Jonathan Rowson

Now that you’ve found the others what are you going to do?

Part 2: Epoch - A Time Between Worlds. Philosophical, historical and strategic reflections on Emerge.



This is the second of a series of seven essays to offer some philosophical, historical and strategic context to the Emerge project. Part one was an introduction and spoke to the challenge of field creation. In part 2, I consider a major aspect of the perception of context shared by many in our putative field, namely that our actions should be informed by a particular kind of historical moment.

                                        I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I
    can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’
Alasdair MacIntyre 

The human species is in the latter stages of the kind of transformation of context that only occurs every five hundred years or so. The meta-crisis is not merely ‘a lot of problems’ that we may or may not solve, rather it is the character of this time between worlds, where one world system is dying but another has yet to be born. What follows is a bricolage philosophy of our Epoch and sets the context for the subsequent post on Method that is more practical in spirit. I make the case here that the ‘what am I to do?’ question arises today in the context of a true story of living in a time between worlds. This idea is not just one among many, but the central premise that informs Emerge’s activities.

Story disclosure, encounter and reckoning is where we need to start, not story creation. It may be true that we need a new story, as many social change organisations now suggest, but we can’t buy one off the shelf that speaks to our civilisational predicament, nor brainstorm our way to one that works. As the pandemic and Russia’s attempted genocide in Ukraine remind us, we are regularly subject to things happening that subvert our sense of narrative coherence and predictability. We can create stories to tell for our own purposes, but we are also created by stories and told by them. We forget sometimes that stories have realities and purposes of their own. In the beginning, they say, was the word.
Today it is commonplace to speak of the present as an interregnum, as liminal, or simply a transition, but the issue at stake is deeper. My preferred form of words comes from Zak Stein – a time between worlds – because it gives the idea a poetic and mystical atmosphere for inquiry while also being an empirical claim. The use of ‘worlds’ rather than paradigms or systems or stories is important because it is inclusive of all aspects of reality – subjective, objective, inter-subjective and inter-objective. To say we are in a time between worlds is an encompassing story and a major factual claim, and another way of saying that the world we have known is inexorably falling apart. 
There are many contested details, and the extent of the transition is considered below, but the world is changing fundamentally due to several major factors: the shift in geological time from Holocene to Anthropocene, the impact of the internet and smart phones on the infosphere and lifeworld, capitalism running out of viable frontiers and being a complex adaptive system that has lost its ability to adapt, widespread governance failures, and technological changes in artificial intelligence, virtual reality and synthetic biology that potentially change the nature of the human being.
One of the characteristics of the Emerge network is a kind of anticipatory consciousness, a felt sense for the twilight of life as we have known it, and the scale of the transition we are implicated in. In a scintillating essay Layman Pascal speaks of apocalyptarians – those who feel their primary role is to contend with the weirding of the world; while in her profound chapter on metamorphosis of mind in Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds, Bonnitta Roy speaks of extemporanians: “We are the people to create enduring acts of inspiration and imagination for others to find when this world finally comes to an end.” At a spiritual level it means we are all called to a deeper awareness of time, consciousness and Eros to reconnect with reality at its source, while in practical terms we are called, in effect, to build a bridge into the fog
These moments where one world-system is dying and another is being born are experienced emotionally - as loss, grief, dissonance, confusion, excitement; socially - as contention, struggle, polarisation; and spiritually - as a breakdown in encompassing narrative, meaning and purpose, and a longing for home. Those are all valid forms of knowledge that we should attend to, but these times also have their own kind of objectivity. The field of historiography  includes cultural evolution, world system analysis (eg Imannuel Wallerstein) and cliodynamics (eg Peter Turchin). Those methods of quantitative historical analysis reveal the extent of structural changes in financial, technological, ecological and demographic forces in play; forces that are converging in ways that point to the probable end of the world-system that created them. Nobody has a crystal ball of course, but for what it’s worth, Wallerstein predicts Capitalism will end in 2050!
One historical comparison is The Axial age from around the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE when indigenous rituals and practices were increasingly intertwined with systematic philosophy, coinage and markets arose, a gap between public and secular and spiritual life opened, and the spiritual foundations of modern religions were born in China, India, Persia, Judea and Greece. Robert Bellah and Karen Armstrong are among many who make this case. The time of Christ was also a time between worlds, perhaps the quintessential one, and also a time of meta-crisis, featuring the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire, the gradual spread of monotheism and the idea of the individual as distinct from tribe, caste or role. More recently, John Amos Comenius is an underappreciated educator who was hugely influential in the time between the pre-modern and modern worlds, around the thirty years war in 1618-48.  
In the present day, in Co-existentialism and the unbearable intimacy of ecological emergency – perhaps one of the best book titles ever – Sam Mickey contends that we are living in another axial age, 'but without any axes'. That means the world is turning but there is no point on which to turn, no obviously compelling central organising principles like the individual or the rule of law to coalesce around.

