Where The Wasteland Ends: Politics And Transcendence In Postindustrial Society, by Theodore Roszak
The burden of this book is to explode the myth that the problems attendant upon the technocratic culture can be resolved by technology. More accurately, its aim is to show that acceptance of this myth is precisely what has created such problems. Hence Roszak suggests that a new transcendent knowledge is needed which dissolves the boundaries of society’s Reality Principle. The rhapsodic intellect of the visionary commonwealth must replace the objective consciousness of the technocratic society, if the latter is to he saved from self-annihilation.
Roszak’s understanding of the objective consciousness of the technocratic society echoes that of many non-behaviorist critics of recent decades. Objective consciousness, as he discusses it, is the scientific method as conceived in behaviorist terms and as absolutized to the extent of embracing all of reality within its horizon. Specifically, it is characterized by a kind of “objectivity” which “ruthlessly excludes all theory or speculation that reads purposiveness, ethical meaning or personal communion into nature” (p. 478). Hence its horizon is such that all questions regarding the true, the good, and the beautiful are in effect banished to the cultural garbage can. The expert replaces the wise man. The technocracy becomes a “benevolent despotism of elitist expertise” (p. 478). And in so far as this Reality Principle of the urban-industrial culture reigns, the orthodox intellectual style is that of the secular humanist, the orthodox radicalism that of the Marxist (p. 457). Despite their apparent opposition, these orthodoxies share a root assumption: namely, “that the transcendent aspirations of mankind . . . must be translated into purely secular equivalents” (p. xxx). The secular humanist insists “that culture—if it is to be cleansed of superstition and reclaimed for humanitarian values-must be wholly entrusted to the mindscape of scientific rationality” (p. xxx). The ruling sensibility of the scientific worldview dictates further that one simply does not speak of the needs of the spirit: the very words are without “negotiable meaning in educated company” (p. 457). In a word, the dominant characteristic of the objective consciousness of the technocratic society is its single vision: all the transcendent aspirations of mankind are either ignored as having no independent “scientific” status, or are reduced to hard “facts” which can be manipulated by computers. In the technocracy, all important problems are “scientific,” and hence the appropriate response is always more and better “science” (cf., e.g., B.F. Skinner).
According to Roszak, the foregoing depict the worldview of our technocratic society. This is the wasteland, and such a wasteland ends only where the new consciousness begins. The new consciousness is characterized by mystery, mysticism, religion, vision. Within its horizon, the dualism of flesh and spirit is replaced with a recognition of the body as organism (pp. 95ff.). The sacredness of nature is recovered along with a sensitivity to man’s continuity with nature. Language is restored to its rootedness in non-verbal experience (pp. 384, 356). The intrinsic worth of work is appreciated (i.e., work is seen as motivated by love, and not simply as a means to securing money) (pp. 420-21; 432). Ecological sensitivity generates a new sense of wholeness (pp. 400 ff.). Values are explicitly recognized (i.e., are given respectable status) (p. 401). The new consciousness views the “loss of transcendent energies… as much a privation as physical hardship” (p. xxvii); and hence Blake, not Marx, is its prophet (p. xxxiii; xxvi). “[T]he metaphysical issues which science and sound logic have for the last two centuries been pleased to regard as dosed” are reopened (p. 458). The quest for the true, the good, and the beautiful is again relevant. The question “how do I save my soul?” becomes the driving thrust behind every inquiry (p. 445). The “progress” of a reductionist science and power-ridden technology is replaced by a new kind of progress, which goes by many names:
St. Bonaventure called it “the journey of the mind to God”; the Buddha called it the eightfold path; Lao Tzu called it finding “the Way.” The way back. To the source from which the adventure of human culture takes its beginning. It is this progress which the good society exists to facilitate for all its members (p.464).
In a word, the rhapsodic intellect of the visionary commonwealth is rooted in, and characterized by, a wise return to the fullness of human experience (p. 459). A culture of human wholeness and fulfillment replaces tile wasteland of the tecnocracy (p. xxii).
