Gebser’s brilliant unpacking of the structures of consciousness in terms of PERSPECTIVE (as it is understood in the art world rather than in philosophy) gives us a powerful new visual tool with which to begin to see where we’re pinned. In art, perspective is a technique for creating the illusion of depth and space on a two-dimensional plane. It works by establishing an arbitrary “vanishing point” on the horizon, then arranging all the elements on the canvas on a hypothetical line leading back to it. Instantly the size of the objects relative to one another on the canvas comes into correct proportion, and a sense of realism is established.
As I ponder this striking visual metaphor, I am struck by how this same basic configuration seems to apply to that other organizing convention of the mental structure of consciousness, TIME. In perspectival time the “vanishing point” would be that arbitrary “consummatum est” (whether you construe that to be your own death, the Armageddon, the Omega Point, or simply the end of some process you’re currently involved in). The line leading back to it is linear time, and what in a painting takes shape as “background” and “foreground” finds its temporal equivalent in “past,” “present,” and “future.” The perspectival world marches to the drumbeat of linear time, and against that incessant drumbeat all our Prospero’s castles rise and fall.
I know it may at first sound a bit like apples and oranges to compare the visual/perspectival and the temporal/perspectival. But if you consult your gut, I’ll bet that you’ll recognize their similarity; it’s the same, familiar sense of constriction. Whether in visual or temporal mode, perspectival consciousness is always playing against an endpoint—finding itself somewhere on a line leading back to a point, knowing at some level that it’s all a trompe l’oeil, yet enthralled by the ordering power conveyed by that trompe l’oeil. The set-up may be an artifice, but the fruits are hard to deny.
The pervasive subliminal pressure of that invisible line converging on a distant point explains some of the more hypnotic blind spots of the mental structure of consciousness. It’s why it’s so hard to hang onto the distinction between “evolving” and “unfolding.” It’s why we naturally group things in threes—“beginning, middle, end,” “thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” In perspectival seeing things fall naturally into stages and sequences, and the relationship between objects tends to take on a hierarchical (Gebser calls it “pyramidical”) character as they are assigned their respective rank and value on the perspectival line. Time tends to become spatialized, with “earlier” morphing into “lower” and “later” morphing into “higher.” That is why, in all sincerity and with no intent to cause harm, many people under the sway of the mental structure of consciousness will state categorically that the mythic and magic stages of consciousness (since they appear “earlier” on the historical timeline) are “less evolved.” How could it be otherwise? “Structures of consciousness” collapse inevitably into “stages of consciousness;” they can’t escape the gravitational field. The artist’s prerogative to assign order and proportion becomes the moralist’s duty to impose value and judgment, and it all happens so fast that we don’t even see how we’ve been blindsided.
The real problem, of course, is that we forget that we are seeing through a periscope. What appears to our eyes to be “the real world” is in fact the world as projected through a powerful perspectival ruse that does indeed convey tremendous ordering and synthesizing power, but only within the limits of its governing conventions. Take away the vanishing point on the horizon, and the whole ruse collapses.
Perspectival thinking is by nature sectored thinking; the validity of the proportions and the illusion of three-dimensionality are legitimate only within the cone of perception it generates, and in order to create that cone in first place, certain things must be excluded a priori from the picture. In single point perspective you can only show two sides of the house; when you try to show three, you have exceeded the terms of the convention. If the sides don’t naturally fall along the same line of sight, you can’t force them together. It breaks the rules; your license expires.
Gebser stresses this point in a hard-hitting paragraph which Jeremy Johnson quotes in full. I believe it is worth quoting in full yet again since it speaks so forcefully to what is so rarely named but can only be seen as “perspectival arrogance:”
“Perspectival vision and thought confine us within spatial limitations…The positive result is a concretion of man and space; the negative result is the restriction of man to a limited segment, where he perceives only one sector of reality. Like Petrarch, who separated landscape from land, man separates from the whole only that part which his view or thinking can encompass, and forgets those sectors that lie adjacent, beyond, or even behind…Man, himself a part of the world, endows his sector of awareness with primacy; but he is, of course, only able to see the partial view. The sector is given prominence over the circle; the part outweighs the whole. As the whole cannot be approached from a perspectival attitude to the world, we merely superimpose the character of wholeness onto the sector, the result being the familiar ‘totality.'”
I will have more to say about the totalizing proclivities of perspectival seeing in my next post; I believe it is one of most insidious and virulent contributors to our contemporary cultural impasse. For now, PERSPECTIVAL HUMILITY (if you want to call it that) begins with accepting the givens we Flatlanders must abide within. Those of us who still mostly inhabit the mental structures of consciousness can no more wish ourselves (or proclaim) ourselves into aperspectival consciousness than we can flap our wings and fly. But we can wield this extraordinary tool responsibly and indeed courteously provided we remember that the license to arrange, synthesize, and assign rank and value is valid only within the sector of consciousness that has immediately given rise to it. Above all, it must never be used to colonize or tyrannize another structure of consciousness. To do so constitutes an unpardonable offense against the Whole.
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Jeremy Johnson’s book: Seeing Through the World: Jean Gebser and Integral Consciousness, is available from the publisher, here at Revelore Press.
This is the third posting in the Exploring Jean Gebser series by Cynthia Bourgeault. You will first the first and second posts here on this website:
An Invitation to Begin the Healing Work: Exploring Jean Gebser, Introduction;
Stages Versus Structures: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson I;
Unperspectival, Perspectival, Aperspectival: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson II.
Stay tuned for “The Perspectival Mainspring: Exploring Jean Gebser, Lesson IV” coming soon!