However, one of Perspectiva’s partners, The Fetzer institute, believes that love, or more precisely, solidarity in love, may provide the axis we need. Similarly, Zak Stein advocates a metamodern return to eros, or more precisely cosmo-erotic humanism. It would be a mistake to think The Beatles were right that “all you need is love”, not least because love means so many things, but we have to take seriously the need for an axiomatic source from which we might regenerate as this world continues to confound us. Beauty is another possible touchstone. Virtue perhaps. Maybe Nature. And then of course there’s God.

At a more practical level, there are also aspects of the ‘between worlds’ hypothesis in Gonzalezean metamodernism as a sensibility to keep to resist the technological servitude of hypermodernity. And Rupert Read’s contention that This Civilisation is Finished  - either through self-destruction caused by the status quo or through necessary redesign – is another way of saying that our current state of affairs simply cannot last. In Joe Brewer’s teachings he draws our attention to the neglected idea of hysteresis and the need to contend with what is already underway that cannot be undone, so that we can focus on what is really worth doing.  Jeremy Rifkind’s work is also a time between worlds story, in which positive transformation is deemed necessary and now possible because there is potentially a coalescence of changes in energy, information and power at scale. 

In a more phenomenological take, Iain McGilchrist’s scholarship on the relationship between shifting qualities of attention and cultural evolution can be seen as a thick description of living between worlds, again with the tacit injunction not to sleepwalk into a diminished world, but to find our way towards the good, the beautiful and the true and follow where they lead. Jean Gebser’s description of the breakdown of the rational-mental mode of consciousness is another angle on the shift of perspective that co-arises with the world system changing. Bayo Akomolafe speaks of this as a time of generative incapacitation where we need to make sanctuary and - my favourite bit - meet the monster i.e. ourselves. And in case that all sounds gloomy, this time between worlds has a long arc; Sri Aurobindo’s writing seventy years ago about the promise of supramental consciousness is more upbeat, for instance in Savitri book 11, Canto 1: Nature shall live to manifest secret God/The Spirit shall take up the human play/This earthly life become the life divine. 

You may have noticed that all the grand theorists mentioned so far are men, and that reflects a particular intellectual style of, let’s say, hyper-diagnosis. In my experience, female theorists writing about civilisation as a whole do so with a different tenor and disposition. As indicated in the last post, the meta-crisis is not so much a puzzle to be solved but a reality to be lived. In a talk for The Stoa I connected the meta-crisis to John Vervaeke’s ‘Four Ps’ ways of knowing. I hesitate to generalise, but in my experience men tend to frame the meta-crisis through what John calls propositional and procedural knowing – here’s what’s going on and here’s how to deal with it. Women are more inclined to see the meta-crisis through perspectival and participatory knowing – here’s how it feels from different vantage points and this is what it’s like to be caught up in it. 

For example, Meg Wheatly challenges us to become truth-telling warriors as we contend with the idea that we simply cannot change systems at scale in the way many profess to want to. Cynthia Bourgeault speaks of the value of grasping imaginal causality, of encountering the subtle logoic and noetic forces that exert influence on our world that we can and perhaps must deepen our relationship to: “The imaginal nudges us, beacons us, corrects us as we stray from our authentic unfolding, rewards us with dazzling glimpses and reassurances of that 'other intensity' to which we truly belong, and in whose light the meaning of our earthly journey will ultimately be revealed, like the treasure buried in the field.”
In a more secular spirit, Nobel prize winner Elinor Ostrom saw our converging commons challenges as the basis for a shift towards polycentric governance; perhaps a major feature of the kind of world-to-world transition we need to affect. As indicated in the last post, another Nobel prize winner, Maria Ressa, describes the changes in our infosphere by saying “an invisible atom bomb has exploded” and calls for new institutions to remake a world that can deal with the fall out. 
Turning to people I know, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics is a galvanising image of the state of being between worlds, with clarity about where we are (outside the inner circle of the doughnut) and need to get to (inside it). In The Politics of Waking Up, Indra Adnan writes of the emergence of an I-We-World sensibility supported by CANs (citizen action networks) to help create a Cosmo-local world in which local production is allied with global knowledge. In Sensuous Knowledge Minna Salami gives an Afropolitan take on Einstein’s contention that we cannot solve the problems of the world with the same thinking that caused them; she calls out ‘Europatriarchal knowledge’ as what will have to be dethroned for one world to become another, rather than merely cease to exist. Bonnitta Roy’s call for a metamorphosis of mind I’ve already mentioned, and Phoebe Tickell’s Moral Imagination practice juxtaposes the present with a simulated future in a way that makes our state of betweenness palpable and generative.
The point is that we really are in a time between worlds! That much is axiomatic, for me at least. What we do not know is quite how profound and extensive the transition we are living through will be and how long it will last. To grasp what that means for our life and work, it helps to make a call on the scope of the transition in question. 
Here I build on an extract of an interview with co-founder of Perspectiva, Tomas Björkman on Rebel Wisdom and published on Emerge. The extract contains a taxonomy of civilisational shifts, based on a talk by Jordan Hall and further thoughts of Daniel Schmachtenberger. I’m not sure how valid the taxonomy is from an historiographical viewpoint, but it might help to start the conversation we need to have.

Transition one: A shift in values and behaviour that we see regularly in society e.g. around civil rights and gay marriage. These are important cultural shifts but don’t register in the longer perspective of humanity’s evolution.

Transition two: The whole world system changes, like the Industrial Revolution, but not necessarily a change in worldview as such. We were still living through that shift with basically the same enlightenment world view.

Transition three: Deep enough to involve transforming our worldview and our way of knowing e.g. the Enlightenment or the Renaissance.

Transition four: A shift in the type of society that we and our genes have evolved from, such that our experience of being alive is utterly different e.g. The fall of the Roman Empire or the Axial shift of around 2,500 years ago.

Transition five: A shift in the kinds of organism we are, perhaps similar to the shift in biological evolution when we went from single cell organisms to multiple cell organisms. Such a shift could have technological, spiritual or biological elements; or all of them.

Most people working on social change argue for shifts in values (1) or systems change (2). Some argue more ambitiously for a new social imaginary or a new renaissance (3) and there are clearly connections between these changes. And yet we may already be experiencing Transition 4 through the shift in geological time from Holocene to Anthropocene and the abrupt change in our infosphere. There are also signs of Transition 5 in the possibility of artificial general intelligence, various combinations of synthetic biology, robotics, virtual reality, and in transhumanism. Not to mention UFOs!

I'm unsure what follows, but it makes me think of Daniel Görtz's politics of game acceptance and game denial which is mostly fought around the contested need for Transitions 1 & 2. Game change is already ambitious, about elevating the debate to Transition 3 to resolve intractable debates in 1 & 2. And yet, maybe we are beyond games, and the shift we are really caught up in is the extraordinary historical forces of 4 and 5 – a tsunami of transformation well beyond our control.

Maybe we have to focus on optimal shifts in 1, 2 & 3 to accommodate 4 & 5 better, but that sounds like hiding under your desk when the nuclear war starts. I begin to see why Daniel Schmachtenberger highlights the need for us to become Bodhisattvas to survive in a world of God-like technology – it sounds absurd until you realise it might simply be necessary. I also see why Zak Stein argues in a recent Perspectiva essay that Education must make history again. Here’s how he puts it there:
“The point I am making is that during times between worlds there emerge certain ideas and thinkers that are, properly speaking, without a world. Their work is about creating a new world, by necessity… Not within the old world or the world to come, the liminal is exactly that which is the bridge and fulcrum between worlds. The focus of work in the liminal is on foundations, metaphysics, religion, and the deeper codes and sources of culture—education in its broadest sense.”
Indeed. Education in its broadest sense is a matter of method and ethos, which are the subject of the next two essays in this series.


Links to all the articles in this series:

Part 1. Introduction: Field-Creation.
Part 2. Epoch: Time between worlds.
Part 3. Method: Third order change.
Part 4. Ethos: Post-conventional.
Part 5. Resolve: Getting real.
Part 6. Goal: Survival of open societies.
Part 7. Entelechy: The future within us.
Words by Jonathan Rowson
Jonathan Rowson is Director of Perspectiva and author of The Moves That Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life.