Robert Harrison on the Dark Side of Modernity

Written by 

Recently another on-line writer, a "political science professor turned yoga teacher", wrote a response to Vanessa's article on porn star Sasha Grey. The writer, Carol, talks about finding our site and seeing the word Integral in the subtitle. She asks herself, "are they devotees of Ken Wilber?". Hardly. But I must admit, I'm increasingly in danger of becoming a devotee of Entitled Opinions radio-podcast host Robert Harrison!! I listened to about eight episodes of his show on my recent train trip to California, all of which I'd heard before and all of which kept giving and giving. Juma and I wrote an article about the show for Beams which you can read here, and the website for Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature) can be found ppl_harrisonhere.

I recently came across a CBC Radio Ideas program where Robert Harrison (a professor of Italian Literature at Standford University) is himself the topic of the program. That interview can be accessed here. Among other things, it's a great opportunity to hear Harrison talk about his own work, a three book trilogy- one on forests, one on gardens, and one on burial and death. Near the end of the interview Harrison speaks about the dark side of modernity through a meditation on Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. Chris in his latest article about the movie Tron also speaks about the dark side of modernity, so I transcribed the Harrison passage as a compliment to Chris' piece. Here's that passage:

"What did the intervening century [since Joseph Conrad’s book Heart of Darkness was written] do to change the situation [of Western nihilism outlined in that book]?  If one is honest, precious little. On theheart_of_darkness contrary, the twentieth century just enacted the most virulent forms of Western nihilism through two catastrophic world wars, and the endless genocides associated with communism and cold war politics and so forth. So it’s very difficult I think to soberly look back on the twentieth century and to say that the vision of nihilism that Conrad puts forward in 'Heart of Darkness' was not well founded. I think it was well founded, raising the question of whether we are to be stuck in that dark hole that he so vividly joseph-conrad-heart-of-darkness-154x210portrays for us, or whether the twenty-first century might find a way out of it…One of the visions that Conrad has of Western nihilism in 'Heart of Darkness' is of the sheer carelessness of the Western rapacious attitude toward Africa and the continent of Africa, as raiding its resources, and taking from the Earth as much as one can take without giving anything back in return. And this is the formula for nihilism. Conrad’s 'Heart of Darkness' sees Western modernity as a kind of ferocious drive to extract as much out of the Earth as possible without giving anything back to it…So the question for the twenty-first century will be whether a turn is possible in our relations with the Earth, whether we can return to the primary human vocation of being caretakers rather than destroyers in our relation to the Earth”.

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy


  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Friday, 07 January 2011 03:38 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Cool Trev, the more I learn about modernity's impact on the world the more I'm totally blown away.

    A recent book I read, The Global Cold War, by Odd Westad, explains very convincingly that the Cold War was actually a battle for which version of Modernity would reign supreme, the capitalist version or the socialist one. It's a surprising perspective that really fills out the bigger picture of what was happening in the 20th century. I think I'll write a post on it sometime soon, and maybe link back here.

    Also, your point about not being a "devotee" of Ken Wilber is well taken. We're all influenced by a host of characters young and old, alive and dead. Wilber's a big influence, but there are others too.

    I think it's true that the word Integral gets conflated with someone who's a strict adherent to anything and everything Wilber (that's a credit to the spread of Wilber's work, and also the fact that there's presently no word other than Integral to replace the lame term 'post-postmodern'). Knowing you as I do, and through our many conversations together, it's clear that we both don't agree with everything the man says. That said, I'm very grateful for the work he's done and I respect his courage. He's put himself out there very publicly and done as much as anyone to build a solid, 21st century argument for (re)including Spirit into our discussion of life and reality. He's helped to open up a whole new territory that we all now get to explore and, dare I say, colonize, for ourselves. For that I'm grateful.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Friday, 07 January 2011 17:01 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Berg, your reflections on my Wilber comment cut to the point of what I was trying to get at. First of all, the word devotee is a very strong one. One definition of devotee is a "fanatical adherent". As a philosopher, I find being called a devotee of any one thinker repugnant and absurd. I'm also a passionate reader of Plato, Nietzsche and Deleuze (for instance), but this doesn't necessarily make me a Platonist or a devotee (meaning full adherence to the letter of that thinker's law) of any of those (great) thinkers.

    For a long time now I've seen non Wilber readers direct such comments at those who do. I don't know deep down what it's all about, and to be honest I find it frustrating. I'm personally interested in ideas and insights and what we can do with them. If a thinker has insights into the true nature of the world and the human experience, and those insights can help us grow and evolve, then I'll run with those insights/views/concepts until they are shown to be inadequate or partial, and then roll from there.

    Wilber (in my opinion) has loads of insights, brilliant distinctions, and creatively emergent concepts. I'm still mining that jewel chest heap like those two bungling pirate thieves in Pirates of the Caribbean. Many philosophers make whole careers off of one or two great insights. Wilber has had several. This doesn't mean I buy his whole system by any stretch. Again, I'm interested in the knowledge quest and how we can improve the human lot, and I personally feel that Wilber has lots to offer in that pursuit.

