). I had done the negative task, which is to show how something is problematic. The positive task, of proposing something else, was left undone because I hadn't done that. The positive task is a commitment to something: not that, but this. Yes we can! It is an affirmation. If you affirm something to be true, you make a commitment to that truth claim. It is irresponsible to say the sky is green and then deny you ever said it when someone shows it to be black or blue or hazy gray. Later I was involved in organizing some conference panels on the subject. This is how I became committed to integral theory.
But it is a funny kind of commitment because it came on the heels of the negative, or strictly critical, task. I remain very critical of Aurobindo as a cultural theorist; some of the stuff I have written about on Hegel applies directly to Aurobindo and by extension Wilber, and yes, I did this intentionally. That aside, I was making positive claims for the value of something that I just showed to be unstable and problematic. This means, basically, that my job had to do with the revolutionizing or radicalization of integral theory, as pompous and ridiculous as that may sound.
I'm not a public or professional revolutionary; I am not a charismatic in the classical or Weberian sense. I have no business proclaiming myself as capable of bringing about the next stage in evolutionary paradigm-transformation or whatever, so I don't; it's a ridiculous gesture for anyone to make really. I am very uncomfortable with that kind of heroic self-fashioning, because it seems so dishonest, like false advertising. What does that mean, then, to put forward another way of doing integral theory? In part it means looking at how others have done it in the past and also to find people to collaborate with. I am a poor collaborator but I keep the invitation out in case someone might be interested.
Let me indulge in an analogy. Stanisaw Lem was a great science fiction writer. He made two observations on science fiction that are really appropriate to this situation in integral theory. The first is that it is wholly interesting, useful, productive because it gives a space in which to think the new. This is a utopian aspiration: science fiction at its best allows people to think big, to reflect on issues that are difficult to negotiate in the prosaica of constipated realist fiction or positivist philosophy, for instance. [...]
For instance the word "Life" calls forth specific meanings for us today however, the meanings we assign to Life now has changed over the centuries. Foucault tells us what we understand and define today as "Life", has its origins in the early late 18th early 19th century, when the science of biology was invented. Prior to the science of biology Life was explained as the opposite of Death.
After the advent of biology however, Life was assigned definite properties and became to be defined as "Organic" with its opposite taken to be whatever was "inorganic". Life then took on a different meaning that better lent itself to the new science of biology.
Similarly our understanding of phenomena like evolution (and especially evolutionary spirituality) is predicated on our situatedness in history and culture that correspond to an understanding of certain concepts given to us through language, whose meaning mutate over the course of history.
For example, Evelyn Fox Keller in her book Making Sense of Life (a most excellent history of biology in the 20th century) in speaking of current biological conceptions of life that some scientist wish to include within the category of life that include what is called artificial life, the self-organizing activity of cellular automata, computer simulations, robotics: [...]
The idea of a subjective age is not something particular to Sri Aurobindo, but rather can be viewed as a concept that was very much part of the intellectual climate of the late 19th and early 20th. The belief in the emergence of a new consciousness from out of the subjective depths is fairly consistent with the work of many artist and philosophers of the era, so unless we wish to overly literalize our reading of Sri Aurobindo's text that will result in being constrained to some inevitable future we must take this into account when reading his formulation -albeit a unique one- of the Subjective Age.
Along with progress, the belief in the emergence of a new consciousness was one of the defining features of Modernism whose birth, Sri Aurobindo's own, follows on. The term Avante-Garde became the rallying cry of early modernist. Its initial meaning signifies an army marching on to create the new in the face of reactionary enemy fire. The mutation of a new form of poetic consciousness is also enunciated by Modernism, and this is something which Sri Aurobindo, a poet himself growing up in England must have also internalized.
An an example of the new consciousness which modernism sought Arthur Rimbaud in 1871 writes to his friend Paul Demeny: “The First Study of the man who wants to be a Poet is the knowledge of himself complete”. Although certainly his value system and method of enlightenment differed from Sri Aurobindo, Rimbaud also acknowledges the need to transcend the rational consciousness in achieving a new vision:
“A seer is made, not born, and must prepare himself for his vocation “by a long , gigantic and rational disorder of all his senses,. All forms of love, suffering, and madness he searches with himself” This is an “unspeakable torture when he needs all his faith, all his superhuman strength where he becomes all men; the great patient, the great criminal, the one accused -the supreme Scholar!”
Walt Whitman also elucidates the need for a poet to achieve a greater knowledge of himself and the world in his preface to Leaves of Grass where he writes the poet is a seer, he is complete in himself. On Stephen Mallame, Peter Gay writes in his study of Modernism, the key Modernist text explicit or implied”soul” “symbol” above all “consciousness” and :liberty” And they gave all modernists, poets naturally included, their assignment, They must strike through the mask of superficial celebration and mourning to reach the deep essence of their own soul. (Modernism Peter Gay 2008) Reply
There seems to be a radical shift between early (mid 19th c) Modernism and the avant garde (late 19th c - 1950). Though French symbolism (Mallarme, Rimbaud, Baudelaire) are the forerunners in Poetry of this avant garde, and Sri Aurobindo seemed somewhat familiar with them, his own investment seems more in the earlier Modernism of Victor Hugo and Walt Whitman and the early Yeats of the Irish revolution. It is Eliot and Pound who are more properly the ones bringing the French Symbolist paradigm into the English language and they seem to have been somewhat after Sri Aurobindo's time in England.
Still, as you say, it is true that the idea of a Subjective Age is already being announced by Whitman, Hugo, Yeats, and in India, Tagore (who is Sri Aurobindo's senior by a decade). With these poets and ideologues however, it is more of a "dawn," all aspiration and little material engagement. Industrialism and Colonialism are realities but the major cultural revolutions are not yet in place critiquing the Material grounds of Modernity. This more hard edged sense of Modernism as "the battle" with an avant garde changes the tenor of culture in the early to mid 20th c.
Sri Aurobindo is on the margins of this movement. He has interesting things to say about Mallarme and Baudelaire and, according to Nirodbaran, was preparing to add a chapter to the Future Poetry dealing with this phase, but it remained an unfinished project. Interestingly though, the intensity of his call for a Subjective Age was more clearly articulated by the avant garde, particularly in German Modernism of the 1920-1935 (pre WWII) phase. DB Reply
Ezra Pound's appreciation in 1912.. There is in him the stillness of nature. The poems do not seem to have been produced by storm or by ignition, but seem to show the normal habit of his mind. He is at one with nature, and finds no contradictions. And this is in sharp contrast with the Western mode, where man must be shown attempting to master nature if we are to have "great drama." (Ezra Pound in Fortnightly Review, 1 March 1913) Reply