In my judgment, Roszak’s book renders a twofold service: first, it recognizes that the central issues of contemporary society are essentially beyond politics in a way that neither the technocrat nor the Marxist can comprehend. One’s views regarding the true, the good, and the beautiful should determine one’s politics. To reverse this order is to fall prey to the technocratic and/or Marxist ideology. Secondly, Where The Wasteland Ends represents a passionate plea for the rejection of the false notion of objectivity spawned by behaviorism. The book recognizes the inevitable involvement of human subjectivity in “objective” knowing. At the same time, it recognizes that ethical and religious questions are meaningful—decisively so—and hence fingers the inadequacy of strictly technical/technological answers to such questions. Within the context of this twofold thrust, Roszak exposes a host of weaknesses inherent in the dogmas of technocratic society.
The central problem with Roszak’s book, in my judgment, concerns the role he sees for science (non-reductionist) in his visionary commonwealth. At the very least, this role seems to me ambiguous. Roszak clearly urges that opting for the new consciousness is not an anti-technological choice (pp. 416; 188). He insists that one cannot reject any part of the whole of human consciousness (p. 461): it is simply “a matter of keeping first things first” (p. 416). Moreover, he flatly rejects the straw man position usually pushed forward against him: namely, that he wanted to “scrap industrial economy for paleolithic primitivism” (p. xxxi). Nevertheless, for me the problem persists. For Roszak’s intention is not simply to correct behavioristic scientism in favor of a non-reductionism, humanized science (á la Polanyi, Maslow, etc. cf., e.g., pp. 452 ff., p. 476). On the contrary, he seems rather to reject the latter as insufficient to penetrate to the roots of our problems (pp. 452 ff.).
The question I have, then, is whether Roszak has identified the organ too closely with its pathological condition; whether, in his rush to excise the pathology, he has offered a solution which will effectively destroy, rather than cure, the organ. For Roszak seems to come dangerously close (at least in the book’s implicit thrust) to identifying objective consciousness as such with the reductionist “objectified worldview of natural science”—i.e., with the technocratic consciousness which is the source of our ills. Once this has been done, any and all spontaneous reactions against this objective consciousness (i.e., even non-reductionist) are viewed as destructive of the technocracy, and hence as ipso facto liberating. Any blow against objective consciousness is a blow for liberation. And this tendency leads at the same time to the indiscriminate embracing of magic, witchcraft, astrology, and alchemy as equal sources of wisdom and liberation as, say, Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Plato.
My fundamental objection to Roszak’s book, then, is that, at the very least, he is unclear as to the place of objective consciousness (i.e., non-reductionist) in a revitalized culture. More accurately, he fails to emphasize sufficiently its necessary and hence integral place in human experience. Objective consciousness must always have a necessary place in culture in so far as that culture is human. To attempt to deny it is to opt for a culture proper either to beasts or to gods, and in such a case the evidence of history suggests the greater likelihood of the former.
Nearly all the qualifications I would want to make in reference to Roszak’s thesis function in terms of this fundamental criticism. Rejection of objective consciousness ultimately implies rejection of civilization per se and all those things proper to it: reasoned discourse, planning, organization, government—in sum, order. In the final analysis, there is no effective love without the order which is the fruit of this consciousness. Roszak’s book is marred by a kind of utopianism which, while not explicitly wanting to deny a necessary place for objective consciousness, nevertheless seems in effect to call for a society which does. The need for a revitalization of consciousness, a reawakening of vision, seems to blind him to the excesses which are in fact attendant upon the new culture-excesses which, if left unchecked, are profoundly destructive of any human society.
On the other hand, I agree with Roszak that one should not allow “easy targets for ridicule distract attention from greater meanings” (p. xxii). Hence I think it would be unfortunate if the excesses of the new culture were allowed to blunt our awareness of the need for a new vision and the criticism this need entails for our technocratic society. With Roszak I affirm the need for a new consciousness; with him I reject the technocratic consciousness in so far as it (in Buber’s terms) reduces all relations to the I-It relation, and (in Marcel’s terms) all mysteries to problems. But I think it must be made clear that what should be rejected is not the I-It relation itself, but simply the reduction of all relations to the I-It relation. Hence what is needed, in my judgment, is an integrated consciousness—a consciousness each of whose forms is accorded its due place. This consciousness, I think, is more difficult to attain than that set forth by Roszak. For what it demands is something of a paradox: a culture which simultaneously affirms the need for order and recognizes the primacy of mystery.