    There's a lot of psychical energy that gets cathected around Wilber (cathexis being a fancy psychoanalytic term for the investment of emotional energy) and I don't pretend to know what it's all about. It does at times make me sad though, when we have to spend all this time sifting through all the shadows and projections and lord knows what else, before we can get on with the show and figure out if this stuff is true to our lives and the world. It's hard to get to the promised land when we can't even get the car started.

    (I should say that I'm not necessarily putting any of this on Carol, who made the original comment on her site. I just felt the word devotee should be responded to).

  • Comment Link Carol Horton Tuesday, 11 January 2011 22:10 posted by Carol Horton

    Hi Trevor and Bergen - Wow, didn't mean to push any buttons - "devotee" was really more of a rhetorical flourish than an intentionally loaded comment - although I have to admit that the reason that I chose that word without much thought is that I do have some vaguely cultish impressions of the Wilbur scene, based on both viewing some of his stuff online and studying a bit with one teacher very strongly influenced by him. So there is that.

    But I also have read some of his work and respect it as incredibly smart and a truly valuable contribution - which when a more serious consideration arises, is definitely where I'd put my emphasis.

    So while it's true that "devotee" didn't come out of nowhere, I didn't mean much by it either, and apologize if anyone took offense.

    Carol (author of post in question)

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Wednesday, 12 January 2011 18:49 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Hi Carol, no offense taken at all, your use of the word devotee provided me with a useful opportunity to reflect upon, clarify and communicate my own relation to Wilber and his work. The fact is, there have been periods when folks have indeed been a little over-hyped around Wilber's work and its world shaking capabilities. I surely took a hit off this laughing gas at some point in my life too. This devotional quality can start to take the flavor of what I've heard the Reverend Bruce Sanguin call a 'theology of glory'- everything is about our potentials, the future, the leading edge, and the rest of it.

    When you mix this kind of fervor (by some) with the "don't follow leaders" flavor of the postmodern era, where authority and gurus are being questioned in general, then it's understandable that some people have been reticent about folks who are a little too riled up about Wilber and his philosophy. While this excessive over-hype and self praise has relaxed and quieted down in the last few years in the integral community that I've been around, with something more mature and humble setting in, it's still out there at times (some of the lengthy and lavish introduction of guests on some of the teleseries being one notable example), and I wanted to differentiate myself and this site from those kinds of tendencies.

    I now prefer to view Integral theory as one expression of a broader emerging worldview/evolutionary movement. As you say, it's a valuable contribution, and it offers many tools for the toolbox. But so do many other thinkers/teachers/schools/philosophies etc. out there today, and I'm excited to also explore all of those here too.

    Really enjoyed your post in response to Vanessa's piece, and Vanessa tells me you're doing great things over at your site, so I look forward to reading more real soon. Thanks for the generous and clarifying comment. :)

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Thursday, 13 January 2011 01:54 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Hi Carol, heh, the word you chose was apparently a good one. Intentional or otherwise, it helped start a good conversation here.

    Confessing one's mentors is a funny thing. If we say we love Marx, are we Marxist? What does that even mean? It certainly means different things depending on where you live and the time you're living.

    I think that many of us on this site are grappling with what it means to want to embody an Integral/Evolutionary life. Because Wilber is such a prolific figure in this realm, does that make me a Wilberite? I'm not sure, and not sure it really matters in the end. As Trevor mentioned, we all have so many mentors in today's world of infinite information that we're all generalists to some degree.

    What I do find interesting about the Integral/Evolutionary/post-postmodern (dang we need to settle on a term for this) worldview is that, being such a small and new emergence, it's basically an epistemic community - or knowledge club. That's a bit of a concern to me and something we're trying to change with this site.

    Thanks again for stopping in (I too enjoyed your piece in response to Vanessa's) and I look forward to reading more.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Monday, 06 February 2012 00:04 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I was flipping through the footnotes of Integral Ecology the other day and I came across the following footnote-passage, and thought I'd add it to this post (I'll then add this post in the comments of my 'What is Modernity?' essay).

    For chapter 1, footnote 12, Zimmerman and Hargens write the following, which I think is a nice compliment/addition to Harrison's passage above:

    "According to Habermas, drawing on Frankfurt School thinkers such as Adorno and Horkheimer, scientific rationality had as its aim the laudable goal of emancipation and production of plenty for all, but because such rationality disguised its own power drive, Enlightenment rationality became what Wilber calls "a great monological system net" that "descended on citizens for their own 'benefit and welfare' (Wilber, SES, 464). The dark side of Enlightenment modernity is constituted not by the mere study of the objective features of human beings, but instead the reduction of human beings to those features. Rationality itself became captured by objectifying monological, positivistic modes of reasoning, thereby excluding dialogical and intersubjective modes. The hyperrational ego alienated itself from others, from its own emotions, and from the natural environment, ending up in a dangerous kind of dissociation that lent itself to attempts to "control" nature on such a gigantic scale that they appear from hindsight to be almost literally mad. Habermas summarizes Horkheimer and Adorno's assessment: "The permanent sign of enlightenment is domination over an objectified external nature and a repressed internal nature. Reason itself destroys the humanity it first made possible" (Habermas, 'The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity', 110).

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions